“Amelia, try again.” Fred was hunched over a map, sitting at a small, fold-out table in the airplane cabin beneath the sway of a light bulb dangling from the ceiling by an extension cord. “Make the call. Someone must be listening.”
She nodded, but her thoughts were muddled, and the body — Amelia’s body — felt sloppy, like a marionette with a rattling jaw and tangled strings. Her left eye rolled upward to look at the instruments along the ceiling of the cockpit, while the other scanned the front panel for transmitter.
“For God’s sake, what are you doing? Make the call. Hurry.”
She forced the rogue eye downwards to align with the right and stole another glance at Fred. A metal canteen rolled along the floor. He picked it up and set it on the table. Fred had not noticed her transformation. Good.
Shakily, she slipped the headset over her ears and turned to the transmitter. Simply designed, the transmitter was just two gauges displaying milliamperes and amperes. There was also a knob and a switch. She flipped the switch. It hummed.
“We must be on you, but cannot see you.” Her voice sounded hoarse and strange. “Gas is running low. Have been unable to reach you by radio.” She tapped the altimeter with her finger. “We are flying at 1,000 feet.”
A burst of static was the only response. She peered out the window, seeing nothing but black ocean, a sky papered with stars that she could not name and a quarter moon the color of a blanched almond. The propellor beat steadily as the plane plummeted into the night. Fear coiled inside her, snakelike. There was no one out there. They were supposed to land on Howland Island, but where was it?
She looked at Fred. The bulb swayed, casting his face in a dance of darkness and light. The armpits of his T-shirt were damp with sweat and his forehead sagged in exhaustion. He unscrewed the canteen and took a swig. It made him grimace, and the smell burned her nose — smoke and metal, dead vegetation mixed with sugar. She knew what the drink was; it was the hard stuff.
“Are you drunk?”
“Nah. Just took a nip or two.” But his words were slurred.
She felt a wave of uncertainty. Icarus had promised that Fred was a great navigator. He was supposed to guide them off of Eight and lead them to a Ninth planet, one they could reach in a single lifetime. Yet, Fred didn’t know where they were now, even with a topographical map in hand and stars to show him the way. What would happen when they were in an uncharted solar system? What would happen when he wanted another drink?
“I need you sober. This plane won’t fly forever,” she said.
“You’re losing your wits. You just told me that.”
No, she hadn’t. Amelia must have said it — before she arrived in her body. It was easy to ruin a mission by talking too much. She should know better by now.
Embarrassed, she turned back to the controls. There were so many dials, a jumble of gadgets. She’d never flown a real plane, but the woman — Amelia — had been an expert flyer.
“Amelia’s body knows how to fly. Remember that,” Icarus had reminded her before she left. The loosely lit cave had been chilly, but the ankle-deep water warm. “You need to do very little, except know when to tighten your grip and when to let go.” The hood of Icarus’ robe rested on his shoulders, and she could see the deep lines on his face, cut like cracks in thirsty soil. He touched her face, and she wanted nothing more than for him to kiss her goodbye, the way he used to before things had changed between them. Instead, he only said, “I’m confident in your abilities. You have done this before. Just keep the navigator, Fred, alive long enough for the gateway to re-open. Can you do that?”
“Yes, of course.” She looked down at the water, which began to churn. “I’ll wait for you to come get us.”
“Good girl.” Icarus lifted the hood over his head and turned away as the water began to prick her skin, a sign that they gateway was about to open. She watched him go, wondering what she’d done to fall out of his favor, wishing she could stay to convince Icarus that she was worthy of him. Was it the new cadet — the boy with the large eyes and shorn hair?
The water thickened and wrapped itself around her ankles and knees, rising up to her calves, shimmering. She watched Icarus’ silhouette recede, growing hazy as the water traveled up her body and curled around her neck. The pricking sensation became stabbing, then burning. Tears fell from her eyes and skirted down the tip of her nose as the water forced itself into her nose and mouth, and she began to choke, then drown. She fought back the familiar sense of panic by reminding herself that there was nowhere else to go, only miles of twisting tunnels that led to the surface where the torch-like sun would burn her pale-blue eyes, her bone-white skin, her long, silver hair, causing her to scream as her flesh melted away. Her planet, Eight, was dead, a razed mass of sand so hot that it liquified during the day and turned to glass at night. The cave and Icarus’ now distant form fell away, and she was thrown into a spiral — spinning, turning, falling.
The next thing she knew, she was sitting in the pilot’s seat, flying over a shuddering ocean, inside Amelia’s body. In that instant, the woman’s memories were hers, and they came at her like bullets. At first, the impractical ones — vast plains stretching into the horizon with dusty towns and dogs eating fleas off their legs, the smell of gasoline at a station along a deserted gravel road, a biting December in New York City on a night so dark that even the cockroaches sang for spring, light on lemon trees overlooking mountains of sun-stroked grass, clinging with desperation to the craggy soil.
Then the quicksilver moments slipped away and the practical memories filled her head. She was going to circumvent the globe flying a 1935 Lockheed Model 10 Electra, well-built, all-metal, with a cruising speed of 190 miles per hour. Meant to carry two crew and up to ten passengers, it had been modified it to add six extra fuel takes which gave them up to 20 hours cruising time. It was just her and Fred Noonan on the journey, and Amelia had believed he was the secret to her success. He’d sailed around Cape Horn, flown to China and charted transatlantic routes for Pan Am. He was was the best navigator in the business, as long as he stayed sober.
She glanced back at Fred. He rubbed his eyes, then unscrewed the cap of a metal canteen and took another sip, this one smaller than the last.
She kept the Lockheed steady along lines 157 and 337, which she knew from Amelia’s memories was where Howland Island was located. At least, it was supposed be at those coordinates. But there was no landing strip. No glow of electric lights. Only darkness. What was going on?
The engine sputtered; gas was dangerously low. “Fred, we need to land now. We’re running on …” She searched Amelia’s mind for the right word. “ … fumes.”
No answer. She threw a quick glance over her shoulder and saw that Fred was drawing thick lines in pencil across the map using a ruler and writing coordinates above them. He glanced out the window at the moon.
“Put her down,” she said, tapping the gas gauge with her finger. It was empty. “Now.”
“I think we can land on Gardener Island. It’s only a small atoll, but better than nothing.”
“Are you sure?” Her eyes moved to the canteen.
“Positive,” Fred said, his voice confident.
She let Amelia’s body guide the plane down, lower and lower, until she could see the water just below. Spittles of sea spray crashed against the windows. Fred yelled as the plane shimmied side-to-side, his words incomprehensible. Heart pounding and sweat gathering at her brow, she leaned forward. She thought she saw land. She couldn’t be sure, but it was craggy and seemed to be firm. She had to land this plane; it would not be elegant, even with Amelia in control. She brought the landing gear down.
They crashed on a shallow coral reef, missing the beach by only a handful of yards. The landing gear broke off on impact, and the belly of the Lockheed shrieked as it skidded across the coral and rock. Her safety harness, criss-crossed at her chest, smashed into her collarbone and knocked the air from her lungs. She covered her head with her arms just as the plane came to a ear-crushing standstill.
Her ears were stuffed with silence. She ran her hands over her face and skull to make sure everything was intact. It was. She inhaled and exhaled to calm her nerves. This wasn’t supposed to happen. If the plane was going to crash, Icarus would have told her so. Surely, this was a mistake. Her mission was to take Fred to Howland Island where Icarus would pick them up. Had she done something wrong?
She glanced back at Fred. He was on the floor behind her, curled up like a child with the crinkled map between his fingers. She opened her mouth to speak, but the plane creaked as it tipped to the side, submerging one wing in the shallow waters. Hanging sidelong in her harness, she listened to the gurgle of water. Another moment. “Fred, you okay?”
He didn’t answer, but she heard him spit, his face in shadow.
She crawled out the cockpit and jumped into the dark reef, surrounded by the eerie, pulsating glow of jelly fish. Fred stumbled out after her. The water was at her thighs, and the moonlight danced on the surface of the ocean. She felt sick to her stomach. Weak too. They waded through the water to the shore. Just as she reached it, her knees buckled. She fell onto the beach. At least she was still alive. Thank you, sons of Eight, she prayed as she kissed the sandy shore.
She must have fallen asleep, or maybe blacked out. When she opened her eyes, the sun was breaking over the horizon, and she could finally see the island. It was small, no more than a mile wide. The sand was powdery with some kelp and sticks lapping at the shoreline. A few trees and shrubs growing just off the beach provided a bit of shade. She listened. Only the wind and water. Not even bird. She shaded her eyes and scanned the coast. She hoped there was fresh water somewhere. There should be a little on the plane — perhaps in their canteens — at least, in her canteen — but not enough to last them more than a few days.
Gingerly, she pulled herself to sit. Her chest was sore where the safety harness had been, and her shoulders and neck were bruised; she had put everything she had into the landing. Otherwise, she seemed okay.
Fred sat next to her, his arms wrapped around his knees. He was wearing a salt-stained T-shirt and cargo pants, now shredded at the ankles. He seemed to be watching the sunrise, or studying the Lockheed. She couldn’t be sure.
He didn’t answer.
She touched his bare arm. It felt hot, not from the sun, but in a feverish way. He looked at her, his eyes still rimmed red. “You alright?”
He cleared his throat. “I could use a stiff drink. Or a whole bottle. I can’t find my canteen.”
She looked into Amelia’s thoughts. “You were supposed to be sober for this trip.”
“I was, for the most part. Lotta good that did me.”
There was blood crusted along his scalp and dark stains on his shirt. He’d hit his head. She gestured to the cut. “Why didn’t you wake me?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I thought you might be dead.”
“The Lockheed has a medical kit. I’ll go get it.”
“Wait.” He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out the crumpled map, which had been folded and re-folded until it was in the shape of a neat, little square. “I figured out why we missed Howland Island.” He smoothed the map out over his knee and pointed to the meridian. “Look at the Tropic of Cancer right here. It has shifted just a few degrees south, even after I accounted for the axial tilt. Do you see?”
She frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“I’ve been going over it in my head, and there was no way I should not have found Howland. I even accounted for the parallax. It doesn’t make sense. Unless the map was off.”
She didn’t know anything about a parallax, or how a map could be wrong, but she took it from Fred. She pretended to study it, but in truth she could not read a map. The words and shapes did not make sense. What she did know was that Fred was a drunk, and it was probably because of him that the plane had crashed.
“You see it, right? This wasn’t my fault. This was sabotage.”
“Who would shave sabotaged us?”
“I don’t know. Charles Lindberg, or those newspapermen in California. Maybe Hearst was involved. A better story, you see?”
That seemed unlikely. She looked at the map again, then at the wreckage along the shore and the bloody gash on Fred’s head. A hard truth came over her. This hadn’t been a mistake. Icarus wasn’t coming for them, and Fred was not the navigator who they needed to take them to Ninth. No. Icarus had sent her on a fool’s errand. He didn’t want her anymore. She didn’t know what she’d done to deserve such a death, or how Icarus could be so cruel. Was this really all because of that boy — the new cadet with the pretty eyes?
“I’m going to go get the medical kit and canteens,” she said, trying to hide the tremor in her voice. With the sun warming her shoulders, she waded in the water towards the downed plane. The sun always felt so good on planet Earth.
When she returned, she found Fred several yards away, bare-chested, prostrate on his back. Waves licked his T-shirt nearby. His head wound was bleeding again, leaving an inky trail of red on the sand where he had crawled.
“Fred!” She ran to him, dropping the canteens along the beach. She knelt down at his side. He was unconscious. Sons of Eight, what should I do? She shook him. “Fred! Fred! Wake up!”
“Amelia.” Fred blinked, looking up at her. “I’m afraid I won’t make it. My head hurts. It hurts so bad.” His words were slurred.
“You will be fine. I just radioed more messages,” she lied. “I’ll keep doing it until .. until …”
“The battery dies?”
“Someone will hear us.”
“No one will come.” Fred looked back up at the sky. “We were sabotaged, and now we’re going to die. I wish I could see Mary just one more time. It would be nice to hold her and tell her that I love her.”
She knew from Amelia’s memories that Mary was his wife. Judging from their circumstance, he’d never see Mary again, but she didn’t want tell him this. Instead, she trained her eyes on the shore and combed the sand with her fingers. But the lump in her throat wouldn’t go away, and a tear forced itself out of the corner of her eye.
“You will see her again,” she said, hearing the own doubt in her voice. “And you’ll get to say all of those things.”
“No, I won’t. Whoever wanted us to fail, won.”
Not knowing what else to do, she took his callused hand in hers. This is what Fred’s people did when there was pain. It felt right, even in someone else’s body.
Fred squinted in the sun. “There’s something different about you,” I noticed it in the plane, and again just now when you were looking at the map.”
“You’ve got a concussion. You’re disoriented.” She squeezed his hand.
“Maybe, but it’s something else. It’s like you’re not the same person at all. I mean, you look like Amelia, but I don’t think you are.”
She waited, but he didn’t say anything else.
“No, you’re not her. You don’t move like her, or talk like her. You were disoriented in the plane, and you looked at the map like you’d never seen one.” He withdrew his hand from hers. “I think you’re someone else.”
“You’re being ridiculous.”
He struggled to his feet, moving away from her, the sun at his back and the blue sky framing his silhouette. “Are you the one who sabotaged us? What did you do with Amelia?”
“I didn’t do anything with Amelia.”
“What happened to her? Where did she go?”
She opened her mouth, then closed it. In truth she didn’t know what happened to Amelia, or any of the others on her previous missions. It didn’t matter.
Suddenly, Fred turned and ran. She stood and took a couple steps forward to chase him, but he stumbled and fell to the sand. She rushed to him and rolled him onto his back. “Fred?”
“Get away from me.” He moaned, swatting at her. “You are not Amelia. Get away!”
“I don’t know why you’re saying that.” She held him down for a moment until he stopped struggling.
“We’re going to die,” he said. “We’re going to die. And I’m stuck here with a stranger. Is this really how it ends?” He started to cry.
She slumped in the sand and looked out into the horizon, feeling the feverish warmth radiating off of Fred’s sniffling body. She was trapped too. She’d never have her own body back. She’d never feel her own powdery skin, see her own long, delicate fingers, braid her own white hair. Instead, she was stuck inside this gawky form with useless parts — earlobes, eyebrows and a fifth toe.
There was nothing else she could say to Fred. If this had been a real mission, she would have told him the truth — what her real name was and that she was from planet Eight. That she’d been sent here to take him back so that he could be the chief navigator of their starship. That they’d taken many others just like him. How they were beings of mysticism and magic, not of physics and mathematics.
If everything had gone according to plan, the gateway would open, and she would see Icarus rise out of the sea. She would feel his presence in the air, in the sun and the sand. She’d feel powerful, glorious, like a god.
But she felt nothing except loneliness and a growing confidence that she’d been brought here to die.
She opened Fred’s canteen and took a swig. The stuff was nasty. It was wild and primal, like Earth and the people who lived here. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
“Here,” she said to Fred as she handed the canteen to him. “Drink this.”
He took it from her and held it up to the sky. “To the end.” He drew it to his lips.
“To the end,” she said softly, staring at the sun.