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Time and AgainHe was going down. The instrument panel was a maze of wildly flashing numbers and lights, and the cockpit was spinning like a merry-go-round gone mad. He didn't need the scream of warning bells to tell him he was in trouble. He didn't need the insistent red blip on his computer screen to tell him the trouble was big. He'd known that the moment he'd seen the void.
Swearing, clamping down on his panic, he struggled with the controls, using one hand to shove the lever forward for full power. The vehicle bucked and shuddered, fighting the gravitational pull. The G's hit him like a wall. All around him metal screamed against metal.
"Hold together, baby," he managed to say as his lips stretched back over his teeth. The floor near his feet ripped open in a jagged line three inches long. "Hold together, you son of a — "
He jammed hard due east, swearing again when it seemed that no matter how cleverly he maneuvered he and his ship would be sucked into the hole.
The cockpit lights went out, leaving only the whirl of kaleidoscopic colors from the instrument panel. His ship went into a spiral, tumbling end over end like a stone fired from a slingshot. Now the light was white, hot and brilliant. Instinctively he threw up an arm to shield his eyes. The sudden crushing pressure on his chest left him helpless to do more than gasp for breath.
Briefly, before he lost consciousness, he remembered that his mother had wanted him to be a lawyer. But he'd just had to fly.
When he came to he was no longer spiraling — he was in a screaming free-fall. A glance at his instruments showed him only that they were damaged, the numbers racing backward. A new force had him plastered back against his seat, but he could see the curve of the earth.
Knowing he could pass out again at any moment, he lunged forward to knock the throttle back and turn the ship over to the computer. It would, he knew, scan for an unpopulated area, and if God was in His heaven the crash control in the old bucket would still be functional.
Maybe, just maybe, he'd live to see another sunrise. And how bad could practicing law be?
He watched the world rush toward him, blue and green and beautiful. The hell with it, he thought.
Flying a desk would never be like this.
* * *
Libby stood on the porch of the cabin and watched the night sky boil. The wicked slices of lightning and the blowing curtain of rain were the best show in town. Even though she was standing under the overhang, her hair and her face were wet. Behind her, the lights in the cabin glowed a warm, cozy yellow. The next boom of thunder made her grateful she'd set out candles and kerosene lamps.
But the light and warmth didn't lure her back. Tonight she preferred the chill and the crashing power that was barreling through the mountains.
If the storm kept up much longer, it would be weeks before the north pass through the mountains was negotiable. It didn't matter, she thought as another spear of lightning split the sky. She had weeks. In fact, she thought with a grin, hugging herself against the brisk wind, she had all the time in the world.
The best decision she'd ever made had been to pack up and dig in at her family's hideaway cabin. She'd always had an affection for mountains. The Klamaths of southwestern Oregon had everything she wanted. A spectacular view, high, rugged peaks, pure air and solitude. If it took six months to write her dissertation on the effects of modernizing influences on the Kolbari Islanders, then so be it. She'd spent five years studying cultural anthropology, three of them in extensive field work. She hadn't let up on herself since her eighteenth birthday, and she certainly hadn't given herself any time alone, away from family, studies and other scientists. The dissertation was important to her — too important, she could sometimes admit. Coming here to work alone, giving herself a little time for self-study, was an excellent compromise.
She'd been born in the squat two-story cabin behind her, and she'd spent the first five years of her life here in these mountains, living as free and unfettered as a deer.
It made her smile to remember how she and her younger sister had run barefoot, how they had believed the world began and ended with them and their counterculture parents.
She could still picture her mother weaving mats and rugs and her father digging happily in his garden. At night there had been music and long, fascinating stories. The four of them had been happily self-sufficient, seeing other people only on their monthly trips to Brookings for supplies.
They might have continued just that way, but the 60s had become the 70s. An art dealer had discovered one of Libby's mother's wall hangings. Almost simultaneously her father had found that a certain mixture of his homegrown herbs brewed into a soothing and delicious tea. Before Libby's eighth birthday her mother had become a respected artist and her father a successful young entrepreneur. The cabin had become a vacation hideaway when the family had moved into the Portland mainstream.
Perhaps it was Libby's own culture shock that had steered her toward anthropology. Her fascination with it, with society's structures and the effects of outside influences, had often dominated her life. Sometimes she nearly forgot the times she was living in with her avid quest for answers. Whenever that happened she came back here or took a few days to visit her family. That was all it took to ground her in the present.
Starting tomorrow, she decided, if the storm was over, she would turn her computer on and get to work.
But only for four hours a day. For the past eighteen months she had too often worked triple that.
Everything in its time — that was what her mother had always said. Well, this time she was going to get back a little of the freedom she'd experienced during the first five years of her life.
Peaceful. Libby let the wind rush through her hair and listened to the hammering of rain on rock and earth. Despite the storm and the rocketing thunder, she felt serene. In all her life she had never known a more peaceful spot.
She saw the light race across the sky, and for a moment she was fooled into thinking it might be ball lightning, or perhaps a meteor. But when the sky lit up she caught a vague outline and a quick flash of metal. She stepped forward, into the rain, instinctively narrowing her eyes. As the object rushed closer, she raised her hand to her throat.
A plane? Even as she watched, it seemed to skim the tops of the firs just to the west of the cabin. The crash echoed through the woods, leaving her frozen to the spot. Then she was running back into the cabin for her slicker and her first-aid kit.
Moments later, with the thunder rolling overhead, she clambered into her Land Rover. She'd noted the spot where she'd seen the plane go down, and she could only hope her sense of direction was as keen as it had always been...