Professor Marty Zitonick sat alone in the cockpit of the Grumman Albatross while it idled in the run-up area of the Papeete runway awaiting clearance. The provisions were loaded and everything was set—try as he might, Marty couldn’t find anything else to busy himself with. He fiddled with his recorder, debating how to start his dictation of the trip to Moruroa.
He glanced out the cockpit window at the steadily rotation beacon of the airport control tower and spoke into the recorder. “The Tahitian night sky was clear and starry as we taxied toward the active runway—”
“Albatross Zulu four-four-four, take the active and hold Two Niner,” Air Control announced.
“Zulu four-four-four, roger that, take the active Two Niner and hold,” Marty responded, relieved to be interrupted. He stuffed the recorder away, pushed the combined throttles hanging above the windshield forward evenly with both feet on the brakes to run up the Albatross’s twin 1840 HP radial engines while the Albatross shook like it was going to vibrate itself into pieces. As he pulled back on the throttles Mike Keizer joined him in the cockpit.
“About time,” Marty said as he moved the plane into position.
“We finally got clearance, mate,” his copilot said in his Aussie twang, ignoring Marty’s grumpiness.
The tower chimed in over the radio, interrupting both men’s contemplation. “Mark time 01:57. Zulu four-four-four, you are cleared for takeoff.”
“Roger. Albatross Zulu four-four-four, cleared for takeoff,” Mike replied, taking his seat and readying his controls.
Marty simultaneously increased power to both throttles as the plane roared down the runway and took to the air.
“Now that’s a pretty sight,” Mike said as they climbed, looking out the cockpit window to see the coast of Tahiti glimmering below. “You guys got the grant to come out here for research, but damn, going to Moruroa sounds more like a vacation to me.”
Marty considered the view. The island of Moorea was silhouetted against the moonlight nine miles northwest, the lights of its southern shore matching the stars above. He recalled some of the work of James A. Michener, who famously described the natural beauty of this area in his book, Tales of the South Pacific, which made Moorea a world-renowned tourist attraction.
Since Marty’s divorce, he hadn’t been his usual cheerful self. He wished he could talk with his best friend about it but he could not. Pangs of guilt would overcome him as if he did something wrong, which made him defensive. Whenever he felt Mike trying to open the door to discuss the divorce, he would change the subject or leave.
“Mike, you want to fly her for a while?” Marty asked when they reached 21,000 feet.
“You bet I do.”
“Good. Gives me a chance to see if the kiddos are all right.”
“Come on, mate, they’re graduate students ain’t they? Should you still be calling them kiddos?”
“They’re still my students, I’ll call them what I want—future leaders in marine sciences or not. I swear they get younger every year.” Marty switched his controls to Mike’s capable charge. “If everything is fine back there, I’ll take a nap and spell you in a couple hours. You and Alice can catch some rest before we get to Moruroa. We want to arrive after sunrise.”
“We should arrive right around oh-seven-twenty, Marty.” Alice Keizer stepped through the open door into the cockpit, moved behind Mike’s seat and gave her husband a quick peck on the cheek. Though muted in the dim light of the cockpit, her green eyes and red hair were still lively. “I filed the flight plan myself, and I guarantee we’ll get there on time. And I already checked on the students, they’re fine and bedded down.”
“Nothing to worry about, mate,” Mike said. “Go ahead and catch some shut eye, Captain. Love here will keep me company.” In response, Alice grinned and wrapped her arms around Mike from behind.
“Fine,” Marty said, shutting the cockpit door behind him. He didn’t begrudge his friends their happiness, but something twitched in his stomach at their easy familiarity. What he’d had—what he’d thought he had. Moving to the quarters in the back of the plane, he saw Alice was right— Bill, Lacy, Kai, and Kenji were in their bunks, already fast asleep. He climbed easily into his bunk, accustomed to sleeping in tight compartments now that he lived on his three-mast schooner. At least he’d kept The White Heron. The ex had gotten the house and most of the custody. It was the children he missed the most. In his nightly ritual, he pictured their faces, one by one, reminding himself of their hobbies, their birthdays, their favorite foods, funny things they’d said on the last Skype call. He’d be damned if he’d be an absent father—and he meant to be ready to hit his parenting stride as soon as he got back to Honolulu.
* * *
After a fitful sleep, Marty glanced around the quarters. Lacy, Kai, and Kenji were still asleep, but Bill’s bunk was empty. The windows of the plane glowed with moonlight. Marty took out his recorder to dictate the group’s research goal while he had a moment of peace. He spoke softly, his deep, gentle voice belying his broad-shouldered stature. Narrative reports weren’t his favorite, but when you took the government’s money you had to show them how you spent it. Even the French government. And it showed the University of Hawaii he was worth his tenure, maybe even another research semester with only site-based teaching.
“June 26, 2015. Albatross has departed Papeete, Tahiti and is on an east-southeast heading toward the Moruroa atoll, see map in Appendix A.” He made a mental note to start compiling paperwork then continued:
“As per original proposal—see Appendix B—Moruroa was the site of French nuclear testing 1966-1990, with at least 167 nuclear explosions occurring over Moruroa and a smaller atoll to the south, Fangataufa.
“When we reach the area, we will film and document the recovery and profligacy of marine life in the lagoon and closest proximate reefs. We will sample seawater, algae, a wide variety of fish and other marine organisms including fish, shellfish, mollusks, sea urchins and coral. A large portion will be sent to Paris for radionuclide testing. We hope to prove”—Marty stifled a yawn— “insert language from proposal here.”
Satisfied, Marty switched off the recorder; he heard a commotion from the cockpit that convinced him to get out of his bunk. As Marty approached the door, he shook his head—the student he thought of privately as High-Maintenance Bill was frantically questioning Mike and Alice.
“How high up are we? How far have we gone? How far can this plane go? Do we have enough fuel?”
Hearing Marty’s approach, a weary Mike turned. “Thank goodness. Captain, can you settle this kiddo down?”
“Here, Bill,” Marty said, sliding open an overhead cabinet. “This plane is a Grumman HU-16 Albatross. Holds ten passengers and has enough fuel for over 2,000 miles.” He pulled out a manual as thick as a phone book and plunked it down into Bill’s unresisting arms.
“Listen, Bill, I’ve been flying for over ten years. Mike and Alice here likewise. You’re in safe hands. You can read those manuals from cover to cover and if you still have any questions ask me then. Right now, go double-check your scuba gear. It’s going to be a full morning.”
Bill nodded sheepishly and left the cockpit clutching the heavy book to his chest.
Marty gave Mike a grin. “He won’t be back anytime soon if he’s reading the manuals. Better yet, tell him the answer’s in there and let him find it.”
Alice chuckled. “You two are something.”
“Mike. Alice. Go get some shuteye, I’ll take over.”
“Roger that, Captain,” Mike said. “I can pilot the Albatross for another eight hours. “We’re still on a vector to the atoll from the east and spiral down.”
“Got it, thanks. How’s our timeframe, Alice?”
“Right on schedule for landing,” Alice said. “I’ll bring you up some breakfast before I hit the sack.”
“Any chance for some of your conch fritters?”
She laughed again in response as she and Mike left the cockpit. Ten minutes later she brought up prefab rations and lukewarm coffee. Shame, thought Marty. She makes the best damn conch fritters I’ve ever had.
* * *
The morning was clear at altitude but with a few scattered clouds below as the Albatross covered the final stretch to Moruroa.
“Mike, get that smoke canister and rig it for a water drop,” Marty said. “We’ll begin our descent any minute, so get ready to tell me about those surface winds.”
“Out of four to three thousand feet,” Alice called.
“All right, I’ll level out,” Marty said.
As the plane descended steadily closer to the atoll, the other three students woke. Marty heard their excited chatter as they peered through the windows to Moruroa below.
Marty circled the lagoon from two thousand feet. The air was noticeably warmer and more humid as the plane slowed to 128 knots. As he completed the first curve of the wide spiral descent, he spotted smoke.
“Mike! I didn’t tell you to drop the canister yet!” he shouted.
“I didn’t. It’s still in the drop chute.”
“Marty,” Alice said, her eyes trained on the gray trail, “That smoke’s coming from the island.”
“Professor,” Kai yelled from the back cabin, “there’s someone down there waving like crazy from the west end of the lagoon!”
“Great,” Marty mumbled as he eased the hanging throttle forward. Just what we need to interrupt our research—some crazy lost tourist.