Chapter 2: Where the pain lives

The morning was still young, the sun barely visible in the horizon as it rose behind the high cliffs.  Not a cloud could be seen on that Sunday morning, a rare sight in Aberdeen, Scotland.  At the edge of the precipice, a path of powdered rocks ran along, following the calm ocean below and on it, ran Steven.  He didn’t have to look at his watch to know that he was approaching the ten kilometre mark of his ritual run; the music in his headset, the timing of his steps, and the tree at the end of the path were indication enough.  His ritual was so well tuned that the people living along the path often stood at their windows to see the good and young-looking man that had been doing that course for the past twelve years, every day of every weekend, whether it was winter, summer, rain, fog or storm, he was there and he was running.

He soon arrived at the old hazel tree, which reminded him of a fat Christmas tree from afar—it was a thought he had each time he reached the place despite how ridiculous the idea was and how un-Christmassy the tree really looked.  Just like clockwork, Steven left the path and the music track changed from rapid dance music to a soft Scottish folklore song.  As the high-pitched voice of Loreena McKennitt started after a minute of soft bag pipe tunes, Steven stopped in his tracks.  He took a deep breath, turned to face the water, paced slowly up to the edge of the cliff, and closed his eyes as a tear escaped and slid down his cheek.  That first melancholic music in a succession of five carefully-chosen songs soon reached the part that had made him select it more than a decade earlier.  He started singing them to himself.  And the more I think on you the more I think long, If I had you now as I had once before, All the Lords of Old England would not purchase Portmore.  As Bonny Portmore ended and Enya’s Last Time by Moonlight started, he lowered his head, turned away from the cliff and started walking in the grass until he reached the road that wound its way down to the village below.  He slowed his pace a little and continued singing to himself softly.  We walked the road together, One last time, By moonlight. As underneath the heavens, the slow chimes, at midnight, but nothing is forever.  Not even the starlight, Not even, the moonlight.  By then, his tears were falling freely and he let them.  Twelve years he had now travelled to Chrissy’s native town to experience these emotions, twelve years he let them overwhelm him.  He embraced the pain, the pain that was always present, the pain that had only disappeared while he had been in the Core.  To Steven, the pain was control; inside the Core, it was easy to forget, to abandon himself to his basic urges.  But these weekend getaways to the birthplace of the woman he loved so much and the ritual he respected religiously kept him from faulting, from forgetting.  The pain was now a fire and the trip to Scotland was the stack of wood that kept it alive and raging bright and strong.

It is by listening to It’s in the Rain that he arrived at the blue wooden house, Enya was now singing, I hear you coming, my name is in the rain.  Even when this moment ends; can't let go this feeling. Everything will come on again.  The music stopped by the time he got to his destination.  Steven stood in front of the porch for a minute and then removed his headset, followed by his iPhone from the holder on his large bicep, and placed them in his pocket.  Today, the taxi was already there waiting.  Without a word, he sat in the back and let the driver return him to the private airfield outside of town.

Upon arrival, he wasted no time in getting aboard the plane and took off, as was his usual routine.  He took a last look at the houses, the village, the cliff, and the water all around before tilting the wing of his Cessna Corvalis and programming the auto-pilot for a straight flight to Geneva.

As the plane settled at 21,500 feet, Steven looked around through his Randolph Aviator Sunglasses, given that the sun was especially bright.  Even at top speed, his turbo-prop bullet would take him a little over three hours.  That’s why he had bought that particular plane; it was sexy and almost as fast as an entry-level private jet for a fraction of the price.  It also beat the customs and security checks at the airport.  Furthermore, the expense of the maintenance and fuel for making a two-thousand-nautical-mile round-trip journey every weekend for more than a decade was the least of his concerns in life.

His mind drifted into the years that had passed as he made himself comfortable in the cockpit.  In the days following his departure from the Norwegian Station and thanks to all the knowledge he had accumulated in the Core, he had managed to make a beeline for Africa incognito in search of the Afro-Station.  With a GPS and the help of some hired locals, he had no problems locating the buried equipment and lifting it out of the jungle using a helicopter that he had flown himself.  Unlike in the movies, the hired personnel had not tried to rob him or extort more money from him.  He had been prepared for that, of course, but was glad of the peaceful outcome.  With the help of the same group and the sale of a handful of replicated diamonds, he had managed to take everything back to Switzerland.  For a long time he thought of not telling the others that their loot was now safe in ministorage all around Geneva and Canton de Vaud.  His justification for his change of heart was that he suspected Jack had a hand, knowingly or not, in Chrissy’s imprisonment and Steven’s more than thirty years in the Inuit Core had reinforced his belief that people of Jack’s level shouldn’t receive equipment that the Builders had not deemed him worthy to use in the first place.  But, he also knew by experience in and out of the Core that the security protocols that prevented individuals from operating things inside the Stations would equally prevent their use outside.  So, he kept his promise and separated everything equally, and kept Chrissy’s share and the odd items such as an extra FastCom and a medical device.  The trip to Africa had also allowed him to leave behind Builders-made monitoring equipments and soon discovered that the new administrators of the Norway Station had managed to take more than a dozen Medical Autonomous Regeneration Systems—the healing device or “MARS,” as most called it–and more than twenty additional equipment of various uses before the transporter pad’s energy was totally depleted.

His brain was aware of the turn to the left before the autopilot initiated it.  Like someone returning home after work by the same route everyday for years, each turn became automatic, even unconscious.  Twelve years was a long time, long enough for people around him to speculate why he had never moved to Scotland, or why he always left on Friday after dinner and returned Sunday before lunch.  The why, he knew, but he had not told anyone.  If he had told though, Steven would have resumed it in one word, temptation.

In the Core, he spent years studying psychology and sociology.  Susceptibility to temptation and the natural instinct to covet was how all the hurts in the world began; it may be in the form of a country desiring its neighbouring nations’ natural resources, a man envious of his friend’s new pool, a lingering carnal hunger for a colleague’s wife, or a base need to get ahead of everyone else.  Temptation was the thing he had fought so hard against for all these years.  That’s why he spent his Friday nights alone, literally in the middle of nowhere flying to Scotland.   Saturdays were reserved for chores for a house he had bought a few blocks from Chrissy’s, complete unfinished work from his business and volunteer at the community carbon offsets project.  Of course, there were temptations there too and for that, he had a plan—he got married.

She was Chinese, an old friend.  They had met in Beijing, in 1997 BC, Before Chrissy.  Four years earlier, she had messaged him on his Facebook page to inform him that she was moving to Geneva.  Frugality on her part and Switzerland being the most expensive city in the world made him house her at his place for three months until they came to a mutual arrangement, which was Steven’s idea.  The match was made in heaven; he needed a way to silence people that wanted him to move on and find someone and she needed a man to silence her family and hide the fact that she was homosexual and had been involved with the same girl for ten years.  From the outside, they looked like a happy couple.  On the inside, they slept in separate rooms and lived separate lives.  The only time they acted the part was when Steven threw parties for his business partners or her colleagues from her UN organization.  One added benefit of the marriage for Steven was that he now had diplomatic immunity in Switzerland and tax-free privileges.

As he thought of the next day’s meetings, he glanced at the GPS and just started to see blue.  The English Channel came into view on his right where he was sitting.  Halfway done, he thought.  He took a read at his instruments, the auto-pilot was still engaged and he was still on course at his desired altitude of 21,500 feet.

At that moment, Steven heard a series of tiny explosions that seemed to be coming from the left wing.  The sound reminded him of the fire crackers he lit up as a kid or, maybe more accurately, of the rapid-firing ground firecracker strips Chinese people used all night during the Moon Festival.  It took only a second for the micro explosions to come and go and generate more noise in its wake.  The first was a cracking sound and buckling from the left wing, then the fuselage, then the master alarm from within the cockpit, and then the glass panel started to light up like a Christmas tree until the light of the auto-pilot shut-off.

Steven had a hand on the buckle of his seatbelt and was on his way to get up and go to the left window to investigate, but thought better of it and remained seated.  From his seat, he could see something strange that became immediately apparent on the control.  With the yoke full right, he barely managed to keep the plane leveled; the Piper-style wing was now angled down so low that he couldn’t see the tip.  He turned to look at the back of the cockpit and saw that the parachutes were missing.  He took a deep breath and brush off from his mind the who, when, and how, the why he already knew.  The left wing was going to give way; it was just a question of time: minutes, likely not; seconds, that was a surer bet.  He looked once more at the GPS; he was now firmly over the English Channel.  He was still very calm and his thoughts clear.  His ritual was perfect for him and, in all these years, it had been a sure way to keep him clear of temptations.  It also had been a sure way to expose himself to attacks, just like a college girl returning home alone by the same route every school night at the same time.

The plane was now buckling violently like unbalanced clothes dryers do during their spin cycle.  Instinctively he touched his pockets with one hand, confirmed everything was still there, and then placed his fully opened palm on his sculpted breast where the pain lived, thought of Chrissy, replaced his hand on the yoke and continued fighting to keep the plane levelled.  He was now at 18,000 feet when the engine suddenly cut off, which brought the propeller blades to a dead stop.  Automatically his hand went to the panel to his left and he streamed the propeller blades to reduce the drag.  He reached up for a second and thought about restarting the engine, assuming that whatever had damaged the wing allowed the fuel to escape.  He relented, however, and replaced both hands on the yoke.  It was now jerking so violently that removing his hand from it would certainly result in a loss of control and certain plunge to the water below.  No time to send a mayday; the coast guard will see the plane break apart on radar and that will be an indication enough that he was in trouble, he thought.

The plane banked to the right, Steven turned the yoke left and felt his muscle tense as if he was doing pull-ups.  The noise was now deafening.  Steven looked left and he could see the open sky from the side windows.  Although he knew the situation, he still glanced at his instruments.  The ADI, the round display that normally showed the artificial horizon with the ground represented in green at the bottom and the sky on top represented in blue now looked like a two-colour green-and-blue flag.  The plane was on its side, no mistake.  The plane was almost impossible to control, much like a cable man trying to move his long ladder upright in the wind.  Using the aileron, Steven managed to bring the plane somewhat level for a brief instant.  All this had cost him more than six thousand feet and he knew that the ground was coming fast.  He quickly calculated that he had less than two minutes before he would crash at full speed in the water.  Surprisingly, that didn’t disturb him much; being stuck in the sinking wreckage did.  One more wreck for scuba divers to visit, he thought

He allowed himself a smile for the first time since he woke up this morning.  He unclicked the door and let it fly off into the air.  As he spiralled towards the ground in an ever-shrinking circle, he instinctively peered at the horizon; the coast of France was coming in and going out of his range of vision rapidly with each rotation of the plane.  He finally lifted his seatbelt buckle and forced his body out on the wing as he hanged on to the door frame.  The wind in his ears was deafening and the pressure it exerted drove his sunglasses into his skin.  The pain on his face, the pressure on his nose, the coldness of the autumn’s icy wind was almost too much to bear.  He instinctively ducked in time as the plane’s left wing broke off and swiveled violently above him before ricocheting to the other side.  One last time, he forced his hand to his chest and pressed down on it, thinking of the action he would have to make next.  He focused his mind in order to accomplish the final task before he sprang out of the plane, seconds before it tore to shreds in midair.  He closed his eyes as he plummeted down feeling the cold wind his bones, an instant later, the pain stopped abruptly as the churning waters of the English Channel approached fast from under him.