by Malcolm Ferrier
In 1996, Jack Findlay was working as an IT analyst for a consulting firm in Vancouver. He was well paid, secure in his position, and extremely bored. He had banked a few weeks of vacation time and had decided to take a trip somewhere quiet and think about the future. He had decided to go north, to Alaska.
Taking a ferry up the coast of British Columbia, he had spent a spectacular week in the Queen Charlotte Islands kayaking from one beautiful island beach to another. Feeling rejuvenated, he had continued north by ferry to Anchorage where he booked a spot on a small charter flight into the Alaskan interior. He was going to spend his last week at a remote wilderness resort near Wonder Lake in the Denali National Park. He would then return to Anchorage before catching a flight back to Vancouver, where his unresolved future awaited him.
Jack stood on the Anchorage dock in the summer sun and watched the pilot supervise the refueling of his Cessna Caravan. The floatplane looked sturdy enough but there was something about the scene that bothered Jack. It wasn't anything he could put his finger on, but something was out of alignment. It may have been the overweight pilot chain-smoking Players while standing just inside what could have been a safe distance from the refueling. He would take a bite out of a greasy burger and top it off with some smoke. It may have been the red, pasty skin of the man's face or the whistling sound that accompanied the man's breathing, but something about this pilot definitely made Jack uneasy.
He looked over at his three companions on this flight. The older couple seemed healthy enough, but they had the look of two people who had done as they were told for most of their lives and were somewhat uneasy with the newfound freedom of retirement. They spoke to each other quietly, clearly nervous about the upcoming flight but unwilling to relinquish their carefully planned and budgeted adventure.
The third passenger was another story. Clearly unconcerned about the flight, he was nonetheless a mess. A big man, he was missing his left arm and his right he held stiffly, as though injured. His face was almost black with old bruises and when he moved it was with a limp. However, these afflictions did not seen to affect his disposition and Jack could detect none of the self-pity that often accompanied a recent serious injury. He decided to introduce himself. He walked across the dock to where the man was standing and realized that none of the size of this individual came from sedentary habits.
"Should be a nice day for a flight," Jack said.
The man nodded. "Looking forward to some rest."
"My name's Jack Findlay."
"Blake. Good to meet you."
"Have you been up here before?"
Blake nodded. "Once. A long time ago. Haven't had a chance to get back until now. Funny how a little bang-up will give you the time to do the things you should have done years ago."
"What happened? If you don't mind me asking."
"Car wreck. A drunk crossed lanes and decided on my car for a head-on."
"I'm sorry." For some reason Jackie didn't believe the story. It wasn't the way the man told it, but some undercurrent of something like…satisfaction? Jack decided to let it pass and move along.
"Well, you couldn't have better therapy than this. It's beautiful up here."
"The air is good, too."
"What do you think of the pilot?"
"Needs to lose a few pounds and ask himself some hard questions about his lifestyle."
Jack laughed. They lapsed into a companionable silence. Jack felt an affinity for this stoic, injured individual that belied their short acquaintance.
Shortly, the refueling and preflight checks were completed and the pilot made his way over to his passengers.
"Time to go. Put your bags in the rear hatch and climb in."
Blake reached for his backpack with his injured arm but Jack got it first. "Allow me."
The pack was very light. Jack could always tell an experienced traveler by the weight of the luggage. There is invariably an inverse relationship between the weight of the bags and the number of miles traveled.
Jack grabbed his own pack (also quite light) and tossed them both into the back of the plane. He climbed into the rear section beside the couple. Blake got into the copilot's seat and pulled the side door shut. The pilot got in, started the engine, and completed the instrument checks.
"Everyone set?" asked the pilot. "All right, we're off!"
He added some throttle and the plane pulled away from the docks. The water was calm and the sky was clear and blue. He maxed the throttle once they were clear of the dock and they picked up speed. He pulled gently back on the yoke and they were airborne. They climbed steadily to 3000 ft. and turned to a northeastern heading.
"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, I’m Captain Bob and I'll be your pilot for today's flight. It should take us about three hours to get to the resort. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the beauty of Alaska. Everyone you know wishes they were you right now."
The tone of the last comment vaguely bothered Jack. He wasn't sure if he was going to like Captain Bob.
An hour passed as they flew north. Although the sky ahead was clear, Jack could see dark clouds starting to move in behind.
"It looks like we may have a storm brewing to the south," remarked the pilot. "We should be at the resort well before it catches up to us. You're in good hands."
Jack nodded and returned to taking in the scenery. Captain Bob turned to Blake.
"So, what do you do?"
Blake pulled himself away from the spectacular view. "Insurance."
"Sounds pretty dull. I'll bet this trip is a highlight."
Blake was noncommittal, refusing to be baited. Bob tried again.
"This is the life. I can't even imagine living in the city. Busy, competitive, and noisy." Jack thought that this description also applied to Captain Bob.
"I don't really know. I don't spend much time in cities," replied Blake.
Jack could sense that Captain Bob was becoming frustrated. The back of the man's neck was covered in sweat and even redder than before. Button pushing was obviously the man's forte but Blake was demonstrating no loss of composure. Bob tried once again to find the crack in Blake's armor.
"Its gonna be hard for you to live without that arm. You must wanna kill the guy who did it."
Blake turned to look at Bob. He smiled. "I've forgiven him." He was perfectly calm.
This was more than Captain Bob could handle.
"What's the matter with you?" he exploded. "Haven't you got any…"
The man suddenly stopped in mid-sentence. He didn't seem to be able to catch his breath and he clutched at his left arm. The Cessna veered down to the left as he released the yoke. The older woman beside Jack screamed. The plane started to spin into a dive.
Jack saw Blake grab the copilot's control yoke with his right hand and push it forward. The only way to pull out of a dive was to steer into it until the wings were below the critical stall angle. The plane’s dive became steeper and wind could be heard whistling over the wings. The older couple was shouting, utterly hysterical. Jack leaned towards them.
"It'll be all right! The plane is under control!" The yelling dwindled then stopped.
Blake was slowly pulling back on the yoke. The plane began to stabilize as the dive gradually turned into level flight. Blake turned to Jack.
"Check the pilot. I can hold this pattern for a while."
Jack could see that the effort of keeping the plane steady was a severe effort for Blake's injured arm. Releasing his safety belt, Jack leaned over the pilot's seat and checked Captain Bob.
He didn't look good. The man was deathly pale, sweating, and holding his chest. His eyes were closed and his breath was labored. Jack felt the pulse in his neck. It was fluttering, weak.
"He's had a heart attack. He'll need a hospital soon."
Blake nodded, clearly under strain. "I'm going to need some help. I can't fly this plane for too long with this arm."
Jack paused. This was going to be interesting, he thought. "I can fly this plane," he said steadily.
Blake glanced at him briefly. What he saw seemed to satisfy him. "Good. You'll need to move Bob into the rear and make him comfortable. I'll hang on until you're done."
Jack unclipped the unconscious pilot's safety harness and reclined the man's seat. Turning to the older man, he asked, "What's your name, Sir?"
The older man, somewhat dazed from shock, said, "It's… It's Mike."
"I'm going to need you to help me move this man, Mike. Can you do this?"
The men unclipped his safety harness and nodded. "Yes." His voice was wavering.
"This is all going to work out, Mike. What is your wife's name?"
The older woman broke in. "My name is Carol. Is the pilot going to be all right?"
Jack decided to level with them. "I don't know. If we act quickly he'll have the best chance."
"Then we'd better get moving," said Mike.
Working together, the three of them were able to move Bob onto seat cushions placed on the floor of the plane. The pilot's breathing was shallow and he was unconscious, but he was still alive.
Jack sat down in the pilot's seat and flipped up the back of the chair. He looked over the controls. Altimeter, artificial horizon, climb indicator, compass. Everything was where it should be. He took the yoke.
Blake released the controls with relief. "They won't have the facilities up in Denali to deal with this kind of emergency. We're going to have to head back to Anchorage through the storm."
Jack had known this. He clenched his teeth and set the plane on a two-minute turn. After 180° he straightened out their flight path.
Directly ahead of them black clouds filled their windshield. Jack could see occasional flashes of lightning within the storm.
"This may be rough. Mike, Carol, see if you can strap Bob down as securely as possible with the cargo harnesses. Once you're done, strap yourself in as tight as you can and hold on." While he was speaking Jack attached his own safety belt with one hand.
"Try and get some altitude. It could be clearer higher up," suggested Blake.
Jack pulled back on the yolk and their nose rose. He could see the storm was almost upon them.
The transition between the storm front and the calmer air preceding it was abrupt. It seemed to Jack that one moment he was flying smoothly and the next he was struggling for control as the wind violently buffeted the plane.
Inside of the plane it was chaos. Coffee cups, maps, and other small objects were thrown around the cabin and the din was incredible. Lightning flashed outside the windows and thunder shook the plane. Mike and Carol were white-faced, gripping each other in terror.
Jack held onto the controls and checked his instruments. Their heading was correct and they were still climbing gradually. We may just get out of this, he thought.
Suddenly, with a simultaneous deafening crack of thunder, a bolt of lightning hit their right wing. The plane veered to the right before Jack could stabilize it and the instruments spun wildly. The engine faltered, caught, and faltered again before returning to life.
"I've lost the instruments!" he called to Blake.
"Keep climbing. It's our only chance."
Jack kept their nose pointed upwards and prayed. The plane rocked back and forth, shaken by high winds within the storm.
As they climbed, Jack noticed that the cabin was getting brighter. It became easier to control the plane. Suddenly they broke through the top layer of clouds into blinding sunlight. A cheer went up in the floatplane's cabin.
"We made it," said Blake.
A dual sigh of relief came from the couple in the rear.
"Without instruments, we've still got work to do. We need to orient ourselves," Blake continued. "It's about three o'clock, so we'll need the sun at our right to head south."
Jack adjusted the controls to make it happen. Below them, the clouds hid the fury of the storm as they continued south towards Anchorage.
After an hour of steady flight at 10,000 ft., they had passed over the storm. The city of Anchorage was visible in the distance. Blake got on the radio and tuned it to the emergency band.
"SOS. I repeat, SOS. We are a Cessna floatplane with a medical emergency. Our pilot is down with a heart attack. Does anyone copy? Over."
There was a crackle of static and then silence. Jack assumed that the radio was as fried as the rest of the instruments when suddenly a voice broke through.
"Cessna, this is Anchorage. We receive and copy. Who is flying the plane? Over."
"Fortunately we have another pilot on board. We need an ambulance when we get in. Where do we land? Over."
"Cessna, your path is cleared to the floatplane dock. Can you find it? Over."
Jack looked down at the city and was able to spot where they had taken off. He nodded at Blake.
"Roger, Anchorage," said Blake. "Please get an ambulance there ASAP. The pilot had a heart attack about an hour ago and needs immediate medical attention. Over."
"Roger that, Cessna. Is there anything else you need? Over."
Jack spoke up. "Just make sure there are no other planes in our landing pattern."
"Is the area clear of traffic, Anchorage? Over," said Blake.
"Roger, Cessna. Good luck. Over and out."
"Can they save my game?" Jack muttered under his breath.
"What was that?" asked Blake.
"Nothing. Are we set to put this plane down?"
"Everything looks good," replied Blake. "Just take it slow."
By this time they were lined up for the landing. Jack looked for the flaps control. He found it and put it up two notches then lowered the throttle. The plane slowed and began to descend. The surface of the water was slightly choppy from the wind. It made it more visible and would help him land.
"You're coming in a little too fast," said Blake.
Jack reduced the throttle a little more. As the water came up to meet the floats Jack pulled back on the yolk and flared. They hit the water, bounced, and hit again as Jack pushed the yoke forward. They skidded over the surface and slowed as Jack reduced the power. He could see an ambulance and two police cars parked on the dock, their lights flashing.
"We're back," he said as he pointed the plane towards the dock. He turned to the couple behind him, a big smile on his face. "Everything's going to be all right."
Jack stood with Blake on the dock as the ambulance pulled away. Captain Bob was aboard. A police officer walked over to them.
"He's going to be all right. He was lucky you were able to get him back in time. He won't fly commercially again, though."
"I'm glad he'll be OK," said Blake.
"There is a small problem, however," continued the officer. He looked at Jack. "We don't have a listing of your pilot's license."
Here's where it hits the fan, thought Jack.
"I don't have a pilot's license."
Blake looked at him as well. "You told me you could fly a plane."
"That's right. But I didn't tell you I had a license."
"Not even a student's pilot rating?" asked Blake. Jack shook his head. "Then where did you learn to fly?"
"On my computer. Microsoft Flight Simulator."
Blake and the officer looked at each other. "I think we’ll need to sort this out at the station," said the officer.
"Sergeant, can I speak with you for a moment?" Blake took the officer aside. Jack couldn't hear their conversation but he did see Blake take out his wallet and show a card to the officer. They walked back to where Jack was waiting.
"Given the circumstances," said the officer, "I think we can overlook any irregularities. You've both been through a lot so I suggest you go get some food and make arrangements for tonight." He closed his notebook and walked back to the squad car.
"What was that all about?" asked Jack.
"We need to talk," said Blake.
They sat in a booth in a nearby café on Floatplane Road. The waitress took their orders: two specials. She left and Blake began to talk.
"As you may have guessed, I didn't get these injuries in a car accident. Are you familiar with CSIS?"
"Canada's answer to the CIA? A little."
"I work for them. I was under cover in the Hell's Angels, investigating a connection with an international heroin cartel. Unfortunately, I got into the middle of a squabble with a rival bike gang. A chainsaw was involved. By the time backup arrived I was pretty fucked up. My handlers pulled me out, and I've been on leave since."
"True. However, as a consolation prize I've been put in charge of the British Columbia section of CSIS. I have an idea for a special unit and that's what I want to talk to you about."
At this point their food arrived. They ate as Blake outlined his concept of the CSIS independent network. Jack listened closely, occasionally asking for clarification. When Blake finished, Jack sat back.
"So how do I fit into this?"
"You reacted well in the plane. The problem we have with selecting agents is that it's nearly impossible to re-create a true crisis situation in training. There's almost no way to determine how a novice agent will respond to a life or death situation until they're actually in one. Unfortunately, most tend to panic. You didn't."
"I didn't really have any other options."
"You did, but you didn't take them. At any rate, I believe that you'd be an asset as an independent agent. Are you interested?"
Jack considered the offer. Although it was tempting, he wasn't sure if it was for him. He didn't want to become a government sneak, hanging around embassy parties listening to tedious conversations. Or worse, a paper pusher sitting behind a desk. The role Blake had described didn't seem to involve these duties, but Jack wasn't sure. You could trust people, but not governments.
"I'll have to think about it. How can I reach you?"
Blake pulled a card from his wallet.
"Call this number. They'll get me a message."
Jack took the card. Blake stood, tossed a few bills on the table, and moved toward the exit.
"Be seeing you," Blake said.
A month later, Jack quit his job at the consulting firm. Two weeks before that he had been assigned yet another project that required no initiative or creative thinking and decided he had had enough. He had walked into his Director's office and gave his notice. Two weeks later, he walked out of the office building with no job and nothing lined up. He felt great. Free as a bird.
When he got back to his apartment he found Blake's card and called the number. A man's voice answered.
"CSIS B.C. Can I help you?"
"My name's Jack Findlay. I'm looking for Steven Blake."
"Please stay by the phone." The man severed the connection.
Five minutes later, Jack's phone rang.
"This is Jack."
"Blake here. Have you made a decision?"
"Yes. I'm in."
He was flown to CSIS headquarters in Ottawa where he was subjected to a series of interviews, written examinations, and psychological evaluations. He wanted to make sure they were getting him and not someone he was trying to be, so he answered the questions candidly. He felt honesty was a good approach for another reason; there were probably other security and background checks of which he was not aware being conducted at the same time.
He stayed at a hotel near the facility, and after a week of these activities he met with Blake in a CSIS conference room.
"You've been given the thumbs-up. Are you ready to begin training?" Blake asked. Jack nodded.
That was the beginning of spy school.
Training took place in a facility north of Ottawa. It was a combination of classroom learning and live exercises, called "labs" by the faculty. The classroom courses were fascinating. Jack sat at a desk and listened to lectures on infiltration, code-breaking, counter-surveillance, and disguise. The labs were even more compelling.
One afternoon Jack found himself in a large indoor gymnasium. It was a pitch black maze of walls and trip wires. The exercise was a complicated version of capture the flag, and Jack was tasked with retrieving a small rubber ball from the center of the maze without being detected. There were other students acting as sentries, instructed to raise the alarm if he was overheard.
His Aikido training was helping. He had trained while wearing a blindfold and it gave him a solid advantage. He made his way slowly through the obstacles. Keeping low, he kept one arm curved head of him and moved toward the goal. He froze. He sensed someone nearby. He felt the air move as one of the sentries passed right in front of him. After another pause, he continued.
After a series of slow, careful movements, he felt the space ahead of him open up. He moved forward and felt the carpet of the dais that held the rubber ball and reached to take it. As he lifted it, the lights came on. He looked up at a balcony above and saw Blake removing night-vision goggles.
"Great work, Jack. I knew you'd be cut out for this. Can I talk to you?"
They met in an empty classroom. Jack took a seat behind a desk. Blake pulled over a chair.
"We've got some new equipment that's planned for standard agent training, but we need some guinea pigs for testing. Are you interested?"
"Tell me more."
"You've heard of conflict scenario training? The idea of rehearsing a conflict situation in practice so that the response becomes automatic? Cops and the military have been using the concept for years in training, but we've got a new twist. In police academy and SWAT training all of the activities are performed in training areas, so the immersion level is low. Now we've got some new technology that can change this. Come with me."
Blake led Jack downstairs to the basement level of the computer training wing. The door required an electronic pass card and was simply labeled “Simulation.” They went down the hall and entered a door into what looked like an air traffic control room. Glass walls separated this room from another.
Inside the other room, a sophisticated Cray mainframe surrounded a large black chair. It looked something like a comfortable dentist's chair with control pads on the armrests. A black helmet sat on the seat. Wires emerged from it and snaked to a control box by the mainframes.
"What the hell is all this?" asked Jack.
"The future of agent training. It's a virtual reality simulator."
"Virtual reality? So you're turning me into the Lawnmower Man?"
"More like the I've-learned-from-my-mistakes man. You can mess up all you want here with no consequences. Have a seat."
Jack entered the simulation room through a glass door which closed behind him. Lifting the helmet off the chair, he sat down. Blake moved to one of the computer terminals and tapped on the keyboard. He bent to the microphone.
"Put the helmet on and close your eyes. It can be a little disorienting at first." Blake's voice came from speakers near the top of the glass divider.
Jack followed his instructions. The helmet seemed to be about the same size as those made for use with motorcycles. The front covered his face completely. Inside the cover, a divider along his nose separated his eyes. His vision was blocked and he could see nothing except pitch black. He closed his eyes.
"Are you ready?" This time Blake's voice came from speakers near his ears inside the helmet.
"Yes." Jack's voice was calm and steady, but he couldn't help feeling some apprehension.
There was a click, and he could hear monks praying. There was light filtering through his closed eyelids.
"Open your eyes," said Blake.
Jack opened his eyes. He was looking down a hallway, but it looked strange. Iconic, almost, like the essential elements of a hallway had been duplicated but all of the extra details had been left out. It was computer animation, but it was of a higher quality than he'd ever seen before. He turned his head, and the view of the hallway shifted to keep the correct perspective.
"The computer tracks the movement of the helmet and changes your viewpoint. You'll find it works best if you keep your eyes forward and move your head to look around. Some people get VR sickness from the experience, but we've improved the tracking to minimize this."
"It gets better. In this scenario, you start in the basement of a monastery. Upstairs are terrorists holding six hostages. You need to find them and get them out, while remaining undetected."
"Is this the first scenario you give everyone?"
"No, but I wanted to see how you manage. You can move around using the control pad on the left arm of the chair. The control pad on the right is for interacting with the virtual world: opening doors, talking to hostages, climbing walls, and so forth. Any questions?"
"Is there anything else I should know?"
"You've only got five minutes, starting now. Good luck."
Jack quickly adapted to the control system by moving around the hallway. After a few moments he felt comfortable. He moved along the hallway and up a flight of stone stairs.
Jack looked down on a courtyard. It held three guards armed with machine guns. A wooden doorway led off the courtyard and Jack was sure he’d find the hostages there.
The experience was incredible. He had moved around the monastery, stealthily avoiding guards until he had found himself on a small balcony above the courtyard. He could hear the sounds of muted voices behind the door and the presence of the sentries indicated something worth guarding.
He watched the pattern of the guards for a few moments. He knew he didn't have much time left, but he had to develop some sort of plan. Running into the courtyard would be suicide. The machine guns would tear him apart. Jack reflected for a moment on how immersive this experience was. Even though he knew it was little more than an elaborate videogame, he felt his adrenaline pumping as strongly as when he was flying the float plane through the storm.
He noticed that all three of the guards faced away from the wooden door and the staircase leading down from the balcony every 20 seconds. He had about five seconds to make it through the door.
He moved down the staircase and waited at the bottom for the right moment. When it came, he quickly maneuvered to the doorway and activated the handle. He slipped through and closed the door, unnoticed by the guards.
Inside, he found the six hostages. Again, he thought that they looked… strange. They had all the features of people, but without enough detail to look fully human. They were standing, huddled in a corner.
He looked around the room. It appeared to have been a storage room, with rough stone walls and a single bulb in the ceiling. There was a square grill in the middle of the floor.
He knew he was running out of time. He went over to the grill and tried to activate it. To his surprise, it slid open and he saw a ladder leading down into darkness. He quickly moved to the hostages and one by one moved them over to the grill. They each climbed in.
Once they were all out of sight, Jack followed them in. The drainage tube ended in a sewage tunnel, and there was a light about 50 meters down. He herded the former hostages towards the light.
Suddenly, the world around him faded into darkness. He removed the VR helmet.
"So, you won that round. What you think?" asked Blake.
After being introduced to VR training, Jack continued with his classroom espionage lessons and the live “labs.” A significant portion of his time, however, was spent with the simulator. Jack couldn't get enough. After mastering the control system, Jack found that the realism of the VR scenarios was like nothing else. He worked his way through the basic operational files and then took on infiltration, hostage-rescue, sabotage, and black ops simulations.
The black ops situations included explosives, escape and avoidance, and assassination techniques. Jack found the last one distasteful. He was no killer, and even in simulation he found he had no stomach for this activity. He also disliked guns, and although he was as capable of accomplishing these virtual missions as any others, he knew that he'd have no part of any real government-sanctioned murders. He also knew that this might affect his position with the CSIS independent network, so he decided to talk to Blake.
One afternoon after a live explosives drill, Jack entered Blake's temporary office on the third floor.
"What can I do for you, Jack?" Blake was typing on a laptop, but closed the lid and gave Jack his full attention.
"I've got a problem. Why am I being trained to kill people? Does the Canadian government support political assassination?"
Blake sat back in his chair. He paused for a moment, and then said "The assassination scenarios are simply another training technique. To my knowledge, no CSIS agent has ever been used as an assassin. However, there is no way to predict what sort of situations agents will meet when they're in the field, so we try to throw everything at them while they're here in a controlled environment. You've passed every test we've given you, including this one right now."
"What are you talking about?"
"We don't want sociopaths running around with CSIS credentials. Any trainee here that shows special enthusiasm for assassination training is placed in a posting where that training will never be required, usually a desk job on the Prairies. By showing me that you've got no stomach for murder, you've passed the final test."
"That's right. You've finished spy school and are ready for assignment."