As soon as the jet was in the air, Pike went to the restroom. He washed his face and tried to clean the blood from his arms with the restroom’s thin, inadequate paper towels. He checked his face in the mirror and found signs of fatigue but no indication he was coming down with the Gray Death.
“The only good thing that’s happened all week,” he mumbled.
Returning to the cabin, he found the atmosphere to be tense. Gemma was seated next to the red-haired woman from the Brotherhood of the First. The younger woman wasn’t restrained, though the large knife in Gemma’s hand was holding her attention. She had pressed her self as deeply into the chair as she could. Across the aisle, Drake appeared to be sleeping.
Outside the windows Pike saw only white clouds, dappled by sunlight.
“Donovan!” Gemma’s voice was filled with false enthusiasm. “Our guest refuses to answer any questions about the mass murder she participated in. Do you have anything you’d like to say before I show her to the door?”
At the sight of Pike, the man who had knocked her out, the girl seemed to sink further into the chair, if that was possible. There was naked terror in her eyes. Though she appeared to be close to Gemma’s age, the Brotherhood agent looked helpless and frail. Pike didn’t believe she knew anything about the killing of Gemma’s team. He wasn’t sure if Gemma felt the same way. She may have been bluffing. On the other hand, she could be planning to drop Red into the jungle 20,000 feet below. Pike wasn’t going to let that happen. For now, though, he would play along.
“Come on, kid, at least tell us your name,” he said. “That’ll make the story better years from now when we sit around, having a few beers and say, ‘Remember that time Gemma dropped Mary Smith out of a plane to her screaming death?’”
The girl cringed.
“Hey, your name isn’t really Mary Smith, is it? That would be a hell of a coincidence.”
She started to cry. Pike suddenly felt sorry for her. He tried not to let it show on his face.
“E...e...e..” she said between sobs.
“‘E’ what?” Gemma said.
“Elizabeth,” she whispered. “Elizabeth Crassberg.”
“Okay, Elizabeth Crassberg, anything you’d like to tell us before we say our tearful goodbyes?”
Elizabeth drew in a deep, shuddering breath. She wiped the tears from her eyes. “They recruited me when I was working on my Ph.D at Cornell. They called themselves the Aegis Corporation. The company had a great reputation. Privately-funded archeological research. They were doing some of the best – and only – work outside the world of academia. And after being in school that long, working for Aegis was like a breath of fresh air. I was there for a year before I found out the truth.”
“That Aegis was a front for the Brotherhood of the First,” Pike said.
Elizabeth shook her head. Talking about her work had calmed her a bit. “Not a front. Aegis is a real company, doing solid work. But the money comes from the Brotherhood. That fact isn’t publicized since the Brotherhood has a reputation that’s, ah, a bit on the fringe.”
“If ‘fringe’ means a bunch of freakin’ whack jobs, then I agree,” Pike said.
“How did they recruit you to their cause?” Gemma said. She no longer held the knife in a threatening gesture. It rested across one thigh.
“You really don’t get it,” Elizabeth said. “There was no recruitment. The Brotherhood isn’t a cult. It’s like an ancient order of monks, interested in preserving history.”
“Would it be rude to point out how well you guys preserved El Castillo?” Pike said.
“You don’t know that. Maybe Gustav didn’t do this. Or if he did, he could have been working for someone else.” But Elizabeth didn’t sound like she believed her own theories.
Pike had a different idea.
“What if the Brotherhood of the First has divisions you don’t know about?” he said. “Maybe there’s the PR department – the guys who meet the new recruits and tell them they’re doing noble and important work. Somewhere else there’s a not-so-public division. The black ops department.”
“Ridiculous,” Elizabeth said.
Pike recalled his conversation with Jimmy Swift.
“If the Brotherhood really wants to protect historical artifacts, then they would need the means to enforce that protection,” he said.
“They have a security force,” Elizabeth said. “It’s purely defensive. The Brotherhood is a peaceful organization. They don’t go around blowing stuff up.”
A shout came from the open cockpit.
“We got trouble,” Helton announced.
Drake was instantly awake, his hand on the weapon inside his jacket.
Pike rushed to the cockpit. Helton pointed forward. The jet was barely above the cloud cover. Pike was confused for a few seconds. He didn’t know what the pilot was pointing at. Other than the clouds and blue sky, there was nothing there. Then Pike saw it.
It was little more than a dot. As he watched it grew larger.
Another aircraft was headed for them.
“Smaller than us,” Helton said. “Faster.”
“How can you tell?” Pike squinted, desperate to make out any features of the other craft.
Helton held up a pair of Steiner military binoculars. Pike took them and sighted on the other aircraft.
“Maybe they’re just lost,” he said. “Or we are.”
“Maybe,” Helton said. “Tell me what you think after you get a good look.”
Pike raised the binoculars. The magnification of the Steiner was fantastic. Once he steadied his hand and found the target, details jumped out. The other jet was black with smaller wings than he’d seen before.
“Is it experimental?” he asked Helton.
“Has to be. Otherwise I’d recognize it. But that ain’t what’s botherin’ me.”
“What do you mean?”
Once more, Pike focused on the target.
“Now concentrate on the area right above the cockpit,” Helton said.
An object protruded from the top of the plane. It was cylindrical and, like the jet, it was black.
“What is that?” Pike said.
“No idea,” Helton said.
“Is it a weapon?”
“If it is, this will be the shortest dogfight in the history of aerial combat. We got nothin’.”
The other jet was now close enough that Pike didn’t need the binoculars. Its speed was incredible. It must be 90 percent engine, with a seat in front.
“Got any ideas?” Helton said.
“Just one,” Pike said. “Run.”
Helton grinned. “We can’t outrun her, but I can head inland. Maybe find a place to set down.”
He turned to the doorway of the cockpit. The door was held open with a bungee cord.
“Hang on to somethin’, people. I need to make a course adjustment.”
Helton pulled the wheel to the port side, and the Ravenscroft jet responded. As the jet began its turn, Pike saw something on the other craft that disturbed him.
There was a series of flashes from the odd cylinder on top of what he now thought of as the enemy. Unusual flashes, like discharges of electrical energy. Only the light wasn’t white or yellow, like lightning. It was black, like the jet itself.
As Pike watched, the flashes of black started to spin around the tip of the cylinder, creating a dark pinwheel.
“What the hell is that?” Helton said.
“I don’t think we wanna know.”
As if responding to Pike’s words, the spinning black flashes coalesced into a ebony beam. The beam instantly crossed the distance between the two aircraft. The Ravenscroft jet shuddered.
Helton cursed. The jet tilted wildly and Pike slammed into the bulkhead.
‘Nothin’ good,” Helton said. “That Star Trek ray gun just sliced off one of our wings. We’re goin’ down.”
To be Continued
© Mark Justice 2010