The airliner’s safety brochure was like every other I’d seen: laminated and perfect, showing a large jet afloat in calm water, the emergency chutes deployed with inflatable rafts at their ends awaiting the arrival of passengers after a perfect water landing.
“Those diagrams are terribly optimistic,” the woman in the seat beside me said, eyeing the brochure as our plane climbed away from Manila. She spoke masterful English, clipped with a Filipino accent. “Let’s hope we never have to test that theory.”
I turned to her, intrigued. We were seated in the coach section, two women, strangers, traveling alone to Los Angeles. I had the window seat; she was on the aisle. I’d flown a lot, and I knew the social rules for the small talk that goes on between strangers forced to sit side-by-side for hours on end. A discussion of the false promises illustrated in the safety brochure did not come close to qualifying under those rules.
“Prepare for the worst,” I said. “That’s my philosophy. At least know where the exits are.”
“You’re a rare type, then. Most people give no consideration to the worst-case scenario.”
She had come on board late, a slight and lovely woman, maybe forty years old, her brown skin made utterly smooth by a veneer of makeup, her black hair permed into loose curls that framed a balanced face. She dared to wear a salmon-colored business suit that somehow worked for her—a happy color that relieved some of the fatigue visible around her eyes.
After stowing a small bag under the seat with worried haste, she had acknowledged me with a courteous nod and then closed her eyes, seeming to have fallen asleep before we reached the runway.
I was a different sort of woman than my new companion: a tall and rangy California blonde, casually dressed in a cream pullover and cargo pants. I hadn’t even bothered with makeup. I was on my way home, a fifteen-hour flight shared with strangers whose opinions and lives had nothing to do with mine.
I refolded the brochure and put it back in the seat pocket. “I’ve seen the worst case,” I told her. “More than once. I’ve learned to prepare.”
She cocked her head, her gaze distracted, a skeptical frown furrowing her brow. “If you can prepare,” she murmured, more as if she were wondering aloud than speaking to me, “surely it is not the worst case?” Her gaze shifted to meet mine then shot away again, as a self-conscious smile quirked her lips. “Ah, I’m sorry. I’ve overstepped.” She leaned back in her seat, dabbing a tissue against her cheeks, where a sheen of sweat seeped through her makeup. “My occupation leads to an unhealthy fascination with hazard assessments.”
“What do you do?” I asked with honest interest.
“Geek work. Engineering appraisals of biohazard containment procedures under laboratory conditions.” She settled her small hands one atop the other in her lap. “Modeling the worst-case scenario is just part of the daily grind, but it’s always been theory for me. No real world tests. Not yet. And you? What experience has led you to always map the exits?”
“Call me a professional adventurer.”
I was a photographer and a mountain climber. For ten years I’d scrimped and saved and sought grants, managing to get myself on expeditions around the world. Not all of them had gone well. I told her about a disastrous climb on Denali when an avalanche hit, taking out most of our party and leaving me with a broken arm. And another time on Everest when crowds of amateurs slowed our descent as a storm rolled in.
“I learned not to count on other people, because when disaster strikes, most of them panic. In the worst case? It comes down to everyone for themselves, and if you’re not strong enough to accept that, you won’t survive. My name’s Halley, by the way.”
She offered her hand. Its warmth surprised me, almost feverish in its intensity. “Are you all right?”
Anita gave me an indulgent smile. “I have a severe nickel allergy.” Touching the far side of her neck, she drew my gaze to a mottled, red rash. “I was given a necklace that turned out to be . . . less than I thought. A slight fever is part of my allergic reaction. It should clear up in a few hours.”
“Not a worst-case scenario, then.” I kept my voice light, as if it was a joke, but I was uneasy. I didn’t want to spend the first week of my homecoming laid out by some exotic Asian fever acquired from a biohazard engineer. Too much irony in that.
Anita laughed again, though this time it sounded forced. “You must be thinking I’m the worst-case scenario for the passenger in the adjacent seat. Gloomy and ill.”
“No. Worst case would be if something went wrong and I was stuck sitting next to someone too big to push aside or climb over on my way to the exit. Everyone for themselves, remember?” I smiled like it was a macabre joke, but it was the truth, and judging by her somber expression, she knew it.
“Maybe we’ll get lucky,” she said. “And stay in the air all the way to Los Angeles.”
“Best-case scenario,” I agreed.
I think it came to us both that we’d said more than we should have, and we retreated into silence.
I woke with a start. The cabin was dark: just the floor lights and a few reading lamps. The air was too warm, thick with exhaled breaths. A nervous whisper rode atop an ominous silence. Why couldn’t I hear any engine noise? I glanced down, to see Anita’s white-knuckled hand clutching the armrest between us.
“What the hell is going on?” My ears popped. “Are we descending?” I pulled out my phone to check the time, confirming that it was too soon to be landing, too soon by hours. We were hardly halfway home.
Anita turned to me, her shoulders hunched, reflected light glinting in her dark eyes, her lips parted to admit the quick, shallow breaths that mark the edge of panic. She looked to me like a hunted creature at bay, an impression reinforced by her words. “This can’t be happening. It can’t.”
“What is happening?”
“The engines! Listen to them. They’ve been cutting out, one by one.” There was a mad focus to her eyes as she added, “It’s a judgment. Against me.”
I pulled the buckle on my seatbelt and started to rise. “I’m going to go talk to someone. Where the hell are the flight attendants anyway?”
I jumped as a man’s voice, humble with apology, issued from the speakers. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have an emergency.”
The plane was going down.
As the news sank in, passengers wailed, cried, prayed.
I re-buckled my seatbelt and put on my life vest.
Next I looked for the exit sign. It hung above the aisle, four seats ahead. If I survived the impact, I promised myself I would do whatever it took to reach that exit. The pilot had assured us our situation was known. Rescue was already on the way. We wouldn’t be in the water long. If I could get out of the plane alive, I’d have a good chance to survive.
Beside me, Anita kept her white-knuckled grip on the armrest, but she wasn’t crying, she wasn’t praying. She stared ahead at nothing. She’d assessed our odds in her first words to me, when she called the safety brochure terribly optimistic. “Anita.”
She turned. It was too dark to really see her face, but I saw her hand let go of the armrest. She took my hand; squeezed it, her palm even hotter than it had been before, hot and dry. “You’re a survivor, Halley. Do whatever it takes to live through this. Climb over me. Climb over anyone, but live. Someone has to, or it’s for nothing.”
I wondered what she meant . . . but I didn’t really care. It didn’t matter. In just a few minutes all of us on the plane would likely be dead. “Put your vest on,” I told her. I helped her with it, buckling it around her waist.
Outside the window there was only darkness. I pressed my forehead against the plastic pane and peered up, but I couldn’t see any stars. I couldn’t see the ocean below us. No way to know how much farther we had to fall.
The plane began to shudder.
People screamed—a chaos of animal noises that my fear-filled brain refused to truly hear, blurring and blending the sound with the roar of wind rushing past our powerless wings—all of it abruptly overridden by the pilot’s terror-edged voice, “Assume crash position. Assume crash position!”
I grabbed Anita’s hand. Then I bent at the waist, my head pressed to my knees and one palm braced against the seat back in front of me—a position that felt to me as useless as a prayer, but I prayed too. I held onto Anita’s hand and prayed I would be one of the survivors.
We hit hard. I heard some kind of debris slam against the ceiling. I didn’t look up to see what it might be. The plane bounced. We hit again. The fuselage screamed with the voice of aluminum tearing. Luggage exploded out of the overhead rack—and then the fuselage cracked apart.
It broke right in front of me. Darkness swept in, and a howling wind. Fluid sprayed in my face—though whether it was blood or hydraulics or the ocean itself, I couldn’t tell because we were tumbling, swirling, cartwheeling on a long chaotic fall into the arms of death.
Or was it life?
We assume it’s easy to tell the difference.
Clawing at consciousness, I awoke to a low, rumbling assault of sound, and a raw awareness of pain. Everything hurt. My skull, my face, my back, my hips . . . every muscle along my sides. I blinked, and found myself gazing at black smoke roiling across a starry sky. I was lying on my back, still belted in my seat. The wall of the fuselage was still beside me. The little window framed a fiery light, but the seats that had been in front of me were gone. The fuselage had split right at my feet, and the front of the plane had torn away.
A hysterical little laugh escaped my throat as I remembered my promise to do whatever it took to reach the exit.
The exit was wide open now.
A soft whump startled me. A nearby roar of rushing water followed it. My seat shuddered. Rain pelted my face—salty rain, ocean water. The sound I heard was the sound of a breaking wave . . . sweeping around the fuselage? As the wave retreated it left behind a steady, bold roar unlike any ocean sound I’d heard before.
Braced for pain, I turned my head, peering through the window at a lurid light, blurred and refracted by a layer of water droplets clinging to the outside of the window. Something was burning out there, but I couldn’t see it clearly enough to know what it might be.
White water surged up and slapped hard against the plastic pane. Instinctively, I jerked back, while the fuselage trembled around me, and more salty water rained down.
A child wailed.
I gasped, realizing this was the first voice I’d heard since waking. The only voice. In the seconds since I’d opened my eyes there had been no screaming, no crying, no pleas for help, no reassurances . . . just the rumble of the ocean, the roar of the fire, and now, one child’s despairing wail.
That cry made me move.
“I’m coming,” I called out in a rusty croak, groping at my seatbelt until I got it undone. “I’m coming. Don’t be afraid.”
A stupid thing to say.
I squiggled and shifted and found that my body still worked. I got my feet under me and turned to climb out of my seat—only to discover Anita in my way. Refracted firelight shimmered in her eyes as she lay blinking up at me. Water swirled behind her head. I looked past her, in a direction that was now down, toward what had been the back of the plane. Everything back there belonged to the ocean now. I thought I saw drowned faces beneath the water’s unquiet, dark surface but the light was poor. It was hard to be sure.
The child cried again.
Across the aisle, only one other seat remained above the water. The seats that should have completed the row weren’t there. I had to assume that, like the front of the plane, they’d been ripped away in the crash.
The child huddled in the sanctuary of that one seat, a boy maybe seven years old. He’d gotten out of his seatbelt; he’d even remembered to inflate his life vest. It looked like a huge yellow pillow strapped to his chest. He clung to the vertical seat cushion, weeping as water rose and fell around his feet, soaking his shoes and his pants.
“I’m coming,” I told him.
I told myself, Go!
But Anita was in the way. She hadn’t moved at all; I needed to know if she could. “Are you hurt?” I asked her, all too aware of currents of hot air moving past my face, missives from the roaring fire just outside.
As Anita opened her mouth to answer, another wave hit. The torn fuselage shuddered, the seat shifted beneath me, and I almost fell on top of her. I caught myself with a hand against her seatback. My fingers came away sticky, smelling of blood.
“Leave me,” she said, in a high half-shriek. “Save yourself. Live.”
She was right. Injured, helpless, likely with hours to go before rescue came, her prospects were slim. The smart thing to do would be to abandon her, and focus on the child.
“Go,” she pleaded. “Before you can’t get out.”
I started to go; I tried to go—what did I care for her life? I hardly knew her. We’d sat together, we’d shared a few words—but then we’d held hands, and our abstract acquaintance had become personal. I couldn’t leave her.
I felt for her seatbelt and popped it open, telling myself I was strong enough to help her and the child too. “Come on! We’re getting out of here. Put your arm around my shoulder.”
She was delirious. She tried to push me away. I grabbed the red tabs dangling from her vest and pulled them. I pulled my own. Both vests inflated and I pushed her into the water that flooded the aisle.
We bobbed at the surface.
I turned her onto her back, gripped the straps at her shoulder, and dragged her with me as I worked my way around the boy’s seat. Beyond him, firelight glimmered on open water. That’s where I wanted to be. That light was hope glimmering—the desperate hope of not being drowned when the wreckage around us finally pitched over.
I cleared the seat and felt a strong pull of ocean current. Holding one arm out to the boy, I called to him, “Come! Jump!”
He didn’t hesitate. He threw himself at me, a skinny little thing strapped into a vest so big he looked like he might levitate. A rumbling growl warned me that a wave was coming. I got an arm around him. He got an arm around me. “Deep breath!” I yelled as a mountain of white water plunged over us.
Like the plane crash, there was nothing I could do except hold on. We tumbled. My head hit against a sandy bottom. I felt the boy thrash. I felt Anita flail, prying at my fingers, trying to get me to let go. Her elbow struck my ribs, but I held on, my fingers locked around the straps of her life vest. I swore to myself we would survive, that we would all three survive together.
The wave let us go.
I rolled onto my back and gasped for air, letting the life vest hold me up. I made sure the boy’s face was out of the water, and then Anita. “It’s okay,” I murmured to them, my voice pitched so high it frightened me. “We’re doing okay.” The boy had his arm around my neck, so tight it was painful. I was glad. It told me he was strong, not like Anita. She drifted beside us, nearly unconscious.
The wave had carried us maybe fifty feet from the broken fuselage. A fire still shimmered beyond it, though it was less than it had seemed through the window. A yellow fragment of moon floated low above the horizon, illuminating a line of white water that must surely mark a distant reef . . . and I realized then that the fuselage must have been resting on a reef, with waves breaking around it . . . but it made no sense. The north Pacific is vast and nearly empty, and while I could believe our pilot had hoped to come down near some patch of reef or on some spot of an island—Johnston Atoll maybe? Palmyra?—to imagine that he had succeeded was more than I could accept.
With my charges in tow, I swiveled around, where I was presented with more evidence of the impossible.
Visible in the moon’s light, not a hundred feet away, was a sand beach, rising steeply to a line of brush and skeletal trees. Water sloshed into my open mouth. I spit it out, sure I was suffering a hallucination, seeing a mirage. Reality had slipped. We had come to a place where the odds did not allow us to be.
Somehow, we had been given a chance—and I took it.
With one hand on Anita’s straps and the boy clinging to me with a relentless grip, I kicked my shoes off, kicked at the water, and slowly, slowly, I brought us all to that impossible shore.
The boy stood up as we reached the shallows, but Anita couldn’t walk, or maybe she didn’t want to. “I’m not going to leave you,” I warned her, and I dragged her arm around my shoulder, hauling her up the beach, while the boy ran ahead, scouting beneath the vegetation until he found a hollow that offered shelter from a relentless wind. I got Anita out of her vest, and used it as a pillow for her head. Her skin was hot, but she was shivering so I piled sand around her legs. The boy helped me.
“What’s your name?” I asked him as I unbuckled his vest. He gave me a puzzled look, so I tried one of the few Tagalog words I knew. “Pangalan?”
“Hilario,” he told me in a shy, frightened voice. I tried to remember who he’d been traveling with . . . mama or daddy or both? But they’d been strangers, of no importance to me, and I’d paid no attention. I ruffled his wet hair, and gave him a hug.
Out on the reef, the broken fuselage had been pushed over by the waves, submerged just below the surface. Every time a breaker rolled past, spray flew into the air, brilliant white in the moonlight. I watched it and realized: I survived.
I was alive, I’d saved two other people, and rescue was surely on its way.
“Come, Hilario.” I took his hand and we walked up and down the windswept beach, but nowhere did we find any other survivors, not even a body washed up on the beach, and no debris from the wreck.
This was not reality as I knew it. It was unnatural. All too neat.
As dawn began to lighten the sky, we made our way back to Anita. On the way I listened for a rescue plane, or a helicopter from some passing Navy ship, but I heard only the boom and rumble of waves.
“Is there water?” Anita whispered when we returned to her. “Tubig?”
“No, there’s nothing. But rescue should be coming soon.”
I sat cross-legged beside her. Hilario tumbled into my lap, and I held him close. He was mine now. It felt that way. I kissed his salty cheek, and then I put my hand on Anita’s forehead. The dry heat of her skin shocked me. Her fever was much worse. “My God.”
“Right on time,” she whispered.
“I meant to die in L.A.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It doesn’t . . . really matter.”
Her voice was weak, her words hard to hear. I leaned closer, and my gaze fell on the rash at her neck. Like her fever, it was worse, a collection of tiny pustules, some of them glimmering wet with fluid.
I pulled back. “That’s not from an allergy. What’s wrong with you, Anita?”
She smiled at me as if we were good friends. “You survived the crash, Halley, just like you said you would.” Her whispery voice was almost lost in the wind. “Maybe you’ll survive the plague, too. It’s possible. One in a hundred should. Maybe two in a hundred, with the best hospital care.”
She was delirious. She didn’t know what she was saying. Her fever, her head injury, the shock of the crash, had combined to plunge her into the nightmare that must have haunted her career, the worst-case scenario of a biohazard plague escaping one of her labs . . .
That’s what I wanted to believe.
But when I looked again at the pustules on her neck, I couldn’t hold onto my denial. With Hilario in my arms, I stood up, and backed a step away. Her gaze followed me. “Everyone on the plane,” she murmured, “infected by the time we reached L.A.”
“We didn’t make it to L.A.”
“You’ll make it. It only takes one. You’re that one. The right one, because you’ll do what’s needed to survive.”
It’s not true.
That’s what I told myself, over and over again as Hilario and I held hands and walked the beach. It couldn’t be true.
But what if it was? What if she had made herself the dark angel of the apocalypse, bearing a pestilence that only one in a hundred would survive?
I went back to see her, to plead with her to tell me the truth, but the truth was lost. Her eyes had clouded. She was gone.
I sat on the beach with Hilario, shivering, but not from cold. Wasn’t it a miracle the plane had crashed? Euphoria swept over me as I thought about it. Horror rolled in on its heels. Over 330 people had been on that plane. They were gone now, lost. It was a tragedy—and yet if Anita could be believed, so many more, almost all the world, had been made safer because of it.
The drone of a distant helicopter startled me from my musings. I looked up, to see, beyond the reef, the silhouette of a Navy ship looming against the yellow glow of the predawn sky. The helicopter was a flyspeck, speeding toward the boiling water that marked the sunken fuselage of the plane.
Hilario leaped up. His eyes went wide as he took in the ship, and a beautiful grin broke out across his face. He whooped, jumping up and down and waving his arms in mad greeting.
I whooped and waved too, but my delirious relief faded as dread descended over me. I sank to the sand, watching Hilario jump up and down, up and down, his high voice crying out in words that I did not understand.
Wasn’t it a miracle that our plane had crashed? And wasn’t it a miracle that Anita had survived, if only just long enough for me to learn that she’d placed an apocalypse in my hands?
“Come!” Hilario screamed, using a rare English word. “Come!”
My voice broke as I told him, “No, baby. They can’t come here.”
He hesitated, turning to me with worried eyes. I got up and ran to the top of the beach where a line of driftwood had collected. I grabbed a large stick. I remembered Anita’s last words to me, You’ll do what you need to do to survive. She’d been so sure of me. I’d been so sure of myself.
I darted back down to where the sand was wet, as close to the wave wash as I dared, and I started scratching deep scars, digging down to the wet, dark sand to form giant letters. Hilario came to watch me with a worried frown on his sweet face. I gave him what I hoped was a reassuring smile but I kept working, because it wasn’t the apocalypse that Anita had placed in my hands after all: it was the lives of ninety-nine out of a hundred people—and how personal every one of those lives felt to me, resting in my hands.
Our rescuers read my message and retreated.
Hilario called for them to come back and when they didn’t he ran to me and we cried together as the waves slowly erased my warning and my plea:
TERRORISM — BIOWARFARE
I wanted to explain to Hilario that the helicopter would be back. That our rescuers would come again, in biohazard suits, bearing miracle drugs, and that against all odds the two of us would survive even in the face of this worst-case scenario.
I wanted to tell him that.
I wanted to believe it.
But an untenable chain of miracles had brought us to this deserted shore. It made no sense to me that the pilot could have guided our plane here with no power in the engines, and it made no sense that only Anita, Hilario, and I should survive the crash and escape the wreckage, the boy and I not even hurt, and no sign of anyone else.
It made no sense.
We should have died on that plane with everyone else, our plague-infected bodies safely lost and unrecoverable beneath the deep waters of the Pacific.
I think maybe we did die.
It could be delirium setting in with the first brush of fever, but the hours since the plane crash do not seem real to me. Looking back, it feels like everything that’s happened since I awoke in the wreckage has been a question posed to my soul.
And my answer?
I cradle Hilario as he weeps against my chest.
My answer surprised even me.
© 2013 by Linda Nagata.