A distant boom echoed faintly across the hills.
Wes Stewart peered at the sky. He recognized the sound, but it was one he hadn’t heard in years.
“What the hell was that?” Danny DeLeon asked.
He was holding the second camera.
Danny still looked confused, so Wes added, “You know, when a jet breaks the sound barrier.”
Wes squinted toward the western horizon, then raised his arm and pointed. “There. See him?”
Danny shaded his eyes. “I don’t see anything.”
“Flying south, just a little bit above the mountains.” Wes’s finger tracked the movement of the jet.
“No, I don’t. . . . Wait. It’s like a white dot.”
Wes nodded. “Yep.”
“That thing’s moving fast.”
“It’s a fighter jet, Danny. That’s what they do.”
While it was novel to Danny, for Wes it was a reminder of a time when he would have barely noticed a sky full of jets.
“You guys set?” Dione Li, their producer/director, asked from behind them. She was leading a group of three others over to the base of the rock formation. The look on her face was pure Dione: ten percent annoyed, fifteen percent pissed, and one hundred percent determined. “We got a lot to do today, and I don’t want to mess around.”
“Same speech, different city,” Danny said through the side of his mouth.
“I’m sweating,” Monroe Banks announced, more an accusation than a statement.
“On it,” Anna Mendes called out. She whipped out a couple of Kleenex from the makeup utility belt around her waist and dabbed at a line of perspiration that had formed on Monroe’s forehead.
“Is it going to be this hot every day?” Monroe whined as she fanned herself with her hand.
Wes rolled his eyes. The last he’d checked, the temperature had been hovering around ninety-two degrees, not so bad for mid-day in the high Mojave Desert. Of course, that was because it was October—not August, or July, or September, or June, or even May, when it seldom dipped below one hundred while the sun was out.
Donning her faux, producer-mode smile, Dione stepped over to the spot she’d picked out earlier, then turned back to the others. “So, Monroe, we’ll have you stand right here for the intro shot. Behind you we’ll see the empty desert, then, as you finish, look to your right and follow the rock up. Wes will mimic your movement with the camera. Danny, I want you to get a wide shot from down the slope. Try to get as many of the formations—”
“Pinnacles,” Wes corrected her.
“As many pinnacles,” Dione said, smirking, “as you can into the frame.”
Danny gave her a nod. “Will do.” He shuffle-stepped down the small slope into position.
Their location was the Trona Pinnacles, a group of tufa deposits that stretched in an east–west line across the dry bed of Searles Lake. It was a few hours north of Los Angeles, and twenty miles from Wes’s hometown of Ridgecrest, California. The Pinnacles had been formed by an ancient sea, and the best way Wes had ever heard them described was as a bunch of giant, caveless stalagmites.
Alison Pringle, the tallest member of the crew, slipped behind Wes. “Where do you want me so I’m not in your way?” she asked.
Wes pointed at a spot a few feet behind his position. “There should be good.”
She touched his arm just below his shoulder. “Thanks.” She smiled, then moved off.
While Monroe moved into position, Dione glanced at Alison. “Are we good with sound?”
“Monroe, can you give me a level?” Alison wore a pair of headphones that allowed her to monitor both Monroe’s voice and any ambient noises the host’s mic might pick up.
“One. Two. Three.”
“We’re fine,” Alison said.
“Four,” Monroe finished.
Dione turned her attention to Wes. “Set?”
She leaned toward him, and in a low voice asked, “You all right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“You’re awfully quiet.”
Wes frowned. “No I’m not.”
“Whatever you want to think, but, yeah, you are.” She did a quick check of the rest of the crew, then said, “All right, Monroe. Whenever you’re ready.”
Monroe closed her eyes for a second. When she opened them again, an entirely different person emerged. The less-than-pleasant Monroe the crew had been subjected to since they’d arrived in Ridgecrest the night before had been replaced by the bright, friendly version the 1.3 million viewers of Close to Home were used to seeing.
“All right,” Dione said. “Here we go. And . . . Monroe.”
Monroe gave it a beat, then, “A vast nothingness. Brown for as far as the eye can see. A wasteland. A place no one would willingly visit, right?” Another beat. “If you believed that, then you’d be missing out on some of the most interesting and beautiful parts of the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles. Hi, I’m Monroe Banks, and welcome to another episode of Close to—”
“Hold on,” Alison called out.
Dione groaned. “Seriously? She almost had it in one take.”
Alison had a hand pressing one side of her headphones tight against her skull. “I’m picking up a hum.”
“Electrical?” Wes asked.
Alison shook her head. “Don’t think so.”
“I don’t hear anything,” Dione said.
“It’s getting loud—”
“I think I hear something,” Wes said. It wasn’t so much a hum as a rumbling whine.
“I hear it, too,” Monroe said, cocking her head.
A second later it was loud enough for everyone to hear.
Dione frowned. “What the hell is—”
“Oh, God!” Danny cried out from the bottom of the slope.
He was staring off to the east.
Whatever he’d seen was hidden from the others by the massive pinnacle at their side. Wes half ran, half slid down the slope toward his fellow cameraman.
“Where are you going?” Dione shouted after him. “I want to get this shot off.”
She hadn’t seen the look on Danny’s face. Wes had. Danny was terrified.
As Wes skidded to a stop he turned his head to follow Danny’s gaze, but it took a moment for his mind to actually figure out what he was seeing.
A military jet. A fighter.
Only instead of being a white dot in the distance, this one was a mass of gray ripping through the sky no more than five hundred feet above the ground. And its trajectory was taking it lower, not higher.
Wes’s first thought was that it was going to crash. His second was, It’s going to crash into us.
“What?” Danny said, alarmed.
Wes hadn’t realized he’d spoken aloud.
“Up the slope. Behind the rock,” he yelled.
Not having to be told twice, Danny took off running for the questionable safety of the pinnacle.
Wes scrambled to follow, but slipped on the loose dirt and fell to his knees. The ground began to shake as the roar of the aircraft intensified. He looked back quickly and saw there was no way he was going to make it to shelter in time.
He was going to die.
He started to turn away, but a flash of light from the back of the jet stopped him. For half a second it seemed as if nothing had changed, then the nose of the aircraft inched upward a few feet, and the jet veered to the left, away from the pinnacle.
He saw me, Wes thought. He saw me and did something to miss me.
But whatever the pilot had done was only enough to change his path, not his fate. Wes watched as the plane began dropping lower and lower—its new target the emptiness south of the crew’s position.
Wes pushed himself up and began sprinting toward the crew’s vehicles. He’d only made it a dozen feet when—
He skidded to a stop, mesmerized as the plane plowed into the desert floor.
He had expected the jet to flip and roll, breaking into a million pieces seconds after it smashed into the ground. Instead, the multimillion-dollar aircraft barreled through the earth, throwing up dirt and plants and rocks, but remaining intact. Then, just before it stopped, it twisted sideways, enveloping itself in a cloud of dust.
Wes jerked out of his trance and raced the rest of the way to the green Ford Escape he’d been in charge of driving out to the location that morning.
As he started to drive off, he glanced back and saw some of the shoot crew running toward the other vehicle, a Toyota Highlander. Dione was in the lead and waving frantically for Wes to stop.
But stopping wasn’t an option. He jammed the accelerator to the floor and sped into the open desert.
Excerpted from No Return by Brett Battles. Copyright © 2012 by Brett Battles. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.