30 Stories in 30 Days (2 of 31)
30 Stories in 30 Days by David Wellington.
Share with a a friend! Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0
“I’d like a coach ticket, please,” Shelley said, tapping her credit card on the counter. She wasn’t sure if it was safe to use that card—she knew there were ways for her husband to track her based on her purchases—but she didn’t have enough cash in her own account for a ticket. She needed to get away. She needed to get away now.
“Certainly, ma’am,” the clerk said. He was short and he had a mustache he really needed to trim. He looked like he’d been at the desk for far too long and he just wanted to go home. “And where are you headed?”
She glanced over her shoulder. “Wherever. Just, whatever’s the next flight.”
He didn’t say anything for a second. Just stared at her. He was looking at her sunglasses, she thought, and wondering why she was wearing them inside the terminal. Or maybe he was just noticing the agitated way she was tapping the card. She laid it down on the counter, then slowly took out her driver’s license.
“That’s the nine thirty flight to San Francisco, I suppose,” he told her. He printed out a ticket and charged her card. “Gate A9.” He started to hand her the ticket—then held onto it. As she chewed on her lip he reached under his desk and pulled out a stamp. It made a sloppy red star on her boarding pass.
“What’s that, what’s that star?” she demanded.
“Just an internal routing note. Nothing to worry about. Have a nice flight.” He smiled as he handed over the ticket.
She made her way to the gate—getting through security was easy when you didn’t have any luggage—and found a seat. She kept looking around, convinced that her husband was going to come racing down the corridor at any second.
He didn’t. They called her row for boarding and she got on the plane without a hitch.
San Francisco, she thought, chewing carefully on the dry pretzels they’d given her instead of a meal. Her lip was badly bruised—it matched the black eye under her sunglasses—and the salt crystals stung her where the skin had broken on the inside of her cheek. San Francisco. She didn’t know anyone in San Francisco. That didn’t matter.
She’d known her husband had a temper when she married him. He’d sworn he could control it, and he actually had—for a while. This wasn’t the first time she’d tried to get away. He was very good at bringing her back. She looked around at her fellow passengers but didn’t see anyone she recognized. That was good, she thought. She relaxed a little, and soon she was nodding off, the drone of the engines and the circulating air and the constant vibration almost hypnotizing her. She noticed she was breathing a little more deeply than usual, but didn’t make anything of it. She also noticed that the passenger in the aisle seat was fast asleep, and so were the passengers in the row across the aisle. It wasn’t that late, was it?
It was hard to concentrate. The air was awfully close. She fell asleep—or thought she did. Everything went dark for a while, anyway. Her head fell forward and a drop of drool fell from her lip. When it hit her hand she jerked upright and awake. Blinking rapidly, she looked around. The air felt thin, and very warm. She’d never been claustrophobic before but suddenly she felt like a great weight was pushing down on her. What was wrong with the air?
Someone in a row behind her gasped. She looked up and around but didn’t see anyone else who was awake. The stewardesses were back in their pantry with the curtain closed. The gasper said something she couldn’t quite make out, something about the window, and she looked out her own.
They were high above some mountains that glowed in the dark where they were covered in snow. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Just the moon, huge and yellow out on the horizon—and—what was that? Lights, moving toward them. After a moment she saw that it was another plane. The odd thing was it was exactly the same size and shape as the plane she was on. It even belonged to the same airline. As she watched it grew bigger. It was getting closer. She grasped the arm of her seat, thinking it was going to collide with them, but at the last second it stopped growing and the two planes just flew alongside, wingtip almost touching wingtip. She’d never seen anything like it.
A couple other passengers noticed it, too. She could hear them talking to each other, just loud whispers but she could hear the fright in their words. She watched the other plane, watched it as if by sheer willpower she could make it veer off and leave them alone. She was more than a little surprised when it worked. The other plane dipped in the air—and suddenly it was falling, nose first.
“Oh my God,” she said out loud. She reached up and stabbed at the stewardess call button, but didn’t take her eyes off the window.
The other plane fell faster and faster. She had to crane her neck around to watch as it dwindled behind. She just barely saw the fireball when it hit the mountains, but the light made flickering shadows on her face and hands.
“Holy shit,” someone shouted, and she jumped in her chair.
A bell rang twice over Shelly’s head. “This is the captain,” the intercom said. “No cause for alarm, folks. We don’t know exactly what just happened, but for safety we’re going to put down at a landing strip in Colorado. Please stay calm.”
The stewardesses had to wake everyone up when they landed. Half the passengers, it seemed, had slept right through the plane crash and the detour. One of them, a pretty girl who couldn’t be more than twenty-one, asked Shelly if she needed any assistance, and Shelly said no.
One by one they were hurried off the plane, onto a freezing cold stretch of concrete lit mostly by the moon and stars. There were no other planes there, nor any kind of terminal—just some low concrete buildings about a quarter mile away. Soldiers with rifles were waiting for them and gestured for them to walk toward the buildings.
“I don’t have time for this,” someone ahead of her squeaked. A little man in a rumpled suit. His face was bright red.
The walk toward the buildings seemed very long. The air was freezing, and it was too thin to breathe easily. Shelly had almost been looking forward to getting off the plane, thinking the air outside would be clean and crisp. It was strange. The air onboard had felt this thin as well. Almost as if there hadn’t been enough oxygen in the mix. She thought about all the sleeping passengers and realized she must be right. There hadn’t been enough oxygen.
“I need to be in San Fran for a business meeting at seven tomorrow morning,” the man in the suit said. He had accosted one of the soldiers and was waving his boarding pass in the air. Shelly saw it had a red star on it, just like her own.
There hadn’t been enough oxygen on the plane. The thought bothered her. Surely, the pilot had some way to know that, and to adjust for it. Unless—unless they had intentionally kept the oxygen level low. To make sure everyone fell asleep.
There was definitely something wrong. Living with her husband, Shelly had learned to know when things were about to become violent. The taste of it on the back of her mouth. The way it made her skin crawl.
It was crawling like it wanted off.
“Did you hear me? My taxes pay your salary!”
The soldier struck the suited man neatly with the side of his rifle. The little man went down in a heap, screaming. Other passengers rushed to his side, to help him back up, maybe. The soldier nearest Shelly ran forward to help his comrade.
She looked around quickly. None of the soldiers were looking in her direction.
She ran for it.
In the dark, maybe, they couldn’t see her so well. She ran and ran until she saw stars floating in front of her eyes, expecting at any second to be shot in the back. She ran until she couldn’t—until her legs twisted under her and she sat down hard on some rocks, her torso bobbing back and forth as she sucked at the thin air. She was forty-one years old and she hadn’t been to a Pilates class in months. She couldn’t go any further.
For the first time she looked back. She’d run a fair distance, she decided, especially since she’d been running uphill. She was maybe a half mile away from the plane, and the same distance from the concrete buildings she’d seen. From where she sat she could see more of them. There was a little road that ran between them, dotted with streetlamps. It ended at a cliff face, where a hole had been opened in the mountain. It looked to Shelly like the opening of a mine shaft. The passengers from her plane were being herded onto the street, into the yellow glow of the lamps. The soldiers didn’t seem to have even noticed she was missing.
She decided she wanted to keep it that way. Ahead of her, in the same direction she’d been running, a heap of rocks stood up pointing at the sky. She wasn’t wearing the right shoes for rockhopping, but she thought she could climb it. In the dark it wasn’t easy to find footholds, but she took her time, testing every rock with her hands before she put her weight on it. She’d been a girl scout, once.
Beyond the heap lay a narrow little hollow between two crags. It looked like it would make a good hiding place. She clambered down into the shadows there and just sat for a while, huffing and puffing, trying to listen. She was very hungry, but couldn’t see anything edible, or even alive, really. There were some round patches of lichen like bull’s-eyes on the rocks, but she didn’t have the heart to scrape at them. She found a trickle of water winding between two rocks and touched her tongue to it. Cold as ice, but it tasted sweet. She drank her fill, then sat down again to listen.
She couldn’t hear anything but the wind.
She took her jacket off and wrapped it around herself as best she could. She was being crazy, she thought. She was being paranoid. There was probably food and clean water and a comfortable bed down there in the little buildings. There was probably someone from the airline or the government to explain what had happened and to make sure everybody got where they needed to go. The soldiers were just to keep the passengers safe and orderly. The one soldier had gotten a little carried away, sure.
From past experience, Shelly knew all too well what happened when men got carried away.
She thought of the red star on her ticket. Had everyone on the plane gotten one? She thought of the oxygen-poor air on the plane. She had her reasons to feel cautious.
She didn’t fall asleep, but she didn’t exactly stay awake, either. Everything went dark for a while, and when the light came back it was the sun, pink and weak, flaming on the side of the mountain. It was dawn.
Shelly felt very stupid, huddling between the rocks. Her stomach was roaring at her and her body was stiff with exposure to the elements. She was trembling and her mouth was dry. She’d been a good enough girl scout to know what that meant.
Various possibilities occurred to her as to what to do next. Most of them involved getting off the mountain, somehow. There were a lot of problems with that. She had no idea where she was. She had no idea which direction was north. She had no food or any supplies, and the nearest town could be miles and miles away.
The only possibility that left was turning herself in. Walking down to the buildings she’d seen and knocking on the door. Explaining, as contritely as she could manage, that she’d gotten disoriented the night before, that she had wandered off. They would have a lot of questions, and she might have to give some embarrassing answers.
Slowly she rose from where she sat. She patted at her hair, adjusted her clothes. Shrugged back into her jacket. Then she turned around.
She heard a metallic click and saw a rifle pointed right at her face. “Hiya, lady,” a soldier said. She stifled a scream. She knew that when you screamed, that just made men angrier. She spun around and saw more soldiers on every side.
One of them wasn’t wearing a helmet. He had a peaked cap instead, which she thought meant he was an officer. She stared at him imploringly, and eventually he waved one hand and the soldiers lowered their rifles.
“Shelly Montague,” he said, reading her name off a clipboard. “I’m Captain Ormond. How do you do?”
“I’m a little cold,” she said, hugging herself.
“Not surprised, if you spent the night here. You gave us quite a fright, you know. We can’t afford to lose one of our cargo, not a single one. We’ve been looking for you for hours.” He smiled at her. “That was pretty smart, running away like that. It didn’t do you any good, but it was smart.”
“I was ... disoriented,” she said. She was extremely frightened. She also needed to pee. “I’m very sorry—”
He shook his head. “Don’t play dumb now. You knew something was up. And you were right. Will you come with me, please?”
She didn’t see as she had any choice.
The Captain led her back up the heap of rocks and stopped there. He had a pair of binoculars, which he handed to her. “Go on, take a look. You’re allowed to know what’s coming, that’s part of the deal. If you’d prefer not to know, you can choose that, too.”
Shelly peered through the binoculars. Not much had changed. The fifty or so passengers from her flight were still standing in the street that ran between the buildings, the first in line standing just a few dozen feet from the mine entrance. Soldiers with rifles were watching them, but they didn’t seem too concerned. The passengers were standing in single file, most of them with their heads bowed. One thing was different, and it stuck out right away. The passengers were naked.
“I think,” Shelly said, “that I would like to know.”
The Captain nodded. “I knew you were a smart one. We get ‘em sometimes, and they’re always trouble, but you have to respect that. Well, to keep it short, let’s say you kind of won the lottery. Or lost the lottery, that’s closer to the truth. You were chosen at that airport in Chicago for a very special duty, one which is going to help out America quite a bit.”
A lottery—the red star, she thought. Shelly handed back the binoculars. She could see pretty well without them.
“Every ten years, fifty people get brought here to serve, that’s the deal. There was a time when we would just round up some of the local Indians, but that’s not politically correct anymore, and anyway, there’s not many of ‘em left. We tried asking for volunteers from the Armed Forces for a couple years but never got quite enough of a response. Now we pick people randomly, and that seems to work. It’s all very hush hush, of course. We go to some pretty serious lengths to make it look like your deaths were an accident.”
“The other plane,” Shelly said.
“Yeah, exactly. The press will hear you all died in that crash. The plane was empty, I’ll have you know, and flown by remote control. The one that landed here will go into a hangar until next year, when we’ll use it to fake the next crash. See how well we have this worked out, how neat and tidy it is?”
Down by the mine shaft a priest walked down the line of passengers, touching each of them on the forehead with a drop of oil. Anointing them. Shelly frowned.
“What will happen to them?”
“The same thing that’ll happen to you. It ain’t easy, and I’m sorry for that, but it has to be done. If we didn’t, the fellow in the mine there would get angry, and when he gets angry there’s all kinds of problems. Earthquakes. Weather shifts. Maybe the planet’s magnetic field would flip its polarity. You don’t want that.”
Shelly blinked. “There’s someone in the mine?”
“Not just anyone. You know who we have down there?” The Captain leaned closer, and whispered it in her ear. “That’s God in there.”
“I don’t—I don’t believe—”
“He believes in you,” the Captain said.
“This is outrageous! Does the president know about this?”
“Sure! Who do you think signs off on blowing up jumbo jets? Every president since Woodrow Wilson has visited this facility at one time in their administration. Richard Nixon stayed with us for a week, he had all kinds of questions for the Boss.”
The priest had finished with his ministry. The soldiers jogged forward and started pushing the passengers closer to the mine shaft entrance. They didn’t put up much resistance. Shelly recognized the one in front—he’d been the man in the suit, the one who complained.
“Some people, when they hear about this, they feel relieved. I mean, it makes some logical sense, doesn’t it? You read the Bible, and the God there, and Jesus, they’re so touchy-feely. So new-agey. Like hippies invented the universe. Up here we know better. You ever wonder why God created man? You think it was so He had somebody to love?”
“I never really thought—” Shelly couldn’t go on.
“Wouldn’t it make more sense if He had a logical reason? If He had one obvious, concrete reason for creating us? I know it makes me feel better, more well-adjusted to know there’s an actual purpose to our existence.”
Shelly did scream, then, because she saw a tentacle, long and thin and with a sharp talon on its end whip out of the darkness of the shaft and wrap around the poor man in front. She screamed so she wouldn’t hear him screaming in the thin air as he was dragged down into the shaft.
One by one, the rest followed. Her turn came last.
The End of "God"