Chapter Five

Dear Mrs. Runyan,

Thank you for taking care of my plants while I'm gone. I put the plant food next to the watering can in the kitchen. Please remember to feed them every two weeks. And it would be really nice if you'd talk to them a little, too. I know it sounds silly, but I think they like it. Enclosed you'll find my key and a gift certificate to Luby's Cafeteria. I hope you and your girlfriends have fun. I'll be home in ninety days. If anything goes wrong you have the number of my first sergeant on Tinker. Again, thank you so much.

CC P.S. Yes, you can borrow any of my videos! Enjoy!

CC slipped the letter into the envelope with her key and the Luby's gift certificate, then she slid it under Mrs. Runyan's apartment door. Mrs. Runyan was sweet and about a thousand years old, and she flat refused to take any money for watering CC's plants and keeping an eye on her apartment while she was gone. But CC knew that she and her girl-friends loved to go to Luby's after church on Sundays—so she'd splurged on a one-hundred-dollar gift certificate for her. CC wished she didn't have to leave so early, and she could be there to see the expression on Mrs. Runyan's kind face when she found the gift certificate. The thought made her smile in the predawn light while she struggled to carry her duffel bag, suitcase and carry-on bag down the three flights of winding steps and stuff them in the trunk of her car.

It was so early that the traffic to Tinker was unusually light, and CC's thoughts drifted back to the events of the past twenty-four hours. After she'd left the base and gone home, the rest of her day had been spent moving her horde of plants and finishing her packing.

There certainly hadn't been any magical happenings in any of that. That night she had even stood on the balcony trying to recapture the moonlit magic of the night before, but clouds had rolled in and there was no moonlight, nor any magic.

Could she have imagined the lady by the elevator yesterday? She didn't think so. The weight of the amber tear between her breasts told her the lady at the BX hadn't been a figment of her imagination, either. And why should she question and try to poke holes into what had happened? She wanted it to be true; she wanted magic in her life.

One hand crept up to rub the amber drop with restless fingers, and CC nervously checked the car clock. It was 0530, and she was almost to the base. The shuttle that would take her from Tinker to Will Rogers Airport left the base at 0615. Her flight departed Will Rogers for Baltimore at 0825. At Baltimore she would board a military charter that would take her to the U.S. Air Base in Italy. From there she would travel via an Air Force C-130 cargo plane to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The whole trip would total just over twenty-four hours, with about twenty of those hours spent in the air.

And she really didn't like to fly. Right now the sour feeling in her stomach was a silent testament to how much she was not looking forward to the long trip.

If her mom had been here she would berate her, for the thousandth time, for joining the air force.

"Well, honey," she would say, "why in the blue blazes would you join the flying branch of our armed forces when you're afraid to fly?"

CC's answer was always the same. "I researched it, Mom. The air force was the branch of the service that had the best overall package. And there are a lot of jobs in the air force that have nothing to do with flying. Mine, for one example."

Her mother would make a scoffing sound and shake her head. CC had to wonder if her parents really understood that her military job was much like a civilian position in a big multi-media corporation. She was in charge of quality assessment for the Base Communications Center. Did they think she was covertly flying fighter planes?

She usually had only one or two temporary duty assignments each year, and, yes, she had to fly to them, but that would be no different than what her schedule would be like if she had worked her way up in a civilian company. Many jobs required their employees to travel periodically.

Well, CC smiled to herself, civilian jobs didn't typically require their employees to travel periodically into war zones. Her smile tightened. She was good at her job, and she was well trained. And she believed in what she was doing. She didn't think of it as being a hero or particularly patriotic; she had simply chosen a career that gave her the opportunity to serve her country in a very visible way. And, she admitted to herself, she liked the adventure of the air force. There were always new people to meet and new places to go. CC thrived on change—she'd had enough stagnation in the first eighteen years of her small town life to last for the next fifty-eight.

She breathed deeply, trying to quiet her nerves. Actually, she realized that she was feeling more than the normal amount of her preflight jitters. Right now she'd rather face several members of the Taliban than a long airplane flight. Weird, she told herself, noting again the sick feeling in her stomach. Maybe she was having some kind of premonition of danger? Could she be ultranervous because her sixth sense was trying to tell her something?

Her stomach growled, startling her, then making her smile. No, it was more likely that her upset stomach had been caused by the fact that she had been in too much of a hurry to eat breakfast. She'd have to try and get something to eat on the plane. She laughed out loud. Now there was something really terrifying—airline food…

CC reminded herself of that while her stomach continued to roll nervously as she made her way across America. The layover in Baltimore was brief, and she had to scramble to catch her shuttle to the military charter, which was actually a huge commercial 747 stuffed with military personnel of varying ranks. CC stuck her face in a book and tried desperately to ignore the fact that they were hurling forward at an obscene rate of speed entirely too far above the earth.

The captain of the flight announced via the intercom that they would be landing at the air base in Italy in twenty minutes. He informed them proudly that the weather was a beautiful seventy-five degrees, with clear skies and a local time of almost 10:00 a.m., even though CC's internal clock insisted it was almost 2:00 a.m. instead. She ran her fingers through her tousled hair and rubbed her sand-filled eyes, wishing desperately that she could have relaxed enough to sleep during the long flight.

Just one more leg of this trip, she told herself. CC took the file that held her orders and her itinerary out of her carry-on. Yes, she'd remembered correctly. She had a little over an hour and a half layover in Italy. Unfortunately, it was not enough time to see any of the country, but it would give her time to grab something to eat and to change from the civilian clothes she had been traveling in, to the desert cammo fatigues that were the accepted uniform for the last leg of her trip on the C-130.

The thought of the military cargo plane made her shudder and almost forget that the plane she was on was landing, the second most dangerous time in a flight—takeoff being the most dangerous time. CC had flown in a C-130 twice before; both times had been extremely uncomfortable. C-

s were huge cargo transport vehicles with bigger-than-human sized propellers, no real passenger seats and rough, loud rides. That's why they were called C-130s. The C stood for cargo, which is what they were built to carry, not passengers.

CC thought that it would probably be a futile quest to try and find a nice bottle of chilled champagne at 10:00 a.m. anywhere on the air base within walking distance of the flight line, but she decided that as soon as she changed clothes she would make the attempt. Food could wait. Champagne should be a travel necessity.

"Sarg! Wake up, we're boarding now." A rotund master sergeant shook her shoulder.

CC looked blearily around and tried to remember where she was.

"Let's go—everyone else is already on board and we're closin' up the tail." The master sergeant continued. "Should be airborne in no time."

Reality caught up with CC, and she scrambled to follow the master sergeant out of the passenger waiting area and onto the flight line proper. She rubbed her fingers through her hair and struggled to wake up. She couldn't believe she'd fallen into such a deep sleep. Her mouth tasted stale and her mind was fuzzy, but she quickly pieced together the past hour and a half. She had changed out of her jeans and sweater into her desert fatigues, then she'd gone in search of libations. No, she hadn't found any champagne, just a semihot roast beef sandwich and a semicold beer. She guessed she should have never had that beer—it certainly hadn't agreed with her like champagne did.

And then all thoughts of food and drink scattered out of her head as she approached the C-130. The enormous plane crouched on the runway like a mutated insect. It was painted the typical military green, which did nothing to dispel its buglike appearance. Its opened tail end was facing her, and she could glimpse enough of the inside of the thing to see that it was crammed full of huge, plastic-draped pallets of cargo. CC mentally shook her head in disgust. It looked like some horrible bug that was getting ready to poop. The metallic sound of hydraulics being engaged clicked on, and CC watched the tail section begin to close.

The master sergeant motioned at her to catch up with him. "Don't worry about the butt end being closed. You can board through the door in the front."

He pointed to a tall, narrow open area in front of and below the left wing. Stairs were pulled down from somewhere within the plane, and it was just a few short steps up into the aircraft. CC walked a wide circle around the silent, evil-looking set of propellers that were on that side of the plane, all the while sending them nervous glances.

The master sergeant noticed her discomfort and laughed. "Hell, they can't hurt you when they're not turned on."

"But they are getting ready to be turned on, aren't they?" she responded.

"Right you are, Sarg. So you better get aboard." He took her elbow to steady her on the steps. "Watch your head," he added.

"Ouch!" Too late, CC thought, grabbing her forehead where she had smacked it into a ledge of low-hanging equipment that protruded from the ceiling just inside the entrance.

Rubbing her head, she turned to the right and stepped up into the cargo/passenger area of the plane. Her eyes were watering with pain, and she could already feel a knot swelling under her fingers. She sincerely wished she was better at cussing; this was certainly the proper time to let loose with several choice words.

"Well, that's a darn stupid place to put a—" CC stopped and blushed furiously.

Six male faces were turned in her direction. They belonged to men clad in traditional sand-colored desert-issue flight suits. Each man wore the same distinctive patches and wings that clearly identified him as an F-16 Viper pilot.

"Hey, Sleeping Beauty," called out one of the pilots, a young lieutenant with a face that looked like it should have been on the cover of an air force recruiting poster. "Nice of you to wake up and join us."

CC felt her blush deepen. She was exhausted. Her face was greasy. She had sleep-head hair, and she was wearing desert cammos that on the best of days made her look about twelve years old. Needless to say, that moment was far from the best of days. Her eyes were bloodshot and her breath had to smell like the bottom of a birdcage. And she had just walked into a whole group of handsome fighter pilots after smacking herself on the head like an idiot right in front of them. Not to mention she was inside of a plane that was getting ready to take off.

She was probably in hell.

"Ignore him Sergeant…" said a colonel with just enough gray in his thick hair to make him look dignified. He hesitated as he read her nametag. "… Sergeant Canady. He's just pissed because he doesn't look as cute as you do when he sleeps."

"Yeah," a lanky-looking captain added. "He drools."

That got a laugh from the group, and CC hurried into the cargo bay, settling into the first seat that was available. She stowed her carry-on under her feet and busied herself with securely fastening her seat belt, which was the same red color as her fold-down seat and the meshed webbing that served as a backrest. CC wondered, as she did each time she flew in a C-130, why the seats and webbing were all bright red, when everything else about the plane was either military green or metallic gray. It made her feel vaguely uncomfortable, as did the open view of aircraft equipment and pipes and wires and such. At least civilian airplanes had all the "stuff covered by smooth, white walls. Here the guts of the plane were showing.

Lashed to the floor at intervals of about six feet were the pallets of cargo CC had caught sight of from outside the plane. They filled the body of the cargo bay. Hesitantly, CC let her eyes travel to the other occupied seats, and she breathed a sigh of relief when she realized that she could only see three of the six pilots. The cargo blocked her view of the others. CC sighed. As usual the plane was outfitted with little thought to human comfort. Hers appeared to be the last available seat—the rest were either folded up or already occupied. A young captain was seated a little way to her right. He was listening to a CD through headphones, and he had his head propped comfortably back on a pillow, but nodded a brief hello to her. Across from her and about three folded seats to the left she could see the colonel, who was obviously the pilots' ranking officer. He was deep in a discussion with someone sitting to his right, but CC couldn't see him because a stack of plastic-covered equipment blocked her view.

The only other pilot she had a clear view of was sitting across the aisle from her and to her right. She glanced at him and caught him staring at her, and then was astounded to see a bright crimson blush rise into his well-defined cheeks.

Good Lord, she thought. Why is he blushing? The man looked like a gorgeous statue come to life. She quickly looked away, but the sound of his voice made her eyes snap back to his.

"Urn, hello," he said. His voice was deep, but he didn't boom it at her like so many military men seemed to think they needed to. His eyes traveled up to the knot on her forehead.

Great. No wonder he was blushing. He had obviously seen her bonk her head like a moron, and he was probably embarrassed for her.

"I did the same thing on the way in," he said and pointed to his own head, where a faint pink splotch painted a raised bump in the middle of his forehead.

CC couldn't have been more surprised if he had sprouted wings and laid an egg.

"And I don't even have the excuse that I'd just woken up and was still groggy. Mine, Sergeant Canady, was the result of plain clumsiness."

CC felt a genuine giggle bubble from her lips. The handsome pilot echoed her laugh.

"Please," she said. "Call me CC."

"Okay CC. I'm Sean."

CC's grin sobered. "Don't you think I better call you Captain something?" It was fine for an officer to call an enlisted person by his or her first name, but the other way around was considered too familiar—and the air force sincerely frowned on too much familiarity between officers and sergeants. Even if the officers looked like living statues, CC thought regretfully.

But Sean's grin didn't fade. "Actually, no. Like the rest of these guys, I'm stationed at the Air National Guard Unit in Tulsa, Oklahoma." He leaned forward and glanced around like they were sharing a secret. "We do things a little differently in the Guard. So just plain Sean is okay with me."

CC didn't know what to say. Of course she knew there was an Air Guard Fighter Unit in Tulsa—her Comm Center had sent and received messages from them several times during the past three months. But she'd never met any of the pilots. Actually, the only fighter pilots she'd ever met had been stationed at her last duty assignment, Peterson AFB, Colorado. They had been arrogant and conceited and had not impressed CC or her girlfriends at all. She couldn't imagine any of them insisting she call them by their first names, at least not in daylight. Thankfully, she was saved from answering Sean by the appearance of the master sergeant who had herded her on to the plane.

"Okay gentlemen," he said, glancing at CC and adding, "and ladies. We're fixin' to get underway. I shouldn't have to tell such a distinguished group to buckle up and stow your carry-ons, but I thought I'd better remind you since you're not used to riding in the back seats." He chuckled at his lame joke as he made his way slowly through the cargo bay, checking the security of the pallets and the pilots. The pilots paid him about as much attention as did the pallets.

CC sighed as the numbing noise of the giant, rotating propellers started to vibrate through the plane. The sound made her realize that she had left her earplugs in her carry-on. CC unsnapped her seat belt and crouched down to pull her carry-on out from underneath the seat, and as she was feeling around in the side pocket her eyes traveled to the wall behind her seat. Her brow furrowed in confusion. That was odd; she hadn't noticed before that framing her seat were two thick, red stripes painted on the inside wall of the plane. Between these stripes were stenciled in bright red the words DANGER and PROPELLER, over and over.

"Sarg, you need to stow that and take your seat." The master sergeant had made his way over to her.

CC grabbed her earplugs, shoved the bag back and regained her seat. But when the master sergeant tried to walk on down the bay, she called him back.

"Sergeant," she almost had to yell to be heard over the propeller noise. "What do those red lines and words mean?" She pointed over her shoulder.

"That's marking where the propeller would come through the aircraft if we was to throw one." He grinned, showing her a wealth of yellow teeth. "But that don't happen very often." He laughed and moved on.

CC wasn't sure if she should cry or scream—but her body had suddenly frozen solid, so she found she was only able to sit there, ramrod straight and perfectly still.

Across the aisle Sean had overheard the whole exchange. He grimaced to himself as he watched the little sergeant's face turn a ghostly shade of white, which only made her big amber eyes look more fawnlike and appealing. She was such a small, young thing. She'd already looked a little scared when she'd bumped her head and stumbled into the plane, and now she looked practically terrified. Something inside of him lurched insistently.

"CC," he called to her.

She didn't respond.

"CC," he repeated, noting the glazed look in her eyes when they finally met his. "Would you trade seats with me? I hate flying on this side of the plane." He thought for a second, then added. "It's one of those weird pilot superstitions." He shrugged helplessly, like he was ashamed to admit it.

"Trade seats with you?" she asked as if she hadn't heard him correctly.

"Yep. I'd sure appreciate it." He beamed his best nice-guy smile at her.

"I suppose so," she said slowly. "If you really want to."

"I really want to," he said.

"Okay then."

He unbuckled his seat belt and grabbed his flight bag from under the seat. Before she could get her own carry-on, he crossed the ten feet or so that separated them.

"I'll get that for you," he said, taking the bag from her.

CC looked up at him. This close he was even more gorgeous. And just how tall was he? His muscular body seemed to stretch on forever. His short, military cut hair was a medium shade of blond, shot with glistening streaks that looked like they had been dipped in the sun. Actually, his whole body, or at least what could be seen peeking out of his flight suit, looked like he had been blessed by the god of the sun. Unlike so many blonds, he wasn't washed-out looking. Instead he was an irresistible shade of golden tan. His face was made of strong, square lines, and his lips… CC felt herself staring and she jerked her gaze from those amazing lips to his soft, brown eyes, which were smiling down at her.

"Thank you," she managed to stammer.

"Not a problem. Actually, you're doing me a favor." He took her elbow and guided her to his seat.

"Always the gentleman, ain't ya, Apollo." The master sergeant scoffed as he passed back by the two of them. "Just get her in that seat, then get yourself into yours. We're ready to get the hell outta here."

CC hurried to sit down, then she sent a questioning glance up at Sean.

"Apollo?" she asked.

"That's my call sign." He made a dismissive gesture with his hand. "Believe me, it wasn't my idea."

"Oh," was all CC could make her mouth say. It might not have been his idea, but it was certainly appropriate. The man oozed Greek god.

"Don't forget to fasten your seat belt," he said before turning to cross to his new seat.

CC's eyes had a will of their own, and they definitely enjoyed Apollo's rear view. He was one spectacularly handsome man. Of course, when he turned around and took his seat, she made sure she was very busy checking her seat belt, trying to find a comfortable place in the webbing, doing anything but gawking at him. And anyway, why was she getting all moon-eyed over him? Men who looked like that, especially fighter pilot men who looked like that, weren't interested in little, ordinary-looking staff sergeants. Unless maybe they had some kind of kid sister complex. That was probably it, she told herself. He probably had a younger sister at home and that was why he was paying attention to her.

The propeller noise grew to a deafening level, and CC put in her earplugs. Then the C-130 lurched forward. It moved slowly at first, but soon picked up speed as it made its way down the flight line to their designated runway. CC felt her palms begin to moisten and her stomach knot. She closed her eyes and repeated over and over to herself: military flights rarely crash; military flights rarely crash; military flights rarely crash.

Too soon they were poised at the end of the runway, propellers gyrating at a crazed speed, plane quivering with the need to take off. Or, CC thought desperately, with the need to smack itself into the ground and engulf them in a ball of flame right after takeoff. She felt the brakes release, and the C-130 began its acceleration down the runway. CC's eyes popped open. She didn't want to die with her eyes closed.

A movement caught her panicked gaze and drew her eyes across the aisle to Sean. His long body was sprawled comfortably in its new location. He was giving her a thumb's-up sign, and he looked relaxed and calm. Sean grinned boyishly at her and mouthed the words, "Not a problem." Then he gave her a flirty wink.

Well! CC felt a rush of pleasure. She certainly didn't think he'd give a little sister a wink like that. And the way he continued to smile and stare at her… it just didn't look like the way a man looked at a woman he was only interested in because she reminded him of a little sister. Stunned, CC realized the butterflies in her stomach had nothing to do with her fear of flying.

When the plane lifted off a few seconds later, CC thought that she might have just experienced the most graceful, effortless takeoff in the history of the United States Air Force.

Actually, once the plane became airborne, CC's nervous stomach had completely disappeared. It was like the whole flight seemed to be charmed. They climbed to their cruising altitude so smoothly that CC found herself totally relaxing against the soft webbing, and she was surprised to feel her eyelids growing heavy. Struggling to stay awake, she glanced at Sean. He was reading a book, but the moment her eyes touched him he looked up. He studied her for a second, then an astounding thing happened. CC could hardly believe it when he mouthed the words, "Sleep—I'll keep watch." Then he gave her that flirtatious wink again.

CC felt a little thrill travel down her spine. He was going to stay awake and keep watch. Over her. And that wink said he wasn't thinking of her as a kid sister. CC's eyelids fluttered shut as her sleepy mind whispered that Sean's presence was certainly going to make the deployment more interesting.

Sean watched her as she fell asleep, a contented smile curving her sexy lips. He rubbed a hand over his brow and smiled quizzically at himself. What was it about that girl? Ever since he'd caught sight of her curled up in the waiting area sound asleep, he couldn't stop looking at her or thinking about her. It was totally unlike him. Women usually threw themselves at him because of how he looked, and while he didn't complain about that, he certainly didn't have to seek them out, or change seats with them because they looked scared, or reassure them because they were afraid of—of all things—flying. He rubbed his brow again and tried to force his attention to the novel in his hands, but instead of black words on white paper, he kept seeing amber eyes framed by thick, sandy-colored lashes.

Cc dreamed that she was swaying gently in a hammock that hung between two giant palm trees on the shore of a crystalline ocean. Warm tropical breezes tickled her skin and kept the hammock moving hypnotically back and forth. Then, the wind shifted and icy gusts started blowing toward land over the white-capped waves. They reached her hammock, and it started to shake and pitch and…

CC's eyes flew open. She was instantly awake. It was no dream. The C-130 was shaking violently, like it was in the jaws of a giant animal. She swallowed a scream and her eyes immediately found Sean. His face was flat and expressionless, but CC could sense the tension that he was trying to mask. She began fumbling with the safety latch of her seat belt, her only thought that she needed to be next to him.

"No!" He shook his head.

She tore the earplugs from her ears.

"Don't get up. It's too dangerous." He shouted against the horribly sick sound of the engines.

"What's happening?!" she yelled.

Before he could answer, the shaking increased dramatically. CC couldn't believe the plane was still in one piece; it felt like it had to be shaking itself apart. Then everything happened very quickly. Over the noise of the engines came the shriek of a metallic scream. While CC watched in horror, a deadly blur sliced through the skin of the plane just a few feet to her right and arrowed its way directly across the aisle. Like an invisible missile, the broken propeller blade splintered and struck Sean before tearing through the skin on his side of the plane. Time suspended as the left side of Sean's head exploded in a spray of crimson and he slumped silently forward.

CC's scream was swallowed by the deafening sound of the plane decompressing, and she grasped on to the webbing, desperately trying to find an anchor in a world gone mad. Everything that wasn't strapped down went flying through the plane in a maelstrom of noise. CC couldn't get a clear sight of Sean—there was too much debris in the air between them. But she could see the widening trail of blood and fluids that blanketed the area around his seat.

His seat? It should have been her seat. CC felt a sob catch in the back of her throat.

Gradually, the debris settled, but the shaking was still violent, and the roar of the air rushing through the gaping holes in the sides of the airplane was deafening. With an amazing effort, the young captain who was sitting to Sean's right unbuckled his seat belt and crawled to his friend's still body. The captain had a square white piece of cloth in his hand, and as he wrapped it around Sean's head, CC realized that it must be the pillowcase off his pillow. With precise motions he unlatched the folded seat next to Sean. He loosened Sean's seat belt enough so that he could swivel his legs around and lay his torso horizontally along the seats. Then he managed to secure another belt around Sean's chest.

CC couldn't take her eyes from the pillowcase and the grotesque scarlet stain that was soaking methodically through it to pool against the matching red of the seat.

Suddenly, above the din CC could hear short bursts of a clanging bell. She counted six times. The next thing she knew the colonel had his seat belt unbuckled, and he lurched his way to her side, where he quickly pulled down a seat and resecured himself.

"They're ditching the plane," he yelled into her ear.

Her eyes widened. She didn't have to be a pilot to know that meant they were crashing into the ocean.

"It's okay. We're going to make it." He gave her a smile meant to reassure her. "The water's warm. Good thing we're in the Mediterranean and not the Atlantic."

CC wanted desperately to believe that.

"What do I do?" she shouted.

Before he answered her he twisted around and pulled two life vests free of their holding place behind the webbing. CC noticed the captain across the aisle had done the same and was struggling to strap one on Sean's unresponsive body.

"Put this on. You'll need to brace yourself and hold on. Everything will be thrown forward when we hit. Be ready to get out of here. Don't know how long this thing will stay afloat."

"Sean?" she asked.

The colonel's face was grim as he shook his head. CC's eyes filled with tears.

"He's beyond our help; worry about yourself now," he said gruffly. The plane dipped sickeningly forward. The colonel pointed toward the rear of the cargo bay. "Remember where the tail opens up?"

CC nodded.

"There are two escape doors on either side of the plane.

That's where we'll exit. Life rafts are in slots up there." He pointed to an area above the wings.

CC hoped that he wasn't explaining those things to her because he planned on being dead. Just then the master sergeant burst from the crew door at the front of the plane.

"We're goin' down!" he yelled as he strapped himself into a seat to the right of CC and the colonel. "Be ready to get your feet wet!"

CC couldn't believe it, but he almost sounded gleeful.

The nose of the plane sank again, and the colonel squeezed her shoulder.

"Ready?" he yelled.

Over the past seven years CC had researched and prepared herself for an airplane emergency. She had watched PBS specials on airline safety. She always dressed sensibly when she flew—jeans and sneakers, never heels and bare legs. She counted the seatbacks to her nearest exit, and she paid attention to the flight attendants when they gave their safety spiels.

But she knew she wasn't ready. She was numb with terror. CC nodded at the colonel and tried to give him a brave smile. Through the ragged tears in the C-130's skin CC could see the bright blue of a clear morning. She closed her eyes and tried to pray, but her mind was a whirlwind of fear. All she could think of was how much she didn't want to die.

Then from between her breasts she felt a sudden warmth. Her first thought was that something must have struck her, and she was bleeding. She opened her eyes and frantically felt down the front of her uniform top. No, no rips and definitely no blood. Just a hard lump.

Oh! She realized the lump she was feeling was made by the amber teardrop that dangled from around her neck, just below her dog tags. On an impulse she had decided to keep wearing it, even after she had changed into her uniform, but of course wearing dangly jewelry wasn't within military regulations, and she had had to keep it hidden under her top. Now it felt warm, and that warmth was spreading throughout her chest.

If ever there was a perfect time for magic, she thought, it was now.

"Brace yourself!" the colonel yelled.

CC just had time to wrap her hands into the netting and brace her feet firmly against the floor when the world exploded. The plane slammed into the ocean with an obscene metallic scream, as if it knew its life were coming to an end. The white froth of ocean spray could be seen through the holes in the sides of the plane. But the C-130 didn't stay down. CC could feel it lift, a temporary respite, before they met the ocean again with an even worse grating jar. They skipped several times over the surface of the water, like a broken, bloated stone. Each time the plane met the ocean, passengers and cargo were flung forward. CC saw a major get hurled against the front bulkhead when his seat belt snapped loose. She watched as one of the huge cargo pallets pulled free at the same time and came crashing against him, pinning him to the metal wall.

CC glanced over at Sean and then looked quickly away. Rag doll-like, his body was still strapped against the seats. Like a puppet whose strings had been cut, his limbs flailed in limp response to the jarring of the plane.

Something sharp hit her left shoulder. She didn't feel any pain, but when she looked down she saw that her flesh gapped open and a line of blood had started to spill down her arm. Then there was a final wrenching, and the plane settled and did not rise again. CC could see the bright blue of ocean water through the holes in the plane.

The colonel was the first to react, but CC could see that all of the pilots except Sean and the major were struggling to their feet.

"Out! Out! Let's go!" he barked, making his way quickly to the area over the wings. Then he started shouting orders.

"Ace, T-Man, Kaz, get those rear doors open!" The two captains and one lieutenant scrambled around the loose cargo, hurrying to the rear of the plane.

"Sarg!" the colonel yelled at her. "Out—now!"

With shaking hands, CC unbuckled her own seat belt, amazed that she was able to stand. She noticed that already the plane was tilting down at the head.

'The major is dead!" the master sergeant yelled from the front of the bay. He was kneeling by the bloody body of the major, still trapped against the bulkhead.

"Leave him," the colonel said as he lifted a slot and pulled out a neatly folded bright orange thing that CC guessed must be a life raft.

"The door to the cockpit is blocked!" The master sergeant had moved from the major's body to the area that should open to the front-most area of the plane. But another cargo pallet was wedged within the opening, effectively blocking the door.

"There's an exit they can use in the cockpit," said the colonel. He motioned for the master sergeant to get to the back of the plane, then he caught sight of CC still standing there. "Move, Sergeant!" He turned and headed to the rear of the plane, expecting CC to follow him.

CC meant to go to the rear of the plane and toward safety, but instead she found herself climbing over equipment and cargo until she was standing next to Sean's body. CC swallowed, trying hard not to be sick. There was blood everywhere. The two seat belts had kept his body from being hurled forward by the impact, and the pillowcase, now totally soaked with blood, was still wrapped securely around his head. His face was turned away from her, and all she could see was the strong line of his chin and neck. His skin was no longer golden brown. It had turned the chalky color of ash. CC forced herself to place two fingers against the spot where his jugular vein was. No pulse. His skin was already cool beneath her fingertips.

The plane heaved even farther down at the head. Now CC could see that the ocean was lapping around the gaps in the side of the plane.

"Sergeant!" the colonel's voice bellowed from the rear of the plane. "Where the hell are you?"

"Here, colonel!" she answered, crawling on top of a mound of cargo so she could be seen. The rear of the plane appeared to be raised up, and CC could see that the officers had one of the doors open. While she watched, one of the captains attached a tether to the deflated life raft, pulled a cord on it and threw it out of the door. With a whooshing noise the raft inflated.

"Get over here, now! This thing is sinking fast."

She looked back at Sean's body. It should have been her. Because of his kindness, he had taken her place and now he was going to be entombed in a lonely, watery grave. The thought was unbearable.

"We have to take Sean with us," she called back to the men.

"No time. The boy's dead. There's nothing to be done for him," said the colonel. At a signal from him, the master sergeant jumped out of the plane.

"I'm not going without him," CC said, surprised at the calm sound of her voice. Her heart was pounding, and she felt her hands trembling, but knew with a certainty that defied logic that she had made the right decision.

"Get up here, Sergeant. That's an order."

"No, sir. I'm not leaving him here."

Suddenly there was the sound of metal ripping, and CC felt sun on her face. She looked up to see a clean tear slicing a gap in the ceiling almost directly above her. The nose dipped farther forward, and CC had to struggle to stay on her feet.

"Goddamnit! Damnit all to hell!" CC could hear the colonel approaching before she saw him. He was cussing like crazy and yelling orders. "Unbelt the boy and get ready to get the fuck out of here!"

CC rushed to get Sean's seat belts undone and had just finished when the colonel climbed around the last of the debris. Without looking at her, he grabbed Sean's body and hauled it across one shoulder in the traditional fireman's carry.

"Keep up with me!" he yelled at her. CC was only too happy to comply with that particular order.

They were almost to the door when the entire front section of the plane tore free and sank with amazing speed. The tail area had been high above the water, but now that the rear of the plane was freed of the dragging weight of the flooded front, it flopped heavily down to sea level. To CC it felt like she was standing in an elevator that had just dropped several stories. She and the colonel fell hard to the floor. Water started rushing in through the open door.

The colonel regained his feet quickly. He grabbed CC by the scruff of her uniform and Sean by his leg and pulled them to the door.

CC had no time to think. The colonel tossed her roughly out of the door. She hit the water and went under, but almost immediately her life vest brought her bobbing to the surface like a human cork. She sputtered and blinked, momentarily blinded by saltwater and sunlight. She heard two quick splashes next to her, and in another instant the colonel's head broke the surface not far from her, along with Sean's lifeless body.

"There." He pointed and CC could see the florescent orange of the life raft about forty feet in front of them. "Swim! We have to get away from the plane." He set off, sidestroking and kicking hard as he dragged Sean's body with him.

Wishing desperately that she was a better swimmer, CC kicked and began stroking awkwardly after him. A horrendous explosion burst behind her, and she spun around in the water in time to see a flash of light and flame. The plane was an enormous, gaping monster that seemed to be thrashing and fighting against its death. And she was too close to it.

Adrenaline rushed through her body, and CC began swimming with everything within her. She didn't look behind her again, she just swam.

Then she felt it. A piece of wreckage wrapped around her ankle like a mechanical tentacle. Terrified, she kicked and kicked, but it wouldn't come free. She tried to reach down to get it off, but she was pulled under the surface with such force that she thought her leg would wrench from its socket.

Water surrounded her and the pressure on her leg was unrelenting. She tried to fight against it, but it was impossible. Her ankle had been securely captured, and she was being pulled to the floor of the ocean by the weight of the sinking plane.

She was going to die.

Panic rippled through her and she reached both hands up towards the fading light of the surface, struggling to kick against the enormous weight dragging her to her death. She didn't want to die—not like this—not so young. In that moment, CC didn't see glimpses of her life passing before her eyes, she just felt the despair of knowing that she was dying too soon, before she had ever really lived. She would never know the love of a husband; she would never watch her children grow and marry. Her chest was burning, and she knew it was only seconds before she would be forced to breathe in the deadly water.

CC closed her eyes. Please help me, she prayed fervently. Someone please help me.

Miraculously, the weight that had been dragging her under evaporated, and she was filled with an indescribable peace. She opened her eyes to find herself floating in a bubble of soft blue light. And she wasn't alone in that bubble. Suspended in the water directly in front of her, so close CC had only to lift a hand to touch her, was an incredibly beautiful young woman. Her long hair floated around her like a shimmering veil. CC thought it would be the exact color of her mother's buttercups, if flowers could shine and sparkle. The woman's face was a study in perfection. She had sculpted cheekbones and lovely aquamarine eyes that looked somehow familiar to CC. Her skin had the flawless complexion of a china doll. CC's eyes traveled down the body of the woman, who was quite obviously naked from the waist up. CC could clearly see her large, well-formed breasts. But what was she wearing on the bottom half of her body? Whatever it was glistened like it had been beaded with glass and colored in iridescent shades of blue and turquoise and amethyst. It fit her shapely body snuggly and tapered down to… CC felt her own body jerk in surprise. A large set of fins! She was no woman; she was a mermaid!

CC stared at the incredible creature, knowing that what she was seeing, what she was feeling, couldn't possibly be real. Her lungs didn't burn anymore. But it wasn't that she was breathing, because she was still definitely underwater; it was more like she had been infused with oxygen. She decided she definitely must be dead, or so near death that she was experiencing some kind of amazing hallucination.

The mermaid smiled tentatively at her.

CC smiled back.

Do you desire to continue to live, no matter the cost? The words were spoken clearly into CC's mind. She knew they had to have come from the mermaid, but her sensuous lips had not moved.

Well, of course I do, CC thought automatically and nodded her head vigorously.

The mermaid's timid smile was gone, replaced by a dazzling look of relief and joy. Without hesitation, the creature reached out and wrapped her smooth arms around CC in an intimate embrace. CC didn't feel any desire to pull away. Instead of being frightened or repulsed, she was mesmerized. The mermaid pulled CC gently against her body, and CC could feel the creature's naked breasts press softly against her fatigue shirt. The mermaid's curtain of gossamer hair surrounded them, and her tail wrapped around CC's legs. CC had always been firmly heterosexual, so she surprised herself when she felt her body respond and her own arms wrap around the mermaid's bare shoulders.

Suddenly CC understood that what was happening to her wasn't anything as simple as a sexual experience; it was a magical infusion of the senses. Just as the moonlight had energized her on the night of her birthday, so now was this creature bringing her back to life. Every inch of CC's body felt flooded with electricity. She wanted to throw back her head and shout at the surge of fabulous sensations.

Then the mermaid began to lower her face to CC's. CC closed her eyes as their lips met in a deep, intimate kiss. A wave of vertigo crashed through CC, and when she finally reopened her eyes, she was looking directly into her own face.

Disorientated, CC blinked and shook her head, but the image of the petite, waterlogged sergeant didn't shift, it simply smiled back at her.

Back at her? How could that be? CC turned her head to look for the edges of a hidden mirror and noticed the wealth of blond hair that was floating around her. She reached up to stroke its slick mass.

We must part now.

The voice was back inside her head, and CC's fragmented attention refocused on her mirror image. CC

watched as hands that should have been her own reached into the neck of her uniform top to pull the silver chain over her head. Then the CC look-alike draped it over "her" head.

Keep this. It is your talisman, a part of your magic, the internal voice said.

Then the woman that looked like CC raised her arms and tilted her head back so that she appeared to be reaching for the surface.

I wish you well. Blessed be, little sister.

The soft light that they had been floating within refracted into a fireworks of rebellious blue. The body that CC should have been inside of was bathed in an eerie aqua-white glow, and with an intense explosion of light it was propelled violently up to the waiting surface. Caught in a tremendous wave of backlash, CC felt herself hurl end over end away from the site of the plane wreck. Everything became confused and dreamlike. CC had no control over where she was being pulled. It felt like she had been caught in an underwater tornado. The whirlpool was pulling her farther and farther down into the depths of the ocean, and even though she was having no problem breathing, she was still terrified of the black nothingness beneath her. So she struggled, swimming around and through different levels of turbulent currents.

Finally she broke through the wall of swirling current and found herself in a tunnel of calm water. Exhausted, she allowed herself to float for a moment, trying to sift through her scattered thoughts. What had happened to her? Was she dead? What should she do next?

The water in her little tunnel of calm was comfortable, denim blue, but outside of it, the dark and tumultuous currents through which she had struggled still surrounded her. CC could see them seething and frothing dangerously. She peered behind her and saw nothing but darkness. Ahead, farther down the tunnel, there was a faint, flickering light. That way, she thought blearily and kicked hard to propel herself forward. Even as tired as she was, CC noted with surprise that she had never swam so strongly and effortlessly before—it was like she had been shot from a liquid cannon. The dark sides of her watery tunnel blurred as she streaked past.

And then the spot of light was just ahead of her and she burst up, breaking the surface to find herself in a luminous grotto. Her vision was blurred with fatigue, but she could just make out a ledge around which calm water lapped softly. She forced her leadened limbs to move, and with an effort that left her quivering and gasping, she hauled her body out of the water. Curling into a fetal position, CC finally gave into unconsciousness and slept.

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