Eyewall

Excerpt

Chapter One

AIRBORNE, 175 MILES SOUTHEAST OF THE GEORGIA COAST

LABOR DAY SUNDAY, 0800 HOURS

Dead ahead of the aircraft, a massive redoubt of roiling clouds, the eyewall of Hurricane Janet, billowed toward the heavens and poked into the underbelly of the stratosphere. Between the aircraft, an Air Force Hurricane Hunter, and the towering wall, layers of white and gray clouds, innocuous outliers of the storm, cluttered the skyscape. But the eyewall itself was obsidian, foreboding.

Major Arlen Walker leaned forward in the pilot’s seat, scanning the sky through the cockpit windshield. Beads of cold sweat spotted his forehead. His muscles were tense, strangely alert to some undefined threat. It was as if he’d been awakened in the dark to the heavy creak of a floorboard, or the rustle of bushes outside a window when there is no wind.

He understood–or thought he did–that the probable source of his apprehension was not Janet but the strange events of the previous day. Thus, there should be no rational, no logical reason for his unease. Or was there? He stared at the barrier of clouds, trying to take their measure, guess at what lay within them. Janet was a mere category one, the lowest intensity on the rating scale, yet if you could judge a storm by its looks…. He spoke into the intercom, addressing the on-board weather officer, Captain Karlyn Hill. “Karlyn, this thing might have teeth. Is it still looking like penetration at 5000 feet?”

Her voice came back. “Yes, sir. The Hurricane Center said she’d still be a cat one on our first pass. If she isn’t, we’ll do the next fly through at 10,000. And kick the asses of those guys next time we see ‘em.”

Walker considered her words, her tone of voice. Whistling past the graveyard? Colonel Bernie Harlow, the copilot, didn’t think so. “Attaboy, girl,” he said. Walker gripped the aircraft’s controls and stared at his looming adversary. “Give me a heading, nav,” he said.

“Zero-four-five,” Major John Best called out.

Walker turned the aircraft to the new track, then glanced at the cockpit radar. They were minutes from the edge of the eyewall. On the radar, solid red and magenta returns indicated torrential precipitation. They were approaching a palisade of rain. “No way this thing is a one,” he said.

“Yeah,” Karlyn responded. She usually added a commentary or light-hearted one-liner before penetrating the eye of a hurricane. This time she didn’t.

The plane was doing a little dance now, a constant jiggle as it barreled toward the bulwark of bruise-colored clouds.

“Winds are going up fast,” Karlyn said.

“Is there a better way in?” Walker asked.

“Don’t see one.”

“Break it off, Major?” Colonel Harlow asked.

“Negative. Let’s do the mission. It’s not a cat five.” Harlow was testing him.

“Let’s hope,” Best chimed in.

“‘Half a league, half a league, half a league onward. All in the Valley of Death rode the six hundred,” Harlow recited, holding his gaze on the eyewall.

“What’s that?” Walker asked.

“Tennyson. ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade.’ The Brits. Crimean War.”

“If I recall my history, that didn’t end well.”

The plane rattled more sharply now, the jiggle lapsing into a hard shake.

“No. It didn’t.” Harlow looked at him. And in his eyes, Walker caught a flicker of doubt, something he’d never seen before.