‘Captain’ Sample Chapters

Captain - by Thomas block

 

Chapter excerpts from Captain

 

PROLOGUE

            The fire was directly behind them and catching up. Ray could not only feel the on-rushing hot and acrid air that rolled over them from behind, but he could sense the flames and, every now and then, would catch a glimpse of that holocaust when he dared peek over his shoulder. “Hurry,” he said as he and Katie ran down the long, narrow valley in northern Italy that was being engulfed in a wildfire.

            “Ray, I’m frightened.” They continued running along the only exit path available to them.  Katie faltered and stumbled, her breathing heavily labored.

            “Keep running. Almost there.  I can see it.  The next bend in the roadway.” Ray felt Katie’s fingers as they, literally, dug into his hand. She was moving slower, and he was pulling her as best he could, urging her along, trying to reach the only chance they had against the monstrous wildfire that had trapped them in this long and narrow valley.

            “I can’t…keep going…” Katie said as she nearly fell.

            “You can!”  Ray pulled on her arm to steady her, and she regained her balance. She continued moving forward with him. “Almost,” Ray said. “There it is! The airport!”

            “Where?” Katie asked, breathlessly.

            “Straight ahead. Behind that row of trees.” There it was, the small Italian airfield that Ray had somehow known about, nestled in the bowels of this narrow valley, its single blacktop runway positioned parallel with the high valley walls on either side. It would be their only chance to get out of this valley alive. As Ray had remembered, there was a single row of small Italian airplanes parked at the far end of the airfield. “A little farther.”

            “Yes…Okay…”

            Katie was keeping up with him, so all that was left was to pick a suitable airplane to make their escape. But as they neared the row of parked aircraft at the deserted airfield, Ray realized that the small airplanes parked on the line — a dozen or more — were the same type. “Single seat sport planes, every one of them!” Ray shouted back at her.  “Damn!”

            “I can fly one. I can do it, if you show me.” Katie ran past several of the tiny Italian airplanes, glancing at each and, for some reason, going on to the next.

            The airplanes were identical, and they had very small cockpits with only one seat. There was no way to get two people into one airplane. “You’ll have to fly your own,” Ray said. “Can’t both fit into one.”

            “I can do it, Ray,” Katie said as they stopped at one aircraft in the middle of the pack. Katie popped open the cockpit canopy and peeked inside. “You need to show me how to get it started.  The cockpit labels are in Italian, can’t read them.”

            “Get in.” Ray boosted her into the tiny cockpit. While she strapped herself into the pilot’s seat, Ray pointed to various controls as he figured them out. “Mag switch, starter, fuel selector, throttle. The control stick is normal, like the one you’ve used in the Cub at home. Wheel brakes on the floor, next to the rudder pedals. Use your heels. Put this headset on and use the radio once we get going. Press this button to transmit.”

            “Okay.” Katie glanced around the unfamiliar cockpit. “Ray, I can do this. Get yourself into the next airplane.” Katie pointed toward the aircraft to their right. “Hurry. The fire is almost here.”

            “I know.” Ray closed the canopy on Katie’s airplane, jumped from the wing and ran to the next aircraft in the line. As he climbed in, he could see the wall of flames as it worked its way around the turn in the road that was not a half a mile from them. The outflow of hot air had gotten stronger, and it was blowing directly down the short runway. That hot wind would shorten their takeoff roll, but it meant that they had to take off directly toward the enormous fire that was racing toward them. As Ray started the engine of his airplane, he could see that Katie had already started the engine of hers. “Can you hear me?” Ray asked on the radio.

            “Yes,” Katie answered. “Ready.” She paused, then transmitted, “Ray, you go first, I’ll follow.”

            “No.” Ray could see the problem they’d be facing. The only runway they could use was directly toward the towering flames and mounds of billowing smoke, and it was getting closer with each passing moment. He needed to get Katie to make the first takeoff so she could clear that maelstrom with room to spare; if he were to cut into the top of it, he stood a better chance than she did of wrestling the airplane through that smoke, the flames and the heavy turbulence. “You go, I’ll follow behind you.”

            “Ray, you first — please!” Katie pleaded into the microphone.

            “Okay.” There was no time to argue. Ray pushed on the throttle and the Italian airplane jolted forward. “Follow me,” he transmitted.  “Stay close.”

            “I am.” He glanced over his shoulder and could see her aircraft, only thirty feet or so behind his. “When we get to the far end of the runway, I’ll swing around,” Ray transmitted. “I’ll add full power and roll straight down the runway. You wait ten seconds – no more than that – then do the same. Use eighty on the airspeed indicator as a takeoff and climb speed; that should be safe.”

            “Okay.”

            “Keep transmitting while you’re making the takeoff so I know how you’re doing.” Ray knew that Katie found comfort in using the radio, in talking about what she was doing, as if that electronic link to someone else provided her with more hands and eyes in the cockpit, and with more skill. “Let go of the transmit button if you need me to answer you.”

            “I understand.”

            “Here I go,” Ray said into the microphone. “Push up the power in ten seconds.”

            “Right.”

            Ray concentrated on his own takeoff. Rolling directly toward that wall of flame and smoke was disconcerting, but there was no other way. The Italian airplane leapt off the runway at 80 on the airspeed indicator, as he figured it would. “Eighty works fine,” Ray transmitted. “Start your takeoff.”

            “Here I go,” Katie announced.

            Ray steered his airplane as steeply as he dared. He would, barely, clear the flames and smoke. He was clearing it by hardly more than inches, and the turbulence was severe. That meant that Katie wouldn’t clear it, and the turbulence would be worse.

            “Off the ground…climbing…Ray, the flames, the smoke…right in front of me…it’s above me…Ray…Ray…”

            In the background, behind her terrified words, Ray could hear the loud ringing of an alarm bell. It was, evidently, from inside her airplane, some sort of fire bell or overheat or smoke warning built into this Italian sport plane. Her airplane was on fire.

            “Ray…Ray…I’m going down…Ray…”

            But he couldn’t answer her because she had kept her finger on the transmit button while she was losing control. He couldn’t say anything to her, couldn’t give her any advice – if there was any advice that he could give, any advice that would save her. Oh, my God….  Ray kept hearing her frightened, pleading voice with that loud, shrill ringing of the fire bell in the background….

            Finally, the ringing penetrated his conscious mind. Ray realized with a start that it was, in fact, the telephone beside his hotel bed that was ringing. “Hello?” he said, after fumbling around and finally picking up the receiver. What he heard on the other end was an electronic voice: it was the automated wake up call for 8:00 am that he had requested when he checked into this small hotel north of Rome late the evening before.

            Ray got out of bed, stepped into the bathroom and splashed cold water on his face. His stomach was churning from the remnants of that bizarre dream, a nightmare that had seemed so damned real, and from the memory of Katie’s frightened voice. Put that out of your mind. Right now.  You’ve got to.  Ray splashed more cold water on his face, then left the bathroom.

            He went to the telephone and picked it up. When the front desk answered, Ray verified that his previous night’s instructions were being carried out and that the hotel had arranged for a taxi to take him to Rome’s Airport at 10:00 am. That would give him two hours to shave, shower, pack and have breakfast. “The taxi will be ready at ten?” Ray asked.

            “Si,” the front desk operator answered. “I have the instructions right here. This taxi service, he’s a very dependable. The ride is short, twenty minutes at the most. You will have no problems.”

            “Thank you. Gracie,” Ray said.

            “Prego.

            Ray turned and headed to the bathroom. He had spent the past sixteen days driving through northern Italy, going only to places he had never been before, places that he had never taken Katie to. His friends — the few friends that he would speak to about this very personal subject — said that a change of scenery would be helpful, and so would new areas to explore and enjoy. It would get his thoughts going in a different direction. They had been right, it had.

            Some. But not much.

            Ray glanced at the one novel and three magazines that he would be taking on the flight.  That, plus the one self-help book that he had impulsively grabbed from that bookstore shelf before leaving on his trip to Italy, the book he had bought one afternoon when he had aimlessly wandered around Manhattan on a shopping trip while his head was throbbing and the memory of Katie’s face was hardly below the surface of his thoughts.

            As Ray had suspected, the words in Dealing With Anxiety and Guilt were totally dead to him.  Even after he had forced himself to finish that self-help psychology book, the words remained stone dead: as dead as Katie was.

            Got to let it go.  Those words had become his recurring mantra for some time, but they also had done little to help.  Mouthing those words had done almost nothing to ease his pain, nothing to erase those constant, gnawing memories and the periodic dreams and nightmares.  Ray sighed, then shook his head as he looked directly at himself in the bathroom mirror.  He knew that Flight 3 from Rome to New York was going to be a long ride for him today.

<>

  

…“Christ!” Jack spun around in his flight chair and looked at the instrument panel. At that instant, the engine instruments were going absolutely crazy — winding upward, both sides, in a headlong dash to put out more and more engine power.

“Power!” Linda shouted. She pointed at the instruments. “Both engines! Running away!”

Jack grabbed the throttles and yanked them fully aft. To his disbelief, nothing whatsoever happened to stem the runaway of both their engines. It was as if the airliner’s throttles were no longer connected to the engines out on the wings, that each of the giant engines had a mind of their own or, more accurately, one mind controlling two engines. “No response!” Jack yelled, as much to himself as to the others. He had both of the jet’s throttles all the way back to their idle positions, yet the powerplants continued to surge ahead with more and more power output. They were now going beyond full power.

“Temperatures!” Linda pointed at the very important exhaust gas temperature gauges in the center of the instrument panel; both of them were into their red zones and rising as each of the engines continued to produce more power — far more than they’d been designed for. “Going to overtemp!  Both of them!”

By now, various warning bells and alarms were going off in the cockpit, and the instrument panel had become bright red with a dozen warning lights as various operating limitations were being exceeded. But the one that caught Ray’s eye was the airspeed: it had, because of the additional engine power being produced, gone through its normal limit and was climbing quickly beyond. “Airspeed!” Ray shouted over the noise of the alarms. “Jack, get the airspeed down! Get the nose up!” The aircraft’s rapidly increasing airspeed had, in a few seconds, become their most crucial flight parameter. All sorts of really bad things would happen if they didn’t keep that airspeed from going higher….

<>

…The door burst open and Wilder rushed in, waving a sheet of paper. “Marty, a real emergency…!”

“Calm down, Dave.”

“Flight 3! From Rome!”

“Dave, I know where Flight 3 comes from.” Marty smiled indulgently. “Now, calm yourself down. Tell it to me slowly and carefully. What’s today’s problem with our Flight 3 from Rome?  Did the interline baggage misconnect again?”

Wilder stared down at Marty’s round, cherub face with that annoying smirk plastered across it. What Wilder had a sudden urge to do was to pick that little 5 foot 6 inch Napoleon up by his shirt lapels and smash him against the office wall. Instead, Wilder stood where he was and took a deep breath. Finally, he spoke. “Flight 3. A hijacking.”

“A what?!” Marty stood up; he could see a bevy of activity across the dispatch area as, apparently, the word was rapidly spreading throughout the department. “Is it confirmed? How do we know?” Marty began to move toward the open door.

“The information is sketchy.” Wilder was following the director out of the room and toward the dispatch position that handled Flight 3. “But it’s specific. Two separate radio messages. They were transmitted on the usual high frequency air traffic control channel for that sector of the Atlantic.”

“Two messages?”

“Yes. Twelve minutes apart. The transcripts have been emailed to us, and we’ll have the actual voice recordings of those transmissions in a short while, also via email.” Wilder pointed in front of them, toward dispatch desk number 17. “The text of those messages are up on Wally’s monitor.”…

 

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