Three days later Jennings was once again flying the helicopter out over the ocean. This time he was following behind one of the reconnaissance drones heading in the direction they assumed the island was in.
This based on the direction they believed the body of the Allosaurus had drifted from, in collaboration with what they knew of the tides, currents, and some math calculations done by Alboria.
Unlike the helicopter, the drone was small and sleek, shaped like a dart, and a dull gray color. It was powered by a single engine that was fueled by some means Jennings didn’t understand and didn’t bother to ask about. All he knew was that it didn’t leave a contrail, and the drone or Dart as they called it, could fly five times faster than he could, which put it a considerable distance ahead of him.
Jennings was keeping track of it both on the radar system he had hooked up in his cockpit, as well as a live video feed from the camera mounted just below the Dart’s belly, which was giving him and the operator onboard the ship a real-time view of what was out there way head of them.
And for the most part, for the last three hours all that was out there was miles and miles of unyielding ocean.
Directly beside the small LCD screen that showed him the live video feed from the drone, a picture of Mae was taped.
“Two flight, this is Echo Alpha,” the voice of a man came across his headphones.
It was the Eldridge calling him. Even though they were in the middle of nowhere and it looked as if there was nothing down there but the ocean, that didn’t mean they were alone. There were Russian subs lurking around, Chinese battleships and who knew what else. Even something as raggedy as a small fishing boat that looked like it was just idly trolling the ocean heading in to port could actually be a spy or reconnaissance vessel.
There was no real idea who was down there and if they were listening in on their communications, so every communication had to be guarded for operation security. Code names that had been thought up early that day for communication purposes were used and changed daily to confuse anyone listening. In this case, today, the Eldridge was calling itself Echo Alpha and him Two flight, so he replied, “go Echo Alpha.”
“Two Flight, how is your birdseed,” they then asked him. Jennings understood they were asking him how his fuel was. He glanced at the indicators for his fuel cells, noticing that the main one was down to half, and his secondary, backup cell was full.
Grinning Jennings said over the radio, “Two flight, Echo Alpha, birdseed is tasty, ate half a bag and have another full one for later. Over.”
“Understood, Two Flight,” the Eldridge replied. “Watch what you’re eating. When the first bag is empty head back to your nest. Over.”
“Roger that, Echo Alpha,” Jennings replied, understanding what they were telling him. Once he had burned up the first fuel cell, he would need the entire second one to make the return trip to the ship. “Over and out.”
Not long after that transmission, Jennings noticed the sky off to his port side getting dark with heavy gray storm clouds. Even at a distance he thought he could see rain falling from the bottom of those clouds to the ocean below. He then glanced down at the LCD screen and saw that the drone was flying right through the storm clouds, jetting through them like a bullet through cotton.
He grinned at that as he looked again at his fuel cells. His first one was almost totally gone. He glanced again at the screen, seeing the gray nothing of storm clouds over the video feed, occasionally broken by glimpse of the ocean far below.
A flash of light caught his attention and Jennings looked up out of the windshield, seeing the storm clouds that were rolling toward him like angry waves on a violent sea, lashed and flickering with slashes of lightning.
A moment later the helicopter lurched upwards and then dropped down several feet as a strong gust of wind lashed her.
Cursing to himself, Jennings fought for control and after a moment he had regained the aircraft from the coming storm. “Echo Alpha, this is Two Flight, over.” Nothing but static came back to him over the radio. “Echo Alpha. Two Flight. Over.”
Just then the helicopter lunged and bounced around as the wind took her a second time and for a while Jennings fought the storm, trying to keep the aircraft from nose diving, or worse, flipping upside down, which would end with him crashing down in the ocean.
As he fought the controls he realized that the dark, boiling storm clouds had swallowed him up, coming up on him faster than he had realized, a dark, hazy world was around him, laced with snaps of lightning and streaked with rain.
He tried to rise up above the clouds but the winds were two strong, bursts of strong downdrafts kept pushing the helicopter downward, so instead of fighting that, he dropped downward, and in moments came out beneath the storm clouds, as the wind and rain gusted around him.
Jennings hands were sweating, his heart slamming away in his chest, and he was gasping for air, but he finally stabilized the chopper.
“Echo Alpha, this is Two Flight, how do you read me? Over,” he said into the radio microphone beside his mouth.
Static answered him.
He glanced down at the fuel cells and felt his eyes bulge in their sockets. “Shit,” he cursed as he realized he had burned up the entire first cell and had eaten up a quarter of the second one. It had taken him just one full fuel cell to get this far out over the ocean, and he needed the second full one to get him back to the ship.
But he had already used up a quarter of that just fighting the storm. “Damn it,” he said between clenched teeth.
He glanced down at the LCD screen again, and saw hazy darkness and for a moment thought he had lost the signal from the drone. Maybe it had gone down in the storm ahead of him.
Then he saw lightning on the screen and a moment later saw the drone break free of the dark gray storm it had been flying it. In the glinting light he saw the ocean below the drone, white capped waves thrashing about on the dark sea. A flash of lightning. And in that flash of light he thought he saw what looked like a coast line with palm trees and a beach, but the image only lasted a moment and then the screen went dark.
A crash of thunder came from all around him and Jennings felt his own aircraft being twisted from side to side in the gusting wind, and again he fought for control, hearing the turbines screaming in the air, the engines racing and grumbling as the strained against the wind.
Above him was the storm twisted sky, and below him the violent, boiling ocean. Rain was streaming the windows all around him, and he began to hear the unmistakable sound of hail pelting the sides of the aircraft. That was bad. If just one good size chunk of hail was sucked into the intakes of the engine, it was all over.
He didn’t bother to try and call the Eldridge at that point, all his concentration was on trying to fly and stay alive. Beside the LCD screen the photograph of Mae bounced and jittered.
Then on the screen he caught a quick glimpse of trees. Unmistakable this time. The drone was flying over a rainforest or jungle of some type. At that point he didn’t know if this was his island he had been searching for all this time, some other or something else, and he didn’t care. He just wanted to land somewhere on it before the storm tore him apart.
He lowered the aircraft further down toward the surface of the ocean and pushed her as fast and as hard as he could, hoping he was heading right for the land the drone had seen.
“Come on baby, be there for me,” Jennings muttered to himself as he looked from the LCD screen that occasionally showed him the tops of jungle trees light by lashes of lightning, out of the cockpit window—which showed him nothing but the stormy darkness and rain, lit by flickers of light.
One last time he tried to call the Eldridge, and got nothing but static. It was at that point he heard a loud bursting sound off to his right, and the window there exploded in at him with a gust of wind and rain and something sharp cut his cheek just below his ear.
He knew what had happened at once. A chunk of hail had smashed the window in. He heard another hit the side of the turbine above his head, and then the cockpit windshield to his left cracked as a good sized chunk of hail struck it. Thankfully it didn’t explode in on his face.
The wind rushing around the cockpit pulled the picture of Aoki free from where it had been hanging and it few out of the shattered side window, out into the storm. The LCD screen for the drone followed it a moment later. Not that that mattered.
Jennings could see the forest now, coming up fast, ahead of him. The rain soaked tops of palm trees being violently thrashed around by the wind. He actually shouted with relief over that. “YEAH!”
The indicator light blinking on the console stole the rest of his relief. It was a warning indicator light, telling him his fuel cell had burned completely through. He was basically out of gas. Any moment now the engines would quit and he would fall like a stone to the forest below.
One last time he hit the radio communications button and shouted, “Echo Alpha, This is Two Flight, I am going down! I repeat, I am going down.” He then hit the button on the lower right side of the control panel, which would activate the distress beacon on his flight recorder so anyone, most likely Juan or the other drones that might come looking for him after the storm passed, would be able to home in on it and find whatever was left.
That done, his only action now was to guide the aircraft down toward the treetops, trying to slow himself down as best as he could, flying lower and lower, using the tops of the trees with their leafy branches to try and slow the rocketing aircraft down into what he hoped would be a survivable crash.
That didn’t work out as well as he had liked, as the lower right skid the helicopter usually came to rest on, snagged on a tree and the entire thing was spun violently around. There was a snap, and Jennings felt the aircraft fly free, and was aware he was sideways in the air. The turbines blades exploded off of the top of the chopper and were sent flying, the tail section struck something hard and the entire helicopter went upright for a moment and for just a second Jennings felt as if he was floating through the air.
Just a moment, then then he felt the aircraft, or what was left of it, nosedive downward and through the cracked windshield he saw tree branches and the ground—and then everything went black as his head struck the ceiling, and he was thrown forward against the restraining harness that kept him in his seat, and then slammed back against the seat.