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The Flight of the Phoenix
By Trevor, Elleston
The wind had flung the sand thirty thousand feet into the sky above the desert in a blinding cloud from the Niger to the Nile, and somewhere in it was the airplane.
Two hours before, there had been nothing on the weather map, nothing like this; but the meteorological bureau in Jebel Sarra had a reputation for being forty-nine percent right, and the plane had taken off into a pale-blue sky with a pilot, navigator, twelve passengers from the Jebel oil town and a cargo of worn tools and burnt-out drill bits for replacement. It was a Salmon-Rees Skytruck passenger-conversion freighter, a twin-boom shorthauler on the Sahara runs.
Out from Jebel the navigator had checked his track, height and position overhead El Tallab in the Koufra Oasis Group. A minute later a wind gust tore the aerial out of its socket.
The noise was heard all over the aircraft, and the pilot told his navigator, "Go back there and tell them what the noise was. Tell them everything's fine."
Moran ducked through the bulkhead and spoke to three or four of the men halfway down the cabin. The man at the rear still had the monkey tucked inside his jacket: you could smell it from here, so what was it like for the man? He told them what had happened but they didn't seem very interested. They had got into this plane to get somewhere, and they weren't going to worry about anything that happened on the way. Moran knew only a few of them by sight: Cobb, chief driller at Station A Jebel, a huge man with red hair and a face screwed into a wrinkled map of all he would like to forget (they said he was being shipped home for psychiatric treatment, and you could tell it from his face); Loomis, a thin quiet-eyed Texan, who'd had a cable, something about his wife; Crow, the Londoner who looked more like a monkey than the monkey at the back, going home on leave; and Roberts, out of the oil camp for the third time this year and still healthy looking, already home, in his mind, with the rain on the windows already washing the sand out of his soul.
The others were strangers to Moran, but he would see them again. Maybe it was just the money, but there was something about an oil town that kept hold of people until they died in it. He went back into the control cabin, wondering if the psychiatrist would ever let Trucker Cobb see Jebel again.
He looked at Towns, who was carefully checking landmarks. Fifteen thousand feet below the Skytruck the desert looked like a sandpit where children had left their toys scattered: among the dun wastes rose the dunes and spurs and massifs, and between them lay oases like weeds sprouting, and the abandoned oil drillings and camp towns half-covered with the drifting sands of the last great storm. From south to north ran the Oum el Semnou pipeline, parallel with the camel track where a puff of dust marked a caravan on the move.
Moran put his headset on and said: "We going on, Frankie?"
Towns turned his head an inch as a sign that he was still in thought; his eyes moved across and across the pattern of the land below; then they scanned the horizon.
"What's the risk?"
The habit-phrase was reassuring to the navigator. He said, "I don't see how we can get lost. We live here. The only risk is if the weather clamps down."
Towns let a minute go by before he said, "We're bigger."
Moran was satisfied; not with his dead radio or the weather report that was often wrong as hell, but with Towns. He had flown the oil runs with him for three years. But they should at least go through the motions of reaching a considered decision. "What alternate did you nominate?"
"Christ." Two dozen mud-built sweatboxes with doors stuck fast with crushed flies, a mosque like a dog kennel, and three wells, two of them filled with salt water and the third with drowned rats. Visit the ancient kasbah of El Aouzzad, a palm-fringed haven amid the vast stretches of sandand bring an elephant gun, it's the only thing the termites won't eat providing you can reload fast enough.
"Fort Lacroix is under repair," Towns said, "and I didn't fancy going into Pic Tousside over the Kemet range if we got into trouble. You persuade me to lob down in El Aouzzad for a couple of nights while they find some aerial wire, and we'll do that, Lew." He was keeping on track by visual reference to the north-south pipeline and the long brown spine of the Kemet Massif on the other side. Moran said:
"I'm happy as I am."
"How are they at the back?"
"Okay. Did you see Trucker get on the plane?"
"He's being shipped home to a mental clinic. He looks far gone. You know how they start to look."
Towns nodded, watching the Kemet Massif turning slowly on the horizon and waiting for Tazerbo Oasis to come up on the starboard wing. If the weather kept clear for two more hours, they would be north of the central desert and within running distance of the Djalo Oasis Group.
He began humming inside his headset until Moran told him to shut up or take it off.
An hour afterward they hit a wind-shear and dropped a hundred feet without touching the sides. Moran leaned against the perspex trying to sight the Radaou-Siffi camel track, the only landmark they would be able to pick up in this area where the central desert opened up from east to west. Either he was anticipating or the sandstorm of a week ago had covered the track completely. The wind sheared again and Towns brought the plane's nose up...Continues...
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