We walked back out to the plane and as we climbed up, I missed another handhold and scraped my chin. We taxied out, slewing half around as we turned into the runway. Then we were once more in our pell-mell rush down the gleaming concrete. As we came to the end of the runway lights the plane jolted airward, there was an explosion of luminous cloud and we were back with the rain running its fingers up the windshield. We continued to climb, and soon we seemed to hang motionless under the stars. The stillness opened another tap of fear inside of me and I pressed my helmet hard back against my head rest to see if I could find any vibration in the seemingly lifeless plane.
After a while the cloud quilt below started to lift, wadding up in huge silver rolls. The moon turned the clouds into a black stage flat edged with silver. We flew into it, crossed a shallow silver valley, and were back in the rain.
My pilot looked at his wristwatch. "Great. Nice night. We ought to be there. I'm going down."
It had become hot in the cockpit, and I found that I had sweated an angry brown blotch through the front of my flight suit. My pilot unsnapped his mask and I did the same. The seat pushed harder against me and I knew we were coming out of a dive.
I became aware of a serpentine line of lights drawn on the ground ahead of us. "That should be U.S. 90," he said. "Love that highway. We follow it right in." He held his arms out in front of him and waggled his fingers, then reached up and grabbed the canopy handles. "Let's have some air," he said, and as he said it he slammed the canopy back and full open.
I could smell the smoke immediately, dry and corrosive smoke. My pilot smelled it, too, and he twisted as far as he could to look out his window. He dropped my wing until I was lying on my side and pointed frantically out my window and behind us. I looked out, deciding that this was what I was supposed to do; I could see nothing but the green running light at the end of the wing and past it the bright birthmark of a town. I held up my thumb, but my pilot had turned away from me and was jabbing at a horizontal bank of black buttons on the far side of the cockpit. A parallel line of little lights followed his finger and then dimmed. At the same time he pushed the black handles forward and pulled back the control stick, and we climbed back into the clouds. He looked over the dials in front of him, an orderly scrutiny, then he leaned over and looked at some more dials in front of me. He ran his fingers through his hair and I was about to say that the smoke smell seemed to be gone when a pair of large red lights winked on in the upper-right-hand corner of the cockpit. They were red eyes, bright and malevolent, and they did not dim. Each light said, eloquently, FIRE.
Time to jump
My pilot now did a number of things all at once, and they seemed to be directed mostly at me. He yanked off his lap belt. He pulled back the black handles. He pointed to my lap belt and then to me and then to the door behind me. "Go," he said. "Count three and pull."
The import of what he was saying clubbed me tangibly in the stomach: he wanted me to leave the secure world of our little lit room and jump into the air. I twisted and found that I could not control my legs. I tried to stand up and discovered I was still strapped to my seat. I grabbed for what I thought was my lap-belt buckle and found I had hold of the parachute ring. I told myself to let go of the ring and reach for the buckle. I did this and tangled my arm in the wires and hoses leading to my helmet, jerked at these and wound up holding a buckle which was not attached to anything. I finally found the bar on my lap belt, knocked it loose, and again tried to stand up. Something was holding my parachute and I sat down to try to free it. I found nothing which moved or unclamped and I had increasing trouble controlling my hands. Then we dropped out of the clouds with the unmistakable lights of an airfield beneath us.
My pilot put his hand on my knee and shook his head. "Stay with it," he said. "I think we're O.K." He told the tower we were making an emergency landing. The runway turned around once and came up quickly; the winking red lights of crash trucks moved up to meet us. We hit hard, but we were on the runway. I had not done a good job of refastening my shoulder harness and I tore something in my neck as I smashed against the loose straps. We rolled out along the runway, with the crash trucks following us, their crews bunched together in black-and-white-striped raincoats. Finally we stopped. My pilot disappeared over his edge of the cockpit. I went down my side of the plane in one great rush without missing a handhold. I walked around the front of the plane. My pilot was smoothing his hair again in the whitewash of the crash-truck headlights and smiling.