Dennis Silverman and Meghan Danvers woke up almost simultaneously.
As the rest of Portland, Oregon, was getting ready for dinner or making the commute home, Dennis and Meghan rolled out of their beds. They had never met and would never meet. They were just two people waking up in Portland, Oregon, on a sunny and glorious late- afternoon Monday in March. Dennis, in the spendy, gentrified Pearl District, third floor of a confectionary factory turned into half- a-million- dollar condos. Meghan, in the Residence Inn at Portland International Airport.
Dennis had been so keyed up, he’d slept barely three hours. He started his day by scanning a half- dozen blogs on his homemade laptop, while he downed two Red Bulls and two Snickers, his traditional breakfast. MTV played in the background but he hardly noticed. He was so nervous, his hands shook. And every time he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, he grinned.
This was going to be a day. A hell of a day. A day people would remember. A day the media whores would recount on its anniversary and people would ask: where were you when you heard?
Meghan awoke to the sound of a travel alarm. She drank bottled water she’d set out the night before, then went to work on one hundred crunches, one hundred push-ups with her bare feet up on one of the hotel- room chairs. CNN played in the background but she hardly noticed.
She showered, called her husband, James, in Reston, Virginia. They talked for exactly two minutes about nothing in particular. The baby was fine. The weather was crappy in Virginia. March 7, and there was black ice everywhere. Meghan pushed aside the hotel- room curtains and squinted into the lovely evening, the sun peeking over the West Hills, illuminating the radiant Mount Hood to the east, topped year-round in snow.
They said “I love you” and hung up.
PORTLAND INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
Ninety minutes later, Meghan Danvers found herself standing in the shadow of her very own jet airliner. It wasn’t “hers” hers, but she was the pilot and the senior officer, so, as far as she was concerned, the mammoth Vermeer 111 was all hers.
She breathed in the slightly salty tang of the Columbia River, just a little to the north, and studied the wispy hints of clouds that dotted the sky. One octa, she said to herself: only one eighth of the way toward being overcast.
“It’s a looker.” Russ Kazmanski noted the boss’s attention on the sky.
“Sweet,” Meghan said. She wore the navy Eisenhower jacket and matching trousers of CascadeAir. Tall and willow thin, the uniform hung nicely on her athletic frame. Russ wore the same, although he was short and paunchy, and she doubted that he had ever ironed his trousers.
“Almost no wind up top,” she said. “Day like this, must be what it’s like flying in outer space.”
Russ squinted up at her, smiling. He knelt in the shadow of the landing gear of the colossal 111, about the size of a Boeing 737. Above their heads, the retractable gangplank of Terminal C4 began inching out, touching the skin of their four- engine wide- body. “You a NASA wannabe, Skip?”
“Damn straight.” Meghan canted her head, running her hand through her hair, which she wore tightly cropped. She was African American; Russ was white. It dawned on her that less than one generation ago, no white pilot— especially one eleven years her elder --- would have called a black woman “Skip.” “Stewardess,” maybe.
He grinned. “No kidding?”
“I almost made the program, eight or nine years ago. I never told you that?”
“Nope.” The laptop at Russ’s knee chimed. It sat on the cool, gritty tarmac, its infrared emitter aimed at a portal in the underbelly of the jet, ten feet directly over his head. The emitter, shaped like a penlight and shining in the invisible range, was attached to the laptop by a gooseneck flex tube. The underbelly portal was marked gamelan. “They screwed up, not taking you. You’d’ve been a hit with the Flash Gordon set.”
She smiled at the kneeling man. “Why, Kazmanski. That’s the sweetest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”
Russ made a fist and blew into it. It had hit fifty- two today, but with the sun going down, the temperature was getting ready to fall like a Warner Bros. anvil. Russ Kazmanski had been the copilot with Meghan Danvers for a week now, running a three- legged pattern from PDX to LAX to Sea-Tac and back again. They were two days away from a four- day layover in Los Angeles, before starting the rotation all over. Russ had enjoyed his week of flying the right- hand seat with the skip and looked forward to staying on this assignment.
“What’s the FDR say?” Meghan asked, and knelt, too, to get a better angle on the laptop screen linked by micro wave to the flight data recorder. There was a solid, almost masculine quality to her movements, Russ noted. Like most pilots, she exuded confidence. Both kneeling, it was easier to speak over the sounds of the food- services truck that had just arrived.
“Nine hundred and seventy- one telltales are green- for- go,” he said, tapping the keyboard at his feet, which was reading information from the Gamelan flight data recorder. “And we got two yellow. No reds.”
“The yellows?” Meghan craned her neck to see from Russ’s angle.
“Nothing major. The Gamelan says we need to have one of the nodes of the transponder looked at within the next seven thousand five hundred miles, or five cycles.” A cycle is one leg of a journey; a takeoff, flight, and landing. “Also, we got a little blip on the port elevator. The box says check it within seven cycles.”
Meghan shook her head. “That is the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“No shit.” Back in the day, checking out almost 2,000 systems would’ve taken a weekend. The new flight data recorder being released by Gamelan Industries made the preflight check in twenty minutes. Russ began disassembling the transmitter. “Let’s hear it for technology. This gadget is made right here in Portland, you know.”
He closed the laptop, picked it up. His knees popped as he stood straight.
“Okay, I’m on the walkaround,” Meghan said. “You want to start on the preflight?”
“I’m on it.” He glanced around, admired the cerulean sky and the snowy slopes of Mount Hood. They were an hour away from sunset and the mountain glowed like it was radioactive. “I could retire here.”
“Tell me that when it’s raining,” Meghan Danvers said, and began walking around her three-story-tall bird.
REST STOP, INTERSTATE 5
Dennis Silverman didn’t bother hiding. He drove his Outback off the interstate and into the rest area. Harsh white lights on very tall poles illuminated the blacktop area. The only other vehicles in sight in were two double- long truck- and- trailer rigs, a handful of RVs and campers, and one dilapidated Volkswagen Bug with a couple of twenty-somethings in tie-dyed shirts and raggedly cuffed jeans, leaning on the hood and poring over a badly folded map of the Pacific Northwest. They looked like they’d just stepped out of 1972. Proof of a fold in the time stream, Dennis thought.
He was about equal distance between Portland and Salem, the state capital. A serrated copse of Douglas firs separated the rest area from I-5 but did a poor job of keeping down the drone of highway traffic. Dennis had come here many other times in the last few months. The first few weeks, he’d parked at one end and waited, then at the other end for a little while. He’d finally found exactly the spot he needed. He checked his waterproof, pressure- proof watch; he’d gone online twice that morning to make sure his watch was on the money. He had used a U.S. Navy Web site to confirm the time. There was very little room for error in this game.
Satisfied, he strolled to the rear of the Outback, opened the hatch, and pulled out a laptop computer and a device that looked like a long microphone attached to a short tripod. He returned to the front of his SUV and hiked himself up onto the hood, feeling the heat of the engine through his trousers. He set up the tripod on the hood next to him, attached it to the laptop via a USB port, popped the lid, and booted up. The twentysomethings had stopped trying to read the map and were making out. The truck drivers cared for little that happened outside their cabs. If the RV crowd was paying attention, Dennis couldn’t tell. And he wasn’t all that concerned anyway.
A couple of squirrels were nosing around, three parking spaces away. Dennis dug a Ziploc bag out of his REI ski jacket and sprinkled walnuts on the ground. Three more squirrels hopped in his direction.
As the laptop screen began to glow, he grinned and removed his wire rimmed glasses, cleaning them on the untucked bottom of his Farscape T-shirt, which hung below the ski jacket. He’d thought about dressing up for the occasion, knowing something momentous was about to happen, even if no one else did. It’s important to look businesslike when you’re about to change history. But in the end he left the house with his one suit, one dress shirt, and one tie hanging forgotten from the hook on the bathroom door. He’d made it halfway to the rest stop before he remembered. He smiled, realizing that when he told the story of this day, he’d be wearing a really sharp suit.
He glanced at the hippies and the truckers. Let them stare. Sure, he was about to commit a crime. And in Oregon, it was a capital offense. But so what? No one here today would recognize his crime, or realize that anything bad was going on. Hell, Dennis thought, there wasn’t even a good word for the crime he was about to commit. They’d have to come up with a name for it. Maybe they’d call it a silverman. Maybe he was about to commit first- degree silverman.
The images on the screen clarified themselves. Dennis tapped madly at the keyboard, making no mistakes, no type-overs or go- backs. He’d done this a thousand times in practice and he knew exactly what he was doing.
Time to change the world.
CASCADEAIR FLIGHT 818, GATE C4, PDX
Fifteen minutes later, Annie Colvin, the chief flight attendant for Flight 818, rapped on the cabin door and poked her head in. “Got ’em corralled,” she said, in the tone a preschool teacher uses to announce that naptime has commenced. “Ready when you are.”
In the left- hand seat, Meghan Danvers nodded and looked back over her shoulder. “Thanks. Tower’s giving us the hold sign but we’re up next.”
Annie Colvin started to back out, then stopped. “Anybody want anything before I buckle up?”
Meghan said, “No, thanks. I’m good.”
Russ Kazmanski turned as far as he could in the cumbersome copilot’s chair. “I’ll take some coffee, if you’ve got it brewed up.”
“Hang on,” she said and backed out.
“Decaf!” Russ called, hoping she heard him. “That’s all I need, the jangles.”
“Careful,” Meghan warned playfully, and rolled her eyes, the color of nutmeg, toward the ceiling panel equidistant between their seats. The cockpit voice recorder was housed above that panel. “Big Brother’s listening.”
“Then I probably shouldn’t mention the ganja, mon.”
He grinned, but Meghan frowned. “Not funny, partner. CascadeAir doesn’t even allow joking about that.”
“I know,” he said soothingly. It had been a joke, and they both knew it.
In the past six or seven years, a corporate policy of zero tolerance for alcohol and drug use had turned into a siege mentality. Substance-abuse posters were mandatory in all crew lounges, and pamphlets offering help and counseling seemed to arrive in employees’ mail almost monthly.
Annie Colvin came back with the coffee; it was not in the plastic that passengers got, but a proper china cup. “Here you go,” she said and handed it over the high-backed chair. “Decaf all right?”
He noticed that she’d put in milk and had provided a spoon and a saucer to put it on. He winked back at her. “Great, thanks. We’re --- Hold it.”
Annie saw both pilots tilt their heads a fraction of an inch, hearing something over their headsets.
Meghan said, “Roger that, tower.”
“Okay, we’re rolling,” Russ said to Annie. “We’ll see you topside.”
She said, “Bye,” and headed back to her foldout seat in the galley.
Russ stowed the coffee cup and saucer on the recessed panel at his right knee, where it was out of the way. He knew the skipper was a real stickler for protocol, but the softly curved shroud was made of vinyl laminate over thermoformed plastic, all perfectly waterproof. In fact, the surface was intended for food and drinks during flight.
The moon shone down, illuminating the tarmac runway. A dull glow emanated from the south: downtown Portland. The moonlight made Mount Hood a little pink. The Vermeer 111’s harsh white lights turned night into day, bled all the color out of the grass to the left and right of the runway.
Meghan queued her jet up to the line, ready to roll. She toggled her microphone. “ATC, this is CascadeAir Eight One Eight, in the blocks and ready to sprint.”
The air traffic control voice that came back was surprisingly West Virginian for Oregon. “Ah, roger that, Eight One Eight. Y’all got limitless ceiling to night and little wind. You are cleared for takeoff on runway two eight lima. Have yourselves a good one.”
“CascadeAir Eight One Eight, roger that.” Meghan nudged the Vermeer 111 out into the wide runway. “Thanks for the hospitality, Portland. We’ll see you next week. Eight One Eight out.”
They began to pick up speed. Meghan glanced over just as Russ glanced at her. They winked at each other; kids with big, multimillion-dollar toys. Russ said, “Power’s set.”
“All right, then. Read ’em off.”
“Seventy-five knots,” Russ chanted. “One hundred…one twenty.”
“Vee one,” the captain said. V-codes represent aircraft speed, and V1 is the decision speed. Hit that speed and you’re committed to taking off .
Which they did. Smoothly.
Russ said, “Positive climb.”
“Okay, gear up.”
He hit the landing- gear handle. They could hear the mechanism clamor beneath them. Both waited to hit a layer of turbulent air, as so often happens, and Russ casually put a hand over the coffee cup that Annie had brought him. When it happened that evening, it was as soft as the gentlest breeze. They doubted any of the passengers felt it.
“LNAV on auto?” Meghan said.
“Got it.” The copilot put the lateral navigation controls on autopi lot.
“You’ve got good climb thrust.”
Meghan waited for a moment, watching the lights of the city spread out beneath her. “VNAV.”
Russ put the vertical navigation system on autopi lot. “Gotcha.”
“Good. Flaps go to one, gear handle off,” she said, and they began chanting the after- takeoff checklist. For every term she used, Russ repeated it back at her, like a call-and-response sermon. Landing gear up and off. Flaps up. Checked up. Altimeter okay. Center autopilot on.
Meghan gently turned the sleek, massive aircraft, bringing it into a southerly direction. Russ reached for his coffee cup.
“Like a baby’s butt,” he said.
Meghan allowed herself a proud smile. “Damn straight.”
Flight 818 found its course and began picking up speed. It was still climbing to cruise altitude as it passed over a rest area off Interstate 5.
. . .
With the press of a knuckle buster --- shift, option, apple, and the letter X --- the handmade computer on the hood of the Outback emitted a silly, cartoonish sound. Dennis Silverman had chosen the noise because he thought it was funny. He smiled at the noise now, almost drowned out by the sound from the airliner passing overhead. He smiled down at the squirrels.
Dennis logged off the computer, closed the cover, disconnected the emitter and tripod. He was careful not to step on the twitching forms of the poisoned squirrels as he hopped down off the hood.
He did so love to play with poisons.
Russ Kazmanski said, “HMM. What’s that?” He tapped the screen of the Gamelan flight-data-recorder monitor.
Meghan Danvers said, “What’s what?”
“I’ve got a --- Whoa!”
The cockpit began shaking madly.
“Shit!” Meghan barked, the avionics monitors dancing so badly in front of her eyes that she couldn’t get a read on them. “Trimming rudder to the left! What’ve we got?”
“I--- Dammit!” The bucking grew worse. Above their heads, four electronic caution tones sounded, followed by a siren.
“What’ve we got!” she barked.
“I dunno! Wait, check the --- This doesn’t make sense!”
The tones chimed again. The siren was going nonstop.
“Call it in!”
Russ toggled his transceiver. “Uh, PDX flight control, this is CascadeAir Eight One Eight! Mayday! We are declaring an emergency!”
In economy class, passengers gripped their seat arms or one another. The air masks deployed, just as they had in the safety video everyone had ignored.
. . .
The West Virginian drawl from the tower answered back immediately. “Roger, Eight One Eight. Do you wish to return to Portland?”
“Affirmative,” Meghan cut in. She was holding the controls with both hands, the small clusters of muscles around her knuckles standing taut. A vein pulsed visibly at her throat.
“What is the nature of your emergency?”
“Unknown, Portland! Engine trouble! We’re shaking apart!”
“Understood, Eight One Eight. Runway one zero romeo is available. We’re clearing airspace for you. Contact one zero five point four for your lineup.”
Russ fought down the urge to puke, switched the secondary communication array to frequency 105.4. He flicked a glance toward the captain, who didn’t look frightened. She looked positively pissed off.
“One zero five point four, roger,” he said.
“Ah, good, Eight One Eight. Come about one eight zero, altitude at your discretion. Would you like fire crews on scene?”
“One eight zero confirmed. Affirmative on the fire crews. We don’t know what’s wrong!” Meghan shouted to be heard over the warning sounds and the rattling of her vessel. She began the 180- degree turn as directed.
“Eight One Eight, you are, ah, seven miles from the first localizer.”
“Meg, we got --- Christ!”
The airliner yawed madly. Russ’s coffee cup and saucer went flying, a clipboard rattled to the deck. The ship began rolling to the left. Meghan gripped the yoke, hauled with all her might to the right. The ship bucked like a bronco.
Both Meghan and Russ looked up as the “stick shaker” sounded; they were perilously close to stalling an engine.
Meghan reached down beneath her legs, toggled a switch. They heard a gurgling sound as fuel began dumping from the emergency vents,