A Long Road Back: Final Dawn: Book 8 (7 page)

BOOK: A Long Road Back: Final Dawn: Book 8
11.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

     Had the chopper been flying higher, or slower, the co-pilot might have been able to recover it. Landed it safely. Performed CPR on the pilot. Perhaps could have saved everyone’s lives.

     But that’s not the way it happened.

     The chopper crashed in heavy woods, killing almost everyone. One of Hannah’s dearest friends perished, and unknowingly saved Hannah’s legs by bearing the brunt of the weight of the fuselage with his shattered body. It was something he had no control over, but Hannah liked to think it was a final act of kindness on his part.

     For many long hours the two of them- Hannah and Joel, coaxed each other to fight. To live. To get out of there alive. For hours they tried to keep each other awake and alert. To focus on anything and everything they could think of to keep from dwelling on the pain.

     They were rescued, not because the search teams stumbled upon them on their own, but because of Joel’s bravery. Despite losing one leg outright and having to drag the other one behind him, he was able to retrieve a signal flare to draw the searchers’ attention.

     He was Hannah’s hero, not once but twice.

     It was a bond the two of them would share for the rest of their lives. For each of them knew instinctively that they wouldn’t be around if not for the other. They couldn’t
feel a new kinship.

     They were not unlike men who’d been to war together. Men who’d shared the same foxholes, who shared the same common belief that they’d never go home again. Unless it was in a box.

     Such an experience bonds men in a certain way. They are closer than brothers. And they stay that way for life, even as time and miles separate them.

     As Hannah campaigned hard to the others to let Joel come to the compound and join their ranks, she did so out of appreciation for what the man had done for her. And for her husband and son. For Joel’s selflessness, his heroism, had saved Hannah for Mark and for Markie as well. It was Joel’s actions which kept Mark from becoming a widower. And Markie from becoming motherless.

     Hannah owed Joel a debt of great gratitude. She owed him her life. And she owed him the chance to live a reasonably comfortable existence, even as he left the Army and underwent a long rehabilitation period. She wanted to be there to give him the same moral support, the same tough love he’d given to her during those long hours at the crash site, and then later in the hospital.

     She wanted to help him heal. To help him learn to walk on his new prosthetic legs.

     She wanted to help him adjust to life outside the Army.

     “He’s got no one else,” Hannah had explained to Mark and anyone else who would listen.

     “After everything he’s done for me, I can’t just let him go back to Atlanta where all his relatives are dead. Where most of his old friends are gone too. Where he’d have to learn to live all by himself with no one to help him.

     “It’s hard for able bodied men to survive out there. Even the strong are in competition for every bit of food, of water, of everything necessary for life. A man with two artificial legs wouldn’t have a chance. I cannot just ignore the fact that I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.

     “I won’t. I will repay him. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the
thing to do.”

     Hannah didn’t realize it, but she fought a lot harder than she had to. The other residents of the compound knew what Joel had done for her and appreciated his efforts. They were a lot more receptive to bringing Joel into their family than Hannah realized.

     Mark couldn’t help but wonder, though.

     Mark let his imagination run away from him.

     Mark wondered whether something else happened at that helicopter crash site, and in the hospital in the days following the rescue.

     Mark wondered whether his sweet Hannah had fallen in love with Joel.






















     “Honey, can I talk to you?”

     There was something ominous in Hannah’s voice. She was a woman with a lot of girl left inside of her. She usually spoke with something akin to mischievous glee in her voice, even after she came home from the hospital. She was always the person who could brighten the day of another simply by talking to them. Simply by showing them that she genuinely cared.

     She was the one who was always so full of life.

     But not this morning. No, this morning her voice was flat and lifeless. It was the voice of everyone else in the compound not named Hannah.

     It was a voice of dread.

     Markie was still sound asleep in the center of the couple’s bed. He’d crawled in with them around three in the morning and nestled himself between them.

     Neither of them had minded. He missed his mother terribly while she was in the hospital, and was glad to have her back. And neither of them had voiced it, but each was certain he realized, even in his little mind, how close he’d come to losing her.

     Hannah’s request, whispered in Mark’s ear as he stood shaving, wasn’t really a request.

     Every husband knew the tone. A question from their wives that wasn’t really a question. It was a command disguised as a request. A suggestion that couldn’t be ignored or avoided. It was an ultimatum without sounding like one. It was a “Honey, can I talk to you?” that really meant, “We need to talk, stat.”

     In Mark’s troubled mind, she was going to tell her she was sorry. But that she had fallen in love with Joel. That he was everything Mark wasn’t. He was brave and funny and full of life.

     She was going to tell him she was replacing him. And there was nothing he could do about it. Nothing at all.

     She whispered, “Let’s go into the dining room so we don’t wake up the bed stealer.”

     It was a slightly softer tone, but it didn’t ease Mark’s concerns. Mark was convinced his marriage was over. That he’d been left behind for another man. That Hannah just wanted to spare little Markie the pain, the confusion, the sadness of overhearing his mother tell his father she no longer wanted to be married to him.

     Men’s minds are guilty of many things. Women often think them overly dirty and rightfully so. Men, on the other hand, often chastise women as having minds which jump to conclusions, or are frequently illogical.

     But men are often the very same way. Men often add two and two together and come up with nine. And in the absence of a sound-minded woman to rein him back in, the wrong conclusion sits there, and festers, and turns into a monster that Doctor Frankenstein would hold in envy.

     Such was the case with Mark and his assumption that Hannah had fallen in love with Joel.

     Yes, she loved him. But not in that way.

     Hannah loved Joel as one would love a best friend. Like two men who’d shared combat. Like a favorite brother.

     But not like a husband, or even a boyfriend. As much as Joel had flirted with her, as much as he’d professed his love to her, she wouldn’t love him in that particular way. Not now, not ever.

     The truth was that Hannah was indeed withholding secrets from Mark.

     But that wasn’t one of them.

     She suspected that Mark thought he might be replaced soon. She could see it in his eyes. There was a sadness there any time Joel’s name came up in a conversation that was undeniable.

     Hannah loved this man, and wanted to put his mind at ease. Wanted to reassure him that he was her one and only, and always would be.

     At the same time, though, she knew that the news she had to share with him would rock his world.

     She might as well get it over with.

     It was still early in the day. Karen and her kitchen staff were in the kitchen preparing homemade sausage from the hog Danny had slaughtered a few days before. They’d serve it with eggs and pancakes and oatmeal as the compound’s residents began trickling in for breakfast in the coming couple of hours.

     For now, though, Hannah and Mark had the dining room to themselves.

     Hannah sat at a table in the back of the room. It was universal symbolism for “leave us alone, we want our privacy.” Just in case someone came in for breakfast and decided to stop to chat.

     Mark went to the kitchen and came back with two cups of coffee. Black as the night for him and non-dairy creamer and sugar for Hannah.

     Hannah had been trying to give up creamer of late, because it had all gone stale in the years since Saris 7 collided with the earth. But the previous few days had been trying for her. And she had something important to discuss with her husband. Something she knew wouldn’t be well received. This was not a day to drink bitter black coffee. This was a day when she needed all the comforts she could muster.

     Even something as insignificant as coffee creamer would help a bit. Not much, maybe. But on a day like this one every little thing would help.

     Mark sat down and looked not unlike a condemned man meeting with his priest for his last absolution. Hannah felt bad for him.

     He looked her in the eyes and sighed.

     “Let’s get this over with. How much should I worry?”

     She got the sense they weren’t talking about the same thing. Something in his eyes, or perhaps the tone of his voice. She’d gotten very good at reading him in the almost ten years they’d been together.

     “Honey, what do you think this is all about?”

     He blurted out the words without filtering them.

     “I know what this is. It’s about Joel. You’ve fallen in love with the bastard and you’ve been trying to figure out a way to tell me.”

     Tears suddenly welled up in Hannah’s eyes and she reached out for him. He held her, suddenly sorry for the harshness of his words. He still loved this woman with everything he had, even as she was getting ready to break his heart.

     But she surprised him.

     “Oh, baby. I have some very real fears. And some potentially bad news. But it has absolutely nothing to do with Joel. Nothing whatsoever. You’re my one and only love, and you always will be.”


















     The three of them were sullen, almost somber, as they approached the compound in the F-150 pickup. They rode in the cab this time, all three of them, although it wasn’t designed to hold three grown men.

     Bryan Too, being the smallest of the three, sat on the console between the two front seats.

     It was padded but not comfortable, meant to lean elbows on during long road trips. Not the bony ass of a man.

     Especially on the bumpy dirt roads traversing the thick forests north and east of Junction, Texas.

     “Hey, slow down a little, would you?”

     He’d muttered the words after his head hit the ceiling of the cab the third time. Bryan seemed to be going out of his way to find the biggest holes he could find, then going through them at top speed.

     Actually, it only appeared that way to Bryan Too.

     The truth was, Bryan was driving on autopilot, barely even aware of the road in front of him. It took a second comment, this time from Brad, to slow him down a bit.

     “Slow down, Bryan, you’re gonna break the damn axle. And I don’t feel like walking back.”

     That was it. The entire trip back to the compound, those were the only two sentences muttered.

     There was no point in further conversation, nor any appetite for it. For each man was lost in his own thoughts.

     Bryan pulled up to the compound’s drive-through gate and sat there, engine idling.

     He knew that Karen, working the control center, could see the men on her surveillance cameras.

     He also knew she wouldn’t direct the sentry on the inside of the gate to open it until she got the all clear from Bryan. It was standard procedure, borne of the days when they feared armed assaults on the camp. The sentry, on the inside of the wall, couldn’t see whether there were any threats outside. Only the man or men requesting entry could. The woods had been cleared back for a full fifty yards in the area around the gate. It would take a very fast man indeed, running at a full sprint, to infiltrate the open gate before the vehicle drove through and it slammed shut again.

     But it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility for someone to try. Especially a single man seeking refuge.

     Actually, the greater threat wasn’t even realized until Frank Woodard came to join the group a few months before.

     “I don’t believe you have much of a threat of anyone rushing the gate on foot. I think there’s a greater chance of someone lying on the floorboard, holding a gun on the driver, trying to force his way in.”

     Frank had helped them come up with a way to defend against such an effort.

     “Anytime anyone has to go outside the gate, remind them of this statement:
‘It’s Bravo Six, requesting entry.’

     There was, of course, no Bravo Six. The people of the compound had decided long before there was no real need to use the phonetic alphabet or call signs. They’d always used first names, except for the one time they were forced outside the compound and trying to retake it from a larger force. And that was to differentiate their fire teams so they didn’t trample on their respective missions.

     No, in this case, the statement, “It’s Bravo Six, requesting entry” would immediately alert everyone in the compound that the driver was under duress. Probably being held at gunpoint or forced to take someone into the compound to keep a friendly hostage from being shot elsewhere.

     Frank’s game plan was for the request to be answered with the words, “Sit tight, Bravo Six. The gate’s off the rail again. It’ll take a few minutes to fix it.”

     While “Bravo Six” was cooling his heels outside the gate awaiting repairs to be made, a team of men would be scaling the walls on the opposite side of the compound and entering the woods. They would sneak up on the vehicle and surround it, weapons drawn, to demand the bad guy surrender.

     It was a procedure they’d rehearsed time and time again. And there were no procedures set up to deviate from it.

     At the console, Karen watched the pickup on monitor 7 and wondered why they were just sitting there. All three of the men were carrying their radios, so there was no chance they were having a communications malfunction.

     The fact was, Bryan was trying to collect his thoughts.

     Trying to shed himself of some of the shame and the guilt he was feeling.

     Trying to force himself to feel less like an animal and more like a human before he reentered the compound and had to face the inevitable questions.

     About where the group had gone.

     And what they’d done.

     Inside the cab of the truck, each of the three men remained lost in their own thoughts. Brad stared at his hands. Bryan Too started out the windshield, focused on a wren that had perched itself on the top of the gate in front of them.

     It had to be his imagination, Bryan Too knew. But it seemed the wren was watching them.

     Glaring at them.

     Judging them perhaps.

     Finally, Bryan drew a deep breath and picked up his radio.

     “Whoever’s on the desk, this is Bryan. We’re all clear and ready to come in.”

     Karen could sense the tension in his voice. No doubt he’d sense the tension in her own. For although she didn’t know any of the details, and he was unlikely to share any, she had her suspicions about what the men had just done.

     “Tony, open the gate.”

     Bryan drove through the gate and parked it next to the big house, adjacent to a water faucet Hannah and Sami used to water the flower beds.

     “You guys go ahead. I’ll be along in a minute.”

     The truth was, he still wasn’t ready to face anyone. Not quite yet.

     So he killed a few more minutes by unrolling a water hose, turning on the faucet, and washing Martel’s urine from the bed of the truck.























     In the dining room, Mark was more than a little bit confused.

    If his worry wasn’t Joel, what was it?

     He took Hannah’s hands in his own and asked her, “Honey, what’s the matter, then? I can see the pain in your eyes. If you haven’t fallen in love with Joel, then what could be causing you so much stress?”

     She chose her words carefully.

     “Baby, I don’t want to alarm you. I might be jumping to conclusions. I might be paranoid, and stressing over something that’s never gonna happen. But I want to get your opinion on whether you think it prudent to start preparing for another disaster.”

     Mark skewed his face to the side and furrowed his eyebrows. He looked almost exactly as Archie Bunker once looked when Meathead started talking nonsensically.

     “Disaster? What are you talking about?”

     She took a deep breath and began.

     “Years ago, when we discovered Saris 7, we backtracked its path to try to determine its origin. Or more specifically, what happened to it to make it divert its original course and begin its new course toward earth.

     “What we discovered was that when it impacted with the larger meteorite, it struck a glancing blow that modified its course and sent it flying our way.”

     He was puzzled, and couldn’t help but interrupt.

     “Well pardon me for stating the obvious, honey. But so what? I mean, Saris 7 has already been here. The damage is done. There’s no going back now to do things differently.”

     She sighed. This was turning out to be harder than she thought.

     “Mark, please don’t interrupt. There’s more. So much more. And you’re wrong. There may well be things we can do differently this time.”

     Her words finally sunk in.

This time

     He adopted a slightly panicked look on his face. And she now had his complete attention.

     “What do you mean, ‘this time?’ Honey, what are you saying?”

     She took another deep breath.

     “When Saris 7 hit the other meteorite, a big chunk of it broke off. It wasn’t as big as Saris 7, and was a Class C tumbler, so it didn’t draw the attention or the concern that Saris 7 did. But it was designated a name anyway for tracking purposes. We called it Cupid 23.”

     “A tumbler? Class C? What are you talking about?”

     She placed her forefinger across his lips to shush him. But she didn’t do it to be mean. She meant it to tell him she’d do a better job of explaining if he didn’t interrupt her constantly.

     “Class C refers to the size. It’s considerably smaller than Saris 7 was. About a quarter kilometer or so. And a tumbler is a meteorite of irregular shape that tumbles through the atmosphere, instead of following a smoother path.”

     She could tell from his face that he still didn’t get it.

     “The day before the helicopter crash you were throwing a football back and forth with Markie, remember? You laughed at him because your passes to him were perfect spirals. And his tumbled all over the place. You said they flew like wounded ducks. Remember?”

     “Yes, but…”

     “Picture Saris 7 as one of your passes. It flew straight and true, even after some of it broke off. Then picture Cupid 23 as Markie’s throw. It tumbled, and therefore flew slower and more awkwardly than Saris 7. It took longer to get where it was going, but it still got to more or less the same place.

     “That’s how my dream started. The two of you were throwing the football and you were teasing Markie about how his throws looked. Then I remembered, and the dream got very ugly.”

     “Honey, you remembered what? What dream?”

     “Then I remembered about Cupid 23. And I had a dream that it was coming, and that it might impact with earth.”

     His mouth dropped.

     “You mean… you mean we’re in danger of a second collision, so many years after the first?”

     “Yes… maybe… I don’t know. I…”

     “Honey, you’re not making sense.”

     “Look, Mark. I may be totally off the mark. I pray that I am. But NASA pretty much wrote Cupid 23 off as unimportant. And at the time it was. I mean, Saris 7 was coming at us very quickly. It had the potential of destroying earth. Everything was focused on Saris 7 and Cupid 23 took a back seat and then got buried.

     “It was like if you’re on a railroad track and there’s a freight train coming. And you notice your shoe’s untied. Well, you don’t take the time to bend down and tie your shoe while the train is bearing down upon you.

     “You get the hell off the tracks. Then when you’re safe,
you tie your shoe.”

     “So what you’re telling me is, NASA and the whole scientific community put Cupid 23 on the back burner and then forgot about it? They walked away from the train tracks and then forgot to tie their shoe? And only now, ten years after the fact, they’re just now realizing their shoe is still untied?”

     “Mark, I don’t know what NASA knows, or if they’re even working the problem. For all I know they’re working very hard on it. For all I know they’ve already tracked Cupid 23 and determined it’s not on a collision course and that impact isn’t imminent. I haven’t even tried to contact them. I wanted to talk to you first to see if you thought it was wise.”

     “What do you mean, if I thought it was wise?”

     “Whether you think I should raise the flag again, without knowing whether there’s really a threat of another impact. I mean, even then, ten years ago… we knew there was a good chance that Cupid 23 would move so slowly that it would lose its path momentum. Or that its very nature as a tumbler would cause it to roll off course…”

     She stopped and regrouped when she saw Mark’s eyes glazing over. She could tell she was losing him.

     “Usually when meteorites break up, they continue to follow the same path, with the smaller or slower moving chunks trailing the ‘mother piece,’ or the piece with the greatest momentum. Like baby ducks following their mother.”

     She thought of a better example.

     “You remember when we met, before you got old and out of shape…”

     She smiled, trying to insert just a touch of levity into a very difficult situation.

     It didn’t work. So she went on.

     “When we met you liked to participate in bicycle races. Do you remember how you and your teammates took turns riding point, and the others drafted behind him?”

     Finally, something she said that Mark could actually relate to.


     “Well, it’s kinda like that. Space is a vacuum, sure. But it’s still easier for trailing bodies to follow a larger body which pushes the atmosphere, such as it is, out of the way. So it’s not unreasonable to assume that the path of least resistance for the trailing bodies is simply to follow the larger lead body through space.

     “That’s frequently the case with tumblers, but not always. Tumblers, because they tumble instead of fly true, slow down over time. They can lose momentum and fall back, in the same way that a bicyclist who’s tired may fall back behind the point man and lose the draft. And when he loses the draft he slows even more.”

BOOK: A Long Road Back: Final Dawn: Book 8
11.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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