His mother was an alcoholic whose drinking had been controlled only by her fear of the man she had married. Once Roger Toomy was safely in the ground, where he could no longer search out her bottles and break them, or slap her and tell her to get hold of herself, for God’s sake, Catherine Toomy began her life’s work in earnest. She alternately smothered her son with affection and froze him with rejection, depending on how much gin was currently perking through her bloodstream. Her behavior was often odd and sometimes bizarre. On the day Craig turned ten, she placed a wooden kitchen match between two of his toes, lit it, and sang “Happy Birthday to You” while it burned slowly down toward his flesh. She told him that if he tried to shake it out or kick it loose, she would take him to THE ORPHAN’S HOME at once. The threat of THE ORPHAN’S HOME was a frequent one when Catherine Toomy was loaded. “I ought to, anyway,” she told him as she lit the match which stuck up between her weeping son’s toes like a skinny birthday candle. “You’re just like your father. He didn’t know how to have fun, and neither do you. You’re a bore, Craiggy-weggy.” She finished the song and blew out the match before the skin of Craig’s second and third right toes was more than singed, but Craig never forgot the yellow flame, the curling, blackening stick of wood, and the growing heat as his mother warbled “Happy birthday, dear Craiggy-weggy, happy birthday to yoooou” in her droning, off-key drunk’s voice.

Pressure.

Pressure in the trenches.

Craig Toomy continued to get all A’s, and he continued to spend a lot of time in his room. The place which had been his Coventry had become his refuge. Mostly he studied there, but sometimes — when things were going badly, when he felt pressed to the wall — he would take one piece of notepaper after another and tear them into narrow strips. He would let them flutter around his feet in a growing drift while his eyes stared out blankly into space. But these blank periods were not frequent. Not then.

He graduated valedictorian from high school. His mother didn’t come. She was drunk. He graduated ninth in his class from the UCLA Graduate School of Management. His mother didn’t come. She was dead. In the dark trench which existed in the center of his own heart, Craig was quite sure that the langoliers had finally come for her.

Craig went to work for the Desert Sun Banking Corporation of California as part of the executive training program. He did very well, which was not surprising; Craig Toomy had been built, after all, to get all A’s, built to thrive under the pressures which exist in the deep fathoms. And sometimes, following some small reverse at work (and in those days, only five short years ago, all the reverses had been small ones), he would go back to his apartment in Westwood, less than half a mile from the condo Brian Engle would occupy following his divorce, and tear small strips of paper for hours at a time. The paper-tearing episodes were gradually becoming more frequent.

During those five years, Craig ran the corporate fast truck like a greyhound chasing a mechanical rabbit. Water-cooler gossips speculated that he might well become the youngest vice-president in Desert Sun’s glorious forty-year history. But some fish are built to rise just so far and no further; they explode if they transgress their built-in limits.

Eight months ago, Craig Toomy had been put in sole charge of his first big project — the corporate equivalent of a master’s thesis. This project was created by the bonds department. Bonds — foreign bonds and junk bonds (they were frequently the same) — were Craig’s specialty. This project proposed buying a limited number of questionable South American bonds — sometimes called Bad Debt Bonds — on a carefully set schedule. The theory behind these buys was sound enough, given the limited insurance on them that was available, and the much larger tax-breaks available on turn-overs resulting in a profit (Uncle Sam was practically falling all over himself to keep the complex structure of South American indebtedness from collapsing like a house of cards). It just had to be done carefully.

Craig Toomy had presented a daring plan which raised a good many eyebrows. It centered upon a large buy of various Argentinian bonds, generally considered to be the worst of a bad lot. Craig had argued forcefully and persuasively for his plan, producing facts, figures, and projections to prove his contention that Argentinian bonds were a good deal more solid than they looked. In one bold stroke, he argued, Desert Sun could become the most important — and richest — buyer of foreign bonds in the American West. The money they made, he said, would be a lot less important than the long-run credibility they would establish.

After a good deal of discussion — some of it hot — Craig’s take on the project got a green light. Tom Holby, a senior vice-president, had drawn Craig aside after the meeting to offer congratulations... and a word of warning. “If this comes off the way you expect at the end of the fiscal year, you’re going to be everyone’s fair-haired boy. If it doesn’t, you are going to find yourself in a very windy place, Craig. I’d suggest that the next few months might be a good time to build a storm-shelter.”

“I won’t need a storm-shelter, Mr Holby,” Craig said confidently. “After this, what I’ll need is a hang-glider. This is going to be the bond-buy of the century — like finding diamonds at a barn-sale. Just wait and see.”

He had gone home early that night, and as soon as his apartment door was closed and triple-locked behind him, the confident smile had slipped from his face. What replaced it was that unsettling look of blankness. He had bought the news magazines on the way home. He took them into the kitchen, squared them up neatly in front of him on the table, and began to rip them into long, narrow strips. He went on doing this for over six hours. He ripped until Newsweek, Time, and US News & World Report lay in shreds on the floor all around him. His Gucci loafers were buried. He looked like the lone survivor of an explosion in a tickertape factory.

The bonds he had proposed buying — the Argentinian bonds in particular — were a much higher risk than he had let on. He had pushed his proposal through by exaggerating some facts, suppressing others... and even making some up out of whole cloth. Quite a few of these latter, actually. Then he had gone home, ripped strips of paper for hours, and wondered why he had done it. He did not know about the fish that exist in trenches, living their lives and dying their deaths without ever seeing the sun. He did not know that there are both fish and men whose bete notre is not pressure but the lack of it. He only knew that he had been under an unbreakable compulsion to buy those bonds, to paste a target on his own forehead.

Now he was due to meet with bond representatives of five large banking corporations at the Prudential Center in Boston. There would be much comparing of notes, much speculation about the future of the world bond market, much discussion about the buys of the last sixteen months and the result of those buys. And before the first day of the three-day conference was over, they would all know what Craig Toomy had known for the last ninety days: the bonds he had purchased were now worth less than six cents on the dollar. And not long after that, the top brass at Desert Sun would discover the rest of the truth: that he had bought more than three times as much as he had been empowered to buy. He had also invested every penny of his personal savings... not that they would care about that.

Who knows how the fish captured in one of those deep trenches and brought swiftly toward the surface — toward the light of a sun it has never suspected — may feel? Is it not at least possible that its final moments are filled with ecstasy rather than horror? That it senses the crushing reality of all that pressure only as it finally falls away? That it thinks — as far as fish may be supposed to think, that is — in a kind of joyous frenzy, I am free of that weight at last! in the seconds before it explodes? Probably not. Fish from those dark depths may not feel at all, at least not in any way we could recognize, and they certainly do not think... but people do.

Instead of feeling shame, Craig Toomy had been dominated by vast relief and a kind of hectic, horrified happiness as he boarded American Pride’s Flight 29 to Boston. He was going to explode, and he found he didn’t give a damn. In fact, he found himself looking forward to it. He could feel the pressure peeling away from all the surfaces of his skin as he rose toward the surface. For the first time in weeks, there had been no paper-ripping. He had fallen asleep before Flight 29 even left the gate, and he had slept like a baby until that blind little brat had begun to caterwaul.

And now they told him everything had changed, and that simply could not be allowed. It must not be allowed. He had been firmly caught in the net, had felt the dizzying rise and the stretch of his skin as it tried to compensate. They could not now change their minds and drop him back into the deeps.

Bangor?

Bangor, Maine?

Oh no. No indeed.

Craig Toomy was vaguely aware that most of the people on Flight 29 had disappeared, but he didn’t care. They weren’t the important thing. They weren’t part of what his father had always liked to call THE BIG PICTURE. The meeting at the Pru was part of THE BIG PICTURE.

This crazy idea of diverting to Bangor, Maine... whose scheme, exactly, had that been?

It had been the pilot’s idea, of course. Engle’s idea. The so-called captain. Engle, now... Engle might very well be part of THE BIG PICTURE. He might, in fact, be an AGENT OF THE ENEMY. Craig had suspected this in his heart from the moment when Engle had begun to speak over the intercom, but in this case he hadn’t needed to depend on his heart, had he? No indeed. He had been listening to the conversation between the skinny kid and the man in the fire-sale sport-coat. The man’s taste in clothes was terrible, but what he had to say made perfect sense to Craig Toomy... at least, up to a point.

In that case, the pilot would be one of us, the kid had said.

Yes and no, the guy in the fire-sale sport-coat had replied. In my scenario, the pilot is the pilot. The pilot who just happened to be on board, supposedly deadheading to Boston, the pilot who just happened to be sitting less than thirty feet from the cockpit door.

Engle, in other words.

And the other fellow, the one who had twisted Craig’s nose, was clearly in on it with him, serving as a kind of sky-marshal to protect Engle from anyone who happened to catch on.

He hadn’t eavesdropped on the conversation between the kid and the man in the fire-sale sport-coat much longer, because around that time the man in the fire-sale sport-coat stopped making sense and began babbling a lot of crazy shit about Denver and Des Moines and Omaha being gone. The idea that three large American cities could simply disappear was absolutely out to lunch... but that didn’t mean everything the old guy had to say was out to lunch.

It was an experiment, of course. That idea wasn’t silly, not a bit. But the old guy’s idea that all of them were test subjects was just more crackpot stuff.

Me, Craig thought. It’s me. I’m the test subject.

All his life Craig had felt himself a test subject in an experiment just like this one. This is a question, gentlemen, of ratio: pressure to success. The right ratio produces some x-factor. What x-factor? That is what our test subject, Mr Craig Toomy, will show us.

But then Craig Toomy had done something they hadn’t expected, something none of their cats and rats and guinea pigs had ever dared to do: he had told them he was pulling out.

But you can’t do that! You’ll explode!

Will I? Fine.

And now it had all become clear to him, so clear. These other people were either innocent bystanders or extras who had been hired to give this stupid little drama some badly needed verisimilitude. The whole thing had been rigged with one object in mind: to keep Craig Toomy away from Boston, to keep Craig Toomy from opting out of the experiment.

But I’ll show them, Craig thought. He pulled another sheet from the in-flight magazine and looked at it. It showed a happy man, a man who had obviously never heard of the langoliers, who obviously did not know they were lurking everywhere, behind every bush and tree, in every shadow, just over the horizon. The happy man was driving down a country road behind the wheel of his Avis rental car. The ad said that when you showed your American Pride Frequent Flier Card at the Avis desk, they’d just about give you that rental car, and maybe a game-show hostess to drive it, as well. He began to tear a strip of paper from the side of the glossy ad. The long, slow ripping sound was at the same time excruciating and exquisitely calming.

I’ll show them that when I say I’m getting out, I mean what I say.

He dropped the strip onto the floor and began on the next one. It was important to rip slowly. It was important that each strip should be as narrow as possible, but you couldn’t make them too narrow or they got away from you and petered out before you got to the bottom of the page. Getting each one just right demanded sharp eyes and fearless hands. And I’ve got them. You better believe it. You just better believe It.

Rii-ip.

I might have to kill the pilot.

His hands stopped halfway down the page. He looked out the window and saw his own long, pallid face superimposed over the darkness.

I might have to kill the Englishman, too.

Craig Toomy had never killed anyone in his life. Could he do it? With growing relief, he decided that he could. Not while they were still in the air, of course; the Englishman was very fast, very strong, and up here there were no weapons that were sure enough. But once they landed?

Yes. If I have to, yes.

After all, the conference at the Pru was scheduled to last for three days. It seemed now that his late arrival was unavoidable, but at least he would be able to explain: he had been drugged and taken hostage by a government agency. It would stun them. He could see their startled faces as he stood before them, the three hundred bankers from all over the country assembled to discuss bonds and indebtedness, bankers who would instead hear the dirty truth about what the government was up to. My friends, I was abducted by

Rii-ip.

— and was able to escape only when I

Rii-ip.

If I have to, I can kill them both. In fact, I can kill them all.

Craig Toomy’s hands began to move again. He tore off the rest of the strip, dropped it on the floor, and began on the next one. There were a lot of pages in the magazine, there were a lot of strips to each page, and that meant a lot of work lay ahead before the plane landed. But he wasn’t worried.