The Merlin Factor. Chapter Two.
England: Coltishall, Norfolk, 1940.
First came the Sound. Low, muted, like a distant drum. An almost subsonic vibration that could be felt in the chest.
The Sound. Growing, consuming, like the unstoppable plummet of an avalanche; crystalline, elemental.
Sudden thunder, violent, crying unthinkable power, suspending thought, a descending, minor-scale into a haunting, fading moan and returning silence that buzzed indignantly at the sheer might of this disturbance.
He could hear it now. He would never stop hearing it. It was the Sound that enabled him - like the beat of his heart - to make that impossible leap from who he was before into who he was now. It was the Sound that changed him. From something that walked, into something more. Something able to see in all directions from a high and lonely place and very, very far. Something different. SomeOne.
He thought about this often. And about how very far he'd come since hearing the Sound. He didn't understand it yet, though he knew that soon he would. The Sound.
It made him more than he had been. He had been a child before hearing it. Content to exist in terms of jokes, beer, the exciting prospect of women to be conquered. But now he knew, somehow, that beyond the here and now, there existed another realm. A larger, fuller, more wondrous place. He understood, vaguely, that this new knowing brought with it a strange sense of unknowing: an awareness that there was more to know than ever could, in fact, be known. He felt himself - by the minute - expanding to fill the vastness of this new-found universe. He felt both very big and very small. The feeling frightened him.
It stood alone, silent, casting its mysterious shadow over the new-mown grass, heat shimmering from its long, streamlined nose, splinters of sun-glare bouncing from its open hood. Eager as a hound for the chase. Waiting to live again. He ran his fingers lightly along the elliptical sweep of its gorgeous wing, exulting in the beauty he saw before him. The power. And still he could hear the Sound.
Nobody else did this. He, alone, would stand off in the grass, communing with his machine, in the hours or minutes between successive nightmares. Alone. Unknown. Unknowable. When he moved, it was in a way that was vaguely unusual, cat-like and economical, no part of him mobile unless to accomplish something. He was difficult to notice, somehow, blending-in like the earthy camouflage of his flying-machine, and so, for the most part, remained unnoticed. If he thought about this at all, then it satisfied him, for he had no further need to be noticed by anyone. It suited his purpose.
He closed his eyes and breathed, aware of the fragrance of the earth around him: grass, dandelions, a nearby cow. His attention focused briefly as he filtered out the other smells, oil, hot rubber, lingering cordite from guns often used, before evening out once more into a general nothing-ness. Some called it shock, or maybe battle-fatigue, not knowing what else to call it. But most failed even to notice, occupied with other, more pressing things.
He touched his forehead to the warm alloy of the wing, listening for the Sound. Was there ever an end to this? Would it - could it - end? He decided that, no, it could not end. Not ever. It could only change.
His thoughts turned to Marion. Painting her image on the grainy canvas of his mind. His loins stirred, as they always did when she entered his thoughts. She was an enigma to him. He had asked her, genuinely confused, why she had chosen him. Why not someone else? Her reply had both shocked him and made him even more her willing slave:
"Because you are powerful, sweet Johnny. You have no idea! And because I know how much I can hurt you. And you want me to hurt you, don't you Johnny? To hurt you and then comfort you, afterwards. Tell me it is true..."
And he had. He had easily come to obey her every word and command. He didn't know why. Had no idea. It bothered him, but not nearly enough to make him resist. He loved her. And through all the pain and the pleasure and the confusion she brought him, he knew, beyond doubt, that for whatever reason, she loved him too. He didn't understand Marion. Didn't begin to. But his body didn't need to. It only wanted more. And for now, that was enough.
He tensed, suddenly, pushing her away, as he sensed approaching danger...
With its customary preliminary crackle, the Tannoy - the public-address system wired into all R.A.F. stations - came to life, sending garbled echoes booming across the aerodrome. He didn't trouble to listen to the distorted words, knowing already that they could mean only more of the same. The muscles of his stomach tensed and pain rippled across his face from no visible cause. Pain, and longing. His head lifted, mouth open, to groan at the enormity of his feeling. The Sound. The Woman. The Death he knew lay waiting, not far from here, not far from now. He sensed movement behind him, and turned, systems coming alive. A hundred yards distant, tiny figures clad in blue and orange boiled from the operations shack, accompanied by tense cries and windmilling limbs; the mad flight of mad men. He almost smiled, considering this madness. The insanity of it all. The almost-smile had nothing at all to do with humor.
Vehicles roared into life. Men ran. Motion and noise enveloped the summer pasture eliminating peace, annihilating tranquility. He turned back to his beloved machine, swung easily up onto the left wing root and with his arms braced against the sides of the cockpit, eased himself down inside. His heart swelled to fill his chest with the Sound.
Ernie Short, his fitter, charged up, breathless and serious, busying himself with the trolley-acc - the heavy battery that provided the electrical power necessary to start the vee-twelve motor - his monkey face wretched in concentration.
The pilot gazed down in something like wonder at the fellow, while his hands automatically prepared the machine for flight. Primer pump, magneto switches, petcock and throttle. He wrenched at his parachute and seat harnesses, binding himself tightly to the machine, eyes never leaving the fitter's back as the man fired up the little motor that sent power to the accumulator.
Baines appeared, late, on the right wing, and seeing his pilot already connected to the machine, gave the hood a final wipe, rasped a quick "Good luck, sir", and disappeared once more beneath the wing. Ernie swiveled to look up, his thumb poised. At the pilot's nod - he rarely spoke against the noise - the thumb sent power through the black rubber-clad cable into the long cowling, bringing life to the starter. The two-bladed airscrew jerked through a small arc with a violent bang, jerked again and vanished into another dimension. He held his breath for the instant it took the billow of grey smoke from the exhaust stubs to whip away behind him, adjusting the mixture controls that ended the ragged over-rich blatting of the twelve cylinders into...
He gasped involuntarily at it. He always did. Every time. Oh the Sound! Nothing in the world ever sounded - ever would sound - like the Merlin packed inside the smooth cowling of his machine. Only Rolls-Royce could have come up with such a machine. Somewhere, he imagined, existed a master musician whose sole purpose was to design into this awesome engine, a sound that rightly befitted its purpose. The fires of the universe, the voices of angels, the resonance of destiny...
With a glance at Ernie to check the power cable was disconnected, another at Baines to see him hauling away the wheel chocks, he fed power to the motor and began to move.
He was always the first away. He thought nothing of it - was unaware of the secret pride his little team took in this simple fact. Short, as efficient as he was monkey-ugly. Baines, almost never late at the chocks, and never too-late. His proud little team. Good-bye.
He checked his flight controls for full movement, while the temperatures climbed, rudder wagging against the propeller wash, pedals alive under his boots. Ailerons, elevators, brakes. Ready. As an afterthought he flipped on the R/T, muted crackles and hums against the weight of the Sound. A voice said something that was all but lost in static. Another voice queried this. Voices from beyond the grave. Faceless. Anonymous. He checked in, tersely. The reply was immediate. Slightly amused.
...kskk..."Ah! How nice of you to join us Johnny. Do try to keep in touch, old boy."...pop...
This from `Robbie Burns', the C.O., the implied good nature actually an order, if you knew him well. Two curt clicks of the R/T switch acknowledged his understanding. A flaring of the nostrils beneath his oxygen mask acknowledged it to himself.
He disliked the radio, would gladly have removed it from his machine were it not required equipment. Useful, yes. Essential? Not to him. Anything that interfered with the Sound merely irritated him. Often he would turn the thing off, once battle was joined, against repeated orders to the contrary, thus worrying the already worried Bob. Such a worried man. Did he think it helped?
He cut the throttle to a growling idle, lining up the long nose with the oak tree, visible a half-mile away down the grass and waited for the others to arrive. It always felt wrong, this, to wait when the squadron had been scrambled. Orders again.
"Not good to meet the enemy alone, old chap", Bob had told him, by way of explanation. "Strength in numbers, and all that". But one always was alone, wasn't one? Always. Was he the only one who knew it? It seemed so.
The oak slipped into the blind spot of his nose as the machine stopped, poised and ready. Waiting...
He listened to the Sound. Muted still. But soon, soon it would bellow against the fields and marshes of rural Norfolk, filling his soul with its siren song, carrying him on and up, far away into the realms of ecstasy. And terror.
He breathed deeply, quietly, gentling his mind for the coming battle. Eyes open, he saw nothing, his attention settled lightly upon his middle forehead. Concentrating.
The R/T intruded, but failed to interrupt this essential preparation. He was aware of graceful shapes congregating around, behind, and finally ahead of him, as the nine other serviceable aircraft made ready to fly. Nine other pilots chattered excitedly at the borders of his awareness as he nodded his head once, completing his own special ritual. He was as ready as he would ever be. Marion patted his behind - he could feel it - smiling in her special, aloof way, before retiring to a private corner of his mind. Always with him, but demanding nothing of him. Nothing that might distract him from the business at hand. Nothing that might take away from him in crisis.
...kskk..."Let's go fellers", the tinny imitation of Bob's voice invited. "Greenhouse rolling now, control."...shkk... Ten left hands closed over ten throttle levers, advancing them all the way to the gate. Rich blue-grey smoke streamed back from the machines as they squatted, vibrating, noses pointed to the blue, blue sky, accelerating slowly, then faster and faster, bumping, rattling...
...shkk..."Ya-HOOOOooooo!"...pop... He smiled for real this time, recognizing the voice, and the temperament of Freddie Venn. He did it every time.
"I love taking off", he'd say, later, his survival assured until the next time, saying it more with his hands than with his mouth. "Take-offs are bloody marvellous! It's just the rest of it that gives me the screamin' willies."
Fred was right. This was splendid. It was the Sound. The Sound of doom, of joy, of freedom. Of life and of death. He loved the swelling, enveloping sound of these wonderful engines, racing in harmonic thunder, pulling with the power of a thousand war-horses, wailing like a million hungry wolves, moaning in anguished fury. And the fierce acceleration. All that power. All that fright. He loved this race for the oak tree, a half-mile away. He loved the way the tail came up and the stick came to life, loved the moment the fighter spread its wings and flew. Loved it beyond any words. Loved it so much it brought tears to his eyes. It was only a shame that his love for this thing was so intimately connected with death. His eyes misted as the emotion of it trembled through him, raising the hairs on the nape of his neck. He reached out for Marion and she was there. He tucked up his wheels at the instant of flight.
...kskk..."Greenhouse, this is Teacup Control, do you read, over?"...kshk... To the unaccustomed ear this was indistinguishable from a cat fight inside an empty tin barrel. It hurt the ears. Bob answered forthwith:
...shkk..."Greenhouse airborne. Go ahead Teacup. Over"... ...pop...
"Teacup Control to Greenhouse, your vector is one one eight and Buster. We show thirty plus bandits at angels eighteen. Acknowledge, Greenhouse. Over."...
...kskk..."Greenhouse understands thirty plus, one one eight at eighteen, over."...pop...
..."Teacup Control out."...shkk...
...kkk..."Greenhouse en-route. Out."...pop...
Thirty-odd against the ten of us, he thought. Nothing new, was it? He wondered why they were always so few against so many. But he knew the answer to that. These thirty would not be the only approaching threat. Other Twelve-Group fighters would be elsewhere dealing with other swarms of enemy aircraft. They might get some help if it became available, but probably not, considering the attrition of the last few days. In the previous weeks, things had escalated rapidly, until now it was beginning to seem too much to keep up with. A race against time, and to replace irreplaceable losses. Pilots were becoming scarcer and scarcer. Harder and harder to find and train fast enough to fly in ever worsening conditions. Fighter production could barely keep pace with losses, but it was the pilots that would win or lose the battle, ultimately. There simply weren't enough.
It wasn't going well, he mused. Not really. Of the original squadron, when he'd joined it less than three weeks before, only four were left. Bob, Fred, Algy Dearborn and himself. The rest were replacements, and as of today, of those six men, only one - Cottington - had survived his first week. He dismissed this as he would brush away a bothersome fly. It didn't matter anyway. Nothing did. Not any more. He knew enough by now to realize the chances of his living much longer were almost non-existent. He breathed deeply, moving his jaw to pop his ears as the squadron climbed through twelve thousand feet, and opened his oxygen feed.
Bob Banham - `Robbie Burns' - wiped the perspiration from his eyebrows, where it collected inside the bottom of his goggles. He felt, even through gloved fingers, the deep valleys of his frown. It had changed his face. In less than a month he seemed to have aged five years, and his stomach ached constantly with a hot, twisting pain. "Oh fuck!" he whispered, his tense lips mouthing the words against the thundering engine. "Jesus Christ Almighty! I can't keep this up much longer. I just can't..." He swept his eyes briefly around his little squadron of only ten machines. His gaze stopped and focused on 302, Johnny Hawken's aircraft. The one with the little falcon painted on the cowling.
...shhhk..."Hello, Johnny boy. Is it possible that you are, in fact, flying with your radio on?"...pop...
A scratchy giggle came from someone - he suspected it was Bishop - and a low "oooooh!" from another. Two clicks followed, but nothing more.
..."Ah!" he intoned in a friendly voice. "The phantom clicker. Might I, as your leader, trouble you for an actual word or two?"...pop...
...kshkkk..."Blue leader here, Sir."... Cool. Clear. Quiet.
Bob studied the aircraft to his right rear. Something was very strange about Johnny these days. Like he was only half here. He seemed too calm. Far too quiet. Contemptuous almost. As if nothing and nobody was even worthy of his notice. If he didn't know better, he might have thought his friend was becoming a snob. He wondered if that woman - Marion whoeveritwas - might have something to do with it. Johnny had been `one of the lads' before meeting her. Now he'd changed, somehow. Detached. Unfathomable and not very communicative.
It peeved him, but so what? So the fuck what? Johnny had been, was, and would remain, his friend.
"Friend." The word framed itself silently on his lips. It was good to know Johnny was out there. He was a strange one, all right, but there was no better ally in a mess like the one they were all racing towards right now. God only knew what the new kids would do. "Die, probably," he thought, and hated himself for thinking it.
Everybody was gone now, it seemed. Almost everybody. His wife and son in a deafening blast from an aerial mine. His house in Sevenoaks and everything he owned, simply gone. Even the dog.
He had a brother somewhere, serving on a destroyer, but nobody else. Only the squadron. And it was cracking the fabric of his personality. Every time he looked in the mirror to shave, he hated what he saw there. The burns. The lines. The age. He felt always as if he was running from something. As if death was hard on his heels. When he walked, he moved so fast that people had to almost run to keep up. He tried hard, imagining he succeeded, to appear in control of things before the squadron. He found himself trying to act normal. What frightened him was that with every passing day, he found it more difficult to remember what normal actually was.
He checked his fuel gauge, trimming and re-trimming the aircraft for balance. These mad dashes at full throttle, always uphill in an ear-destroying, nose-bleeding battle-climb, sucked aviation spirit like a thirsty camel. And fuel was life, up here. When it was gone there was only one direction you could go. Down.
...shkkk..."Greenhouse, Greenhouse, this is Teacup Control. Do you read? Over."...shhhk... The R/T scratched and screeched into noise. He was given a new vector to allow for an enemy feint, still at full throttle. The range was closing fast now. Less than twenty miles. Heading out over the North Sea, he wondered if these might just be his last minutes on earth.
"What the fuck's the matter with me?" He spoke aloud, hearing his voice through his earphones. He'd forgotten to switch off his transmitter. He waited, horribly embarrassed, but no voices came back to offer opinions as to what, specifically, might be the matter with him. He thought about how bad it would be for morale, to say crazy things in the minutes before combat, with his lads depending on him. How absolutely terrible...
...pop..."We're all alone up here."...kskkk...pop...
Banham abandoned that particular train of thought as he recognized Johnny's voice. He waited but there was no more. He was left wondering what the words meant, but still was glad that he - and everyone else - had heard them. He dimly recalled the time when he - and for that matter, all his pilots - never even considered death a possibility. Confidence came in a cup that ranneth over. Youth. All would live forever, without the shadow of a doubt. And so many of those eager young faces now burned - like his own - almost beyond recognition, smashed, or in some cases vanished entirely with no trace at all. Death used to be for other people. Here, today, it was a statistical probability for some. A guaranteed certainty for...
He glanced around again at his small force, seeking distraction from his thoughts, and was struck by the beauty of these machines. It wasn't something he had ever really noticed before; they were, after all, only machines. But Johnny had spoken to him, yesterday, about this rare grace and flowing line that he said they had, and suddenly, there it was. The Spitfire really was a thing of beauty, and now he too could see it. He stopped himself. It was not easy being Johnny's superior officer. He certainly didn't feel superior, but he had this job to do - a job that had been foisted off on him before he was ready - and he had to do his best to perform it. He was twenty-one years old.
P.O. Algy Dearborn picked his nose without knowing it. His mask dangled, banging against his chin as he rolled large bogies into balls and flicked them around the cockpit. He was trying to recover from scaring himself silly during the takeoff. After watching Johnny habitually clap his undercart up into the wings at the very instant it left the ground, he'd finally summoned the nerve to try it himself. It looked so good, he thought. It was something he could admire, something that just looked right. He'd simply had to do it. And so he had, not minutes earlier. He'd felt his hair turning grey as he climbed away, leading Yellow Section.
He'd never quite appreciated the ground-effect phenomenon before. When the aircraft came unstuck and first rose into the air, it was travelling in ground-effect, barely above stall speed, and while it was airborne, it was not yet truly flying. Raising his wheels during this transition, he was unprepared for what happened when the machine left ground-effect and relied entirely upon aerodynamic lift. It sank. He'd actually felt the very tips of his propeller blades chopping through the grass as his heart stopped dead and he waited for the ground to rise up and smash him. He hoped to God nobody had seen him do it...
An especially sticky lump of nose-dirt refused to fly from his fingers, so he wiped it on his Mae West. But it stood out too clearly for what it was against the orange rubber, and he transferred it yet again to his trousers. It wasn't nearly so visible there. As he stared at it he finally realized what he was doing and cranked his head around to check on the one other machine in his section, behind and to his left. "Bishop, by God," he thought. "Come to save us all. The kid's a minor miracle. Should be dead already..."
Bishop hadn't died the first day, which in itself was surprising. He still hadn't died by the second. "And here we are again and it's his third day. Maybe it's a good sign. If he buys it, perhaps he'll do a Jesus and get up and walk away. Fuckin' dead loss." But he didn't mean it.
He didn't much like Bishop; too fat to be a pilot. Too soft and pink. But Bishop was in his section and was his responsibility. He felt like a grudging shepherd with an ugly, accident-prone lamb to look out for. And he didn't have time for that up here. But... "He's on our side. God help us..." He manipulated his left hand inside his underpants and rearranged his penis which was caught in a fold of his trousers, squashed under part of his parachute harness. His fingers lingered there, momentarily, as he wondered if he'd ever get to use it again. Even to urinate.
Bishop flew rather well, really. For a complete novice. He had what Bob called "The Touch". Unfortunately there was more to the job than that. The first day, he had locked his brakes shortly after touching down and destroyed a very expensive airscrew. Luckily the engine was unharmed. Accidents happen. Later that same day, he had walked into a quite large, and very visible bomb crater, spraining his ankle, and severely impairing his ability to sprint for his aircraft along with the others.
The second day he'd actually survived a mid-air collision with an already dead Dornier that more or less fell on him while he was swanning about, looking in the wrong direction. He'd bailed out of his tail-less Spitfire, and floated right through the middle of a major air battle, not thinking to delay opening the silk until he had fallen clear. As Dearborn said later: "The fat fool probably didn't bail out at all. I bet he just fell out, all by himself."
Nobody had defended Bishop's daring escape. Not even Bishop, who was suitably mortified by the loss of his brand-new machine. Banham had spoken at length with him and now the matter was closed. He'd made it clear that Bishop was one of the squadron, and everybody was entitled to a little bad luck once in a while. Even Bishop.
Bishop sat there, ridiculously grateful for Johnny's simple R/T statement, repeating it to himself over and over, like a prayer. "We're all alone up here..." The words seemed to say so much and seemed to be directed at him personally. He felt very much alone. He admired Johnny tremendously. He admired everybody who didn't look and act as he did, but Johnny was unique; there was nobody like him anywhere. He was so different. So calm and somehow - detached. He didn't know any other way to put it. In fact, Johnny had exchanged no more than a handful of words with him during the past two days, but somehow every word had spoken volumes. He resolved to seek him out when they got back and talk at length with him. There were things he needed to know. A lot of things.
Laidler couldn't wait. He'd joined the squadron just in time to witness Bishop's spectacular slow descent through a storm of tracer bullets, wearing only a parachute, and was eager to prove that he too could do things like that. He would get his first kill today, by God, and another tomorrow. His strong, lean body was awash in adrenaline, every nerve taut as a bowstring at full draw. Dangerous. Devilish. And thoroughly angry at the Huns. The only reason he'd failed to make a kill yesterday was because the C.O. had ordered him to stay clear of the melee and watch from a distance for his first time up. Of course, he'd waded in anyway, firing his entire ammunition load in seconds at anything in the vicinity. The only reason he hadn't hit anything was that his heart wasn't in it. That was Robbie's doing. But the C.O. hadn't told him to lay off and watch today. Today he would join the ranks of the heroes. He'd never even noticed, yesterday, the Messerschmitt that had sat for long seconds, fifty yards from his tail, bore-sighting him, but likewise, with no more ammunition...
It turned out to be a goose-chase, after all. The vector that should have led them to an intercept, merely put them within range of a few trigger-happy, but incredibly innaccurate, naval antiaircraft gunners aboard another of the ubiquitous channel convoys. They scooted away fast, out of range of these clowns who either could not, or would not differentiate between friend and foe.
Johnny shivered in his own sweat, while now-useless adrenaline still coursed through constricted veins. He didn't know whether to be peeved or relieved. He settled for bemused.
They circled the convoy for almost twenty minutes, using up their fuel, against the chance of the Luftwaffe putting in a belated appearance, but it might as well have been a training run. Control, when queried by an audibly frustrated Bob Banham, could offer no explanation; the raid had merged into the ground range of the Dunwich Chain-Home radar station and vanished. Bob finally called return to base, and in shabby echelon, the squadron headed west for Coltishall. Everybody relaxed and slipped the safety covers back over their gun tits. So much for that...
They were almost home. They could see Overstrand, off to port, and the square church tower of Cromer four or five miles ahead. Low on fuel. Somewhere, far beneath them lay the sunken remains of Shipton. A little town lost to the cold North Sea. Some said its church bells still rang down there, on stormy nights, and its dead got up and danced.
You never knew.
Johnny flew tucked in close to Laidler's tail, bumping up and down in his slipstream, admiring the undulating line of Spitfires and imagining how good they must look to an observer. He wished that Marion could be here now. She would love this, he was sure. If only there were eyes to see...
As it happened, there were eyes to see.
One moment Laidler was there, then, in a fraction of time too small to measure, he was not. Johnny blinked, not able to process this eye-searing image, this instantaneous change. Too fast. Too bright. A minor star gone nova.
A colossal impact smashed his face forwards into the gunsight, wrenching his little aluminum capsule sideways and down, solid chunks of steel and bone impacting like cannon shells into his hurtling craft. What? What? Uhh... Too fast. Too impossibly, incomprehensibly fast. Do something! Do it now! Over-boosted brain screaming orders too urgent to be read by grating bone and sinew.
So slow. Slow as glacial ice.
Move! Move! Hysterical, terror-choked voices babbling like shot-peppered tin cans... "Break! For Chrissakes, Break!" "The fuckers are everywhere!" "Johnny! Johnny! Get out man! Get OUT!" Screams. Sobs. Squalling babies. Hammer blows cascading over his consciousness. On and on and on. Louder and louder. No escape. Nowhere to go. A swirling, searing vortex of razor-edged blades, filling all of space, snicking and flashing, howling for violent death. No time to think. They never gave you any time. No time...
Johnny watched as his world tipped over. He sobbed as it began to spin. Frozen and torn. Already dead. It went on like that for a long time. The noise was appalling. A thousand wailing demons battering at the trembling, impact-starred perspex, trying to get in. He couldn't think. Couldn't move. Couldn't remember what to do. It came to him that there was, this time, nothing he could do.
An arm waved loosely before his eyes. A gloved hand floated. Flexing, seeking. Another arm. Strangely red and foggy. Up and up they climbed, like tropical eels, sinuous and wavy. Clunk. Meeting the cracked, rounded surface and scrabbling for who knew what. He wondered why. Why? For what? "I'm all alone up here..."
There was a curious, pointy sort of emotion that kept rapping at his fast-congealing awareness. Uncomfortable. Niggling. Finally, rather annoying.
"Urgent!" it cried, over and over. "Urgent!" So very urgent. It would not go away. Would not leave him be. A nagging itch, a stinging scratch. Insistent. Insisting.
Horror! A light going on, revealing something he'd naively hoped would never, ever be revealed. Oh! Oh my God! Oh Marion! Oh God, Marion...
Grey, spinning water. Horribly close. Greasy smoke and dull, roaring flames. The personal, boy-sized blast-furnace. The awful, tortured sounds of super-heated, over-stressed metal. A slowing, spinning strobe. Whap-whap-whap... Winding down to zero.
Pull, then. Pull and cry out for strength to pull more. Pray too, for what it's worth. But much too late.
They never gave you any time.
Almost. So very close. A bone-cracking slam into liquid iron. The very molecules shatter. Slam! Again. Deceleration so violent the blood boils from shredded lines. Back into lethargy. Back into lead. Eager grey fingers, impossibly active, grappling and cold. Salt and spray. Hungry to cover over this alien thing. Hungry to swallow and to hide. Grey turning green and sucking away what very little is left. Diluting. Extinguishing the puny ember of life. So easy. So right. So very, very final.
"Why?" The pathetic, pleading question echoes again and again around the shut-down corridors of this suddenly extinct museum.
Entombed inside a shattered fighter. Sinking into the abyss of nothingness. Out of its element. Out of its context. He wanted to know. It seemed terribly important to know.
"If only," came the thought - random surges of discharging electrons forming automatic patterns - "If only I'd built a boat. Something designed to float. I'd sail away from all of this. I wouldn't have to be here. I wouldn't have to be dead."
The ruined canopy imploded inwards, erasing the last remaining sparks and currents. Wiping clean the matrix. Down and down. Down to zero.