"You trust her?" Jensen asked, looking warily into the cab of the truck Aisha had hired to get them out to the airstrip. She was sitting inside, with the driver, navigating.
"No," Cougar said, but that wasn't the issue, and they all knew it.
They were going home, finally.
And they'd be flying there in coffins.
"It's appropriate, at least," Roque had said, gritting his teeth against the irony, and Cougar had agreed. Their flight, such as it was, didn't make up for the 25 passengers on the original flight, or the 25 small coffins that had never been created.
Until Bolivia, he'd never understood, really, how powerless you were against gravity, and since that day, he hadn't been thinking about much else, really.
This thing they were doing, all of it. It was tempting fate. Suicide.
Conversation was sporadic as they made their way to the airstrip.
"Sailors used to think that having a corpse on a ship was unlucky," Jensen said, hanging on to the truck's railing. So what's it mean when it's five guys pretending to be corpses?"
Cougar shrugged. It was an odd question, but he'd been wondering, himself, if they'd be carried in feet first or head first, but it was all some form of sacrilege, anyway. Probably.
"I was stationed in Malaysia for a while," Pooch said, leaning into the turn as they headed for the hangar. "Met a guy there who swore that sleeping in a coffin was the best cure for bad luck."
Clay smirked. "You ever try it?"
"Hadn't been planning on it," Pooch grimaced, killing the engine.
Cougar prayed as they walked through the hangar towards the coffins. Aisha was up ahead, talking with Clay, pointing out the air tanks that had been set into each, apparently more for dealing with pressurization, because there were air holes, too, drilled through the coffins underneath the handholds, but it made him no less uneasy.
The others, for their part, seemed to finally sense the gravity of it. Roque was stalking back and fourth, rolling his eyes in annoyance every so often, in between glaring at Clay. Clay, for his part, had a grim look on his face, but Pooch just wanted to get on with it. Jensen, on the other hand, had gone dead silent. Kept peering in Cougar's direction, more than usual, alternately worried and wary.
Cougar wanted to say something, he just didn't know what, and anyway, it would've just set everyone else more on edge. He prayed, silently, for safe passage for all of them. Again.
Clay and Roque were already on board. Jensen had glanced once, nervously, in his direction, meeting his eye for a moment and giving him a determined thumbs-up before clambering into the casket. Aisha's associates wheeled Jensen's coffin up the ramp into the plane. Pooch was up next.
"Good luck," Pooch said, holding out his fist.
Cougar bumped it, wondering when it was, exactly, that their lives had gotten so fucked that they had to wish each other luck before getting on a US bound flight. Probably about the time the children fell from the sky. Probably even before, there was no way to tell. "You too."
Too soon afterwords, it was Cougar's turn. He climbed, not quite willingly, into his own coffin, and as he settled his hat on his stomach, Aisha shut the lid with nothing more than a half smile and a nod.
And then it was dark. What sound he could hear was muffled, distant, and a moment later, he was moving. Being moved, and he couldn't see where to, or what came next, and didn't understand the rough jarring until he realized he was being wheeled up the ramp.
Sharp, jarring moves, then. They were locking his casket into place.
It was getting warm in here, already. She'd said that wouldn't be the case when they reached cruising altitude, but in the meantime, he kept the fingers of one hand reaching towards the holes drilled above his head, feeling the air coming in.
He pressed his other hand against the lid, once, testing, though he'd heard the straps being wrenched tight. He'd known it wouldn't budge.
Outside, he could hear the engines coming on line.
Eventually, there was enough of a shift that he figured they were taxiing, preparing for takeoff, but he wasn't sure exactly when the plane left the ground. Eventually, his ears popped.
There was nothing here but his own breathing and the slick feeling of synthetic satin sticking to the back of his arms.
He knew he should've been trying to sleep, and it had nothing to do with good luck. Once they landed, he'd be off, again. Running.
But. No. It just wasn't happening. Didn't matter that there wasn't anything to see. His eyes stayed open, watching nothing. He tried not to think about omens and a hundred other things that were harder to ignore when lying on your back in a coffin. Mostly, he failed.
The air coming in from outside was getting cold, thin. He put the mask on.
The C5 was a large plane. Easily tracked. Maneuvered poorly. It was meant for transport, not fighting.
It would be so easy to blow this thing out of the sky. There could be a missile heading for them at any moment.
Or, already, there could be explosives on board, but there was no getting out to search them out.
Nothing to prevent this entire exercise from playing out exactly the way Cougar was seeing it. Totally black, until the flames burst through.
He slid his fingers along the tube leading to the tank at his side, feeling for kinks and finding none. There was enough air coming through. He just couldn't breathe.
It took him a moment to realize that it wasn't just vibration from turbulence that he was feeling, it was coming from his pocket. His phone. Puzzled, he drew it out and glared at it, squinting to make sense of the bright light, trying to figure out how he'd managed to turn it back on.
Odds were, he hadn't. There was a message waiting for him from Jensen.
So I'm locked in a coffin. How's your day going?
Cougar froze, trying to sense movement, some telltale shift in gravity that indicated a shortened trajectory.
Another minute went by, though, and they hadn't crashed.
His phone flashed again. Cougs you ok?
He considered, for a moment, not answering, but so far, this hadn't killed them. And crashing because of this would be ironic, at least. And on the other hand, maybe Jensen just wasn't thinking. It was worth risking it.
He thumbed the keys, typing, How did you turn my phone on? It will screw up the plane, and hit send.
Please. Have a little faith.
Cougar scoffed. He was trying to, wasn't he? What are you doing?
Another few minutes passed in total darkness, and then Jensen responded.
Believe me, this plane can handle worse. That crap about phones screwing up navigation is paranoia. But I'm monitoring flight systems from here. Only reason I'm texting is bad reception.
Cougar texted him back, skeptical. Why? If you say it is so safe?
I don't trust Aisha to not reroute us midair. Even if she did get us really nice coffins. This is more comfy than the last 3 safe houses combined.
Cougar was beginning to write back, pendejo loco, when another message arrived.
Man, I think I'm starting to understand claustrophobia.
Cougar agreed, but wouldn't put it in writing. Instead, he asked, It will be ok, si?
Damn well better be. Soon as this is done, I'm SO hitting my sister's place. Clay can suck it. Want to come? Playoffs, man. It's going to be epic..
That was as strange an invitation as Cougar had ever gotten. Mainly because he knew better, never planned that far ahead.
And maybe it was their work, but outside of missions? When they were on leave, they were on leave. Entirely. If you wanted to remind yourself that you were human, you didn't go out of your way to remind yourself otherwise. Jensen, though. Maybe he just didn't get that, yet.
Si, Cougar responded, because it wasn't like he suspected it would matter anyway. He considered for a while, and sent another message, because yeah, he was quiet, but he couldn't tell what Jensen was thinking, like this, and there wasn't much else on in terms of distraction. What did the others say?
Haven't turned their phones on. Won't unless I have to. Am already grumpy enough as it is. This is going to be a people-who-know-their-dolls outing only.
Cougar felt like someone had painted a target on his back, but different. Good. The smile stayed on his face until the next message came, and he could feel it falling from his face.
You think we'll live through this?
There was no good answer to that, but. He was locked in a box flying through the sky, his phone, literally, the only thing in view. Even when he was standing lookout, watching his target through the narrow scope, he could usually see for miles.
But right now, they were about as safe as they could plan on being for the foreseeable future, and these messages were the only distraction he had. Jensen was his only line out on anything. Cougar owed him.
Yes. Got your back. Tell me if we need to shoot Aisha. Because maybe Jensen needed to hear it, maybe Cougar needed to decide it would be so.
Then another message, short, appeared, and the confidence he'd felt settling around him was blown all over again. He blinked, trying to make some sense of the symbols. A colon and a bracket, nothing more.
There'd been a glitch in the system somewhere. Meant something was wrong, maybe the data was getting confused because something was going on with the flight's systems. Maybe they were veering off course right now, starting to lose altitude, but he couldn't feel it in here. Yet. Maybe it took a few moments to work its way through the plane's equipment.
At least, when they crashed, there was padding, in here. Though the chances of these heavy metal boxes floating were slim. He wondered where they were, right now. Didn't even know what was below him. He began a new message, uncertain that it would even get through, scowling at his thumbs pressed the wrong keys, backing up four times as he wrote, What's wrong- what do those symbols mean?
Uh…this- :) ?
It's a smiley face. On its side. People smile to indicate happiness. I know you're familiar with them, I've SEEN YOU DO IT.
It took a while before Jensen replied.
You doing alright?
Si. Cougar typed. Y tu?
Want out of here. This sucks.
Looks like we've got another hour to go. Bored. What do you want to talk about now? Do you have any food allergies?
There was no point translating the tangent, asking why it mattered. No.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Right, then. Jensen was needing distraction, too. There was a point to this. Cougar tried to remember, mostly coming up with the weekly trips back and forth over the border on the back of his uncle's truck. All he could come up with by way of an answer were vague impressions of what his mother had promised him. Alive. Y tu?
Wanted to do special effects for movies. Space fights and lasers. This was an easier job to get. You seen Star Wars?
There ARE movie theaters in Nuevo Laredo.
Oh. You seemed too cool for that.
I am. But gracias? :)
See? Smiling, not that hard. You should do it more often.
Cougar took a breath, listened to the air rushing through the tube to the mouthpiece, and made his decision. It wasn't as if anyone were in here to see him making an ass of himself, and hell, Jensen wouldn't care. You too. He hit send, and waited, watching for the light.
The phone flashed once, and then fell from his hand as Cougar went suddenly weightless.
The plane was going down, they were going to crash because of this, they were going to join the children, and Jensen had been wrong, and his mouth was moving, praying already and he hadn't even noticed, and-
-and the sensation was gone.
He finished the prayer, focused on his breathing. Imagined a target, wind conditions, the telltale movement that would serve as the signal to fire. Made himself be still.
It was a few minutes later that he remembered the phone, and found four messages waiting for him once he'd managed to dig it out from in between the cushions.
OMG-that's oh my god, not a glitch- but. YOU ARE FLIRTING WITH ME!?
The second one, sent a few minutes later, read Shit, that was freaky, huh? You okay?
The third one just read Cougs?, and the fourth? R U OK?
Cougar took a breath, as if he were about to speak, and typed back, I'm sorry. I'm here. Ok. Dropped the phone. You?
I'm fine. Um. And thinking I put my foot in my mouth. A few messages back. Um, so ignore it, and I'll just shut up now.
Cougar considered it, wishing he had a line of sight on Jensen, had any information at all, but all he had was darkness, and a plane that could still explode around him. And a phone that flashed with Jensen's words.
Don't stop, he wrote. Hablar conmigo.
If they were going to fall from the sky, he'd take whatever light he could get on the way down.