Gray winds bruise the plains and blush his cheeks to a burn. His eyes and mouth covered, the relentless cold air remains painful. How did he wind up in this barren wasteland, full of ghostly skeletons? A dirty white monster approaches on four massive paws and huffs, its breath steaming. A polar bear? It rushes, knocks him down, and then drags him by the collar of a thick jacket. The creature’s breath is rancid, but the man refuses to panic. The creature enters a cave and releases him. The man looks up to see a woman standing before him.
“Hello William. It’s good to see you.” She turns to the bear. “Thank you, Sunny.” The massive mammal shudders and woofs, then pads out of the cave.
“Do I know you?” William struggles to his feet, the cold and shock dulling all senses. His memory is foggy. He recalls air taxiing to the arctic desert, fully supplied and prepared to camp for a week, photographing and writing about the national park. A late summer storm gifted frigid temperatures and strong, blinding winds. He got lost and stumbled around until Sunny.
“I was the pilot of the plane who brought you here.” She shoots a concerned glance his way, then beckons a retreat deeper into the cave. William follows until a new room is unveiled with a fire and roasting meat on spits.
“I don’t recognize you. I didn’t even realize my pilot was female.”
“I’ll forgive that. It must have been the short hair, headphones, and glasses. ” She motions a hand in way of offering a seat on a long, thick log.
“I thought I would die out there. How did you find me?”
“Sunny and I are good trackers. To be honest, you were also tagged, so it was easy. I’m Casey, and I’ll get straight to the point. You’re here as a replacement. The plane you traveled in? She needs a new pilot.”
“What? Are you crazy? I’m not a pilot.” He is in a situation. The person in the room, cave, whatever, with him is likely psychotic with a pet who could bite his head off without chipping a tooth. Also, his way home.
“Calm down, William. You’ll learn to operate the plane. She practically runs on auto pilot.” Casey chuckles. William detects a trace of bitterness in the laugh.
“What if I say no? You have to realize you sound like a lunatic. And how do you have a monster bear that doesn’t maul you to death?”
“She comes with the plane. Sunny will be your monster bear soon. When I go, she’ll obey you.” Casey hands him a piece of hot, steaming meat. William reluctantly accepts it and eats. He is famished. Humoring this female might be his only way of escape.
“What did you mean when you said I was tagged?” He chews the meat, which is tasteless, while the fire warms his face.
“You’re my replacement. I knew how to find you. Let’s leave it at that. I have done the job for a long time, William, and I’m tired. I’ve given enough for her. She won’t let me go until I find a replacement. There is always a pilot. You are next.”
“But I am not a pilot.” He insists. There is no reasoning, and he is becoming scared for his life. Is he a prisoner? Is she a serial killer? Friends and family were informed of his whereabouts, but the park is huge. People get lost and die in the wilderness all the time. He won’t be found. He might have to resort to overpowering her.
“I see your mind churning, William. Don’t bother. If you try to harm me, Sunny will take you down. She won’t kill you. She’ll incapacitate you. You’ll wake up and we’ll start again. Over and over until you agree. The job isn’t so bad. The plane requires no fuel or maintenance. She’ll never break down.”
William shakes his head and laughs. “What is it, a ghost plane?” Casey looks at him. They stare at each other in silence while seconds tick by. Sunny lumbers in and sits next to Casey, licking her face. They both flicker before regaining solidity. “What just happened? You both flared out, like you were about to disappear or something. I’m in shock. That must be it.” He looks down at himself and notices the flickering happening to his own body. “What is happening to me?” He looks at Casey.
“You didn’t make it, William.” She sighs. “Your body is still out there, on the ground. But your spirit is here. That’s why you’re perfect to fly the plane. Now I can move on. Finally.” She smiles, reaches out and takes his hand, squeezing it. Sunny walks away from her and sits next to him. “All it takes to operate her is to issue commands like ‘off, on, slower, faster, up, down.’ You have to pilot enough souls to satisfy her before you can pick a replacement. The number is different for everyone. You’ll know when it’s time. Thank you, William, and good luck.” She smiles and fades, leaving him alone with the bear, staring into the fire.