Spinning and tumbling, Brains tried in desperation to keep his gaze fixed on a point near the horizon to combat the nausea and dizziness he was feeling, with limited success. Unable to focus for more than a second at a time, his view kept shifting from the frozen Arctic ice pack below to the electric blue sky above and back again rapidly. The plane was about to crash.
Shifting his view back inside the cockpit seemed to help control the disorientation a bit. Instead of the tumbling there were, before him, warning lights flashing on the copilot's console. He saw the artificial horizon indicator gyrate and turn wildly. Digital klaxons warned of impending impact and the pilot, adjacent to him on the jet's flight deck, was shouting into the radio to let the flight controllers back in England know that the V-17 had been hit and was going down.
Every few seconds Brains's head thumped against the glass of the canopy as the tumbling plane rolled end over end on its way towards the permafrost below.
Not the most successful test flight I've ever been on, he thought ironically.
Shadows were circling about the cockpit as he refocused his attention on what remained of the port wing; one-third of it was missing. From the V-17's erratic behavior, he knew that the vertical stabilizers on the rear of the fuselage must have been torn away as well.
"Mr. Hackenbacker, I think I can get her to the ground in one piece," the pilot said.
Brains was quietly impressed that under the circumstances, the pilot had managed to produce a complete sentence. Rick Foster was an ex-RAF flying ace, decorated for bravery under fire, and now Humboldt Aviation's golden boy of a test pilot.
"If we bail out, we're just as likely to eject straight down and be unable to right ourselves before we hit the ground, or become fouled in the chutes."
Brains took a moment to calculate the probabilities of each option and all theoretical outcomes of both, neither of which he found particularly pleasing.
"I concur. We're twenty-three p-percent more likely to survive an emergency landing than an ejection. Do your best," he told Foster.
The pilot's "best" was currently engaged in struggling to keep the damaged plane stabilized, but he managed to nod slightly. I'm glad one of us believes that, he thought to himself as the V-17 continued to lose altitude.
Attempting to accomplish something useful as well as contribute to his own survival, Brains managed to feel his way along his console, found a particular switch and pushed. The alarms were immediately silenced, leaving only the flashing of the warning lights. Next to him, Foster still concentrated on struggling with the controls but managed to deliver a brief grunt of appreciation at the increased modicum of peace, small though it was.
The fuselage suddenly began jerking more violently, but Brains quickly realized it was Foster attempting to apply the V-17's thrust vectoring system as a means of compensating for the loss of the wing and control surfaces. Like favoring one arm after the other has been broken.
Foster's efforts were rewarded as the V-17 began to stabilize. The instruments still showed the plane to be in serious
trouble, but Foster had managed to regain at least a fraction of usable control. The only remaining question was whether
or not it would be enough to keep them from ending their days as wet red fragments smeared all over the Arctic ice.
"I think—," Brains heard Foster murmur.
And then the ground was just moments ahead of them. Brains felt his hands grip tightly into the arms of his seat as
he tried to think of an appropriate last word.
They called him "Brains" for a reason.
It wasn't an ironic nickname, the way one might call a bald man "Curly." He was almost certainly one of the five smartest people on the planet, by any standard of measurement.
His parents could barely comprehend the breadth of their son's brainpower; they were startled when his first words were a complete sentence—at the age of eight months.
When he turned twelve years old, he insisted his parents retire on the income from several highly lucrative patents he'd created, and they began to travel the world while he attended college. On the advice of a trusted Professor, he'd invented Mr. Hiram Hackenbacker, an alias he used for business dealings; Hackenbacker was ostensibly an erudite, attractive man in his early 30's, exactly the opposite of the myopic, gangly boy still wet behind his ears that corporate sharks would no doubt see as fresh meat, ripe for the taking.
His academic career continued to soar as he earned a master's degree in mechanical engineering at the ripe old age of fourteen, and continued on towards his Ph.D.
Then tragedy struck. Just after his fifteenth birthday, his parents were killed in a tornado in the family home in Michigan, leaving him a grieving orphan.
Astonished by how hard he was hit by this, Brains found that his taste for academia had soured; he dropped out and withdrew from any sort of social life for several years. Shuffled off to England, he was taken in by a family friend, a drama professor at Cambridge.
When he ventured back into the world of academia, earning still more degrees, he was a changed man, albeit still a teenager. His hair had grown to his shoulders and his beard, which had never shown signs of sprouting before, had begun an erstwhile crawl across his chin towards his ears. Almost unrecognizable to his former classmates and colleagues, he began showing up at scientific conferences—at first sitting quietly in the back row, back straight, rapt at attention, listening. Eventually he started acting out; he began heckling the speakers, to the dismay of all concerned. Not simply name-calling or insult hurling, he pointed out errors in math, or theoretical gaps in logic that his elders had missed before publishing. He set out to embarrass and disconcert his former mentors and superiors—an endeavor in which he became quite successful.
Word spread about his verbal attacks and though many were sympathetic to the young man's accelerated experience and rapid withdrawal following his loss, he was asked repeatedly to keep his silence, or publish his own findings and take to the rostrum himself to defend them in the manner of his colleagues. He found he had no interest in contributing beyond disassembling the work of others; he seemed trapped in the "anger" stage of grieving over his parents' death. Soon, he was simply asked not to attend when he registered for conferences or to leave the venues when he showed up, sometimes rather forcefully.
In an attempt to leave his problems as far behind him as was literally possible, Brains enrolled in and was accepted to astronaut training school, but was soon proved to be a poor fit physically and dropped out within a few months. The failure compounded his misery and gave a serious blow to his self-esteem, and once again he found himself directionless and angry.
No longer allowed to register under his own name at scientific conferences, he began to appear as Hiram Hackenbacker. To further throw off the scent to his detractors, he changed his appearance again. He stopped wearing contact lenses and adopted a pair of blue-framed, horn-rimmed glasses; he cut his hair, styled it more fashionably and stopped wearing t-shirts, eschewing them for button-downs and sweater vests. Though he certainly wouldn't fool anyone who knew him reasonably well, the effect was quite striking and different. He set out to regain his throne as the loud-mouthed king of theoretical snobbery, but found when the time came that his heart was no longer in it. At an Aeronautical Dynamics Symposium in Malta the following year, he simply made notes, kept his mouth shut and felt bored and alone. Now at the age of twenty-five, he found himself jaded with the only pastime that had given him any joy for several years and decided to leave rather than have an existential crisis in full view of the attendees.
It was then that he was startled to hear someone call him by his real name in the lobby, and it took a few seconds for him to realize he was being addressed.
"Ye-Yes?" he answered, when the man greeted him again by name.
"It's my very great pleasure to meet you, I'm Jeff Tracy," the older gentleman replied. "I believe you spent some time in astronaut training with my son John?"
He certainly knew Jeff Tracy by name, if not by sight. The former American astronaut was the man who had been responsible for personally leading the first successful attempt to establish a permanent base on the Moon. On his return to Earth, he had blasted into the private sector like a hurricane, gobbling up Space Administration and government infrastructure contracts at an alarming rate. It seemed that everyone wanted to be associated with the man who had made it possible to settle the moon, and whose judgment and business sense could turn even the most doubtful of engineering projects into gold. For many years, Jeff Tracy had been the top billionaire industrialist in the world, his companies filling the upper portion of every top 100 moneymakers list. Amazingly, he was able to accomplish this without ever fulfilling a single defense contract. Though his aviation manufacturing division made planes and airships, Jeff Tracy would not make fighters, bombers, or weapons of war. When asked about it, he would say that he preferred being part of the solution rather than part of the problem. The truth was that he simply didn't need the money enough to take it if it was tainted with blood. It was this principle which made a real impact on Brains.
"The p-pleasure is all mine, Mr. Tracy," he replied. "I've been an admirer for a very long time. How is J-john?"
The two men talked for a bit, then Jeff invited him to dinner. Over lobster they became friendly, finding a great deal of common ground. Jeff's wife had died several years before in an accident, and, like Brains, he was still dealing with the scar of personal loss. He was now a single father, having raised five sons almost on his ownóhe did have a small personal household staff and his mother to help out. He was interested in hiring Brains to help him with a classified project, but the younger man told him he wasn't looking for a job; embarrassingly large royalty checks showed up in his mail regularly from patent licensing deals. Unable to sway him with money, Jeff asked him about the incidents at past conferences, hoping to gain some sort of insight into his state of mind.
"I was—finding s-some limits, I guess," Brains replied, toying idly with a fork. "Making machines work is easy for me; making things work with people—I'm n-not very good at that. S-sometimes it's easier to get their attention by d-deriding them than b-by being nice."
"You have my attention." Jeff's eyes grew distant for a moment, and then refocused on his companion. "To be honest, I rather sympathize with you. Understand that I'm not a psychologist myself. I suspect that, if I knew how to read people as well as I can read engineering schematics, the project I have in mind wouldn't be so complex." Jeff's expression grew serious, his brow furrowed, and his face became craggy. "It seems you have a choice, son—you can stay here and make fun of men who are trying to make a difference, or you can come with me and help save the world."
Six months later, Brains let his finger descend to the map. "Here."
Jeff Tracy leaned down for a closer look. "Sina."
"I almost m-missed it," Brains declared. "But it showed up on the dedicated scans supplied by PACSAT-V. It's almost within the northern b-border of French Polynesia, but not quite."
Tracy turned his attention to the attached report. "Six miles wide. Roughly circular."
"It's the only remaining s-surface member of the Langi volcanic arc. Mostly a limestone overlay atop a collapsed b-basaltic andradite cone."
Tracy slowly nodded. "Keep going."
Brains heard the growing excitement in his employer's voice and quietly smiled. Ever since becoming associated with Jeff Tracy, he'd always taken silent satisfaction from being able to please him. Not that the older man was constantly in need of cheering. Brains knew that the former astronaut turned billionaire often reveled in the pursuit of life, as well as the pride of raising five strong, intelligent sons, but his joys had come at a price: the loss of a devoted and beautiful wife. It seemed that, in the years since, Jeff Tracy had become tired. Not physically… he was still a prime specimen of healthy manhood who was more than capable of finding pleasure and taking it. Rather, Jeff had consciously allowed himself to grow tired of certain things. The sight of people who had lost loved ones to fires, floods, or other disasters. He personally felt any loss which could have somehow been prevented, the perspective becoming a weight on his shoulders. Brains had seen this, and had decided to dedicate himself to helping reduce that weight, or remove it entirely if possible.
This island in the Pacific was a step in the right direction. "I haven't been able to carry out more than a p-preliminary scan, Mr. Tracy. But the profile I've m-managed to uncover, plus the core s-samples, have proved promising. Clear evidence of extensive c-caverns left by former eruptions. Undeniably good f-foundation material for heavy construction."
Tracy straightened up, letting loose with a satisfied sigh. "Excellent, Brains. Absolutely excellent. We'll move this island to the top of our list." He gave Brains a sideways glance. "Does French Polynesia hold any sort of claim?"
"N-not an extensive one. I've carried out some r-research with officials in both Papeete and Paris, as w-well as making inquiries with financial officers at the UBS AG in Zurich. Purchase could be arranged." Brains returned Tracy's look knowingly. "If the offered price is enough."
A smile had emerged on the older man's face. Now it grew. "Leave that detail to me," he said, reaching down to gently caress the map.