The litany of disasters coming over the radio from LaGuardia Control hit Ray like a series of hammer blows. It had begun with six simultaneous airline crashes at the time of the disappearances, but the total was now in the dozens in U.S. airspace alone. And no one knew how many more airliners were flying on autopilot with vanished or unconscious crews.
“DHS has declared all airspace within a hundred miles of New York, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Boston restricted,” the LaGuardia controller said. “We have orders to ground all flights as soon as possible. We can try to divert you to—“
“Restricted airspace?” Ray asked, incredulous. “Why? They don’t seriously think terrorists with box-cutters are behind this, do they?”
“As far as I can tell, it’s some kind of contingency plan developed after 9/11. Something all ready-made and easy to trigger as soon as somebody suspected another attack. When the crashes started happening, some minor functionary probably activated it and nobody can get ahold of a decision-maker with the authority to rescind it. I don’t think they planned on having the higher-ups disappear.”
“Screw that. Rescind it yourself! Give us clearance!”
“Do you really think it’s that easy, Captain? Didn’t anybody teach you what ‘restricted airspace’ means? Post-9/11 it means fighters in the air and maybe surface-to-air missiles ready to fire. Maybe you’ll get lucky. Maybe whoever’s supposed to scramble the fighters disappeared, but maybe not. Maybe the guy in charge of the SAMs disappeared, maybe not.
“The fighters would be under the control of the Air Force, and maybe the Navy if there are any carriers around. Surface to air missiles? Probably Army, maybe Navy if there’s a destroyer in the harbor. So that’s four huge government bureaucracies, five if you count the FAA and nobody knows for sure who’s in charge. Because half of the people who would be in charge are gone, and the other half are trying to find out what the fuck happened to their kids!” The man’s voice cracked, and Ray felt a stab in his heart. Raymie…
“So no, Captain, I’m not giving clearance for you to fly into a free-fire zone controlled by military guys who are probably wondering where the fuck their kids are, and just itching for a chance to shoot back at whoever did this to us! Or any handy substitute.”
I know who did this, Ray thought. And you can’t shoot back. Arms too short to box with God…
“We won’t reach the restricted airspace for another three hours. They should get things straightened out by then…”
“Captain, I don’t think you should count on things getting any better in the next three hours. There are reports that the President was taken! Anybody that’s left of the government is gonna be heading for the deepest bunkers they can find! There could be goddamn alien troop ships landing by then for all we know!” The radio went silent, save for the controller’s breathing as he struggled to calm himself. “I think I can get you in line at Atlanta.”
“That’s the only option?”
”The only other alternatives you could reach are Halifax and Chicago, and you’d wanna take a real close look at your fuel gauge before you even think about O’Hare.”
Ray was already looking at the EICAS screen and making note of remaining fuel and engine performance. “Nick, you have the aircraft.”
“I have the plane,” the First Officer said, giving Ray a quizzical look. But Ray was checking the feed from the National Weather Service on the multi-function display. The weather was clear, so he paged through to a wind-speed map for the Eastern U.S.. Plucking the calculator from his pocket, he made some rough calculations of fuel consumption. He stiffened as the numbers came up, but his face took on a look of grim determination.
“Chicago.” Nick looked at him suspiciously.
“Ray,” Nick said, “This wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that your family lives in Chicago, would it?” Nick said.
“There are other trans-Atlantic flights coming in. They might need Atlanta more than we do.”
“Or they might not. Or, they could just land after we’ve taxied out of the way. Or we fly a holding pattern until they taxi out of the way. I think that beats the ‘we crash into Lake Michigan because we’ve run out of fuel’ option.”
“We’ll make it. We just angle ten degrees further north and catch this tailwind,” he said, pointing at the small screen. “That’ll save us enough fuel to make O’Hare.”
“Come on Ray, that’s crazy. Let’s say you’re right, and we get there flying on fumes—and then it turns out somebody else has crashed on the runway and we have to circle ‘till they can clear the wreckage. Or the weather changes by the time we get there and that tailwind is weaker, or the engines are burning just a little more fuel than they are now. If you haven’t noticed, Mr. Murphy of Murphy’s Law fame has just squatted on the whole goddamn planet and taken a dump. You really want to bet all our lives that everything’s gonna work out just right?”
“I’m the captain of this aircraft, Lieutenant Smith. We’re going to Chicago!”
“Ray, you’re not thinking clearly.” Ray put his hands on his control yoke.
“I have the plane.”
“I. Have. The plane! Unless you’re planning on committing mutiny Lieutenant Smith, you’re going to turn over control of this aircraft right now. That is a direct order.” He locked eyes with his co-pilot.
“Gimme the calculator. I’ll check your numbers…” Nick said, then transferred control and took the calculator. After a few moments calculating and re-calculating, he sighed. “OK, it looks like we should make it, but it’s still too close. It’s a chaotic world out there Ray. Our first priority is to get this aircraft on the ground, safe.”
“We will.” Ray toggled the intercom as he gently banked the aircraft. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Due to emergencies on the ground, we will be diverting to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. We have been assured that we will be able to land safely there. We apologize for the inconvenience. Thank you for flying Pan-Global Airlines.”
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