Chapter 1 - A New Adventure
“Good morning,” said a soft female voice, “it is four a.m., today is Friday, April twenty-one, twenty-three sixteen - - good morning, it is...” John Taylor cancelled the alarm clock before it was able to repeat the announcement.
“I heard you the first time,” he grumbled with a sleep drunken voice.
Switching on the lights he afforded himself the luxury of a few more moments in the cozy warmth of his bed, basking in the building anticipation of the days to come.
Adventure! What an exhilarating thought, the journey he had been preparing for so long would finally begin. Taylor swung his legs out into the morning chill. April could still have a bite in the air this time of day. With his feet he reached for the thin rug that covered the bare steel floor of his living quarters. The old shipping container, which he had converted into his home some time ago, allowed him the convenience to live right at the airport next to his airplanes, hangars and repair shops.
Taylor had barely pulled a T-shirt over his head when the door to his container flew wide open with a huge racket and a six-feet tall figure dressed in black combat gear stormed into the room.
“I thought you would never get out of bed. You’ll sleep through the best part of the day. Come on. Hurry up. We are all ready to go!”
“Cody! Are you mad? It is pitch-black night outside. We are not going to leave until hours from now. Sit down and have a bite to eat. Did you go to sleep at all last night?” Taylor tried to keep his friend Cody Hunt from ruining his morning rituals.
“Sure,” replied Hunt, “I went to bed right after you left my place.”
“Oh, three hours of solid sleep, no wonder you are so perky and loud.” Taylor rolled his eyes and put on the coffee. He was not going to skip the most important meal of the day and he definitely needed some more time to wake up.
“Are you all packed?” Hunt wanted to know.
Taylor nodded to a small backpack that leaned against the wall next to the door. “A few T-shirts, underwear, a reel of fishing line, and a flash light. I hope you remembered to pack lightly.”
Hunt flashed him a big grin. “I only take what I am carrying right now.”
“OK,” Taylor hesitated, “Just make sure you stay downwind from me after the third day of the trip.”
Hunt roared out in laughter, “I do have a change of clothes or two here in my waist pack. These old special-ops combat suits have neat little features built in.”
Coffee started to sputter into the pot and Taylor sat down at the small dining table offering day-old bread and some cheese to his friend. The hot coffee worked its magic to get Taylor’s brain into gear.
“You said, ‘We are all ready to go,’” Taylor asked Hunt, “Where are our two tourists anyway?”
“I was just trying to get you out of bed for good. I haven’t seen them yet. Farmer seems to be all right, geeky but all right,” Hunt mused about their travel companions. “He’s gonna come in handy should we really find something useful. I don’t know about Spade yet, she tries to be all mysterious and secretive. Maybe someone just wants her out of the way for a few days. Anyway, she carries the Safe Passage Certificates, so there is no way around taking her along. I’ll make sure to keep her off your back,” he reassured Taylor.
“Right, you do that, you have yet to earn your keep on this trip,” Taylor teased.
The two men sat silently for a moment enjoying the simple meal and hot coffee.
Two weeks earlier John Taylor had been granted another opportunity to present his request to the Council, a loosely organized governing body for the Irving Sector. The camps and forts within a fifty-mile radius around Red River Airport acknowledged the Council as the authority on trade, science and security. All the major influences in public life had their representatives at the infrequent and quite informal meetings. Harry ‘Dawg-Ears’, one of the Marshalls of the Rockwall Security Gang had invited Taylor, “Just come over to the Airport Motel Friday night ’round eight, we’ll hear you out. ’Ts gonna be fun.”
When Taylor opened the door to the old ballroom at the motel he could hear a heated discussion about the cost and efficiency of garbage collection and transport, which was always a favorite subject for everyone to get warmed up and reacquainted. There was much hollering and laughing and poking fun at each other. Harry spotted Taylor at the door and shouted across the room, “Get over here Taylor. I’ll shut them up so you can have your say.” With that he stood up and let out a loud high pitched whistle which got him the attention of the Council long enough to motion everyone to settle down a bit.
“Most of you know our friend John Taylor” Dawg-Ears barked, “but for the few new faces, he is our resident chief pilot and a whizz with a wrench when it comes to getting airplanes back into the air. He would like to present his pet project, which we regrettably had to reject a few times in the past because of security and resource concerns. Times have changed though, so I wish him more luck for his quest today. John, my friend, they are all yours.”
Taylor stood up and cleared his throat. He was a bit hesitant to petition a large crowd of people on his own behalf but this was his chance and he was not going to miss it.
“Good evening,” Taylor addressed the Council, “thank you for giving me your time to present a request that is very dear to my heart. My name is John Taylor. Many of you know me as we had various business dealings over the years, but I also see a number of new delegates in the room tonight. It’s been a while since I last made my case so I will take the opportunity and start from the beginning if you all don’t mind.”
There were grunts and murmur of agreement from all around, so Taylor continued, “About two years ago we got a shipment of a few small airplanes from our friends in acquisition that were in questionable state of repair. We still thought they could be brought back into flying condition so I started to search the Central Library for technical data on the planes and for any registry or logbook information I could find. While I was knee deep in old records dating back more than fifty years, I stumbled across a few unrelated news files that grabbed my attention.”
“I saw reports of people who had traveled from up north and crossed the presumably deserted mountain regions of Sector XXI. They referred to the area by its old name, the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. As far as I know that area had been evacuated and abandoned in the early stages of the war over two hundred years ago just like many other sparsely populated areas that were too difficult to secure against raiders or to provide with energy and supplies. Right in the middle of this assumed no-man’s land they came across a small population of people who seemed completely unaware of and uninvolved with the war. Now, it is not unheard of that there are pockets of outsiders camping out in the woods to get away from trouble for a while but these people seemed to have been there isolated ever since shortly after the war had started.”
Taylor was getting more comfortable and animated as he got deeper into the matter that had occupied his mind for the last few years.
“What really grabbed my attention were the media files that were linked to the news stories. I saw stillholos and holovids that showed healthy and laughing folks going about mostly agricultural or artistic activities. Many of them worked in the fields bringing in crops or tending to live stock. Close-ups of plants and fruit showed healthy vegetation and rich yields. I could not detect any genetic degeneration or defects in either plants or animals.”
“I guess I don’t have to stress the difficulty we are having in getting our farming and food supply ramped up. Decades of ruthless exploitation and abusive genetic experiments have left the DNA pool of our native and cultural vegetation and of our live stock depleted and in need of replenishment.”
Taylor paused for effect before he made an effort to drive his point home.
“I believe that we can find much needed healthy and unaltered DNA in Sector XXI which we can use to revitalize our own growing efforts. I want to go to the Ozark and have a look for myself. All I am asking for is a full tank of gas for my airplane and maybe two or three weeks of Safe Passage Certificates. I’ll be happy to answer any question you might have,” Taylor finished his short speech.
There was a short moment of silence before whispering and murmurs started all over the room, as several delegates seemed interested to learn more.
“How do you intend to bring back DNA if you happen to find something there?” It was a good sign that Paul Meyers, the Rep from the research labs started to ask practical questions.
Taylor was prepared for this, “Well, since you asked Paul, I was hoping to borrow a hand-held DNA scanner from your lab if you don’t mind.”
“No way,” Meyers replied, “these things are tricky to operate, very expensive and hard to come by. Our lab covers the area from the Red River down to half the Hill Country and we only have three scanners in working order. If you want a scanner you will have to take along one of my boys to make sure you bring back something useful. You will need the help of an expert anyway to select samples and get a good spread of data. One of my associates, Tim Farmer, would certainly jump at the chance to get out of here for a while, he’s bright and a good kid.”
As much as Taylor disliked the idea to bring along passengers on this trip, the fact that they were discussing specifics gave him hope for his cause, and Meyers had a point about the sample selection and correct operation of the scanner.
“How do you know that the reports and images were not fabrications for propaganda?” one of the delegates asked.
“I don’t really, but the reports seemed too unrelated and infrequent to have any propaganda benefit and the images and holovids were not clean and polished enough to be the works of the generals. We all remember their handiwork and it just did not seem to fit in with that.” Taylor knew that he was banking on his reputation for having his head screwed on the right way but for right now this was all he had.
“Did you get in contact with any of the eyewitnesses from back then?” the questions started to come from all over the assembly.
“I did track down registration data from a few of the names mentioned in the reports but all of them seemed to have vanished shortly after they had published their stories,” Taylor replied, “I could not find any data trace even from a few years later.”
“How much do we know about the security status in Sector XXI?” the thin voice of self-proclaimed intelligence officer Mark Shiner pierced through the upcoming murmur.
Harry ‘Dawg-Ears’ burst out in laughter. “Wouldn’t this be your expertise, Mr. Intelligence?” he teased. It was quite apparent that he did not have much confidence in Shiner’s capabilities.
“Yes, it would,” Shiner hissed back, “but the thing is that Sector XXI is so far off any priority chart that even my office has practically no knowledge about its status.”
“I’m afraid,” he continued with a wicked smile, “I can only give my blessing for your little camping trip if you take one of my junior officers along. We need every bit of intelligence we can gather if there really is a population present in the mountains. We know nothing about them so we need a trained resource on site to assess any possible security threat especially if you happen to bring back genetic data.”
Taylor’s head was spinning. He did not want to seem like a petulant child but the idea of carrying another passenger, especially one who he would consider a spy did not sit well with him at all.
“My plane can only carry a very limited payload,” he started to complain when Harry tugged on his arm and whispered, “What are you doing Taylor? You did realize that there were to be some stipulations tied to this deal, right? They are almost ready to give you a green light. Shut up and let me handle this.”
He got up from his chair and commanded silence with a loud grunt, “I think we’ve heard enough. The seize fire seems stable enough that we can do without a few resources for some time. I’d say we let Taylor try his luck. Maybe there’s a better future in it for all of us. Who’s with me?” Cheering and whistling of agreement filled the room, so Harry continued, “John, you take Farmer and the junior spy with you, put them to work and it will not be a waste. Shiner will issue the passports to his officer. You know where to get your fuel and supplies. Don’t make me look like a fool. Good luck!”
That was it. No more words were necessary. The noise level in the assembly rose dramatically as everyone started discussing various matters at the same time.
Taylor turned to Harry and grabbed his arm, “Thank you, you won’t regret this.”
Later that night Cody Hunt held his sides from laughing. He was a simple character, at least if one judged him by his live-out-loud antics and his direct and uninhibited reactions to his surroundings.
“The Council finally lost their minds!” he blurted out when Taylor told him the outcome of his latest petition. “You are really going on this trip, aren’t you? I bet you just made up all of this to get out of this rat infested hellhole on the Council’s dime, and who can blame you? You are a genius, John, no two ways about it.” He slapped Taylor on the back, almost knocking him over.
“You gonna have to take me too,” he insisted, “No way I’ll let you go on this adventure alone. Who’s gonna watch your back if your ‘specialists’ turn on you or on each other. I’m coming with you.” It was clear that he would not take ‘no’ for an answer.
The airport laid quietly and deserted when John Taylor opened the door to his living container and stepped out into the early morning dusk. The air was still but heavy with humidity covering asphalt and grass with glittering dew. Red River Airport was the one remaining intact runway of what was once one of the busiest airports in the country, Dallas/Forth Worth International. Air traffic was very light on most days. Other than a few transport planes there was not much activity on the field since the supply of any kind of gasoline let alone aviation gas was scarce.
A small flight service office, which managed the airport with a handful of people, providing basic conveniences to the pilots and airplane crews. Weather information, availability of fuel and supplies and of course the latest gossip from around town could be obtained by stopping by the reception desk in the office lobby. Even though there was not much going on during the night the office was usually staffed around the clock.
Taylor strolled across the parking ramp to the administration buildings. The pilot’s lounge was empty but behind the only desk in the office he could see the familiar figure of Mary Pearson. Her good natured humor and her genuine efforts to make life for visiting and local pilots as uncomplicated as possible had earned her the title ‘Mother of Red River’ and many regular visitors called her half jokingly but affectionately ‘Ma’. Mary was in her early sixties and had seen the worst of the war. She had lost two sons a long time ago in unexplained plane crashes so she treated the flight crews as her own children.
“Good morning Ma,” Taylor greeted her when he entered the office. “Any chance to get current weather information to the northeast of here?”
“John, come in,” Mary’s face lighted up, “can I get you a cup of coffee?”
“Well, thank you, why not,” Taylor replied. “It might be a few days until I get an earnest brew again. How about that weather?”
Mary put a large cup of black steaming coffee on the counter in front of Taylor.
“I pulled up the weather thirty minutes ago. I knew you would show up before your trip to Sector XXI. It looks good from what I see, should be smooth sailing.”
Taylor studied the map prints that Mary had laid out in front of him. Northern Texas and Arkansas were almost completely free of cloud cover, winds were light all the way up to fifteen thousand feet and the extended forecast promised a fairly stable weather pattern for at least the next two weeks. Of course one never knows about weather development when entering higher elevations and mountainous terrain but for all he could see right then, they had ideal weather conditions ahead of them.
“Well, Ma, it seems that we are on,” Taylor said slowly. It just now began to really sink in that his big adventure was about to start. “Wish me luck,” he added with a big smile.
“You be careful out there, you hear me?” Mary was in her maternal element. She reached behind her desk and pulled out a small paper bag.
“I was able to get a box of nutrition bars at the auction last night. I know you like these. You never know when you might need something extra to eat.”
Taylor leaned over the counter and kissed Mary on the cheek. “You are the best! I’ll bring you back something nice,” he said winking at her before he took the bag and walked back out into the night.
There was the faintest idea of a silver lining on the eastern horizon. Taylor’s wristwatch showed ten minutes after five. ‘It’s still going to be a good hour before we have enough light to get going,’ he thought to himself. He didn’t like the idea much to be flying into the rising sun for the most part of the first leg of their trip, but there was no getting around the fact that they were going east in the morning. He had planned to follow the old Interstate 30 as far as it was still recognizable and then head northeast until his fuel was down to half the tanks.
With four passengers and little luggage his plane should be good for about nine hundred miles at a low cruise speed. Taking into account that they would probably have to start from rough surface for their return flight, Taylor was planning to fly about four hundred miles each way to have enough fuel reserve for unexpected circumstances. This would put them back on the ground in the early afternoon, so they would still have plenty of daylight to assess the situation and start their hike into the mountains.
Arriving back at his container Taylor heard a Jeep engine approaching from the main gate. He was glad that his passengers at least had the courtesy to be on time so he would not have to rush his final briefing and loading of the plane. The ancient vehicle made its way through the night and stopped a short distance from where Taylor was waiting. Cody Hunt stuck his head through the door and walked over to Taylor to greet their travel companions.
As the Jeep came to a halt Tim Farmer jumped out of the driver’s seat and rushed around the car to open the passenger door. He actually had to pull out a wrench to accomplish this. Obviously he was not accustomed to carrying female passengers who frowned upon the idea of having to crawl out of a car window.
“Sorry, Ma’am,” he apologized to Helen Spade who made her exit in a perfectly pressed Khaki suit and safari hat. It seemed there were some perks involved in being employed at the intelligence agency. Taylor stabbed his elbow into Hunt’s rib cage. He knew that a laughing outburst was his friend’s most likely reaction to the unexpected display of fashion style. He was not in the mood to start the trip with bad blood between the two of them.
“Good morning,” Taylor started, “did you two get a good night’s sleep?”
“I was so excited, I could hardly sleep at all,” Farmer replied eagerly. He was the proverbial kid before a road trip.
“Very cute,” Spade snapped at him,” Would you care to help me with my luggage?”
“I hope you remembered to pack lightly,” Taylor’s eyes almost popped out of his head when he saw the five feet tall trunk that Farmer pulled out of the car.
“I just have a duffle bag and a small case for the scanner,” Farmer replied, “This is hers.”
“What the...,” Cody started without a thought.
“Keep your pants on boys,” Spade laughed, “I had to rent out my pad for the time of the trip. This is everything I own. Can I store this somewhere around here until we get back? This here is my luggage,” she added pointing at a small Khaki colored backpack.
“Sorry,” Cody mumbled into the giggles that came from Spade and Taylor.
“Sure, no problem,” Taylor agreed, “put it in my house, it’ll be locked and airport security is also watching out for it.”
Farmer hauled Spade’s trunk into Taylor’s living container.
“That coffee smells mighty fine, sir,” he said with his broad Texan accent. “Mind if I have a cup?”
“Go right ahead. Want some coffee too, Helen? Just don’t take too long. We’ll start loading the plane in a minute here.” Taylor was all business now.
“Since we are all here, let’s recap a few ground rules so we can all get along,” Taylor seized the opportunity for briefing his crew. “We will be in unfamiliar terrain. We do not know if we have to deal with any hostility. I do not expect major complications but we have to be vigilant and keep our eyes and ears open. If we come across strangers, I will be the only one who addresses them. Ms. Spade this goes especially for you. You are here to observe and to gather intelligence. You are not to engage anyone we meet on your own. We will take it slow, learn first what the situation is and then I will decide how to proceed. I want to be very clear about this before we get going. Everybody understand?”
Taylor looked everyone into the eyes to make sure he was taken seriously. Only Hunt had a half disguised grin on his face. He was very aware of the importance this trip had for Taylor but he still found the intensity and unfamiliar seriousness of his friend amusing. Taylor winked at Hunt to signal him that he was not the only one finding himself in uncharted waters. He got his nods of agreement from everyone even though the defiant look on Spade’s face was not too reassuring. There wasn’t much he could do about his travel companion’s loyalties so he just made a mental note to keep an eye on her and turned his attention to the business at hand.
Parked behind his living quarters was Taylor’s single engine high wing bush plane that he had used to haul supplies to camps in Alaska and Canada for many years. It was a sturdy little aircraft in camouflage paint with big tires and ample ground clearance to make starting and landing from unimproved sites a breeze. The plane had been converted from cargo duty to accommodate passengers for this trip. The four of them and their gear would put them slightly above maximum gross weight with full tanks but since Taylor knew he would take off with the tanks only at half for the flight back he was confident that they were safe to fly.
It was time to get the plane ready. Taylor and Hunt pulled back the cover, unfastened the wheel chocks and packed both items neatly into the cargo compartment. Taylor always got excited when he heard the fuel truck making its way across the parking ramp. Joe, the factotum of Red River Airport, sat in the driver seat with an unlit cheap cigar between his teeth.
“N’mornig,” he mumbled between his half closed lips. “I hear you get a fill on the Council’s tab? Fine with me, fine with me.”
He started to unwind the fuel hose and climbed up the foot peg on the right wing strut. He fumbled with the fuel caps and struggled to get them open. Putting the filler spout into the fuel tank he gestured to Taylor, “Would you mind firing up the pump, son?” Taylor walked over and flipped the switch as he had done so many times before.
“Tell you what, son,” Joe said with a big smile while the fuel was flowing into the tanks, “you bring me back some nice cow and I’ll make sure your tanks will never be dry. Man, I could use a good steak!” Taylor laughed and turned around to shut off the fuel pump. It seemed that he and his adventure were the talk of the town.
When the fuel truck had left, Taylor opened the engine cowl and started with the preflight inspection of his airplane. He had rebuilt and repaired this motor more often than he cared to remember. Often it had come down to begging, borrowing or stealing parts to get it back together, but whatever he had to do to keep that engine running, it never had betrayed him in mid flight. He knew he could always depend on it to get him safely back on the ground.
Flight controls, brakes, instruments and electric systems all checked out in his tests. It was a quarter after six and everything was progressing smoothly. Taylor had planned to get airborne by the first morning sunlight and he was well within his schedule. He walked back over to his living container to check one more time that all the lights were off and to close the metal shutters over the windows. He noticed that Farmer had placed Helen Spade’s trunk in a corner of the living room.
“It’s going to be five hours until you’ll get another chance, so who needs a bathroom? Now is the time.” Taylor announced to his travel mates. Like good little soldiers they lined up in front of the bathroom door to take turns.
He walked back outside to load their luggage, still pleasantly surprised that everyone had had followed his request to pack lightly. The cargo compartment was still half empty which suited him just fine. With Hunt and himself in the front seats and Farmer and Spade in the back they should have almost ideal weight distribution according to his quick mental calculations. He had to pack parachutes for each of them. Even in times like these there were some regulations and as this was still considered a non-civilian flight into unknown territory, certain military customs needed to be followed. At the same time this allowed him to disregard almost every other rule that civilian flights have to contend with. He had it in writing in his passports that he was allowed to go wherever he pleased once he had left a one hundred mile radius around Red River Airport and kept a general northeastern heading.
One by one the others came out of the container and joined Taylor at the airplane. Cody Hunt was the last one out and locked the steel door with an old-fashioned pad lock. He turned around to see if anyone was watching him and quickly hid the key under a rock with the imprint ‘Beware of rattlesnakes!’.
“Very high security!” Helen Spade teased him. “Should I start worrying about my stuff now or right before we get back?”
“Be my guest and try to pick up the key,” Cody challenged her back, “rattlesnakes are very predictable and like to hide under the same rock day after day if you leave them alone. Still wanna try?”
Spade huffed at him and turned around to hear what Taylor was telling them about safety procedures.
“We are all going to wear parachutes for the length of the flights,” he started, “this has nothing to do with my flying skills or the capabilities of the aircraft. It is just standard requirement for military flight rules.”
He took the first chute out of the plane and showed them how to put it on securely and where to pull to deploy it.
“If we get into a midair collision with another plane, which is highly unlikely, me and Cody will open the doors and make sure your seat belts are unbuckled. After that you are on your own. Jump, count to three and then pull the D-ring, nothing to it. You are not going to need it unless you complain during the flight and we have to throw you out. So, suit up and get into the plane. It looks as if the sun is just about to come up. Time to fly! Good luck to all of us.”
They each put on the parachutes and climbed into their assigned seats. The big cargo doors made entry and exit of Taylor’s plane very comfortable. Hunt was in the right seat next to Taylor and already had the checklist out to go through the startup procedure. Both of them were flipping switches, checking gauges and twiddling with this and that.
“Put on the headphones and switch on the noise canceling. If you want to talk just push the button on the cable. Better yet, don’t talk,” Taylor advised. “Everyone ready?” He pushed the talk button on the radio control, “Four-Six-Charlie-Alpha, Taylor, Mary we are ready to leave. Any activity in the area?”
There was a soft crackle and then the voice of Mary Pearson, “Negative, you are the only soul flying this early in the morning. The runway is all yours. Good luck, John!”
“Thanks Ma,” Taylor answered, “roger that, only one nut job flying at this hour. I’ll be back in a few days, keep the coffee on. Taylor out.”
Taylor had never gotten over the butterflies in his stomach every time he started an aircraft engine. If he would not have felt that anticipation, he might have given up flying all together a long time before, but it was still there and fresh just like the first time he had flown solo what seemed a life time ago. He made sure one more time that the fuel selector was in its correct position and pressed the start button. It took only a second or two of turning over the engine for it to come to life and sing its powerful song that would propel them into the air. He released the breaks and the plane slowly moved off its parking position.
The sun in the East started to paint the sky with red and orange brush strokes. The stars slowly dimmed out of sight for the day. No matter how bleak times had been in the past, this sight early in the morning behind the wheel of an airplane just about to make the leap into its natural element never failed to give John Taylor a sense of hope and of life prevailing and treating him well after all.
He taxied to the South end of the runway checking once again if the flight controls had the right feel to them, his hands remembering more than his conscious mind. At the end of the taxi way he stopped the aircraft applied the parking breaks and pushed the power control lever all the way forward. The engine sputtered just a little before it gained speed all the way to its maximum RPM setting. Satisfied with what he read on the gauges and what he heard and felt in his seat Taylor pulled back power and released the breaks. He taxied onto the runway, turned around to see if everything was all right with his passengers and then applied full power to the engine. He set the propeller control to maximum efficiency and the little plane started to race down the asphalt strip rapidly gaining speed.