The air in the ward was very warm with a strong smell of ether. Despite the odd murmur from a few other patients, silence would have drowned everything.
Heavy snow fell as I crawled through the broken windscreen into the forest, beastly white flakes of pure frozen crystallised water. They floated down in slow motion settling silently all around me, a great white menace blotting out sound and light.
I stumbled along and had to press both hands hard to my ears, because of a constant brain numbing howling in the head. It was dark and cold and I crashed into Pine trees one by one. Suddenly, there was a blinding light.
I woke up, face down trying to clutch the floor of a tunnel. It led to a deserted mine. I could see parts of my life strewn about the ground and piled up in distant corners. Faces of people I had known, and two, I thought I should have known better, glowed out at me in little pictures from the walls. The place had been left in chaos; it was a disaster area, a nightmare. I put my foot in some icy cold water, an underground lake; it had a spiralling black hole in the middle of a whirlpool. I wanted to get back home where it was warmer, then from deep down the tunnel a low booming voice said...
There is only one place I know warmer than this, but you'd hardly call it home'.
A giant flying fish leapt out of the black hole, and landed at my feet, there was a ticket tied to its tail, and on it written the words
'when this is all over something else must begin, its never too late'. All right Ok Ok, at last I understood, I had been in a dratted Coma and here, I had touched the envelope of my soul why does it take so long? Perhaps it is never too late. I was now completely conscious but unable to move. God its so cold, if I don't freeze a rescue team will come and find me, and then I will be put back to my old self again. It's never too late.
I could fly a jetliner wearing silk pyjamas and slippers, I could fly one in my sleep or yours, in-fact all passenger aircraft functions were computerised and on long trips, I often had. At first, I was against computer piloted aircraft. I thought it took away some of the hard-earned skills born from natural talent, its called progress, like it or lump it; you do not slide up hills.
I was in the air arm of the marines before becoming a civil airline pilot, flying troop transports and military equipment all over the world often in conflict. For me, landing heavy planes in hazardous meteorological conditions on improvised runways was just another day at the office. I was unmarried and free from any sentimental commitment. Looked after and paid for by the Army It was a fabulously exciting life, then one day, my empire came crashing down in flames before me. I could not believe what was happening.
I was flying a heavily armed group of assault troops to a combat zone in the Middle East, it was a dangerous mission and politically very sensitive. A great deal of time and effort had gone into the planning and preparation of this adventure. It was all supposed to be 'Top Secret' but even so, we picked up a spy, an electronic one, and the spy was with us on the plane when we took off.
Flying slowly, dodging this way and that to avoid known radar beams, we had been in the air for five hours including two over hostile territory. Our presence up until that point was undetected. Operations had chosen the long way round and it seemed to be working. A surprise arrival was paramount.
We flew so low you could have stretched your arm down and almost scraped up the harsh baron land beneath in your hand, then gliding at near stalling speed over the final ridge we reached the desert. Like a giant metal phantom our aircraft carried us deep towards the final destination. My mission was clear " locate a landing area drop the men and get out fast.
A cold dawn light seeped over the horizon creating fabulous mysterious shadows on an endless desolation of mist-shrouded dunes. Looking out through the wind-screen, we were holding our breath in awe, the engines droned deeply and quietly, then suddenly the co-pilot sprang to life, leaping from his seat he screamed...
'Flash! flash! Over there I saw a flash! Maybe a surface to air!' flinging his arm out straight ahead, he pointed to a spot on the distant horizon. In those days, as all military pilots knew, or should have weaponry designed to bring down aircraft that relied on electronic tracking devices were not yet very clever. Far from being accurate they usually travelled half way to where they were supposed to get too, then do a 180 turn and head back to where they had come from.
At first, I was not bothered by the co-pilots sudden outburst, but a vapour trail appeared and arched for miles across the sky from left to right. Whatever it was, it was travelling at hallucinatory speed then suddenly disappeared, but it must have done a 90 turn because it came spiralling straight at us.
I pushed on full power to gain altitude but too late, the thing ripped down the side of the fuselage, and exploded behind the aircraft. A massive blast whooshed us forward like a tiny cork before a breaking wave; we were pushed all over the place. For a brief moment I was sure the plane was flying side-ways at an unprecedented angle.
I was wrestling with the controls wondering, 'what damage'?
Then someone in the rear shouted 'fire! we're on fire', almost immediately thick black smoke invaded the flight deck. Our low altitude should have enabled us to make a forced landing in relative safety but knowing we were on fire spooked me. I panicked, and made mistakes. My co-pilot tried in vain to seize command of the aircraft by force.
We hit the sand with a terrific bump. On impact some of the troop's explosives must have detonated because the plane split apart like an old tin can and crumpled into the desert.
On that day, I lost twelve soldiers and the aircraft. The co-pilot was trapped in the wreckage alive, he was shouting hysterically, pleading for me to pull him free but it was enough saving myself; stricken with terror, I got out of there and ran for my life.
I was picked up suffering from severe dehydration by a search and rescue helicopter a few days later.
Finally, when I eventually got back to base; I had some serious explaining to do. The military authorities wanted a plausible account to the loss of thirteen lives, mission failure, and the destruction of an expensive aeroplane. All this incompetence and bad judgement, even under fire was grave offence; if it was found that the crashed landing had been my fault I would face court-marshal, a ruined career.
I did not know where to turn or what to say, the situation was fast becoming a nightmare. Planes blown out of the sky can be put down to 'operational hazard', but my actions had prevented a safe landing and because of this, people had been killed
Some months later the crash site was found. Sifting through the charred empty wreckage, an enquiry team of experts operating undercover found a homing device. It had been attached to the aircraft before take off, and probably turned on by remote when we appeared over the desert. Never the less, reasons for the crash had to be made transparent before a military tribune.
I had been turning this over endlessly when the slightest glimmer of a survival plan began scratching about in the depths of my mind. If it worked, I might be spared dishonourable discharge from the army and all the bad things that went with it.
My plan revolved around a survivor. Everyone who had been on the plane was dead except the co-pilot and me; he had remained trapped in the burning wreckage. If he had survived the fire he would have fallen into enemy hands and certain execution. We were now six months on, so I thought I would count him out, that left only one witness...myself.
At the hearing, I would tell a few miss-truths, there would be no opposition to contradict any statement I chose to make. I was alive, why admit panic and ruin my life? This and expressing great remorse for what had happened might do the trick and get me off, but there was no way I could be sure.
The day of the hearing finally arrived, following my plan I went before the tribune bedraggled, like a half drowned cat. After a long and somewhat shaky explanation I expected the worse, even prison, but instead, I received congratulation presented with a medal of honour for valour and given superior rank; dumbfounded I walked out of the courtroom a free man...
in a washroom I looked at myself in a mirror and thought.. wow, what happened ..I got away with it....
Military promotion became very helpful in later life; I managed to build up another empire with matrimonial fortune and a respectful job as an airline captain, then one day it all came crashing down again.
I had not known that the co-pilot came from a very wealthy, influential family, but he had a sister and to my mind, she was quite attractive.
Her name was Lotte. Lotte came to the memorial service held by the Army for the families of the crash victims and as I was the sole survivor, it was understandable that she should want me to tell her about the last moments of her courageous brother's life, and my heroic escape from the burning wreckage of the plane.
Lotte and I saw each other on a regular basis after that, in just over a year we were married, but it wasn't to last.
Lotte had many fine points, but I thought her a bit stuck in her ways. Because of her family status, we had to attend numerous dinner parties and official events by the dozen, and I always had to be by her side. I was truly the bird locked up in a guilded cage. For me it seemed that graduation from those luxuriously independent tear-a-way days in the army had never happened, I wanted to fly away and be free. Of course, I had softened and become accustomed to creature comforts the over privileged take for granted, but adventure called I needed freedom, I needed space.
For some time I had been involved in an ex-marital liaison but it was turning sour so I stopped it. Lotte was by now a public figure and wealthy beyond reason. She found out about my tom-foolery and put in for a divorce, thereby pulling down the curtain on our marriage. I had seen an official document drawn up by her lawyer. My behaviour would not look good in the eyes of a judge. I stood to lose everything.
She probably felt totally betrayed and to clear her mind, she went away on a long sailing holiday, on her return the divorce proceedings would begin.
As if all this was not enough my next obligatory pilots health check-up was due. My life had become more and more irresponsible and I was drinking heavily, If the results from the check-up were what I thought they would be, I would be grounded take a drop in salary and lose my command. Days as Captain might be numbered the next one could be the last. I would never be able to fly away and be free. Getting away with this one would be difficult but I was optimistic, after all, I had done it before.
Because of my army days reputation I was offered a flight as Captain, on a big private charter flying down to a renegade state in South America and bring back some V.I.P's with a load of very heavy crates. For some reason it was an incredibly well paid job but I did not need the money, I needed time to think.
There had been tremendous confusion and delay at the South American end of the trip. Something to do with the passengers and their cargo, but at last we were on our way home, I was so happy to take off.
Rays from the setting Sun streamed in through the cabin windows giving a warm glow to everyone. There seemed to be many smiling faces, including my own, though perhaps not for the same reasons. I looked down from an empty window seat at the peaks of snow covered mountains poking through gaps in puffy clouds as they slowly flowed under us way below like a great foam covered river. Good luck had been with me since forever.
Yet again, I had been let off the hook. On landing at the South American end I received a somewhat sombre radio message to say that Lotte had gone missing believed drowned in a boating accident.
There would be no divorce or division of possession, no embarrassing separation, and no tears from me. I would inherit everything. It had become a beautiful day and a beautiful flight. I had been locked up in that guilded cage for long enough. Now, all I wanted was to get back home and begin a new life............ right now!
We had been hurtling through the clouds for ages at the same altitude not being able to climb or turn because of some kind of seizure in the hydraulic pumps and lines system preventing manoeuvre of any sort. I had been trying to guide the aircraft with engine thrust only, I was tiring work. Warning lights seemed to be flashing everywhere, something was seriously amiss. The aircraft would not respond to any command then while carefully working through an emergency check-list with my navigator co-pilot. The aircraft suddenly slowed down and the flaps and undercarriage dropped into landing position.
We were expecting the mountains to appear on radar at any moment, somehow we had to get over them, then the throttle control went into override and our airspeed increased.
I was carrying a lot of people and an exceptionally heavy cargo. A cargo I had been forced to take. In normal circumstances I might have refused but I was in a great rush to clear the formalities take off and get home, now because of my hurried acceptance the plane was overloaded and there was little room for error. All this extra weight flaps and undercarriage down combined with an increase in airspeed was putting tremendous strain on the wings.
I was becoming very afraid.
The engineer thought that apart from all the obvious trouble, the computer was acting very strangely,
"as if the program had been tampered with" he said. I asked him if there was anyway he could disconnect the damned thing. He had just said no when the radio went completely dead. Before, it had just given out a hissing noise now even that would have been welcome. I began to feel very alone in all this.
My second, had been taken ill a few hours before, food poisoning or something. He was now stretched out in the crews rest enclosure; I had replaced him with the navigator who could hardly fly a poster let alone a passenger liner. He informed me that all three engines had gone into full power operation, and with the undercarriage down creating terrible drag, and what with the heavy load and the tail pla.... I told him to shut up and keep his eye on the fuel level.
Fuel was crucial, without fuel we had no chance, not even a slim one.
On schedule, the mountains came up on the radar screen and the navigator informed me that unless I could get back control or change course, a collision would occur in just under half an hour.
The on board auto-pilot computer had been re-programmed especially for the trip just hours before our scheduled departure because we were using a different route, which called for numerous directional and altitude changes. It was designed to fly the aircraft and make decisions for us. I was tired of all these technical malfunctions and thought that by using the fruit of years of experience, I could handle the plane without it and had it by-passed, the engineer had protested angrily because it compromised every one of its commands and would mean chartering a new route but somehow it had switched itself back into the chain of command.
I was straining my eyes looking out through the cockpit window, light was fading but as far as I could see in the distance we were flying into some very bad weather. Electrical storms and probably high winds coming in from any direction over the largest front I had ever seen.
Danger and excitement in the past was something I had wanted, but now with all this I was happy living without it. Well, it started coming back and now I found myself secretly gripping an oxygen mask with sweat-covered hands, panic just under the surface. Suddenly the aircraft slowed down again and seemed to get lighter.
At this point the charter flight organiser crashed into the pilot's enclosure, he was obviously slightly drunk and looked really angry.
'What's going on'? he raged...
'My people are being bounced all over the place, can't even hold a drink without it splashing everywhere'.
'So sorry' said the second, with no little sarcasm, I thought.
'the exhaust pipe just fell off and we were gliding on flat tires for a moment, everything's fine now'.
'well I hope so for you, it better be' said the man not too kindly.
'not to worry' went on the second
'were flying by remote control'.
And when he said this, in an instant we both looked at each other in the strangest way.
Something made me look at the altimeter and it registered a sudden rise, not enough to get us over the mountains, but it might be good news. Then the engineer reported that all systems were now out of our control, and the navigator informed me that the cargo bay doors were open and the fuel content was dropping at an alarming rate because the Kerosene jettison valves had been released. Our precious fuel was being pumped out into the atmosphere.
The Jetliner had slid uphill for over a kilometre in deep snow on a mountainside, and come to rest on the edge of a Pine forest. Owing to a total loss of cabin pressure passengers and crew had been asphyxiated, the plane had ditched both wings but was otherwise intact apart from a broken windscreen in the Pilots cabin.
Because of the important nature of the flights passengers and cargo, along with the rescue a special enquiry team had been sent to the site and try to find out what had happened. They had spent two days in the mountains searching for clues to the cause of the catastrophe, and were now preparing to leave, the daylight was fading fast and a storm expected. Bad weather meant the area would be inaccessible for at least two months, only then could they come back and evacuate the bodies. In the meantime the two black box units might throw some light onto why the plane had crash-landed on a mountain far from its destination, bay door's open and disappearance of its entire cargo.
A helicopter came to pick up the investigators and hovered down slowly, landing on the deep snow. After switching on a blinding halogen spotlight, one of the team noticed undulations on the surface of the snow shown clearly now in the powerful light. Closer inspection showed them to be snow covered footprints leading from the front of the crashed jetliner into the forest. This vague, still visible trail eventually led them to the airliners Captain. He appeared to be in a coma, uniform freezing to the body, but still alive, he was immediately flown to a hospital.
News of this mans miraculous survival travelled the world. Special investigators impatient to interview him were in constant touch with the hospital authorities. Doctors assured them that he would come out of the coma, but they could not say when.
The captain of the crashed airliner began to recover several days later. He had reached a state of deep sleep and stable condition.
Sitting at the side of his bed silently, was an army day's comrade. The comrade once badly burned imprisoned and tortured. He was badly disfigured, probably barely recognisable. Accompanying him, was his sister, the airline captains wife. She had previously, mistakenly been reported missing presumed drowned in a boating accident.
They were both sitting silently waiting for him to wake up. They had been sitting there since forever..