This won't sound like a discussion of economics, but we should follow Wycliffe for a little while. Economics is about value, and understanding value requires background information.
Besides, Wycliffe is going to become something of a laboratory assistant for us, and we really should get to know him a bit better.
Wycliffe grinned wickedly as he put the island behind him.
"Leave them together all by themselves for three days, and let's just see if they haven't gotten together."
Now he turned his attention to his engine.
In the process of playing with the mixture, he knew he had left a lot of unburned carbon on the spark plugs. So he brought the plane up to cruise speed and gave himself extra altitude and worked a different game on the engine.
First he feathered the engine, to let the plugs cool while the plane glided for a few minutes. Then he gave the engine spark and let the air on the propellers push the engine back to ignition, then accelerated smoothly to high RPM, regaining lost altitude and speed and burning off some of the carbon on the plugs.
Wycliffe's cache of fuel was on the island where he had told Zedidiah they had set down to work on the engine. It was an island near the main shipping routes, and was often used as a picnic spot for travelers with extra time. Several of the charter pilots in the islands cached fuel and other supplies there, and most of the pilots referred to it as the cache island.
The distance out to the desert island and back to the cache island was dangerously close to the fuel limit for the plane. If he left the plugs as they were, the engine's efficiency would drop and could leave him beyond the limit. He needed all the fuel efficiency he could get, to be sure of making it back safely to his supply of fuel.
He briefly considered going back and picking them up, and then suggesting they take an alternate route where he could refuel. He could let the engine cool on the desert island and manually clean the plugs while Bobbie and Karel explored, and then they could fly to an island where he could borrow enough fuel from a friend to get to the cache island. And they could take it slow, to improve fuel efficiency.
His grin softened to a smile as he thought of the food he'd left with them. He'd packed some extra candles for a little mood, as well as for light. Then he frowned as a thought that had been nagging him forced its way to the surface.
"No salad. I forgot to pack greens and other vegetables in their food box. Shoot. Another reason to go back and get them now."
It had cost him as much as his share of the profits from the the trip to set them up with food and to secure the extra fuel. But he thought it would be worth it.
Having been jilted by the woman he had thought was the love of his life, he had some hangups about romantic relationships.
He'd been watching Karel and Bobbie for the last four months, and thinking of the woman who had left him. Sure, he had made a casual bet with Zedidiah, but it wasn't really the bet that concerned him. It hadn't been a serious bet, anyway, no money involved, just the deep wish to be see someone achieve the happiness he thought he had missed.
They already had something he had never had with Tessa. They trusted each other. They worked well together.
Bobbie and Karel had referred to not wanting to have arguments at home, but Wycliffe had never seen them argue at all. He had heard gossip, but all the gossip was shock and surprise that they were not lovers. Gossip of arguments were just as missing as gossip about midnight trysts.
And he could tell they liked each other. There was nothing awkward or forced between them.
They must have been planning the research project for at least a year before they came, and he couldn't imagine why they would have kept running away from each other for so long. Being a former E-P-ist himself, he thought he understood about eternity, too. Denying each other the happiness he had never been able to obtain was just a crime.
After a few minutes of running the engine at high tach to heat the plugs and burn off the carbon, he brought the engine back to a high cruise speed, and the engine's rhythm was feeling good. So he radioed Zedidiah and told him the same story he was planning to tell their professor -- that, having set down on the cache island to look at the engine, they had decided they wanted to take a few days' vacation. And they had enough food in the emergency kit.
He figured he could straighten out the details later, when Bobbie and Karel were safely together at last.
Then he set the autopilot, set his alarm, and took a nap.
When the alarm woke him up an hour and a half later, he found that a strong crosswind had been blowing steadily for some time, and had blown him significantly off course. He corrected course and got the plane pointed back towards his cache island. But now the wind had shifted more, and he was pushing into a headwind.
Feeling a tightness in his throat, he cut his engine speed back to its most efficient and hoped that the headwind would ease, and that he had cleared the plugs well enough.
With less than an hour remaining to the cache island, he was watching the fuel gauge rather anxiously. The trip really had been too close to the edge of the plane's fuel range.
In reasonably good conditions, it probably would have been safe enough. But he apparently hadn't been able to get the plugs completely cleared. Combined with the extra distance from being off course, and the headwind he hadn't accounted for, he was in danger of running out of fuel.
Rushing the return trip at first had also been a mistake.
He tried to raise Zedidiah again on the radio, but for some reason he wasn't getting any answer.
Then the engine's rhythm became a bit too smooth, and he knew he was running on fumes.
Actually, engines don't run on fumes. The last few ounces of fuel remaining in the fuel lines is not enough to maintain fuel pressure, and engine noise drops as power output drops. Saying "running on fumes" evokes the feeling of the engine's reduced output as it uses the last of the fuel.
When the engine lost power completely, he feathered it, letting the blades turn free to reduce drag. He trimmed flaps and ailerons for all the distance he could get in the last glide and wished for the island to appear on the horizon.
He tried the radio one last time. No answer. So he focused on maintaining his glide for as long as possible and thought about the danger he had put Karel and Bobbie in. It finally occurred to him that making the decision without asking them was, in fact, kidnapping, and might possibly end up contributing to rape.
At twenty feet above the water and no island in sight, he pulled the nose up a bit to slow down before contact. He considered putting the landing gear down for drag, but instead concentrated on getting into the water smoothly.
The belly of the plane dipped in the water and left a wake behind as the water slowed the plane. He had managed to keep the nose from dipping down, keeping the plane from tumbling.
Now he was thinking about the dinghy he had left for them to maybe take a joyride in. It would not be enough to get them to to an inhabited island, and that fact worried him. As the plane slowed down and started to sink, he opened the door and jumped out and swam away from it.
He put the plane behind him, thinking that would be the best way to target the island that should be up ahead, removed most of his clothes, and started swimming with a conservative side stroke.
(Why did he forget all his emergency training here?)
If he could make the island, there would be supplies, and he would have a chance to contact someone to send after Karel and Bobbie. He'd probably do jail time, but at this point getting them back safely was his first goal.
After the plane sank, he kept track of direction by the sun. It was low in the sky, so he kept it where it had been when he put the plane in the water, just to his left and ahead of him, and kept swimming, shifting from one side, then to his back, and then to the other side regularly, to conserve his strength.
While he swam, he worked out the distance in his head. Even with the most hopeful estimates, he was looking at swimming more than twenty hours. But he had no choice.
Finally, he started to pray.
"God, I hope you're out there. It's been a while since I talked to you last."
Stroke, stroke, conserving his energy.
"I've done some bad things. But this time I've really screwed up. Without help, I'm going to die before I can tell anyone where Karel and Bobbie are. I thought I was doing something good for them, but I was wrong."
Breathe even, stroke easy.
"It's my fault that they're in danger, but if I don't get back, who will find them? Please help me make it to the cache."
Face the sky, mouth out of water, stroke, breathe, rest.
When the sun set, he started looking for stars to get his bearings. It took about a half hour for him to find the stars he was looking for, but he did, and he kept swimming and praying.
After about ten hours, he was wishing he had somehow kept a life-preserver vest from the emergency supplies. He wouldn't have been able to swim very well, but maybe he could have been found by a boat or plane within a few days instead. The sky started getting light again, and he checked the sun's position and kept swimming.
About noon, he started losing strength. Thoughts of Bobbie and Karel kept him swimming for maybe an hour longer. Then he just lost consciousness.
Light graying to dark.
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