Sofia couldn’t move. Transfixed on the cool slab like a frog pinned down for dissection, there was only the white noise of the ship, the all-encompassing bright light that hurt her eyes, and the sound of her own panicked breaths.
A face. Pointed chin, high round forehead, ridiculously tiny mouth and nose. Impossibly thin neck, and a slender body with spindly insect limbs. But Sofia hardly noticed those details. The eyes. The eyes. Huge almond-shaped orbs cut from the dark void of space.
Ellen? Jay? Where are you?
They scrutinized her with an utterly impersonal curiosity, missing nothing. Their abyssal gaze tore through her naked flesh to violate her soul. Sofia tried to scream, hurl a stream of blistering curses, cry out ‘What do you want from me?!’ The words stuck in her throat. Her lips couldn’t move, save to tremble.
Ellen! Jay! This is the worst stunt you two have ever pulled! When I get my hands on you I’m gonna tan both your hides!
The eyes raked down Sofia’s body. There was no sexual interest, no personal interest at all. Nonetheless, Sofia struggled against her invisible bonds.
~Are you pregnant?~
The foreign voice inside her head chilled her like an ice-cold drop of mercury trickling down her spine. Somehow she could feel that the creature got the answer it wanted. Its arm reached for a tray beside the table Sofia was lying on. Too-long fingers wrapped around something. An instrument of shiny metal and translucent crystal, vaguely and threateningly phallic, with a cluster of sharp needles at its tip.
The pure black wrap-around eyes did not merely dismiss Sofia’s will, her horror at what was coming, her very being. Such things were so far beneath the creature’s concern that they did not even strike its consciousness. Its teardrop-shaped head turned to her pudenda with clinical detachment as it moved to insert the device—
A bloodcurdling scream. Not just Sofia’s, as she jolted bolt upright in her seat. Her heart hammered as she frantically looked around, taking in the clean, off-white walls of the airliner, the rows of little oval windows on each side, some of them with plastic shields pulled down like closed eyelids. Her thick, wavy black hair bounced off her cheeks as her head spun back and forth.
The reassurance she should have felt seeing the familiar, human contours of the airliner eluded her as she felt a mounting sense of panic spreading through the other passengers.
“Ellen?! Jay?!” a woman cried, hurrying back down the aisle, stooping to look under the seats. “Where are you?! Come here this instant!” she said, her voice cracking with fear.
“Hey, lady, shaddap, some of us are tryin’ to sleep,” a half-mumbled complaint from further back in the aircraft replied.
“Frank?” Mrs. McGillicuddy said, her voice a mix of interrupted sleep and confusion. Her voluminous cloud of too-elaborately-styled hair was dented on one side, no longer ministry-worthy. She was looking at the seat between herself and Sofia, where her husband had been sitting. Sofia’s dark eyes followed hers, and she gasped with a sharp intake of breath.
“What the...? Don’t touch anything,” Sofia said. She reached into her purse to retrieve a terrycloth-wrapped elastic band and pulled her hair back into a ponytail so it would not drape into the “scene” and contaminate the evidence. She turned in her seat so she could bend over for a closer look, careful to avoid sudden moves that might jolt the clothes.
The man’s suit sat in his seat like the shed skin of a snake. Sofia’s throat went dry as she noted the way the pants were scrunched up in the waist and hips. So was what she could see of the shirt in the torso area. Vacuum. And for that matter, the fact that the jacket was only slightly slumped at the collar but otherwise still upright, as if it had been pressed into the seat back hard enough for friction to keep it from collapsing. Fourteen point seven pounds of air pressure per square inch could do that…
Sofia whipped out her iPhone and started taking pictures.
A hefty leather-bound Bible with gilded pages lay in the suit’s lap, turned to the Book of Daniel. The arms of the gray polyester suit-jacket and cheap dress shirt were still aimed toward it, as if they would still be holding the book, if they only had hands.
A little scattering of teeth nested in the crook of the Bible’s pages like a bizarre bookmark. If you change your mind and decide you want to talk, I’ll be here, feasting on the Word. Those were the last words the man had said to her, when she’d claimed a need to sleep as a way to escape a session of evangelism. With a shudder, she examined them more closely. Three of the teeth were joined to a flesh-colored plastic resting plate and metal connectors to attach them to their natural neighbors—a dental bridge. The others turned out to be crowns, and there were a few bits of metal she guessed were fillings.
How could this happen?! No, it couldn’t be them. That was a hypnogogic dream, she thought, putting her abduction experience—and the nightmares it still caused, out of her mind. Whatever this is, it’s happening outside my head…isn’t it?
Sofia bit her lip, and glanced at the airline magazines in the pocket in the back of the seat ahead of hers. She could read the words without difficulty. Apart from the clothes, the little details of reality were stable and continuous. Mrs. McGillicuddy looked on with wide, teary eyes. Her hands occasionally fluttered over the scene as she fought a nearly irresistible urge to grab something of her husband to hold onto.
“Oh God!” the woman in the aisle said, clapping her hands over her mouth as she caught sight of the uninhabited suit, eyes wide with recognition.
“Did you find your children’s clothes in their seats like this?” Sofia asked, looking up from her work.
By now several other passengers were starting to call out for missing loved ones.
“Children…missing?” Mrs. McGillicuddy said. “Oh dear Lord! It’s the Rapture!” Her eyes brimmed with tears as she started to tremble with incipient panic. Sofia set her iPhone down in her lap and took the woman gently by the shoulders.
“We don’t know that yet ma’am. There could be other explanations. We don’t even know that anyplace but this airplane is affected. Besides, if it was the Rapture, you’d have been taken too, wouldn’t you?”
“What else could it be? Oh Lord, I…I…must not have been sincere enough!”
“It could have been anything ma’am. Some kind of secret test like the Philadelphia Experiment, maybe even a natural phenomenon we haven’t encountered before. The Fortean literature is filled with reports of mysterious disappearances.” Sofia was highly skeptical of such things, and had personally investigated and found rational explanations some of the most popular accounts. But right now there was a terrified woman who needed alternatives to the idea that her God had turned his back on her and left her in the crosshairs of his wrath.
Sofia stood up. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she said loudly, stepping into the aisle. “Whatever is happening here, the first thing we need to do is stay calm.”
“Stay calm?! My children are gone! We could all be next!” a man shouted. “And you want me to, what? Just relax and read a book?!”
“We’re flying at about six hundred miles an hour, thirty thousand feet above the ground. Do you think panicking could help?” Sofia said levelly. Emotions played across the man’s face. Fear, anger, helplessness… Tears welled in his eyes, but he gave a little nod.
“Alright, everyone who is missing someone, or sitting near someone who has disappeared, try not to disturb the clothes. We have to treat them like a crime scene. They’re the only clues we have about what happened. I don’t know if there’s a way to bring anybody back or not, but if there is, finding out what happened is the first step.”
Cameron “Buck” Williams sat in First Class, proof-reading his article about genetically-modified algae and bacteria developed by a biotech firm in Israel. His brow furrowed as he tried to make sense out of another one of Dr. Rosensweig’s explanations. All that science crap flew right over Cameron’s head, so he had no idea how to go about editing it.
Leave it raw, let the Gang of Four handle it. The Gang of Four was a team of junior writers and researchers Stanton Bailey had provided him as a personal staff to do the grunt-work.
Screams from the direction of Business Class and Coach broke Buck’s concentration. As far as he could tell, there was nothing wrong with the airplane, not so much as a moment of heavy turbulence. He grabbed his notebook and headed back to have a look, just in case there was a story to be had.
He stood in the doorway of the bulkhead that separated first class from the rest of the aircraft with a quizzical expression, trying to sort out the bizarre scene in front of him. It was like an episode of the Twilight Zone. People were calling names and staring into empty seats as if in panicked search for missing companions, or children. A young woman was leaning over toward the window seat comforting a crying old lady. As the younger woman released the elderly lady’s shoulders and leaned back, Buck caught a glimpse of a suit jacket, shirt and tie laid against the back of the seat, without a man in it. Fear and shock in the eyes of other passengers seemed to rule out a practical joke. But…people don’t disappear from airplanes in flight…
The young woman stood up from her aisle seat and stepped out into the middle. I’d hit that, Buck thought. Definitely. She had dusky skin and a head of thick, shiny black hair somewhat artlessly pulled back into a ponytail. She wore a sleek black leather jumpsuit that flattered her curvaceous figure.
Buck bristled as she started giving orders in a confident voice, telling people not to disturb the “clothes.”
“Excuse me, but who put you in charge?” Buck said. The woman turned striking gray eyes on him. They stood out brilliantly against her mocha complexion, fixing him with a penetrating gaze that made him lower his eyes to her chest.
“My name is Sofia Miranda Teresa de la Garza,” she said melodiously with a hint of a Spanish accent. “I am an astrophysicist and paranormal investigator working with the Center for Inquiry. And I’m not ‘in charge,’ I’m just--”
“A ‘paranormal investigator?’” Buck chuckled. “Seen any ghosts lately? Woo-ooo-OOO-ooooo,” he said, wiggling his fingers in an ooky-spooky gesture. “I’m Cameron Williams, senior writer for Global Weekly. But you can call me Buck,” he added with a lopsided grin. The other passengers didn’t laugh at his joke, staring at him open-mouthed instead. Being an award-winning reporter whose stories frequently graced the cover of the Weekly, Buck was used to the adoring public reactions that came with his fame, but this was almost enough to make him feel uncomfortable.
The woman looked at him incredulously for several seconds.
“As the leading reporter for a major news magazine, I’m much better qualified to lead an investiga—“
“You fatuous, supercilious popinjay! These people’s loved ones have apparently vanished into thin air, and your biggest concern is who’s in charge?!” she said, her eyes flashing like a freshly-drawn sword.
“It should be someone whose idea of ‘investigation’ doesn’t involve collecting blurry pictures of Bigfoot,” Buck said, feeling his neck redden and his pulse surge.
“If you want to investigate, then investigate.” Sofia turned to the willowy blond senior flight attendant who had just emerged from the service room in the rear of the aircraft and stopped in her tracks, trying to process the impossible situation of passengers just vanishing out of their clothes. “Could you please go to the cockpit, check on the status of the flight crew and the plane, and see if the pilots can find out if people have disappeared anywhere else?”
“Oh God! The pilots! What if they’re gone too?” a woman said, her voice rising to a high pitch of mounting horror.
“The plane is flying straight and level,” Sofia said, loudly enough for her voice to carry through the cabin. “We are not in any immediate danger of crashing. The flight crew, flight attendants, and air traffic controllers are fully trained in dealing with the unlikely possibility of a pilotless aircraft.”
Buck doubted the flight attendant could do anything for them if the pilots were gone, but the ‘paranormal investigator’s’ words apparently had their intended effect: staving off, barely, an outburst of unrestrained panic. Buck had to fight down a jolt of anger at himself for feeling fear for his safety, and then relief at the woman’s words.
“Our first order of business is to find out what we can about the disappearances,” she added. Buck felt that too, and saw it spread through the passengers. Direction. Purpose. We are not helpless victims. Let’s roll.
The flight attendant snapped out of shell-shock, nodded, and headed toward the cockpit at a brisk pace. Buck took a moment to check her out as she passed, noting that she filled out her skirt rather nicely. He turned his attention back to Sofia. For the briefest moment, he had a thought of her and the flight attendant together. Their luscious lips shyly, hesitantly, yet irresistibly drawn together for a languorous kiss. The flight attendant’s slender fingers reaching for the standing collar of Sofia’s jumpsuit to begin slowly, oh so slowly, unzipping…
In the present, he leaned to get a better view as Sophia crouched to reach under her seat to pull out a briefcase and set it on her seat. Bent over the suitcase, she seemed so completely oblivious to his existence that he might as well have been watching through her bedroom window with binoculars. She snapped back upright in a crisp movement, having retrieved a notebook and pen.
The momentary stirring in Buck’s loins was doused as she started speaking again.
“I’m going to write a set of questions on the first page of this notebook. If you could each write your contact information on a separate page and then answer—“
“Now is not the time to be taking orders from Miss Weekly World News,” Buck said, rewarding his fellow passengers with a conspiratorial smirk. The smirk became a full-blown grin as he turned to Sofia. “Why don’t you go back and see if you can break into the booze while the stewardesses are busy? I know that’s normally reserved for First Class, but we can break the rules just this once. Am I right?” he said, turning to invite the other passengers into his little scheme. “While you’re doing that, I’ll start taking statements.”
“Hey buddy,” a bull-necked man with a graying high-and-tight snapped. “You got a reason to keep us from finding out the truth?” Buck turned to him with a quizzical look.
“…Um…What? No…of course not! But who couldn’t use a good stiff drink right about now, eh?” Buck’s smirk faltered into a nervous laugh as the passengers turned their gaze on him. Meeting their eyes, the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. He struggled to grasp why their looks were filled with suspicion and incipient hatred.
Then it hit him. It was like he’d fallen into an episode of The X-Files. His lofty mainstream press credentials, the speed-dial list and Rolodex full of insider contacts any reporter would kill for, the awards and photos with world leaders, celebrities and Fortune 100 CEO’s on the wall in his palatial Manhattan office, his long list of Establishment-friendly articles and op-ed pieces, his casual mockery of Sofia’s fringe ‘credentials’…all extreme liabilities in the topsy-turvy world within the pressurized cabin of this 747.
Here and now, Paranormal Girl would be exactly what the doctor ordered. And Cameron Williams, the Insider’s Insider, would be the closest thing they’d have to a suspect.
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