His conscious slowly emerged from the dark abyss it had sought shelter into for the past two hours to be seized by an icy clutch. Uncontrollable shivers assaulted his body as he struggled to pry his leaden eyelids apart. His glassy eyes narrowed in confusion at the alien surroundings. The air was cold and smelled of death. He blinked away the haze to stare numbly at a woman’s body hunched over a seat across from him.
“Ohhhhhhh” he groaned at the stabbing pain shooting down the back of his neck. He clenched his jaw to prevent his teeth from chattering as each clatter hammered a dozen nails into his throbbing head resting against the seat headrest. It proved to be an excruciatingly painful struggle just to move both arms to unfasten his seatbelt. He took a short respite to collect his thoughts and breathe away a wave nausea rising to his parched throat. His eyes fluttered open once again to access the situation.
“Plane crash,” his addled brain inferred from the hecatomb around him. He could barely make out the bloody mangled shells of his fellow passengers in the dim lighting. A thick layer of snow plastered against the windows blocked the sun out. Steve strived to make sense of the tragedy that had befallen flight 405 but his concussion denied him access to the mental file.
He hoisted himself out of his seat and teetered to his feet, causing his head to swim and his battered body to sway dangerously. He leaned against the back on his seat and pinched the bridge of his nose to breathe the fainting spell away before he proceeded to check for any survivor among the sixteen military passengers. He trudged wearily along the central aisle strewn with debris, navigating painfully around them to reach the uniformed men and women still strapped in their seats. Steve’s heart sank deeper with each new cold cadaver he uncovered. No survivors were found. He inhaled deeply to dispel the last of his fainting spell and shuffled up the aisle to the cockpit. A similar sight greeted him as he pushed open the door. As he tried working the dead radio, a coughing bout seized him, sending him into the jaws of agony. Again he leaned against the pilot seat to let the crisis pass before he resumed his task, but to no avail. Neither sound nor static was coming through. Judging by the thick layer covering the entire cockpit windows, Steve surmised the plane must have dove under a heap of powdered snow upon impact. Oxygen was running low and his bionic limbs were growing numb by the minute. He had to find a way out if he were to be rescued by the search party.
He dragged himself back to the end of the plane to seek a way out. After accessing the situation he figured his best solution was to drill a hole in the ceiling. He tore off a rod from the baggage hold and drove it through the fuselage to gouge a hole big enough for his hand to squeeze through. He channelled all of his strength into his numb bionic arm to widen the opening. No sooner had he ripped open a large chunk of the ceiling that snow poured into the plane, clearing a passage into the open space.
Steve grabbed a uniform jacket from a bulky Army sergeant and slipped it on for size. He then gave one last glance at his fellow passengers, swallowing hard at the sight of all the bloody corpses that were once vibrant men and women before scrambling out of the carcass.
The howling icy wind greeted him with stinging slashes against his skin. He pulled up both jacket collars and buttoned them tightly around his neck. Squinting his eyes at the blinding light reflecting on the immaculate white snow, he scoured the area to establish his surroundings. He recalled the plane flying over the Andes when trouble set in. A chain of mountains hemmed him in and dark clouds mantled the entire sky, making it virtually impossible for rescue planes to spot his location. A painful bout of coughing forced him to his knees where he hacked his lungs out. Much to his horror he noticed the phlegm expelled was tinged with blood, evidence of internal bleeding. He shut his eyes and lifted them heavenwards, allowing the warm sun to caress his rosy cheeks while he weighed in his options. With grey skies above and dusk barely two hours away it was safe to assume that no search party would be dispatched today. Should he crawl back into the stuffy wreck buried under the snow or go in search of a better, warmer shelter in the mountains? If he were to be found he had to remain near the plane.
He staggered to his feet and adjusted his telephoto lens to scan the area for any cavity in the rocks. Spotting one a few yards away he decided to tempt fate and seek out the shelter. He began to plough through the waist-high heap of snow but halfway through his destination, his legs gave out. He lay supine, struggling to regulate his breathing rate to avoid triggering another coughing fit.
“This can’t be the end of the road. Not like this,” he scolded, unwilling to resign to his fate just yet. “I’m supposed to be the most invincible man in the world. That’s a laugh!” He inhaled two deep breaths to summon his energy. “Come on, Steve. Can’t give up. The rescues will be here in the morning. Just a couple of more feet. You can do it,” he coaxed himself into standing up. He succeeded albeit with great difficulty in teetering to his feet. He drudged on a mere ten feet before collapsing into the snow, exhausted and frozen to the core. Shivers coursed through his body as he felt his bionic legs and arm shut down completely.
“Well I guess this is it,” he rasped with ragged breaths. “Not…not such a bad way to…to…to go when you… you think about it,” he quavered. “It’s a painless death. Just go to sleep and,” he blinked heavily, “and it’ll…it’ll be all over.” He slowly surrendered to the beckoning darkness gradually enfolding him in a warm blanket of peace and serenity. Before the final curtain fell upon his life, Steve discerned the hazy form of a man drawing near, one he dismissed as a hallucination before slumping into unconsciousness.
Nearly twenty-four hours had stolen by since the military jet went off the radar in the Andes Mountains. Oscar was up in arms at the lack of progress in the search for his friend’s plane. The careworn man had spend every waking hour in his office, running on adrenalin and coffee throughout the night to keep abreast of the latest development regarding the rescue. Rudy added to his torment by reminding him that Steve’s bionics shut down below a certain freezing temperature, generating serious complications in the short run if not treated rapidly.
Fed up of circling around his desk waiting for the phone to ring, Oscar twitched his jacket off the coat rack and left for Andrews Air Force Base Tactical Control Center to assume a more commanding role in the search and rescue operation.
The tail was the only visible piece of the plane that could be seen from a bird-eye view; however the whopping blizzard that breezed through the mountains during the night buried the remaining hope of ever locating the wreck.
In a warm cave hewn out of the rock, Steve lay unconscious swathed in layers of bearskins beside a sparkling campfire. His caretaker sat across from him drinking coffee out of a tin mug, patiently waiting for signs of responsiveness. The first crucial twelve hours had sent Steve knocking at death’s door and most likely would have stepped through hadn’t been for the mountain man keeping his body warm and hydrated and tending to his head wound.
A muffled moan prompted the gentle man to move closer to the awakening blue eyes. The eyelids fluttered open to a hazy world of confusion.
“Hello there, young man,” echoed the soft-spoken voice in his ear.
Steve strained to see whom the voice belonged to. He blinked repeatedly to dispel the fog and establish focus on the smiling bearded face leaning close to him. “Ddddeeeeeeead?” Steve exhaled in a whisper.
“Not yet.” The man held a tin mug water in front of Steve.” You want some water?” Steve moistened his lips in response, allowing the man to assist him in drinking a few sips. “There you go. That’s good. Not too fast, now.” He eased the heavy head back onto the heap of skins fashioned as a pillow and felt Steve’s forehead. “The fever has abated. That is a good sign.”
“Who,” Steve blinked heavily and gulped in a breath, “who are you?”
“You can call me Rajin. What is yours?”
Steve swallowed hard before answering, “Steve. Steve Austin,” he breathed out.
“You are the famous American astronaut?” Steve gave a feebly nod of the head. “You are far from your native land. You missed your landing?” he teased light-heartedly.
Steve sniffed out a small chuckle.” You can say that. I was…was on my way down to Chile on assignment when…when,” his eyes widen in horror as the horrific images of the crash began haunting him.
“Hey, easy. It’s okay,” the man placed his right hand on Steve’s forehead. “Cast aside those haunting memories. Bury them into the deep recesses of your mind.” His touch appeared to exercise a soothing effect on the troubled soul whose terrorized stare changed to a peaceful expression within seconds. “Where am I?”
“In the heart of the Andes Mountains; far from any known civilization.”
“And you live here, alone?”
“How can you survive in the middle of nowhere? What about food and water?”
The man flashed an amused smile as he picked up a jug of water and pointed to the rack of mountain goat cooking on a stick over the fire. “You mean this and that? Where there is a will, there is a way.” Another wheezing cough prompted the man to elevate Steve’s upper body in order to ease his breathing. He gently laid the head against his shoulder until the bout passed and then assisted him in drinking a few draughts of water.
“Thank you,” Steve rasped out between two gasps. He narrowed his eyes in search of his last vivid recollection before he passed out “Blood. I remember spitting blood.”
“That may be. Your abdomen was slightly swollen and rigid when I found you. The haemorrhage appears to have subsided. Do you feel any pain in that area?”
Steve rubbed his hand across his stomach. “It’s still tender but it doesn’t hurt like it did…,” he winced at the alarming thought crossing his mind, “how…how long have I been here?”
“Thirty eight hours.”
“You mean I’ve been unconscious for nearly two days?”
“Your body required it to mend itself.”
“I need to get out there.” Steve started hoisting himself up when a firm hand against his chest eased him back down.
“Sorry, friend. You are in no shape to be wondering out in the snow just yet.”
“But…but the rescue planes will be out looking for the wreck,” Steve huffed and puffed, licking his lips. “They might n…they might not spot it if I’m not there to wave distress signals.”
“I assure you there has not been any plane nor helicopter yet. The skies are just beginning to clear up. Rest easy, little one. At first hear of a rumbling I shall let your people know where you are.” He placed his right hand against Steve’s forehead. “You rest, now.” Steve’s drooping eyelids surrendered to the warmth the man’s touch exuded. “That’s it. You sleep now. Your body needs healing. Do not concern yourself. You will be fine.” The soothing voice lulled Steve into a peaceful slumber.
Oscar arrived at Andrews in record time to speak to the general in charge of the search and rescue operation. Over a detailed chart of the area where the plane supposedly went down he explained that low cloudbase and thick mist have been constant hindrances to the squadron sweeping the perimeter.
“Right now the men can’t see anything down there. We have to wait until the clouds disperse enough to draw a clear view of the area we’re covering.”
“How much longer would that take? Do you realize it’s been more than forty-hours hours since the plane disappeared off the radar?” Oscar stressed on a scolding tone.
“Mister Goldman I’m well aware of how much time has elapsed since the alleged crash,” the general retorted peevishly. “It would be suicide to try to dive below the cloudbase. Our planes could crash against one of those ridges. They must maintain a safe altitude.”
Oscar heaved a frustrated sigh at the general’s explanation before recovering his composure. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I wasn’t implying anything. I know you’re doing you’re best.”
The high-ranking official laid a sympathetic hand on the dispirited man’s shoulder. “I know that Colonel Austin was onboard that flight and that he is a personal friend of yours. I sympathize with your grief believe me, but know that we are doing everything in our power to locate that plane.” Oscar strained a grateful smile at the general’s reassurance. “There’s not much you can do here aside perhaps from being under foot,” the man joked. “I suggest you return to your office and I’ll contact you there with the latest developments as they trickle in.
Oscar agreed begrudgingly to drive back to the OSI and wait for news.
In the hush of night, Steve’s fevered mind was the prey of horrific images of past air tragedies, one being the HL-10 crash that nearly ended his life.
“Nooooooooo,” he drawled out in his fitful sleep, his head tossing restlessly back and forth. “Altitude dropping. Can’t…can’t. Too late…eject.” The breaths rasping in his lungs soon broke into Rajin’s slumber. He shot his eyes open and observed with numb horror strong spasms coursing through the pyretic body. He flung his furry blanket aside and crawled over to the moaning man. “No, no,” Steve panted, sweat pouring off him. “God! I’m gonna crash.”
Rajin positioned himself behind Steve’s head and gently lifted his torso to lean against his chest. He tapped his cheeks to rouse him out of his nightmare. “Steve, wake up. Come on, little one. Come back.”
“I’m gonna…I’m gonna die,” Steve cried out before choking on a mass of phlegm caught in his throat.
Rajin turned him on his right side and began kneading his back with his fist to trigger a retch. “Spit it out, Steve.” The mouth opened but nothing would come out. Rajin massaged Steve’s neck to dislodge some of the sticky mucus, feeling him going sluggish in his arms as seconds wore on. “Steve, you will breathe…NOW!” he shouted his command to the dying man who responded with a heave that not only cleared his airway but emptied the content of his stomach as well.
Once the crisis passed, Rajin eased Steve down on the bearskins and doused a cloth with water to dab at the beads of perspiration on his forehead. ‘Pneumonia,’ he deduced from the awful wheezing and scalding fever. As he felt this man’s life slowly ebbing away, Rajin lifted his eyes heavenwards and appealed to the Supreme Being. “God I beseech you to claim this child’s soul this instant or bestow upon me the power to heal him.” He then proceeded to hover his hands over Steve’s chest and closed his eyes in concentration.
Three days of fruitless results finally convinced General Ralston to call off the search. Oscar had to resign himself to accepting the evidence that Steve and his fellow passengers were dead.
A knock at his office door interrupted Oscar’s train of thoughts. “Come in.”
Rudy entered. “Oscar?” After Oscar waved him in, a heavy-hearted Rudy dropped his hands in his jacket pockets and edged over to the desk. “Have you told Steve’s parents yet?”
Oscar shook his head. “I’ve been sitting here for the past two hours staring at that phone. I can’t bring myself to pick it up.”
“Would you prefer I do it?”
“No,” Oscar sighed heavily. “I think it’ll be better if it comes from me.” He shook his head in disbelief. “Better? How can it be better?” he scoffed his own remark. “Their son is dead.” He stood from his chair and rounded the corner to stand by Rudy. “If only they had found his body to provide closure.” He walked back to stand by the window with his hands in his pants pockets. “I can’t bring myself to think he’s dead, Rudy. I feel he’s somewhere in those mountains struggling to survive.”
“They didn’t find the plane.”
“That’s just it. They didn’t find anything. How can they assume they’re all dead? You remember the story of members of a South American rugby team who survived more than three months in the same mountains? They called off the search thinking they were all dead and they weren’t. They could have saved many more had they kept on searching for the plane.” Oscar grabbed the phone and dialled.
“Who are you calling?”
“General Ralston. I want him to resume the search.”
“Hello this is Oscar Goldman. Please put me through to General Ralston.” He covered the mouthpiece with his hand. “I want him to broaden the scope of the search; sweep areas beyond the original perimeter.”
“Oscar put the phone down,” Rudy ordered with a composed voice. “Steve couldn’t have possibly survived more than twenty-four hours in this freezing weather.”
Oscar gave him a quizzical look. “Of course he could. He’s a resourceful man.”
“It’s the bionics. They shut down below twenty degrees centigrade. And we know the temperature drops to below forty degrees at night in those mountains.” He shook his head dejectedly at Oscar who lowered the phone back in its cradle. “If he’s not warmed up within the hour of the complete shut down…”Rudy deemed it futile to continue when he saw Oscar’s eyes drop in utter despair. “I’m sorry.”
Oscar flumped down in his chair and stared at the phone. He inhaled a shuddering breath and held it momentarily to pop the cork on his bottled up emotions that he let out in a long exhale. He slowly reached for the phone and dialled the Elgin Farm in Ojai.
“You want me to leave?” Rudy asked.
Oscar simply shook his head while he waited for Helen to answer. “Helen, its Oscar Goldman.”
“Mister Goldman. How good to hear your voice. How’s Steve?”
Oscar glanced up at Rudy who cracked a half-hearted smile in support. “Steve was flying down to Chile when…”
“The…the plane went down.”
Her heart leapt to her throat at the news. She raised a hand to her mouth and sank into an armchair. “Is he?” Tears rushed to her eyes at Oscar’s silence. “Oscar, my boy? Is he okay?”
“I’m sorry, Helen,” he quavered.
“Ohhhhh nooooooo,” she wept, unable to retain the torrent of tears streaming down her cheeks. She was bursting at the seams at the word of her son’s death. “Did…did…, she sniffed back some of her tears, “did he suffer? I mean were you able to determine if he was killed on impact?”
“Helen, we have yet to find his body.”
“What? Then how do you know he’s dead?”
“We just know. The search planes couldn’t locate any wreckage. It is assumed that Steve’s plane dove under the snow upon impact with the ground, killing all passengers on impact.”
“Assume? You assume??????” Helen blustered.
“Oscar how can you abandon the search without knowing for certain that those people are dead?”
“Helen, we did everything we could to find them. Had Steve or any other passenger survived the crash, they would have given us a signal. The pilots didn’t see any sign of life down there.” He paused briefly to regain his poise. “I’m sorry. I know how hard it is for you and believe it is the same for me. I was against their decision to call off the search.”
“Noooooooo,” she wailed. “Not Steve. Not like this.”
“There will be a funeral service for Steve at Andrews Air Force Base as well as for all the other military officials who perished in the crash. It’s scheduled for Saturday afternoon. I thought you and Jim might like to attend.”
“We’ll be there.” She hung up the phone and dissolved into tears.
Jim sat with one arm around his wife’s shuddering shoulders and his other hand holding hers on her lap as the funeral ceremony proceeded. After the ritual gunshots and folding of the flag, the bereaved parents were escorted back to Steve’s apartment to pack his belongings.
“Helen, if this is too difficult for you we could have people do this and send you his things,” Oscar suggested to the grieving mother.
“No. I’d rather do it myself. I don’t want strangers handling my son’s personal items.”
“I understand. Rudy and I will go back to the office. If you need us…”
She placed a hand on Oscar’s arm. “Thank you. Thank you for being a friend to my son. You have no idea what your friendship meant to him.”
“Can’t be more than what it meant to me, Helen.” He leaned in to brush a sympathetic kiss on her cheek. “He was the best.”
She smiled and nodded in agreement. Once the door closed, she turned to her husband who was staring reminiscently at a framed picture he held in his hand. She stepped up to him to get a closer look. She gasped with joy at the photo of her son with Jim proudly displaying their catch during a recent fishing trip. “I remember that trip. It was the last time we saw…” he voice trailed off in mid sentence as a wave of emotion rushed to her throat.
“Helen, why don’t we do this later. You’re emotionally vulnerable right now what with the funeral and everything. It’s still too soon.”
“No Jim. I want to do this now when I can still find the courage.” She squeezed his hand. “Will you help me?”
He placed a small kiss on her lips and clenched her into a soul-stirring hug. “I’m here for you, Helen. Together we’ll get through this, I promise.”
Days had blended into a week when Steve ultimately broke free from the peaceful and healing cocoon he laid inside for the past three days. He lazily opened his eyes to a blurry figure giving the campfire a few pokes. He blinked to establish the focus.
“Hello there,” his caretaker greeted smilingly.
Steve let out a few dry coughs and inhaled deeply. “I…I thought I was dead,” he heaved out in a hushed voice
“You must undoubtedly be alluding to your nightmare.”
The mountain man nodded. “You are very much alive. How do you feel?”
Steve closed his eyes to channel all of his energy into stretching his right arm; then his left, after which he proceeded to wiggle his toes and bend his legs at the knees. “I’m a little worse for wear but the pain is gone. He rubbed his hand across his stomach to feel for any tenderness.
“Actually I am.”
Rajin put a ladleful of broth into a bowl and moved behind Steve to prop his head against his shoulder before he began spoon-feeding him.
“How long have I been asleep?” Steve asked between two swallows.
“Five,” Steve choked on the broth, “five days?”
“You were burning up with fever,” Rajin explained while he wiped Steve’s mouth with a cloth. “You nearly died from pneumonia. Your body required complete bed rest in order to fight the ailment and replenish its energy.” He fed Steve another spoonful of broth.
“What about the rescue planes? Didn’t you see any?”
“No. Your people have been surveying the area where your aircraft last registered on the radar.”
“Nearly two weeks have passed since the crash. They have since abandoned the search.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I just know.”
Steve craned his neck back to search the deep brown eyes. “Who are you really?”
“A friend,” Rajin smiled. “A friend who wants to offer you a choice.”
“What choice?” Steve frowned warily.
Rajin placed the bowl of broth down and propped Steve higher against his chest. “Your loved ones believe that you are now resting in God’s peaceful dwelling. If your wish is to return, then I shall help you summon them and guide them to you. Or…”
“Or what?” Steve’s eyes swivelled back and forth in apprehension of the latter.
“You can follow me into my realm.”
“Your realm? Where is that?”
“Anywhere you wish it to be.”
“You’re some sort of spiritual leader?”
“In a way. As I mentioned before, your family and friends all believe your perished in that plane crash. They will not miss you should you decide to follow a different path.”
Steve closed his eyes and let his mind wander back to the events of the past two weeks. “I recall spitting blood. I should be dead.” He stretched his neck back. “You healed me, didn’t you?”
“I merely helped your body heal itself.”
Steve laid his head back against Rajin’s shoulder and heaved a long shuddering breath. “It’s a very tempting offer Rajin, but I must decline.” He shook his head. “I don’t belong in your universe.”
“Believe me you do, Steve. You only require my teachings on how to cross the bridge.”
“I can’t,” Steve sighed.
“If that is your wish.” Rajin placed his right hand against Steve’s forehead. “Close your eyes and visualise the one person dear to your heart; rouse the senses to establish a pathway between you and that individual.”
Back in Ojai, Helen was resting comfortably on the sofa when her son’s voice suddenly broke into her dream and jolted her out of sleep.
“Helen, what is it?” Jim asked worriedly.
“Steve. Jim, Steve is alive,” she panted, her body shuddering. She gripped his hand to force him to sit by her. “Steve is alive.”
“Helen, it was only a dream,” Jim tried to reason with her but she would not listen. She stood from the couch and picked up the phone. “Who are you calling?”
She raised a hand to shush him. “Yes please, may I speak with Oscar Goldman? This is Helen Elgin, Steve Austin’s mother.”
Jim went to stand by his flustered wife. “Helen this is insane. What are you going to tell him?”
“Mister Goldman? Would it be too much to ask to resume the search for my son? He is alive.”
In his office, Oscar twitched his glasses off his nose and leaned forward on his desk. “How do you know that?”
“Trust me. A mother knows. I didn’t before but now I know. He is alive. You have been searching in the wrong area.”
“Please Oscar. Don’t ask questions.”
“I can’t just dispatch planes to the area without a valid reason. It was established that all seventeen passengers on board the aircraft died, nineteen if your include the pilot and co-pilot.”
“My son is alive, Oscar,” Helen insisted. “That’s all I can say. Make up a reason to resume the search but find him.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Oscar sighed in resignation before Helen’s insistence. Aware that his request for a new search party would be denied, Oscar opted to contact General Wagner to ask for the lend of one of his military helicopters.
Less than twenty-four later, the OSI director was onboard the chopper to scour a previously uncovered region. With binoculars Oscar surveyed every inch of the area below until he saw a man waving both arms in the air. He adjusted the lens to establish the identity of the lone survivor. “It’s Colonel Austin!” He shouted with glee to the pilot. “ Can you get down there?”
“I’ll circle around and see if there’s a safe landing ground.”
“They saw me,” Steve said to Rajin standing next to him.
“They did. You will be returning home to your family and friends.”
Steve clasped Rajin’s hand and gave it a hearty shake. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me. If you hadn’t been there I would be dead.”
“I was originally sent to this part of the world to bring you with us. You were among the chosen ones. But you made your choice to continue on your earthly path. I wish you prosperity, Steve Austin.”
“I’ll never forget you, that’s for sure.”
Rajin pressed the palm of his hand against Steve’s forehead. “I’ll always be with you.”
Unable to find a safe landing spot the chopper hovered a few feet above the ground, allowing Oscar to throw down a rope ladder for Steve to climb. Once safely aboard, Steve pointed to Rajin waving goodbye on the ground.
“I don’t see anybody,” Oscar told Steve.
“He’s right there,” Steve insisted.
“If you say so, Pal,” Oscar humoured, casting a worried sidelong glance at his friend he believed was hallucinating. “I suspect you’ll be beset with questions upon our return in Washington. Therefore I have arranged for you to spend a few days at your parents’ house.”
“Thank you, Oscar.”
“You know they called off the search when they couldn’t locate the plane. It was your mother who convinced me to go look for you again. She just knew you were alive.”
Steve smiled reminiscently at his telepathic experience with Rajin. “I know.”