A Ray Without Hope
Carrying You-Can-Call-Me-Buck, struggling helplessly in the classic riding-out-of-town-on-a-rail posture, the passengers marched him to the emergency exit. Someone opened the door, and there was a howling rush of wind.
“Awww, come on! You know you want me, baby!” he said, just before they hurled him out into the slipstream. “AAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaa…!” Somewhere far, far below, he hit, producing a little ring-shaped cloud of dust.
Sofia banished her fantasy. Unfortunately, something more practical had to be done with him. For all his towering braggadocio about his exalted position at Global Weekly, Sofia found it impossible to take the man seriously. Had he been born a hidalgo in the time of the conquistadores, he would surely have worn an enormous gold-plated codpiece festooned with tassels and ribbon, while boasting of his heroic exploits as the real Don Quijote de la Mancha.
In this century, he merely sported a rumpled suit at least a couple sizes too big for him. His baby face and head of untamable short curly hair completed the look of some malicious, barely-adolescent class clown suddenly thrust into the grown-up world. Tom Hanks had done it much better and more appealingly in Big.
“Perhaps you could go and see to the passengers in First Class, and investigate any disappearances that happened there?” she asked. Having heard no commotion from that section, she doubted there would be any.
“Yes, I could do that,” he said a little too quickly, avoiding the threatening eyes of the other passengers. “I’ve also got a major cover story I’m working on,” he said with a faltering smirk, then turned and hustled briskly back to First Class as if he was a Busy Man on Very Important Busy-ness.
Sofia sighed and shook her head, glad to see the curtain close behind him. But without him there to provide a comedic, if frustrating distraction, the fearful reality of the situation returned. She snapped back into action, lighting a campfire to keep the beasts lurking in the shadows at bay.
“Sir? Ma’am,” she said to the anxious parents. “Could you please search the airplane thoroughly from front to back? If you see anything at all unusual, like an unfamiliar piece of technology, scorch marks, anything, could you make a note of it and let me know?” she said, tearing off a page from her notebook and handing them her pen.
They nodded. They’d already searched the aircraft thoroughly, but not for anything that might be related to the cause of the disappearances. They headed to the back of the cabin to start their search.
“Sir,” she said picking out another man. “Could you please go through the aircraft and try to find out how many people are missing, and write down the seat numbers with a brief description of the clothes, and if they were with anyone still here?”
“Yeah…I can do that. Do you want me to find out what they ate or drank, things like that?”
“That’s a good idea, but I think it would be best to gather the preliminary information quickly. If you could tell people that I would like to interview them and get their contact information so I can keep them updated on anything I find, I would appreciate it.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Sofia saw the curtain part again. Thankfully, it was the flight attendant, returning with one of the pilots. Sofia felt a little chill when she recognized him. Waiting in the terminal before takeoff, she’d seen the two flirting. That the pilot had been subconsciously fingering his wedding ring wasn’t what bothered her the most.
Now as before, she noticed the stiff tension of his body language, the way he seemed to be enduring the young woman’s presence the way a medieval monk might endure some self-inflicted torture. Why, if he wanted to remain loyal to his wife, he didn’t simply tell the poor girl that and let her find love someplace else, Sofia couldn’t fathom. She’d briefly met his eyes in the terminal, and did so again now. Alarm bells of warning went off in her hindbrain. There was hatred in those eyes.
“It’s a joke. They’re hiding, trying to—“ the pilot said.
“Ray! Their shoes, their socks, their clothes, everything was left behind! These people are gone!” The flight attendant all but clung to him in desperation. He accepted her touch, but returned only indifference.
“Sir, she’s telling the truth,” Sofia said, doing her best to keep her tone clinical and her expression neutral. She’d seen this relationship before, in a Renaissance painting of Zeus. The god sat enthroned, one hand grasping his royal scepter, the other arm resting on a cloud. His broad, muscular chest was bare, shouting his masculinity to the Cosmos. He looked straight at the viewer with a stern, almost angry expression. A petite, naked goddess crouched at his side, one hand stretched out across his lap, the other reaching up to delicately stroke his chin. Her head was tilted all the way back, looking up at him with entreaty for the tiniest bit of kindness or affection. Clearly, none would be forthcoming.
Sofia led him to her row and pointed to Mr. McGillicuddy’s suit. She gave Mrs. McGillicuddy a smile of gratitude for leaving it intact this long.
“If you look closely, you can see how the cloth was abruptly compressed by air pressure. Apparently the body was dematerialized all at once, rapidly enough that air could not have time to flow in from the sleeves and pant legs before external pressure collapsed the core areas. We’ve had several other passengers disappear in this way. I have some volunteers getting an exact count.”
Sofia watched the man’s world come apart in front of her eyes. In his world there was Order. In his world there was Discipline. People and things knew their Place. Flight checklists were carried out in their proper steps and on time. Arrivals and departures occurred on schedule. And now, Mystery had dared! Dared! To puncture the pressurized cabin of his mental universe and let him know in no uncertain terms that he was not In Control.
His eyes went wide with a fear that looked more like savage rage. The muscles of his jaw clenched, his nostrils flared, and the veins in his neck bulged. A glance down to his hands revealed fists tight in a white-knuckle grip. His whole body vibrated like a tuning fork, as if barely able to contain some violent inner force. The Calista Flockhart-skinny flight attendant seemed to feel it. She looked up at him with big, round blue eyes and slipped her slender arms more around him, pressing against him to give and seek reassurance.
Wrong answer, Sofia thought. The pilot—“Ray,” she’d called him—bit down on his lower lip, hard. Sofia winced in tune with the man’s own jolt of pain. Blood trickled down toward his jaw line. It wasn’t hard for Sofia to imagine this man whipping himself for the sins of the flesh in some dark monastic cell, muttering prayers to a vindictive god while his raging libido burned within him, demanding some kind of release—and transmuting into a seething fury at any woman who stirred his forbidden desires. Not hard at all. She took an involuntary step back from him, but she managed to suppress a gulp of fear.
“Miss, could you please go and get me a copy of the passenger manifest, any information you might have on what people ordered for food and drink, and a seating diagram for the plane if you have one?” she asked the flight attendant, kicking herself for the tremor she heard in her voice. “And some plastic bags—Ziplock bags if you have them, wastebasket bags and latex or plastic gloves. So I can examine the scene and collect samples for analysis.”
The flight attendant gave a jerky nod and peeled herself off of the pilot. As she passed Sofia, she turned her head to give him what was no doubt a longing glance, her cascade of honey-colored fairy-princess locks flowing over her shoulders in curls and waves.
Sofia resisted an urge to reach out to the captain and offer him solace. Instead, she kept her distance and clasped her arms behind her back, taking a military-grade parade-rest stance. “My name is Sofia. I’m a scientist,” she said, struggling to keep her voice cool and professional. The pilot’s dark eyes looked her up and down, smoldering with resentment. “Sir, could you please find out if there are any reports of this sort of thing happening anywhere else?”
“It was the Rapture…” Mrs. McGillicuddy said in a trembling voice. By now her mascara was streaked down her face, runnels of smeared black twisting their way down her wrinkled skin. Her terrified pallor made her bright-red lipstick look like a bloody slash.
“That isn’t the only possible explanation,” Sofia said, but inwardly, she knew that reassuring the pastor’s wife would be impossible. The woman had probably been eagerly dreaming of a day of inexplicable vanishings for decades, except that her clothes were supposed to be a shed husk, too.
At the sound of the word “rapture,” the pilot flinched.
“Irene was right…” he whispered, backing away stiffly. The dark blue curtain flowed over him as he passed through the bulkhead, and Sofia heard a loud crack. Did he just…slap himself?!
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