Adam squinted at the gray skies and ashen tundra before him as his Cessna approached Mount McKinley. The green-gray plains, speckled with herds of caribou, sprawled below him and lapped like emerald waves at the base of the mountain. As he approached from the southwest, Adam watched the wind ripple through the sparse tundra grass and shivered involuntarily. He had flown here many times, but the sight of the mountain reaching up like a jagged tooth from the desolate maw of the tundra never failed to move him. He shivered again, and leaned forward, willing his eyes to pick out a lonely figure waiting for rescue.
A weak shaft of sunlight lit up the instrument panel as the Cessna began its counterclockwise circle of the mountain. Adam looked up from the landscape and watched the instruments fixedly, trying to bring the plane as close as possible to the mountain without hitting turbulence. The turn coordinator and the attitude indicator winked back at him briefly before the sunlight disappeared and the panel slipped into shadow. Adam smiled. The outside world could be deceptive – wind speeds could change or the plane could lose altitude, pushing the aircraft dangerously close to the mountain, but the instruments would never lie to him.
The radio coughed suddenly, and Adam jumped. "Talkeetna, this is Cessna three-four-two Candor, over," he said.
"Cessna three-four-two, what's your position?" Adam glanced at the panel again and read off his coordinates.
"Affirmative, Cessna three-four-two, you seen anything yet? Over."
"Negative, Talkeetna. I'm heading northwest for another pass at the mountain. Over."
Silence filled the cabin. Adam scanned the horizon as the Cessna arced around the northern slope. The lone road snaking across the tundra disappeared from view behind the stony shoulders of the mountain. The distant glaciers to the north reached toward him like icy fingers. Adam squinted harder in the dingy light and scanned the snow-speckled slopes. Come on, Kelly, he thought to himself. Show me where you are.
An image bubbled up before him unbidden, a vision of tousled brown hair, chocolate-brown eyes and a smile that flashed as briefly as the Alaskan sunlight. Adam felt his throat tighten. He saw his own fingers twining through those sleek brown locks and his own face reflected tenderly in those eyes. Kelly, he thought again. Why did you have to go hiking alone? Why did it have to be you?
He shook his head furiously and faced the instrument panel again. The heading indicator showed he was drifting north, away from the mountain. He nudged the joystick and the aircraft swung toward the west. The mountain loomed up close again. He checked the readings on the other instruments and furiously chided himself for allowing his concentration to slip. You're looking for a missing hiker, he told himself. You can't find anything unless you know where you're going. So watch yourself.
Adam definitely knew where he was going. By the time the brief Alaskan summer had faded, he would be drenched in the California sunlight at Santa Clara University with his fingers wrapped around his aviation textbooks. He couldn't bring the Cessna with him, of course, but it would be safe enough in storage here, and he could work toward his commercial pilot's license once he had his degree. And after graduation, he could bring Kelly to California, to a city somewhere, away from the frigid cold and the lonely, barren tundra. Somewhere they could be happy together...
"Cessna three-four-two Candor, this is Talkeetna. What's your position? Over."
Adam jumped again, swore, and grabbed the radio. "Talkeetna, this is Cessna three-four-two Candor. I'm coming around the western slope of the mountain." He read off his coordinates.
"Cessna three-four-two, you seen anything yet?"
"Negative, Talkeetna, I haven't seen anything yet," Adam snapped. His throat tightened again. He tried to force it down. "But when I do, you'll be the first to know. Over."
"Cessna three-four-two, we're all on edge here. Relax. We'll find that missing hiker. Over." The radio clicked off. Adam reproached himself again. You can't be too sharp with them, he reminded himself. They'll figure it out. They'll know Kelly's not just some lost hiker, and you're not just some random pilot hired for search and rescue. People get lost out here all the time. You can't let them know that this one is any different.
He checked the instrument panel again and then scanned the horizon as the Cessna swung around to the southern slope of the mountain. A frail ray of sunlight pierced the clouds and lit up a solitary grizzly foraging on the lip of the tundra. Adam watched it idly for a moment, then glanced forward and gasped.
A pinprick of red flashed against the dark boulders on the mountain.
Adam leaned forward. He nosed the Cessna down for a closer look. The shoulders of the mountain reached up toward him. The flash of red solidified into a shape, huddled against a boulder. Adam leaned closer. The tiny figure sat wrapped in a red jacket, knees pulled up to chest for warmth. A miniscule face suddenly turned upward. Adam smiled. It was Kelly.
Too late, he heard the alarms sounding in the cockpit. The altimeter was spinning and the attitude indicator showed a nearly solid expanse of earth. Adam cried out. Panic shot through his arms. He jerked the controls back. The nose of the Cessna shot upward. Gray clouds filled the windows. Adam felt the plane rise, and sighed with relief.
Suddenly, Adam felt his stomach drop. The nose plunged down again. He saw the bleak tundra coasting up to meet him. Elevator hardover flashed through his brain. The alarms screamed in his ear. He cursed himself for having taken his eyes off the instrument panel. Idiot! he told himself. Why didn't you watch them? That's how you stay in control!
The tundra raced toward him. He seized the radio and barked out a mayday. He shot past Kelly, and for a brief moment their eyes locked. Adam saw his panicked face, his wind-whipped brown hair, his beautiful chocolate-brown eyes. He felt a sudden longing to pull him into his arms. Kelly, he thought. I'm so sorry.
The Cessna plunged toward the ground. Adam felt a jolt, and then soared out of his seat. He smashed against the instrument panel. His head began to swim. Through the shattered window, he saw Kelly racing toward him. Adam smiled faintly. Just before slipping into unconsciousness, he murmured, "It's okay. They'll find us."
They'll find us.