But none of that was there. All the grackles had flown, it seemed, and the telephone lines were bare.
He flicked back to the FAA emergency band. “Denver, come in! Come in right now! This is AP Flight 29, you answer me, goddammit!”
Nick touched his shoulder. “Easy, mate.”
“The dog won’t bark!” Brian said frantically. “That’s impossible, but that’s what’s happening! Christ, what did they do, have a fucking nuclear war?”
“Easy,” Nick repeated. “Steady down, Brian, and tell me what you mean, the dog won’t bark.”
“I mean Denver Control!” Brian said. “That dog! I mean FAA Emergency! That dog! UNICOM, that dog, too! I’ve never—”
He flicked another switch. “Here,” he said, “this is the medium shortwave band. They should be jumping all over each other like frogs on a hot sidewalk, but I can’t pick up jack shit.”
He flicked another switch, then looked up at Nick and Albert Kaussner, who had crowded in close. “There’s no VOR beacon out of Denver,” he said.
“Meaning I have no radio, I have no Denver navigation beacon, and my board says everything is just peachy keen. Which is crap. Got to be.”
A terrible idea began to surface in his mind, coming up like a bloated corpse rising to the top of a river.
“Hey, kid — look out the window. Left side of the plane. Tell me what you see.”
Albert Kaussner looked out. He looked out for a long time. “Nothing,” he said. “Nothing at all. Just the last of the Rockies and the beginning of the plains.”
Brian got up on legs which felt weak and watery. He stood looking down for a long time.
At last Nick Hopewell said quietly, “Denver’s gone, isn’t it?”
Brian knew from the navigator’s charts and his on-board navigational equipment that they should now be flying less than fifty miles south of Denver... but below them he saw only the dark, featureless landscape that marked the beginning of the Great Plains.
“Yes,” he said. “Denver’s gone.”
There was a moment of utter silence in the cockpit, and then Nick Hopewell turned to the peanut gallery, currently consisting of Albert, the man in the ratty sport-coat, and the young girl. Nick clapped his hands together briskly, like a kindergarten teacher. He sounded like one, too, when he spoke. “All right, people! Back to your seats. I think we need a little quiet here.”
“We are being quiet,” the girl objected, and reasonably enough.
“I believe that what the gentleman actually means isn’t quiet but a little privacy,” the man in the ratty sport-coat said. He spoke in cultured tones, but his soft, worried eyes were fixed on Brian.
“That’s exactly what I mean,” Nick agreed. “Please?”
“Is he going to be all right?” the man in the ratty sport-coat asked in a low voice. “He looks rather upset.”
Nick answered in the same confidential tone. “Yes,” he said. “He’ll be fine. I’ll see to it.”
“Come on, children,” the man in the ratty sport-coat said. He put one arm around the girl’s shoulders, the other around Albert’s. “Let’s go back and sit down. Our pilot has work to do.”
They need not have lowered their voices even temporarily as far as Brian Engle was concerned. He might have been a fish feeding in a stream while a small flock of birds passes overhead. The sound may reach the fish, but he certainly attaches no significance to it. Brian was busy working his way through the radio bands and switching from one navigational touchpoint to another. It was useless. No Denver; no Colorado Springs; no Omaha. All gone.
He could feel sweat trickling down his cheeks like tears, could feel his shirt sticking to his back.
I must smell like a pig, he thought, or a—
Then inspiration struck. He switched to the military-aircraft band, although regulations expressly forbade his doing so. The Strategic Air Command practically owned Omaha. They would not be off the air. They might tell him to get the fuck off their frequency, would probably threaten to report him to the FAA, but Brian would accept all this cheerfully. Perhaps he would be the first to tell them that the city of Denver had apparently gone on vacation.
“Air Force Control, Air Force Control, this is American Pride Flight 29 and we have a problem here, a big problem here, do you read me? Over.”
No dog barked there, either.
That was when Brian felt something — something like a bolt — starting to give way deep inside his mind. That was when he felt his entire structure of organized thought begin to slide slowly toward some dark abyss.
Nick Hopewell clamped a hand on him then, high up on his shoulder, near the neck. Brian jumped in his seat and almost cried out aloud. He turned his head and found Nick’s face less than three inches from his own.
Now he’ll grab my nose and start to twist it, Brian thought.
Nick did not grab his nose. He spoke with quiet intensity, his eyes fixed unflinchingly on Brian’s. “I see a look in your eyes, my friend... but I didn’t need to see your eyes to know it was there. I can hear it in your voice and see it in the way you’re sitting in your seat. Now listen to me, and listen well: panic is not allowed.”
Brian stared at him, frozen by that blue gaze.
“Do you understand me?”
He spoke with great effort. “They don’t let guys do what I do for a living if they panic, Nick.”
“I know that,” Nick said, “but this is a unique situation. You need to remember, however, that there are a dozen or more people on this plane, and your job is the same as it ever was: to bring them down in one piece.”
“You don’t need to tell me what my job is!” Brian snapped.
“I’m afraid I did,” Nick said, “but you’re looking a hundred per cent better now, I’m relieved to say.”
Brian was doing more than looking better; he was starting to feel better again. Nick had stuck a pin into the most sensitive place — his sense of responsibility. Just where he meant to stick me, he thought.
“What do you do for a living, Nick?” he asked a trifle shakily.
Nick threw back his head and laughed. “Junior attache, British embassy, old man.”
“My aunt’s hat.”
Nick shrugged. “Well... that’s what it says on my papers, and I reckon that’s good enough. If they said anything else, I suppose it would be Her Majesty’s Mechanic. I fix things that need fixing. Right now that means you.”
“Thank you,” Brian said touchily, “but I’m fixed.”
“All right, then — what do you mean to do? Can you navigate without those ground-beam thingies? Can you avoid other planes?”
“I can navigate just fine with on-board equipment,” Brian said. “As for other planes—” He pointed at the radar screen. “This bastard says there aren’t any other planes.”
“Could be there are, though,” Nick said softly. “Could be that radio and radar conditions are snafued, at least for the time being. You mentioned nuclear war, Brian. I think if there had been a nuclear exchange, we’d know. But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been some sort of accident. Are you familiar with the phenomenon called the electromagnetic pulse?”
Brian thought briefly of Melanie Trevor. Oh, and we’ve had reports of the aurora borealis over the Mojave Desert. You might want to stay awake for that.
Could that be it? Some freakish weather phenomenon?
He supposed it was just possible. But, if so, how come he heard no static on the radio? How come there was no wave interference across the radar screen? Why just this dead blankness? And he didn’t think the aurora borealis had been responsible for the disappearance of a hundred and fifty to two hundred passengers.
“Well?” Nick asked.
“You’re some mechanic, Nick,” Brian said at last, “but I don’t think it’s EMP. All on-board equipment — including the directional gear — seems to be working just fine.” He pointed to the digital compass readout. “If we’d experienced an electromagnetic pulse, that baby would be all over the place. But it’s holding dead steady.”
“So. Do you intend to continue on to Boston?”
Do you intend... ?
And with that, the last of Brian’s panic drained away. That’s right, he thought. I’m the captain of this ship now... and in the end, that’s all it comes down to. You should have reminded me of that in the first place, my friend, and saved us both a lot of trouble.
“Logan at dawn, with no idea what’s going on in the country below us, or the rest of the world? No way.”
“Then what is our destination? Or do you need time to consider that matter?”
Brian didn’t. And now the other things he needed to do began to click into place.
“I know,” he said. “And I think it’s time to talk to the passengers. The few that are left, anyway.”
He picked up the microphone, and that was when the bald man who had been sleeping in the business section poked his head into the cockpit. “Would one of you gentlemen be so kind as to tell me what’s happened to all the service personnel on this craft?” he asked querulously. “I’ve had a very nice nap... but now I’d like my dinner.”
Dinah Bellman felt much better. It was good to have other people around her, to feel their comforting presence. She was sitting in a small group with Albert Kaussner, Laurel Stevenson, and the man in the ratty sport-coat, who had introduced himself as Robert Jenkins. He was, he said, the author of more than forty mystery novels, and had been on his way to Boston to address a convention of mystery fans.
“Now,” he said, “I find myself involved in a mystery a good deal more extravagant than any I would ever have dared to write.”
These four were sitting in the center section, near the head of the main cabin. The man in the crew-neck jersey sat in the starboard aisle, several rows down, holding a handkerchief to his nose (which had actually stopped bleeding several minutes ago) and fuming in solitary splendor. Don Gaffney sat nearby, keeping an uneasy watch on him. Gaffney had only spoken once, to ask Crew-Neck what his name was. Crew-Neck had not replied. He simply fixed Gaffney with a gaze of baleful intensity over the crumpled bouquet of his handkerchief.
Gaffney had not asked again.
“Does anyone have the slightest idea of what’s going on here?” Laurel almost pleaded. “I’m supposed to be starting my first real vacation in ten years tomorrow, and now this happens.”
Albert happened to be looking directly at Miss Stevenson as she spoke. As she dropped the line about this being her first real vacation in ten years, he saw her eyes suddenly shift to the right and blink rapidly three or four times, as if a particle of dust had landed in one of them. An idea so strong it was a certainty rose in his mind: the lady was lying. For some reason, the lady was lying. He looked at her more closely and saw nothing really remarkable — a woman with a species of fading prettiness, a woman falling rapidly out of her twenties and toward middle age (and to Albert, thirty was definitely where middle age began), a woman who would soon become colorless and invisible. But she had color now; her cheeks flamed with it. He didn’t know what the lie meant, but he could see that it had momentarily refreshed her prettiness and made her nearly beautiful.
There’s a lady who should lie more often, Albert thought. Then, before he or anyone else could reply to her, Brian’s voice came from the overhead speakers.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain.”
“Captain my ass,” Crew-Neck snarled.
“Shut up!” Gaffney exclaimed from across the aisle.
Crew-Neck looked at him, startled, and subsided.
“As you undoubtedly know, we have an extremely odd situation on our hands here,” Brian continued. “You don’t need me to explain it; you only have to look around yourselves to understand.”
“I don’t understand anything,” Albert muttered.
“I know a few other things, as well. They won’t exactly make your day, I’m afraid, but since we’re in this together, I want to be as frank as I possibly can. I have no cockpit-to-ground communication. And about five minutes ago we should have been able to see the lights of Denver clearly from the airplane. We couldn’t. The only conclusion I’m willing to draw right now is that somebody down there forgot to pay the electricity bill. And until we know a little more, I think that’s the only conclusion any of us should draw.”
He paused. Laurel was holding Dinah’s hand. Albert produced a low, awed whistle. Robert Jenkins, the mystery writer, was staring dreamily into space with his hands resting on his thighs.
“All of that is the bad news,” Brian went on. “The good news is this: the plane is undamaged, we have plenty of fuel, and I’m qualified to fly this make and model. Also to land it. I think we’ll all agree that landing safely is our first priority. There isn’t a thing we can do until we accomplish that, and I want you to rest assured that it will be done.”
“The last thing I want to pass on to you is that our destination will now be Bangor, Maine.”
Crew-Neck sat up with a jerk. “Whaaat?” he bellowed.
“Our in-flight navigation equipment is in five-by-five working order, but I can’t say the same for the navigational beams — VOR — which we also use. Under these circumstances, I have elected not to enter Logan airspace. I haven’t been able to raise anyone, in air or on ground, by radio. The aircraft’s radio equipment appears to be working, but I don’t feel I can depend on appearances in the current circumstances. Bangor International Airport has the following advantages: the short approach is over land rather than water; air traffic at our ETA, about 8:30 A.M., will be much lighter — assuming there’s any at all; and BIA, which used to be Dow Air Force Base, has the longest commercial runway on the East Coast of the United States. Our British and French friends land the Concorde there when they can’t get into New York.”
Crew-Neck bawled: “I have an important business meeting at the Pru this morning at nine o’clock AND I FORBID YOU TO FLY INTO SOME DIPSHIT MAINE AIRPORT!”
Dinah jumped and then cringed away from the sound of Crew-Neck’s voice, pressing her cheek against the side of Laurel Stevenson’s breast. She was not crying — not yet, anyway — but Laurel felt her chest begin to hitch.
“DO YOU HEAR ME?” Crew-Neck was bellowing. “I AM DUE IN BOSTON TO DISCUSS AN UNUSUALLY LARGE BOND TRANSACTION, AND I HAVE EVERY INTENTION OF ARRIVING AT THAT MEETING ON TIME!” He unlatched his seatbelt and began to stand up. His cheeks were red, his brow waxy white. There was a blank look in his eyes which Laurel found extremely frightening. “Do You UNDERSTA—”
“Please,” Laurel said. “Please, mister, you’re scaring the little girl.”
Crew-Neck turned his head and that unsettling blank gaze fell on her. Laurel could have waited. “SCARING THE LITTLE GIRL? WE’RE DIVERTING TO SOME TINPOT, CHICKEN-SHIT AIRPORT IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, AND ALL YOU’VE GOT TO WORRY ABOUT IS—”