The cockpit was crowded, with Josh and the woman in the wheelchair at the controls, the flight attendant at their side. The Captain had been laid out on the ground, attended by a nun, with the co-pilot curled up not too far from him – of the flight crew, only the engineer seemed lucid enough to talk.
“So skies are clear like they’re supposed to be, until they weren’t. Storm wasn’t charted… or even showing up on the instruments.” He had a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, and a cup of steaming tea in a mug clutched in his hands. “It was… just there suddenly. Anderson lost contact with air traffic control… the storm was blocking all of our frequencies.”
GURPS: Everyone gets a Meteorology roll. Nobody has the skill, so it defaults to IQ-5. Surprisingly, Ashly passes with a critical success.
“Did the array get hit by lightning?” Josh asked.
“You’d need a storm full of lightning to block out frequencies so completely,” Ashly said. “And to be honest, I don’t remember lightning or thunder at all.”
“There really hasn’t been any,” the engineer confirmed. “And so yeah, unusual, but it’s the only theory I have right now. But the nav system also went out, so Captain Morgan switched over to manual. That’s when that… UFO appeared.”
“UFO?” Nick echoed. “Sorry, what was your name?”
“Allen. And it was a big bright light, like nothing I’ve ever seen-”
“Missile!” Anderson, the co-pilot, spoke up. His eyes were wild, he didn’t look good. “Surface to air missile.”
The engineer looked at him for a long moment. “Didn’t show up on radar, buzzed right across the bow, dazzled us. I don’t think it was a missile.”
“Missile,” Anderson repeated.
Vera stepped up next to Ashly. “Is he… okay?”
The nun seeing to the fallen Captain spoke up. “He’s having a psychotic break, I think. Or a flashback or something. Was yelling about bombing runs earlier. The engineer… wasn’t much better.”
“Yeah, well, that’s when Cap had his heart attack and Anderson his fit, and… I don’t know, I just shut down. Couldn’t believe it. Both pilots down and I can’t fly and… I thought we were dead, until you all showed up and took control of the situation.”
“What about now?” Marco asked. “The coms, radar…”
Allen rose from his crouch and settled down into his station, checking the readouts and tapping a few buttons. “Ahhh… No. Coms and nav are still down. Nothing on radar. Scope is just showing dense cloud cover.”
GURPS: Yet another fright check is called for. Everyone passes this time.
Vera felt a chill run through her at all the talk about UFOs, about the near death experience they’d all had, about the fact that they were still very much in trouble.
“What do we do now?” the stewardess asked.
Vera realized that she was addressing them, their group. And in a way, she could understand why… they might only be high-school students, but they were acting confident, they were taking control. Sometimes that’s what you needed in a crisis. Someone to shout orders and act like they knew what they were doing.
“Okay,” Marco said, seemingly realizing it as well. “We keep everybody calm. Can you and the other passenger crew handle that?”
GURPS: Leadership default is IQ-5. Even with Luck, Marco (barely) failed, but the only consequence here is that the NPCs don’t get a Fright Check or Morale bonus.
“Yes.” She straightened her spine. “Oh, and I’m Jane. Chief stewardess.”
“Marco.” He pointed to introduce the others. “Josh, Vera, Nick, Ashly.”
“Right.” Jane stepped out to command her staff, brisk and professional. “Consider the passenger cabin in good hands.”
The nun looked up from the Captain. “Sister Pacifica.”
“Amanda,” the woman in the wheelchair didn’t take her eyes off the readouts in front of her.
Vera crouched next to the nun. “How is he?”
“Weak.” She performed the sign of the cross. “He’s stable, but he needs to stay restful.”
Marco stepped over to Amanda, resting a forearm on the handle of her chair and then awkwardly moving it. “How we doing?”
“So far so good,” the woman’s response was surprisingly cheerful.
“Feels good to fly again, whatever the circumstances, and your friend here is a fine assistant.”
“So you were a pilot?” Marco asked.
“Among other things. I usually just call myself a freelancer – but I haven’t flown since the accident two years ago. Need legs for some of it, but your boy here is doing a great job of helping out.”
“Thanks,” Josh said unenthusiastically.
“I can keep her level as long as the fuel holds out, but I’ll need a course if you want to go anywhere specific.”
Marco wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “Right. Uh. Allen?”
“Yeah?” The engineer looked up from his instruments.
“Can you keep on the radio? Just keep looking for signals. Maybe broadcast a distress, or something like that?”
“Can do.” He picked up a headset, untangled it, and slipped it on over his ears.
Ashly took Vera’s arm again. “Come on, let’s get back to our seats. I want to make sure you didn’t hurt yourself fainting.”
“Feels like you’re taking good care of me today.” Vera paused. “Of everybody. Hey, about before…”
“No, it’s fine. I’m just… sensitive about people writing me off because of my past, or thinking I don’t take things seriously.”
“I get it.” Vera hoped she did, anyway.
Back in the passenger cabin, Vera dozed as best she could, trying to conserve her energy for whatever trials lay ahead. The stewardesses were doing their best to keep the passengers calm, but she could almost feel the unease in the air, like electricity, and knew it wouldn’t take much to turn the flight into a riot.
“How many passengers on a plane like this?” She asked Ashly.
“Couple hundred maybe?”
After ten minutes or so, Nick returned. “Allen found a signal, you guys want to come up and hear it?”
Vera nodded and rose, Ashly along with her.
“Flight 13, this is Robert Mueller Municipal Airport in Austin, Texas.” She could hear the voice coming through clearly even before they reached the cockpit. “May we be of assistance? Over.”
“I honestly can’t tell you how great it is to hear your voice right now,” Allen said. “Over.”
The voice on the ground chuckled. “Well, with a freak solar flare knocking electronics and communications out all over the southwest I don’t blame you. Got you on my radar now, need me to guide you in for a landing?”
Solar Flare? Vera mouthed the words to Marco with skepticism.
Does Vera share her skepticism with Allen, asking him not to land in Austin?
2: No, but the other PCs share her caution.
Marco shook his head, lips pursed, hand on his chin, deep in thought.
“Thought you’d never ask, Austin. We’re waiting for your instructions.”
Marco caught her eye again, then Ashly’s and Nick’s. They slowly and carefully moved out into the hall.
“Okay, this is a little bit bullshit, right?” he asked.
“More than a little,” Vera agreed. “That was no… fucking solar flare.”
“Agreed,” Ashly said.
GURPS: IQ-5 roll to see if any of them caught anything else incongruous about the radio conversation.
“So what do we do?” Nick asked.
“What can we do?” Vera shrugged. “We’ve got limited fuel. Passengers maybe calm now, but…”
“But what’s the deal?” Ashly asked. “Who would… how would…”
“We play it cool for now,” Marco said. “But be ready.”
“For what?” Nick asked.
Marco punched him lightly on the shoulder. “Anything!”
Josh came strolling out of the cockpit. “Hey guys, they’re setting course for Austin so maybe we should take our seats. What’s up?”
Vera gave him a nod. “Austin is probably bullshit, so just be on guard. I thought you were helping Amanda?”
He shook his head. “Allen took over, now that they have a course. Kicked me out of there, heh.”
Vera gave him a high-five. “Well, good job, man. You really came through.” She did not much care for Josh, but she had to admit he’d shown a rare bit of competency and responsibility.
“Psht, I coulda just flown the plane myself.”
She rolled her eyes. “Whatever, let’s go.”
By the time they’d retaken their seats the plane had broken free from the clouds into the clear skies over Austin. All around them, passengers were standing and cheering, staring out of windows, as if declaring themselves victors over death.
Standing out against the starry night Vera could see the skyline of the city, a dozen skyscrapers illuminated from within. Below them was the dark ribbon of a river, slicing between a downtown area and southern suburbs. Traffic looked light, but she could see a few cars moving on the main roads and bridges. It was all reassuringly normal.
Does Vera watch the ground during the descent?
5: Yes, but none of the other PCs do.
Module: d6 roll to see what’s noticed
Down below she noted flickering lights from the buildings below, almost like fireworks or fireflies or…
An old memory resurfaced suddenly, forcefully, powerfully, of her girlhood in New Belgrade, of the clashes between different gangs and cartels, of the doom that came to families caught in the middle. “Ashly, look.” Her voice was quiet, but intense enough that the other girl didn’t question it.
“There.” Vera looked again, but couldn’t spot the lights she’d seen before. “I thought I saw… nevermind.”
Ashly took another long look before settling back into her own chair. “I just want to get my feet on the ground.”
“Here fucking here.” Vera turned back to the window.
GURPS: Our Pilot NPC must make a few Pilot rolls at skill 16. First is for the approach.
We need a second roll, at -2, for the landing itself. Success.
Out the window she saw the plane was approaching one of two fully lit runways. A wrecked airline, its cabin bent, wings crumpled, sat on the one they weren’t destined for, and she could see a half-dozen other intact planes parked in the vicinity. To the left of to the airport was a park of some kind, and on the other side… a burning building. Maybe the solar flare had caused a plane to fall from the sky to crash into it? Could that happen?
The landing was smooth, and the airliner coasted to a stop in front of the terminal building. Vera watched the flames, but didn’t see any emergency vehicles.
Minutes passed without announcement from the crew. “What’s the hold up?” A businessman in a sharp suit stood, gazing towards the cabin.
Jane, Chief Stewardess, stepped out of the galley. “If you will all just remain calm and in your seats, the tower will be providing the pilot with taxi instructions. Delays are not unusual, especially when there might be other aircraft in trouble.”
Vera unbuckled her seatbelt and got to her feet. “I’ll go take a look.” Action, even when undirected, could be calming. Especially if it looked like someone else was taking care of business.
Allen and Amanda glanced up as she entered, the woman in the chair giving her a small wave.
“Some of the passengers want to know when we’re going to disembark.”
Allen gestured towards the terminal. “We’re waiting for taxiing instructions.”
“What are they saying? Is there a delay because of the fire?”
Amanda grunted. “They’re not saying shit. Not since we landed.”
“Captain Morgan needs medical attention. I can’t believe they’re just making us wait like this,” Sister Pacifica said.
Vera looked out through the windshield. “Can we just… let people off? Don’t they have those mobile staircases?”
Allen shook his head. “There are gangways parked along the way, sure, but none of them are tall enough to reach our hatches.”
“We could evacuate that way, but it’ll take longer than just waiting.” Amanda pointed towards the terminals. “It’d be faster for someone to get out to the terminal and extend the walkways from inside.”
Vera sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Okay, so do that.”
“I would, but I don’t have the legs for it,” Amanda said. “And Allen… we need someone familiar with the aircraft to handle the connection on our end.”
Allen indicated the co-pilot, still rocking and muttering to himself. “And Anderson’s in no shape to… to do much of anything right now.”
“That just leaves the passengers,” Vera said.
“Absolutely not.” Jane stepped into the cockpit. “I’m sorry, but you’re our responsibility. All three-hundred of you. We’ll just have to wait.”
Sister Pacifica looked up from Captain Morgan. “I’m afraid your Captain doesn’t have the luxury.”
Vera didn’t like the situation. She didn’t like how quiet the airport was, how no one was contacting them. What if this was zombies again? Or something worse? But she didn’t want to be caught on the airliner if whatever was happening out there came after them. Once again, it was up to her to do the necessary thing. “We’ll do it.”
“You?” Jane asked. “I told you-”
“Me and my friends. You saw how they handled themselves in a crisis. You stay here, take care of the rest of the passengers, we run in, get the walkway connected, and we can evacuate Captain Morgan.”
“It’s the best plan I’ve heard,” Sister Pacifica said. “Unless your girls can handle it?”
“No, I need them here,” Jane said. “To keep things calm and orderly.”
“Then it has to be passengers,” Vera said. “And I volunteer us.”
“Fine,” Jane said. “For the Captain’s sake. But I hope your friends appreciate being volunteered, young lady.”
“They’ll be cool with it.”
Is the group cool with it?
6: yes, and they’re enthusiastic
Surprisingly, they were.
“Hell yeah, let’s get off this shitbird,” Josh crowed, earning a dirty look from the Chief Stewardess.
“You guys sure?” Vera asked.
“Yeah,” Marco nodded. “I’ll feel better if I have something to do besides wait. Ash?”
Ashly nodded. “I want to stick with you guys. Nick?”
Nick, eating a sandwich, gave everybody a big thumbs up.
Vera beamed. “Great. Let’s go.”
Allen escorted them to the rear of the plane, past a group of teens wearing matching T-shirts. He opened the emergency exit, letting in a blast of warm clammy air that smelled faintly of fish.
Vera wrinkled her nose at the stench.
“Hey how come they get to get off the plane?” a young man with a crewcut asked.
Vera glanced at the boy’s shirt – it read Angels in graffiti-like lettering. “Angels, huh? What are you guys, a baseball team?”
“Fuck no,” Crewcut responded. “Angels is a program for at risk youths. Don’t I look at risk?”
“Very,” Josh said, drawing himself up. “But don’t worry, we’ll keep you safe.”
“Okay, you understand how the walkway extends and how to get there?” Allen lowered the inflatable slide.
“Got it,” Marco said.
“Let’s go.” Vera climbed onto the slide – the sooner they got started, the sooner it’d be too late to have misgivings. It was a quick drop, and the slide wasn’t very well secured at the bottom – she almost bounced off at the end. She stayed nearby to help the others as they descended, steadying the slide’s base.
Nick looked up at the fully lit control tower, extending up some ten stories above them. “It doesn’t… seem deserted.”
“Fuck I hope it’s not zombies again,” Josh said.
Ashley hit him. “Don’t even joke.”
Marco pointed at the flight gate in front of them. “Okay, we go in through the bottom floor, up the stairs to the top, extend the walkway.”
“What if we run into someone?” Nick asked.
“I don’t think we will,” Vera said. “But hey, if we run into airport staff we let them handle it, go to the bar, have a drink.”
“Sounds good to me,” Josh rubbed his hands. “Let’s go.”
The lower level of the flight gate was empty, but well lit by fluorescent lights. It was quiet, too, in a way that the building felt like it should never be – to Vera, it made it more like a mausoleum than an airport.
“Any of you guys see Langoliers?” Josh asked. “Stephen King movie. And story. About a group of passengers who land at what seems like an abandoned airport.”
“I read it,” Nick said. “But this is different. Nobody on our plane vanished.”
Josh huffed. “The situation just reminds me of it, is all. God I hate that fish smell.”
“Smells like Texas,” Vera said.
They ascended the stairs quickly, up to the passenger gate. It was one of several set along a long hall running from the control tower north to the rest of the terminal set perpendicular to the south. At each gate were rows of chairs for waiting passengers, a desk for airline personnel, and the walkway that would connect to each plane. At their gate – gate D – Vera could see a few abandoned carry-on bags and backpacks, but there was no sign of anyone – not at their gate, not in the hall, not at the gift shop down the way.
Nick grabbed the phone from the airline desk, put it to his ear, and tapped the reciever a few times. “No signal.”
“The walkway should be right over there,” Marco said, heading towards the door next to the desk.
“Hold up,” Nick said. “You guys hear that? Sounds like…”
“Weeping,” Vera said, slowly turning around, the sound of soft sniffling crying echoing through the empty terminal.