Authors: Jonathan Taylor
Salt Lake City, Utah
Copyright © 2012 by Jonathan Taylor
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written consent of the publisher.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblances to actual people, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Cover Design by Rusty Webb
Print ISBN: 978-1937178154
“If you want to travel fast, travel alone.
If you want to travel far, travel together.”
he explosion came without warning, disturbing an otherwise placid environment. Green forest spread out all around, rolling sometimes as the ground rolled and other times where trees dared to stretch higher than others.
Above the treetops, the tiny Cessna shuddered. The whir of its single propeller blocked out the sounds of nature and above the shade of the trees the sun beat through the windshield with menacing intensity. The cockpit’s air conditioning system struggled to keep out the heat.
Brandon started at what sounded like a gunshot ripping through the tiny cabin. He had been leaning back—dozing—sunglasses perched on his nose to keep out the glare of the sun. Upon hearing the abrupt noise, so loud over the constant drone of the propeller, he sat up and looked toward the front of the cockpit. His wife was at the controls, an array of digital instruments flashing in front of her.
Sam’s blonde hair was bunched up behind her head, the longest strands falling out over her sunburned shoulders. She glanced back toward him for only a moment before bringing the Cessna-172 into a climb. The green jungle fell away and the burning bright sun dropped into view.
“What was that?”
She shook her head slowly. “I don’t know. Something just came up and then popped.”
Brandon narrowed his eyes in confusion. “It popped?”
He leaned forward, looking over her shoulder. Ahead, the propeller blade spun, a translucent disk against the sky blue background. He searched the horizon, but the sky was empty. “What do you mean it came up?”
Sam squinted through her sunglasses, trying to see through the glare despite the tint of both the black lenses and the windshield. “I saw something—like a rock—and it just flew up and popped.”
“What?” He caught movement through the windshield. A cylindrical object the size of a softball shot up in front of them. Sam reacted on instinct, turning the Cessna to the left, the right wing rising into the air. In front of them, the green horizon tilted and the strange object moved to the window at his right.
A moment later, the cylinder burst apart in a wave of thunder. The sound shook his gut, forcing his heart into his throat. Shrapnel burst forth, cracking the window in three places.
Sam glanced to the right, loose tresses of hair whipping behind her. “What was that?”
He had gotten a good look as the object ascended and exploded. “Rocket.”
The Cessna had been moving generally east when the object first appeared, and now they were flying north. Brandon scanned the jungle canopy beneath him. The Ituri Forest stretched out in all directions, its interior totally hidden by the top leaves.
“Where are we?” he asked, searching the wavering, mottled shadows for a break in the foliage. He spotted two telltale grooves—gaps in the canopy where the area underneath was free of trees. Although he couldn’t see the ground through either of them, he knew that they would each signify one of two things: a road or a river.
Sam’s voice was filled with panic as she struggled to answer her husband’s question. “We should be coming up on the Ibina River any minute I think.”
He shook his head. He pointed at a twisting path in the landscape. This time he caught glimpses of black through the leafy branches. “Are you sure
not the Ibina?”
Her face dropped when she saw the snaking waterway, a tributary of the Ituri. The river, which carved its way north from the Mutumba Mountains in the south, served as a temporary boundary.
“Do not cross the Ibina,” Simone had warned them. “The Ugandan militias control the land east of it.”
Their assignment was purely for research. They had volunteered their time and the use of their Cessna to conduct an aerial survey of African villages and estimate local populations. Brandon’s winnings as a poker player gave them extra time and money and they saw volunteering as a way to make good use of it. Their gentle tour of the jungles of the eastern Congo had brought them into the heart of a war zone. They flew parallel to the twisting river that marked the border between danger and relative safety. Somewhere below them a camp of armed rebels lay in wait to chase away those that would dare venture into their territory.
“Maybe that was a warning shot,” Sam said.
“A warning shot that almost hit us.”
“They’re not going to shoot down an unarmed plane,” she cried. She continued their desperate climb as the forest rolled underneath them.
Brandon scanned the foliage. To the east, the forest sloped gently upward and one of the breaks in the trees twisted along that hill.
There must be a road there,
he thought. That must have been where the grenade came from, propelled by some type of launcher. He wasn’t well versed in military weaponry, but he guessed that they had already moved out of range.
Both of his guesses were proven correct a moment later, when the forest and sky lit up, a stream of lights bursting into the air. A trail of tracer rounds wove up from the road and angled steadily toward the small Cessna.
“Sam, get us out of here.”
His wife was trying to do just that. In addition to the steady climb, they were moving northward where another jungle hill lifted over the canopy. If they could make it over that hill, the rebels would no longer have the plane in sight.
“Sam! Look out!” he shouted and ducked down in his seat as the stream of rounds moved right toward them. He gritted his teeth as the first of the bullets ripped through the tiny cabin. A trail of fire tore through the floor and the seat next to him, easily penetrating the hull of the lightweight aircraft. Metal twisted and broke. Glass cracked as the powerful gun pulverized the instrumentation panel next to his wife.
She screamed and ducked her head, raising her shoulders to protect herself from flying glass while she kept her hands on the controls of the airplane. The trail of bullets moved right through the cockpit in a straight line and chewed through the Cessna’s nose, barely missing the propeller.
They were in trouble.
Sam swore when she looked at the instrumentation panel. Half of the displays were cracked and the other half were turned off. Thick smoke billowed from the engine. The propeller sputtered out and began its slow death, the flat, translucent circle seeming to spin for the first time.
The smoke cleared and the hill rose up to meet them.
“Sam! The flaps!”
Their descent slowed as the hill grew in the windshield. He held on tight, hands gripping the seat cushion, as their descent took them right over the tops of the highest branches. With the propeller silent and only the sound of rushing air around them, he heard the plane’s landing gear rip through the top leaves.
They were going to crash. They needed a safe place to land, but the dense jungle left them with few options.
The plane turned eastward suddenly. Brandon wondered why Sam would be sending them deeper into militia territory; but as he looked over the rapidly passing forest, he saw what she had in mind. Up ahead, the jungle parted, revealing a narrow black river. The Cessna was amphibious, outfitted for both dry and water landings. Maybe that shallow-looking stream could serve as a runway.
The propeller died completely and she flew deadstick. They would come down hard and fast. The trees rose up around them until the tips of the Cessna’s wings hit the outermost branches and ripped leaves asunder. The black river got closer, and Brandon saw just how shallow and narrow it was. Sam struggled to hold the plane aloft.
He felt the plane buck as their left float hit the stream first. The aircraft bounced lightly as it skimmed the water. They were still moving fast, too fast to land.
The plane rose up for a moment as the jungle raced past. A fallen log stretched across the stream ahead. Both floats sliced across the trunk, jolting them again. They bounced higher and he worried that the log might have damaged their precious landing gear.
The stream widened. The black water stretched out to form a large pond. As the Cessna touched down, waves crashed over the plane’s nose and drummed across the windows, beating like raindrops in a thunderstorm.
The plane’s momentum slowed fast, tugging Brandon forward in his seat belt. The nose dipped and the tail lifted into the air, but Sam expertly eased the floats down until they settled perfectly on the still waters. Their movement carried them forward across the pond until they closed with the opposite bank. Before they struck the shore, the plane stopped and settled into the water.
They sat there, breathing deeply, the cockpit silent except for their huffing. The Cessna rocked lightly from ripples across the pond.
A heavy splash came from outside the plane. They studied each other for a moment, and then Sam peered out the only undamaged window on the right side of the plane. She jumped, her body went rigid, and her hand covered her mouth.
He followed her gaze out the small window. All around them the dark pond rippled. The pond formed at a junction where two smaller streams merged into one larger stream and then emptied out to the west. They had been flying up that larger stream when Sam attempted her landing.
Around the pond, the banks sloped up sharply and massive roots twisted across the ground. A few fronds of vegetation lined the shores, but beyond that, the thick canopy of leaves prevented most of the sunlight from breaking through. In those dark jungle shadows undergrowth grew scarce.
Movement along the southern bank caught his eyes. He watched as a long, ridged tail, as thick as a tree trunk, slipped into the black water. The surface swirled and bubbled where the tail submerged, hinting at the movements of the reptile underneath. Swimming in the depths of that pond was a crocodile of unknown size and strength.
“Did you see that?” Sam asked, her voice a hoarse whisper.
“Just for a second.”
She leaned forward, gazing at the water below. “It was so big . . .”
“We should be safe in here,” he tried assuring her. A light covering of green algae swirled from some unknown current.
“We need to get out of this pond,” she whispered.
She spun around and he turned, too. A long snout, two jutting brow ridges and a long jagged back broke through the still surface. A crocodile, about fourteen feet long, floated lazily just under the water.
“There he is,” she said.
“Are you sure that’s the same one?”
Sunlight reflected off the pond’s surface and sparkled through a pair of bullet holes in the Cessna’s matting. As Brandon stared at the sparkling holes, he had a grim realization. “We’re going to have to go out there.”
At first Sam protested. She tried starting the plane again, but the engine refused to turn over. The mechanical sounds of the engine trying to start filled the pond. He kept his eyes on the lazily drifting crocodile. The creature didn’t move, seeming to be unmindful of the propeller trying to spin to life.
With the Cessna not working, they were left with the problem of getting out of the pond. They did not want to leave their plane floating in the middle of a pond where, if the nearby militia didn’t come by to collect it, it would quickly drift downstream and be lost.
Brandon gathered up their meager supplies: some emergency rations, a small tent, a handheld GPS, a flare gun, some road flares, first aid supplies, a few coils of rope, and their own personal belongings. They stuffed it all into two tall backpacks that sat on metal frames, topped with their bedrolls. He had a plan. They would hide the airplane and make their way to the nearest village, wherever that was, and then find themselves some help in getting the plane out of the jungle and repaired.
Sam hadn’t thought that far ahead. Unlike Brandon, she tended to take things one step at a time, trying to solve one problem before worrying about the next.
“How are we going to get out of this pond?” she asked when they had their backpacks.
He shrugged. “Got any ideas?”
She gestured toward the front of the cockpit, and he leaned forward. Through the windshield he could see the closest bank, easily twenty feet from the aircraft. The distance didn’t seem far, but judging from the slope of the embankments and the way the crocodile had disappeared, the pond was deep.
She pointed to a long, fallen branch. Part of it was angled up onto the embankment and the rest floated on top of the black waters not far from the Cessna. “If we can get that branch we might be able to use it as an oar.”
“Okay,” he said. “But we’ll have to be careful of our friend.”
“One of us will stay here and watch him, while the other one gets the branch.”
He eyed the floating reptile. If its eyes hadn’t been open, he would have thought it was sleeping. “I’ll go out and get the branch,” he offered.
“No, I’ll go,” she said with a shake of her head.
“Don’t be silly. I’m taller; I’ll have an easier time reaching it.”
“I’m not worried about reaching it. I’m worried about the crocodile.”
He nodded, wondering what that had to do with anything.
“If a crocodile bit off my leg would you still love me?” Sam asked suddenly.
Confused by the question, Brandon hesitated a moment before nodding.
She tossed him a wry grin. “Well, if a crocodile bit off your leg, I’d leave you in a second. So I should be the one to go out there. It’s the best thing for our marriage.”
He acquiesced to her biting humor and shifted away from the door so Sam could get by. She had outmaneuvered him.
She moved up to the door, her bare legs crouched underneath her. Her calves and thighs were tanned harshly by the unforgiving sun and crisscrossed with scratches from forays through the savannahs to the north.
She glanced back over her shoulder at Brandon. “Keep an eye on him, please.”
“I’ll watch him like a hawk,” he promised and turned to gaze at where the long, scissor-like snout broke the surface.
She opened the door slowly, the latch clicking. The sounds of the forest, the cries of unidentified birds and animals, filled the cabin. The heat and humidity moved in next. The air was thick, stifling, and oppressive. They were sitting right at the equator. Moist jungle extended in all directions for hundreds of miles. They were in a world where animals ruled and humans lived in small, sporadic camps.
Sam slowly extended her leg out of the protection of the cabin. She had to grip the doorframe with both hands in order for her foot to reach all the way down to the float. As she stepped down, the Cessna bobbed. She held on tight, lowering her second foot. She stood fully on the float, her sandaled feet mere inches from the black water. Once she had her balance, she looked back at Brandon and gave him a confident smile. She opened her mouth to say something, but stopped, deciding to stay quiet. He shared that notion, not wanting to draw the attention of the militia rebels, the crocodile, or whatever other dangers might be lurking in the surrounding jungle.