Friday, March 29, 2019

Into the Mercury

a short story by Bill Adler


Part 1 of Into the Mercury was originally published as a stand alone story under the title, Learning to Fly. Here is the complete saga of Oceans flight 211, which took its passengers to a place where hope is in short supply, but nightmares are plentiful. Can a Grand Seiko save them?

Part 1, Invitation

Vincent Hall exhaled, this time more purposefully, even though he knew it was as futile an effort as flapping his arms to fly. That's comical. Or maybe it's irony? Whatever. I'd give an arm if I could flap my arms and fly right now.  Now that’s irony. Vincent didn’t smile at his own feeble humor. He exhaled again, wind escaping from his lips like banshees who've been trapped inside a cave for centuries. It was no good. Expelling balloons of air wasn't making him smaller. In fact, Vincent was certain the moisture from his breath was combining with the sweat oozing from the pores of the sumo wannabees on either side of him, forming a viscous glue that would keep him trapped in his seat long after the plane had landed. From his seatmates’ pores sulfurous vapors rose, sending him to the edge of nausea.

I am the eater of worlds flashed through Vincent’s head, a movie marquee with an ominous message.

Photo by Jason Chien
Vincent looked at his left and right armrests. To his left was a snake-like creature, layers of flesh piled on flesh, a boa constrictor that hadn't ever shed its oily skin, a gelatinous slime coating that skin. It’s not his fault, Vincent tried to convince himself. He’s got no place for his arm. Though what I’d give for a saw right now.

Vincent bobbed forward and craned his neck toward the aisle, hoping to see what kind of watch the guy had on his left wrist. But trying to see  the guy’s wrist was like trying to spot what’s behind Mt. Fuji when you’re standing directly in front of the mountain. A sharp snap in Vincent’s neck sent lightning bolts of pain through his neck and shoulders. I think I pulled a muscle, maybe all of them. That was a stupid thing to try.

Vincent pressed his fingertips into the back of his neck, willing their dance to undo the pain. He’d arrange for a massage at the hotel first thing. Make that the second thing. Overpriced ibuprofen from an airport store was going to be the first order of business after landing.

The arm slithered closer, the fatty flesh undulating at different speeds toward Vincent. Vincent blew out another bubble of precious oxygen, but no matter how much he tried to shrink he couldn’t stop the slithering arm from touching his body. The more the arm pressed against Vincent, the thicker the pus that leaked out of the marble-sized pores became. Vincent thought that the layers of flesh and fat were on the verge of separating, each becoming a distinct creature determined to asphyxiate him. Guy couldn’t wear a long sleeve shirt? We’re going to Chicago — who wears a short sleeve shirt to Chicago in November? What’s the matter with him?

Vincent glanced to his right. “A long sleeve shirt is only marginally better,” he muttered, as the tentacle to his right undulated against his hip. “Keep that thing away from my privates,” Vincent prayed. Long sleeve, short sleeve, it didn’t make a difference, Vincent realized. The guy’s shirt and sleeve were soaked in briney sweat, and now Vincent’s pants and shirt were looking like they’d been dipped into the Dead Sea.

I’m cold and these guys are ovens. If they shed a hundred kilos maybe they wouldn’t be sweating like pigs and I wouldn’t feel like I’m being consumed by a primordial peat bog.

I can’t breathe! I’m suffocating!

SBWA001, Seiko's first Spring Drive,
produced in 1999
Vincent wanted to reach under the seat in front of him and extract a paperback from his carry-on bag, but he was fixed in place, like the keystone in an arch. Reading would distract him. Reading would carry him to another place, diluting his misery with adventure. But his carry-on bag might as well be in the luggage hold. And even if he managed to reach his bag and pull the book out, how was he going to hold it amidst the sea of corpulent flesh pressed against him?

Vincent hoped Lilith was faring better somewhere in the aisles behind him. Maybe Lilith didn’t have a middle seat. Maybe she’s sitting next to a fashion model who’s five weeks into a six-week diet. No, fashion models don’t fly basic economy. Vincent couldn’t imagine Lilith being worse off than he was. But why were they separated in the first place? Vincent was sure he paid an extra twenty-five dollars each for reserved seats. Completely sure. And yet, the airline’s will was stronger than his certainty. He had stopped arguing with the flight attendant about their seating assignments when he suspected her next words were going to be, “You’re off the plane. Have a nice day.”

I have to pee.

Vincent looked at the man to his left again, and slowly shook his head. It would take that guy until the end of the flight to extricate himself from the seat. They should install some type of pulley system above seats.

I have to pee badly.

Vincent unstuck his arm from his seatmate, twisted his wrist, and glanced at the time. Three twenty-two. He had set his Grand Seiko to Chicago time before his seatmates deposited their asses into their locked positions. Good thing he set his watch when he did because no way he’d have had room to maneuver to perform even such an elemental task now. He had wanted to take a photo of his watch against the window with the passing clouds as a backdrop, a wristshot, his tradition on every flight, but the window was eclipsed by a belly. That was the least of his problems.

Two hours and six minutes to go. He doubted he could hold it for that long.

I have to pee more than I’ve ever had to pee before.

Vincent’s eardrums imploded. The flight attendant who had been pushing a cart down the aisle flew to the ceiling as if she’d been expelled by a canon. Cups, tiny peanut bags, plastic knives and forks, ice cubes, and lemon slices scattered everywhere. Small, square napkins turned into a snow squall. A second boom left Vincent’s ears ringing, a high-pitched screech that blocked nearly all sound and thought. The flight attendant landed on his seatmate's lap, bounced off, and rolled onto the floor. After a few moments, she pressed her arms to the floor and lifted herself up, her blonde hair acquiring instant punk by the bright, red blood coating it. But she stood, so no bones broken.

VIncent’s stomach jolted right and up as the plane banked left and down. The flight attendant fell again. The man sitting to Vincent’s left grabbed his arm, and squeezed hard, his grip on Vincent’s arm increasing exponentially with each passing fraction of a second, moments away from crushing his bone. Vincent wriggled his other arm free from the girth of the man to his right, and slugged his left side seatmate hard in the arm. It worked. Jabba released him.

I’m in pain.

Vincent wasn’t sure damage hadn’t been done to his arm. This fucking hurts. Fucking sumo wannabe. Fucking airline for losing my seat reservation. 

It took a few seconds for Vincent’s mind to free itself from agony’s claws. When he could think again, Vincent noticed the jet was flying straight and level and hadn’t become part of the Rocky Mountains.

The intercom crackled. “Ladies and gentlemen. This is your pilot speaking. Is there a Spring Drive on board?”

“What?” Vincent said to the man to his left. “Did he ask for Vincent Lang?”

“No, the pilot said, ‘Is there a Spring Drive on board?’” Mr. Sumo was massaging the spot on his arm where Vincent had punched him. He seemed oblivious to how that injury had occurred.

Spring Drive?

Vincent dug deep into his memory’s recesses, uncovering fragments of a post he’d seen on a watch forum, which he had dismissed as hearsay, the kind of nonsense that people send upstream to the internet all the time after chugging one too many beers. “I’m a 737 pilot. Our jet’s stabilization system uses a form of Seiko Spring Drive technology. A quartz crystal oscillating 32,768 times a second, used as an unerring reference for the watch’s movement, coordinated by a tri-synchro regulator, letting the second hand glide across the dial, rather than jumping in jarring intervals. The same mechanism is in the plane. That’s the key —  the smooth, precise glide movement. That’s the heart of what keeps a 737 on an even keel in flight. Of course we don’t use an actual watch to stabilize a 737, but a Spring Drive would work as a backup in a pinch.”

Vincent wondered how he remembered that. He didn’t recall when or on what watch forum he’d read that post. Must have been the bump in flight that jarred my memory loose, like a stalled car starting after you’ve kicked it.

Vincent looked at the seat card’s safety information. We’re on a Boeing 737 Max. Vincent snapped his eyes toward his watch, a Grand Seiko Spring Drive.

“Is there a Spring Drive on board?” the baritone voice repeated. “Would any passenger with a Grand Seiko Spring Drive please come to the cockpit immediately.”

“That’s me,” Vincent said to the man sitting between him and the aisle. “That’s me.” Vincent inhaled a deep breath, and as if his lungs had filled with helium, floated over the man, and skipped to the cockpit.



Part 2, Mercury


A brown iris peered, unblinking, at Vincent through the peephole. Vincent wasn’t sure if he should put his head to the door, his eye to the peephole, too, as if this were a biometric scanner or secret handshake. He was out of his element regarding protocol here. When he finally decided he should aim his eye at the peephole to gain entry, the jet pulled up, the force of gravity doubling before his heart beat once. Vincent’s knees buckled. Almost as suddenly, the 737 resumed level flight, instantaneously subjecting all unbelted passengers to negative G-forces.

Spring Drive photo by KianHong Khoo
Vincent floated like a feather in a breeze.

“Hey, this is fun,” he thought as his feet contacted the floor again. “It’s like a rollercoaster without seatbelts. Zero gravity is cool. Being an astronaut would be great. Now I know why Felix Baumgartner couldn’t wait to jump from the edge of space.” His happy thoughts were fleeting. On its own, Vincent’s brain cooked up a different image: of him and Lilith flying out of their roller coaster seats at 100 miles per hour, seconds away from an inevitable death. Waves of nausea replaced the serenity the had tasted moments before.

Vincent wished for the plane’s flight path to return to normal. Vincent wanted to go home.

The massive jet listed left, then right. Vincent grabbed hold of the nearest object, which happened to be the flight attendant’s left breast. Lilith can’t see all the way up here from where she’s sitting, right? The flight attendant shot Vincent a look of bemusement as she gripped a seat back, the exact opposite of the slap across the cheek he expected.

After the plane righted itself, a body emerged from the cockpit. Vincent couldn’t tell if the man standing in front of him was the pilot or copilot — he was far from a pilot’s uniform expert —  but he recognized the modulated baritone voice: “You’re the guy with the Spring Drive?”

“Yes.”

“Get in here.”

Vincent stepped inside the cockpit. The vista of technology before him was as incomprehensible as a wall of carved Egyptian hieroglyphics. The radar screen — Vincent thought it was the radar — glowed blue like his cell phone. The blue light was the only familiar sight in the cockpit.

“Have a seat,” the baritone commanded, extending his arm to the left.

“The left seat,” Vincent thought. A montage of airplane movies flew through his memory. “The left seat, the pilot’s seat. He wants me to sit in the pilot’s seat. Wow.”

The captain raised an eyebrow at Vincent. “Yes,” he continued. “That’s my seat. The pilot’s seat. It also happens to be the spot you have to sit in in order to insert your Spring Drive into the auxiliary avionics unit.”

“I see,” Vincent said, even though he didn’t understand.

“I could do it, but it’s your watch, and while First Officer Hernandez and I know the plane, you know the watch.”

“Gotcha....”

“Captain Olander.” Jack Olander extended his arm toward the left seat again. His chestnut,, perfectly ordered hair, piercing eyes, and angular jaw gave him the look of a pilot plucked out of Central Casting. “So, sit now. The plane could take another dip or roll at any moment. People who aren’t belted in can die during severe turbulence,” Olander said as he buckled himself in the jump seat behind the copilot’s seat.

Vincent shuddered as he recalled his moment-ago daymare of hurling out of a rollercoaster. “Okay.”

Vincent slipped around and sat. The seat’s leather was orders of magnitude softer and thicker than the coach seat that had been tormenting his back since San Francisco. This is grand first class.

“Buckle up.”

When Vincent didn’t move, Captain Olander unfastened himself. Hovering over Vincent, he said. “I’ll get that for you. First five point harness?”

“Yes.”

The loud click of the seat belt engaging bounced off the inside walls of the cockpit.

“There’s enough play in the belt for you to maneuver and insert your watch in the unit to your right. But here’s the deal. We need to remove the watch band so it fits into the unit.”

“Oh.”

“And we don’t have any tools to do it nicely.”

“Oh.”

“And we have to do it immediately, so give First Officer Hernandez the watch” Olander said as he returned to his seat.

“It’s a SBGA387.”

“As long as it’s a Spring Drive, that’s all that matters.”

“It’s a Grand Seiko Glacier. That’s the nickname, Glacier, because of the ice-blue dial that changes hue as the angle or light changes, like a glacier does.”

“Uh huh.” Hernandez snapped his fingers, then curled his fingers inward. “Give it here,” Hernandez said. Hernandez's large hand wrapped around Vincent’s watch, shrouding it like dark clouds before a summer storm. “I’ll get the band off.” Hernandez sounded like a dentist who was announcing bad news: “We don’t have anesthesia.”

Vincent eyed the shark-toothed steel pliers in Hernandez’ hand. He held his breath before saying, “The watch cost $7,500.” Before tax, Vincent thought to himself.

Vintage Breitling advertisement
Hernandez thrust his left arm out. “Breitling. $11,000.”

Olander twisted his wrist. “Rolex Deepsea. About the same. Actually a bit more.” He winked at Hernandez.

“Yeah, but you guys aren’t sacrificing your watches. Glacier is a limited edition, too. I doubt I can get another. Are you sure there’s no other way? I mean, can’t you fly the plane manually with steady hands or something?”

A stereographic chorus of “no” landed on Vincent.

“Okay, okay,” Vincent said, his voice barely a wisp of air. “Do what you have to do.” Vincent looked away like a child does when a vaccination needle enters his arm, as Hernandez plucked the metal apart. He dug his fingernails into his leg to shroud the pain of his watch’s dismemberment.

The operation, crude and imprecise, took mere seconds. Like an emergency amputation, it was over before Vincent had time to grieve his loss. Hernandez passed Vincent’s watch back to him, minus the strap. Vincent tried not to look closely, but his eyes were drawn to the field of scratches and scars that now defaced his watch’s case. “It’s for a good cause,” Vincent reassured himself. “I’m saving everyone’s life, including Lilith’s and mine. Maybe the airline will compensate me with free flights for life. Or give me a Breitling. No, I don’t want a Breitling. I want my Grand Seiko back.” Vincent was aware of a sad, one-dimensional, round face emerging from his mouth, like a speech bubble in a Saturday morning cartoon.

“Do you see the button above you that says, AD? AD is the avionics drawer,” the copilot said.

Vincent tilted his head up and squinted. The ceiling above was a jungle of multicolored lights, buttons of different shapes and sizes, switches, and levers. Vincent had no idea there were so many controls above the pilots’ seats.

“Um, no.”

“I’ll get that part,” Hernandez said, stretching his arm. “Okay, done.”

A small drawer to Vincent’s right popped open. “That’s it?”

“That’s it,” Hernandez replied. “Just put your watch in the container — it’ll fit without the band? I can’t see it clearly from this angle.”

“And?”

“Then just put your...Glacier… in that drawer, dial side up. Press the AD button above. The drawer will close and the Spring Drive’s gliding second hand will take over our stabilization system. The unit has electromagnetic coupling and will read your watch’s signals. If everything goes as it should, we’ll have a stable — and safe — rest of our flight.” Hernandez paused before and after “and safe” for punctuation.

Vincent hoped Hernandez didn't talk in staccato all the time.

“Look at it this way,” Hernandez added. “Your watch will probably end up in the Smithsonian. This is an aviation first.”

“Okay.”

“One last thing,” Hernandez asked. “It’s fully wound? We wouldn’t want the watch to stop before we reach Chicago, in —” Hernandez glanced at his Breitling “— in another seventy-six minutes.

“It’s an automatic. It’s always wound as long as I’m wearing it, and has a power reserve of seventy-two hours. It’ll last.” Vincent locked eyes with Hernandez. “Now?”

“Yes, now.” The massive jet dipped a wing to the port side, arcing 25 degrees. Olander countered the plane’s involuntary movement with a hard right turn of the yoke. Vincent breathed again.

Vincent wanted to give his watch a kiss goodbye, but was sure he’d forever be that weird, nerd watch guy in the pilots’ minds if he did. He said a silent goodbye to his Grand Seiko Glacier.

“Press the AD button above you,” Hernandez instructed.

Spring Drive photo by Isaac Rattey
A second after the drawer shut, Vincent’s sixth sense sounded an alarm. Something had been subtracted from his environment, like he had been ice skating on hours old, bumpy ice and the entire rink was instantly and completely buffed by a giant Zamboni machine. The jet no longer moved through the sky; Vincent could have sworn the plane was immobile on the tarmac, never having been given wings. Gone was the jitter of motion. Gone were all vibrations. The cockpit became a sensory deprivation chamber. The constant sound of friction that always accompanies a plane as it barrels forward, displacing countless tons of air, the roar of the powerful engines, was replaced by silence. Like somebody had flipped the sound and motion switch from on to off.

“That’s weird.” Olander noticed it, too. Vincent wasn’t imagining things.

“There’s no sensation of movement,” Vincent said.

“There wouldn’t be unless we were accelerating, decelerating, turning, or changing altitude. When flying straight and level it barely feels like you’re moving,” Hernandez said.

“But you always feel something. I feel nothing. I don’t hear anything, either.” Crammed into seats designed to barely fit runway models, in coach we feel every turn, bump, and change of altitude or direction. If there’s a bird flying within a mile of the plane we feel it. 

Hernandez shrugged ever so slightly and scanned the instruments. “I admit it’s weird, but everything’s five by five. We’re still in the sky. We have your Spring Drive to thank for our smooth flight.”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t feel like we’re flying, does it?” Vincent wondered if he sounded stupid. Maybe the sensations way up front in the cockpit were completely different from the way things felt in far back, sardine class.

Before the copilot could respond, Olander said, “Look at that.” He pointed to the ground speed indicator.

“My god,” Hernandez said.

Olander pressed his hand onto Vincent’s shoulder. “I’m reclaiming my seat now. You stay in the cockpit. Whatever’s amiss involves your watch.”

“My watch? Can we just remove it from the drawer and return things to normal?”

Olander and Hernandez ignored Vincent. Olander locked his harness in place and scanned the instruments again. “Airspeed 340 knots.”

“Mach .82 the First Officer added. Right where it should be.” He pointed to the instrument panel. “But not the ground speed. 600 knots. 625. 660. 720…”

“We’re in a jet stream,” Vincent said, remembering something he’d seen in a YouTube video. “It happens.” Olander and Hernandez continued to ignore him.

“899, 910. Jesus, Frank. Ground speed 1,200 knots.”

“There’s nothing…”

“Hold on.”

“Are you going to declare an emergency?”

“Not yet.”

“Look at that 2,200 knots. That’s not possible.”

“That’s impossible,” Olander said. “No jet stream has even come close to this speed. A hundred twenty, maybe 150 knots. Maybe. But not over 2,000 knots.”
New for 2019: SBGY003. Photo by Seiko. 

“Jack, do you — ”

“I see. I see, but I don’t believe. Ground speed of 3,900 knots.

“That’s faster than an SR 71,” Vincent said. The Discovery Channel pays off. Olander swiveled his head toward Vincent.

“That’s faster than any air breathing jet.” Olander paused. “We’re at mach 5.8 gents.”

In all the aviation movies Vincent had watched, he’s never seen a pilot sweat. Pilots are the proverbial cool cucumber, the epitome of calm no matter what disaster unfolded before them, and they stayed calm until their troubled aircraft was either operating normally or dug a deep trench in some remote cornfield. Water stains appeared in random locations on Olander’s starched shirt.

“I’m declaring an emergency.’ Olander tapped his mic. “Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is Oceans 221 heavy, squawking 7700. We are declaring an emergency. We have 212 souls on board. We are…” Olander glanced at his flight board. “We are somewhere. I don’t know where we are.”

“At this speed, we’re probably over the Atlantic by now,” Hernandez said.

“We are lost. Approximate location 100 miles east-northeast of Montauk, Long Island. We are traveling at a ground speed of 3,900 knots. I repeat: Our ground speed is 3,900 knots. Fuel remaining 3 hours ten minutes.”

Olander, Hernandez and Vincent remained quiet as they waited for air traffic control to respond, but static alone greeted them.

Olander repeated, “This is Oceans 221. Mayday, mayday, mayday. Is anyone there?”

An unnatural silence filled the cockpit.

“Jack, look at that.” Hernandez pointed to a screen on the flight board. “TCAS is blank.”

“What’s TCAS?” Vincent asked.

“It’s an onboard system that shows us where other planes are. TCAS keeps us from hitting other aircraft. It’s got a range of forty miles, so unless we’re in the middle of the Atlantic or Pacific, the screen should be lit like fireflies on a summer night. But there’s nothing there.”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know.” Olander replied.

“What does that mean? Vincent asked.

“What does what mean?” Olander asked back, his consonants crisp.

“That.” Vincent pointed to the cockpit window. Olander and Hernandez had been so focused on their instruments they hadn’t looked at the window for the past sixty seconds.

“Sweet Jesus,” Olander whistled.

“What happened to the sky?”

“More to the point,” Olander replied, “What happened to us” Blue sky, clouds, shadows that followed them across the ground — they were all gone. No thunderstorms illuminated the horizon. There was no ocean below, no stars above. Mercury enveloped Oceans 212. Bright silver, like just polished and buffed sterling that had been melted, surrounded the aircraft, as opaque as it was changeless. Though surrounded by a river of liquid metal, there were no metal against metal sparks, no reflections. Why aren’t the plane’s lights reflecting off the metal, like a mirror, like light off of a lake, like the normal world should be?

“This isn’t right,” Vincent said.

“You think?” Hernandez replied.

“It’s the Spring Drive. We should take out the Spring Drive,” Vincent told Olander. “Grand Seiko’s Spring Drive sent us here — wherever here is. Removing the watch will put everything back the way it should be.”

“No.” Olander and Hernandez chimed in at the same moment. Olander spoke next. “Your Spring Drive did something, but abruptly leaving the jet stream will tear the airplane apart in an instant.” Olander rubbed his face. “Whatever we do, we have to think this through. Today isn’t a page in the aircraft’s manual.”

“Slipstream.”

“What?”

Vincent continued, “We’re in a slipstream, not a jet stream.”

“What’s your point? It’s just semantics, and we don’t have time for semantics.”

“No, it’s not. You said yourself no jet stream can go this fast. Okay, let’s assume that’s right. In that case, we’re in something else. Something that’s never been catalogued before. We have to start thinking differently if we’re going to get out of this before — ”

“Before we’re over Russia, and they shoot us down because we look like an enemy aircraft,” Hernandez said.

Vincent steadied himself on Olander’s seat back. He took a few deep breaths of stale airplane air before releasing his grip and standing unsupported again.

“Forget Russia because we won’t make it that far. The Brits will fire a Rapier or Javelin at us before we even reach the coast. And if they miss, the French will shoot us down.”

“Can they do that? Can a missile reach this high?” As soon as he asked, Vincent realized it was a stupid question. Of course missiles can. Hernandez wouldn’t have said that if it wasn’t true.

“Anti aircraft missiles are hypersonic, exceeding speeds of 9,000 knots. Max altitude, over 80,000 feet. We’re at — ”

Hernandez looked at the instruments and shook his head. “That can’t be right. 133,500 feet MSL? We were just cruising at 31,000 feet.” Hernandez tapped the altimeter’s glass. He turned to Olander. “What’s going on skipper? The instruments must be off.”

“Not all of them,” Olander said. “Not all of them.” He paused before continuing. “I didn’t feel a thing. No sensation of climbing, or altitude change. No g-forces against my butt. You?”

Vincent wasn’t sure if Olander was talking to him or Hernandez, but spoke anyway. “Ever since we’ve been in the slipstream I’ve felt nothing. Rather, I’ve felt as if we’re standing still. But what about the missiles?” The saliva in his throat metastasized into a pit that Vincent was unable to swallow.

Hernandez continued, “If they can see us, they can hit us. We have no defenses. And shoot they will, because at these speeds we don’t look like a civilian aircraft. We look like a fast military jet — an aircraft with evil intent —  with no comms so we can’t communicate, and that’s all a bad combination for us.”

“We’re above missile altitude, at —”

“At 133,500 feet. Or we’re not.” Hernandez shook his head. “If we could see anything we’d see the curvature of the Earth, but we’re blind up here. We might be above missile range, or we might still be at 31,000 feet. I don’t trust the instruments. I don’t trust anything. But I do know that every European country from Iceland to Russia has missiles they can, and will, fire at us.”

Olander squeezed the intercom button. “Yes? Stacey?” Stacey Halprin was the senior flight attendant, the one who most often interfaced with the cockpit crew.

“Captain, first, you have a plane full of terrified passengers. I have to tell you I’m one of them. You need to address that. What’s going on? Second, there’s a Lilith at the door, who wants access to the cockpit….”

“That’s my girlfriend.”

Halprin continued, “She’s a geologist and says she needs to talk with you right away.”

“Paleontologist,” Lilith interrupted, her authoritative voice audible over the intercom.

“Paleontologist,” Halprin continued. “I think you should let her in. Like now.” Olander didn’t know it, but Halperin’s legs were shaking.

Olander spoke into the mic, “What does a paleontologist have to do with a flight emergency —”

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Hernandez shouted.

Vincent thought cursing was an anathema to pilots, that it was trained out of them, or with the massive number of facts and figures pilots had to learn there was no room in their brains for swear words. Today was a day of many exceptions, none of which Vincent was happy about.

“What the hell is that?” Olander said. He didn’t need to point because everyone in the cockpit saw what he was talking about.

A beast that at first glance looked like an enormous bat approached the front of the jet, wings flapping with such force that their wind should have capsized the airplane, but for some reason did not. English had no words to describe the demon that flew beside them. Its skin was dark, like coal buried beneath the earth since the beginning of time. The creature was almost half the size of the 737, with wings so expansive they would have blotted out the sun, had the sun been visible. Tentacles thicker than an elephant’s trunk swayed beneath it, aiming at Oceans 211, inspecting the aircraft, as if each tentacle had its own brain. The creature’s four tentacles ended in a mass of pulp and white bones from which giant suckers pulsed. The creature scanned the plane with its three eyes and flew closer.

“Let her in,” Olander directed Hernandez, who stood up and unlocked the cockpit door.

“There’s another on our port side,” Hernandez gasped, breathless as if he’d just finished running a hundred-meter race. Hernandez tilted his head backwards, “Oh shit. Another above us.”

“There are more on the left and right side, too,” Lilith said. She brushed her blonde hair away from her eyes. “In the back we can see another four. That makes at least seven of these things.” Lilith looked toward Vincent. “And that’s not all.”

“What else is there?” Olander said.

“Aircraft wings, from biplanes, a pendulum clock” Halprin said. She’s slipped into the cockpit along with Lilith. Nobody noticed. Nobody cared.

“Say that again,” Olander said.

“There are parts of objects in the silver...”

“Slipstream,” Vincent said.

“In the slipstream. Turrets without their castles. Steam stacks like from boats, like from the Titanic era. I think I saw a windmill blade and an antique street lamp — you know, the kind that ring Trafalgar Square. Big things like locomotive fenders, little things, too. I’m telling you the truth. Weird objects — an old sewing machine flashed by the window.” Stacey Halprin nodded. “I’m not crazy.”

“We believe you. We’d believe anything at this stage,” Hernandez said.

“People, take a look.” Lilith first pointed to the creature on their left. She moved her hand to the right toward one of the other creatures. Both monsters opened their pointy beaks, revealing two rows of sharp, jagged teeth and forked tongues. Their tentacles curled upwards. “They’re getting closer.”

“Yes,” Olander said.

Spring Drive photo by Teck Meng
“Look at their tentacles, how they’re coiling to gather energy, like a python. They’re getting ready to strike.”

“Strike how?”

“I don’t know, but I suggest we don’t want to find out. We have to leave whatever this place is now. I know those things. I know what they are. I’ve seen them before.”

“What?” Hernandez said.”You’ve seen these monsters before?”

“Not them exactly. But fossils. Old, tens of millions of years old. Here’s the weird thing: We never found two or more of these creatures’ fossils close to each other, as you’d expect to see. That was quite a puzzle — until just now. All animals mate. All animals have children. Invariably when you find a fossilized species you discover more than one because that’s the way nature works — mating pairs. Noah’s Ark and all that. But not with these creatures; their fossils are always found alone. Now I know why. They live in the sky. They live in the slipstream.

“They live in the slipstream,” Lilith repeated. “And when they die they just fall to the ground from wherever they happen to be. These things are in constant motion until their last heart
beat.” Lilith pointed outside the aircraft. “Those tentacles. They’re not bones, so they don’t survive the ages. I’ve never seen those. The supporting structures inside the wings must be made of something other than bone, too, which makes sense because of the tremendous force they have to endure in the slipstream. I’ve never seen wing fossils, either. But what I have seen are fossilized bones of other animals in their bellies — wooly mammoths, sharks, apes, reptilian birds like pterodactyls. Don’t ask me how that happens, because I don’t know. Sharks don’t fly, and neither do apes, but these leviathans manage to eat them, among other things. What I do know is that whatever these are, they’ve been ravenous for millennia.” Lilith took a step backwards in the cramped cockpit. Her voice trembled. “They’re getting closer.” She turned toward Olander’s seat. Let’s get out of here, Captain, what do you say?” Lilith squeezed Vincent’s hand tighter.

The creatures lowered, then retracted their tentacles, coiling them into tighter springs. The suckers glowed red against the silver surrounding them. Serpentine tongues flicked in and out, sampling passengers’ scents through the plane’s thin, aluminum skin. Vincent thought he could hear the creatures hiss as their tongues rippled.

“We’re trapped in a nightmare world above our world,” Vincent said to himself, but in a voice loud enough for everyone in the cockpit to hear.

“Yes,” Olander said.

Olander turned around in his seat to face Vincent and Lilith. “If we yank the Spring Drive out, the rapid deceleration will tear the airplane apart. If I try to alter our flight path, same thing — we’ll be small pieces of metal and flesh in the sky until gravity claims what’s left of us. If we are at 133,500 feet and leave the slipstream, the sudden pressure differential will cause the fuselage to explode. Ninety-nine percent of the earth’s atmosphere may be below us. The positive pressure relief valves won’t act fast enough to save us.”

“The Spring Drive caused this,” Vincent said.

“We know that,” Olander snapped. “Unless you’re suddenly a pilot and have a solution, be quiet.”

“I’m thinking out loud. Okay? Give me a break." Vincent offered Lilith a tepid smile. “Why? How?” Vincent scratched his chin. Vincent scanned the cockpit’s three-sided window. He looked to the ceiling, just like he used to in middle school when the teacher asked a question that he needed a few more seconds to answer.

 “Seiko Spring Drive watches’ second hands glide while other watches tick. That’s how the Spring Drive could stabilize this airplane. The tri-synchro regulator moves the second hand forward as a flow, not in intervals. Like a river, like the mercury river we’re trapped in. Instead of a balance wheel to keep time, the Spring Drive utilizes magnetic breaking. It’s smooth —” Vincent snapped his fingers. “That’s it. The Spring Drive stabilized the plane so perfectly that we fell into the slipstream. Most of the time, planes can’t enter the slipstream because the kind of stabilization they use isn’t perfect, but the Spring Drive is. The bumpiness, however minimal, keeps planes out. The discontinuity between a normal jet’s rhythm and the slipstream acts like a force field. Our flight’s perfect smoothness made possible by the Spring Drive opened a door into the slipstream. We got caught here because we could enter it in the first place. We crossed whatever barrier there is between the regular and nightmare world because we were greased, for lack of a better way to put it.” Vincent nodded. “Yeah, okay. That’s how we did it.”

The plane shuddered as the creature’s massive tentacle attached to the cockpit window. The tentacle’s inner membrane, its sucker, a mass of red and orange tissue and bone fragments, opened wide. The inner membrane pulsed, like a thousand insects were hidden between layers of tissue. A yellow-bronze liquid flowed down the inside of the tentacle toward the cockpit window.

“Maybe we have two minutes,” Hernandez said, pointing a shaking finger at the tentacles. “Two minutes before whatever that liquid is reaches the plane.”

“Digestive fluid,” Lilith said.

The creature slammed its tail against the fuselage, puncturing the 737’s thin aluminum skin several seats behind the cockpit. The plane shook as if in the grips of a massive tornado. Fragments of metal that had formerly been part of the fuselage transformed into deadly darts. A male passenger in his 40s was struck in the head by one of those fragments. He died instantly. A dozen other passengers were injured. Whooshing air drowned out the passengers’ screams. An alarm sounded in the cockpit, “Depressurization! Depressurization! Descend! Descend!”

Emergency oxygen masks dropped from their secret compartments. The air was still breathable in the cockpit, whose residents decided it was better to be able to talk and move freely without wearing a mask for as long as they could. Hernandez said, “We can still breathe without supplemental oxygen, but that won’t be for long.”

“Cold!” shouted Vincent.

“We’re sweating in here, in case you haven’t noticed,” Halperin said. “We’re anything but cold.”

“No, no, no. Seiko Spring drives have a narrow operating temperature. Too hot or too cold they don’t keep accurate time. They fail.”

“What are you saying?” Olander asked.

Grand Seiko photo by Craig Shipp
“If we can lower or raise the watch’s temperature, it will gradually, but definitely lose time. We might gently leave the slipstream if the Spring Drive’s timing is off, without tearing the plane apart.”

“How gradually? We’re running out of time here.”

“I don’t know. Fast enough, I think. I hope.”

“How hot, how cold?” Olander asked. “Talk fast.”

“The Spring Drive’s operating range is between 5℃ and 35℃.”

“How in the hell does that help us?” Hernandez asked. He clicked his tongue. Hernandez pointed to the tentacle attached to the window. “That liquid is almost here.” He sucked in a deep breath of air, wondering if it might be one of his last. “We can’t build a fire in the cockpit and cook the watch to 35 Celcius —”

“No, but we can cool it off,” Lilith said. She pivoted to Hernandez. “Do you have a CO2 fire extinguisher?”

“Right here,” Hernandez said, tapping the cylinder to the side of his seat. He reached down, pulled the fire extinguisher from its bracket and passed it to Olander, who had already pressed the AD button to open the drawer which held Vincent’s Spring Drive.

Olander blasted bursts of CO2 toward the watch, one every other second. After five shots, the plane shuddered, as if its wings were being torn off. Olander fired a continuous stream of frigid carbon dioxide at Vincent’s watch until the extinguisher was empty.

The creature screamed with a hurricane’s howl as its tentacles ripped from its body. A severed tentacle thudded against the cockpit window, creating a hairline crack along the windshield’s entire vertical length. A thick sheen of blood and pus obscured the world outside until the force of flowing air wiped most of it off. The moon raced across the sky like it was being chased by a leviathan, as blue displaced the river of silver. The sky brightened, the sunset reversing itself. Stars appeared below Ocean 211, then flipped above them, before being blinded by the sun and disappearing. Drops of mercury like dragons’ tears bounced off the windows and fell to the earth.

“Are we —” Hernandez started to say.

“We are,” Olander replied. “Look.” He tapped his fingers against the ground radar display. “Ground speed 590 knots. Altitude 31,000 feet, just where we left off. Sounds right to me.”

“And TCAS,” Hernandez added. “There are planes all around. So many planes. I’ve never been so happy to be in a crowded sky.”

“All around where?” Halperin asked. She tugged her ear to let in the comforting roar of a plane scraping against the atmosphere.

“That is a good question. Wait.” Olander aimed his forefinger at the GPS display and looked at Hernandez, who nodded back at Olander.

“Japan. We’re about fifty miles from Osaka, approaching from the west.” Olander rested his hand on the throttle. “Approaching at a normal speed now.”

“Are you saying we flew more than halfway around the world?” Lilith asked. She gasped.

Olander wiped his brow. “Yes, we did. You might say we discovered hypersonic passenger travel. Vincent's Slipstream is an atmospheric wormhole.”

Vincent smiled briefly at the idea that a discovery would be named after him. “But it's a path more dangerous than the Labyrinth in Greek Mythology,” Vincent said. “You’d need a fighter escort to make safe passage through the hypersonic slipstream.”

“I’m not even sure an escort would be sufficient to make it through Vincent's Slipstream. We were lucky,” Olender said.

“Some discovery,” Hernandez added.

“Jack. Captain, you need to talk to the passengers,” Halprin said. “I think some crapped in their pants.” Halprin slapped her hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to use foul language.”

“Tis okay,” Olander said. “Some of us on the flight deck need a change of underwear, too.” Olander turned off the autopilot switch, holding the yoke firmly. The plane was under his control now.

“What now?” Vincent said. “What do we do?”

“We land the airplane and close our flight plan with the FAA. Just like we would if we had landed in Chicago.”

“Only we’re not landing in Chicago, or anywhere even close.” Vincent looked at his wrist out of habit, a faint tan line revealing where his watch had once been. I’ll get a new Grand Seiko in Japan, I guess. Though maybe not another Spring Drive.

“First things first,” Olander said to Halperin. Olander pressed the transmit button. “Pan, pan, pan. Osaka tower. This is Oceans 211 requesting immediate landing clearance. Squawking 7700. We have 211 souls on board. Fuel remaining two hours forty minutes. We have a problem that I can’t begin to describe other than to say we should be in Chicago, as you can see from your flight tracking screen.” Olander waited for the tower to respond, envisioning the scene there, a small, quiet, but frenetic group of professionals crowding the controller’s screen as other controllers and supervisors learned Oceans 211 was 6,500 miles off course.

Six thousand five hundred miles off course. But air traffic control had no idea how distant a place Oceans 211 had flown to. The slipstream. A world of horror above our world.

Vincent looked out the window. Blue sky and land below never looked so beautiful.

Olander flipped on the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen. What I’m about to tell you will seem impossible, incredible, except you've seen it with your own eyes. We will be landing in Osaka, Japan in about 10 minutes. The flight attendants will prepare the cabin for an emergency landing, but I expect the landing to be normal. The worst is over...”

Olander’s baritone calmed the cabin, Vincent thought, because it calmed him. But Olander’s words couldn’t stop Vincent’s mind from wandering.

It’s easy to avoid the slipstream. Just don’t attach a Grand Seiko Spring Drive to an airplane. Easy as pie. When the pilots give their reports will they be believed? Yeah, they will. The flight data recorder. The cockpit voice recorder. The hole in the fuselage. I’m sure passengers took photos of the monsters. Lots of photos. Vincent nodded to himself. There will be ample proof. The Air Force will investigate with one plane at first. Then when that plane disappears another, and another will take flight...how many lost planes until they stop investigating? 

Vincent shivered. What about those objects found in the slipstream — turrets, windmills, 1800’s sewing machines, street lamps? Those monsters didn’t always stay far above the earth, did they? They have invaded our realm in the past.

But the stuff in the slipstream, that’s from over a century ago, even longer. Vincent scratched his head. Another puzzle.

Vincent's feet froze to the cockpit floor. The chill turned his blood to ice. When the leviathans feast on the pilots we send to investigate, they’ll know. They'll know there is plentiful food below. They didn’t taste our flesh this time, but it’s certain they will soon. Within days there will be planes sent, and pilots eaten. The monsters will want more, and they'll know where to get it.



Thanks to everyone at the Grand Seiko Owners Club for lending me their Spring Drive photos.

Thanks, also, to the crew and surviving passengers and crew of Oceans 211 for sharing their stories with me.







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