Authors: Jackie Ivie
To my dear writer friend and owner of equestrian stables, Sandy Shacklett.
Your expertise, experience, and willingness to share both were absolutely invaluable to me.
Everything was ready. Engines on. Runway cleared. Dawn just breaking. The perfect time for a flight.
Neal barely listened as Eric went over the last of the checklist. As if it mattered. As if anything mattered except getting back to Miami. Reaching his office. And drafting yet another break-up letter with another girlfriend. Then again, he hadn’t dated Lindsey for a year yet. Maybe he could send a text this time.
Under the beauty, and around the personality, they all seemed to have the same traits. They were conniving. Manipulative. It must be encoded into their DNA. No matter what you gave them, or the attention you showered on them, they wanted more.
They wanted a little gold ring.
With a really large diamond.
As if that would solve all the world’s problems. Well. Not in his world. Neal had a lot of companies in his portfolio. Most of them energy-conserving, or energy generating. Right now, he was working with a developer on a concept for solar-powered flight. Because the future needed it.
It sure didn’t need another Straithmore.
That’s why he’d taken care of accidental reproduction. Permanently. In his early thirties. Aside from the fact that right now he was in his late forties and that was no age to be starting a family, it wasn’t medically possible. Lindsey should have done her homework just a little better before she tried the pregnancy ploy.
Anger flashed through him. Along with it came a tingling sensation up his left arm. He already had a myriad of dots floating before his vision. Large and small, and making blurry spots he had to concentrate around. All signs he’d had before. And didn’t need again. He needed to remain calm here. Unemotional. Despite the thought, Neal subconsciously reacted. He pushed the throttle. The plane jumped forward.
Eric stopped his recitation of the pre-flight checklist. Neal really liked Eric. The kid was his protégée. Hand-picked three years ago from a sea of applicants. Because Neal had suffered a transient ischemic attack very few people knew about. Classified as a minor stroke, that episode had forced Neal to face reality. And mortality. And if he wanted to continue his empire building, he needed to hire an assistant. He’d required someone bright. Efficient. Loyal. Energetic. Open-minded. And closed-mouth. Eric had proven to possess all of those qualities and more. Perhaps Neal should do what the Romans did millennia ago. They’d found the best candidate for their progeny and adopted him.
He felt, rather than saw, Eric turn his head toward him. Neal ignored him, pushed farther on the throttle, and taxied onto the runway.
“Just keep it under mach one, okay, boss?”
“This engine won’t do mach one, Eric.”
“So far,” the kid answered.
Neal’s lip lifted on one side. The one Eric couldn’t see. That was the only response he gave. They were piloting his newest acquisition, a Cessna Citation X, rated at 617 mph. Mach 0.935. It carried a spiral motif on the tail, as did all his acquisitions. That spiral was embossed into the leather seats. He’d had it tattooed onto his left shoulder. Eric had recently gotten one in exactly the same place. It was designed after the signet ring Neal always wore.
This particular Cessna was the fastest private jet he could purchase. Neal had never opened it up all the way. Today might be the day. Because time was wasting. Time was always wasting.
Time was his number one priority.
Too bad Lindsey hadn’t figured that out.
He’d called an impromptu board meeting for ten o’clock. The flight from Aruba to Miami-Dade should take just over two hours. He calculated another fifteen minutes for any in-flight issues. He mentally added to the time budget. He’d need an hour to reach his condo, ninety minutes under a worst case scenario. Should take thirty minutes to shed the linen pants and intensely-colored tropical shirt that marked what was supposed to have been a fourteen day vacation. And it would still be happening if Lindsey hadn’t tried the tears and blackmail program on him last night...
The thirty minutes included time to shower. Shave. Dress in a three-piece suit that had become his trademark attire. He assumed Eric would do similar preparations. They would then need a short helicopter trip – maybe twenty minutes – to reach his company headquarters...
They were cutting this close.
The jet lifted from the ground with an adrenaline-kicking rush that sent all kinds of pleasure rocketing through him. The same thing happened no matter how many times he flew, or what jet. Commercial planes wouldn’t ascend as quickly as a private plane. But the Cessna was in a league of its own. Moments after lift-off, they were at cruising altitude. If he cared, he could look back and watch the island of Aruba disappear into an expanse of turquoise-colored water. A glance down showed all kinds of sparkles as dawn light touched the wave-topped surface of the Caribbean Ocean. Neal moved his gaze to the limitless vista of sky. They had some high cirrus clouds this morning, their composition of ice crystals making them resemble strands of filament. As if a master artist had just applied brushstrokes of white amidst a field of barely-there blue.
It was probably awe-inspiring. Maybe he should take a moment and just enjoy. Neal took a deep breath.
“Bad night?” Eric asked.
“Not open to discussion,” he answered.
Neal forced his attention back to the span of electronic monitors and controls that comprised the cockpit. Everything was working properly. Displays were clear. He gave a sidelong glance to his personal assistant. Eric appeared to be concentrating on the view. It wasn’t faked. The kid really wasn’t interested in what happened with his boss. That was another reason Neal liked him. That, and his devil-may-care attitude. The kid had a crop of sandy-colored hair that needed a serious combing this morning. That was Neal’s fault. He hadn’t given the kid more than fifteen minutes warning that they were flying out. Eric had been expecting at least another week in paradise. Complete with hot and cold running ladies. And lots of booze. He looked like he’d slept in the clothes he was wearing, too. And yet, managed to look alert, awake, and entirely capable.
Neal looked back out the window. Shook his head. To be in his twenties again. Able to recuperate so quickly. Effortlessly...
The dots were clearing.
His vision might get ultra-sharp now. As if everything was being viewed through enhanced-vision goggles. If that happened, he needed to down a clot-blocker tablet, turn the flight over to his co-pilot, don an eye mask and earplugs, in an attempt to envision serenity. Calmness. A sense of oneness with the universe. Something called
according to his personal physician, Doctor...what was his name?
He couldn’t bring the man’s name to mind? Looked like he was heading toward another stroke episode. He reached into his chest pocket and pulled out a clot-busting tablet. Pushed it through the foil backing with his thumb. Surreptitiously stuck it in his mouth. Grabbed his water bottle from the pocket on the left edge of his chair. Flipped the top open.
“We got a weird cloud, boss. Or...something.”
The word was slurred. Neal hoped that was due to the pill’s presence beneath his tongue. And that Eric wouldn’t notice. He chugged a couple of swallows.
“Two o’clock. Closing fast.”
Neal leaned forward. Scanned the area beyond Eric. The kid was right. There was a definite dark mass on that side. It was moving closer as well as getting larger. And darker. A flash went through the cabin. Every monitor flat-lined. And then a riot of sensors started going off. Simultaneously. Red light infused the cabin with a dull glow.
“What the hell? The instruments are all going crazy!”
He didn’t need Eric to inform him of it. A glance had already shown even their archaic altimeter was spinning. As was the compass. And fuel gauge.
Neal flicked the radio switch on his headset.
“Mayday! Mayday! This is NC4082. Aruba to Miami.”
“This is Luis Munoz Marin International. Go ahead.”
What the hell?
They’d reached San Juan, Puerto Rico air controllers? That wasn’t possible. They hadn’t been flying but a few minutes. They couldn’t possibly be this far off course, nor could they have flown in an easterly direction. They’d have been flying into sunlight. And he knew that hadn’t happened.
“Mayday! We’ve got system malfunction! Zero visibility!”
“Come again, NC4082?”
“Mayday! Electronics are dead. Massive cloud cover! Zero visibility!”
“There’s not a cloud in the sky. Over.”
Neal pushed for speed. The fuselage shuddered and complied.
They weren’t escaping it. If anything, the mass was closer. Bigger. And darker. And then it started swirling. The plane started shifting with it. Going from side-to-side with large sweeping motions. If either man were the seasick type, that would be a foregone conclusion.
Eric caught his glance. The kid was straining to hold the plane level. And then the left engine stalled.
“Oh. Shit.” Eric muttered.
Neal began reciting. “Luis Munoz Marin International! This is NC4082. Aruba to Miami. Mayday! We are in a dark cloud. Electronics malfunctioning. Engines malfunctioning. The cloud is spinning now!”
“NC4082? Come again? NC...? Come...?”
The air traffic controller’s voice faded in and out, the words interspersed with static sounds. And then the plane started rolling. Neal caught a breath. Watched as lights began erupting, either in his brain or in the mass surrounding them. He couldn’t tell. This could be another TIA. Or the big one. He should have taken this flight alone. Not dragged Eric into infamy with him. He should have adopted the kid, too, although it wouldn’t have mattered. He’d given him control of everything in his will.
If the kid survived this.
Eric Donegal was a good man. Young. Strong. Capable. And still working the wheel against an unknown force of unbelievable magnitude.
Blackness started encasing them, going from a swirl of shadow along the edges of everything, and narrowing with each revolution of the plane. It was a strange blackness, interspersed with a series of near-blinding explosions, accompanied by intense heat. As if they’d somehow flown right into a Fourth of July fireworks exhibition.
“We’re being swallowed by a UFO!”
Eric yelled it.
Neal couldn’t respond.
He was losing consciousness, and actually welcomed it. And just before he blacked out, it occurred to him. He and Eric were about to become a Bermuda Triangle statistic.
Of all the fates he’d projected for himself, this exceeded them all.