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Africa passed beneath them the next day while the contestants watched movies, talked, drank and napped. Now that they were getting close to the island it seemed that everyone was feeling their nerves a little. Even Caleb was subdued.
Finally, about the middle of the afternoon, Nate woke up from a nap and looked out his window to discover that they were once again flying over the ocean. Surely that meant they couldn’t have too much further to fly. He motioned Kelly over and ordered an espresso.
Kelly went into the galley. From where he was sitting, Nate could see the light on the phone that hung on the wall of the galley begin to blink. Kelly stopped and picked it up. She listened closely, her face growing worried. She hung up the phone as the plane began to bank to the right. Suddenly the pilot’s voice came over the speaker.
“This is your captain speaking. Can I have your attention, please?”
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An unmistakable tension in the man’s tone cut through Nate’s sleepiness and he sat up, suddenly alert. Others in the cabin did the same. Tony was fast asleep and Nate leaned over and shook him awake. “I think you want to hear this,” he said.
Tony sat up, rubbing his eyes and looking around as if he’d forgotten where he was. The plane had now turned completely around. “What is it? What’s going on?
“We will not be landing in Mahajanga,” the pilot said. “The airport there is closed. We are rerouting back to the mainland.” The speaker cut off.
“What’s wrong?” Tamara cried. “Why is the airport closed?”
“The Republic of Madagascar has closed its airports,” Kelly said. Her face was pale. She was still holding a towel from the galley and she twisted it in her hands as she spoke. “We’re going to have to try and land in Mozambique.”
“Why?” Nate demanded.
Kelly exchanged a look with Adam then looked back at the passengers. “It’s the…the terrorist attack,” she said. “It’s worse than we thought.”
“But the captain said – ”
“You said you’d tell us if there was anything else we needed to know.”
“I know. But until a few minutes ago Madagascar was still allowing planes to land at its airports. The captain felt there was no need to disturb – ”
“That’s bullshit!” Tamara exploded. “He should have told us.”
“Listen. Everyone just calm down,” Kelly said. “It’s going to be all right.”
“You keep saying that,” Tony said. “But that doesn’t make it so.”
“Just tell us what happened,” Jenna said.
“Get the captain out here,” Santiago demanded. “I want to hear this from him.”
“Please, sir, the captain is busy flying the plane.” She took a deep breath and made a visible effort to control herself. Adam came out of the galley then, his face ashen.
“The guy they caught in Chicago wasn’t the only one,” Adam said. “There were dozens of them in major airports all over the world. They released some kind of biological agent, infecting travelers in the airports. Those travelers then spread out all over the world. The first wave of illnesses was reported about eight hours ago, the first deaths about four hours ago. Most nations have closed their airports to stop the spread of the disease.” He looked like he was going to be sick. “It’s too late. It’s already spread too far.”
“Adam!” Kelly said sharply. “You don’t know that. You’re scaring them.”
“So what? I’m scared. I don’t give a shit if they’re scared.”
“Shut up! You’re making it worse.”
“People are dying by the thousands and I’m making it worse? Really?”
The cabin erupted in a furor. Everyone started talking at once. Kelly tried to shout over them, to get them calm, but everyone ignored her. Finally she went to the phone, picked it up and talked into it. A moment later the door of the cockpit opened and the captain emerged.
“Everyone shut up!” he yelled.
They fell silent and looked at him.
“Our first priority is getting this plane safely on the ground. In order to do that, I need to be in the cockpit helping fly this plane, not back here babysitting you. Is that clear?”
A few of them nodded. None spoke.
“That’s better,” he said, and went back into the cockpit.
“No fucking way,” Caleb said.
Tamara was shaking her head. “This can’t be happening. It can’t. I don’t believe it.”
Adam disappeared back into the galley. After a moment Kelly followed him. The door to the galley closed. Nate walked to the door and listened. Kelly hadn’t shut the door completely and through the crack he could see the two of them talking.
“Mozambique’s not going to allow us to land either,” Adam said.
“You don’t know that,” she replied.
“I do know it and so do you if you would stop deluding yourself.”
“I’m not deluding myself, I’m being professional. Which is what you should be doing.”
“Stop it!” Adam snapped, his voice rising. “Just give up the calm professional bullshit. We’re all fucked and you know it.”
“You don’t know that. Not for sure. Even if it’s true, those people need us to be calm. They need us to tell them they’re going to live through this.”
“I’m not going to lie to them!”
“Keep your voice down. They’ll hear.”
“So what? Why should I care if they hear or not?” He was practically yelling.
“Get a hold of yourself and do your job.”
“I don’t give a shit about the job. In case you didn’t hear, the world is coming to an end. I’m pretty sure that means this job is coming to an end as well.”
“You’re overreacting. The world is not coming to an end.”
“Didn’t you listen to the reports? The virus is spreading out of control.”
“Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But it’s like the captain said: our first priority is to get this plane safely on the ground. Having hysterical passengers won’t help that.”
“Where do you think we’re going to land? In a tree?”
“We’ll find somewhere.”
“We’ve got less than a half hour of fuel left. There’s nowhere else to go.”
At that moment Kelly looked over, saw Nate watching, and bit back on what she’d been about to say.
He pushed the door open the rest of the way. “Is it true? Only a half hour of fuel?” he asked.
“Maybe a little more,” she admitted. “But I’m confident the captain will put us down safely.” She shot a glance at Adam. “Even if we have to land in a tree.” She moved toward Nate and began shooing him out of the galley. “Please return to your seat, Mr. Devereaux. Buckle yourself in and remain calm.”
Nate allowed her to usher him back to his seat. It flashed into his mind that this couldn’t be happening. It couldn’t be real. Death was something that happened to other people, not him. Was he really going to die here, now? It didn’t seem possible. All his struggling, all his striving, all his planning. The one thing he had never planned for, never quite believed was possible, was that he would just simply die. Everything he’d dreamed of, gone in an instant.
The captain’s voice came over the loudspeaker.
“I’ve radioed the airport at Mtwara, in Tanzania. They are going to let us land.”
A sigh of relief passed through the cabin. Caleb called, “Stewardess! Another beer!” There were a few tentative smiles. Nate sat back in his seat with a silent prayer.
♦          ♦          ♦          ♦
Outside Nate’s window the coast of east Africa passed. White sand beaches. Thick, lush vegetation crouched around the edge. It looked beautiful, relaxing. Probably it wasn’t going to be all that bad, he told himself. Some people would die, but the authorities would get it under control. They’d find an antidote or they’d quarantine off the infected areas. The virus would run its course. He should be thankful he was here, rather than in LA. LA would probably be complete madness for a while. It was remote here, the ass-end of the world. Nobody flew to Tanzania; they probably wouldn’t be infected at all. He and the rest of the contestants would spend a few months in some tropical city, sitting in the shade drinking coconut milk or something, and when things settled down they would fly home on this same jet.
Tony leaned over to whisper to Nate. “I don’t think we’re going to make it to Tanzania.”
“But the captain said – ”
“Be real. He just said that so we wouldn’t freak out. Just like he didn’t tell us about the virus to keep us from freaking out. I spent some time researching Madagascar before I left home, looking at maps and stuff. We can’t make it to Tanzania in a half hour. Why do you think we’re flying so low? He’s looking for somewhere to land.”
“But it’s nothing but trees down there.”
“Yeah. No shit.”
“Do you know where we are now?”
“As best I can tell, we should be over Mwinda.”
“Mwinda? But isn’t that the country where it’s basically anarchy?”
“Pretty much. They’ve had a civil war going on for about twenty years. The place is a serious mess. We should hope we have enough fuel to at least get over Tanzania before we have to put down.”
Tony sat back in his seat and Nate looked out the window. He could see the blue expanse of the ocean off to the right and the white strip of the beach.
“Maybe we could land on the beach,” Nate said.
“That won’t work,” Tony replied. “Sand’s too soft. The wheels will dig in and the plane will flip.”
“The ocean?”
“That’s probably why we’re staying along the coast. If he doesn’t find anywhere to land he can always put down in the ocean.”
Jordynn had been listening in. “I can’t swim,” she said.
“You don’t have to,” Santiago told her. “They have life jackets on airplanes.”
“I wish I never would have gotten this role,” Jordynn said, wrapping her arms around herself.
“Would you rather be back in LA?” Santiago replied. “Where people are panicking, probably rioting like idiots always do when things go wrong? If we survive the crash, this is the best place to be. There’s no way the virus will spread out here to the middle of nowhere. All we have to do is wait it out. They’re probably overreacting anyway, like they did after 9/11. It’s probably anthrax or something. You will see. We’ll spend a couple weeks in some nameless town and then they’ll open up the airports and everything will go back to normal.”
Nate listened to Santiago. The man sounded so calm and rational. He wanted to believe him. He forced himself to take a few deep breaths, knowing he was breathing too fast. He looked over and saw Omisha. The Indian woman was rigid in her seat, her grip on the armrests so fierce her knuckles were white. A tear was running down her cheek.
“Hey,” he said. She turned toward him. “It’s going to be all right. You’ll see.” He didn’t really believe his own words, but the sight of her made him want to do something to help her. “The pilot’s ex-military.” He didn’t really know that for sure, but he’d read somewhere that most commercial pilots got their start in the military. “They practice this kind of thing. He’ll get us down okay.”
She nodded stiffly and tried to sit back a little in her seat. It might have been his imagination, but he thought maybe she’d relaxed just a little.
The minutes ticked by and no airport or even town appeared. Nate wanted to scream. It wasn’t possible. The world was full of people. How could this part of it be so empty?
All at once the engines cut out, the familiar, reassuring background roar suddenly gone.
♦          ♦          ♦          ♦
The jet lurched and started to lose altitude. Someone screamed. Nate heard someone saying “Ohshit ohshit ohshit” over and over again. The ground was coming up fast.
Then, blessed miracle, the engines came back on and the jet leveled out. Some of the weight on Nate’s heart eased and he could breathe again.
Kelly came through the cabin handing out inflatable life jackets. “Put these on. We may have to land in the water.” Caleb was closest to the exit and she showed him the emergency exit bar and the button to deploy the inflatable slide. Nate thought of all the times he’d sat through the flight attendant lectures on what to do in the event of a crash and paid no attention.
He found himself thinking about his mother. How long had it been since he’d talked to her? They’d never been close. She was always too engrossed in her art to pay much attention to the needs of a child. He’d left as soon as he could and never looked back, telling himself it didn’t matter anyway, that he preferred to be free of all the entanglements and drama that so many of his friends dealt with when it came to their families. Now he wondered if it had all been a mistake.
The engines cut out again. Someone was sobbing loudly. Santiago was cursing in Spanish. Nate knew he was hyperventilating but he couldn’t seem to help himself. The ground got closer. They flashed over a river. The jet began banking right as the pilot steered it toward the ocean.
The engines came back on and Nate nearly cried with relief. The plane gained precious altitude.
Then he heard someone yelling. “Over there! I see something! I think it’s a runway!” Everyone tried to look. Nate was fumbling with his seat belt when Kelly came on the intercom.
“Remain in your seats! Please!”
The jet banked to the left. A ragged cheer went up from the passengers. Nate tried to swallow but his mouth was too dry. He heard a woman praying in a language he didn’t recognize and looked over to see Omisha, her hands clasped before her, tears streaming down her face.
The jet bucked as the engines cut out again. They sputtered once and went dead for good. The jet began to dive.
Nate looked out his window, hoping they were over the airfield. The ground was getting very close, very fast, the trees flashing by in a blur. He gripped the armrests, trying to prepare himself for the impact. Would he die immediately, a sudden burst of pain and then nothing? Or would he lie broken and burned in the jungle and scream out his last moments?
At the end, the cabin became strangely quiet, the screams and sobbing and praying seeming to pause. It was so quiet Nate could hear the landing gear going down.
Thumping and cracking from below as they began to strike the tops of the tallest trees. Any second now. Nate braced himself.
The snapping of tree limbs stopped abruptly and a split second later there was impact. The jet struck the ground with bone-jarring force, bounced into the air, then struck again. It started to slide sideways, then the pilot straightened it out. There was a crash off to the right. The jet jerked that way…
And then it stopped.
“Oh my god,” someone said.
“Is everyone okay?” someone else asked. “Is anyone hurt?”
All of a sudden Nate wanted nothing more than to get off the jet as fast as he could. It took him several tries before he could work the catch on his seat belt, his hands were shaking so badly. He stood up and almost fell right back down, he was so dizzy from hyperventilating. He had a vague impression of others around him getting out of their seats also.
Before he could reach the door, Caleb had opened it and punched the button for the inflatable slide, which popped out with a hiss of released carbon dioxide. The big man jumped on the slide and disappeared from sight. Kelly was yelling something but no one paid any attention to her as they surged after Caleb. Nate wasn’t all the way off the slide when someone crashed into him from behind. He stumbled and fell in the dirt and just stayed there on his hands and knees, waiting for the shaking to pass, utterly relieved to be back on the ground.
Slowly he became aware of the others around him. Tony was lying flat on his back making a sound that could have been crying and could have been laughing but was neither. Jordynn was on her knees, eyes closed, tears streaming down her face. Caleb was kind of staggering around, rubbing his arms. Omisha was standing there, staring blankly at nothing, shivering. Tamara was weeping loudly. Santiago alone seemed unmoved. He stood there with his arms crossed, looking at them with disgust.
After a minute Nate got the shaking under control and he stood up and looked around. They were on a narrow dirt strip carved out of the thick trees. The trees were huge and dense. The sun was setting. The jet sat at an angle at the far edge of the runway, pressed back into the trees and tilted slightly. One of the tires was flat.
Jordynn stood up. She grabbed hold of Santiago’s arm. “I thought we were going to die.”
He ignored her, his attention on something off to the side. Nate turned to look.
♦          ♦          ♦          ♦
On the opposite side of the runway was a warehouse. The sole window was dark. On the roof were a satellite dish, an antenna and two rows of solar panels. On one end of the warehouse were a large propane tank and another metal tank. At the other end was what looked like a water tank.
Tony stood up. “What’s that doing here?” he asked.
“I think I hear a car,” Jenna said. She looked a lot calmer than Nate felt. She was standing next to Maha, who looked thoughtful, as if he’d just been through an interesting experience, rather than a terrifying one.
At the far end of the runway was a dirt road. The thick trees hid whatever was approaching but the sound of the engine was getting louder.
“Help is coming,” Tamara said. She wiped at her tears, patted her hair into place and straightened the short skirt she was wearing.
A minute later a beat up Toyota pickup appeared, two men visible in the cab. The Toyota slid to a halt in a cloud of dust at the far end of the airfield. As the dust settled, Nate noticed something in the bed of the truck. An alarm went off in his head. “Is that a…?”
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