Ralph was a winner of our December 2012 Comment Contest. He received this custom Last Stand Chronicles short story as part of his prize from Christian Author David Telbat. Ralph chose to include his son, Royce, as a protagonist in the story. We thank Ralph for allowing us to share his story here with you. Enjoy!
Counting the Cost
A Last Stand Chronicle and Custom Fiction Short Story by D.I. Telbat
For Ralph and Royce
“You know we could be flying to our deaths, right?” Fred ‘Memphis’ Nelson asked through his headset to the big man, Royce, in the copilot seat. “Now’s our last chance to turn back.”
“I’m good to go,” Royce said. “I’ve counted the cost.”
Memphis glanced at his companion, still unable to read him, as they embarked on a mission for which they’d both need to be at their best. And though Memphis was a veteran of two dozen dangerous operations for COIL, the mechanic next to him seemed to be calmer than he was!
“How’s my heading?” Memphis couldn’t easily focus the gauges of their small plane because of the night vision he wore to see out the windshield. Actually, there was no seeing in the January snow blizzard, Memphis realized, but there was no other way to slip unseen into North Korea this time of year.
“Heading one-two-nine,” Royce called out, responsible for reading the dark cockpit dials, using his own night vision. “Just don’t run us into any mountains.”
“I’ll do my best,” Memphis chuckled, hoping for the same thing, since he was relying on only two hours of carefully studying the peninsula’s satellite and topographical maps. The two men had met on short notice only that day, and hadn’t had a chance to become very well acquainted. “Talk about God’s timing, huh? Two American Christians in Eastern China when a call comes in from COIL. You been a believer long, Royce?”
“Long enough to jump when God says jump. Or, in this case, fly when He says fly over the border of a closed country to work on a broken-down plane.”
The men were quiet for a while, so Memphis took the opportunity to pray as he flew. Other than a COIL agent waiting with the car back at the airfield, the two operatives were totally on their own.
“Just so we’re clear, you know you’ll have less than fifteen minutes to make these repairs. North Korea may not be able to see us, but right about…now…the border posts can hear our engine.” Memphis banked a little and looked toward the ground. He could see nothing but snowflakes in shades of green and gray. “They’ll follow us inland. And there are only so many landing zones around here.”
“I can’t think of any plane engine repairs I’ve made in fifteen minutes or less.” Royce tried to shift his feet against his bulky tool bag. “Like you said—timing is God’s business. We’ve counted the cost, and we’re available.”
“What was that!” Royce turned suddenly in his seat, the broad man’s shoulder bumping against Memphis in the small cockpit. “Lightening in a snowstorm?”
“Not lightening. That’s artillery!” A few orange and red streaks zipped past the wings, and then they ceased. Memphis took a deep breath and forced his hands to steady the controls rather than to cave to the temptation to bank hard to starboard and return to China. “Don’t worry. They’re as blind as we are, but I guess they know we’re here, now.”
They flew in silence for a few minutes, then Royce picked up his tool bag.
“The GPS says we’re about two clicks out,” Royce informed.
“Roger.” Memphis eased the plane down, keeping a wary eye out for a promised signal in the darkness below. “There! Our guy is ready for us.”
Memphis lined up the nose of the plane with a pair of fires that marked a short airfield.
“When does our fifteen minutes start?” Royce cleared his throat, his nervousness finally showing. “You’ll keep the engines running?”
“Running? No, I’m turning the plane around at the end of the runway, and by the time I’m ready for takeoff, you’ll just jump back in!”
Both men laughed, the tension of the situation too immense to be any more serious than necessary. With the airstrip marked, Memphis removed his night vision.
The wheels touched down on frozen ground, bounced once, then dug in. Memphis flipped on the wing lights, their brightness shielded by sparse trees along the ridges on both sides. They had landed in a wide gorge in line with their heading.
Halfway down the airfield, a parked plane came into sight, their two North Korean contacts stomping their feet as they stood outside their aircraft.
“How much Korean do you know?” Memphis asked. “It might be too late to learn, though.”
“Good thing I know the international language of mechanic-ese.” Royce opened his door before the plane came to a complete stop, and he hopped out with his tool bag. He yelled back at Memphis, “You’d better be praying!”
Taxiing past the broken-down plane, Memphis turned around at the end of the field. He applied the brake and watched by the light of one fire as Royce’s large frame stepped up to the cowling of the other plane, her engine exposed.
“Lord, this is all about You, tonight…” Memphis prayed. He was willing to die in service for Christ, as apparently, Royce was as well, but Memphis preferred to live. His new wife, June, no doubt wanted him back alive, too—though she was oblivious to the fact that he had taken the last minute mission to help a fellow underground flier. “Get us back in the air, please, Lord…”
Memphis remembered Royce saying something about a son named Jackson, so people were depending on him getting home safely, too. But God knew such details, and Memphis’ stomach trembled at the prospect of their Amazing God providing a miracle for them to survive the night.
Looking to the left, Memphis strained his eyes to see through the snow, which was now falling lighter. There was a road and fresh tire tracks across the runway. Whatever Christian contraband had been delivered or picked up—at least the other party was long gone. But the road—if the North Korean military arrived too soon, they’d see him and his plane first!
“Come on, Royce!” Memphis urged to himself.
Watching the three with the plane, Memphis saw the big American step away from the cowling and talk with his hands to the two Koreans. One of them held a flashlight and gestured back to the engine. But it looked like Royce was refusing! He was shaking his head and then he bent down to gather his tools and bag.
Leaning forward, Memphis wondered if he should assist. Memphis was no amateur mechanic himself, but Corban Dowler, COIL’s founder and general operations manager, had said Royce was a crack mechanic, that Memphis’ mission this time was simply to fly Royce in to do the job for which a Korean radio contact had transmitted.
Suddenly, Royce took off his knit cap, exposing a bald head, and knelt on one knee in the snow. One of the Korean brothers joined him, the smaller man’s hand on Royce’ shoulder, as the one with the flashlight seemed to stand vigil over them.
“You don’t have time to pray, Royce!” Memphis growled though his teeth, but chastised himself an instant later. “Sorry, Lord. Any time is a good time to talk to You, but we gotta get back in the air!”
A few moments later, Royce stood and applied his trade once again by stepping up to the cowling. One Korean climbed into the cockpit and seemed to wait for Royce to signal him to start the engine.
Light played on the trees on Memphis’ left. The headlights of three vehicles were sweeping toward them! Memphis released the brake. It was time to leave!
At that instant, the Korean holding the flashlight waved his light and jumped up and down. He and Royce embraced briefly, then Royce picked up his tool bag. The second Korean climbed into the other plane as Memphis pushed the throttle forward.
Royce jogged up to the plane and threw his tool bag inside. Now at a dead run to keep pace with the acceleration, Royce dove into the cockpit.
“Hang on!” Memphis yelled over the engine as he gave her full power. The end of the runway rushed toward them.
Gunfire cracked sporadically from behind as Royce situated himself in the copilot seat, fastened his harness, and donned his headset.
“Did they make it?” Memphis asked as their plane soared into the dark sky.
“They’re right on our tail,” Royce reported. “Their little six-cylinder has some power!”
Memphis fit his night vision over his eyes and turned off the wing lights. Off the starboard side, the more powerful plane pulled even with them, dipped a wing to communicate their appreciation, and then disappeared to the east.
“That was close!” Royce exhaled loudly then chuckled. “You wanna know what was wrong with their engine?”
“I don’t have a clue! All I know is that after I prayed, their engine came to life!”
With a puzzled frown, Memphis questioned God. If there hadn’t been anything wrong, why had God seemed to open the door to embark on this mission?
“Hey, Memphis,” Royce said, setting his hand on Memphis’ arm. “You’re probably thinking what I’m thinking.”
“What’re you thinking?” Memphis climbed in altitude, hiding the plane securely in the storm as they headed back toward the border.
“Sometimes we look for the wrong to fix, when really there may be nothing wrong.” Royce’s voice grew stronger as he spoke. “Sometimes we’re just supposed to be faithful, and wait on God.”
“What?” Memphis laughed. “We almost landed in a Korean gulag, or worse!”
“Yeah, but we also just connected with two North Korean underground Christians. You know what they had in their plane?”
“It looked like a printing press, all disassembled. I bet they’re printing Bibles on the run. That’s the COIL connection.”
“Okay, that’s worth almost getting shot.”
Artillery tracers whistled past the wings and nose as they crossed back into China.
“We have to go back,” Royce said once they were out of range of the artillery.
“Excuse me?” Memphis took off his night vision and turned on the instrument panel lights. “Did you say we have to go back?”
Royce smiled and pointed at his bare head.
“I dropped my hat when I was running for the plane.”
“Your hat?” Memphis grinned broadly. He liked this new COIL mechanic more and more. “Count the cost, my friend. Count the cost!”
It was dawn by the time they touched down outside Fushun. Johnny Wycke, a COIL field agent, stood beside the runway and signaled toward the lot where Memphis was to park the borrowed plane. The men prayed together, as they had at the end of many past missions, then Royce went one way, and Memphis and Johnny went another.
“How’d the new guy do?” Johnny asked as they walked toward a parked car. “Is he COIL material?”
“He was praying in the face of bullets.” Memphis threw Johnny a glance. “The guy’s got some faith, I tell you.”
“Sounds like it. Hey.” Johnny paused before climbing into their car. “Wasn’t he wearing a winter cap when you guys took off before midnight?”
“He was.” Memphis smiled, looking forward to the story he’d be telling for years. “That’s another thing about Royce. He’s willing to make personal sacrifices.”
We hope you enjoyed this unique Last Stand Chronicles adventure featuring Royce. Thanks for stopping by! Come back often to read more of D.I. Telbat’s FREE weekly, adventure/suspense short stories, or serialized novels, and Author Reflections. Please use our contact form to leave your comments! Click here to read other custom Last Stand Chronicles stories.