Authors: Joshua Dalzelle
Jason Burke bolted upright in his bed and scanned the room. All was as he had left it and everything appeared as it should; dark and quiet. He was sweating profusely and his hands were clenched into fists. As he forced himself to breathe slow, regular breaths, his heart rate began to drop and he slowly calmed himself. Another nightmare. That was the only explanation as to why he was in such a state. They had been becoming less and less frequent as time passed, but every once in awhile he would still be violently awakened by ghosts from his past.
He knew it was of no use trying to get back to sleep, so he swung his legs over the edge of the bed, groaning softly as he stood up. He padded across the bedroom and into the bathroom, his feet making no noise on the rough hewn wood floor. He flipped on the light and splashed some water onto his face to clear his head. He gasped slightly as the icy water hit his skin, this far up in the mountains the well water was still very cold in early May. He looked up and stared at the man looking back at him in the mirror. That man had a fairly plain face, not overly handsome, but certainly not unattractive. An unruly crop of coarse, dark hair stuck out in places and looked like it hadn't been cut in months. There was three days worth of beard growth that covered mildly weathered skin that bespoke of long durations in harsh environments and gave the twenty-six year old the appearance of someone a bit older. The light blue, almost grey eyes stared back with an intensity that made him seem standoffish to strangers, and yet there was a vulnerability there that few saw, and a sadness as well.
Jason shook his head in disgust, too much introspection was never healthy. He turned the light off and walked back across his bedroom to the window and looked out over the moonlight drenched mountains. The view was breathtaking, but he hardly noticed it. Convinced that a recurring nightmare had been what had woke him, he decided to try and sleep at least a few more hours. He fervently hoped the sheets weren’t too sweaty.
He then became aware of a low, sub-sonic thrum as he sat back on the bed. He stuck his finger in his ear and wiggled it furiously, not actually expecting the act to stop the noise, but figured it was worth a try. The sound was more a feeling, but it was growing in intensity. Within the next few minutes he confirmed that the noise was indeed real, and not in his head, as the panes of glass in his bedroom window started to vibrate. Jason stood back up and approached the window as the sensation continued to climb in pitch and volume until it broke into the audible range. Whatever it was, it was getting closer. He dashed out of his bedroom, ran down the stairs, and went to the backdoor that led out onto the rear deck of the cabin. He paused long enough to slip on a leather coat and put on a pair of leather-soled moccasins before opening the door and stepping out into the cold night air.
He stepped to the far rail and craned his head towards where the sound was coming from, listening as the low rumble was now accompanied by a high pitched whine. Just when he thought whatever was making the cabin shake would pass out of his line of sight, a roaring sound made him jump as what looked like a low-flying comet streaked across the night sky and disappeared over the next ridge. He jumped again as the sound of an explosion reached him and the horizon lit up where the object has passed. But unlike an explosion, the sound and light did not dissipate. The incredible roar actually increased and shook the mountain as Jason gripped the deck railing so hard his knuckles turned white.
Then it was over. The silence was deafening and only the moon lit up the night. Jason stood stock still, staring at the spot where the object had disappeared. His breathing was quick and shallow and his eyes scanned the ridgeline for any sign of movement. Something was very wrong. He had caught a glimpse of the object as it had crossed the sky; it was definitely some sort of aircraft and it had been trailing fire and billowing smoke as it screamed over his cabin. But it had been unlike any aircraft he had ever seen or heard of, even from his time in the military. His instincts told him that this was no ordinary aviation mishap. The long duration of the explosive roar after the craft had flown over was simply not consistent with an aircraft impacting the ground and exploding.
Jason ran back into his cabin and picked up the land line, his cell phone was useless this far up in the mountains, and was greeted by more silence. The line was dead. With only a moments hesitation he went upstairs and quickly dressed in old fatigue pants, boots, and pulled a hoodie sweatshirt over his t-shirt. The night was cold, but he knew he'd be moving fast enough to stay warm without a coat. He hesitated momentarily, then the last thing he grabbed from his bedroom was an AR-15 carbine from the corner of the closet and a loaded 30-round magazine from the top shelf. He knew he may very well be a paranoid fool, but something about this didn't sit well with him and the weapon gave him a sense of security.
He paused again at the back door and grabbed a small, high-intensity flashlight and stuffed it in his front pocket and slipped his wallet into his back pocket. He slapped the magazine into the rifle's lower receiver, grabbed the charging handle and cycled the weapon's action, loading a live round into the chamber. He verified it was on "safe" and slipped outside. Jason closed the door without a thought of locking it; there was nobody within miles of the small cabin, one of the main reasons he was hiding out in it.
He hopped off the porch and headed off down a well-worn trail that led into the woods. His familiarity with the land allowed him to move quickly through the pine trees with only the light of the moon to illuminate his path. He judged that the aircraft (or, most likely, the crash site) was no more than two or three klicks away given the speed it was traveling and the time from when he lost sight to when the sound had stopped. He had no idea what he expected to see when he got there, so he mentally prepared himself for anything and everything.
The easy, loping gait Jason assumed was good for covering distances relatively quickly, but not leaving him worn out when he arrived. The few kilometer run, even through the rugged mountain terrain, wasn't much of a challenge to him. The AR-15, a civilian version of the military M4 rifle he had trusted his life to many times, was a comforting weight in his hands as he jogged, holding it across his chest. As he ran he could feel the subtle change from the drowsy, relaxed demeanor he had adopted in the small mountain town he lived in to a brittle alertness that had been finely honed by multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nothing escaped his attention; every sound and shadow was scrutinized and catalogued as he ghosted through the wilderness towards his destination.
Soon, there was a discernable brightness along the ridgeline up ahead so Jason slowed to a walk, and then eventually stopped. He crouched down in the soft earth and strained his ears for any sound that wasn't natural. The light was definitely artificial, however faint that it was. The hue and brightness told him the light was not coming from a natural source and the steady, constant glow was also inconsistent with flaming wreckage, the thing he most expected to find. He began a silent stalk the remaining distance up to the ridge and paused right below the crest of the hill. He could now hear, and feel, a dull thrum coming from the area as well as the occasional sound that he could only describe as mechanical. Why was he so wired and apprehensive over what it most likely an aviation mishap? Whatever the reason, he had learned long ago not to shrug off the feeling, it was a lesson that had nearly cost him his life.
The last five meters to the top of the ridge were made at a snail’s pace as Jason crawled on his elbows and the toes of his boots, the AR-15 cradled protectively in his arms. He knew this area well from months of scouting out from his cabin and knew there was a large clearing up ahead, the soil being too rocky for the trees to take hold. The clearing sloped gradually west from his current position and ended in another tree line before butting up against the next rise. His crawl ended right before his line of sight would clear the ridgeline and he'd be able to see down into the clearing. At this point the light was quite bright and the sounds of metal scraping on metal and the occasional clanking were clear as a bell. Jason hunched his shoulders forward and dug his elbows into the soil, then he slowly used his shoulders and back to drag himself up the last little bit so he could get a clear view of his objective.
Although he wasn't sure what he had expected to see, the view stunned him nonetheless. The clearing was dominated by what was clearly an aircraft of some type, but it was unlike any he had ever seen or even heard of. For starters, it was simply huge. Jason had seen C-5 Galaxy cargo aircraft during his time in the service, but the craft currently sitting in front of him would easily dwarf the Air Force's largest plane. Despite its size, Jason was also certain he was looking at a tactical vehicle and not some slow, ungainly cargo hauler. The craft appeared to be an elongated delta shape from his vantage point above and behind it, there were discernable wings that extended out from the main fuselage, but the sweep maintained the same angle that started at the nose, far too steep a rake for normal flight. There were also what appeared to be two stabilizers extending out from the tail section at 45-degrees, but even with his rudimentary knowledge of aerodynamics Jason could see that their orientation in relation to the wing would make them nearly useless at controlling the attitude of the craft as well as probably adversely affect the wing's performance. There were four engine nozzles that were arranged in pairs in two nacelles tucked up under the wing roots at the tail of the aircraft, but instead of the expected stream of hot gas Jason would normally expect from a gas turbine, a passive, wavering blue glow was pulsating down the visible length of the interior of the engines.
There were some other details that also stayed Jason's first instinct to race down the hill and render aid to any possible survivors, reasons in addition to the size and configuration of it. The aircraft (a word Jason insisted on still using to describe the behemoth in the clearing) was obviously damaged, badly, and it also had obviously landed, not crashed. Even from his position he could tell the thing was sitting on its landing gear, but what threw him was
A vehicle this large with such a swoopy, fast design should not be able to land vertically in an uneven, rough mountain clearing that could barely contain it, or at all for that matter. There was also the speed at which the craft had buzzed his cabin, it had been subsonic, but just barely, and it was streaming flames and smoke at the time, apparently a result of the damage he was looking at. This meant that even with that damage, the craft had managed to stop its considerable forward velocity and descend safely in a controlled landing. He realized that this must have been the sustained, explosive roar he had heard on his back porch, it had to have some type of incredibly powerful retro-thrust system. Jason's mind boggled at the amount of thrust it would take to hover the giant craft and control its vertical decent, let alone stop it in mid air. He moved his AR-15 into position and peered through the scope to get a better view. Even with the relative low magnification of the small tactical scope he could clearly see much of the damage. Scorch marks were visible on the left side of the upper fuselage and there appeared to be impact damage in that area as well as a possible breach in the skin. While large aircraft looked tough and rugged, Jason knew they were relatively fragile objects and it occurred to him that there could still be injured crew on board this one.
He made his decision. He was the type of person who didn't waste time on indecision, once he determined his course of action he set about aggressively executing it and didn't expend any energy on regrets or contemplation about things he couldn't go back and change. He knew and accepted this about himself, and his thoughts briefly flitted back to a ghost from his past, someone that might still be with him if he had been a little more introspective at times. But, this was not one of those times. Now was the time for direct action. He slowly slid himself out from his hiding spot and began a methodical decent down the steep hill towards the mysterious craft that was smoking and hissing before of him. He knew it was probably smarter to haul ass back to his home and try to find some way to alert the authorities, but he couldn't resist excitement of it. He was sure this was no experimental aircraft for the U.S. military. Well, mostly sure. But beyond that he was unsure as to what this was that had blown away his peace and quiet. It couldn't really be an airplane could it?