The primitive cargo plane’s loadmaster tapped Damjan on the shoulder “How’s your friend?”
Damjan looked to his side at Albertson who curled up in the web seat--kind of like a vertical hammock--eyes glassy and face slack.
“Better, I think, but no promises,” Damjan said. “Better have more of those bags ready.”
“Captain wants you two up front,” the loadmaster said. “Can your friend...”
Albertson raised a hand to the back of his mouth for a moment then shook his head. “I’ll manage.” Shakily, he rose to his feet.
Damjan unfastened his seatbelt and stood. After a moment’s thought, he bent down and drew his computer bag from under the seat.
The loadmaster spotted the action and nodded. “This way.”
He led them past the large fuel tanks that filled the center of the aircraft to the front of the plane.
“Anything?” the person in the left seat of the plane was saying as they entered the flight deck.
“Nothing yet,” the person in the right seat said. “This isn’t set up to search by what an island looks like.”
“Captain?” The loadmaster said.
The person in the left seat looked back. “Right. Thanks, Harry. Tim, your plane.”
The person in the left seat, the captain, Damjan presumed, unbuckled and stood. He held out a hand. “Captain Jamal White,” he said.
Albertson took White’s hand. “Oliver Albertson. Pleased to meet you.”
White held his hand toward Damjan, who took it. “Damjan Bankovich.”
“Mr. Albertson, Mr. Bankovich. We have a problem. I wanted to talk to you because it may be related to this...mess.”
“How can we help?” Albertson asked.
“We’re currently circling an island that shouldn’t be there. All our charts say there’s nothing where our navigation equipment says we are. We lost GPS signal several hours ago.”
“I did warn the general that that could happen,” Albertson said.
White nodded. “Whatever’s blocking satellite radar is also blocking GPS satellite signals. Got it. But we’ve got an inertial system that’s pretty good. And it says we’re right where we’re supposed to be. Only problem is, none of our charts show an island of any kind, let alone one that big. So, since islands don’t just appear out of nowhere, something must be wrong with the navigation system. We’re lost.” He pointed at one of the instruments. “I’ve got about fifteen minutes before I have to make a choice. Either we try to retrace our path using a compass and inertial nav that got us lost in the first place, or we try to land here, on this island. If we try to retrace our path we’ll have to get very lucky to meet up with the tanker. Otherwise, we ditch in the ocean and the results are not likely to be good. Landing here depends on finding a flat spot big enough. But the Herky is pretty sturdy. We should be fine. Worst case, we ditch near the shore and get a bit wet.”
Albertson looked at his watch and winced. “If you have to do that, waiting another two hours would be best.”
“Have to agree,” Damjan said. “If the next earthquake goes as scheduled there could be a big tsunami coming through here by then. And we’re a lot closer to the epicenter, meaning it will be that much bigger. I wouldn’t want to be on, or even near, the shore when it hits.”
“So what do you want from us?” Albertson asked.
“Help searching charts,” White said. “If we can find where we are, we can find how to get back.”
“We can do that,” Albertson said. I’ve got charts stored in my laptop and...”
“Just one thing,” Damjan said. “You said islands don’t appear out of nowhere.”
Albertson clapped a hand over his face and sighed, but did not interrupt.
“I wouldn’t be too sure,” Damjan continued. “I know it sounds crazy, but the measurements on that last earthquake? Well, it looks like they raised the sea floor several thousand feet. Maybe it pushed an island up as well.”
White looked at Damjan like he had lost his mind, which, Damjan thought, might well be true. Then White shook his head. “In any case, I have to know. We either make rendezvous in the tanker, ditch in the ocean, or find someplace to land. I really don’t want to ditch so we either find where we are or we land here. It’s our best chance.”
Ruggedly handsome, Commander Chris Smith could have stepped right out of a recruiting poster for the Marine Corps. Instead, he commanded the Arleigh Burke class destroyer, the USS Gonzalez. Originally a Flight I design, the latest refit had given the Gonzalez some Flight II capability, including increased Tomahawk capacity and a hangar and flight deck for one Seahawk helicopter.
Smith peered through his binoculars at the horizon while listening to the latest damage control report. The Gonzalez was hurt, badly, but repairs were continuing as they limped for home. Admiral Cunningham had also tasked them with keeping track of the creature; Washington had simply called it a previously unknown species of giant fish.
Smith had seen the footage. That was no fish. He did not know what it was, but it was no fish.
“Chief Bowman says the number three turbine is toast, but the others are all functioning and we’ve got both screws. The old girl’s still got fight in her, Skipper.”
“Good,” Smith lowered the binoculars and looked at his Exec. “Status on the contact?”
“Still heading south by southwest. It will have to turn soon. About to run into Killiniq Island.”
“If it turns south...”
His exec nodded. “’Consistent with a prompt return to Norfolk Naval Shipyard for repairs, you are to follow and monitor the recently discovered example of aquatic megafauna.’ I don’t think the Admiral knew quite how to word that order.”
“Can you blame him?” Smith shook his head. “’Aquatic megafauna’? That was no fish.”
“What do you think it was, then? A giant dinosaur, released from stasis by that nuke?”
“Isn’t that how all the giant monster movies start?” He put the binoculars to his face and focused on the horizon. That, whatever it was, remained submerged.
Reports continued to trickle in. Additional repairs completed or systems logged irreparable short of port. In the meantime, the sonar track of the creature continued to move toward the shallows off the island ahead.
"It's got to turn soon," Smith said to himself. If it goes south, fine. If it goes north..."
"Our orders did say 'Consistent with a prompt return to Norfolk,' right? If it goes north, we continue south and we're done."
"The Admiral won't like--"
In the distance, a few hundred meters offshore, the head of the creature burst from the waves, followed by its neck with its rows of irregular dorsal plates.
"What the fuck!" For a moment Smith wondered who had spoken, then realized that he had himself.
More of the creature rose from the water as it moved toward the shore. Shoulders. Yes, those were shoulders, from which protruded short arms. Not so short as those of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, but short.
"A dinosaur," Smith's exec whispered.
"No dinosaur was ever that big." Smith licked his lips. "Get a Seahawk ready. I want film of that thing. They're to follow it as long as they can and see what it does." He shook his head. "Washington had enough trouble swallowing the idea of a previously undiscovered giant fish. 'Aquatic megafauna.' What do you think they're going to say about--" He waved his hand in the direction of the creature, "--that."
"Dr. Albertson?" White said. He'd circled halfway around the island, looking for suitable spots to land while the two scientists had poured over charts in their computers trying to identify it. "Anything?"
"I'm sorry. Our system isn't designed to search on the shape and size of an island and we have to..."
"Sorry, no. Nothing. We have not been able to identify this island."
"All right," White said. He turned to Cedeno. "I'm calling it. We land here."
"Where?" Cedeno asked.
White pointed. "There. That plateau. It looks flat enough and it's high ground in case..."
"In case we're down there when another tsunami comes through."
"Harry, get these people back to their seats and strapped in. Landing in an unprepared field. You know what it's going to be like."
"Sir," Antoniewicz said. "Gentlemen, if you'll come this way."
"Okay, Tim," White said when the others had left, "We're going to make a pass first. Low and slow. See what we're coming into before we bring her around and set her down."
"Watch our ground track. Try to judge crosswind."
"Check. Eyeballs peeled."
White brought the plane around and settled it into a glide. "Throttle down," he said, echoing verbally his actions on the controls. "Flaps twenty degrees."
The ground approached. White slid the flap lever the rest of the way. Their approach steepened. When they had descended to a few hundred feet above the plateau, he eased the throttle forward, leveling out.
"I make ten knots drift to starboard," Cedeno said.
"Ten knots starboard drift," White repeated.
"There. Two o'clock," Cedeno said. "Do you see what I see?"
White looked in the indicated direction. "A runway? Or a road?"
A white stripe crossed the plateau ahead of them, featureless so far as White could see from this distance and altitude but easily large enough for the Hercules to land on it.
"Whatever it was," White said, "it's a runway now."
He slid the throttles forward, starting to bring the aircraft up and around in preparation for entering a landing pattern.
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