Then they were rolling toward the United terminal, where at least a dozen planes were parked at extended jetways like nursing infants. The 767’s speed was down to just over thirty now.
“Brace yourselves!” Brian shouted into the intercom, momentarily forgetting that his own plane was now as dead as the rest of them and the intercom was useless. “Brace yourselves for a collision! Bra—”
American Pride 29 crashed into Gate 29 of the United Airlines terminal at roughly twenty-nine miles an hour. There was a loud, hollow bang followed by the sound of crumpling metal and breaking glass. Brian was thrown into his harness again, then snapped back into his seat. He sat there for a moment, stiff, waiting for the explosion... and then remembered there was nothing left in the tanks to explode.
He flicked all the switches on the control panel off — the panel was dead, but the habit ran deep — and then turned to check on Laurel. She looked at him with dull, apathetic eyes.
“That was about as close as I’d ever want to cut it,” Brian said unsteadily.
“You should have let us crash. Everything we tried... Dinah... Nick... all for nothing. It’s just the same here. Just the same.”
Brian unbuckled his harness and got shakily to his feet. He took his handkerchief out of his back pocket and handed it to her. “Wipe your nose. It’s bleeding.”
She took the handkerchief and then only looked at it, as if she had never seen one before in her life.
Brian passed her and plodded slowly into the main cabin. He stood in the doorway, counting noses. His passengers — those few still remaining, that was — seemed all right. Bethany’s head was pressed against Albert’s chest and she was sobbing hard. Rudy Warwick unbuckled his seatbelt, got up, rapped his head on the overhead bin, and sat down again. He looked at Brian with dazed, uncomprehending eyes. Brian found himself wondering if Rudy was still hungry. He guessed not.
“Let’s get off the plane,” Brian said.
Bethany raised her head. “When do they come?” she asked him hysterically. “How long will it be before they come this time? Can anyone hear them yet?”
Fresh pain stroked Brian’s head and he rocked on his feet, suddenly quite sure he was going to faint.
A steadying arm slipped around his waist and he looked around, surprised. It was Laurel.
“Captain Engle’s right,” she said quietly. “Let’s get off the plane. Maybe it’s not as bad as it looks.”
Bethany uttered a hysterical bark of laughter. “How bad can it look?” she demanded. “Just how bad can it—”
“Something’s different,” Albert said suddenly. He was looking out the window. “Something’s changed. I can’t tell what it is... but it’s not the same.” He looked first at Bethany, then at Brian and Laurel. “It’s just not the same.”
Brian bent down next to Bob Jenkins and looked out the window. He could see nothing very different from BIA — there were more planes, of course, but they were just as deserted, just as dead — yet he felt that Albert might be onto something, just the same. It was feeling more than seeing. Some essential difference which he could not quite grasp. It danced just beyond his reach, as the name of his ex-wife’s perfume had done.
It’s L’Envoi, darling. It’s what I’ve always worn, don’t you remember?
Don’t you remember?
“Come on,” he said. “This time we use the cockpit exit.”
Brian opened the trapdoor which lay below the jut of the instrument panel and tried to remember why he hadn’t used it to offload his passengers at Bangor International; it was a hell of a lot easier to use than the slide. There didn’t seem to be a why. He just hadn’t thought of it, probably because he was trained to think of the escape slide before anything else in an emergency.
He dropped down into the forward-hold area, ducked below a cluster of electrical cables, and undogged the hatch in the floor of the 767’s nose. Albert joined him and helped Bethany down. Brian helped Laurel, and then he and Albert helped Rudy, who moved as if his bones had turned to glass. Rudy was still clutching his rosary tight in one hand. The space below the cockpit was now very cramped, and Bob Jenkins waited for them above, propped on his hands and peering down at them through the trapdoor.
Brian pulled the ladder out of its storage clips, secured it in place, and then, one by one, they descended to the tarmac, Brian first, Bob last.
As Brian’s feet touched down, he felt a mad urge to place his hand over his heart and cry out: I claim this land of rancid milk and sour honey for the survivors of Flight 29... at least until the langoliers arrive!
He said nothing. He only stood there with the others below the loom of the jetliner’s nose, feeling a light breeze against one cheek and looking around. In the distance he heard a sound. It was not the chewing, crunching sound of which they had gradually become aware in Bangor — nothing like it — but he couldn’t decide exactly what it did sound like.
“What’s that?” Bethany asked. “What’s that humming? It sounds like electricity.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Bob said thoughtfully. “It sounds like..” He shook his head.
“It doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before,” Brian said, but he wasn’t sure if that was true. Again he was haunted by the sense that something he knew or should know was dancing just beyond his mental grasp.
“It’s them, isn’t it?” Bethany asked half-hysterically. “It’s them, coming. It’s the langoliers Dinah told us about.”
“I don’t think so. It doesn’t sound the same at all.” But he felt the fear begin in his belly just the same.
“Now what?” Rudy asked. His voice was as harsh as a crow’s. “Do we start all over again?”
“Well, we won’t need the conveyor belt, and that’s a start,” Brian said. “The jetway service door is open.” He stepped out from beneath the 767’s nose and pointed. The force of their arrival at Gate 29 had knocked the rolling ladder away from the door, but it would be easy enough to slip it back into position. “Come on.”
They walked toward the ladder.
“Albert?” Brian said. “Help me with the lad.”
“Wait,” Bob said.
Brian turned his head and saw Bob looking around with cautious wonder. And the expression in his previously dazed eyes... was that hope?
“What? What is it, Bob? What do you see?”
“Just another deserted airport. It’s what I feel.” He raised a hand to his cheek... then simply held it out in the air, like a man trying to flag a ride.
Brian started to ask him what he meant, and realized that he knew. Hadn’t he noticed it himself while they had been standing under the liner’s nose? Noticed it and then dismissed it?
There was a breeze blowing against his face. Not much of a breeze, hardly more than a puff, but it was a breeze. The air was in motion.
“Holy crow,” Albert said. He popped a finger into his mouth, wetting it, and held it up. An unbelieving grin touched his face.
“That isn’t all, either,” Laurel said. “Listen!”
She dashed from where they were standing down toward the 767’s wing.
Then she ran back to them again, her hair streaming out behind her. The high heels she was wearing clicked crisply on the concrete.
“Did you hear it?” she asked them. “Did you hear it?”
They had heard. The flat, muffled quality was gone. Now, just listening to Laurel speak, Brian realized that in Bangor they had all sounded as if they had been talking with their heads poked inside bells which had been cast from some dulling metal — brass, or maybe lead.
Bethany raised her hands and rapidly clapped out the backbeat of the old Routers’ instrumental, “Let’s Go.” Each clap was as clean and clear as the pop of a track-starter’s pistol. A delighted grin broke over her face.
“What does it m—” Rudy began.
“The plane!” Albert shouted in a high-pitched, gleeful voice, and for a moment Brian was absurdly reminded of the little guy on that old TV show, Fantasy Island. He almost laughed out loud. “I know what’s different! Look at the plane! Now it’s the same as all the others!”
They turned and looked. No one said anything for a long moment; perhaps no one was capable of speech. The Delta 727 standing next to the American Pride jetliner in Bangor had looked dull and dingy, somehow less real than the 767. Now all the aircraft — Flight 29 and the United planes lined up along the extended jetways behind it — looked equally bright, equally new. Even in the dark, their paintwork and trademark logos appeared to gleam.
“What does it mean?” Rudy asked, speaking to Bob. “What does it mean? If things have really gone back to normal, where’s the electricity? Where are the people?”
“And what’s that noise?” Albert put in.
The sound was already closer, already clearer. It was a humming sound, as Bethany had said, but there was nothing electrical about it. It sounded like wind blowing across an open pipe, or an inhuman choir which was uttering the same open-throated syllable in unison: aaaaaaa...
Bob shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said, turning away. “Let’s push that ladder back into position and go in—”
Laurel grabbed his shoulder.
“You know something!” she said. Her voice was strained and tense. “I can see that you do. Let the rest of us in on it, why don’t you?”
He hesitated for a moment before shaking his head. “I’m not prepared to say right now, Laurel. I want to go inside and look around first.”
With that they had to be content. Brian and Albert pushed the ladder back into position. One of the supporting struts had buckled slightly, and Brian held it as they ascended one by one. He himself came last, walking on the side of the ladder away from the buckled strut. The others had waited for him, and they walked up the jetway and into the terminal together.
They found themselves in a large, round room with boarding gates located at intervals along the single curving wall. The rows of seats stood ghostly and deserted, the overhead fluorescents were dark squares, but here Albert thought he could almost smell other people... as if they had all trooped out only seconds before the Flight 29 survivors emerged from the jetway.
From outside, that choral humming continued to swell, approaching like a slow invisible wave: — aaaaaaaaaaaaaa
“Come with me,” Bob Jenkins said, taking effortless charge of the group. “Quickly, please.”
He set off toward the concourse and the others fell into line behind him, Albert and Bethany walking together with arms linked about each others’ waists. Once off the carpeted surface of the United boarding lounge and in the concourse itself, their heels clicked and echoed, as if there were two dozen of them instead of only six. They passed dim, dark advertising posters on the walls: Watch CNN, Smoke Marlboros, Drive Hertz, Read Newsweek, See Disneyland.
And that sound, that open-throated choral humming sound, continued to grow. Outside, Laurel had been convinced the sound had been approaching them from the west. Now it seemed to be right in here with them, as though the singers — if they were singers — had already arrived. The sound did not frighten her, exactly, but it made the flesh of her arms and back prickle with awe.
They reached a cafeteria-style restaurant, and Bob led them inside. Without pausing, he went around the counter and took a wrapped pastry from a pile of them on the counter. He tried to tear it open with his teeth... then realized his teeth were back on the plane. He made a small, disgusted sound and tossed it over the counter to Albert.
“You do it,” he said. His eyes were glowing now. “Quickly, Albert! Quickly!”
“Quick, Watson, the game’s afoot!” Albert said, and laughed crazily. He tore open the cellophane and looked at Bob, who nodded. Albert took out the pastry and bit into it. Cream and raspberry jam squirted out the sides. Albert grinned. “Ith delicious!” he said in a muffled voice, spraying crumbs as he spoke. “Delicious!” He offered it to Bethany, who took an even larger bite.
Laurel could smell the raspberry filling, and her stomach made a goinging, boinging sound. She laughed. Suddenly she felt giddy, joyful, almost stoned. The cobwebs from the depressurization experience were entirely gone; her head felt like an upstairs room after a fresh sea breeze had blown in on a hot and horrible muggy afternoon. She thought of Nick, who wasn’t here, who had died so the rest of them could be here, and thought that Nick would not have minded her feeling this way.
The choral sound continued to swell, a sound with no direction at all, a sourceless, singing sigh that existed all around them:
Bob Jenkins raced back around the counter, cutting the corner by the cash register so tightly that his feet almost flew out from beneath him and he had to grab the condiments trolley to keep from falling. He stayed up but the stainless-steel trolley fell over with a gorgeous, resounding crash, spraying plastic cutlery and little packets of mustard, ketchup, and relish everywhere.
“Quickly!” he cried. “We can’t be here! It’s going to happen soon — at any moment, I believe — and we can’t be here when it does! I don’t think it’s safe!”
“What isn’t sa—” Bethany began, but then Albert put his arm around her shoulders and hustled her after Bob, a lunatic tour-guide who had already bolted for the cafeteria door.
They ran out, following him as he dashed for the United boarding lobby again. Now the echoing rattle of their footfalls was almost lost in the powerful hum which filled the deserted terminal, echoing and reechoing in the many throats of its spoked corridors.
Brian could hear that single vast vote beginning to break up. It was not shattering, not even really changing, he thought, but focussing, the way the sound of the langoliers had focussed as they approached Bangor.
As they re-entered the boarding lounge, he saw an ethereal light begin to skate over the empty chairs, the dark ARRIVALS and DEPARTURES TV monitors and the boarding desks. Red followed blue; yellow followed red; green followed yellow. Some rich and exotic expectation seemed to fill the air. A shiver chased through him; he felt all his body-hair stir and try to stand up. A clear assurance filled him like a morning sunray: We are on the verge of something — some great and amazing thing.
“Over here!” Bob shouted. He led them toward the wall beside the jetway through which they had entered. This was a passengers-only area, guarded by a red velvet rope. Bob jumped it as easily as the high-school hurdler he might once have been. “Against the wall!”
“Up against the wall, motherfuckers!” Albert cried through a spasm of sudden, uncontrollable laughter.
He and the rest joined Bob, pressing against the wall like suspects in a police line-up. In the deserted circular lounge which now lay before them, the colors flared for a moment... and then began to fade out. The sound, however, continued to deepen and become more real. Brian thought he could now hear voices in that sound, and footsteps, even a few fussing babies.