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By Philip Donlay
Oceanview PublishingCopyright © 2004 Philip S. Donlay
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Torrential rain whipped by gale force winds lashed at the vehicle. Driven sideways, the deluge pelted the car with sharp, staccato bursts. From the passenger's seat, Dr. Lauren McKenna could feel her apprehension rise. The last reports she'd received indicated that the storm was nearing Category Two strength. Sustained winds of at least 96 mph would be spinning around the deepening low pressure area. The picturesque island of Bermuda lay directly in the hurricane's path, and time was running out for a smooth departure back to the States.
As she always did, she imagined the storm as it appeared from a satellite. The view from space was always the most breathtaking. She loved the concentric swirls of clouds, the symmetry that finally formed the small eye in the center of the cyclone. In all of her years of tracking hurricanes, she'd never ceased to marvel at nature's largest destructive force.
She was soaked. Her thin cotton blouse clung to her skin and water trickled down her bare legs from waterlogged shorts. Her auburn hair was plastered to her neck. She felt half-naked and more than a little self-conscious. Earlier, she'd caught their driver, Peter, eyeing her, and she'd wanted to cover up. But now, as the storm grew worse, his attention never left the road in front of them. The narrow ribbon of asphalt was visible for only a second after each pass of the wipers. Leaves and branches tumbled across the rain-drenched road, then vanished. She hoped the other car had made it safely to the airport; she'd sent it ahead to get the Air Force plane to wait for her.
Lauren looked anxiously at her watch. It was only ten in the morning, yet the darkness of the storm made it feel like evening. They were cutting it close. If the winds from the hurricane reached a certain level, the plane would leave without them. She'd been warned in her briefing: the Air Force was adamant about not risking damage to one of its aircraft. But the installation of her equipment, then making sure everything was operational, had taken far longer than she'd planned. Her precious experiment was now on a U.S. Navy destroyer headed to intercept the eye of the hurricane. Part of her wanted to be on board when Jonah was deployed, but the Defense Intelligence Agency had vetoed that plan. She'd been ordered back to Washington to begin phase two of the operation.
If everything went as planned, Jonah's Doppler imaging would open up a new dimension in understanding the inner workings of a hurricane. Lauren's primary job within the DIA was to oversee the monitoring and tracking of weather patterns on a global basis. Any meteorological events that could impact military operations were carefully analyzed. From there, her department would disseminate the information to the Pentagon for use all over the world. Eleven days ago, Lauren had begun to run some highly advanced computer simulations on what was then still an unnamed tropical disturbance. Using information on sea temperature, winds aloft, and a dozen other variables, her results had been startling. Lauren's computer models predicted that hurricane Helena, as it was now named, possessed the ability to develop into what could only be described as a super-hurricane.
It had been a year of drastic weather extremes across North America, from record heat and drought in the southeast, to violent thunderstorms that ripped across Canada and the northern United States. Massive squall lines had spawned an unprecedented number of tornadoes — huge F-5 twisters had strewn a trail of death and destruction in Minnesota, Michigan, and southern Canada, places where tornadoes rarely formed. For the last six months, Lauren had been studying this transformation in the usual weather patterns. To her, it was clear a major climatic shift was well underway, and if she were right about Helena, the worst was yet to come. Lauren knew she was now caught in a mad race to get off Bermuda before the full force of the storm stranded her on the tiny island.
"How much longer until we get to the airport?" Lauren had to raise her voice to be heard above the howling wind.
"Maybe fifteen minutes ... maybe more." Peter replied nervously. He didn't look at her. The Mercedes swayed as each burst of wind shook the car, threatening to spin it off the pavement.
Lauren turned to look at her colleague in the back seat. Victor Krueger's eyes were filled with alarm, his face ashen. Both hands were balled up into fists and he leaned against the car door as if ill. He nodded and tried to say something, but his thin features produced only a grimace. Despite her own rising concerns, Lauren smiled to try to encourage him. She had fifteen years' more experience with hurricanes than Victor did. A recent graduate from the Earth Science program at MIT and a new addition to the DIA, Victor was a bright young man full of energy and eagerness. But right this moment she knew he was terrified. He'd become deeply concerned hours ago, as the first angry bands of the storm began to come ashore. Lauren had seen it before — intelligent, rational people, when faced with a hurricane, yielded to something deep within them. Lauren thought of it as an almost primitive, reptilian urge to flee from a great threat. Whatever it was, Victor was in its clutches.
A vicious gust tore at the car. Lauren could feel the tires begin to slide on the saturated road. Just as quickly, Peter slowed and straightened the vehicle, his knuckles white on the steering wheel. Without thinking, Lauren reached down and pulled her seat belt a fraction tighter. Out the side window she could see palm trees as they danced and bent as the force of the storm whipped them into a frenzy. Just beyond, she caught a glimpse of the ocean. The heavy gray clouds blended with the water, making them appear as one. Only the raging whitecaps differentiated sea from sky.
She guessed the gusts were close to 50 mph. She just hoped for everyone's sake that the Air Force jet would still be there. Otherwise, they'd find nothing but an empty ramp. From past experience, she knew every other aircraft had left the storm-swept island hours ago. Her work had come first, but the last thing Lauren wanted to do was ride out the storm on Bermuda.
With a pressing weight, she remembered the promise she'd made to herself and to her daughter. Abigail was staying with Lauren's mother in Baltimore. It'd been the first time she'd left her daughter for more than just a day. Lauren remembered how painful it had been to kiss her little girl goodbye. Only days earlier, Abigail had taken her first tentative steps. Lauren welled up with emotion at the memory: chubby legs teetering back and forth, the look of determination on Abigail's face as she moved unsteadily toward Lauren's waiting arms.
So much had happened since Lauren had shown her devastating hurricane prognosis to the others in her department, then finally to her boss, Director Reynolds. Her actions had set off a chain reaction within the DIA, and propelled her to try to launch Jonah nearly a month ahead of schedule. It seemed as if the storm had taken over her life; Helena was now her second child — a fast developing one that held the possibility of growing into a lady with unimaginable fury. At this moment, feeling the first sting from the approaching hurricane, Lauren felt like she was a million miles away from home ... and Abigail.
Peter tried to brake as the road curved sharply. He swore as he pumped the pedal repeatedly. Lauren's attention was instantly drawn to him. A huge gust of wind blasted them as he fought for control of the vehicle. Lauren could feel the car begin to slide. She leaned away from the door as they began to skid toward the trees that lined the road. Peter over-controlled, his hands spinning the wheel while he desperately jammed on the brakes. The car fishtailed, then abruptly whipped end for end. Horror gripped Lauren as the vehicle catapulted off the pavement.
She braced herself. The car picked up speed and plummeted down the steep embankment. Someone's scream dissolved in the sharp crack of exploding glass. Thrown against her shoulder harness, Lauren was jerked side to side as they careened into the first tree, then the second. Metal crumpled against the force of the impact. The car buckled and flipped upside down, sliding down the incline on its roof. Lauren covered her face with a forearm as the windshield caved in, showering her with glass and mud. The sound of screeching metal assaulted her ears. In the next instant, the car slammed into the bottom of the culvert and came to a violent stop. The wind was forced from her lungs as something pushed her from behind and pinned her hard against the leather dashboard.
Dazed, Lauren used her free hand to clear the mud from her mouth and nose. She struggled to pull in a breath, but couldn't. Terrified she was going to suffocate, she could only struggle in silence. Her head swam as she finally managed a tiny breath, then another. She swallowed and choked on a mixture of water and dirt. Slowly, she was able to open each eye — they fluttered and filled with tears as she carefully wiped away the debris.
Lauren felt as if she were still spinning and it took her a moment to get her bearings. Slowly, she understood that the car was resting upside down under a canopy of trees. Hanging from her seat, Lauren could feel the shoulder harness as it dug hard into her skin. The dashboard was wedged firmly against her chest. She cried out in alarm as she discovered she could barely move her legs. The floor of the culvert was only a foot from her head. She tried to turn and find her companions, but one arm was wedged behind her, the other trapped near her face. She managed a quick glimpse before the pain forced her head forward. But in that instant, she saw that Peter had been killed. Jutting out from his throat were the remains of one of the windshield wipers; it had snapped free and plunged like a missile into the vulnerable flesh. Her stomach lurched at the grisly sight. She swallowed and fought the urge to vomit. Lauren tried bravely to hold on to what little composure she had left. The seat where Victor had been was empty, the door ripped from its hinges.
To her right, almost outside her field of vision, she saw something move. Painfully, she turned, trying to see what it was. A moment later she saw it again, black boots ... Someone was walking near the car.
"HELP ME! I'M IN HERE!" Lauren screamed with relief. Barely ten feet away, she knew whoever was out there would be able to hear her cries.
"HELP ME. I'M TRAPPED!" Lauren couldn't understand why the person hadn't rushed to her. Was it Victor ... Why didn't he respond?
"PLEASE HELP ME!" she cried out again. "VICTOR IS THAT YOU? Help me get out of here."
She looked each way as far as she could, but the boots were nowhere to be seen. A feeling of doom seeped into her consciousness. She prayed that whoever it was would come back and pry her free of her prison. But after several agonizing minutes, all she could hear was the relentless howl of the storm.
"PLEASE GET ME OUT OF HERE!" Lauren's voice was shrill, on the edge of complete panic.
Rain pelted the ground around her. She felt utterly alone. Whoever had been outside the car had vanished. She threw herself back and forth, trying to kick her legs, use them for leverage — anything to free herself. But she was stuck. Regardless of what she did, she remained trapped upside down in the wreckage of the car. Her throat tightened as she thought of Abigail. If she died, her daughter would be too young to have any memory of her. All of her hopes and dreams for Abigail's life would vanish. Desperate, Lauren knew she was on the verge of losing everything. She forced herself to take several deep breaths; she needed to try to calm down. If her scientific training had taught her anything, it was to try to stay objective and rational.
Lauren cocked her head as a different noise began to register. Her heart soared — it had to be someone coming to rescue her. She strained to look out the smashed window, the sound coming closer. A new and more pressing fear overwhelmed her as she discovered the source of the commotion. She did have company; water was beginning to flow toward her. The ground had soaked up all the rain it could, and now the runoff was cascading down to the bottom of the culvert. With her head only inches from the soil, Lauren knew it wouldn't take the water very long to pool and fill the space inside the car.
Lauren struggled once again to free herself, but each movement was met with resistance. Twisting and turning, she became angry. The thought of dying in the ugly brown water set her brain on fire. All of the things she wanted to accomplish flashed before her. The mistakes of the last two years reared their ugly head and pummeled her. She saw her daughter, those beautiful blue eyes full of warmth and love. They were the same eyes of Abigail's father, a man her little girl had never met. Lauren choked back a sob that threatened to completely unhinge her. The water splashed and gurgled as it picked up momentum. Seconds later it touched the top of her head. Lauren screamed against the wind and thrashed in vain at the forces holding her prisoner.CHAPTER 2
Donovan Nash looked at his watch, then out at the low gray clouds that swept over the Bermuda airport. The rain was racing sideways in billowing sheets. He swore under his breath ... they were late. He'd been pacing back and forth in the lobby of Operations. He paused to look out the window. Thirty yards out on the tarmac sat the aircraft he'd just landed. It was the last airplane on the empty desolate field. The highly modified Gulfstream IV SP glistened in the rain — bold blue and gray stripes ran the length of the white fuselage, then swept up the tail, ending with the "Eco-Watch" name proudly emblazoned around the symbol of the globe. On the nose, Spirit of da Vinci was neatly printed below the cockpit. Funded by a private foundation, Eco-Watch was one of the premier, nonprofit scientific groups in the world. In the eight years since its inception, Eco-Watch had grown from humble beginnings to become one of the leading research organizations in existence. Both of Eco-Watch's specialty aircraft were easily booked two years in advance. The primary focus was hurricane and typhoon study, meteorological events that presented the greatest threat to the world's population. But the overall mission statement was to study any atmospheric condition, from polar weather formations, to holes in the ozone layer, to El Niño. Whatever science needed to find, Eco-Watch would find a way to make it possible.
A few hours ago, Donovan had gotten a frantic call. A key group of scientists were stranded on Bermuda. The Air Force jet that had been scheduled to make the pickup had mechanical problems and canceled. The fact that the call had come from the Pentagon had been unusual, but the government was just one of the many organizations that contracted Eco-Watch's services. During the Atlantic hurricane season, Eco-Watch was on constant alert and often flew missions to support the hurricane hunter flights operated by the Air force. Just as well, thought Donovan as he studied the sky. The storm had picked up strength in the last hour or so; he doubted the Air Force would have stuck around this long.
Donovan chose to operate under the title of Director of Aircraft Operations — very few people knew that he'd founded Eco-Watch. It took him out of the spotlight and gave him far more freedom than he'd have had otherwise. The last thing he ever wanted to do was get stuck behind a desk. Plain and simple, he loved to fly and did so at every opportunity. As one of the frontline pilots, he enjoyed a camaraderie and closeness with his people he'd never have sitting in an office. He looked at his watch again, then at the water streaming off the roof. These people were cutting it close. Donovan had more leeway than the military, so there was still time left before the full force of Helena was forecast to hit Bermuda.
Excerpted from Category Five by Philip Donlay. Copyright © 2004 Philip S. Donlay. Excerpted by permission of Oceanview Publishing.
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