Chapter 4: It’s Hard to Hide When Everyone Knows You
Copyright© 2016 by Vincent Berg
“Space Coast Tower, King Air November two-eight-zero-zero Zulu, ten north Inbound, one-two-hundred with Alpha.” Eric hoped, by keeping the approaching communications short, the flight controllers wouldn’t recognize his voice.
“King Air November two-eight-zero-zero Zulu, radar contact. Enter left downwind runway eight-one. There’s no inbound traffic today, so maintain one-thousand feet and descend at pilot’s discretion making a visual approach,” the ATC said. Eric smiled. With no one else using the runways, he had more leeway. With no need to keep checking in, there was less chance of them recognizing him.
After several moments of silence, the radio crackled with another message. “King Air November two-eight-zero-zero Zulu, call tower.” His heart raced. Being told to call the control tower was the last thing any pilot wanted to hear. It meant they’d screwed up so badly the air-flight controllers didn’t want to lambast them over an open channel.
“Affirmative,” Eric sighed. It might be completely innocent, but he didn’t like the implications.
Dialing into the tower’s private frequency, he tried again. “Space Coast Center, this is Zero-zero Zulu.”
“Who the hell is this? I know for a fact this is Eric Morgan’s plane, and he died yesterday. He’d never let anyone else fly his aircraft, and his relatives would still be grieving.”
“Yeah, this is Frank. Who is this?”
“It’s me, Eric. I’m not dead, although I’m sure as soon as word leaks out, I’ll wish I was.”
“Holy crap! How the hell did you survive that? Billions of people watched you disappear without a trace trillions of miles from any breathable oxygen, and you show up here?” There was a short pause, as Frank lowered his microphone. “Jeb, it’s Eric. He survived! I’ve got him on the line.”
“It’s a long tale, but I don’t have the full story yet. Excuse me, but could you keep this quiet? NASA won’t want to release this until we have some sort of explanation.”
“Eric? Is that you?” Jeb White, another controller, asked. Eric groaned again. With the airport personnel this excited, he knew they wouldn’t be able to hide their excitement. Soon the whole airport would be buzzing. Hopefully, they’d keep it under wraps for a couple days. But he was realistic enough to realize they’d tell their wives and girlfriends, who’d divulge it to their friends the next day. He didn’t have long before NASA would have to brief the press about his survival. “How the hell are you, man? What happened?”
“Sorry, Jeb. I can’t say anything until I check in with NASA. They won’t approve of me volunteering information until they authorize it.” He hoped that was a safe enough cover to explain his inability to detail how he’d survived.
“Man, how the hell can you hide this kind of thing?” Jeb complained. Eric overheard Frank fielding another inbound call in the background.
“Don’t worry. NASA will be informing the entire country once they let me up for air. Until then, they’ll want to keep this under wraps.”
“It’ll be difficult not discussing it.” There was more background noise. “Hey, it was terrific talking to you. We’ve got a couple incoming flights, so I need to go. You’re clear to land. Good luck with the brass, but you owe us a full explanation once this is over.”
“Affirmative, Jeb. You’re on,” Eric answered before breaking off contact, trying to touch down as soon as possible.
This was problematic, limiting how long they could prepare their answers, but they couldn’t keep it private for long, anyway. The longer they waited, the more the public would accuse them of covering something up. The race was on. He knew he wouldn’t rest until they had something to reveal to the press.
Eric used the hanger manager’s phone to call for a cab. It was a short distance to the Cape, but without his car, he had no way to get there. There was no way he wanted to ask anyone at NASA to pick him up. Aside from his personal pride, he was afraid they’d be so shocked they’d send a fleet of government vehicles. No, he needed to keep this quiet. NASA wouldn’t appreciate not receiving advance warning, but they’d agree with the need to constrain the details.
The manager was pleasant, but as Eric left, he noted the man dialing the phone. That didn’t bode well.
Putting on his glasses—Eric’s only disguise—he waited outside, hunkering down by the hanger so anyone driving by wouldn’t notice him. When the taxi arrived, he ran out, jumping in the back.
“Cape Canaveral, please.”
“Kennedy Space Center?” the cab driver asked without glancing back.
“Damn, I guess so. Without my ID, I can’t enter the Air Force Base. Yeah, take me to Space Center. I can call from there.”
“Whatever,” the cabbie mumbled, not caring about his rationalizations.
Eric whistled under his breath, glancing back at the hanger. The little airport got a fair amount of traffic—most of whom knew him. One man’s word wouldn’t warrant much attention. However, repeated calls from various sources would tip off anyone interested. And everyone would be fascinated to learn he was still alive. The cabbie, Jamal Kendricks, not only didn’t recognize him, but didn’t seem to care who he was.
While there weren’t many late-morning flights, his arrival put him in town just as most workers and tourists were breaking for lunch. The NASA Causeway, which normally had little traffic, was swamped. It seemed the news of Eric’s death inspired increased tourism. He noted a few glances. Their heads would swivel, recognizing him from somewhere. They’d stare, unable to make the necessary connection. He was glad he’d worn his dark aviator glasses.
The light turned at the Astronaut Hall of Fame. This time, several people noticed him. Eric sank into his seat, but their friends also pointed, causing others to glance. However, most people leaving the facility were hungry tourists with kids. They didn’t have the patience or inclination to examine those driving by.