Epiphany: A Flying Tiger's Story
©2003 by Stephen Mark Rainey
I had just lit a cigarette and inhaled a deep lungful of smoke to celebrate my induction into the Hell's Angels' Aces Club when the staccato clatter of bullets across the back of my Tomahawk's fuselage rudely reminded me how quickly my own death could make an ace of some lucky Nip. A second later, I heard the distinctive wham-clang of a shell striking the armored plate just behind my head--the significance of which prompted me to scrunch down in my seat to present the fewest possible body parts to the gun barrels all-too-evidently aimed at my six. I bent the yoke to the right and kicked hard right rudder, rolling the plane inverted, and then yanked into a screaming split-S that sent me hurtling toward the earth at almost 400 miles per hour. Under the force of six Gs, my vision went dim, and my body felt like it was going to burst through the floor of the cockpit. Another bullet shattered the rear glass of the canopy and smashed into my instrument panel, spraying crucial fragments of the gauges into my face like a little swarm of mosquitoes. I felt a warm rivulet of blood running down my forehead and over the bridge of my nose, but controlling the plane took both hands, and I could not release the stick long enough to wipe it away.
The P-40B could outdive anything the Japanese could throw at me, so I throttled up to war emergency power, hoping to put some distance between my pursuer and me. Another couple of heavy thunks behind my head let me know that I had not gained nearly enough lead. The enemy pilot had probably seen me shoot down one of the bombers he had been charged with protecting and was now out for blood. For all I knew, there might be a whole flight of the little yellow bastards glued to my tail, or swinging around for a scissors attack that would terminate my career as ignominiously as I had terminated five of theirs.
Chancing a look back, I saw a single, mottled green silhouette not 500 feet behind me. To my surprise, it was not one of the fixed-gear Nakajima I-97s we had engaged countless times over the skies of Burma, but a sleek, low-winged fighter with retractable landing gear. This must be one of their dreaded Type Zero fighters, I thought, which meant I was in big trouble. The Zero was faster and better armed than the I-97, but my Tomahawk could still outdive it--provided his bullets didn't kill me before I could make my escape. I saw tracers zipping past my canopy, so I banked left while forcing all my weight onto the right rudder pedal, sending the plane into a sideslip that I hoped would throw off the enemy's aim. The move cost me a little speed, but the enemy's tracers were now arcing wide to the left. Glancing back again, I saw the Nip suddenly cease firing and bank away to the right. He must have realized he would never be able to catch me and decided to rejoin his flight before I drew him too far from his wingmen and possibly into a waiting trap.
Trapping him, however, was the last thing I had in mind. Right now, the best I could hope for was to land my ace-making kill at Lashio and walk away unscathed. But the chances of accomplishing even that simple feat began to appear slim, for my engine suddenly stuttered and disgorged a thick gout of black smoke that washed over the windscreen, leaving a dark, almost opaque film of oil on the glass. Apparently, the Zero's guns had done more damage than I realized. Looking over my clocks, I discovered that I was as good as blind, for the shell had taken out the altimeter, vertical speed indicator, manifold pressure gauge, and compass. A disturbing silence over my headset, and a quick check of the transmitter, told me that the radio, too, was quite dead.
I had gotten separated from my wingman when I decided to go after a lone Ki-21 Sally bomber, which had ever-so-graciously exploded with only two bursts from my .50 calibers. Now, a thorough scan of the sky assured me that I was quite alone at something around 5,000 feet, heading roughly west. Assuming I survived the day, my flight leader, Charles Older, would surely have two fits over my flying off alone, and the Old Man--our reverent epithet for Gen. Chennault--might even ground me, despite my fairly spectacular aerial victory. That prospect was almost as depressing as the rough grinding sound that now came from my engine like the rattling cough of a dying emphasemic. I found that my engine temperature gauge still worked--somewhat to my chagrin--for it had gone into the red.
My best guess was that I was well over a hundred miles from Lashio. I could try coaxing the plane nearer to friendly territory, but getting all the way home was about as likely as bagging another kill.
The oil on the windscreen was now a solid sheet of black ink. I throttled back a little and cranked the canopy open so I could lean my head out to see where I was going. The improved visibility, however, only sent my spirits plunging further, for I now saw a trio of dark shapes, slightly above me at three o'clock, heading in my direction; a typical Japanese vic formation rather than an American four-plane section. As they closed in, I realized that these were Ki-43 Hayabusas--similar in design to the Zero, but underpowered and undergunned; not that this fact consoled me one whit under the circumstances. Even as I decided to go for broke and firewall the throttle, my engine choked a final time and died, spitting a few tentative streamers of flame from the exhaust pipes. Then the blaze began in earnest--a roiling firestorm that swept over the foresection of the fuselage toward the cockpit. I felt the heat as a few stray tongues of gold lapped in through the open canopy.
There was no way to ride this out. Praying the oncoming Japanese were poor marksmen--for they generally had no qualms about strafing a parachuting opponent--I unfastened my seat harnesses, made sure my chute was secure, and threw a leg over the rim of the cockpit. Then, pulling on the yoke with one hand to roll the plane on its side so I wouldn't be swept back into the tail, I kicked myself away from the firestorm that had been my trusty ride for the last three months, counted to five, and hit the silk.
As my chute billowed open, my back wrenched with the sudden deceleration. The roar in my ears became a gentle whisper, and the fierce, slapping wind in my face became a soft caress. I took a moment to evaluate the sensations in my body, noting that my hands and fingers tingled like I was clutching a handful of buzzing bees, and my feet felt like they had been immersed in flame. At least the pain in my back didn't seem serious; sometimes a chute opening can give you a case of whiplash. But at least until I hit the ground, I thought, it looked like I was going to live.
Or so I reckoned until I heard the low drone of engines drawing nearer. The three Japs were in formation above me, making an easy turn to the left--probably watching the plummeting fireball in the distance. I had intentionally waited until I had fallen a dangerous distance before pulling the rip cord, hoping they would either not see my chute open or at least decide against making a perilous strafing run at low altitude. As it was, looking down, I could see an endless expanse of dense rainforest no more than a thousand feet beneath my dangling legs. The thickly clustered trees did not bode well for a soft landing on mother earth; I was hardly out of the woods yet, so to speak.
A distant flare of light captured my attention, and I looked westward to see a ball of flame and smoke mushrooming into the air above the trees. My P-40 had met its end in the jungle, and I sincerely hoped my own fate would be less violent. It took several seconds for the thunder of the explosion to reach my ears.
The Japs continued on their course, and for a minute it looked like they, at least, would play no part in my possibly imminent demise. But before they disappeared into the distant clouds, the Hayabusas began to veer to the left, finally swinging back in my direction. As they descended rapidly and directly toward me, the sound of their engines rose angrily like an onrushing swarm of hornets.
"Jesus," I whispered to myself and reached for the Colt .45 secured snuggly in my shoulder holster. Its solid weight reassured me, and I tried not to think about the effect that a stream of 12.7mm machine gun bullets would have on a human body. The lead plane looked like it had a flawless bead on me; its cowl-mounted guns virtually ensured that the pilot could not miss. As little more than a desperate gesture, I raised my .45, took as careful aim as I could, and tightened my finger on the trigger as the enemy fighter closed the distance between us at horrifying speed. When it was 300 yards away, I saw bright flashes above the engine cowling, and a stream of tracers slashed the air a mere yard to my right. I pulled the trigger, and the pistol jumped in my hands. I barely heard the report over the sound of the plane's engine. Again and again I fired, though I don't think a single bullet went anywhere near the cockpit. But somehow, none of his shots came any closer than those first rounds, and in a second, the fighter banked hard to the left and zoomed past me, catching me in its slipstream and spinning me like a top in my chute harness.
I expected the planes to come around again, but by now, I was drifting closer and closer to the treetops, and my first concern turned from my attackers to the thickly clustered branches below me. I could see no break in the foliage, no sign of solid earth beneath the verdant canopy. The harsh drone of engines grew louder again, and glancing eastward, I saw the three Japs turning toward me once again, evidently determined to make a last strafing run on me. I had expended all the ammo in the clip, so I could no longer even shoot back. The only comforting thought I had was that, by the time the fighters got back into firing range, I might already be hanging from a limb with a broken neck, spared the agony of having my body shredded by the enemy's bullets.
And then a curious thing happened. Between me and the approaching Hayabusas, a smoky, shimmering curtain seemed to suddenly rise from the jungle like a roiling heat-haze, only partially transparent, turning the fighters into distorted, birdlike silhouettes that appeared curiously two-dimensional. The sound of their engines became muffled, as if a solid mass had intervened itself between the planes and me. I was so surprised by this phenomenon that for a moment I forgot the fact that I was only seconds from striking the topmost branches of the trees below. And then, suddenly, the lead fighter seemed to slam into an invisible brick wall, for it exploded violently, hurling pieces of itself in all directions like a pinata full of liquid fire that had been smashed by a giant club. The other two Japs didn't even have time to react; a second later, both of them disappeared in fireballs like their leader, the sounds, if not the force, of the explosions also strangely muffled.
But my thoughts on this bizarre incident suddenly vaporized as my feet struck something hard. Looking down, I saw a giant hand of leaf-covered branches reaching for me, and I could not refrain from crying out in pain and terror as it first grabbed and then pummeled me mercilessly. Something jabbed me in the chest forcefully enough to knock the breath out of my lungs, and a flurry of stinging whips lashed my face, drawing blood. I had shut my eyes the moment I dropped into the branches, but even so, I had the impression of the light around me suddenly disappearing, as if I had fallen into a bottomless well. And then I felt myself jolted violently and painfully as my descent halted with shocking abruptness. Pain arced up my spine, and my body swung sideways as my chute tangled itself in the lattice of treelimbs. I struck the bole of a mammoth teak tree with terrific force, which drove the breath I had started to regain right back out of my lungs.
A minute or two passed while I hung dazed and incognizant, my mind unable to register the fact that I was no longer falling, that my feet were nowhere near the ground, or even that I was still alive. When realization finally began to dawn on me, the first thing that struck me was the utter silence of the surrounding darkness; a total, oppressive, and eerie lack of sound that made me wonder if I had been struck deaf. The second thing to become clear to me was that I was hanging a good hundred feet above the ground without so much as a nearby limb to grasp that might help me out of this predicament.
The darkness beneath the jungle canopy was almost as horrible as the silence. When I looked up, I could see multitudes of brilliant gold streamers fighting their way through minute breaks in the foliage, but none of them seemed to find their way to ground. Below, a shadowy pit leered at me like some sentient beast, daring me to unfasten my straps and drop into its eager maw. I might have risked it had there been a ghost of a chance I could survive the fall, even if it meant sustaining severe injuries. But the darkness could not hide the fact that such a drop would be indubitably fatal.
Reaching over my head--with some difficulty, as the harnesses restricted my arms' range of movement--I gave my lines a tentative tug, thinking I might somehow haul myself up to the limbs that had so rudely denied my passage to earth. I quickly found that this prospect offered little hope, for even that slight additional pressure sent me swaying precariously, and I heard the disturbing, unmistakable sound of fabric starting to rip above me. Even if I made my way into the branches of these tall teak trees, I would end up stranded in an only slightly less ticklish situation; shy of rapelling, or grappling my way with pitons, I could see no means of getting down the towering, limbless trunks. And as I had no means to do either, trying to unhang myself, at least for the moment, presented a graver threat to my health and well-being than remaining where I was.
I took a few deep breaths to steady my jangling nerves and tried to calmly assess the prospects for surviving the foreseeable future. It seemed that if I didn't move too violently, falling would not be an immediate danger. The survival kit fastened to my belt contained rations and water for three days, and some first aid supplies. I found that, at some point, I had shoved my Colt back into its holster. I still had two clips of ammo in my flight jacket, and a bowie knife sheathed at my waist. Other than a few bruises and minor lacerations, I didn't seem to have any injuries that would cause significant complications.
Aside from the small matter of being stuck at an unpleasant altitude without an obvious means of remedy, all in all, I was in pretty good shape.
Again, my brain began to register the fact that the darkness around me was uncharacteristically and uncomfortably silent. Ordinarily, the rainforest buzzed, chirped, whined, and yowled with the sounds of life. A couple of the airfields where I had been stationed had been built literally at the edge of the jungle, and even at a distance from the thick of the trees, one could always hear a cacophony of animal and insect sounds like a dismal orchestra. And now my thoughts returned to the bizarre phenomenon that had brought about the destruction of those three enemy fighters. Certainly, I felt no pity or sympathy for their plight; if I'd had my way, I would have dispatched them myself, had the condition of my airplane allowed it. However, the fact that something unknown and presumably still nearby could have accomplished such a thing gave me pause, for here I hung, a mere, mortal human in a desperate situation, subject to the whim of any natural--or unnatural--force that saw fit to have its way with me.
I could not help but believe that this uncanny silence was somehow related to the force had destroyed the Hayabusas. I replayed the scene in my mind time after time--the vision of the strange, wavering haze that seemed to instantaneously emerge from thin air; the weirdly distorted silhouettes of the planes before they exploded, appearing almost as if through a convex, smoke-coated lens; the curious muffling of sound that inarguably corresponded to the manifestation of the thing I had witnessed. In all my experience as a fighter piliot, of walking hand in hand with death on a daily basis, I don't believe I had ever felt so thoroughly terrified by my condition as a solitary, fragile, and ultimately miniscule being as I did now.
I had bailed from my plane at approximately 14:20 hours; a glance at my watch told me that, a mere six minutes ago, I had been engaged in a heated battle in the sky. I desperately examined the trees around me, ever-hopefully seeking some limb, some vine, anything that might offer a way out of this fix. But there was nothing. The nearest branches large enough to support my weight looked to be 15 to 20 feet away; too far to try swinging toward them, even if my chute didn't rip in the attempt. And again, even if I could reach them, I would never be able to make my way down the pillar-like trunks without falling.
I felt a pang of despair that I quickly forced behind the wall of discipline I had erected through months of training and exercise. I had to calmly consider the fact that, in a matter of moments, my whole perspective on the world had been profoundly altered. From the sky, the earth appears at once vast and minute; though the horizon stretches to limits that cannot be seen from any point on the ground, distances seem deceptively short. The river that meanders through an endless expanse of green forest may seem a scant few hundred feet away, while in reality it is many miles distant. The clouds that hover placidly nearby appear as soft, beckoning puffs of vapor, but if one flies into them, he may find himself caught in a blinding, swirling maelstrom that fiercely resists his plane's passage through it. From up there, one looks down and sees a small, mundane, peaceful planet that looks to be one thing, but that in reality may be something else entirely.
Here and now, beneath the dark jungle canopy, I had no idea what the world had become.
The one thing of which I could be certain was that no help was going to come. No one, save three dead Japanese pilots, knew where I had bailed out. I was still deep in enemy-occupied territory, where rescue attempts often failed even if the approximate whereabouts of a downed pilot were known. Scattered regiments of the Burma Rifles sometimes scouted behind the lines, but they would generally skirmish only briefly with the advancing Imperial Japanese Army, then retreat and regroup to fight again elsewhere. The chances of one of their patrols happening upon me were slim to none. No, if any human were likely to find me at all, he would almost certainly have a name like Fujiyama, or Takarada, or Yamamoto, or some such. In that event--truly a worst-case scenario--I would be better off releasing my straps and deliberately plummeting than allowing myself to be captured. The Nips were not known for the courteous and hospitable treatment of guests who did not have slanty eyes.
A sudden, nearby squawk startled me, sending my hand automatically flying for the pistol in my shoulder holster. My heart nearly burst two or three times before I realized that I had just heard the shrill call of a bird. A moment later, a distant chirp clawed its way through the silence, and after a few seconds, a reply came from somewhere yet farther away. And then the rainforest was alive again, with sounds of life exploding from every corner of the darkness: screeches, clicks, rustles, shrieks, grumbles, and grunts, all of which intimated a return of normalcy to the setting, for all that this did not reassure me. I knew that some of the creatures making those noises might not be much more congenial to visitors than the Japanese.
Before I consciously understood why my hand had reached into my jacket pocket, I had inserted a cigarette between my lips and was flicking my battered old butane lighter with trembling fingers. The smoke washing down my throat and into my lungs was an instant balm, a tiny little moment of routine that, beyond all proportion to the gesture, forced the alienness of my position to some far corner of my mind, allowing me to indulge for at least a scant few minutes in pure joie de vivre. I took a small measure of comfort in the fact that most of the pack was left.
I decided that, until I reached for my last cigarette, I would not even begin to contemplate how truly desperate a human being could become.
For a time, the cigarette satisfied me, permitted me to focus on something other than a hopeless outlook. But once I tossed the butt into the shadows below, I realized that I was uncomfortably hot. No, I was roasting. I was still wearing my heavy flight suit and jacket, and the temperature in the jungle was probably in the 90s. Up at 20,000 feet, in an unpressurized cockpit, with what is at the best of times an inadequate heater, the air is freezing. You can't wear enough layers up there, at least until the heat of combat begins to break the chill. The realization that I couldn't even maneuver myself to take off my jacket first depressed me, then infuriated me, for to me, the greatest anathema of all was to be forced to await death in utter discomfort. Unfortunately, nearly everything about my current situation pointed to just such an unhappy conclusion.
"Well, shit," I said, my voice seeming to come from somewhere above the canopy, up in the free, blue sky.
I knew I was trying to think about anything and everything but the fact that something had destroyed those Japanese planes, had lurked in the darkness somewhere appallingly nearby, and had finally gone away, as the renewed voices of animal life clearly indicated. But my instincts screamed to me that, whatever it was, it had not gone for good. And while I might ordinarily wish to shake by the hand anyone or anything that could casually bat three enemy fighters cleanly out of the sky, I was fairly certain that I did not care to meet whatever nameless power hid in the depths of this rainforest.
I suppose that every fighter pilot constantly plots in his head all kinds of scenarios that might result in his ultimate demise, and I am no exception. Six months ago, I had resigned my commission in the Marines and joined the American Volunteer Group, commonly known as the Flying Tigers, mainly for the money and the chance to get away from routine duty stateside. And, at the time, it had simply seemed the right thing to do. Not that I had any grandiose ideas of glory or other such illusions. I knew I might die in combat, or be maimed for life, or get captured by a barbarian foe. I knew I might even be killed parachuting from a stricken aircraft. Yet I would never have counted on things working out quite like this. Of course, as yet, I was not entirely dead and therefore not quite ready to give up the ghost; however, I could scarcely afford to cling to any vain hope of rescue, or my final remaining moments, whenever they were destined to arrive, would be bitter indeed.
Sweat had begun to trickle down my forehead and into my eyes, and I was just about to remove my flight helmet when I felt a disconcertingly heavy thump right on top of my head. Something slithered onto my shoulder, and rolling my eyes downward, I saw a yellow and black centipede, some six inches long, with great stalk-like antennae and prodigious mandibles, deftly crawling toward my collar. With an involuntary cry of "yaaah!" I swept it away and watched it fall, wriggling, into the dark pit below.
So I resigned myself to suffering the heat and left my flight helmet on my head.
And smoked another cigarette.
Now and again, some brightly-colored winged beast would swoop past me, occasionally issuing an indignant squawk as if perturbed by the presence of an intruder in its territory--never minding the fact that the intruder was no less perturbed by his own inability to withdraw to better quarters. Once, I shifted restlessly, trying to make myself at least marginally comfortable, but a sharp ripping sound prompted me to freeze my muscles and hold my breath until I thought my lungs would burst. Finally, I exhaled deeply, now more angered than ever that I could barely even shift my position to keep my circulation from being cut off. My parched mouth and throat convinced me that what I really needed was a cold beer or several. This was a shame, since the knowledge that I would probably never be able to drink another only served to deepen my depression. I settled for carefully unhooking my canteen from my belt and taking a meager swig of water.
After a time, a light breeze came through, helping to relieve some of the heat and humidity, and a slight deepening of the darkness hinted that storm clouds might be gathering overhead. In this part of the world, dense cumulus clouds tended to pile up during the early part of the day and unleash furious torrents late in the afternoon. I welcomed the draft of cooler air, but I was now afraid that a storm would rock the trees enough to send me falling to the earth. But so far, the gentle wind had set me swaying only slightly, without dire effect. I took this as a good sign and lit another cigarette.
Soon, the rain began to fall, and low thunder rumbled menacingly in the distance. I expected a deluge at any moment, but the thick foliage seemed to be catching most of it. Only a few token droplets occasionally splashed onto my head and shoulders, and while I happily let any available water trickle into my mouth, I refused to lean my head back, open my mouth, and catch the rain, for fear that another centipede or kindred monster might drop in unexpectedly. The wind remained low and nudged me gently, but never buffeted me severely enough to dislodge me. And within a half-hour, the rain moved on, and I could feel the humid heat returning as the sun again reigned high above the jungle.
Now, though, as the afternoon began to wane, a dread of the coming night settled heavily upon me; every nerve in my body railed against the idea of hanging helplessly in this place once the sun had gone down. Something told me that the presence that had destroyed those Japanese fighters belonged to the night, and that I would be far better off simply perishing than coming face to face with whatever it was.
Indeed, as evening began to settle over the jungle, the sounds of the native creatures rose to an agitated cacophony, louder and more furious than anything I had heard in my experience. And as the last golden beams that filtered through the trees withered and died, thrusting me into a boundless ebony abyss, the shrieking chorus abruptly, spontaneously ceased. Like in those first moments after I dropped beneath the canopy, the silence screamed in my ears. I dreaded taking a breath for fear that the sound might be detected by something I fervently prayed did not exist.
It was too dark here. There should have been at least a single glimmer of moonlight breaking through the foliage. But there was not. Looking up, I tried to make out at least a single star, some reflection of light against a cloud.
For what seemed like hours, the loudest sound I heard was the accelerated, heavy thumping of my heart. The rational part of my mind tried to refute my perceptions, insisting that such a crushing silence amid a veritable ocean of life was simply not possible, that I was suffering some kind of delusion due to the trauma of being shot down and left in a position that almost certainly spelled death. Yes, it was much easier to wish that I had at least temporarily taken leave of my senses, that the source of this aberration lay within me, rather than out there. Because if it really were out there, then I hung on the verge of departing this existence with a worldview so skewed from reality that my only choice in my last remaining moments was to despair.
Sound returned sometime later; minutes, hours...I have no idea. The sound was a low, whispering moan, drifting through the darkness from some vast distance like the wheels of a lonely train sighing on the rails. And then I heard--or rather felt--a deep, rumbling thud, not unlike the concussion of a howitzer from afar. I actually prayed that it was the sound of guns, if for no other reason than I could attribute it to human activity--a concept that had never been more important to me than it was now. But even that little hope was to be dashed; a few moments later, the sound came again...and again: a slow, rhythmic, bass beat like the living heart of an unimaginable giant. It did not seem to be moving closer or farther away. It was just there, and continued beating for an interminable period of time.
Then the nauseating feeling of being watched seized me like an iron fist.
Truly, I was being tortured or toyed with. I could feel my emotions being consumed, savored by the dark, malevolent presence that held dominion in this place. Though I could see nothing, I knew I could be seen; I wanted to cower, to hide, even to fall.
Or so I thought until I felt a subtle tug on my chute lines and I began to sway slowly back and forth.
I gasped in shock, for no wind had whisked through the trees to set me in motion. The deep thumping continued in the distance, but seemed to increase in fervor as I swung faster and faster. Unable to stop myself, I cried, "No!", only to hear my voice echo strangely through the trees, its supplicating tone becoming mocking, as if articulated by other lips. I was going to fall; I knew I was going to fall. Yet I could hear nothing of silk being shredded in the limbs above, and my perception that something had actually taken hold of the lines became more pronounced. The nightmarish ramifications of such a possibility froze my vocal cords so that I could not even cry out.
Then, in the limbs above, I heard the sharp snapping sound of limbs being broken. But I did not drop; if anything, I felt as if I were being lifted...and a moment later, a sudden brush of leaves and creepers over my head and shoulders confirmed this suspicion. I was being pulled out of the branches! But under the circumstances, rather than rejoicing, I could only wish to be right back where I had been for the whole of the afternoon. With this incredible development, I felt that my demise was no less certain, though perhaps more extravagant.
For a half-second, the idea of drawing my gun and firing blindly skyward had a certain morbid appeal, but the instinct for self-preservation prevailed, convincing me that I didn't really want to hasten my death or exascerbate any suffering my captor intended to inflict due to my annoying it. Now, in addition to a few branches, I felt the wind slapping my face, apparently from acceleration. The sheer helplessness I felt, the sense of being no more significant than an ant, very nearly reduced me to a mindless, cowering brute, no longer capable of reasoning or even coherent thought. A strange odor swelled on the wind, washing over me in thick and sticky waves--a stench something between roasted flesh and burning sulfur. It quickly became so cloying that I nearly retched.
But then, I beheld a wondrous sight: light! It was pale and ghostly and immeasurably distant, but it was light.
The moon. The gibbous moon looking down on the same expanse of jungle I had flown over earlier that afternoon. Though my present situation precluded anything like real jubilation, my heart nearly burst with excitement at the sight of something I had come to believe I would never see again. At least, I thought, if this were to be the moment of my death, I would feel less alone. The eye of the night itself would be my witness. The dispelling of that darkness did something to my soul, offered me a new hope that I could face whatever unfolded as something other than a paralyzed victim.
Peering all around me, I tried to determine what was happening to me--and how it was happening. The what was simple enough; I was flying through a moonlit, midnight-blue sky at an incredible velocity, being whipped by a frigid wind that--for the moment--felt like a refreshing draft after having sweltered in the ungodly tropical heat for so long. The jungle below appeared as an expanse of gray and black shadows, and far in the distance I could see a reflection of moonlight on water--undoubtedly the northern reaches of the Irrawaddy River. But even in the moonlight, I could no more see the thing that held me than I could in the pitch darkness. By all appearances, I was simply hurtling through the sky as if launched by a catapult. Looking up and back, I saw the remains of my chute trailing like the tail of a kite, and for a brief, hopeful moment I thought that, should my unknown means of suspension suddenly fail, my chute might actually open and lower me safely to the ground. But no; the lines had become hopelessly tangled, and I could see enough holes in the silk to confirm that the parachute was no longer a useful device.
All the time I was moving, I perceived a sense of climbing higher, and sure enough, I now realized the wispy clouds above no longer seemed so distant. Below, the earth had again become a black pit, disturbingly like the darkness of the jungle I had left behind. I knew I must have reached an incredible altitude, yet I could still breathe, and the fingers of the wind, though cold, did not claw painfully at me as I would have expected at this height and speed. I now began to consider the fact that I might actually be dreaming; certainly, it seemed the most logical possibility, although, in a curious way, the hard edge of reality had never seemed so profoundly clear to me. But perhaps the day's experience had proven too much for my mind, and it had simply vacated the fatally situated shell of my body. Might I not still be hanging from a tree in the Burmese jungle, suffering from hallucinations, or journeying into some dreamland whose vividness belied its fanciful origin?
Peering at the shadowed earth receding beneath me, and the ever-brightening crystal stars above, all I could think was, "Fuck no."
Increasingly, I was coming to the chilling conclusion that I might already be dead.
I no longer had idea whether I felt afraid, excited, sad, exhilarated, or any combination of these. As the seconds of forever ticked by, I looked down and saw only a faceless plane of pure black, while above and around me, the light of countless stars burned cold and unblinking, as if undistorted by any atmosphere. Their clarity, and their sheer number, convinced my last doubting sense that I had traveled somewhere far beyond the confines of my home planet; yet my body continued to function normally--if the term "normal" could any longer be applied.
With my perception of time completely ruined, I could not guess how long I remained in this state; it seemed a long time indeed. Eventually, though, I began to notice a subtle change in my environment, the vague suggestion that something was about to happen. I realized then that one of the stars ahead glowed more brightly than its neighbors, with a hot, greenish flame that blazed like a beacon. Soon, I could actually see it growing in size--or I should say looming larger, as my flight propelled me toward it. Something about this star unsettled me. Not the fact that I might fly into its heart and be instantaneously burned to a cinder, but that the thing was not actually a star at all. It was something else entirely.
Now, my mind shrieked that, surely, I must be dead, and that for my sins I had been condemned to some hellish domain more horrific than anything the Bible or other holy book could have elucidated. What I saw now was some kind of entity--sentient and malevolent--with a face of fiery plasma, surely thousands of miles across, watching and waiting for me. I could see a filmy, translucent sphere of many shifting shades of green enclosing what appeared to be a disembodied head, its features composed of pure jade flame and black shadow. Its eyes were hollow pits that opened to some distant dimension of outer space; ebony and impenetrable they were, yet undeniably cognizant. Though its face shone as bright as the sun, I could look upon it and see every detail all too clearly; in fact, try as I might, I could not avert my eyes.
The one undeniable reality of this nightmare was that the thing knew me, anticipated my arrival. I became aware of this as if a voice had told me so, though the silence through which I sailed was absolute, except for the frantic pounding of my own heart.
This awesome mien continued to expand in my field of vision, though I could tell it was yet hundreds or thousands of miles away. Within its globular, translucent casing, I could now see hundreds of spidery filaments of green light that formed intricate, weblike patterns woven through the space between the casing and the blazing face itself. Among the webs, I began to detect dark shapes that climbed and crawled along the strands, seemingly with purpose and deliberation, and when my mind began its inevitable conjecturing as to their intent, I could not keep from screaming loud and long into the void. I heard the sound in my ears, though whether anything actually escaped my lips, I cannot guess.
Gradually, I perceived a swirling black cloud forming in the center of the bright sphere, eventually growing larger and moving faster until it became a gargantuan, rapidly spinning vortex. But like the hollow eyes that peered at me, this aperture led to other spaces, for within it, I could make out indistinct shapes and colors as if through a warped lens, their forms suggestive but never quite defined. Above the pounding of my heart, I could now hear some kind of musical trilling and chirping--a shrill cacophony of unearthly woodwinds, like a threnody piped by insane flautists. For a moment it brought to mind the songs of the jungle insects I had left behind, and I felt a brief pang of longing to return to my own lost reality, where the only threat looming before me was a quick and possibly painless death.
The whirling maelstrom, limned by brilliant green highlights like a fiery corona, now dominated my entire field of vision. Still, around the edges of this yawning orifice, I could make out hundreds of those dark, spiderlike things scuttling and skittering frenetically, as if laboring at some elaborate design. Deep within the depths of the chasm, something shifted and pulsated, like a half-seen black heart that beat rapidly and violently.
The sounds of piping rose to a fever pitch, and I rocketed into the chasm at unimaginable speed, surrounded on all sides by shades of ebony and onyx so intense they burned my eyes. How could my heart continue to beat while my body, my entire life essence, was consumed by this monstrous, infinitely-deep mouth that had opened in the void of outer space? Where was I going, and why? Try as I might, I could not will my heart to stop. I remained fully, horribly, and irrevocably alive and aware. The piping noises became a terrible, constantly rising shriek--not unlike the tortured wail of my old P-40's engine in its screaming, final dive.
Far away in the onrushing blackness, I saw a strange, distant glimmer; a greenish filament that wavered and swayed hypnotically, almost like the glowing tendril of some unimaginably huge sea creature. Then I saw more and more of these: a blossoming flower of glowing strands as wide as a galaxy. And the things were there, those black, crawling monstrosities, drawing nearer and growing larger with every second. Huge...ferocious...ravenous.
One of them, a scorpion-like thing, no smaller than the planet Earth itself, slowly rotated on an axis of arced, segmented appendages, its myriad eyes glowing red and green and focused on me. I saw a bristly array of jointed arms rise, and millions of barbed claws spreading wide as if to grasp an offered morsel.
Behind it, something even blacker, and infinitely larger, began to stir.
And I continued to hurtle toward it, screaming, as around me, the shrieking, piping music built to a crescendo--the sound of exquisite torment, simultaneously unleashed by every soul in God's own hell.
The voice crept toward me through a black velvet veil, and at first I resisted reacting to it. I was warm and comfortable and somewhere far from the source of the sound.
"Jack, can you hear me?"
I thought perhaps the voice was calling my name. Strange.
I opened my eyes and saw light. It was vague, without form; but something in the light was moving. After some time, things began to crystallize and I saw figures--human figures--some shuffling around in a sunlit room, others leaning over me, their faces shadowed with concern.
One of them wore the long white coat of a military physician. Two other men in khaki stood next to my bed with searching, inquisitive faces.
"He's opened his eyes," the doctor said in a soft, baritone voice. "I think he's coming out of it."
With a concerted effort, I raised my hand, held it up before my eyes. It was my hand, yes. At least, it looked like my hand.
"Where am I?" I managed to whisper.
"Kunming," one of the khaki-clad figures said. After a time, I recognized him as my flight leader, Chuck Older. "We've pulled out of Lashio."
"How long have I been here?"
"Three days. You've been out for almost a week."
I struggled to remember what could have brought me to this point. The last thing I recalled was darkness...a terrible, green flame...a monstrous face...flying.
The other man leaned over me. It was Parker Dupouy, our vice squadron leader. "Thought we'd lost you, Wyndham. We'd about given up on you."
"How did I get here?"
Chuck Older gazed at me with concern. "A regiment of the Burma Rifles found you. Just a few more miles and you would have made Lashio."
I tried to remember, but something didn't seem right. "I was a long way from Lashio. I remember...I bailed out. Got hung in a tree."
"From what they told us, you must have been wandering around for days. Didn't know how you got there, where you came from. Doc says you've probably got a concussion, but otherwise, you're pretty sound. Could've been a lot worse."
"I made ace," I whispered.
Older and Dupouy chuckled. "You made ace," Chuck said.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I could hear my heart beating in my chest. My back ached, but it was a dull, dimming pain that would go away soon.
"We'll leave you alone," Dupouy said. "Glad to have you back."
"Yeah," I said. "Glad to be here."
The image in the mirror looked like the Jack Wyndham I had known forever. When I moved my arm, the image moved its arm. When I opened my mouth, the image opened its mouth. And the voice sounded like my voice. A tired, strained voice--as if my vocal cords had been worn out from screaming--but it was mine.
But there was something else I couldn't quite identify, something not right, both about the way I felt, and about the reflection in the mirror. I remembered hanging in a tree for what seemed like days; a terrible, complete darkness; the sounds of chirping and screeching; and then...that terrible music.
And sailing through the stars.
Yes...I had seen what I had seen; I knew this with the conviction of genuine faith. I had not dreamed it. I had not suffered any kind of hallucination due to extreme trauma. Where I had gone and why I had gone there, I did not know. The only thing I was certain of was that I had been there.
And I had brought something back with me.
When I gazed closely at the face in the mirror, the lines in the face, the shape of the nose, the jawline, the stubble of beard, the narrow ears, all of these things were mine.
But before I had taken that last flight, my eyes had been violet blue, not jade green.
Yes, there was something out there, something in the jungle but from somewhere else. I don't know what it is, though I am sure it still holds sway in that dark, virtually untrodden corner of our planet. Or at least some aspect of it, some incomplete portion of a much greater whole. Part of it resides somewhere infinitely distant from this world, and I was, for a brief time, transported to its source.
I think it has come here to explore, to learn. Perhaps to judge. And now, another portion of it has left the jungle. Wherever I go, it is there. It is with me, and it sees through my eyes. It knows what I know, feels what I feel. I sometimes wonder if I am some kind of test subject, a laboratory animal meant to perform for its edification. I cannot forget that I was found wandering in a place far, far from where I bailed from my burning plane. I could never have escaped from that terrible plight on my own.
I am reasonably certain that, at that time, I did, in fact, die, but was sent back here for a purpose. It had a reason for taking my body and soul and then returning me to an environment where, through me, it may move among us, study us, determine our nature and methods; to simply learn what it means to be a member of the dominant species of this planet.
As for me, I will go back to my duty. To fly and fight, and very likely to kill or be killed.
As for the other, I do not believe that it is going to like what it finds here. And I very much doubt that we, as a people, are going to like what happens on the day it reveals itself.
RETURN TO MAIN