The Orthogonal Galaxy

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Chapter 24

It took months for Paol and Blade to feel comfortable with their new routine. Going from the prison to astronaut training was like night and day. They found themselves exhausted before breakfast due to the torturous workout of their personal trainers, but that was just the beginning, of course. Flight simulation required intense focus and reflexes, while the barrage of coursework took every last bit of energy.

Naturally, they looked forward to the weekends, where they could catch up on rest, and more casually work through their physical routines and their memorization and study. But the weekends just never seemed long enough. Muscles were sore when the alarm went off on Monday morning. Eyes were bloodshot from reading their iTexts and flash cards. Headaches seemed as if they were simply trying to stretch their brains faster than they could absorb it all. As a result, they were thrilled to hear of their first flight field trip. Their flight instructors would be escorting them to Nevada, where a range of in-flight tests would take place. They would eventually need to log hundreds of hours of flight experience before they could even be considered as astronaut candidates. The week-long trip was intended to give them the first couple of dozen hours under their belt.

At an abandoned Air Force base in central Nevada, the two students felt like visitors to a military ghost town. The teachers, however, were familiar with the location and knew that it had the best conditions for flying. The weather was typically sunny and strong winds didn’t normally occur, but if they did, they typically occurred around sunset, when the instructors wanted new pupils out of the air anyway, since the longer shadows could deceive pilots flying at near-mach speeds.

Physon waited for Blade with the flight instructors on the tarmac during a particularly dry, hot day. His olive green flight suit simply did not breath well, and he sweltered inside as evidenced by the sweat beading up on his forehead just under the raised visor. As Blade came rushing out of the barracks making the final adjustments on his flight suit, Physon rolled his eyes.

“Sorry there, Gents,” Blade said gasping for breath. “These duds is harder to adjust than I thought they’d be.” Blade grabbed at his crotch. “And awful uncomf’able too.”

Blade’s flight instructor couldn’t resist the opportunity to mess with his pupil. “You think these are bad. Just wait to see how bad you chafe after spending a few years in that spacesuit.”

Blade’s eyes grew as big a golf balls, while Paol smiled widely at the gesture, and queried Blade’s instructor, “So, Arjen. I don’t remember seeing the hand gesture for grabbing yourself. Should we have practiced that in the simulator so we know how to adjust for it out here?”

Playing along, Arjen responded, “There was never an intended gesture, but the computer misinterpreted it occasionally as a dive maneuver, so we had to reprogram the dive signal to prevent it from happening again after the last accident.”

“Accident?” Blade leaned closer, his face glistening with sweat, mostly from the heat, but partly because of the anxiety of his first solo flight.

“Yeah, we couldn’t figure it out for the longest, but after collecting enough data from the black boxes, we finally pieced together what was going wrong. Why, even Metch here had a nearly fatal moment while adjusting himself.”

Arjen gestured to Paol’s flight instructor, who shrugged his shoulder and tipped his head in affirmation. “It can happen to the best of us.”

“That does it!” Blade spat. “Take me back to prison. This ain’t gonna work out!”

“Now, Blade,” said Arjen. “I’m just kidding about the accident.”

“I know that,” said Blade. “That’s not why I’m callin’ it quits. This monkey suit is so hot and uncomf’able that I’d rather crash and burn than to stay inside it fo’ ‘nother minute.”

“Let’s get you up in the plane, Blade. It’ll be better when you get out of this heat.” Arjen’s former playful voice was transformed into a tone of serious business.

The XJ-20 experts walked their students through vehicle and suit inspections, instructed the new pilots to climb into their cockpits, drop their visors, and buckle themselves in to the seat. The pair of instructors then returned to an air conditioned building and put on communication headsets as each sat at an override control terminal which the instructor could use to gain control of the aircraft should either student make a mistake in flight.

Paol and Blade turned on his headset and waited for instructions, as they sat side-by-side on the tarmac. They made eye contact with each other along the way, when Paol gave a thumbs-up to his colleague across the way. Blade nodded his head slightly and bared his white teeth through a forced smile. He was extremely nervous about his first flight, but he was comforted in knowing that he’d be up in the air with his good friend. He took a deep breath realizing that that there was a safety net sitting at a control panel on the ground below.

“XJ-1, do you copy?” came the voice over the communication channel.

“Roger, Ground 1,” replied Paol.

Another voice repeated the question. “XJ-2, do you copy?”

“Yes, sir!” Blade attempted to exude confidence in his response, but his voice crackled dryly.

“XJ-1, initiate startup sequencing.”

Paol engaged his HOC, turned on the main power supply, and waved his hands in the proper gesture to engage ignition. He heard a soft rapid clicking noise and a high-pitch whistle that grew higher until it was out of audio range. The jets kicked in, and Paol confirmed that all systems checked.

Similar displays indicated successful startup in the control room as well.

“XJ-1, please confirm startup.”

“Startup successful, Ground 1.”

“XJ-2, initiate startup sequencing.”

“Roger, Ground 2.” This time Blade’s voice was all business. While his hands trembled slightly, he was focused and ready to fly. “Startup successful, Ground 2.”

“XJ-1, you will take-off on runway 3. Please proceed to runway.”

“I’m on my way, Ground 1.”

“XJ-2, please proceed to runway 1.”

“Roger, Ground 2.”

The planes proceeded in parallel away from the buildings and as the pair started for their respective runways, the pilots gave each other some final encouragement.

“Good luck, XJ-2,” Paol spoke.

“See ya’ back on the ground soon, XJ-1.”

After taxiing to the end of their respective runways, the new pilots waiting for their next instruction. Paol glanced down the long runway, distorted by the heat waves rising from the black asphalt. Blade looked to the stillness of the blue sky and then glanced to his right and strained to see his companion across the way. The distance was too great to see more than a dark silhouette in the cockpit of the adjacent airplane.

“XJ-1, XJ-2. You are both cleared for takeoff. Proceed when ready.”

Paol and Blade responded affirmatively. Paol engaged the throttle first, and Blade followed soon behind. Superheated gas emerged from the engines of the airplanes as the flight instructors watched the planes amble down their respective runways while glancing back at the cockpit video on their control terminals to make sure that the advance of each pilot was successful for takeoff.

Paol’s visor display indicated full speed, and with his left hand he slightly curled his fingers skyward. A smooth motion ensued as the aircraft nudged its way off the ground and into the air. Within moments, Blade’s aircraft roared off the runway and into the sky as well. The flight instructors could hear the roar of the engines for a couple of minutes. Within ten minutes, the binoculars of the instructors became useless. They switched off their headsets and conversed.

“Not bad for a first takeoff, huh?”

“Yeah. I saw a little veering down the runway from Blade, but he was pretty steady in the air.”

“I always remember my first time when I see these newbies lifting off. It was so much easier than I feared.”

“Yeah, I expect these guys to be pretty excited when they get back. After getting the first flight under the belt, you can’t help wanting to get back up there. It’s just plain addicting.”

Once in the air, Blade and Paol separated themselves as instructed gaining sufficient altitude to do some free maneuvers. This helped them gain a feeling for the real aircraft instead of the simulator back in Houston. While Blade continued heading north, Paol veered off to the east.

Blade watched the four blue flames of Paol’s jet engines propel him away. “XJ-1, this is XJ-2. Where ya’ takin’ that bird of yers?” he inquired.

“I think I’ll head over to the Great Salt Lake. It should be interesting to see the salt flats from high in the sky.”

“Uh… is it ok to fly there?” The tone of Blade’s voice made the statement sound half like a question, and half like a reprimand.

“We can fly anywhere we want, XJ-2… as long as we have enough gas to return home.”

“Ground 2, is this true? Are we allowed to fly anywheres? There ain’t no restricted air space fer us?”

“Affirmative, XJ-2. Your display will warn you if you are converging on any other aircraft in the vicinity, in which case you will be able to take evasive maneuvers quickly enough.”

“I’m just surprised that astronaut candidates are allowed to fly with no restrictions.”

“XJ-2. You are not quite at astronaut candidate status yet, but your status as preparation for the Earth2 mission gives you permission to do just about anything you want.”

A smile came on Blade’s face as he let his left arm extend outward to indicate a hard left bank. Arjen sat forward in his seat perplexed by the sudden hard change in course, while Paol’s instructor, noticing the movement glanced away from his cockpit display with concern.

“What’s wrong, Arjen?”

His concern was answered with a raised hand gesture from Blade’s flight instructor. “XJ-2, you are engaged in a vastly sudden change in course heading. Is everything ok?”

“Never better, Ground 2.”

Growing more direct, Arjen probed. “Where are you heading, XJ-2?”

“Well, I always wanted to see Vegas. I’m headin’ to Las Vegas, Ground 2.”

Arjen sat back in a seat shaking his head and smiling at Blade’s playful exuberance. “That’s a negative, XJ-2. There is heavy air congestion in Southern Nevada—not recommended for a first flight.”

“Ground 2. D’ya not just say I could goes anywhere I want?”

Arjen’s smile evaporated while Metch started snickering at his partner’s sudden dismay.

“That is true, XJ-2. But I don’t recommend going there on a first flight. There will be plenty of time to do a fly-by of the Strip.”

“So why’s it ok fo’ Paol to head to Salt Lake City—that airport’s much busier than Vegas, ain’t it? Nah—I’m headin’ to Vegas, Arjen. See ya’ in a couple of hours.”

“XJ-2,” said Metch now, trying to compose himself. “This is Ground 1.”

“Go ‘head, Ground 1.”

“Put twenty on the roulette wheel for me, would you?”

Blade and Metch enjoyed a hearty laugh, while Arjen still disapproved of Blade’s joy ride.

“Paol, can you talk some sense into your partner?” Arjen asked sincerely.

“Hey, Blade,” called Paol.


“I think Arjen is right. Why don’t you choose a different location? Maybe you could spot a movie star in Hollywood.”

Arjen’s eyes grew wide at the thought. “NO… no… Las Vegas is just fine, XJ-2.”

Laughter filled three of the headsets simultaneously. Ground 2 had become the butt of the joke, but it was all in good humor, and spirits continued to fly high as the two aircraft vectored off in opposite directions—Paol flying northeast to the Bonneville Salt Flats, and Blade venturing southwest towards Las Vegas.

“Just remember,” added Arjen. “You have to stay within 100 miles of the border, or else you’ll get tagged by law enforcement. My orders are clear—I will override if you get too close.”

“Roger that, Ground 2!” The response from Blade was filled with excitement as he peered towards the south keeping an eye out for Las Vegas.

The next five minutes passed in relative silence. Blade and Paol continued to acquaint themselves with some of the responses to various hand gestures, but there were no significant stunts performed. Arjen and Metch continued to monitor the progress of their pupils, but all was calm, until a voice rang out over the headset.

“Ground 1, why am I seeing—”

Metch leaned forward in his chair and breathed an expletive.

“What happened?” As soon as he asked, he realized that the answer was an obvious one. The cockpit display for Paol’s XJ aircraft went immediately dark.

“XJ-1, do you copy? This is Ground 1. I’ve lost your display. Please respond.”

The silence grew more disturbing with each passing moment.

“XJ-1, do you copy?”

“XJ-2, this is Ground 1. Do you copy?”

“Yes, I do, Ground 1.”

“Can you identify XJ-1’s location?”

“Negative, Ground 1. XJ-1 is not on my radar.”

“XJ-2, can you proceed to a heading of 175 degrees?” The request was moot, as Blade had already performed a hard bank. With his display focused on the last known location of Paol’s jet, Blade abandoned his trip to Las Vegas, and began pursuing after Paol. After pulling out of the bank, Blade gave the signal for rapid acceleration. His body was pegged to the seat as the fire of the engines thrust the aircraft forward with violent force.

“Not so fast, please, XJ-2,” implored Arjen. “There is no reason to jeopardize your own safety over what is probably just a communication glitch.”

There was no response from Blade, as he continued to accelerate.

“Blade, I can take over control of your aircraft. Please throttle back on acceleration. I doubt there’s anything to worry about.”

“What if there is?”

“Then there’s nothing you’ll be able to do about it anyway. You can’t exactly pull up beside Paol and offer him a ride, you know?”

Blade’s acceleration continued.

“Blade, listen to reason, please.”

Just as Arjen was about to take over the controls, he noticed that Blade’s acceleration was dropping. His speed leveled out.

“This ok, Ground 2?” Blade asked simply, yet dejectedly.

“Just fine, Blade. I understand that you are worried. At your current speed, you should at least be at his last known position in about five minutes. Keep an eye out in case he has turned his aircraft back towards the base, ok?”

“Roger.” Blade’s responses were automatic, as he focused all of his efforts on the manual pilot of his aircraft. His eyes strained to look for Paol in the distance, but for several minutes, he saw nothing but the horizon defined by the indigo sky above and the auburn terrain below.

Eventually, a wispy gray line was discerned in the cloudless sky.

“Ground 2, I think I might be seein’ his trail.”

“Keep us posted, XJ-2.”

Within a couple of minutes, Blade was able to see a wavy gray cloud of smoke already starting to dissipate in the breeze.

Following the line to its end, Blade roared into his headset. “He’s down. XJ-1’s down.”

“XJ-2, can you give us coordinates. We’ll contact emergency personnel and local rescue operations as quickly as possible.”

Blade peered down at the mountainous terrain where smoke continued to obscure the crash site. An occasional flame pierced the gray and black cloud of smoke, while his attention was captured by an occasional glint of sunlight reflecting off of metal pieces scattered on the ground.

Breathing heavily, Blade’s voice cracked into his headset, “Ground control, I’ve locked on the coordinates of the crash site. Latitude 40.584, Longitude -115.407.” It’s ‘bout 500 feet below a steep mountain ridge.”

Metch was already on the phone with the Air Force, who promised to contact local emergency support and dispatch a helicopter from Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah.

Arjen continued to communicate with Blade, as Metch relayed developing information.

“Blade, based on your description of the crash site and the plume of smoke leading up to it, I have every reason to believe that Paol would’ve had enough time to eject safely. He must’ve had at least three to four minutes from first incident to impact. Can you cruise above Paol’s last known altitude and hunt for a parachute?”

“Roger, Ground 2. I will continue to circle the area until I spot him or run outta fuel.”

Blade circled to his left, then to his right, he criss-crossed large sections of the mountain range and the foothills below, all while maintaining rapt vigilance on the terrain below him. Hi His eyes focused intently on the surroundings, looking for any sign of Paol’s parachute, or any sign of human activity at all for that matter. This was a very remote section of the mountain range, and while he could see a few roads penetrating the range from the west, they all ended well before the crash site, where the terrain was steep and rocky with dense thickets of evergreen barring the way to the cirque where Paol’s plane continued to smolder.

Occasionally, Blade would mutter under his breath so that he couldn’t be heard over the headset. “C’mon, Paol… where ya’ at? Why can’t I spot no parachutes. It’s been a half hour already. He should’a sent up a flare by now fo’ cryin’ out loud.”

As Blade continued scouring the landscape for his colleague, he discovered something about himself that surprised him. Not since the botched robbery attempt back home had he been under such stress and concern. During those youthful years, where each mistake compounded the effects of the previous, he had plenty of time to replay the scenario over and over in his concrete cell. He realized that panic was his worst enemy in that scenario, and it cost him dearly.

But now that was all different. Why was he able to maintain focus and composure? As the minutes passed, he found that he felt the stress of the scenario, but none of the panic or fear. He realized both mentally and emotionally that panic would not serve him here that there was nothing he could do to change the past. He realized that Paol was beyond his help, except that he could continue to search and relay his position to rescue teams had he parachuted safely before the plane slammed into the side of the mountain. As he glanced towards the western horizon and watched the Sun lowering in the sky, he realized that time was running out on finding his partner before the day was over, and yet he knew that it would serve no purpose to worry over the circumstances. He simply needed to utilize every last bit of time available to him searching instead of panicking.

“XJ-2, this is Ground 2, do you copy?” It had been the first time in nearly an hour that Blade had been distracted by his flight instructor.

“Yeah, I’m still here, Arjen.”

“XJ-2, you are running low on fuel. Please return to base.”

Blade’s response surprised himself again. “Ground 2. It looks like I can lower my altitude gradually to 18000 feet and buy myself another fifteen minutes of search time safely, as long as my descent back to the base is also sufficiently gradual.” Blade was surprised simply because he expected to have been agitated by the order to return to base and shout a stream of expletives for being asked to leave his companion helpless. His calm, calculated response was as surprising to himself as it was to Arjen.

The response from ground control was not immediate. Blade figured that Arjen and Metch were consulting, but that did not bother him. He welcomed the pause for every precious second of searching.

After a minute, Arjen’s voice crackled over the headset again. “Blade, we can give you ten minutes, and then I will have to take over control to bring you home safely.”

“No need, Ground 2.” What more could he do? It would do no good to waste his time arguing only to have Arjen take over the controls of his airplane anyway. He repeated: “No need… I accept the ten…”

His voice trailed off as his eyes grew wide with shock. At first, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Blinking a few times, he tried to refocus his eyes to the north, where he saw a pillar of yellow-gray smoke rise in the sky at a curved angle. A flare! Could it be Paol? No, it was too far to the north! Surely, he would not have floated that far away from the trajectory of the aircraft. Either way, he had to hope beyond hope, and he banked his XJ-20 to the north to investigate the source.

“XJ-2, I didn’t copy on that last response,” A hint of concern was apparent in Arjen’s voice.

“Sorry, Ground 2. I’m headin’ north to investigate a flare.”

“Did you say flare, XJ-2?”

“Yes, sir! A flare!”

Blade dipped to an altitude of 12000 feet, about 3000 feet above ground level. He was determined to get one good look at the source of that flare. He wanted to make sure that it was Paol and not some distressed outdoorsman.

As he spotted the blue-white parachute draped on the branches of a towering cottonwood tree, his relief was immediate. Heaving a deep sign, Blade smiled fully as recognition dawned on him. Flying directly over the site of the parachute, he could just make out a human shape in the olive green suite about fifty feet away from where the tangled parachute perched.

“Ground 2, I have a positive ID on Joonter. Please point rescue crews to a visible parachute near latitude 40.672, longitude -115.380 fo’ recovery.”

“Will do, XJ-2. Please return to base.”

“Yes, sir,” affirmed a jubilant voice from the cockpit of the surviving XJ-20 aircraft. In one last burst, Blade banked hard into a corkscrew pattern and slammed his thrusters after coming out of the maneuver. It was his way of telling Paol both visually and audibly that help was on the way.

The embrace was joyous and painful—joyous for Blade, but painful for Paol. After hearing a low grunt, Blade released his grasp on his companion.

“What’s wrong?” Blade asked.

“Bruised ribs.” Paol wheezed and coughed softly, so as to not aggravate the condition.

“So sorry, Paol… I’d no idea.”

Paol returned to his hospital bed and sat down softly. He lifted his legs onto the bed and reclined back. The head was tilted up so that he could relax while talking to Blade. Blade grabbed a seat and pulled it close to the bed.

“How hurt are ya’, Paol?”

“Not bad, really—just a couple of bruised ribs when I slammed into the tree, and a twisted ankle from the fall to the ground after cutting myself out of the tangled parachute.”

“You hit the tree that hard? From what I recall, there wasn’t many trees in that landscape. D’ya mean to say ya’ couldn’t’a landed on the ground?”

Blade shrugged his shoulders in embarrassment. “The wind was really sweeping me along, and I just couldn’t seem to get down before those trees flew up at me. So I hit the tree, crashing through the branches and took a six-inch thick branch right in my side.”

Blade winced to acknowledge the pain. “That must’a been awful.”

“That wasn’t even the worst part. So there I am dangling about 30 feet off the ground in a spaghetti of ropes and canvas.”

Blade’s eyes grew wide at the thought of Paol’s predicament. “How’d ya’ get outta there?”

“Well, I just dangled there for a few minutes in order to collect my thoughts and my breath. The adrenaline of ejecting and parachuting took its toll on any intelligent thought process. As my heart settled down, I knew that my best option was to release my chute straps and work my way down the tree. So I worked my way out of most of the harness and swung myself up to the branch that I had hit. It was strong enough to support my weight, so I worked the remainder of the harness off, but only then did I realize that my waist and legs were hopelessly tangled in cords. I reached the chute’s survival pack, and unzipped the main compartment. I grabbed the knife and cut myself loose. Then I cut the pack away from its cords and threw it and the knife to the ground.

“I will say that it took some thought to work myself off of that branch, but one by one, I lowered myself to other branches until I ran out of room and had to eventually drop the last fifteen feet to the ground. I grabbed everything else up and ventured away from the clump of trees in order to launch the flare out to the west, hoping somebody in the valley below the mountains would catch a glimpse. I heard your plane off in the distance, so I figured it was somebody looking for me too.”

Paol stopped to take a couple of shallow breaths. He would’ve preferred to breathe deeply, except for the jolts of pain that shot through his side and back.

Blade took advantage of the break and asked, “How’d ya’ end up so far away? I was lookin’ fer ya’, but I never thought to go that many miles away until I spotted the flare.”

“The seat ejects with more velocity than I expected it to. I know it has to clear the craft, but because I was already tilted at an angle, it shot me to the north like a cannonball. From there, the wind continued to push me farther away.”

Blade couldn’t imagine what horror this all must’ve been to Paol. He shook his head and gathered himself for the next question. “So what happened up there, Paol? What went wrong with the plane?”

“I’m not really sure. I got a warning alarm on engine two, and when I looked back, I could see thick, black smoke coming from under the wing. I couldn’t see where it started. But the plane started to veer to the left. I tried to correct it, and it almost seemed to work, but then I heard and felt a large jolt, and the plane continued rolling to the left again. The nose also started to pitch downward. I’m ashamed to admit that I started to panic, after I heard no response from Ground Control. I couldn’t figure out why Metch didn’t talk to me, or take over controls directly.”

“He couldn’t, Blade. He lost comm with you. He said it was total blackness.”

“Well, there I was all alone, and panic was setting in. I couldn’t remember emergency procedures, was straining to recall hand gestures of any sort, so I was completely at the plane’s mercy. The plane had probably rolled about 40 degrees to the left or so, when a memory came racing back to me—a memory that saved me, but it didn’t come from flight instruction. It came from lunch. Lunch saved my life.”

“Lunch?” Blade snorted. “How on earth did lunch save yer life?”

Paol showed Blade his middle fingers with a smile.

An expression of recognition appeared on Blade’s face. “You mean…”

“Yep, the middle fingers.”

Blade returned to Johnson while Paol spent two more days at Hill Air Force Base, recovering from his injuries. Both were given the time as leave from all training in order to recuperate. During that time, Blade spent many hours in his room, reviewing the accident. Nightmares consisted of vivid descriptions of the crash scene, and a couple of times, he saw in his dream Paol’s lifeless body lying next to the smoldering debris.

“I can’t do this…” he would say to himself. “How can we possibly reach Earth2, when we couldn’t make it across Nevada… This really is suicide… All of the astronauts were right… This is just nuts.”

Through his discouragement, he had decided that he couldn’t go on. Gilroy gave the pair an extra week to recover. Paol did his best to get Blade to talk, to work through the issues, but Blade grew more inward emotionally. Paol tried everything, and with one last idea, he made an inquiry to Gilroy.

“There is one person who might be able to talk some sense into him,” Paol shared with the program director.

Gilroy listened intently.

“He speaks highly of his uncle—he was Blade’s only role model when growing up… the one person he looks up to even today, and regrets not listening to when he had the chance.”

“Where can I find him?”

“I don’t know. Blade lost contact with his uncle many years ago, but I know his name and where he was last known to live.”

“We’ll find him,” Gilroy promised. “We’ve spent too much money on this project, and we can’t let it fail now.”

Blade received a knock on his door, but didn’t answer. Paol opened the door slightly, and called in to the darkened room to his partner, who acknowledged him with a grunt.

“Blade, I have somebody here who would like to see you.”

Another grunt—this one his last, as the door opened, and he instantly recognized the figure standing there. Quickly, he rose from his seat. “Is it—is it you?”


Tears formed in Blade’s eyes and began to roll down his cheeks. Choking back sobs, he fell into his uncles arms as the two enjoyed a long-missed embrace.

As Blade released his grasp, he spoke with a crackle. “Uncle Jes, how’d ya’ come to see me here.”

Looking at Paol, Blade’s uncle replied. “Let’s just say that you have a good friend that wanted to reunite a long-lost relationship.”

Blade looked curiously at Paol. “Why—how’d ya’ ever find him—I tried to mail him that letter after we come here, but it wasn’t delivered.”

“Well, Blade,” answered Paol. “The federal government seems to do a good job at finding people who need to be found.”

Blade nodded, understanding that Paol had pulled some strings, and wondered how many federal organizations needed to be employed in the search.

“I’m going to let you two catch up,” Paol said, excusing himself from the room. Blade just stared at his uncle with great excitement, as he heard Paol’s footsteps down the hall.

“Where’s my manners? Do come in,” Blade said. “It’s not exactly the biggest place fo’ entertainin’.”

Jes nodded approvingly. “Actually, it looks like you’re moving up in the world.” A knowing smile was offered, and a hearty laugh ensued as Blade quickly understood the reference to his prison cell.

After exchanging some pleasant memories, Jes brought Blade up-to-speed on his life. After losing his job, he moved to a small town south of Atlanta, claiming that he always wanted to get out of the big city. He got a job as a mechanic and has enjoyed the small-town lifestyle ever since.

“As for you,” Jes changed the subject. “Not much catching up needed. I know everything about you, Blade. The media’s published just about everything except your auto-biography.”

Blade chuckled softly. “Well, that’d be tough, Uncle, seein’ how I have to write my auto-biography.”

“That’s the point—if they could figure out a way to do so, I reckon they’d do it too.” Jes flashed a wide smile of pride at his nephew.

“Blade—” The tone was clear. Blade knew what his uncle was going to say. It was the whole reason for his being here. “I understand you’re thinking about giving up this opportunity.”

“I can’t do it, Uncle—it’s just suicide.”

“Really? It doesn’t look like you’re dead yet to me. In fact, it looks like you’re doing quite well. This environment suits you well. You look better than ever, Blade.”

“When I saw my good friend’s plane on the ground engulfed in flames—well, I guess I’m ‘fraid, Uncle.”

“Afraid of dying?”

“Maybe I’m ‘fraid of dyin’, maybe I’m ‘fraid of failin’… and Paol’s got a family and all—if he don’t make it back safely—”

“Well, then. Why don’t you just make sure he makes it back safely? You’ve already done that once by helping rescue him after the crash.”

“I can’t make a promise that I can’t guarantee. The odds are stacked against us, and there’s too many things outta my control. Millions of things could go wrong, Jes.”

“But it only takes one thing to go right, Blade—the one thing you said ‘yes’ to. The mission just might succeed. Have you considered that?”

“Oh, I dream it up occasionally, but it don’t seem as real as the nightmares of how it might just as easily end.”

Jes heaved a burdened sigh. “Your momma is so proud of you, Blade.”

Blade sat upright at the reference to his mother.

“She talks of you all the time—how she knew you had greatness in you from when you was born. You know, Blade, the only reason she stopped seeing you was because she couldn’t bear to see you locked up like that.”

“I know that,” Blade whispered.

“And she was real worried, Blade—real worried—that her tears only made it worse on you.”

“They did.”

“I hope you never for one day thought that she didn’t love you after those visits stopped.”

“No, sir. I always knew. She never told me nohow, but I always knew.”

Jes looked deeply into his nephews eyes, as he saw him gaze off into the distance. Tears began to flow again. “I’ll do it.”

Jes leaned forward in his chair. “Do what, Blade?”

“I’ll go on with the mission. I won’t break her heart again, Uncle—I won’t do it anymo’.”

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