Alfred looked out the lower edge of the window. He hated flying. It was his third time on a plane, but it never seemed like it got any easier.
He hated the pressure in his ears. He hated the turbulence. And he hated looking out the window and seeing everything so small below.
It reminded him of how high up they were. If anything happened and the plane crashed from that altitude…
Well, let’s just say that there wouldn’t be any survivors.
Al avoided watching the news for a week before his trip. The last thing he needed was to hear about a plane going down somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. Or worse yet, while trying to land.
If he had heard any of those reports before his trip, he would have chickened out and refused to go. He had finally gotten the courage to buy a ticket. Then he had made the mistake of telling Juan not to relay any news of airline crashes.
See, Juan was a news addict. He watched the news morning, afternoon, and night. And when he wasn’t able to watch the news, he had his headphones on. Tuned into some 24-hour news broadcasting station.
Everyone knew that if you needed an update on something, you just asked Juan. He was like an up-to-the-minute walking news channel.
Well, after that, it didn’t take long for everyone on Al’s unit to know how terrified he was of flying. Not that Juan tried to rat him out. He had heard some bit of news that was airline related.
He told the other guys in the barracks. Then he mentioned it to the other guys as an afterthought. “Oh, but don’t mention anything about it to Al because he’s terrified of flying.”
And that was what started it all.
Poor Al didn’t hear the end of it for the rest of the week. Every time someone came across him, they would tell him some crazy, made-up story. First, a plane crash on a deserted island. Then there was the story about some plane hijacked by terrorists. And it went on and on. For the entire week.
At first, it freaked poor, ol’ Al out. He thought all those things were really happening around the world. Then he caught on and realized what they were doing. He got pretty upset at Juan. Juan apologized profusely, but Al refused to talk to him for a couple of days.
He almost canceled his ticket home, but Juan finally talked him back into it. Well, it probably wasn’t Juan’s talking that convinced him.
It had more to do with the fact that Sheila was going to be back in town for the holidays, and Al did want to see her. That was the only reason he had planned this trip in the first place.
Sheila was his high school sweetheart. They had grown up together. But about the time she had gone off to start college, he had ended up joining the army. Well, not by choice. He had enlisted as required by law when he turned eighteen.
He was somewhat skinny and generally considered a nerd in high school. He didn’t exactly believe himself to be full grade military material. He figured that they would sign his release forms and let him go. But for some reason the officers on duty that day had taken a fancy to him, and ordered him to stay.
Al had a job and was studying which should have given him a free pass. But the onery admissions officer wouldn’t accept any of his excuses. Just plain ol’ dumb luck he figured at the time. He had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But little did he know what they had in store for him. Whoops! I can’t tell you about that yet. I’m getting ahead of myself.
So, Al thought all he had to do was put in his two years of hard work. Then he could get his life back on track. Or so he thought.
He hadn’t planned on leaving town either. Al figured they would station him at the local battalion in his city. But for that same reason you and Al don’t know about yet, they had chosen him for some specialized training program.
Right away, they had shipped him overseas. That had been two years ago. He did his time without complaining, and he thought he was leaving soon. But a week before, his commanding officer had called him in for a meeting.
The officers there went on and on about the training they had him in. They praised him for all his diligence and hard work. And they buttered him up about his presence having a significant impact on this particular mission.
Al had no idea what they were talking about because he didn’t do much of anything. Some days they had him keeping post at the front gate. Other days they had him on kitchen duty. But most of the time he just sat in his barracks twiddling his thumbs because there wasn’t much to do on this island.
Well, not twiddling his thumbs because he liked to read. He usually had some sci-fi or fantasy book to read on his Kindle reader. But you know what I mean. Al had a lot of time to kill.
They said something about him being a vital part of the process and needing him for another six months. Blah blah blah. Typical army spiel for giving you orders but making you feel like you had a choice.
Al didn’t ask any questions, he just said ‘Sir, yes sir!” and signed on the dotted lines. He didn’t mind too much. Sheila still had three more years of college, and he didn’t have anything else lined up for now. Plus the cash bonus and four weeks of paid leave would be a nice consolation prize.
He used the money to buy a ticket home. He also bought Sheila a new car. They weren’t married yet, but he already sent her money every month. He told her to put the money in their savings account until they had enough to make a down payment on a house.
Al made pretty good money out here. He and his colleagues knew that their salary was way above the pay grade for most soldiers at their ranks. No, one knew why of course, and they talked about it in hushed tones when they were alone. But in general, the money was enough to make them keep their heads down and not ask any questions.
They didn’t want to rock the boat and get knocked back down a pay grade. Al had heard of that happening to a few other chaps before he had arrived. So, no one brought it up in any of their meetings.
Al just cashed his checks and enjoyed the money. But he had kept his eyes and ears open the whole time. He knew a lot more than he let on.
He had also earned the trust of his commanding officers. They often talked freely when he was around. He pretended to ignore them and focus on his work during their meetings.
It seemed like they were doing some high-tech research together with the US army. They talked about working on some highly-classified technology.
No one ever came out and said actually said what it was when he was around. But from what he gathered, it had something to do with a sort of cloning process using alien technology. It seemed like they wanted to find a way to give wounded vets new, fully-functioning bodies. From what he gathered though, they didn’t seem to have been successful yet.
He didn’t know all this for sure of course. Most of it was just hearsay from the bits and pieces he picked up. Al never actually came out and asked his commanding officers any questions point-blank.
But Al was a likable guy, so they often invited him along to their parties. He had been to a few where the officers had a little too much to drink and spoke a little too openly. Especially that Colonel Smith chap that requested Al drive him home a week or so back.
Anyway, Al enjoyed being the only one in his unit who thought he knew what was going on. And he knew better than to say anything or let on that he knew more than they did.
He just let them speculate. At night when they were alone at night in the barracks, he pretended to ask questions along with the rest of them. He didn’t want them getting too suspicious about what he knew. So, he played dumb.
Anyway, that’s how Al ended up getting the time off and the extra cash bonus. Money that he used to buy himself a first-class ticket back home. Al decided that as much as he hated flying, he deserved the perk for surprising his girl like this. Besides, if the plane crash, he wanted to die in style.
He chuckled at the thought of his mother seeing him like this. Surrounded by all these fine things the first world had to offer. He smiled when he imagined the look of surprise on her face when she saw him first thing tomorrow morning.
Al hadn’t told anyone he was coming. Not his mother. Not his girl. Not even his best friend. He planned on surprising everyone when he rolled into town in that fancy new car to give the love of his life.
He also planned on proposing of course. He knew it would still be several more years before they could be together. But there wasn’t any way she could refuse. He had a good job, made good money, and was going to give her the car of her dreams.