It is not fatal, but they glance at the severed pipe together and, as if in response, the noise of the engine doubles. They will have to live with it for the rest of the trip now, but Alcock knows how the engine roar can make a pilot fall asleep, that the rhythm can lull a man into nodding off before he hits the waves. It is fierce workhe can feel the machine in his muscles. The sheer tug through his body. The exhaustion of the mind. Always avoiding cloud. Always looking for a line of sight. Creating any horizon possible. The brain inventing phantom turns. The inner ear balancing the angles until the only thing that can truly be trusted is the dream of getting there.
WHEN THEY ENTER the layers between the clouds, there is no panic. They tug on their fur helmets, reposition their goggles, wrap their scarves around their mouths. Here we go. The terror of a possible whiteout. The prospect of flying blind. Cloud above. Cloud below. They must negotiate the middle space.
They climb to escape, but the cloud remains. They drop. Still there. A dense wetness. Can't just blow it away. I'll huff and I'll puff. Their helmets, faces, shoulders are soaked with the moisture.
Brown sits back and waits for the weather to clear so he can guide the plane properly. He looks for a glint of sun on the wingtip, or a breakout into blue, so he can find a horizon line, make a quick calculation, shoot the sun for longitude.
The aircraft swings from side to side, fishtailing in the turbulence. The sudden loss of height. It feels as if their seats are falling away from them. They rise once more. The ceaseless noise. The bump. The heart skip.
Light fading, they come upon another gap in the upper layer of clouds. The sun falling red. Down below, Brown gets a brief glimpse of sea. A split-second curve of beauty. He grabs the spirit level from the floor. Tilts it, straightens. A quick calculation. We're at 140 knots approx, on general course, a bit too far south and east.
Twenty minutes later they come upon another huge bank of cloud. They rise to a gap between layers. We will not get above the clouds for sunset. We should wait for dark and stars. Can you get above at, say, 60 deg? Alcock nods, banks the plane, curls it slowly through space. Red fire spits through the fog.
They both know the games the mind can play if caught in cloud. A man can think a plane is level in the air, even if laid on its side. The machine can be tilted towards doom and they might fly blithely along, or they could crash into the water, no warning. They must keep a lookout for any sight of moon or star or horizon line.
So much for the bloody forecast, scribbles Brown, and he can tell from Alcock's response, in the gentle pull-back of the engine, the slight caution in the movement, that he is worried, too. They pull their collars up into the wet slap of weather. Beads of moisture slide upwards along the open windscreen. The battery in the seat between them still sends faint pulses of warmth through the wires in their suits, but the cold is shrill around them.
Brown kneels on his seat, leans over the edge to see if he can find any gap, but there is none.
No range of vision. 6500 feet. Flying entirely by dead reckoning. We must get through the upper range of cloud. Heating fading fast, too!
THE BONES IN their ears ring. The racket is stuck inside their skulls. The small white room of their minds. The blast of noise from one wall to the other. There are times Brown feels that the engines are trying to burst out from behind his eyes, some metal thing grown feral, impossible now to lose.
THE RAIN COMES first. Then the snow. A prospect of sleet. The cockpit has been designed to keep most of the weather at bay, but hail could rip the cloth wings asunder.
They lift into softer snow. No light. No relief. They hunker down as the storm thuds around them. More snow. Harder now. They drop once more. The flakes sting their cheeks and melt along their throats. Soon the white begins to drift around their feet. If they could rise above and look down, they would see a small open room of two helmeted figures pelting through the air. Stranger than that, even. A moving room, in the darkness, in a screech of wind, two men, the top of their torsos growing whiter and whiter.
Excerpted from TransAtlantic by Colum McCann. Copyright © 2013 by Colum McCann. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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