For a moment, they all stood there and stared at the lump rolling in the surf beneath the parachute. Tessa Dumont blinked hard and looked again. The body was clear of the fierce current here, although the water splashed and sprayed over the wreckage of the aircraft. She squinted at the parachute and stepped forward, her usual caution about preserving the scene forgotten in the horror of what they had just witnessed.
Segarra shouted at her to stop and Hammond grabbed her shoulder, pulled her back.
“Aging is not a cause of death,” snapped Dumont. “I need to see.” She tugged at the parachute to expose the broken skeleton, the skull’s empty eye sockets lolling back and forth like a horror show peekaboo.
McBride spoke in an awestruck voice. “We’ve received a vision from the past.”
St. Claire rubbed her eyes, as if hoping for the vision to go away. Dumont did the same, but the rotting corpse and the submerged wreck of the jet were still there.
“It’s a well-known phenomenon,” said McBride. “Traumatic events leave ripples, like emotional recordings. It’s why people see ghosts at the site of the murder; the emotional impact is recorded.”
“The stone tape theory,” said Hammond, his voice unsteady. “Recordings stored on the environment.”
McBride nodded. “That’s it. Specifically, that certain materials can store recordings, just like tape. But we can’t prove it because we don’t know how to play it back.”
He glanced at the others, but Dumont, at least, was too shell-shocked to argue with him this time. He seemed to take that as approval. “The physical manifestation is just an echo of the strong emotions embedded on the location. But we all saw it, this vision from the past.”
“Mass delusion, more like,” said St. Claire. “We’ve been out in the sun too long.”
Her voice helped to ground Dumont. She rubbed her arms, still prickling with horror. “If this were an environmental recording, then we would have seen it before. Why now?”
“It must be an important anniversary of the event.” McBride squinted at the ruined aircraft shimmering aquamarine in the shallow water. “Look at the damage. It’s been there what, thirty years? Forty? Maybe World War II?”
“An F-35?” Dumont’s laugh came out as a bark. “No, I don’t think so. It can’t be older than—”
Segarra interrupted, his voice low. “Look at the wing, Dumont. What’s different about it?”
She looked at the right wing, which had been shorn off on impact. “It has hinges.”
“Right.” He pointed at the individual pieces. “Double wheel on the landing gear. No onboard gun. No vertical lift fan hole behind the cockpit.” He shook his head, sounding almost frightened. “It’s the F-35C.”
She shook her head even as she saw that he was right.
“What does that mean?” asked Hammond.
“It means McBride’s ghosts don’t exist,” said Dumont. Her stomach hurt. “That’s a brand-new plane.”
“Don’t be silly, it’s all rusted and ruined.”
Segarra backed her up. “It’s a US Navy F-35C. They’ve only been operational for a few months. It must have been part of a larger search party looking for us.”
They went silent, as if hopeful that the roar of another jet might fill the air. But there was only the gentle sound of the waves tumbling onto the beach and the intermittent belligerent screech of a gull.
“It doesn’t make sense,” said Hammond. “What the hell happened to it? To him? How can a brand-new F-35 crash? I thought they practically flew themselves.”
“Oh, my sweet summer child,” laughed McBride.
“Shut up, McBride,” snapped Segarra.
“What, we’re going to pretend military planes don’t crash now?” McBride raised an eyebrow and turned to Dumont. “Can’t let anyone know the truth of what happened to our boys. Isn’t that right, Dumont?”
Dumont hated being pushed to take sides, but she also knew that McBride had a point. She reluctantly nodded. “Most F-16 crashes are CFITs, Controlled Flight Into Terrain. Difficult maneuvers at low altitude, g-forces, hypoxia.” She looked at Segarra and then back to Hammond. “But it’s not in the public domain. The military do their own investigations.”
“That’s what I’m talking about,” said McBride, his face triumphant.
Segarra exhaled loudly. “The US military forces are pushing the envelope. That’s not news!”
“No, but you can’t deny—”
“This plane crashed,” interrupted Dumont, her head throbbing. “It’s not up for argument. The...