Encounter: A Short Story (Part I)
Soaring at an altitude of 2,195 meters above sea level and velocity of 197 miles per hour, the light sky-colored charter plane came roaring out of the clouds, its tanned, middle-aged pilot skilfully maneuvering over the vast expanse of wild jungle below him. The dense, low-hanging clouds had momentarily blinded him, but the compass and flight indicators gave assurance of being on course. As the lone craft slid to a steady pace, he relaxed and let his mind uncurl itself from the official details of origin and destination. He resorted to taking in the breathtaking sights of extensive geography flashing below him.
He worked for a small charter flight company that arranged transportation of supplies to various organizations, many of which were located in regions otherwise hard to reach. Over the years, he'd gained a considerable wealth of experience, something his supervisors were proud of.
So it did not come as a surprise when he was called from home to replace a fellow pilot for this particular mission who was presently down with tonsil fever. The assignment at hand was an emergency shipment of medical supplies and relief provisions to a charity clinic in Myroni island, 5,500 miles northwest.
The sky was now clear and the rays of the afternoon sun generously distributed their energy and strength. The aviator enjoyed manning controls above such panoramic views of green landscapes laced here and there with streaks of blue. Today however, he had this feeling he could not explain, almost as though something really important was missing from his life and he had not yet discovered what it actually was. Though outwardly grappling with a list of family concerns and an unpredictably compounding work schedule, inwardly he longed for a break, the solitary environment of a good retreat.
His mind begun to go back to the recent events he had left behind in his small African district as he embarked on this trip. The health of his aging father had shown signs of improvement lately and his appetite was returning after a long battle with malaria. He reflected on the new extracurricular sports program his son had enrolled in at the local preparatory school, the exceptional progress his tutors had reported him making there. With the scope of his memory broadening, Aremon began to recall several experiences at the new suburb they had recently moved into with his family.
Yes, responsibilities were compounding as they usually did this time of the year. The search was still on for an alternative secondary school for their twin daughters, his in-laws had called for an urgent family get-together and he needed to complete his part of the legal paperwork for land jointly acquired with members of a local charity group. He thought of his immediate neighbors, workmates, friends and the church where he was a board member. True, they had been through some tough moral and financial challenges, but overall, things were getting better...
He promptly snapped back to reality. An unusual movement on the dashboard had caught his eye. He focused his attention on the instrument panel but did not see anything out of place. At first. Then suddenly, there it was again. The compass point made three clear rotations and pointed east. He blinked repeatedly and stared again.
Five more quick rotations. Southwest.
Suddenly he looked at his watch, sat up and gazed through the Head-Up Display.
Impossible! The territory he was passing now was not supposed to be there at all! Strange, he thought to himself, here I am, still in bush country at 13:43.
He had flown to Myroni before. He was meant to have passed the shoreline fifteen minutes earlier. Presently there was no ocean in sight as far as the eye could see. He obeyed his instincts and reached for the chart.
He tried to scan the scene before him from horizon to horizon but could not see a single stretch of water. The sight beyond his canopy did not seem to agree at all with the control board, the chart and the chronometer. The readings on the Primary Flight Indicator were not making any sense either. He had made this trip numerous times before and knew today something must have gone considerably awry.
He just couldn't understand. The PFI had been functioning perfectly when he left base and so was the entire instrument panel. All systems and controls had been thoroughly checked as was the usual procedure before takeoff. HASEL and other maintenance checks prior to flights were routine at the base and he knew management could not have it otherwise.
What could be the problem?
He grabbed the wireless and tried to get the controller over a two-way radio. It was so congested with traffic he had to give up after the fifth attempt. Transmission was so poor he could hardly hear anything above its crackling noise. Before he could react further, the fuselage begun to shudder.
His mind begun racing. Could it be just the currents or aircraft sabotage? He forced himself to abandon that train of thought and wiping perspiration off his brow, focused on bringing the aircraft under control.
The build-up to the stall was such that the wings were no longer having enough lift to support the weight of the craft. He tried to decrease the angle between the airfoil's chord line and the direction of airflow wind. In an attempt to generate more lift and drag, he quickly pulled the stick backwards and the elevators responded, pushing down the tail of the plane.
Other flight controls were becoming less and less responsive. He found himself wishing management had heeded the advice to have alpha-limiters installed on all company planes before resuming operations. It was an undertaking they opted to postpone in the last meeting, citing the growing budgetary need to reconcile scarce means with competing ends. Anyhow, it was too late now to think of what was unavailable. He began to pray.
He looked beyond the cockpit, then through the HUP at the features below him. Jungle, as far as the eye could see. He had already passed several clearings and was now gaining fast on dense forestland. Any hope of making a last minute detour was curtailed by further turbulence which intensified the rocking motion.
The craft was losing balance fast and heading for a nose-dive. The stall indicator had given him virtually no warning and his adjustments had come too late. His variometer cautioned him of an alarming drop and the question now was, how long would he remain airborne? His attempts to steady the plane had little effect. He tried further radio calls to no avail.
With its propellers dead, the plane was now careening out of control. Scattered rocky ledges and bushes were already flashing by with no clearing in sight. He heard the engine sputter in one last attempt to remain in the air. The craft tottered sideways, leaned precariously on one wing before plummeting noisily out of the sky toward the dense jungle underneath. Green foliage rose swiftly to meet him and in seconds he was jolted out of consciousness by the deafening impact of the crash.
Aremon was coming to. His memory was slowly gathering itself together, returning to him in stages. From a hazy blur he became steadily aware of where he was, what had transpired...the flight...turbulence...the dense thicket... the crash...
His chest hurt and his left shoulder throbbed with pain. He tried to come to terms with the situation he found himself in.
At least, he was alive.
He gave himself several moments of stillness, for his body to fully catch up with his mind during which time he began voicing a prayer. Sure enough, as he gave thanks for having survived, he felt the aching begin to subside and his vigor slowly returning. He then cautiously unstrapped himself with his good arm and lifting off the broken canopy, managed to raise himself to his feet.
He had plunged into heavy foliage and the massive branches of the trees were all that had arrested the craft from making a complete disaster in the free fall. The plane had been extensively damaged and had left a trailing mess of broken tree tops in its wake. As he looked over the wreckage, it dawned on him that he could not have made it alive except by a miracle. The fuselage was badly dented and torn, the propellers were missing and fractured parts of the left wing were hanging over the higher branches. Considering the force of the impact, he was amazed to find himself without any serious injuries.
He lowered himself back into the cockpit. The control panel had also been damaged in several parts with smashed screens and a now useless transceiver dangling on its cable. Aremon retrieved his backpack, containing personal effects and a first-aid kit, before disembarking from the plane wreckage to begin a slow, precarious descent to the base of the closest tree. Not only was he grateful for all the emergency skills he had learnt at base, he was equally glad to have taken to tree-climbing as a childhood hobby! It was a painstaking process, but he finally made it to the bottom from where he could view the spectacle of wild jungle that was before him.
Stripped to the basics, he mused. In contrast to the cramped position he had been in and the pervading odor of fuel, the fresh wind blowing here seemed to do him much good. His mind had slowly become clearer and he looked around him more objectively. There was a strange peace in his heart despite the fact he was in this territory unarmed and without knowledge of where he was.
He had no clues to unlock the mystery of his whereabouts in this vast region that reminded him of the Great Rift Valley. But he knew that was already more than three hours behind him. All was quiet here except for the buzzing of insects in the undergrowth. The gusts of wind were bringing the familiar smell of a freshwater body. Possibly a mountain spring he judged, within a short walking distance from where he was. He resolved first to find it, bathe his scrapes and wash off the dirt from his body.
Flocks of curious birds, perturbed by the noisy crash circled over the trees above, chirping and squawking. He recognized some of the plant life forms as he walked on, but couldn't remember seeing most of them in his life. The underbrush seemed strange to him, as though coming more out of an artist’s impression than from reality. At the same time, he strangely sensed that he had been here before, somehow, in a way that he could not explain.
The further he walked, the less dense the network of branches above him became and presently he was in the full heat of the sun, whose rays had been previously blocked by the thick canopy of trees. He determined to keep the direction of the plane in the background as he moved along, such that he could be able to later retrace his way without losing bearings.
What land was this? What was to be his fate here? What kinds of creatures roamed about? How was he going to get back? He began to feel quite uneasy and tried to shake away images of being suddenly ambushed by savage tribesmen and wild beasts.
Before long, he could hear the steady gushing of water becoming louder with each step. He quickened his pace, forging through the thick shrubbery and long grass.
What was that?
Was he being followed?
A peculiar noise had caught his attention. He stopped and glanced about him. All was quiet except the steady splashing of the water, the humming of the insects in the underbrush and the wafting of the wind through the leafy branches overhead. Somehow he could not shake off this uncanny feeling that he was not alone here, that someone or something was following him. He started off again, this time at a much slower pace, paying close attention to the slightest movement and noise.
The vegetation ahead of him soon opened up to reveal a wide stream bordered by long grass and thickets on both sides. Momentary relief rose inside him as he approached, promptly dropped his backpack and knelt beside it. The water was cold, pure and refreshing and he knew it had to be montane. After quenching his thirst, he took off his shirt and used it as a sponge to bathe his scratches before applying medication and adhesive bandages from his first-aid kit.
All the while, he paid keen attention to his environment, casting occasional glances about him and back at the way he had come. So far it was settling in his consciousness that his present surroundings were safe.
Or were they?
A sudden movement on the other bank arrested his attention. He promptly lifted his face from the stream, straightened and nearly froze. The tall shrubs there parted to reveal the suntanned features of a stalwart warrior, complete with a long spear and sheathed sword. His headgear and body costume added to his formidable presence and Aremon felt some apprehension building just by looking at him.
It was obvious the man had not yet seen him for he looked left and right before driving his spear into the ground and kneeling on the bank to refresh himself. From the manner in which he thirstily drank, Aremon deduced he had traveled a long way in the forest. His muscles glistened in the afternoon sun as he repeatedly splashed his face and torso with the cold water. He had the movements and comportment of a native, acquainted with the vicinity and at ease with the ways of the wild. Yet neither his features nor his attire resembled anything Aremon had seen among the indigenous tribes of Eastern and Central Africa. As he examined him closely, the pilot could see that though the man had a brown complexion, he did not appear to be African at all, or indeed like anyone he had ever met before.
The stranger's attention was so consumed with his thirst he did not notice Aremon across the bank, even when the latter rose to his feet.
A mixture of thoughts flashed through Aremon's mind. Should he disclose his presence? Once again he surveyed the armed warrior before him. Uncertain of how the man would react, he decided not to take any chances.
He begun to back off from the stream one pace at a time. As he did so, he suddenly tripped over something hard and his feet snapped several twigs as he steadied himself against a nearby trunk to avoid falling over completely.
Instantly, the stranger across the stream looked up and stared fixedly at him. A cold chill swept through the pilot and he did not know what to expect or how to react. He could only stare back. There was a brief period of silence as both sized each other up. Aremon was certain he had not encountered this type of individual before and could tell by how the warrior looked at him, that the feeling was mutual. Like the stream that separated them, they were strangers from different worlds with little in common apart from their surprise at each other's presence.
Before either could speak, new noises from the undergrowth broke their silence. The man turned as the bushes behind him parted and he was joined by a group of other warriors, tall, warlike, dressed up and armed as he was. Several of them begun to kneel for a drink, conversing in an unintelligible language.
The man immediately called for their attention and pointed across the other bank toward Aremon. As if on cue, they all abandoned their activities and became transfixed as they silently surveyed the newcomer.
Aremon found himself slowly picking up his backpack from the ground as though it contained nuclear codes. Presently, one who seemed the most elegantly dressed came forward and shouted to him across the stream in a stentorian voice. Aremon could not make out the words he spoke. So gesturing with his arms, heard himself reply,
“I am from Africa. My plane just crashed here some hours ago. Could you help me know where I am and how I can get back to my province?”
They obviously were at a loss and did not understand a thing he said. They turned around and begun to converse among themselves. They must have concluded he was a dangerous spy or enemy because without warning, one of them let out a loud cry and began pointing his way vigorously. In response, he saw the others quickly step forward, draw out their weapons, and aim them across the water body toward him.
Instinctively, Aremon dropped his pack and dove backward into the thick undergrowth. Lances and arrows flew above him and he did not have the luxury to wait and find out what else was coming. His fears had been confirmed and his first impulse was to make a break for his life.
He could already hear the heavy splashing of water as he took off and knew they were coming after him. Keeping a low profile, he made his way through the tall shrubbery and grass and once out of the area, bolted back through the woods as far and as fast as he could. He only paused briefly upon reaching a vantage point overlooking the stream and lingered long enough to glimpse the dozen or so warriors swimming their way across after him, each powerful stroke bringing them closer and closer.
He quickly zigzagged his way through some thick brushwood and overhanging boughs and finally arrived at a small clearing, where he paused to recover his breath beneath a large boulder that momentarily hid him from view. His heart was pounding in his chest and he knew he was in yet another life and death situation.
He expected the team to have split itself after crossing the stream to make their search easier and already a plan was forming in his mind. Picking up a sizeable rock from the ground, he judged the general direction from which they would emerge and made up his mind to evade them by taking a detour. Minutes went by and sure enough, a group of four warriors marched their way into the clearing, looking about in all directions. Aremon waited for just the right moment, before hurling his projectile into the air.
The awkward ruse worked. The noise of shattering twigs and dried leaves by a cluster of bushes diverted the warriors' attention and they hurried off in the wrong direction. As soon as they were out of sight, Aremon came out from behind the boulder and made off in the opposite way cautiously, hoping not to cross paths with any of the other warriors.
After a while, he paused briefly to regain his bearings. He had already covered much ground away from the area he suspected the men were combing for him. He could no longer hear their footsteps.
So it came as a shock when suddenly out of nowhere a great net fell over him, entangling his arms and legs. He struggled with the reticulated fibers but soon discovered he was unable to free himself.
This was another team of four who before long, were joined by the others from across the stream such that he eventually found himself surrounded by the entire group of attackers. Now, in close range he could see they were even more formidable than he had previously thought. Further to his apprehension, some of their halberd blades and spearheads had noticeable traces of clotted blood. His mind went back to the campfire stories he had heard of tribal savages and cannibals who inhabited primitive lands.
His prayers were growing more earnest by the minute.
The warriors held a brief conference in their language, presumably to decide his fate. Shortly, two of them approached and lifting off the cumbersome net proceeded to give him a series of sentences which he took to be some form of rebuke or reprimand in their language.
They must have chosen to defer his execution however, since the two were now taking him firmly by the arms and motioning for him to go along with them. With the rest on either side and some trailing behind, a march upon a new path began. They were returning to the stream via a different route and Aremon soon saw why. There was a narrow beam bridge connecting the two banks hitherto unnoticed by him, which they crossed and began what was going to be a long trek to an unknown destination.
Aremon was surprised by how quickly he had been outmanoeuvred and captured. He felt he had no choice now but to go along, praying as he did so. He could see from the manner they handled him, they were resolute in making sure he got no chance to escape.