"When did this get here?"
I pull my orange bags out of the back of the mattrack.
Martin says, "You don't get out enough," and I do an "amen" to that as we enter the makeshift hanger on the permanent ice.
Inside one of those modified long-distance twin otters sporting the Ken Borek logo sits under a bank of lamps.
In front of us, Jim shoves something black into an equally black bag and zips it up. He tosses the bag into the hold and holds his hand out for mine.
"Has this always been here?" I ask Martin. As many winters as I've spent in McMurdo, I've never seen anything out here at Pegasus during the winter. The flight season isn't going to start for another month.
Martin ignores me.
Jim looks at me as if seeing me for the first time. His eyes narrow. "Goddamn. This GUY?" Jim says to Martin as he tosses my orange bags in with his. "I thought you were talking about the other guy. Glen. You know. The one from Crary who puts together the robots."
"Glenn here knows morse code," Martin says.
"You're not going to fuck up," Jim says, pointing a finger between my eyes. "You drink too much and you sleep on the job. You do that with me and you're toast. That's all I'm going to say." He turns and heads into the plane.
I don't need this shit. "What the fuck?" I say to Martin. "I didn't sign up for this. Let me out of here."
"Let's just calm down," Martin says. "It takes a while to get him to warm up to you."
"I'm not going if he keeps this up," I say, wishing for my old job back. I knew it was going to be strange, but I didn't expect this kind of bad.
"Ok, look. He's a bit of a control freak," Martin says, leading me toward the aircraft. "You're on Jim's team, now. He's the manager on this project, so he's got final say. This is just his way of testing you."
"There is no project without me," I remind Martin. "You can unpack the plane right now if he's going to pull an attitude on me."
Martin climbs into the plane and after a while he waves me on board.
"It's going to be fine," he says to me. Then to Jim, "It's all good. Right?"
Jim says, "Right."
Martin pats me on the shoulder and leaves. Through the cockpit window I see him as he starts pulling on a chain that opens the door on the front of the building.
Jim is in the left seat in the cockpit punching buttons and reading off a checklist. I stand there for what seems like a minute when he turns around and says, "Did you get the door?"
"I was wondering where I'm supposed to sit," I mention.
"Close the damn door then sit right there where I can see you." He points to the copilot's seat.
I manage to get the plane door shut. Have to go back and relock it once so the light will go on on the instrument panel. Slide on a set of green headphones and connect to the intercom system. Hook up my seatbelts.
"I thought you were a plumber," I say to Jim after we take off. "The Bo Peep thing at Halloween doesn't exactly inspire confidence."
"Thought you knew everything. Didn't you?"
It's four hours before Jim says anything else. The words over the intercom startle me.
"That makes us even," he says, continuing the conversation as if he'd just been deposited back in the pilot's seat after a four hour alien abduction. Brilliant white stars salted the velvet nothingness of space before us. Below, ripples on the ice shone gray white in the moonlight and cast deep black shadows as if on an ocean made of stardust.
I'd been thinking while staring at the flat ocean of white ice below us. I debate a point in my head for a while until I realize holding back is senseless. I'm at twenty-two thousand feet above the continent in the middle of the Antarctic winter being flown on a one-way mission by a guy who until now I would have pegged as having an IQ slightly above that of an adolescent chimpanzee. What did I have to lose?
"You put a gun in your bag. I didn't think there were any guns on base."
"Thought you knew everything," he says.
"There are no guns at Pole, I thought."
"Like them odds," he says, flatly. He rubs his eyes and looks at his watch. I see him sigh. "It's my ready bag. You know what that is?" and I presume I do.
"I dunno. Last minute stuff you grab before you leave? Toothbrush. Razor. Nine-millimeter Glock. That sort of thing."
"I was anticipating the other guy. Glen. I have some gear for you, too."
"I'm the Glenn with two 'n's" I say. "People are always confusing us."
"Fine, two-n Glenn. We'll take care of your equipment on the ground, before we get to the station."
"You need to teach me to brush my molars before we get to station, or do I get the same automatic weapons training all the plumbers get on the ice?"
"They really found you sleeping under a table in the lab at midday?"
Normally, the fact he'd answered my question with another would have set off a couple of alarms in my head. But he was flying, and I was sitting.
Now I had the chance to squash a vicious rumor once and for all, or tell the truth and start another. I'd been up all night two nights in a row helping a woman from the Puzzle Palace who was having a personal problem and the forty-eight hours without sleep caught up with me.
"Jana from comms..." I say, and his eyes open like high wattage flashlights.
"Oh her--" he says and all the lights on the aircraft control panel go out. The engines start sputtering, and then go quiet. My ass decides to fall through the bottom of the earth as the props feather and stop in silence.
I'm reaching for something to hold onto. Jim hits my wrists and breaks my grip when I grab the yoke.
His arms move like helo blades. In seconds he's pressed every button, turned every knob, yanked every lever in front of him.
The white gray ice rises to fill the cockpit window. My stomach goes into my throat and my mouth fills with a torrent of saliva I can't swallow fast enough.
The headphones come off my head, nearly taking my right ear with them. Jim chucks them. With the engines dead, the cockpit is quiet except for the dull roar of the wind rushing by outside.
"You have one job. Look--" Jim shouts at me. "That star. THAT one. It goes to the right of the cowling you scream, 'right', it goes to the 'left' you scream left. Got it?"
"Yes." I say reflexively. I have no idea which star he'd pointed to, but figure he wants to keep going straight, so if anything moves...
I shout "Right" when I think I see the sky change perspective. Jim wrestles with the yoke. The sky stops moving. Why can't he watch his own stars?
Because he's writing something on a pad attached to his leg.
"What time did the engines die?"
"What?" The fuck--did he think I was keeping track of everything? "What's happening?"
"Fifteen thirty-three and forty seconds," he shouts. "What was our altitude when we started to fall?"
"What the fuck is happening?" is all I can think to say. "Don't the instruments have backups that work on...on air or something?" My mind reels around the sight of the ice below us. I'd been around long enough to know that without an altimeter, it will be impossible for us to judge the distance to the ground. There's no perspective on the ice. We had no perspective. Why did the plane go dead?
"Twenty-two thousand fourteen feet," Jim shouts the answer to his own question. "Are we drifting?"
"I think right," I say, when in truth, I don't know which direction. Only that the stars look different.
"I don't need you to think I need you to know," he says. Then he wrestles the yoke and the sky shifts. "Fucknuts--you're supposed to be watching the sky. I give you one lousy job and you're screwing it up."
I see the stars. Everything is different. What star? What star did he think I was supposed to watch?'
"What time you have now?"
What is he asking? He grabs my wrist and the pain from where he's hit me sears through my arm and into my head. I look at my watch. The digital display is hosed. Every single segment on the display is lit.
"Learn. From now on. No more digital watches."
I promise myself if I live I'll never wear a digital watch again.
"What was pressure altitude at pole before we left?"
I don't know why I know that answer. I must have heard it. "Fifteen thousand one hundred six feet."
"Thata boy. Now you're acting like somebody I can use."
I hear him but can't understand him. I don't need to understand language anymore. I can't breathe.
"This aircraft has a four-to-one glide ratio. That means we're going forward four feet for every foot we drop. How far are we going before we hit the ground?"
I can't remember any of the numbers he's spouted. My stomach tightens. The sound of the wind outside gets louder. Now it's high-pitched. The way a bomb sounds falling from a cartoon sky.
He gives me the answer.
"Twenty-seven thousand six hundred thirty two feet or about five-point-two miles. How long before we hit the ice?"
"How the fuck am I supposed to know?" I scream at him, having to assemble the sentence in my mind before forcing it out.
"That's right. Missing data--what's our descent rate?"
"How the fuck am I supposed to know?"
"Act like someone whose life I should save," he says.
"How the fuck do I do that? What's happening?"
"Stop being afraid. We're crashing."
"Oh yeah. Those two things go together," I say.
"Good. Very good."
The wind outside begins to whine and Jim plants his feet and pulls back on the yoke with both hands.
When he shouts, "Help me," I grab the yoke in my fists and pull. The wind outside lowers its voice. We can control the wind.
Now I begin to see the ice whizzing by at my shoulders.
"We're going to have to land at speed. I can't get the flaps out and I don't want to stall. Going to be interesting without landing gear. You know how to brace?"
He glances at me, and for half a second I think I see him smile.
"Who the hell are you?" I ask, knowing I'm sitting beside Satan himself. I want to hear him say it--I came to kill you and steal your soul.
"Doesn't matter. At these temperatures you wouldn't want to survive the crash."
There's a light jolt. Something is rubbing on the bottom of the plane. It gets louder. Now it's grating, like someone pulling an aluminum row boat over a rocky lake shore.
And then he takes his hands from the yoke. Out of control. For a few seconds, I have no sensation of motion until I see undulations in the ice flash by my window like rain through a car headlamp.
"Too slow," he says. "Hold on"
"Too slow? We're fucking flying--"
The nose of the plane jolts upward. For a moment I see sky, and then we come down. I drag my arms to my head and the seatbelts clamp tight around me as if Godzilla is pulling from behind. My forearms hit the yoke.
And then all there is, is the air tearing past my throat into my lungs and the sound of blood rushing through my ears.
Jim says--"Is that all you have in the way of ECWs?" but I can't answer him. My arms are throbbing. And when I think about it, my chest hurts from where I'd slammed against the seatbelts.
"It's about seventy out there," he says. "Pole station went past us about two miles back. Gonna be a bracing, frosty walk."
He unbuckles his seatbelts and the dashboard lights come on.
"Got the time?" he asks. He pulls out a yellow GPS from below his seat and turns it on.
My watch. It's working again.
"The GPS works. Watch working?" he says. I nod. Can't talk. He's turning off the aircraft systems one by one, sending the cockpit back into darkness.
"Goddamned phase conjugate field. I should have known. My bad. Ever been in one before?"
I don't think to ask him what that is. He opens his door and I open mine and try to get out six times before I realize I haven't unclipped my seat belts.
When I meet him at the back of the plane he's pulling on his balaclava. The bags are at his feet.
"Ready for a little antarctic adventure?" he says. "We didn't do too bad. One and a half miles that way."
He points and as if on command, the station lights go on so I can now see buildings where before it seemed was nothing but ice.
"Phase conjugate field?"
"Thought you knew everything, right? So, are you sorry or happy you came?" He picks up two bags and starts walking. I pick up the other two and follow him.
"Why did the plane die?"
He stops for a second and looks at me. "It was its time. Everything dies," he says. Then, "So, Jana--she have the same personal problem she had when I spent two days in bed with her?" and he starts walking away.
Because I'm at the south pole and will certainly die if I don't follow him, I do.
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