17 Summer TN 1939
Jack Sanlander sighed impatiently as he sat in his Antelope. The vehicle's radio was tuned to the air traffic control frequency of Kearny Field, and he still hadn't heard the signal he was waiting for. Drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, he hissed, "Damn it, where are they?"
He got out of the vehicle and began to pace, grateful for the brief respite from the press conferences and emergency meetings. It had been nearly two weeks since he had sent most of Coronado's air force to Peace River. When they had first arrived, they were the only large organized group with functioning leadership and long-range communications, and by default had had to shoulder the burden of managing the planet's response to the disaster in those first terrible days. The Flying Circus had almost been overwhelmed.
Thankfully, the situation was now very different. Military and civilian specialists and volunteers were converging on Peace River from around the planet, bringing mountains of relief supplies with them. The decimated Peace River Defense Forces were being reinforced by a full third of Coronado's Hong Kong Crusaders. Most importantly, though, the surviving board members of Paxton Arms had been found and had taken charge of the recovery effort. The situation had thus stabilized enough to allow Jack to recall the Flying Circus.
He knew he had given the recall order not a moment too soon. From the airport service road where his Antelope was parked, Jack could see almost every transport in the Flying Circus's inventory undergoing maintenance on the tarmac. Only the Leviathan cargo dirigibles that he had commandeered from Coronado Aerospace were still flying regularly, and his advisors were strongly urging Jack to soon ground all of the county's military aircraft. In the push to keep as many transports flying as possible, maintenance on combat aircraft had been curtailed or suspended altogether.
The Circus's ground personnel had pushed themselves beyond exhaustion in what was being called "The Peace River Airlift," and Jack had arranged commendations and extended leave for all of them. He was particularly concerned about the aircrews, however. Jack knew that Coronado's mental health services would be very busy in the coming seasons, as everyone who had flown over Peace River had been visibly disturbed by what they had seen.
The plane he was waiting for carried the crew he was worried about the most. Nora Richardson and the crew of The Samaritan had managed a global crisis by themselves for days, and he ached as he tried to imagine some of the things they had described. In official reports from the crew and personal phone calls from Nora, he had heard the change in their voices as the stress and the utter ghastliness of the disaster took its toll on them.
One of Nora's phone calls still made Jack's mind reel. She had told him the day before that his son, Jim, was also at Peace River. Nora had seen him with one of the Northern Guard units that had been sent to help out. He hadn't even known that Jim had enlisted, and Jack now had to worry not only about the woman he loved, but the son he barely knew.
Jack was so lost in thought that he almost didn't hear the radio call he'd been waiting for. "Kearny Field Tower, this is Circus Six, do you read, over?"
"Circus Six, Kearny Tower, we read you loud and clear."
He climbed back into the Antelope and turned up the volume on the radio. "Kearny Tower, Circus Six, requesting permission to land, over."
"Circus Six, Kearny Tower, permission granted. Come to angels two, reduce speed to eight-zero KPH and turn left to bearing one-zero-three until you reach the outer beacon, then slow to three-zero KPH for approach to landing pad three-eight."
"Kearny Tower, repeat that last, over?"
"Circus Six, approach landing pad three-eight. That's where the decontamination equipment is set up, over."
"Understood, Kearny Tower. Approach landing pad three-eight."
"Affirmative, Circus Six. Welcome home."
"Thank you, Kearny. Circus Six out."
Jack started the Antelope and began to drive across the airport grounds. He was halfway to the landing site before he heard the shriek of an Orca's turbine engines. Stopping the Antelope, he waited until he saw the ungainly orange-and-white shape of The Samaritan approach a disused part of the airport. He watched the aircraft until it slowed to a hover, and then descended to the ground. He sighed in relief; Nora was finally home.
Jack had arranged to greet the crew privately in an empty hangar near the landing site. A decontamination team was already at work on The Samaritan by the time Jack arrived at the hangar. The team had told Jack that they could make the aircraft safe to work around rather quickly, but they might need a few weeks to fully clean the aircraft. He had told them to take as long as they needed.
As he climbed out of the Antelope, he was approached by Dr. Helena Matsuo, the Hong Kong Crusaders' chief medical officer. "Good morning, Governor," Helena said as she saluted him.
"Good morning," Jack replied as he returned the salute, then added, "Thanks for coming, Helena."
"Happy to help, sir," Helena said with a tired smile as the two shook hands.
The two entered the hangar where they were greeted by a small group of specialists who would make sure The Samaritan's crew were themselves decontaminated, then examine them for exposure and fatigue. As best they could over the noise of the decontamination equipment, everyone chatted idly in the center of the hangar for a while. Finally, the noise faded away as the equipment shut down, and the sound of an opening hatch was heard in the distance. They looked as one through the open hangar doors to The Samaritan, then nearly all of them drew their breaths in shock.
Even after several days of incessant news coverage and even knowing that that it would be necessary, seeing the crew in radiation suits as they disembarked the aircraft with their own eyes suddenly made the destruction of Peace River real to everyone. As the last crewman exited the plane, Helena sighed and said, "Okay, people, let's go to work."
As Helena led some specialists out of the hangar to the office building, the others donned radiation suits of their own and walked out to the landing site. Jack watched as they met the aircrew some distance away from the landing site and ran through the decontamination process. As he watched the aircrew have their suits washed and scrubbed and rinsed and scanned, he thought one of them waved to him. He waved back, having no idea no it was. It took over an hour before everyone had been processed.
Jack paced up and down the length of the hangar for another hour and a half before he finally heard someone enter the hangar. He turned to see Helena standing with a woman in a filthy pilot's coverall. Her face was haggard, her eyes were almost sunken, and it was obviously an effort on her part just to stand. Jack didn't recognize at her at first.
Then he realized it was Nora.
He felt his heart breaking as he walked up to her. She managed to draw herself to attention and salute, then said in a hoarse whisper, "Colonel Nora Richardson ... reporting, sir."
He returned the salute and tried to speak, but his throat closed up and his eyes began to swim. All of the grief and anger and horror he had felt over the last fifteen days swelled up in him all at once, and he started to sob. Nora smiled sadly at him and began to cry herself, and the two embraced as they never had before.
They wept and held each other for a very long time.