“This is your Captain speaking, welcome on-board Delta Flight 763 with service from Los Angeles to New York. We are currently third in line for take-off and are expected to be in the air in approximately seven minutes time. At that point all personal electronic devices will be prohibited, so if you want to call your loved ones and tell them goodbye, please do so now.”
I laughed when I heard that during the pre-flight announcement. The voice was cheerful enough though, so I assumed he meant it in an innocent way. I guess that’s why my wife Mariah didn’t even notice it as odd.
That’s the thing about Mariah. I love her to death, but she’s the least observant woman on the planet. It would be an understatement to say she lived in her own world: it’s more like her own dimension, complete with a plethora of alien races with their own languages and a galactic drama all far more interesting than reality could hope to compete with.
Even so, I don’t understand how she could still be sitting there complacently reading after the next announcement when we were in the air.
“We are currently cruising at an altitude of 33,000 feet at an airspeed of 450 miles per hour. It might feel comfortable in here, but have you ever wondered what would happen if you stuck your head out the window?”
I poked Mariah and gave her my best are you hearing this shit face. She nodded, although I doubt she knew what she was nodding to. Her eyes never left the page.
“The air pressure would literally start to rip the skin from your skull,” droned the amiable loudspeaker. “You might not think your body could fit through one of those little windows, but that’s just because you’ve never seen how far a body can compress under pressure.”
I glanced behind me. Dozens of shocked and horrified faces were turned toward the front. An airline stewardess pushing her cart gave a curt, apologetic smile and forced a laugh. One or two people joined in.
“It’s not the fall that’s going to kill you though,” the Captain continued. “Oxygen levels have dropped to less than a third of their normal concentration. You’d be panting a marathon, but it would never be enough. Pretty soon your lungs would feel like they were on fire as they start collapsing. That’s when the hallucinations begin…”
An elderly lady who looked like she might disappear entirely if she removed her fur coat stood up in protest. Scattered lights began flooding down the aisle as people mashed the flight attendant button.
The flight attendant darted back towards the cockpit, waving everyone back to their seats.
“Don’t worry, I’m going to tell him to put a sock in it,” she said. Scattered cheers and chuckles followed her behind the closed door.
“And the cold? Don’t even get me started about the cold,” the Captain said. “It’s negative 70 Fahrenheit out there. I know that number is pretty abstract, so here are some things to help you visualize it. The corneas in your eye will freeze solid. Your body will be consolidating your blood around vital areas, leaving fingers, toes, even whole limbs to rot and die. You’ll be long gone before you reach the ground when your body-”
The loudspeaker crackled to silence. Open applause and laughter down the entire length of the plane.
“Too bad.” I was laughing along with the rest of them. “I was looking forward to hearing about what happened when our bodies hit the ground.”
“It’s not over,” Mariah said, flipping another page. Her voice reverberated with the slightest of tremors. White knuckles re-focused their grip around her book.
“Don’t tell me you let that rambling bother you. That must all sound like some kid’s bedtime story after the stuff you read.”
She shook her head, gesturing back towards the cockpit without lifting her gaze. I glanced to see the stewardess emerge from the door.
“Take a look at her and tell me everything is fine,” Mariah said.
I couldn’t. Frayed hair and wild eyes, the woman looked as though she’d seen a ghost. The rest of the passengers seemed to have lost interest after the announcements had stopped, but I continued to watch as the stewardess quick-stepped over to another flight attendant, grabbed her roughly by the arm, and dragged her urgently back toward the cockpit.
“What do you think is going on in there?” I asked.
Mariah closed her book. And her eyes. Rapid shallow breaths, and now her hands were clutching the book so tightly that they were rattling the meal tray.
“I’m going to go take a look,” I said. “You stay right here, okay? Everything is going to be fine.”
My words were punctuated with a vicious bounce of turbulence. The lights flickered off and on so quickly that I couldn’t be sure if I imagined it. A murmur echoed down the plane, quickly dissipating as the smooth flight resumed.
“Too late,” Mariah whispered. “It’s already happening.”
I tried not to dwell on her cryptic anxiousness as I unbuckled my seatbelt and sidled up to the front where the bathrooms were. There weren’t any other flight crew around – no-one to stop me from walking all the way to the cockpit door and giving it a push. It drifted open without the slightest resistance. The two flight attendants were sitting in the chairs behind a wall of intricate controls. Both on the edge of their seat, one of them desperately clutching a radio transmitter between her hands.
“… we don’t know what happened.”
(I couldn’t make out the static that replied)
“No sir. Both the Captain and co-pilot.”
(static) The two girls exchanged a frightened look.
“The first officer and flight engineer are also missing.”
The plane shivered. The lights flashed again. This time it was a full second before they came back on.
“Flight control, come in,” from the girl holding the receiver.
“Hey, you can’t be in here!” The second flight attendant noticed me for the first time. I didn’t budge from the door.
“What’s going on? Where’s the Captain? Wasn’t he just talking a moment ago?” I asked.
The lights went off. Two, three, four seconds – still off. The murmur from the passengers was swiftly mounting to an uproar. Something dark flashed by the window. For a terrible moment I thought it looked a bit like an octopus, but the impossibility of it made me disregard the idea immediately.
The lights were back, but the passengers were still clamoring. The flight attendant not holding the transmitter pushed me aside to address them.
“Flight control, come in,” the other girl repeated. “Flight control. Flight 763 requesting urgent instructions.”
It wasn’t the radio that answered though. It was the loudspeaker that said:
“This is your Captain speaking. Sorry about getting cut-off earlier. Now where was I…?”
“Who is saying that? Where’s he talking from?” the flight attendant with the transmitter. I shrugged helplessly.
“Oh that’s right,” the Captain continued. “Now this is the sound you’d make if you started to fall.”
Screaming. Bloody-hell, axe-in-the-face screaming from every speaker at once. Gut wrenching, ear-splitting, shrill and piercing, like a thousand tortured souls being ripped from their dying hosts. The lights all went off, this time even the emergency floor lighting winking out as well.
The screaming was shifting subtly as I ran back towards my wife. It took me a moment to realize that it wasn’t coming from the speakers anymore. It was enveloping me, so palpable that it almost felt like a physical force that I had to push through with each step.
The plane was shaking violently now. More dark flashes – a veritable blizzard of writhing, formless shapes darting past the windows.
“Mariah! Where are you? Are you okay?” It was so loud, I couldn’t even hear my own voice. The bellow of the engines was joining the unholy song, its roar mounting into a deafening crescendo. I blindly shoved my way through the teeming bodies surging into the aisle until a familiar hand clasped my wrist and dragged me back into my old seat. I hugged my wife, clinging on for dear life as the mad tumult hurled hurled us through the unforgiving passage of broken time.
The lights came back on all at once. The plane leveled out instantaneously, gliding as smoothly as though we were adrift on still water. Wild, gleeful laughter filled every speaker, shocking and stunning the terrified passengers into the unity of silence.
The only thing that didn’t go back to normal was the view outside the window. Purple and orange clouds rose in twisting nebulae from the ground to spiral upwards into an unfamiliar sky. Long, desolate, sand-blasted red dunes opened up like a surreal painting below us. Vegetation like I’ve never seen before cracked the forsaken landscape, some stretching untold miles into the sky. And those creatures – tentacled, black, about the size of a large bird, were swooping through the air in thick masses of unfathomable number.
“This is your Captain speaking.” Not a sound, not even a breath dared to interrupt. “Due to unforeseen circumstances, we’ve been forced to make an unscheduled landing before we’ve reached New York. Please put away your tray tables and portable electronics and return your seats to full up-right position. We’ll begin landing shortly.”
Mariah set down her book and pulled out her laptop from her carry-on bag. She handed it to me, but I hesitated before accepting it. I was staring at the black, tentacled creature blazoned across her book cover, and the title which read: “Cruising at 33,000 feet without a pilot.”
“Here, take it,” she said, forcing the laptop into my hands. “You’re going to want to write this down.”
“He said no portable electronics -” she rolled her eyes at me, and I couldn’t help but laugh at the sheer absurdity of it. “I think there are more important things to worry about right now,” I finished lamely.
“I think you’re supposed to write this down,” she insisted, her voice firm and level. She set the computer on my lap and held up her book again. I’d been so distracted by the cover that I hadn’t even noticed the name of the author. I hadn’t even registered my own name.
“We’re beginning our descent now,” the loudspeaker said.
Helpless, shaken, and utterly bewildered, I opened the laptop and began to write…
Mariah won’t let me touch the book. I keep trying to steal glances during the descent, but she has been jealously shielding it ever since I saw the cover. The agitation on her face — the strained panic of something trapped beneath her skin — I can’t tell if she’s reacting to what is happening all around us, or whether its about what is yet to come.
The plane is absolute chaos. The flight attendants have put on a brave face and are doing their best to be heard over the churning crowd, but the only voice that’s reliably audible is that from the Captain.
“If you look out the left window, you’ll notice the forest of Boneweed. Once inhaled, its spores will diffuse through your alveolus and into the blood stream. They will then take root in the bone, using your body as nutrients to grow into the mighty trees you see below.
“On your right you have a lovely view of the dunes which stretch almost as far as the eye can see. Fun fact is, they aren’t sand dunes at all, but the aggregated eggs deposited by the Mikaka. Their evolutionary strategy of laying trillions of such eggs may seem inefficient, especially when only a dozen will likely survive to adulthood. The pupal Mikaka fight and devour each other in a brutal test of survival though, and the ones who finally emerge will be some of the deadliest and experienced killers known to this world.”
“We’re hallucinating,” another voice finally penetrated the oppressive atmosphere of the cabin. A frail but stern man had clambered to stand on his armrest to be seen above the crowd. Salt and pepper hair, thick bristled beard, and heavyset horn-rimmed glasses: he projected an air of confidence that the hungry crowd latched onto. An urgent hush washed over the passengers as he continued to speak.
“The oxygen levels have dropped in the cabin without our noticing, and we’ve all begun to hallucinate,” he repeated firmly. “We simply need to stay calm until the plane lands, at which point oxygen will be restored and everything will go back to normal.”
“Are you seeing the dunes too?” asked the fur coat which wore the elderly woman. “We wouldn’t all be having the samehallucination!”
If disappointment could be captured as a sound-wave, then it would sound like this.
“It’s the Captain’s fault!” asserted the salt and pepper orator. “It’s just the power of suggestion. We’re all in a vulnerable state, and he’s hypnotizing us!” His confidence was deteriorating with each word though, and tensions were quickly mounting again.
“I say we’ve slipped into another dimension,” a young man with a face like an under-cooked turkey interjected. “We hit some kind of invisible wormhole in the air.”
“That’s ridiculous. There’s no such thing as -”
“Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean-”
“Aliens! We’ve obviously been abducted by -”
Chaos resumed its rightful place. There were only two people I trusted to have any real answers: my wife, and the Captain. Both were a stone wall.
“Hands off,” Mariah evaded my attempt to snatch the book yet again. “I’m still reading.”
I hadn’t seen her flip the page in a long time though. It seems like she’s been reading the same passage over and over again.
“Where did you even find this book?”
“Picked it up at the airport,” she said. “It had your name so I thought it would be worth a laugh.”
“What have you read so far?”
She made a vague circle in the air with her finger, indicating the general scene around us.
“Any hint of what’s going to happen next?”
There it was. The flash of tension again. She hesitated too long, and when she finally shook her head, I knew it was a lie. She knew I knew too. We locked eyes and she squeezed my hand.
“Just because it’s written doesn’t mean it has to happen -”
“But everything that was written so far has been true,” I prompted.
She nodded reluctantly. I couldn’t take it anymore. I tore the book out of her hands, leaping into the aisle to get away from her. She sprang to life like a jack-in-the-box, flying after me, snatching it back — but not before I caught a glimpse. Flipping to the last chapter I saw it there in plain, neat lettering, clearly printed:
By the end of the week, the last survivor had taken his own life.
The plane lurched as it deployed its wheels. Mariah closed the book and rubbed her eyes.
“That doesn’t make sense though,” I managed at last. “How am I supposed to write the book if I didn’t survive?”
She had no answers for me. The plane lurched again. And again. Then one more time, sudden and powerful. Those who weren’t in their seats were forced to cling onto something or tumble helplessly backwards. We had landed.
There were too many people blocking the windows for me to see where we were. The plane swiftly decelerated, bouncing and stuttering as it rolled across the uneven surface.
“What are you waiting for?” the young man asked the salt and pepper speaker. “It’s just a hallucination, right? Why not step outside and breathe the fresh air?”
The man forced a wan, uneasy smile. No-one moved.
“This is your Captain speaking,” the loudspeaker rang clear in the sudden silence. “I’ve got some good news, and I’ve got some bad news.” There was a long pause before he continued.
“The good news is for me. I’m having a great time, how about you folks?”
The angry silence somehow made a sound of its own. It was a bit like a hornet’s nest.
“Glad to hear it. The bad news is that this flight has been officially reclassified as a one-way ticket. Welcome to your final destination, Izganga Trapikoa. You are here because Hell is full and Delta doesn’t have service to Heaven.” The next silence was even louder. “I’m kidding! Kidding. Geez, tough crowd. Seriously now, you’re here for a very important reason.”
The pause was broken by the unmistakable hiss of air decompression. The airplane door was opening.
“You’re here because I like humans and wanted some of my own.”
“I told you it was an alien,” someone muttered behind me.
“Shut up, dumb-ass.”
Through the open door I could see a short stretch of dune leading into a dense thicket of unrecognizable underbrush. This close, it was clear that the “sand” was in a continual state of squirming and writhing, forming short-choppy waves almost like a storm ravaged sea.
Mariah was buried in the book once more. The way her hair cascaded around her ear to hang above the page was beautiful. There was something sacred in its familiar arc. If I focused on her — really narrowed in — it was almost like nothing except her was real at all. This is how she would look at home, sitting cross-legged by the window and concentrating so hard on her book that the rest of the world dissolved around her.
Something outside the door screamed. It was exactly like the scream on the loudspeaker that had played during the flight, only this time it was real and unfiltered, and so loud I could feel my blood resonate with it deep in my ear drum. Passengers all around me were clutching their heads, two of them closest to the door retching on the ground from the sheer overwhelming pressure of the sound. The scream terminated abruptly, and somewhere in the back of the plane I heard a child break into uncontrollable sobs.
Mariah though? She didn’t even look up. I wish I could concentrate like she could. I wish I could just make it all go away. Thank god that she wasn’t like me though, because shining through the pit of my despair was the mischievous flash of her subtle smile. It was the smile I fell in love with that said: I know something you don’t, and it’s going to change your world.
“I think I know how to get out of here,” she whispered. Right on cue.