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Jesus," the pilot kept murmuring. "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus."
The helicopter was racing north, bucking, jolting between the shattered land below and the thick dark gray clouds scudding just above, trying to follow Interstate 55 from the Memphis International Airport to what was left of the devastated city.
You could not see the highway; it was carpeted from horizon to horizon with refugees, bumper to bumper traffic inching along, an unending stream of cars, trucks, vans, busses, people on foot swarming like ants, trudging painfully along the shoulders of the road in the driving, soaking rain, women pushing baby carriages, men and boys hauling carts piled high with whatever they could salvage from their homes. Flood water was lapping along the shoulder embankment, rising, still rising, reaching for the poor miserable people as they fled their homes, their hopes, their world in a desperate attempt to escape the rising waters.
Dan Randolph felt the straps of his safety harness cutting into his shoulders as he stared grimly out the window from his seat behind the two pilots. His head throbbed painfully and the filter plugs in his nostrils were hurting again. He barely noticed the copter's buffeting and jouncing in the choppy wind as he watched the swollen tide of refugees crawling sluggishly along the highway. It's like a war zone, Dan thought. Except that the enemy is Mother Nature. The flooding was bad enough, but the earthquake broke their backs.
Dan put the electronically-boosted binoculars to his eyes once again, searching, scanning the miserable, soaking wet throng below for one face, one individual, the one woman he had come to save. It was impossible. There must be half a million people down there, he thought. More. Finding her will take a miracle.
The chopper bounced and slewed wildly in a sudden gust of wind, banging the binoculars painfully against Dan's brow. He started to yell something to the pilot, then realized that they had run into another blustery squall. Fat, pounding raindrops splattered thickly against the copter's windows, cutting Dan's vision down almost to nothing.
The pilot slid back the transparent sanitary partition that isolated Dan's compartment. Dan suppressed an angry urge to slam it back. What good are sterile barriers if you open them to the outside air?
"We've got to turn back, sir," the pilot yelled over the thrumming thunder of the engines.
"No!" Dan shouted. "Not till we find her!"
Half turning in his seat to face Dan, the pilot jabbed a finger toward his spattered windscreen. "Mr. Randolph, you can fire me when we land, but I ain't going to fly through that."
Looking past the flapping windscreen wipers, Dan saw four deadly slim dark funnels writhing across the other side of the swollen Mississippi, dust and debris flying wherever they touched the ground. They looked like coiling, squirming snakes thrashing across the ground, smashing everything they touched: buildings exploded, trees uprooted, autos tossed into the air like dry leaves, homes shattered into splinters, RV parks, housing developments, shopping malls all destroyed at the flick of the twisters' pitiless, mindless malevolence, blasted as completely and ruthlessly as if they had been struck by an enemy missile attack.
The enemy is Mother Nature, Dan repeated silently, numbly, as he stared at the advancing tornadoes. There was nothing he could do about them and he knew it. They couldn't be bought, bribed, flattered, seduced, or threatened into obedience. For the first time since he'd been a child, Daniel Hamilton Randolph felt totally powerless.
As he locked the partition shut again and fumbled in his pockets for his antiseptic spray, the chopper swung away, heading back toward what was left of the international airport. The Tennessee National Guard had thrown a cordon around the grounds; the airport was the Memphis region's last link with the rest of the country. The floods had knocked out electrical power, smashed bridges, covered roads with thick muddy brown water. Most of the city had been submerged for days.
Then came the earthquake. A solid nine on the Richter scale, so powerful that it flattened buildings from Nashville to Little Rock and as far north as St. Louis. New Orleans had already been under water for years as the rising Gulf of Mexico inexorably reclaimed its shoreline from Florida to Texas. The Mississippi was in flood all the way up to Cairo, and still rising.
Now, with communications out, millions homeless in the never-ending rains, aftershocks strong enough to tumble skyscrapers, Dan Randolph searched for the one person who meant something to him, the only woman he had ever loved.
He let the binoculars drop from his fingers and rested his head on the seat back. It was hopeless. Finding Jane out there among all those other people—
The copilot had twisted around in his seat and was tapping on the clear plastic partition.
"What?" Dan yelled.
Instead of trying to outshout the engines' roar through the partition, the copilot pointed to the earpiece of his helmet. Dan understood and picked up the headset they had given him from where he'd dumped it on the floor. He had sprayed it when they'd first handed it to him, but now he doused it again with the antiseptic.
As he clamped it over his head, he heard the metallic, static-streaked voice of a news reporter saying, "…definitely identified as Jane Scanwell. The former President was found, by a strange twist of fate, on President's Island, where she was apparently attempting to help a family of refugees escape the rising Mississippi waters. Their boat apparently capsized and was swept downstream, but snagged on treetops on the island.
"Jane Scanwell, the fifty-second President of the United States, died trying to save others from the ravages of flood and earthquake here in what remains of Memphis, Tennessee."
Copyright © 2001 by Ben Bova