The Brink
by Bob Shaw

Long before he awoke Charlent was troubled by a thin, persistent whistling sound which insinuated itself into his dreams. Plaintive and lonely, it seemed to originate in one of the nightmarish half-universes he sometimes visited while asleep—but, even when the buzzer beside the bed had sounded and he was stripping off his pyjamas, it was still audible. It furled through his thoughts like a polar wind.

He tried to forget the sound while he was showering and using the shaver.This is England, Charlent reminded himself. My first time here. But when he looked out into the pre-dawn darkness there was nothing to see but a single greenish light attached, incongruously, to the blank wall of a steel-framed building; and he could have been on any airbase, anywhere. He put on his uniform quickly; his fingers were trembling with cold as he knotted his tie. Apparently it was too early for the heating system to have come on.

The corridor outside his room was narrow and unfamiliar. Charlent got a sudden conviction that the mess:room would not even be in this building, that the Spartan British would make him face the darkness outside before he got a cup of coffee. This fear subsided when he smelled frying ham and was able to follow the aroma to its source through a complex of low-ceilinged passages. Several men in Royal Air Force uniform passed him and saluted silently, watchfully. When he reached the mess-room the slim, black-haired figure of his co-pilot, Ovens, was already seated at a long table. There was nobody else in the room.

“Look at this, Charly.” Ovens sounded awed. “Real linen. Real silver. I’ll bet they serve toasted crumpets here in the afternoons.” Ovens shook his head in pleased wonderment.

Charlent sat down. “Ever been to England before?”

“No, but I think I would like it. I go for stuff like this old silver.”

“It’s a wonderful country—old silver and Sundogs.”

Ovens shrugged. We could have produced our own Sundogs. The British build ’em and we deliver ’em. It shows Western solidarity.”

“I’ll bet Peking’s impressed.”

“You shouldn’t talk like that, Charly.”

“Why not?”

Ovens shook his head and sat staring down at his plate while Charlent ordered breakfast from a white-jacketed steward. We almost did it just now, Charlent thought. Almost spoke the unspeakable. Now we’re sitting here trying not to think about the unthinkable.

The big question hanging over these initial Sundog delivery flights was whether or not a nuclear device which yielded its energy over a period of years instead of micro-seconds would be regarded by the Communist bloc as a ‘weapon’ in the classical sense of the word. Planting miniature suns on jungle supply routes, making them impassable, was a new way of waging war, but the intention was as ancient as warfare itself. And if the Chairman chose to equate the placing of Sundogs with a conventional nuclear attack …

Later, after the long and complex flight briefing, Charlent stepped outside to a.cold grey morning and air which was heavy with the tang of mists and dew and dank woodlands beyond the perimeter fence. It was a smell which even the pervasive odour of aviation fuel could not overcome, and somehow it made him feel uneasy. He climbed into the waiting jeep with Ovens, and they were driven out across the airfield and into the shadow of the waiting transport aircraft.

“I’ve been flying in that thing for more than a year now,” Ovens said. “And it still looks like a set from “The Shape of Things to Come”.”

“I carus is a big ship, all right.” Charlent spoke in a preoccupied voice—he had just become aware of the peculiar whistling sound again.

“Yeah—no wonder they call it the Aluminium Overcast.”

The sad, shrill sound was louder as Charlent walked to the rear loading ramp and looked into the aircraft’s gargantuan interior. He discovered it was coming from the Sundog—a boil-off of liquid oxygen escaping from a vent in the house-sized cooling sleeve which restrained the captive sun from creating its own dawn.

Icarus taxied out on to Brize Norton’s runway 08, took off and climbed away on an eastern course, bound for Cyprus which was its first staging post on the route to Cambodia. With a normal load the aircraft could have completed the entire journey in one hop, but the Sundog was too heavy, displaced too much fuel.

During the climb to cruising height the engines drowned out the insistent whistling, but as soon as Charlent had reduced power and trimmed the ship for level flight he heard the weapon’s song once more. You should have been alive to see this day, John Foster Dulles, he thought. Brinkmanship was in its infancy in your time. His depression and unease grew more intense. In the right-hand seat, Ovens began to doze, leaving Charlent alone with his thoughts.

Five hours later the aircraft had left the northern mists and cloud behind, and Charlent was staring ahead into a painfully blue Mediterranean sky. Ovens was still asleep on the right, whilst behind him the navigator seemed absorbed by his radio. Charlent turned to borrow a cigarette from the engineer, but the fourth seat was empty. The engineer was probably in the galley or checking on the cargo lashings. In another half-hour they would be letting down for Akrotiri.

Charlent looked forward again. The clear, rich blue of the sky merged into a light haze on the horizon, and he narrowed his eyes to get a first glimpse of the island which would soon come into view. At first there seemed to be no focusing point on the horizon.

Suddenly he thought he saw another aircraft—or was it two? There seemed to be a pair of minute specks in the eye-pulsing distance, one at roughly his own height, the other well below.

It was impossible to judge distance or to pick out any detail, so he switched the weather radar on to verify the visual contact—but there was no response on the tube. He looked out again and had difficulty in locating the objects. His eye searched the sky and then he saw one. It was a tiny speck, many hundreds of feet below his aircraft and apparently quite close now. To Charlent’s practised eyes it seemed very small, and an odd shape for an aircraft.

He scanned the blue anxiously for the other object, and found it—dead ahead and perhaps only two hundred feet above him. Charlent felt his mouth distort with shock. The thing he was looking at was no small aircraft. It was more like a free-fall parachutist, but with a pair of wings strapped to his back—something like the old photographs he had once seen of Valentin, the French birdman.

The birdman was flying—or soaring—in the same direction as the aircraft and Charlent could see him quite clearly now. He was lightly dressed, no flying overalls, but wearing an odd helmet. There was no indication of a parachute pack. His wings had a definite shape like those of a huge soaring buzzard, and for a moment Charlent thought he could see the outline of long feathers at the wingtips.

The freighter was speeding below the birdman when he looked down, obviously startled by the roar of the jets. He turned sharply and momentarily lost control, side-slipping violently into the aircraft’s path. Charlent froze. There was nothing he could do to help—his massive ship could not respond in time to even the most violent control demand—and the man plummeted down just behind the starboard wing. As the figure slid out of sight Charlent saw him tumble hopelessly out of control, his wings flapping jerkily, seemingly torn.

Charlent pulled the freighter into a tight starboard turn, overriding the autopilot.

“What’s going on?” Ovens shouted, awakening with a start.

“I thought we hit a skydiver.”

“A skydiver? You’re crazy, Charly.”

“I tell you I saw a man out there.” Charlent told what he had seen as they searched the haze below.

They saw nothing. The coast of Cyprus soon came into view and they nosed down the invisible highway of the glidepath. After some discussion during their inspection of the aircraft for damage, they decided to file a near-miss report of an ‘unidentified object, possibly a very light aircraft’. But there was no confirmation from either Cyprus or Crete air traffic control centres of any fixed-wing, helicopter or known flying machine in the area.

That night Charlent slept in a hotel far from the airfield—but it seemed to him that, in the warm darkness, he could still hear the Sundog’s whistle. He awoke several times, rigid with fear, convinced that some ghastly, irretrievable blunder had been committed, and that the megadeaths were coming …

Next morning he awoke early, glad to escape the night, and went to the airfield much earlier than necessary. As he walked below the vast umbrella of the tailplane he met Jackson, the flight engineer, and a local maintenance fitter.

“You were right, Charly,” Jackson said. “It must have been a bird—we found these in the horn balance hinge.”

He held out two large feathers, twisted and bent. Charlent took them cautiously—they were smeared with some sort of grease. As he looked down at them he became aware of the Sundog’s endless song, and in the depths of his mind myth-memories began to stir. He ran his fingers over the feathers again.

Were they covered with grease—or wax?