“Are there such things?” Albert asked, fascinated.
“There are indeed,” Jenkins said. “Diazaline, for one. Methoprominol, for another. I remember when readers who liked to think of themselves as ‘serious-minded’ laughed at Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels. They called them panting melodrama at its most shameful.” Jenkins shook his head slowly. “Now, thanks to biological research and the paranoia of alphabet agencies like the CIA and the DIA, we’re living in a world that could be Sax Rohmer’s worst nightmare.”
“Diazaline, which is actually a nerve gas, would be best. It’s supposed to be very fast. After it is released into the air, everyone falls asleep, except for the pilot, who is breathing uncontaminated air through a mask.”
“But—” Albert began.
Jenkins smiled and raised a hand. “I know what your objection is, Albert, and I can explain it. Allow me?”
“The pilot lands the plane — at a secret airstrip in Nevada, let us say. The passengers who were awake when the gas was released — and the stewardesses, of course — are off-loaded by sinister men wearing white Andromeda Strain suits. The passengers who were asleep — you and I among them, my young friend — simply go on sleeping, only a little more deeply than before. The pilot then returns Flight 29 to its proper altitude and heading. He engages the autopilot. As the plane reaches the Rockies, the effects of the gas begin to wear off. Diazaline is a so-called clear drug, one that leaves no appreciable after-effects. No hangover, in other words. Over his intercom, the pilot can hear the little blind girl crying out for her aunt. He knows she will wake the others. The experiment is about to commence. So he gets up and leaves the cockpit, closing the door behind him.”
“How could he do that? There’s no knob on the outside.”
Jenkins waved a dismissive hand. “Simplest thing in the world, Albert. He uses a strip of adhesive tape, sticky side out. Once the door latches from the inside, it’s locked.”
A smile of admiration began to overspread Albert’s face — and then it froze. “In that case, the pilot would be one of us,” he said.
“Yes and no. In my scenario, Albert, the pilot is the pilot. The pilot who just happened to be on board, supposedly deadheading to Boston. The pilot who was sitting in first class, less than thirty feet from the cockpit door, when the manure hit the fan.”
“Captain Engle,” Albert said in a low, horrified voice.
Jenkins replied in the pleased but complacent tone of a geometry professor who has just written QED below the proof of a particularly difficult theorem. “Captain Engle,” he agreed.
Neither of them noticed Crew-Neck looking at them with glittering, feverish eyes. Now Crew-Neck took the in-flight magazine from the seatpocket in front of him, pulled off the cover, and began to tear it in long, slow strips. He let them flutter to the floor, where they joined the shreds of the cocktail napkin around his brown loafers. His lips were moving soundlessly.
Had Albert been a student of the New Testament, he would have understood how Saul, that most zealous persecutor of the early Christians, must have felt when the scales fell from his eyes on the road to Damascus. He stared at Robert Jenkins with shining enthusiasm, every vestige of sleepiness banished from his brain.
Of course, when you thought about it — or when somebody like Mr Jenkins, who was clearly a real head, ratty sport-coat or no ratty sport-coat, thought about it for you — it was just too big and too obvious to miss. Almost the entire cast and crew of American Pride’s Flight 29 had disappeared between the Mojave Desert and the Great Divide... but one of the few survivors just happened to be — surprise, surprise! — another American Pride pilot who was, in his own words, “qualified to fly this make and model — also to land it.”
Jenkins had been watching Albert closely, and now he smiled. There wasn’t much humor in that smile. “It’s a tempting scenario,” he said, “isn’t it?”
“We’ll have to capture him as soon as we land,” Albert said, scraping one hand feverishly up the side of his face. “You, me, Mr Gaffney, and that British guy. He looks tough. Only... what if the Brit’s in on it, too? He could be Captain Engle’s, you know, bodyguard. Just in case someone figured things out the way you did.”
Jenkins opened his mouth to reply, but Albert rushed on before he could.
“We’ll just have to put the arm on them both. Somehow.” He offered Mr Jenkins a narrow smile — an Ace Kaussner smile. Cool, tight, dangerous. The smile of a man who is faster than blue blazes, and knows it. “I may not be the world’s smartest guy, Mr Jenkins, but I’m nobody’s lab rat.”
“But it doesn’t stand up, you know,” Jenkins said mildly.
Albert blinked. “What?”
“The scenario I just outlined for you. It doesn’t stand up.”
“But — you said—”
“I said if it were just the plane, I could come up with a scenario. And I did. A good one. If it was a book idea, I’ll bet my agent could sell it. Unfortunately, it isn’t just the plane. Denver might still have been down there, but all the lights were off if it was. I have been coordinating our route of travel with my wristwatch, and I can tell you now that it’s not just Denver, either. Omaha, Des Moines — no sign of them down there in the dark, my boy. I have seen no lights at all, in fact. No farmhouses, no grain storage and shipping locations, no interstate turnpikes. Those things show up at night, you know — with the new high-intensity lighting, they show up very well, even when one is almost six miles up. The land is utterly dark. Now I can believe that there might be a government agency unethical enough to drug us all in order to observe our reactions. Hypothetically, at least. What I cannot believe is that even The Shop could have persuaded everyone over our flight-path to turn off their lights in order to reinforce the illusion that we are all alone.”
“Well... maybe it’s all a fake,” Albert suggested. “Maybe we’re really still on the ground and everything we can see outside the window is, you know, projected. I saw a movie something like that once.”
Jenkins shook his head slowly, regretfully. “I’m sure it was an interesting film, but I don’t believe it would work in real life. Unless our theoretical secret agency has perfected some sort of ultra-wide-screen 3-D projection, I think not. Whatever is happening is not just going on inside this plane, Albert, and that is where deduction breaks down.”
“But the pilot!” Albert said wildly. “What about him just happening to be here at the right place and time?”
“Are you a baseball fan, Albert?”
“Huh? No. I mean, sometimes I watch the Dodgers on TV, but not really.”
“Well, let me tell you what may be the most amazing statistic ever recorded in a game which thrives on statistics. In 1957, Ted Williams reached base on sixteen consecutive at-bats. This streak encompassed six baseball games. In 1941, Joe DiMaggio batted safely in fifty-six straight games, but the odds against what DiMaggio did pale next to the odds against Williams’s accomplishment, which have been put somewhere in the neighborhood of two billion to one. Baseball fans like to say DiMaggio’s streak will never be equalled. I disagree. But I’d be willing to bet that, if they’re still playing baseball a thousand years from now, Williams’s sixteen on-bases in a row will still stand.”
“All of which means what?”
“It means that I believe Captain Engle’s presence on board tonight is nothing more or less than an accident, like Ted Williams’s sixteen consecutive on-bases. And, considering our circumstances, I’d say it’s a very lucky accident indeed. If life was like a mystery novel, Albert, where coincidence is not allowed and the odds are never beaten for long, it would be a much tidier business. I’ve found, though, that in real life coincidence is not the exception but the rule.”
“Then what is happening?” Albert whispered.
Jenkins uttered a long, uneasy sigh. “I’m the wrong person to ask, I’m afraid. It’s too bad Larry Niven or John Varley isn’t on board.”
“Who are those guys?”
“Science-fiction writers,” Jenkins said.
“I don’t suppose you read science fiction, do you?” Nick Hopewell asked suddenly. Brian turned around to look at him. Nick had been sitting quietly in the navigator’s seat since Brian had taken control of Flight 29, almost two hours ago now. He had listened wordlessly as Brian continued trying to reach someone — anyone — on the ground or in the air.
“I was crazy about it as a kid,” Brian said. “You?”
Nick smiled. “Until I was eighteen or so, I firmly believed that the Holy Trinity consisted of Robert Heinlein, John Christopher, and John Wyndham. I’ve been sitting here and running all those old stories through my head, matey. And thinking about such exotic things as time-warps and space-warps and alien raiding parties.”
Brian nodded. He felt relieved; it was good to know he wasn’t the only one who was thinking crazy thoughts.
“I mean, we don’t really have any way of knowing if anything is left down there, do we?”
“No,” Brian said. “We don’t.”
Over Illinios, low-lying clouds had blotted out the dark bulk of the earth far below the plane. He was sure it still was the earth — the Rockies had looked reassuringly familiar, even from 36,000 feet — but beyond that he was sure of nothing. And the cloud cover might hold all the way to Bangor. With Air Traffic Control out of commission, he had no real way of knowing. Brian had been playing with a number of scenarios, and the most unpleasant of the lot was this: that they would come out of the clouds and discover that every sign of human life — including the airport where he hoped to land — was gone. Where would he put this bird down then?
“I’ve always found waiting the hardest part,” Nick said.
The hardest part of what? Brian wondered, but he did not ask.
“Suppose you took us down to 5,000 feet or so?” Nick proposed suddenly. “Just for a quick look-see. Perhaps the sight of a few small towns and interstate highways will set our minds at rest.”
Brian had already considered this idea. Had considered it with great longing. “It’s tempting,” he said, “but I can’t do it.”
“The passengers are still my first responsibility, Nick. They’d probably panic, even if I explained what I was going to do in advance. I’m thinking of our loudmouth friend with the pressing appointment at the Pru in particular. The one whose nose you twisted.”
“I can handle him,” Nick replied. “Any others who cut up rough, as well.”
“I’m sure you can,” Brian said, “but I still see no need of scaring them unnecessarily. And we will find out, eventually. We can’t stay up here forever, you know.”
“Too true, matey,” Nick said dryly.
“I might do it anyway, if I could be sure I could get under the cloud cover at 4000 or 5000 feet, but with no ATC and no other planes to talk to, I can’t be sure. I don’t even know for sure what the weather’s like down there, and I’m not talking about normal stuff, either. You can laugh at me if you want to—”
“I’m not laughing, matey. I’m not even close to laughing. Believe me.”
“Well, suppose we have gone through a time-warp, like in a science-fiction story? What if I took us down through the clouds and we got one quick look at a bunch of brontosauruses grazing in some Farmer John’s field before we were torn apart by a cyclone or fried in an electrical storm?”
“Do you really think that’s possible?” Nick asked. Brian looked at him closely to see if the question was sarcastic. It didn’t appear to be, but it was hard to tell. The British were famous for their dry sense of humor, weren’t they?
Brian started to tell him he had once seen something just like that on an old Twilight Zone episode and then decided it wouldn’t help his credibility at all. “It’s pretty unlikely, I suppose, but you get the idea — we just don’t know what we’re dealing with. We might hit a brand-new mountain in what used to be upstate New York. Or another plane. Hell — maybe even a rocket-shuttle. After all, if it’s a time-warp, we could as easily be in the future as in the past.”
Nick looked out through the window. “We seem to have the sky pretty much to ourselves.”
“Up here, that’s true. Down there, who knows? And who knows is a very dicey situation for an airline pilot. I intend to overfly Bangor when we get there, if these clouds still hold. I’ll take us out over the Atlantic and drop under the ceiling as we head back. Our odds will be better if we make our initial descent over water.”
“So for now, we just go on.”
Nick sighed. “Well, you’re the captain.”
Brian smiled. “That’s three in a row.”
Deep in the trenches carved into the floors of the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, there are fish which live and die without ever seeing or sensing the sun. These fabulous creatures cruise the depths like ghostly balloons, lit from within by their own radiance. Although they look delicate, they are actually marvels of biological design, built to withstand pressures that would squash a man as flat as a windowpane in the blink of an eye. Their great strength, however, is also their great weakness. Prisoners of their own alien bodies, they are locked forever in their dark depths. If they are captured and drawn toward the surface, toward the sun, they simply explode. It is not external pressure that destroys them, but its absence.
Craig Toomy had been raised in his own dark trench, had lived in his own atmosphere of high pressure. His father had been an executive in the Bank of America, away from home for long stretches of time, a caricature type-A overachiever. He drove his only child as furiously and as unforgivingly as he drove himself. The bedtime stories he told Craig in Craig’s early years terrified the boy. Nor was this surprising, because terror was exactly the emotion Roger Toomy meant to awaken in the boy’s breast. These tales concerned themselves, for the most part, with a race of monstrous beings called the langoliers.
Their job, their mission in life (in the world of Roger Toomy, everything had a job, everything had serious work to do), was to prey on lazy, time-wasting children. By the time he was seven, Craig was a dedicated type-A overachiever, just like Daddy. He had made up his mind: the langoliers were never going to get him.
A report card which did not contain all A’s was an unacceptable report card. An Awas the subject of a lecture fraught with dire warnings of what life would be like digging ditches or emptying garbage cans, and a B resulted in punishment — most commonly confinement to his room for a week. During that week, Craig was allowed out only for school and for meals. There was no time off for good behavior. On the other hand, extraordinary achievement — the time Craig won the tri-school decathlon, for instance — warranted no corresponding praise. When Craig showed his father the medal which had been awarded him on that occasion — in an assembly before the entire student body — his father glanced at it, grunted once, and went back to his newspaper. Craig was nine years old when his father died of a heart attack. He was actually sort of relieved that the Bank of America’s answer to General Patton was gone.