Friday, November 13, 2009

Echelon: Chapter 1

Mathew King could feel the sweat on his fingers as he typed. This whole ordeal would soon be over, one way or another, and he could only hope it worked out his way. Everything in the airplane cabin was soaked in sunlight from the windows. He leaned in close so he could see the screen on his laptop, resting on the food tray. Next to him a woman who couldn’t have been more than twenty-five was bouncing an infant on one knee while simultaneously trying to screw the nipple onto a formula bottle. The infant batted at the bottle, unwilling to open her mouth. “Come on, darling. Just a little more and you’ll be ready for your nap. Just a little more. Here comes the choo-choo train...”

King tried to ignore them as best he could. His fingers continued to fly over the keyboard. Beside him, the infant gurgled and belched, then finally seemed to be placated. He was certain that would change the moment the engines roared for takeoff, but for the moment it was obligingly quiet.

He continued to work, trying to find out if and how they were gong to come after him. Regardless, his life was effectively over. His wife, the kids, they would all have to leave Virginia immediately. But him first, of course. Like the stewardess had said during their preflight instructions, you had to save yourself before you could help anyone else.

If they only knew.

Even now he was surprised by how at ease everyone was. It might not be as bad as before the terrorist attacks, but still, flight attendants were chatting idly with one another, and King had even seen the pilot flirting with one of the passengers before the flight had gotten underway. It all struck him as very unprofessional, and unsecure. Probably the crew did that type of thing to stay fresh. Even pilots must have to stretch their legs once in a while. But he was certain that if the crew had any idea who he was, or who was after him, they too would have sweat dripping down their skin.

With a lurch that shook his laptop, the airplane began to taxi backwards. The woman beside him was shifting around, and instinctively King turned to look at her. She had put the baby back onto her lap and was looking out the window. The baby stared up at him with that half curious, half astonished look that infants got.

“Sir, you’re going to have to close that during takeoff,” an attendant’s voice came from the aisle. He turned to see her indicating his laptop. “It interferes with the radio communications.”

That was bull, he knew. The reason that all electronic devices had to be turned off during takeoff and landing cycles was because of terrorism. Most attacks on aircraft occurred during or near takeoffs and landings. Not being forced to monitor CD players, laptop computers, and Gameboys made it easier for the attendants and the Air Marshall to watch the passengers for suspicious activity. In the 80’s there might have been an actual risk of radio disruption, but in the digital world of the new millennium, such interference just wasn’t possible.

However, in the post 9/11 world, you also didn’t argue with flight attendants, so King smiled and closed the screen on his notebook. That didn’t actually shut it down, of course. Instead, it went into its partial hibernation mode, ready to flicker back when he reopened the screen. The stewardess didn’t seem to know that, however, and she thanked him and moved down the aisle.

Beside him, the baby smiled and blew bubbles with her spit. The mother turned and saw him looking, and she favored him with a grin. “Nervous flier?”

“No more so than most people,” he answered automatically. Despite everything that had happened, his training still took over. Answer in a way that doesn’t draw attention. Be charming, but forgettable. Be funny, but not memorably so. “I guess I just prefer to be on the ground.”

The woman nodded seriously. “This is my first time flying.”

“You’re handling it very well,” King said absently. How long until the flight attendants were done with their rounds and strapped themselves in? Then he could open the laptop and finish checking the military radio bands.

“Having Jessica here helps,” the woman said, nodding towards the infant. “When she’s keeping me busy I don’t have time to imagine all the terrible things that could happen.”

“She’s a beautiful baby,” King said. The airplane shuddered to a halt, no longer reversing. With the barest of vibrations, it began to turn forwards toward the runway field. He leaned to peer over the chairs. He couldn’t see any of the crew, so he reached for the laptop and flipped it open.

“You’re not supposed to do that,” the woman beside him said sharply. King looked over to see her staring at him nervously. “The attendant said it screws up communications with the tower.”

“It’s okay,” he said, putting a soothing tone into the voice. “That’s only when they’re emitting wireless internet signals, and this one doesn’t have a wireless card.” He reached over and tickled the infant under the chin. “We’re not going to let anything get in the way of Jessica’s first flight, are we?”

“Are you sure it’s safe?”

“I work in the flight industry,” King lied to her, anything to shut her up and let him get back to work. “Believe me, I wouldn’t do anything to endanger one of my birds.”

That seemed to placate her. She continued to glance nervously at the notebook as he resumed typing, but when nothing happened and no attendants came running she went back to her infant.

The military bands were quiet, aside from a slight uptick at an Air Force base one state over. It’s probably a training exercise, he thought. Certainly there was nothing in the satellite data to indicate any serious activity.

The takeoff went smoothly. The woman was predictably nervous during the procedure. She had gone stiff and ignored the infant’s wailing once the engines geared up. During liftoff she had reached over and dug her nails into his arm. Soon they had reached cruising altitude. The woman retracted her claws and King finally began to relax.

He had participated in flight sabotages in the past. King himself had organized a rather notorious incident in Minnesota, though that plane had been a single engine Cessna carrying only a Senator and his family, nothing like this monster Boeing 747.

Still, he thought again that the easiest time to carry out an attack on a flight was right before or during takeoff. Not because the plane was more vulnerable during those times, but rather because there was so much else going on upon which to lay blame for the ensuing tragedy.

To his side, as if agreeing that they were now out of danger, the infant was sleeping on the woman’s shoulder, blissfully making sucking motions with her mouth. Things were finally becoming calm.

Abruptly the plane shuddered and began to turn towards the Potomac River. It was severe enough that King could feel his seatbelt digging into his stomach. He heard the dull thuds of the overhead luggage knocking around and the passengers began whispering to one another.

The pilot’s voice came over the intercom after a brief crackle. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you will return to your seats and please secure your seatbelts, we are going to be momentarily delayed. We have been diverted by the United States Air Force to avoid flying into one of their training exercises. We should be back on course shortly.”

King began sweating again. Something was wrong, he was sure of it. From the front of the plane, he heard heated chatter, different than the calm tone the pilot had used over the intercom. He worked at the laptop again, updating his satellite images. In the last twenty minutes, the chatter ticker had spiked at the nearby Air Force base. There was also corresponding activity from the runways. They were moving quickly and the satellite images he had access to only took a picture every twelve seconds, but it looked like two F-16 Tomcats had made liftoff. Their pilot might have been informed correctly. Maybe those two Tomcats were indeed running a training drill near Washington D.C. airspace. It wasn’t unheard of, particularly in the years since 9/11.

But King couldn’t stop sweating.

After several more minutes, the plane banked again. More shouts came from the front of the plane, this time louder. “I’m running out of land. Where are you guiding me,” he heard the pilot shout. When he looked out the window, King was startled to see the ocean, flat and blue. They appeared to be heading over the water. Why?

To minimize collateral damage, he thought. There were no houses or offices for the plane to fall on over the Atlantic.

Immediately he pulled his carryon bag from under the chair and stuffed the laptop inside. Then he stood and started up the aisle. Predictably, one of the stewardesses stepped to block his path.

“Sir, the fasten seat belt sign is-,” she began, then screamed as he shoved her to the side and continued on.

When he arrived at the cockpit door, he found the Air Marshall standing with his sidearm drawn. “Stop right there. On the ground, face down.”

King took another step forward. “Tell the pilot he has to land the plane. Get us back over land, and get us on the ground.”

“I said down!” The Air Marshall made a deliberate show of clicking off the safety.

“Idiot, you’re already dead,” King said and turned to walk back to the rear of the plane. It was rare, and he wasn’t sure if they were high enough for a jump anyway, but occasionally there were crew parachutes at the back of the coach cabin.

The Air Marshall followed him cautiously, repeating his order to get down and warning him not to harm any of the passengers in the aisles. King glanced back occasionally to make sure he wouldn’t be rushed from behind, but kept moving to the rear of the fuselage.

He had almost reached the rear of the cabin when he heard the angry howl of jet engines roaring past. Barely noticing that he was back to his original seat, he leaned and peered out the nearest window. One F-16 Tomcat was hovering forty-five degrees off of the wing, looking jagged and menacing. King quickly leaned over the seats in the other aisle. Another Tomcat was there, too. As he watched, it slowly pulled back, disappearing from sight.

He turned back to the Air Marshall. “Put your gun down. We’ve got about two minutes left, so we might as well not spend it fighting with one another.”

The Air Marshall kept his aim trained as King flopped heavily into his seat. The woman and the baby were both staring at him, the latter with a grin.

“What the hell?” the pilot shouted from the front of the plane. The Air Marshall looked conflicted, as though trying to decide whether to stay with King or return to the cockpit. The pilot continued, “They’re targeting us!”

The plane immediately went into a steep dive. Probably some kind of evasive maneuver, for all the good it would do. One of the stewardesses went tumbling down the aisle, knocking the Air Marshall to the ground and sending his sidearm rattling under the seats. Oxygen masks dropped and people hurriedly began putting them on. The woman next to him was pleading with him to help her put a mask on the infant. King looked at her and the shrieking baby, and then looked away. It was too late for them anyway. There was nothing he could do.

He was being pressed hard into his seat by the force of the dive and it continued to get worse as the pilot lost control. Passengers that had failed to attach their safety belts began rising into the air and slamming into the windows. King looked over at the woman once more and noticed that she had lost the baby and that blood was trickling from her earlobe. Alarms were going off everywhere, mixing their shrieks in with those of the passengers.

All of this for a DAT tape, he thought.

And as he heard the pilot yell something about a missile impact, he lowered his head and began to pray.

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