Flight into the Unknown
With the plane on a steady course for New Forest, the group set to work. Below, the countryside was slowly turning ravaged and barren, testifying to the recent bombings. As they neared the restricted zone, the signs of desolation increased. With the map open on his lap, and monitoring the GPS, Alan began marking the locations where the TACO missiles had struck, which would be needed to draw up a statistics chart for his report. Derek smiled, as he helped Robbins prepare the cameras, glad to see his friend finally starting to emerge from his shell. Julio only focused on flying, absentmindedly chewing gum.
Suddenly, an update on the weather report came in from the flight club Control, "232-G, do you copy, over? Weather station reports a storm entering your flight path. Severe wind sheers, with hail and low visibility reported moving in from the north over the New Forest area at 8,000 ft."
"We will be going through there SAM Control. Over," replied Julio, preparing to increase the thrust to compensate for the crosswind of the approaching storm.
"Negative on that. Radar station reports it's too severe. We recommend you turn to heading 270 and circle around it. Ten miles due west ought to do it."
"Roger that, SAM Control. Turning to heading 270." Julio disengaged the autopilot and switched back to manual control, to alter their heading. The plane diverted from its original course and turned westward on a circling pattern around the storm front. Little did they realise this seemingly necessary course alteration was sending them straight into another storm…one invisible to the naked eye or any weather instrument, and unlike anything anyone had ever encountered before.
"Excuse me, but we still have a job to do,” snapped Robbins irritably, displeased that they were diverting from their carefully charted flight plan, realising his plan wasn’t going like clockwork anymore. His instructions were clear: wait until they were within the restricted zone before making his move, “Surely this tin pot can handle a small hailstorm, can't it?"
"I doubt you would be able to do much observing in low visibility,” said Julio firmly, “Also, I am afraid flight regulations wouldn’t stand for it. I am sorry senor, but I can't risk having my licence revoked for dangerous flying - my living depends on it. What’s more, the boss will have my head if this old bird needs a new coat of paint when it’s only just been serviced…" Robbins looked furious.
“You are still under contract. I demand that you do what I am paying you for…!” he was saying but then fell silent, realising he would just have to speed things up. Making sure nobody was watching him, he reached into his bag, about to draw his concealed weapons, when the unexpected happened…
Suddenly, without warning, a violent shook the plane; everyone was jolted in their seats, caught by surprise. How could there be turbulence, with the storm front over ten miles away? Julio glanced at the GPS screen for a weather reading, confused, seeing nothing but a clear sky ahead. In another instant, the screen had blacked out altogether.
"What the hell’s this?"
Suddenly, the plane's entire electrical system had gone haywire, all the instruments dancing madly in their sockets; even the magnetic compass above the windshield was spinning like mad in its liquid-filled glass ball, as if caught in some sort of powerful magnetic field. In an instant, they were flying blind.
"Mayday, mayday!” Julio yelled into his headset, “This is 232-G to SAM Control, declaring an emergency. We’ve lost our bearings due to instrument failure. Requesting emergency guidance. Do you copy, over?" The men listened desperately as the crackling static died and then the radio had gone dead like the rest of their instruments. But the ride had only just begun.
Before they knew what was happening, the plane had gone into a spin as it was sucked into a strange vortex, resembling a horizontal tornado, which had materialised seemingly out of nowhere. No matter what they did, nothing seemed capable of breaking the vortex’s hold over them, as it carried the plane along at an incredible speed, way beyond the plane’s capabilities. Despite struggling to keep the straining aircraft from breaking up, they four companions couldn’t help but notice the outside world begin to change.
The sun had suddenly started moving, spinning through its quarters at an alarming speed, going faster and faster until it became a golden arc of light across the sky. The daylight dissolved into a blinking twilight, like a series of repeating camera flashes, making it painful to stare at directly. Then, the twilight suddenly vanished and the sky became a dark, blood-like red, reducing all visibility to zero, followed by more violent turbulence that threatened to knock the plane out of the sky, as the vortex finally spat them out. Julio and Alan fought to keep the aircraft level, praying that the force wouldn't break up the fuselage. Before they knew it, it was all over as quickly as it had started.
The cabin lights flickered back to life, revealing four shaky and clammy men, pale as marble, their eyes wide as saucers from the wild ride, but otherwise unharmed. It was then that Alan realised that the plane was going down in a nosedive. Grabbing the controls, he pulled back on the co-pilot’s stick, barely managing to level out at 5,000ft.
"Julio, pull up, goddammit! What's the matter with you? Julio!" Looking to his left, he saw their pilot lying forward in his seat; his weight was pressing against the stick, sending the plane plummeting downwards. Derek, in the seat right behind him, pulled him back by his shirt collar. Julio was in convulsions, clutching his chest in agony, his mouth foaming; he was going into cardiac arrest.
Alan, who had done first aid training with the British Red Cross, knew that someone having a heart attack needed to be placed in a recovery position immediately, to prevent chocking, and ventilated; unfortunately, in this cramped cabin it was impossible, and, with the aircraft now rendered pilotless, being the only one left with any flying experience, he had a far greater responsibility at hand: land the plane safely. Without taking his hands off the controls, he called over his shoulder to Derek, "Tilt his head back and keep his airway open. That…whatever it was that hit us seems to have disrupted his pacemaker."
Meanwhile, the group were beginning to become aware of an inexplicable change: it was no longer day outside, but night, the near-full moon clearly visible in the sky. It was almost as if time had suddenly and inexplicably shifted by twelve hours or so. To add to their amazement, a faint luminous belt had appeared in the sky, forming an arc in the sky between the Earth and the moon; a new asteroid belt had materialised around the Earth, forming a ring around their planet, much like the asteroid rings of Saturn or Uranus. But, right now, they had bigger problems to think about.
"So what the hell do we do now?" asked Robbins, a quiver of fear visible in his usually bossy voice, the situation beginning to scare him, "Are you a pilot, professor? And if we make it out of this, I’m going to kill that idiot Shelton for hiring us a pilot with a heart condition…"
"I had a few lessons when I was a student but never soloed. I haven’t even flown in ten years," said Alan, ignoring Robbins' ranting, his mind working furiously on recalling his training.
Derek, still keeping Julio's head tilted sideways, to prevent the semi-conscious pilot from chocking on his own saliva, stared out the window at the darkness below, "Alan, get on that radio, will ya, mate? Let's find out what the hell is going on out there." Careful not to change the frequencies that Julio had set, Alan spoke into his headset.
"SAM Control, this is 232-G. The pilot is down; I need instructions to fly the plane. Does anyone read me, over?" There was no answer. Turning to the transponder, he set it to frequency 7777 - the radar SOS - to alert all stations in the vicinity tracking them, of their situation, "I repeat, the pilot is down; we need help!" But, again, no answer could be heard other than some faint crackling static.
"I’m not getting anything. We need another frequency." He turned to Julio, who was turning a deadly shade of blue by now, barely conscious. He was just about on his last breath.
"Julio, I need your help here. Which is the frequency for the emergency aircraft band?" Behind him, Derek gently slapped the man over the cheeks, trying to bring him round, but to no avail. Taking the small emergency oxygen bottle he had found under his seat, he tried ventilating him. The dying pilot’s eyes blinked a bit, but he didn’t seem to hear them. Alan was about to resort to trying fiddling with the radio himself, when Julio, having recovered somewhat from the oxygen intake, mouthed to him in a barely audible voice.
"Frequency twelve…five thousand…"
Nodding his thanks, Alan turned to frequency 125,000 and tried again. Nothing. Finally, he resorted to trying the local RAF band. It may be restricted, but at least, the Royal Air Force was never off the air. Unfortunately, instead of hearing the voice of some furious military flight controller threatening to report him for using restricted frequencies, not meant for civilian use, he only heard the same deathly silence, broken by occasional crackling static.
"Nothing. I am not getting jack-shit anywhere. Even the satellite uplink for the GPS has gone off the air," he said, glancing at the blank navigation screen. It was as if the entire country had suddenly ceased to exist.
"But that's impossible,” said Derek, “Emergency and military aircraft bands are never off the air… Maybe we could try something else? Hold on…” He took out his cell phone, Robbins following suit. They tried their phones but only got a complete network failure indication; even the computer’s state-of-the-art iridium wireless modem kept hitting dead ends on every server, unable to pick up any network signal. It was almost as if all communication stations - on the ground and in the air - had suddenly ceased to exist. They still had the aircraft’s one-way, low-frequency distress transmitter mounted in the tail for use in the event of a crash landing, but it didn’t work in flight.
"Well, I guess we have to face facts here,” Alan finally said in a surprisingly calm tone, “We are completely on our own, so we have no choice but to rely on ourselves to get through this." Remembering from his experiences in the Royal Marines, the wise words of his late commanding officer were still fresh in his mind: "In desperate circumstances, panic is your worst enemy. Never allow it to overcome you if you wish to survive." He could already sense a dangerous tension building in the back seat; the nervous muttering of his two scared companions told him a panic situation was imminent.
"Just look at that!" Derek gasped, “There are not even any lights visible on the ground, not even moving cars on the highway. Why isn’t there any traffic? What’s happened down there? Nuclear strike…?" He suddenly froze in mid-sentence; they all looked horrified at each other, their minds jumping to the same awful conclusion Had that invisible vortex been the shock wave of a falling bomb, which had levelled everything on the ground? Although, Alan noted, the ground seemed strangely dark for the aftermath of a mass incineration. And that couldn’t explain the shift from day to night… Meanwhile, they had bigger problems at hand.
"Look, you guys, I don't know what’s going on down there, but I do know this: this plane can't stay up here forever.” He glanced at the fuel indicators, which were slowly going down, “Our remaining fuel will only last another hour at most. We need to find a favourable landing site soon, and try and set her down…"
"And just how are we supposed to do that? We can't see a damn thing below us and we have no radio guidance!” Robbins snapped, gesturing out the window at the darkness below. “We wouldn’t stand a chance trying to land blindly…!" Sensing an imminent panic, Alan turned round, facing his two companions.
"All right, calm down. I said, calm down!” he barked, “Now, listen to me, you two, and listen good! I am going to make this absolutely clear: panic is not allowed. I need you to remain calm, so we can figure a way out of this. So pipe down, both of you!" Satisfied to see the two men quiet down to listen to him, the former marine went on speaking.
"All right then. Firstly, we need to get out of the restricted zone and make our way back to the flight club.” Glancing at the compass on the pilot’s console, he saw that they were still heading west. Grasping the stick firmly with both hands to stay level, he felt the paddles beneath his feet, which controlled the rudder, gently pressing down on the right, “Hang on to your socks, lads! Here goes…”
The plane began to turn to starboard, slowly coming back on a northeasterly heading, retracing its original course. Alan carefully watched the compass reading, carefully making his turn as wide and as slow as possible, weary of causing a stall, which he might not be able to correct in time with his limited piloting experience. Although they had a dying man on board, who needed to get to an emergency room immediately, it wouldn’t do them any good if he screwed up by recklessly experimenting with the controls.
Soon, the plane was on its way back, the way it had come, leaving New Forest behind. With the GPS and radio still out of service, Alan kept watching the airspeed indicator, estimating the distance they had covered by counting the minutes off his wristwatch. He estimated the distance between Sandleford Park and the edge of New Forest to be about twenty to twenty-five miles. If his calculations were correct, even with a ten to twenty percent error, they should have visual sighting of the flight club any moment now.
But as they looked, they could see nothing but the same tar-black darkness stretching all the way out to the horizon. It seemed the blast of that falling bomb – or whatever it was – had spread far and wide, blacking out everything on the ground. They could have the runway right beneath them, but they were stuck up here only because they couldn’t see it!
"Can't we hold out until daylight, when we can see what’s going on?" Derek suggested, not looking the least keen in attempting to land in the blind. But Alan, despite his whole-hearted urge to agree, shook his head as he glanced at the rapidly dipping fuel indicators.
"No, we don't have the fuel to fly round in circles till daybreak - whenever that is,” he said, his mind unable to work out how it could have shifted from day to night, “We shall just have to take our chances and hope for the best." With no other choice, they finally decided to go ahead with Alan’s plan and attempt the seemingly impossible.
"Fine, let's get on with it then and keep our fingers crossed,” Robbins said, finalising the argument, “So, what next, professor?"
"Well…" said Alan feeling rather uneasy; although, by now, he was more or less comfortable with keeping the aircraft under control on his own, he still didn't have much experience in landing one, "Since we have no communication or navigation aids, it’ll have to be done visually all the way. We can use the landing lights to spot any ground obstacles at close range, as we come in. In this darkness, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to find the runway. Fortunately, the surrounding area is open country with flat terrain, which should give us a fighting chance…in theory.” They all knew the odds were seriously against them; but there was no time for Plan B.
Taking the plane around, Alan aligned them with the approximate location of the flight club runway, intent on getting them as close as he could figure, so they wouldn’t be far from help when they crash-landed. Then came the hard part, “All right, Derek, look into the seat pocket in front of you; there should be the pilot's flight manual in there somewhere." Derek found the manual and opened it up on his lap.
"All right Al, what should I look for?"
"Look for something called ‘normal procedures’, something. I need the landing approach speeds and flaps control," Derek flipped through the pages and read aloud, "'Landing Approach Speed: 70 knots, flaps: 30 degrees.'"
"All right, 70 knots and 30-degrees flaps it is. Reducing power, nose down…” Gently pushing the stick forward, he started the descent on low thrust, carefully watching the pitch and trim on the instruments as he went. As they passed below 1,000 feet, the plane was suddenly engulfed in a strange white mist, which seemed to cover the ground in all directions. Alan paled; was it a layer of heavier-than-air poisonous gas from fallout?
Great, just what we need…
But there wasn’t much they could do about it now. The deal was simple: land or die. With only about 300 feet to go, the landing lights suddenly revealed the ground, which, to their utmost horror, was an endless blanket of thick woodland; there wasn’t a trace of any flat, clear ground appropriate for a safe landing, let alone a runway.
"Damn, the terrain is crappy! Al, pull up! Get us back up!" Derek bellowed. But Alan, seeing his decreasing airspeed drop to stall limit, realised it was impossible to abort the landing now without risking a crash.
"It’s too late now; we are going. Everybody kneel forward and put your heads between your knees, hands over your head!" he yelled, not daring to take his hands off the controls, his eyes nailed to the windshield, trying not to lose his nerve from the white mist obstructing his view, which seemed to thicken as they neared the ground, almost as if announcing Death’s presence, awaiting them down there. In the back, his companions put their heads between their knees as instructed, bracing for impact.
Staring ahead desperately, Alan suddenly saw the trees thin out as they approached a plain ahead - this was their chance. Just as they crossed the edge of the forest, he touched down. The plane hit the ground hard, mowing its way through the thick undergrowth, the prop chopping away everything in its path, but gradually slowing down. Alan quickly hit the fuel cut-off switch and pulled hard on the speed brakes lever. Suddenly, the plane gave a violent jolt as the undercarriage struck an obstacle and stopped dead; all four men were thrown forward, their faces impacting hard with the forward seats and control panel. The prop made a few more spins before finally grinding to a halt as the engine shut down. In the back, the distress beacon automatically sprang to life, sending out an SOS.
Alan shook his head, trying to clear the stars from his vision. His mouth tasted like blood and everything was spinning around him, making him feel nauseous. Turning, he saw Derek nursing a bloodied nose and Robbins a black eye, but otherwise no injuries. He had done it; not exactly the kind of landing that would qualify him as pilot of the year, but successful nonetheless. Hastily switching off the master switch to cut all power in case of fuel leaks, he turned to his companions, who were undoing their seatbelts, eager to get out.
“Wait, nobody move from your seats yet! Not until we’ve checked the air outside.” Although it hardly mattered since they couldn’t take off anymore and the plane wasn’t even a pressurized aircraft to keep any toxic fallout at bay until help could get here, they had to be careful. Instructing Derek and Robbins to don the oxygen bottles and to keep their jackets stretched in front of their faces as a precaution, Alan grasped the door handle, hesitating. Perhaps it meant death to open it? Taking a deep breath, he called, “Close your eyes and keep your masks firmly pressed over your mouth and nose! Here we go…”
Shutting his own eyes, bracing for a probable wave of red-hot fallout to swarm the cabin, he opened the door ajar and took a quick whiff of the air. The burning sensation of poisonous gas in his throat and face never came; the night air tasted wonderful, with no traces of any contamination. Apparently, the 'bomb' they had seen fall from the sky had been nothing more than an optical illusion, it seemed, while the mist of the ‘fallout’ was merely water vapours caused by the humidity of the surrounding marshes.
"It… It’s all right, I can breathe. Get those masks off!" Derek and Robbins excitedly ripped off their masks, cheering in utter relief. Suddenly, a new, alarming odour reached their noses: aircraft fuel.
"We have to get out of here! This plane is going to blow! Deke, come on, help me move him…" They all turned to Julio, only to find him lying stiff and motionless in his seat, his eyes vacant. Alan put his hand to his throat and felt for a pulse. The pilot’s body was cold as ice; he had succumbed to his heart attack. Alan and Derek stared with heavy hearts at the sight of the dead man.
"Forget him, you blithering fools, he’s dead!” Robbins shouted, snapping them back to reality, “We have to get out of here now, or we’ll join him when this plane goes up in flames! Move it!"
Grabbing the plane's two emergency flashlights to penetrate the darkness outside, they jumped out, into ankle-deep water; they had landed right in the middle of a marsh. Wading through the mud, and up to dry ground, they run away from the plane, expecting it to burst into flame at any moment. But it didn’t. Their hearts pounding a mile a minute, they finally stopped to catch their breath. The worst was over; thanks to Alan, three of the four passengers of Flight 232-G were safely back on the ground, alive and in one piece.
“That poor blighter…" Alan muttered grimly, thinking of Julio. Although the young pilot had been flying at his own risk with his heart condition, not to mention having nearly gotten them killed with his carelessness, he still had a family to feed. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much they could have done for him up there; the moment he had seen the pilot collapse into a seizure, Alan knew he was doomed, whether they managed to land the plane safely or not.
After they had calmed down somewhat, relieved to have made it down in one piece, their relief quickly turned to utter puzzlement as they stared at their changed surroundings. It was apparent by now that there was much more going on down here than just a blackout of the whole country. The beams from their flashlights revealed thick woodland all around, filled with animal sounds in the night. But something was different.
Derek exhaled, wiping a trickle of sweat from his forehead, "Blimey, it feels so warm…" he said, taking off his winter jacket, the others following suit, realising what was wrong: instead of a snowy, winter environment, the weather was now warmer, the temperature having risen at least twenty degrees in the past hour. All traces of the snow and ice had vanished, and the air was filled with the scent of pollen, among other spring odours never found in the countryside at this time of year.
Nearby, Robbins, his back turned to them, was discretely deactivating the bug on his phone, which wasn’t needed anymore. Whatever had happened to them, he realised he now needed his two companions – or more precisely, his would-be victims -, until he could figure out exactly what was going on. For now, his mission would have to wait. Alan and Derek, stunned with amazement at the changed world, didn’t notice anything.
"How do you suppose the time zones have shifted?"
"I have no idea, Deke, no more than how the flora has gone into full bloom, in the middle of bloody winter!" replied Alan, shining his flashlight on the thick vegetation surrounding them, which was indeed now all in full bloom. The situation couldn’t get any crazier. He looked around at the dark woodland.
"We won’t get far in this darkness,” he said, “We better stay here until dawn, so we can get a better look at our surroundings."
Spreading their now useless jackets down on the ground under some bushes to use as sleeping bags, the three stranded survivors of flight 232-G lay down to sleep. Above them, the night sky shown brightly with the mysterious Aurora Borealis that had just brought them into this strange new world…
Meanwhile, back at the flight club, Tom Shelton sat at his desk, munching a Danish pastry, as he watched the Cessna’s flight path on the radar screen, over his magazine. Everything was going like clockwork. Any moment now, the inevitable should happen… Suddenly, he saw the storm front was shifting north, entering the Cessna's flight path. Although, technically, it didn’t matter, as the passengers on that plane were not supposed to back anyway, he had strict instructions not to act suspicious in any way. Getting on the radio, he gave an update on the weather report as he normally would.
"We will be going through there SAM Control. Over," he heard the pilot reply.
Although he was being paid to make sure that plane didn’t return, Shelton knew every other radio and radar station in the area were tracking the Cessna’s flight path, not to mention they could hear his transmition, which might arouse suspicion from the authorities if he didn’t act accordingly. Hopefully, his associate on board would sort it out with little trouble.
"Negative on that. Radar station reports it's too severe. I recommend you turn to heading 270 and circle around it. Ten miles due west ought to do it."
But no sooner had the plane altered course, to circle around the storm, when Shelton suddenly picked up a new signal: a faint, highly distorted mayday, coming from the Cessna! Not a moment too soon, the plane's transponder signal vanished from the screen. It had happened! Shelton leapt from his chair.
"Flight 232-G, do you read me, over? Repeat, 232, come in!" After several futile attempts to re-establish contact, Shelton got on the phone, but not to alert the police.
"It's me boss. I think it’s done. Shall I sound the alarm yet?" A familiar voice with a deep Russian accent - the same person who had talked to Robbins the previous night - answered him, "Wait a few more minutes to ensure the job is done properly, and then alert the authorities as you normally would. We’ll take it from here…"