The night overcast smothered the world beneath a black wet quilt, suffocating the mountains of Taiwan, the sea beyond, and the task force. When the jet finally stabbed through, it was like surfacing from the sea itself. I let out a long deep breath. To my enormous relief, the sky above was clear of cirrus, and the stars and a slice of moon were visible, silver and very near. Over the radio, I could clearly hear the ship's controller calling Pastori, who was now inbound from the southwest.

    I banked northwest, steering to pick up the China coast off Foochow. The ship's controller contacted me, but instead of routinely passing me on to Taipei control as I expected, he asked, "Are you in radio contract with Charger Four?"


    There was a long puzzling silence on the other end. I continued on. The ship called me again, but this time there was a different voice.

    "Charger Seven. This is the CIC officer. Are you in contact with Charger Four? Over."

    "Negative. What's the trouble?"

    Would you try to contact Charger Four on radio for us," the ship requested.

    I called twice, unsuccessfully, and then insisted, "What's the problem down there?"

    "Charger Four hasn't checked in yet, and we can't contact him. We may be holding him on radar, but if it is him, he's way off base to the south and not showing IFF…"

    Before the CIC officer had finished, I was banking to the south. "Vector me in on him," I demanded. Charger Four was Pastori.

    "You'll have to abort your mission. I haven't the authority…"

    "Vector me in," I repeated.

    The first voice immediately came up with the course and distance to the other plane. It was far south, and an oblique intercept at that.

    "What time did Four launch?" I asked, and checked the clock.

    The answer was bad news. Pastori did not have much time in the air left. I throttled up to full power and then cut on the afterburner. There was an explosion, and the plane surged smoothly ahead. The initial boom dissolved into a whispering hush, as the Mach needle swept to 1.0 and then moved relentlessly to 1.3 as the jet outraced the fury of its own sound. Just behind my seat raw fuel was being injected directly into the jet flames to produce a prolonged explosion that thunder could hide itself in.

    The controller automatically read off the course and distance to Pastori's aircraft. I rechecked my fuel gauge and clock. In afterburner, the plane was consuming fuel six times as fast as it did cruising at subsonic speed, but it was my only hope now of catching Pastori. The controller gave me a new course and closing distance.

    I checked my radar. There was not a hint of a contact. I was still out of range. "Is he flashing IFF yet?" I asked.


    Pastori must have had a complete electrical failure, possible a circuit fire. He was a lost and blind man flying on the tip of a fading rocket and unable to see or hear his way home. You cannot be in a worse fix in a jet and still remain airborne.

    The droning voice of the controller reported the bearing and distance again. Yet the void between Pastori and me was measured in time. Outside the cockpit only the stars were visible, and my passage in relation to them was indiscernible. Inside the aircraft, on the instruments, my course, speed, and altitude were constant, my relationship to gravity and the speed of sound unwavering. Only the clock moved steadily and, as if geared to the clock like some specific portion of time allotted to Pastori and me, the fuel indicator dropped relentlessly. The clock might cycle around and around forever, but fuel indicator, like life itself, had a definite end toward which the pointer was now falling.

    Pastori and I sailed only in time. It flowed soundlessly about the jet like a sea, wearing life away, grinding it into heartbeats and breaths and hopes that were then swept away like bits of sand.


    Copyright © Richard Setlowe, 1976



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