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Impatiently, he said, "Either come with me, or die with the rest of them.”

He stepped out of the lavatory, and she followed him, but he did not know whether she was going to accompany him back to his section.

He hoped to God she would. He really could not be held responsible for all the other people who would perish, because they would have died even if he had not come aboard; that was their fate, and he had not been sent to alter their destinies. He could not save the whole world, and he had to rely on the wisdom of whatever higher power was guiding him. But he most definitely would be responsible for Holly Thorne's death, because she would never have taken the flight if, unwittingly, he had not led her onto it.

As he moved forward along the port aisle, he glanced to his left at the portholes and clear blue sky beyond. He had a too vivid sense of the yawning void under his feet, and his stomach flopped.

When he reached his seat in row sixteen, he dared to look back.

Relief flooded through him at the sight of Holly trailing close.

He pointed to a pair of empty seats immediately behind his and Chris tine's.

Holly shook her head. "Only if you'll sit down with me. We have to talk.”

He glanced down at Christine, then at Holly. He was acutely aware of time slipping away like water swirling down a drain. The awful moment of impact was drawing closer. He wanted to pick the reporter up, stuff her into the seat, engage her seatbelt, and lock her in place. But seatbelts didn't have locks.

Unable to conceal his extreme frustration, he spoke to her through grit ted teeth. "My place is with them," he said, meaning with Christine and Casey Dubrovek.

He had spoken quietly, as had Holly, but other passengers were beginning to look at them.

Christine frowned up at him, craned her neck to look back at Holly, and said, "Is something wrong, Steve?" "No. Everything's fine," he lied.

He glanced at the portholes again. Blue sky. Vast. Empty. How many miles to the earth below? "You don't look well," Christine said.

He realized that his face was still sheathed in a greasy film of sweat.

"Just a little warm. Uh, look, I ran into an old friend. Gimme five minutes?" Christine smiled. "Sure, sure. I'm still going over a mental list of the most-eligible.”

For a moment he had no idea what the hell she was talking about.

Then he remembered that he had asked her to play matchmaker for him.

"Good," he said. "Great. I'll be right back, we'll talk.”

He ushered Holly into row seventeen. He took the aisle seat next to her.

On the other side of Holly was a grandmotherly tub of a woman in a flower-print dress, with blue-tinted gray hair in a mass of tight curls.

She was sound asleep, snoring softly. A pair of gold-framed eyeglasses, suspended around her neck on a bead chain, rested on her matronly bosom, rising and falling with her steady breathing.

Leaning close to him, keeping her voice so low it could not even carry across the narrow aisle, but speaking with the conviction of an impassioned political orator, Holly said, "You can't let all those people die.”

"We've been through this," he said restively, matching her nearly inaudible pitch.

"It's your responsibility" "I'm just one man!" "But one very special man.”

"I'm not God," he said plaintively.

"Talk to the pilot.”

"Jesus, you're relentless.”

"Warn the pilot," she whispered.

"He won't believe me.”

"Then warn the passengers.”

"There aren't enough empty seats in this section for all of them to move here.”

She was furious with him, quiet but so intense that he could not look away from her or dismiss what she was saying. She put a hand on his arm, gripping him so tightly that it hurt. "Damn it, maybe they could do something to save themselves.”

"I'd only cause a panic.”

"If you can save more, but you let them die, it's murder," she whispered insistently, anger flashing in her eyes.

That accusation hit him hard and had something of the effect of a hammer blow to the chest. For a moment he could not draw his breath.

When he could speak, his voice broke repeatedly: "I hate death, people dying, I hate it. I want to save people, stop all the suffering, be on the side of life, but I can only do what I can do.”

"Murder," she repeated.

What she was doing to him was outrageous. He could not carry the load of responsibility she wanted to pile on his shoulders. If he could save the Dubroveks, he would be at working two miracles, mother and child spared from the early graves that had been their destinies. But Holly Thorne, in her ignorance about his abilities, was not satisfied with two miracles; she wanted three, four, five, ten, a hundred. He felt as if an enormous weight was bearing down on him, the weight of the whole damned airplane, crushing him into the ground. It was not right of her to put the blame on him; it wasn't fair. If she wanted to blame someone, she should cast her accusations at God, who worked in such mysterious ways that He had ordained the necessity of the plane crash in the first place.

"Murder." She dug her fingers into his arm even harder.

He could feel anger radiating from her like the heat of the sun reflected off a metal surface. Reflected. Suddenly, he realized that image was too apt to be anything less than Freudian.

Her anger over his unwillingness to save everyone on the plane was no greater than his own anger over his inability to do so; her rage was a reflection of his own.

"Murder," she repeated, evidently aware of the profound effect that accusation had on him.

He looked into her beautiful eyes, and he wanted to hit her, punch her in the face, smash her with all of his strength, knock her unconscious, so she wouldn't put his own thoughts into words. She was too perceptive. He hated her for being right.

Instead of hitting her, he got up.

"Where are you going?" she demanded.

"To talk to a flight attendant.”

"About what?" "You win, okay? You win.”

Making his way toward the back of the plane, Jim looked at the people he passed, chilled by the knowledge that all of them would be dead soon. As his desperation intensified, so did his imagination, and he saw skulls beneath their skin, the glowing images of bones shining through their flesh, for they were the living dead. He was nauseous with fear, not for himself but for them.

The plane bucked and shimmied as if it had driven over a pothole in the sky. He grabbed at the back of a seat to steady himself But this was not the big one.

The flight attendants were gathered farther back in the plane, in their work area, preparing to serve the lunch trays that had just come up from the galley. They were a mixed group, men and women, a couple in their twenties and the others as old as fifty-something.

Jim approached the oldest of them. According to the tag she wore, her name was Evelyn.

"I've got to talk to the pilot," he said, keeping his voice low, although the nearest passengers were well forward of them.

If Evelyn was surprised by his request, she didn't show it. She smiled just as she had been trained to smile. "I'm sorry, sir, but that isn't possible.

Whatever the problem is, I'm sure I can help-" "Listen, I was in the lavatory, and I heard something, a wrong sound," he lied, "not the right kind of engine noise.”

Her smile became a little wider but less sincere, and she went into her reassure-the-nervous-traveler mode. "Well, you see, during flight it's perfectly normal for the pitch of the engines to change as the pilot alte airspeed and-" "I know that." He tried to sound like a reasonable man to whom she ought to listen. "I've flown a lot. This was different." He lied again: "I know aircraft engines, I work for McDonnell Douglas. We designed and built the DC-10. I know this plane, and what I heard in the lav was wrong." Her smile faltered, most likely not because she was starting to take his warning seriously but merely because she considered him to be a more inventive aerophobe than most who panicked in mid-flight.

The other flight attendants had paused in their lunch-service preparations and were staring at him, no doubt wondering if he was going to be a problem.

Evelyn said carefully, "Well, really, everything's functioning well.

Aside from some turbulence-" "It's the tail engine," he said.

That was not another lie. He was receiving a revelation, and he was letting the unknown source of that revelation speak through him. "The fan assembly is starting to break apart. If the blades tear loose, that's one thing, the pieces can be contained, but if the entire fan-blade assembly shatters, God knows what could happen.”

Because of the specificity of his fear, he did not sound like a typical aerophobic passenger, and all of the flight attendants were staring at him with, if not respect, at least a wary thoughtfulness.

"Everything's fine," Evelyn said, per training. "But even if we lost an engine, we can fly on two.”

Jim was excited that the higher power guiding him had evidently decided to give him what he needed to convince these people. Maybe something could be done to save everyone on the flight.

Striving to remain calm and impressive, he heard himself saying, "That engine has forty thousand pounds of thrust, it's a real monster, and if it blows up, it's like a bomb going off The compressors can back-vent, and those thirty-eight titanium blades, the fan assembly, even pieces of the rotor can explode outward like shrapnel, punching holes in the tail, screwing up the rudders and elevators. . . The whole tail of the plane could disintegrate." .

One of the flight attendants said, "Maybe somebody should just mention this to Captain Delbaugh.”

Evelyn did not instantly object.

"I know these engines," Jim said. "I can explain it to him. You don't have to take me on the flight deck, just let me speak to him on the intercom.”

Evelyn said, "McDonnell Douglas?" "Yeah. I've been an engineer there for twelve years," he lied.

She was now full of doubt about the wisdom of the standard response she had learned in training. She was almost won over.

With hope blossoming, Jim said, "Your captain's got to shut down engine number two. If he shuts it down and goes the rest of the way on one and three, we'll make it, all of us, we'll make it alive.”

Evelyn looked at the other flight attendants, and a couple of them nodded. "I guess it wouldn't hurt if. . .”

"Come on," Jim said urgently. "We might not have much time.”

He followed Evelyn out of the attendants' work area and into the starboard aisle in the economy-class section, heading forward.

The plane was rocked by an explosion.

Evelyn was thrown hard to the deck. Jim pitched forward, too, grabbed at a seat to avoid falling atop the woman, overcompensated and fell to one side instead, against a passenger, then to the floor, as the plane started to shimmy. He heard lunch trays still crashing to the deck behind him, people crying out in surprise and alarm, and one thin short scream. As he tried to scramble to his feet, the aircraft nosed down, and they started to lose altitude.

Holly moved forward from row seventeen, sat beside Christine Dubrovek, introduced herself as a friend of Steve Harkman's, and was nearly thrown out of her seat when a sickening shock-wave pumped through the aircraft.

It was followed a fraction of a second later by a solid thump, as if they had been struck by something.

"Mommy!" Casey had been belted in her seat, even though the seatbelt signs were not on. She was not thrown forward, but the storybooks on her lap clattered to the deck. Her eyes were huge with fear.

The plane started to lose altitude.

"Mommy?" "It's okay," Christine said, obviously struggling to conceal her own fear from her daughter. "Just turbulence, an air pocket.”

They were dropping fast.

"You're gonna be okay," Holly told them, leaning past Christine to make sure the little girl heard her reassurances. "Both of you are going to be okay if you just stay here, don't move, stay right in these seats.”

Knifing down. . . a thousand feet. . . two thousand. . .

Holly frantically belted herself in her seat.

. . . three thousand. . . four thousand. . .

An initial wave of horror and panic gripped the passengers. But that was followed quickly by a breathless silence, as they all clung to the arms of their seats and waited to see if the damaged aircraft was going to pull up in time-or tip downward at an even more severe angle.

To Holly's surprise, the nose slowly came up. The plane leveled off again.

A communal sigh of relief and a smattering of applause swept through the cabin.

She turned and grinned at Christine and Casey. "We're going to be all right. We're all going to make it.”

The captain came on the loudspeaker and explained that they had lost one of their engines. They could still fly just fine on the remaining two, he assured them, though he suggested they might need to divert to a suitable airfield closer than O'Hare, only to be safe. He sounded calm and confident, and he thanked the passengers for their patience, implying that the worst they would suffer was inconvenience.

A moment later Jim Ironheart appeared in the aisle, and squatted beside Holly. A spot of blood glimmered at the corner of his mouth; he had evidently been tossed around a little.

She was so exhilarated, she wanted to kiss him, but she just said, "You did it, you changed it, you made a difference somehow.”

He looked grim. "No." He leaned close to her, put his face almost against hers, so they could talk in whispers as before, though she thought Christine Dubrovek must be hearing some of it. He said, "It's too late.”

Holly felt as if he had punched her in the stomach. "But we leveled off" "Pieces of the exploding engine tore holes in the tail.

Severed most of the hydraulic lines. Punctured the others. Soon they won't be able to steer the airplane.”

Her fear had melted. Now it came back like ice crystals forming and linking together across the gray surface of a winter pond.

They were going down.

She said, "You know exactly what happened, you should be with the captain, not here.”

"It's over. I was too late.”

"No. Never-" "Nothing I can do now.”

"But" A flight attendant appeared, looking shaken but sounding calm.

"Sir, please return to your seat.”

"All right, I will," Jim said. He took Holly's hand first, and squeezed it.

"Don't be afraid." He looked past her at Christine, then at Casey.


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