Stranded

     Vesula was an alien planet with mountainous terrain, forests, and oceans,
teeming with prehistoric and mythical creatures. On a distant mountain
was an ominous castle. The overcast sky added to its sinister presence.
In the surrounding valleys, a vicious war waged beyond a wide
moat surrounding the castle between hundreds of Drachma (troll-like
creatures) in black leather, armor and axes, and shape-shifters in animal
skins with primitive weapons. The orc-like creatures were controlled by
the castle’s owner, a wizard named Ruger, who delved in black magic and
the shapeshifting tribes that were led by wise men, who sought to end
Ruger’s reign of terror.
Inside the castle, the walls, floor and ceiling consisted of ebony blocks
of stone. Torches mounted on the wall in iron brackets illuminated the
dreary room with the flickering light of the flames. One wall of a chamber
on the upper floor of the castle was lined with pairs of iron rings (for
securing prisoners) mounted shoulder high. In the middle of the room was
a wooden table. On the table was an ornate, silver chest.
Gorith and Pirocles, two apprentice wizards in hooded cloaks, dragged
an elderly male prisoner in a torn, blood-stained robe into the chamber.
The prisoner was badly beaten with many cuts on his arms and chest.
Pirocles carried a leather sack with him as well. The wizards secured the
prisoner to two of the iron rings on the wall with leather straps.
Also appearing from another doorway in a dark cloak with a long
scraggly beard was Ruger. Pirocles and Gorith respectfully genuflected
before Ruger. Pirocles then handed over the sack to Ruger.
“So, you finally captured a guardian with a device,” uttered Ruger
sarcastically.
“There aren’t many of them left and they rarely leave their confines,”
grumbled Pirocles.
Ruger removed a hi-tech device from the sack and studied it. It had
two small screens and two keypads. Leather straps dangled from the device,
designed to be worn on the back of the wrist. He approached the prisoner
and yanked his hair. “What is this weapon?” he demanded to know.
“It’s not a weapon,” muttered the prisoner feebly. “It’s for transportation.”
Ruger stared at him with disdain and commented mockingly, “Is
it now?” He placed his hands on the man’s temples and closed his eyes.
Pirocles and Gorith observed as the strain on Ruger’s face indicated his
intense concentration. The prisoner shuddered until Ruger removed his
hands. He turned to his apprentices and announced, “I have all I need
from him.”
Ruger strapped the device onto his left arm. The device startled him
with three beeps and various illuminating lights. On the device, the first
small screen displayed the planet Earth with a red dot where Philadelphia
was located. The second small screen showed Vesula – an orange planet
with two rings around it. It had a dot on it as well.
“Soon our enemies will be gone from this world and the whole planet
will be ours to control!” declared Ruger.
“And that is just the beginning,” added Pirocles.
Gorith was suspicious of the device and questioned Ruger, “Are you
sure this isn’t a trap, master?”
“Silence, you fool!” Ruger shouted at him. “Do not ever question me
again or else!” He left the chamber by way of a dark stairwell.
Pirocles removed a short dagger from under his cloak and approached
his captive. The prisoner struggled to raise his head and face Pirocles.
“Looks like you lose, my friend,” Pirocles taunted the man.
“It is you who has lost,” the prisoner uttered, barely audible. “You are
about to seal your own fate.”
Incensed by the man’s audacity, Pirocles slit the man’s throat with the
dagger. The prisoner’s robe became soaked in blood. Soon, the man ceased
breathing and died.
Gorith stepped in front of Pirocles, troubled by the man’s words.
Pirocles was unconcerned and nudged him aside as he approached the
stairwell.
“What did he mean by that?” questioned Gorith.
Pirocles paused at the entrance. “Just a dying fool’s last words,” he
answered with a snicker.
“I don’t like this at all,” complained Gorith. “What if it is a trap?”
“You worry too much. That’s why I am Ruger’s favorite student,” replied
Pirocles as he exited the chamber. Gorith grit his teeth and followed.
On the castle’s rampart, Ruger stared down at the battlefield with
the hi-tech device on his left arm. Gorith and Pirocles emerged atop
the ramparts from a small, arched doorway. They watched the battle as
well. Ruger aimed the device at the sky and pressed a button. The device
made a series of beeps and the displays blinked. Ruger gazed down at the
battlefield and laughed sadistically.
“The council will regret the day they turned their backs on me,” Ruger
bellowed. “Now, I will have my revenge!” Pirocles nodded to Gorith with
a sinister grin. Gorith frowned and looked away uneasily.
A luminous cloud formed in the sky over the castle and grew. Lightning
struck the cloud from several directions, fueling its growth.
The combatants on the field saw the display in the sky. The human
shape-shifters ceased fighting and fled. The Drachma retreated inside the
castle, also fearing what was happening overhead.
Ruger raised his arms in triumph. “My return to power has begun!” he
announced confidently. All three wizards exited the rampart with Ruger
leading the way.

— ⧗ —

     Billy Brock waited patiently on the porch for the cab as rain fell steadily
in the early morning darkness. In one hand, he held an eight-by-ten picture
and in the other, his leather briefcase. A Yellow cab stopped in front of the
house, catching his attention.
Billy stepped off the porch into the driveway and paused by a trashcan.
He glanced at the picture of himself and his former fiancée one last time with
a scowl. “Sayonara, bitch,” he muttered under his breath. He lifted the lid and
fired the picture into the trashcan. The sound of shattered glass in the can
brought a contented smile to his face. Billy splashed through the puddles in
the driveway and climbed inside the cab.
“What terminal sir?” asked the driver.
“C, please,” he replied. Billy stared at the passing streetlights as the
cab sped away. He looked younger than twenty-four with his wavy blonde
hair, baby face and lean figure. Underneath his London Fog raincoat,
he was dressed casually in a turtleneck sweater and corduroy pants for a
business presentation in Philadelphia. Billy recalled his disastrous wedding
a few weeks earlier. Charlene, his long-time girlfriend and fiancée, left the
church just as the ceremony started without saying a word to anyone. He
hadn’t seen or heard from her since. Biting his lip in frustration, he realized
it was just one of many problems in his life of late.
At the engineering firm where he worked, he was overwhelmed with
extra duties of late. To make matters worse, his boss assigned a new
software engineer to join him on this trip. The company never had more
than one field engineer on staff and, with major cutbacks in the works, the
writing appeared to be on the wall for him. It’s just a matter of time before
they let me go. What the hell am I gonna do then? fretted Billy.
His boss directed him to meet the engineer at the airport and to be
cooperative, whatever that meant. He opened his briefcase and thumbed
through the pages for the printed email. What’s this guy’s name- Nichols?
Yeah, that was it – P. Nichols formerly of CAE Corporation, he callously
recalled. Billy crumpled up the email and threw it on the floor of the cab.
There were few delays on the way to Logan International Airport at
five-thirty in the morning. Traffic was fairly light and, with a gloomy
weather forecast for the next few days, Billy was more than happy to get
out of town. The rain grew more intense as the cab parked in front of the
airport terminal. Billy got out and glanced up at the sky. Rain splashed
off his face and streamed down his neck. Oddly, he didn’t care. He had
a strange feeling that it was going to be one of those days. Billy paid the
driver and entered the terminal.
After passing through the security checkpoints and monitors, he
continued down the crowded concourse to the gate and checked in at the
counter. He picked up a newspaper and noticed two women sitting at the
end of a row of seats. One of the women wore tight jeans and a sweater,
standing at about five-foot ten-inches tall with long, dark hair. She carried
a red satin jacket, embroidered with lettering for a rifle club tournament.
Impressed, Billy figured she was about twenty-two.
The other woman had long, auburn hair in a ponytail, bell-bottom
jeans, floral-patterned blouse and boots. She also had a satin jacket, which
she carried over her arm. It was black with gold trim and lettering, from
a martial arts tournament. She was tall and shapely, making her all the
more alluring to him. The two were engaged in a spirited conversation as
Billy ogled them.
The woman with the pony tail turned and her eyes met Billy’s. She
hesitated for a moment and then smiled at him. Billy blushed over the
incident and retreated to a secluded seat.
“Flight 637 is now boarding zones 3 and 4 for Philadelphia,”
announced the stewardess from the podium. Billy got in line with his
briefcase and newspaper in hand. He browsed about the seating area and
wondered which one of the many faces could be Nichols. He’d surely
find out soon.
The line moved quickly and, once on board, Billy removed his raincoat
and stowed it in the overhead compartment. He sat down and placed his
briefcase underneath the seat. The plane was only half full, and boarding
was nearly complete. No one took the seat next to him and he pondered
the possibility that Nichols would miss the flight.
A well-dressed African-American couple, Dr. Robert “Doc” and
Maggie Smith, took their seats in front of Billy. The man was in his
middle fifties, bald, somewhat muscular and wore a suit. The woman
had thick, black, shoulder-length hair tied back in a ponytail. She wore a
black, mid-length skirt and matching vest with a white blouse underneath.
Billy glanced at the man and recalled seeing him before. He opened his
newspaper to the Sports section and disregarded the thought.
“Flight 637 for Philadelphia; last call for boarding, all zones,” the
announcement came over the PA system once more. Penny Nichols hurried
down the corridor to gate C-29. She stood about five feet-six inches tall and
was petite with shoulder-length brunette hair. A young, male attendant
closed the door to the jet way and returned to the counter. He noticed
Penny rushing toward him and rolled his eyes.
“Wait, I’m coming!” Penny shouted. She stopped abruptly and
presented her boarding pass to the attendant. “Please don’t let me miss my
flight. My boss will fire me,” she pleaded.
The attendant picked up the phone. “I’ve got one more – seat 21B,”
he said passively. Penny leaned against the counter and listened anxiously.
“Thanks, Captain. I’ll send her back.”
“Yeah, you made it – just barely,” he said as he scanned her boarding pass.
“Thank you so much,” said Penny excitedly.
The young man opened the door to the jetway. “You’d better hurry
before the pilot changes his mind.” Penny rushed down the jet way. Now
that she made the flight, she pondered her boss’s last words to her: Don’t
worry. Mr. Brock, is quite a character. You’ll be fine with him.
This guy had better be something special, she thought bitterly. Traveling
wasn’t part of my job description. Penny hurried inside the plane and turned
down the aisle. She felt uncomfortable as everyone glared at her for delaying
the departure.
Billy was engrossed in the newspaper when Penny settled into her
seat and opened her briefcase. He looked up and was captivated by her
brown eyes. “Good morning, ma’am. Close one, huh?” he said politely.
“Good morning, sir. It sure was.” She pretended to browse over her
notes and summoned her courage. “You wouldn’t happen to be Billy Brock,
would you?”
“I certainly am,” said Billy as he put down the paper. “You’re not Miss
Nichols, by chance, are you?”
“Why yes, I am. I’m the new software engineer from CAE Corporation.
I’m here to assist you on your sales presentation.”
“I don’t mean to be rude but I really wasn’t expecting a woman.”
“Well, this is a business trip, so don’t get the wrong idea,” Penny mentioned
abruptly.
Billy was embarrassed by her implication. “I’m good with that. I just
wasn’t aware they hired a female engineer; that’s all,” he said innocently.
“I want us to stay focused on this presentation. It’s my first trip with
the company and I don’t want any problems, okay?” she continued.
Billy became annoyed with her interpretation of his civility. “I got it
already – strictly business.” Penny realized that her response didn’t come
out the way she intended by the tone of Billy’s voice. She focused on her
paperwork.
Billy looked out the window and watched the terminal fade from view
as the 757 ascended into the rainy sky. He opened the newspaper and
browsed at the front page. A picture on page two caught his attention. It
was the man sitting in front of him – Dr. Robert Smith. Billy read the
accompanying article.
A leading scientist in the field of physics, Dr. Smith discovered an
energy source, believed to be the first real evidence to support the existence
of portals in space. “Although it isn’t clear what kind of portal this source
could represent, it’s an amazing first step in understanding the cosmos,”
says Smith. Several other renowned scientists have worked with Dr. Smith
in an attempt to understand when and how this source appeared at the
edge of our Solar System.”
Wow! This guy’s into some cool stuff, thought Billy.
Penny glanced at the paper and saw the article. “Can I borrow that
for a moment, please?”
Billy pointed it at her and mumbled, “Have at it.” Penny stowed her
briefcase and took the paper from him. She scanned the article and flipped
to the next page for the remainder of it.
“You should see these pictures, Maggie!” Doc said to his wife beside
him. “I think we’ll have an opportunity to explore this little speck of hope
real soon.”
Maggie leaned over the armrest and peered at the drawings on her
husband’s lap. “How so?” she asked.
“Joe Miller is working with NASA to see what kind of probe is available
to gather data on the energy source for us. He expects to have an answer
for me by the time we get to Philadelphia.”
Maggie noticed a picture of a colleague of Doc’s, Dr. Nikolai Athos,
on top of a mountain with two other individuals. “Hey, there’s your friend,
Athos! What’s he up to?”
Doc pointed at the picture’s backdrop. “He’s in the Appalachian
Mountains, collecting seismic data. Eight years ago, he postulated a theory
that ancient civilizations like the Incas, Mayans and Sumerians, didn’t
become extinct as many believed. He theorized that these civilizations
might have somehow slipped into a time portal or alternate dimension;
kind of a relocation. His theory wasn’t accepted very well by the scientific
world and they labeled him an ‘eccentric’.”
He flipped to another picture of Athos in front of a pyramid in Central
America. “Back then, I believed in the existence of portals,” he related,
“but I never thought about the possibility of moving a whole civilization
through one and the existence of parallel universes wasn’t something I
could accept based on any of the data he produced.”
“So maybe there’s something simpler to that theory like a tractor beam
from an alien spaceship behind the disappearance of those civilizations,”
Maggie suggested.
“Now why would you say that?” he asked, curious.
“Imagine if someone up there could focus a tractor beam through a
portal? They could pull us through it and maybe send us to another part
of the universe.”
“I doubt it. Can you imagine how much power it would take to execute
something of that magnitude?” he scoffed. “Since we know very little
about altered or ‘fractured’ time, Athos’ theory sounds ludicrous. At this
juncture, though, we can’t discount it as the consequence of a portal either.”
“Could it be a bad thing for us?” Maggie countered.
“I don’t know. That little energy source might also be a doorway to
another part of the universe. If so, then for whom, why and where?”
“This sounds fantastic, Doc! Imagine the possibilities.”
“Yes,” he replied. “And when we send the probe up, I hope to acquire
enough data to provide some of the answers we’re looking for.”
Billy eavesdropped and was impressed with their conversation. Penny
handed him his newspaper and stood up in the aisle by Doc and Maggie.
Billy wondered what she was up to and listened intently.
“Excuse me. I’m Penny Nichols. I used to work with CAE,” Penny
said politely.
Maggie looked up and immediately recognized her. “Well, hello,
Penny. It’s good to see you.”
Doc was pleasantly surprised and shook her hand. “Well, young lady,
it’s been a few years.”
“You remember me, Dr. Smith!” she blurted. “I’m flattered.”
“Sure, I do! You saved our Euripedes satellite project in Florida with
your software program.”
     What the hell! She is a ringer, thought Billy frantically. I’m doomed!
“I never worked with anyone who knew software programming
like you. We kicked butt together on that orbital thrust control issue,”
remarked Maggie.
“Yes, we did,” Penny acknowledged.
“That software package you developed has carried the program for us.
I could never thank you enough,” said Doc gratefully.
“Thanks, Dr. Smith. Well, I just wanted to say hello.”
Doc handed her his card. “Give me a call sometime. I could use your
expertise on a new project.”
“I sure will. It was nice seeing the two of you again.”
“You, too, Penny.”
“Take care and stay in touch,” added Maggie. Penny sat down and
retrieved her briefcase from under the seat.
Billy stewed as he considered the repercussions of Penny’s affiliation
with Dr. Smith. No wonder they brought her in to replace me, he thought.
She has contacts in the space program.
Penny stowed the card and browsed over her notes. She reminded
Billy of Charlene with her demeanor – bossy and arrogant. Billy recalled
the time he spent with Charlene and tortured himself that their failed
relationship was somehow his fault, but how?
Penny placed her hand on his arm and asked nicely, “Can we talk
about this presentation, Billy?”
“What’s the problem?” he countered.
Penny felt foolish for asking but persisted, “I really need to understand
what you’re proposing to these people.”
“Here’s how it works: We’ll go in and I’ll brief them on the system,”
he instructed her. “You’ll give details on the software if they ask and that’s
it. There’s nothing to it.”
Penny tapped her foot and fought back the urge to snap at him. She
counted to three and took a deep breath. “I was sent on this trip for a
reason so there’s obviously something to it,” Penny reminded him.
“Maybe Epstein wanted to make sure you’re capable of taking my place
before he lets me go,” Billy responded sarcastically.
Penny was baffled by his remark. “What are you talking about?”
“Come on, Penny, they only hired you because you’re a woman and
they’re trying to save money.”
Penny was insulted by Billy’s remarks. She tried to keep her voice low
and responded, “That’s bull and you know it. I was hired because I’m
good at my job.”
“And, of course, they picked you to put me out of a job because you’re
the company’s savior – the sure thing,” Billy taunted.
Penny was appalled and hurt. “I don’t believe that for one second.
You’re just paranoid.”
“It doesn’t matter what you believe,” Billy responded tersely. He turned
his head away from her and stared out the window.
Maggie overheard their squabble and stood up to rebuke Billy. Doc
grabbed her arm and nodded for her to sit down. She reluctantly obeyed.
Penny covered her face with her hand to hide her tears. She wondered
if taking this job was a mistake, especially since she was never good with
office politics.
The plane started its descent but then shuddered violently. Everyone
became alarmed. “What was that?” snapped Billy as the plane rocked
again.
The cabin filled with the whispers of concerned passengers. Penny became
frightened. “Something’s wrong with the plane, Billy. We’re gonna crash.”
Billy saw the tears in her eyes and felt bad for her. “There’s nothing
wrong with the plane,” he said calmly. “It’s just a little turbulence.”
Penny wiped her eyes with a tissue and felt embarrassed. “I’m sorry,”
she said. “I didn’t mean to bother you.”
“It’s no problem,” replied Billy. He stared out the window and watched
the clouds change from gray to green pastel. The ocean below looked
distorted and frothed.
Doc peered out his window uneasily. “This isn’t ordinary turbulence.
Something’s happening to us!” he uttered to Maggie. She clutched his arm
and gazed out the window, too.
Billy overheard Doc’s remark and worried that this had something to
do with his discovery. Two bells chimed from the speakers, followed by
the captain’s voice. “This is your Captain speaking. Please remain seated
with your seatbelts on. We’re experiencing rough turbulence which should
dissipate shortly.”
“See, there’s nothing to worry about,” whispered Billy.
He can be civil when he wants to, thought Penny as she glanced at him
appreciatively.

— ⧗ —

     Inside a hot, steamy cavern, a grotesque alien witch stared with great
concern into a boiling cauldron. She chanted an incantation and dropped
small pieces of dried flesh into the pot. The witch, Diomedes, was part human
and part alien, resembling a reptile with her thick tail reaching the ground and
her ears pointed. She was over six-feet tall and had piercing, black eyes. Red
mist formed over the cauldron, revealing the illusion of a young man with
a sword. In the illusion, the man attacked Diomedes and beheaded her. He
then pursued a cloaked wizard through a castle. Diomedes shrieked in anger.
Four cloaked wizards entered the cavern and stood before her. One of
them, Ruger, was the wizard in the mist. When the mist cleared over the
cauldron, the illusion vanished. “Ruger, you bumbling fool, you’ve started
a chain of events that will lead to our destruction,” Diomedes chided.
Ruger, the elder wizard, wiped sweat from his brow and looked
befuddled by her accusation. “But how can that be?” he asked.
“A stranger will destroy both of us unless you stop him soon.”
“Where is he now?” questioned Ruger, showing little concern.
“He’s on his way here, thanks to your incompetence!”
“One man is not to be feared,” Ruger declared confidently.
Diomedes pointed a crooked, bony finger at two of Ruger’s companions.
She uttered an incantations in an alien language. Blue smoke engulfed the
two men. When it cleared, their faces were eerily similar to a beetle’s head
and their hands withered into leathery paws. They quivered and groaned
feebly like farm animals.
Ruger was horrified but struggled to maintain his composure.
“Silence!” he ordered the squealing wizards. The abominations promptly
obeyed.
“What would you have me do, Diomedes?” he asked humbly.
“Can you control the device yet?”
Diomedes chest plates opened and two tentacles emerged, coiling
around the two cursed wizards. The tentacles pulled the squealing creatures
into the chest cavity and devoured them. Ruger was horrified.
“I need more time,” he pleaded.
“Thanks to you, we don’t have time. Find this stranger and kill him
or you’ll join your friends!”
“I will send the planet’s own creatures after him immediately.” He and
his remaining companion Pirocles fled the cavern, Diomedes howled and
retreated behind columns of flames.
Ruger hurried up the stone steps to his castle, followed by Pirocles.
They entered the main chamber, lit well by torches along four walls. The
chamber had several wooden doors along two of the walls. The wizards
proceeded to a circular stone stairwell which rose through one of the
castle’s towers. When they reached the top, they entered the chamber with
the ornate chest.
The chest was encrusted with rubies along the rim of the lid. Ruger
approached the chest and opened it. He reached under his robe for a small
sack.
“If we don’t dispose of this man quickly, Diomedes will curse us, too,”
complained Pirocles.
“Don’t you think I know that, you fool?” uttered Ruger. He sprinkled
dust from the sack into the chest and watched as a plume of white smoke
rose in the air. Within the smoke appeared an image of Billy and Penny
exiting the plane. Ruger laughed at the image. “That young boy is no
match for the creatures of Vesula. They’ll be ready when he arrives.”
Outside the castle, shape-shifter men in animal skins, armed with
spears and lances, fought against Ruger’s demonic minions. The hillside
behind them was littered with corpses of both armies. Pirocles watched
from high up in the tower and panicked. “The soldiers have driven the
minions back inside the castle,” warned Pirocles.
“I don’t need these distractions right now. Summon more help,” Ruger
ordered him. Pirocles bowed and left the chamber. Ruger vanished into a
transparent field against the stone wall.
He emerged inside a dark cave and uttered a brief incantation. Torches
along the entire length of the cave suddenly burned brightly. The cave
consisted of a clay floor and stone block walls with a soil ceiling enmeshed
with the roots of trees. Ruger followed the cave to a flight of earthen stairs.
He ascended them and emerged unharmed from a large fire in the middle
of a massive cavern.
Hundreds of Neanderthals gathered in the cavern and were startled by
his appearance. The creatures were ape-like in appearance with protruding
jaws and long teeth. They warily approached him with crude weapons,
poised to attack. Ruger pointed at one of the creatures and shouted a spell.
The creature burst into flames. It shrieked and rolled about the floor in
desperation until it burned to death. The other Neanderthals became
frightened and backed away.
“You will bow to me now!” Ruger ordered defiantly.
One of the creatures raised its spear to attack. Ruger hissed and
pointed his finger at the creature. It burst into flames, screaming in
agony until its death as the other did. The remaining Neanderthals
bowed obediently.
Ruger projected an illusion on the wall of Billy exiting the jet. He then
displayed a Neanderthal attacking Billy and killing him. He entered the
fire and descended the stairs to the cave below.

— ⧗ —

     As the plane descended, Billy stared out the window in awe at majestic
mountains and green forests. He was baffled by their presence on the east
coast.
The plane shuddered again and lurched downward. Passengers
panicked and cried. “Please remain seated. The captain is handling the
situation,” the stewardess announced sternly over the loudspeaker. The
passengers reluctantly quieted down.
Billy saw the frightened look in Penny’s eyes. “What’s wrong?” he
asked. “It’s just turbulence.”
“I’m scared, Billy! I don’t want to die?” Billy reluctantly placed his
arm around Penny’s shoulders. “Thank you,” she said appreciatively and
nestled against him.
     How could I be so cruel? I should be mad at Epstein, not her, Billy
thought. He brushed Penny’s bangs away from her eyes. “Don’t worry.
We’ll be okay,” he assured her.
“We’re gonna crash,” she fretted. “I just know it.”
“It’s only turbulence,” Billy explained. “Haven’t you ever flown before?”
“No, I don’t travel much.”
“Pretend it’s a roller coaster,” he suggested.
“I don’t like roller coasters, either,” Penny replied, embarrassed.
“Gee, you must not be much fun on a date,” teased Billy.
Penny looked up at him sadly and nuzzled closer to him. “I don’t date
very often either,” she said dejectedly. Billy was amused by her comment.
The cabin pressure in the plane decreased as it descended to a lower
altitude. Penny felt safe in Billy’s arms. She hooked his arm in hers and
wondered if a friendship might work out between them.
The airport came into view and the plane circled for a landing. It
shuddered again, despite the low altitude. Doc stared out his window with
a grave expression. Maggie looked down at her lap with her hands clenched
and prayed. The plane jolted again and the overhead racks opened, spilling
pieces of luggage onto the floor. Many of the passengers were frightened
and cried out in fear.
The airport and runway were wrecked as though a high-magnitude
earthquake had struck. There was no sign of the surrounding city and
suburbs which should have surrounded the airport. The plane touched
down on the fragmented sections of cement and taxied to the terminal.
Billy placed his hand under Penny’s chin and lifted her head. He
looked into her eyes and felt a connection with her. “I told you everything
would be alright,” he said confidently.
Penny squeezed his arm affectionately. “Thank you so much for being
patient. It means a lot to me.”
Billy was touched that Penny appreciated his concern for her. “I’m
sorry if I sounded like a jerk earlier,” he explained apologetically. Penny
smiled and released her hold on his arm. She was satisfied to be treated
with a little dignity.
Billy peered out the window and was stunned by the terrible condition
of the airport. The terminal was severely damaged and the south end
disappeared into the ground. At the north end, the upper part of the tower
had collapsed. The tarmac was an array of upheaved concrete sections.
Billy hid his concern from Penny as the plane taxied to a stop. Everyone
on board breathed a collective sigh of relief as the plane’s engines shut
down and tensions eased. Most of the passengers in their anxiety failed
to notice the damaged terminal. They scurried about the aisle, picking
up their belongings.
Outside the plane, the low cloud ceiling was an eerie green hue.
The wind gusted and lightning frequently flashed across the sky. The
plane rocked again from a series of tremors and the remainder of the
compartment doors popped open throughout the plane. Passengers
stumbled about the aisle. An elderly man gashed his head open on the
corner of one compartment door when he fell forward. “Someone help
my husband, please! He’s hurt,” shouted his frantic wife. One of the
stewardesses urgently pushed through the crowd and made her way down
the aisle with a first aid kit.
Penny stood up but Billy grabbed her arm. “Stay here until we’re sure
it’s safe to move,” he instructed her. Penny obediently sat down and put her
seatbelt back on. As if on cue, the landing gears collapsed and dropped the
plane onto its belly. It tilted onto its left side as it slid off the tarmac and
down a muddy slope. Passengers were tossed across seats and into the aisle.
Penny trembled and placed her arm around Billy’s chest. When the
tremors finally subsided, the plane was deathly silent.
“See what I mean,” remarked Billy, “You never know what could
happen.”
“So, you think you have everything figured out, huh?” she remarked
disappointedly.
“Almost. But I haven’t figured you out yet,” he kidded.
She forced a smile and quipped, “And you never will.”
“Does anybody know what the hell is going on here?” exclaimed
an irate passenger sarcastically. Billy heard fragments of sentences with
“earthquake” and “demolished”.
“We’ve crossed over, Maggie!” said Doc excitedly.
“What do you mean ‘crossed over’?”
“You’ll see when we get off the plane.”
Penny looked up at Billy with a concerned expression, “Don’t worry. I’ll
make sure you’re okay while we figure out what’s going on,” he promised.
“Thank you, Billy. I’ll try not to be a pest.” She wiped her eyes again
and looked down. “I didn’t mean to get off on the wrong foot with you.
I’m terrible at saying what I mean,” she said humbly.
“Don’t worry about it,” he replied.
“Maybe we could have an early dinner together before we fly back
tonight. I’d like to get to know you better,” she suggested.
     Gee, Epstein will kill me if I mess around with his new field engineer.
Maybe I should, just to spite him, Billy thought and then responded, “I guess
we could. I’ll tell you a little about the company and the people in it.”
“I’d really like that. We can keep it professional if you like,” she offered.
“I’d prefer it that way,” he explained. “I’m going through a bad time
and relationships aren’t my favorite topic right now.” Penny grew more
comfortable with Billy now that she knew why he reacted the way he did
to her.
The plane rocked again, jarring everyone. Passengers screamed as the
tumult engulfed them. Penny grabbed Billy’s arm and held it tightly. Billy
stared out the window in shock as part of the terminal crumbled. The
tremors ceased and the plane became silent again.
The pilot, Captain Barnes, stumbled out of the cabin. “Can I have
your attention everyone? There’s been a major earthquake and the airport
is badly damaged. We don’t have communication with the tower so I don’t
have any information for you at this time. Assemble your things together
and we’ll deplane in an orderly fashion.”
“Are we gonna be alright, Captain?” someone shouted from the back
of the plane.
“I don’t know. In fact, I don’t even know where we are. It’s obviously
not Philadelphia.”
Penny squeezed Billy’s hand. “Don’t worry. You’re with me,” he assured
her. Many of the passengers ranted and babbled about their predicament.
Penny felt safe as she clung to Billy. His confidence impressed her, as he
seemed unaffected by the chaos around them.
Outside the plane, smoke spewed from one of the engines and the
fragmented wing leaked fuel onto the wet soil. “I’ll be right back. Don’t
move,” Billy ordered.
“Where are you going?” Penny asked, concerned.
“Don’t move,” Billy reiterated as he stepped over her. He hurried up
the aisle with his attention focused on the emergency exit.
“Come back, Billy!” Penny called out.
Billy stopped at the emergency exit and recognized the two women
sitting there as the girls from the airport with the fancy jackets. “Excuse
me, ladies but it’s time for us to get out of here,” he announced. He took
each girl by the arm and nudged them out of the way. When he attempted
to unfasten the hatch door, it wouldn’t budge.
The brunette pushed him aside. “Watch out, hero. This is how you
do it,” she explained. With ease, she unfastened the door and opened it,
leaving Billy embarrassed by his ineptitude. Fortunately, two of the flight
attendants arrived and assisted in evacuating the passengers through the
open hatch. “Any more brilliant ideas,” the brunette chided Billy.
“No, I think… Oh, never mind.”
Both girls giggled at him. Red with embarrassment, Billy returned to
his seat.
Billy took Penny by the hand and helped her into the aisle.
“So why you?” she asked. “Why did you have to be the one to open
the door?”
“Because somebody had to do it,” he answered. Penny found his
remark strange. It wasn’t the compassionate response she hoped for.
An elderly couple struggled to retrieve their luggage from the overhead
compartment. Billy reached over them and pulled down their suitcases for
them. They thanked him and filed up the aisle toward the emergency exit.
“That was nice of you,” Penny commented.
Billy shrugged off her compliment. “No big deal.”
The passengers exited the aircraft onto the soft, moss-covered soil.
They struggled to keep their footing as the rain made traction perilous.
Billy and Penny were among the last to reach the exit. They looked past
the captain and stewardesses at giant white cliffs in the distance. “Where’s
civilization around here?” asked Penny uneasily.
A blond-haired stewardess named Sabrina blurted, “This looks like the
Andes Mountains in that movie about the plane crash and…”
“I think you should shut your yap, Sabrina, before you frighten the
passengers,” Captain Barnes interrupted and chastised her.
Sabrina glared at him. “Like they’re not scared already,” she replied
sarcastically.
“Let’s get off the plane first and then we can talk about it,” suggested
Billy.
The captain glanced at him with a sneer. “Don’t tell me how to do my
job, boy,” he warned.
“Then do it already, won’t you?”
Captain Barnes turned his attention from Billy. “Let’s get whatever
essential supplies we have off the plane now,” he instructed the aircrew.
The flight attendants quickly rummaged through the cabinets at the
front of the plane.
Billy and Penny exited the plane onto the moss-covered ground. “Will
they send someone to pick us up? It’s pretty wet out here,” asked Penny.
Billy gazed at her as her hair blew in the wind. His impression of her
was that, despite the front she put on earlier, she was innocent and caring.
“I can see you don’t get out much,” he kidded.
“What was your first clue, smart guy?” she replied shyly. “You know,
Billy, I was thinking…”
“Uh-oh. This could be trouble,” kidded Billy.
“Let me finish. Maybe our boss set us up like a blind date,” she
suggested.
“I doubt it. Epstein is all about business.”
“I heard that you were going through a tough time and the trip might
do you good. I didn’t think it was in reference to me, though.”
“Is this like the Soprano’s where you’re supposed to whack me and dump
my body in the swamp? That’s one way to create an opening in the company.”
Penny punched him in the arm. “That’s not nice, Billy.”
The rain fell steadily and the air had a biting chill to it. The overcast
sky made for a gloomy atmosphere and fog rolled across the tarmac from
the forests.
When the captain called for everyone’s attention, the passengers
anxiously gathered under large leafy trees away from the plane to hear
what he had to say.
“Captain, what’s happened to us?” asked an elderly man. Just as quickly,
several others chimed in with questions and their voices grew louder.
“Please!” bellowed Captain Barnes. “Hold your questions for now.”
“What can you tell us?” asked a young woman.
“We lost radio contact with the tower during our approach. Right now,
I don’t know any more than you do,” answered Barnes.
Billy and Penny became disinterested in the captain’s speech and gazed
at the landscape around them. The treetops, some much higher than the
others, covered the mountainsides like a lush, green carpet. Large, flying
creatures glided over great white cliffs that rose into the sky like giant
behemoths looking down at them.
Penny studied the ruined terminals. “Look at that, Billy. The terminals
look like ships sunken in the mud.”
“It’s like they slid right into the ground,” added Billy, worried. Penny
shivered and folded her arms against her body for warmth.
“Captain, why don’t we get everyone out of the rain first, then we can
talk about this,” suggested Billy.
“You got any ideas where to go, smart guy?” snapped Barnes.
Doc interceded and suggested, “Why don’t we move them inside the
terminal.”
“That’s better than standing out here in the rain,” replied Billy. Barnes
was skeptical and waited for other suggestions but none came.
Doc and Maggie approached the remaining section of “C” Terminal
and slipped through a torn section of steel in the wall.
Penny inquired uneasily, “Do you think it’s safe to go inside there?”
Billy led her by the hand and replied, “I think so. At least we can dry
off for a while until we come up with a better idea.”
Barnes finally relented. “Everyone into the terminal. We’ll organize
after everyone’s had a chance to dry off,” he instructed.
Doc and Maggie sat in a row of seats near one of the gates. Billy and
Penny slid through the split section of steel wall and walked up the ramp
to the gate area. Doc greeted them and invited them to sit down.
Billy was pleased to have a chance to meet Doc, especially after
reading the newspaper article about him. “I’m Billy Brock,” he said as
they shook hands.
“I’m Dr. Robert Smith but Doc is fine. This is my wife, Maggie.”
Maggie shook hands with Billy. “It’s nice to meet you. I wondered how
long they were all going to stand out there in the rain.”
“Me, too. Thanks for the support back there.”
“Someone had to make a decision. You did well,” Doc complimented
him.
The jet exploded in a fiery mass and rocked the terminal. A wave of
heat spread across the tarmac and warmed the concourse briefly. Everyone
scattered away from the crude entrance.
Penny clung to Billy as bright light from the flames flashed inside the
terminal and flickered eerie shapes on the walls. “Gee, Penny, I hope you
didn’t leave anything important on the plane,” Billy kidded.
“Always the funny one, aren’t you?” she mentioned and then quipped,
“I did leave my notes for the presentation under the seat, though.”
“If I’m correct in my thinking, I don’t believe we’re going anywhere. We
could be stuck here until we find out who is behind this,” explained Doc.
“What do you mean by that?” asked Billy.
“I don’t think this is a natural phenomenon. This was precipitated by
someone or something.”
“Then let’s start looking for them,” Billy urged.
“You don’t understand, Billy. We’re not on Earth.” Maggie and Penny
looked at Doc with shocked expressions.
“Then where are we?” inquired Billy.
“Look up at the sky,” Doc instructed. “The answer is up there
somewhere.”
Billy placed his hands on his hips. “Well, that’s just great. How the
hell did that happen?”
“We’ll talk about this later when I have a better understanding of
things,” replied Doc. He and Maggie left them to inspect the tarmac.
Many of the passengers were visibly upset, realizing that whatever
possessions they left on the plane, were now gone. Outside the terminal,
dark smoke billowed from the burning jet high into the sky, adding dismal
gray to the green cloud cover