"And Then They Came..." (Chapter LV)
“You’re sure that the men in the back of the plane are terrorists, not the paramedics of the ambulance?” the pilot, Dennis Martínez, asked the Governor in a calm, composed tone, while his copilot, Emmanuel Alvarez, stared at both of them with wild-eyed fright.
“Yes,” Pietrantoni answered. “I will bet my life on the accuracy of that information.”
It was true. Pietrantoni had come to trust blindly any news that originated from Lucas Alfaro. His friend had demonstrated time and again that any intelligence relayed by him was completely trustworthy. Less than a year before, he had saved Old San Juan from almost certain destruction, and the world from losing its top leadership in one nuclear blast.
Martínez considered the Governor’s statement soberly.
“So we’re screwed,” he said at last. “Alfaro believes there’s a nuclear bomb in this plane? That those guys back there somehow got a bomb into this plane?”
“How?” Alvarez, the copilot, interjected, hoping against hope it was all a mistake.
“In the gurney. In the stretcher. It’s the only thing that they brought out of the ambulance and into the plane,” Pietrantoni replied.
“Unless somebody else smuggled it at some other moment into the plane,” Martínez mused.
The three men looked at each other.
“We have to search the stretcher, and if we don’t find it there, search the entire plane,” the pilot concluded.
Pietrantoni shook his head.
“They won’t let us. Those fake paramedics won’t let us,” he said.
“If they are fake,” Alvarez insisted, still clinging to the hope that it was all a mistake.
“I tend to agree with the Governor,” Martínez said to his copilot. “If he’s certain about his source of information, then those people back there will not take it very lightly that we search for their bomb. And they’re probably armed.”
“Shit!” Alvarez whispered.
“Do you carry any weapons?” Pietrantoni asked the other two men.
“God, no!” Martínez replied. “Shooting and high altitudes don’t combine very well together.”
“And if they shoot and make a hole in the cabin?” Pietrantoni asked.
“The cabin will depressurize. I don’t think anybody will get sucked through the hole, like in the James Bond movies, not unless they blow out a window, but the cabin will certainly begin to lose pressure.”
“Pressure…” the Governor repeated. “Can we depressurize the cabin and knock them unconscious?”
Martínez thought about it. “It’s too risky. After a particular pressure differential, a relief valve will open up. Also, oxygen masks will drop, and they will be able to use them. And also, your son will be at risk. He is in a delicate condition. God knows what a pressure drop will do to him.”
“So then what?” the Governor asked, more to himself than to the two crew members.
“There may be another way,” he said. “It’s risky, but it involves the element of surprise…”
He paused, as if focusing on his idea.
“Yeah, it might work,” he said to himself.
“I’m listening,” the Governor said.
“Ever hear of the Vomit Comet?” Martínez asked him with a half smile.
“It’s the way they train astronauts, by creating artificial weightlessness in an airplane.”
“Right,” Martínez nodded emphatically. “Before I semi-retired, and began doing these random flights for AmbuAir, I worked for almost three years with NASA. Part of my job was to take the astronauts on these flights where we would simulate the weightlessness they would experience in space. They called the flight the ‘Vomit Comet’, because some of the astronauts would get seasick with the flight pattern. Some would even throw up.”
Pietrantoni kept quiet, his analytical mind absorbing and already considering the information from his pilot.
“You know how to do this?” he asked cautiously.
“It involves climbing the jet up at a very steep angle__”
“Very steep,” Martínez answered. “We have to pull up the nose of the jet to a 45 degree angle, so that it climbs almost ten thousand feet in twenty-five seconds. Then we level the plane, and fly at the same altitude for about fifteen seconds, and then we head down at the same angle and speed with which we went up, and descend the same altitude we went up. And then, the cycle starts again.””
“How long will the weightlessness last?” Pietrantoni inquired.
“Twenty-five, thirty seconds tops. It starts even before we finish climbing and level off.”
“Wait, wait,” the copilot said, in a semi-incredulous tone. “That’s your solution for dealing with the terrorists? Making them weightless?”
But the Governor was already mulling over the ramifications of Martínez’s plan. “If we climb up suddenly, and the terrorists are not prepared for the climb, what will happen?”
Martínez smiled, already grasping what the Governor was implying.
“If they’re standing, they will certainly be thrown off their feet and maybe even hit the back of the plane. If we’re lucky, they may be knocked out or stunned.”
Pietrantoni assented. “It may be worth a try,” he said.
“The stretcher is tied up and secured, and so, I understand, is your boy,” Martínez added. “So he will be safe.”
Alvarez stared at the two men as if they were insane.
“What if they don’t get knocked out?” he asked. “What if they’re armed and try to kill us?”
Martínez eyed his copilot with an excited glint in his eyes.
“That’s where the weightlessness comes in,” he responded. “That’s when we try to disarm them.”
"We?” Alvarez asked, unable to hide his exasperation.
“Yeah, the Governor and you. I’ll be flying the plane.” Martínez rubbed his hands gleefully. “This sounds like fun!”
“Fun? We’re all probably going to die, and you think this is fun?” Alvarez said in an incredulous tone, the first words loudly, then realizing he could be overheard, lowering his voice.
Grabbing Alvarez by his shoulders, Martínez shook him affectionately. “Do you have any better ideas?”
The copilot’s previous attitude of confident detachment had evaporated. He looked pale, and was sweating profusely. Closing his eyes in resignation, he shook his head.
"So then let’s concentrate on the task ahead, and enjoy the adventure. It might be our last one together. So let’s plan how we’re doing this.”
* * *
“What is the Governor doing in there? He’s been gone for too much time,” Yousef protested. “I swear, if he doesn’t come out soon, I’m going inside to look for him!”
The Palestinian’s dark eyes burned with anger and impatience.
Sami watched him with growing apprehension. Yousef had been chosen to detonate the bomb when the plane was nearing the Washington airport, for his quiet, cool disposition. But as the time for the ultimate sacrifice neared, his nerves seemed to be getting the better of him.
“You must be patient,” Sami told him in a quiet but firm tone.
Holding his gun in his right hand and resting it on his lap, Yousef scoffed at his associate’s remark. “Patient? I have been very patient. Are you having second thoughts of killing him when he walks out?”
“No, but we must not make any noise that alerts the pilots in the cockpit. Like we agreed, we tie him up, and then we strangle him. No noise.”
And hopefully, Sami thought, that will keep Yousef happy.
Sami stood up from his seat, and walked to Francisco’s stretcher, looking curiously into the tent. The boy was still unconscious, but he was sweating profusely and looked troubled in his sleep. He wondered what it felt like to be infected with the ebola virus. He felt no concern for himself. Soon it would not matter.
Yousef looked back at him from his seat—he was closer to the cockpit, facing its entrance—and he began to stand up.
Just then, the door to the cockpit opened, and the Governor reappeared, not wearing his headpiece or the upper part of his hazmat suit. He stayed there, however, his hands holding on to the back of the door’s frame, his body slightly inclined forward.
Confused, the two terrorists waited for him to exit and close the door.
Then, suddenly, the jet’s engines roared and the plane banked sharply upwards, climbing the sky at an impossibly steep angle.
* * *
The plane’s abrupt maneuver caught the terrorists by surprise. If Pietrantoni had had any doubts about the paramedics’ dangerous nature, they disappeared when he saw that the two had removed their biological hazard suits.
From the door, Pietrantoni saw one of the men, standing by his son, stumble back a few steps while trying to grab on to the stretcher, and then fly backwards as he failed to hold on, crashing somewhere into the back of the jet. The second man, who had been standing up from his seat, fell back into it, and tried to shift his body to face the cockpit.
The gravity pull increased to two G’s, twice the weight caused by the Earth’s normal gravity, and Pietrantoni had to hang on for dear life in order not to fall into the bowels of the plane. Behind him, Emmanuel lay against a wall, silently mouthing a prayer.
The armed terrorist managed to sit back, and stared at the Governor.
He hesitated for a moment, as if unable to determine whether he should use his gun and risk piercing the airplane’s hull, or wait for the situation to improve.
Trying to gain some time by confusing him, Pietrantoni held on to the right side of the door’s frame with his arm and leg, and let go of the other side, partially hanging from the cockpit’s exit. He leaned toward the terrorist, who was lying just a few feet from him, and extended his hand to him.
“Hurry!” he shouted to the fake paramedic. “The pilot and copilot are unconscious! I need you to help me right the airplane’s steering wheel before we break up and crash!”
It was a desperate ploy that would have sounded absurd to anyone that knew anything about flying, but Pietrantoni was betting that the terrorist would be willing to help him in order to get his nuclear device to Washington.
And it worked. The man—not wearing any more the upper half of his hazmat suit—pushed the gun into his belt and bent forward to reach the Governor’s hand.
Suddenly, the weight pushing both men away from the cockpit eased up as the jet’s nose began to grow level. Returning his left hand to the door’s frame, Pietrantoni placed both of his feet on the outer rim of the wall of the cockpit, and propelled himself toward the terrorist, tackling him by the waist in mid-air.
Pietrantoni pulled the gun from the fake paramedic’s waist while holding on to his shirt with his left hand, but the gunman grabbed the pistol by its barrel, and tried to snatch it away.
Both men began to struggle, spinning through the plane, sometimes striking one of the seats and once even crashing on the plastic top of the stretcher’s oxygen bubble, each time abruptly altering the direction of their weightless, twirling dance.
Holding on to the gun, the two enemies let go of their other hands, and began to pummel each other. But without any gravity, their blows were ineffectual, and caused little damage.
In the meantime, Emmanuel had emerged from the cabin, and bracing himself from the door’s frame like the Governor had done, launched himself toward the two fighting men. He nearly missed them, grabbing at the last moment the terrorist by his hair and pulling his head back.
The fake paramedic reacted instinctively, hitting the copilot with his left elbow squarely on the nose. With a grunt of pain, Emmanuel released him and continued floating away while he rubbed his injured nose.
“I will kill you for this!” the terrorist grunted while both men continued to fight for the possession of the gun.
Yousef tried to head butt his rival, hitting him partially on his forehead. However, Pietrantoni managed to hang on.
Then, almost as suddenly as the weight had disappeared, it returned, throwing both men to the floor. The terrorist crashed on top of Pietrantoni’s stomach, momentarily making the latter gasp for air, but still the Governor held on to the gun.
As the airplane plunged downward, the two fighters rolled down the isle, their weight again doubled by the gravitational forces.
Neither of the men relented, the terrorist knowing the success of his mission hinged on killing the Governor, Pietrantoni desperately fighting for the life of his son. The two foes continued to strike each other, while swinging the gun from one side to another.
One of the times, the pistol’s muzzle struck Pietrantoni on the lip, splitting it open, and he felt the coppery taste of his blood in his mouth.
Then, unexpectedly, the terrorist managed to force his fingers into the trigger guard, which had been covered by Pietrantoni’s hand, and he pulled the trigger.
The gun went off close to both of the men’s faces, it’s bullet grazing Pietrantoni’s left cheek and embedding itself in the airplane’s floor.
Urgently, his ear buzzing with the noise of the explosion, the Governor held on to the gun with both of his hands, keeping the barrel away from his face. He heard footsteps behind him, and with the corner of his eye, saw Emmanuel stumbling at an awkward pace towards them.
They were now fighting next to the stretcher, and the gunman used one of its legs to pull himself into a half-seating position over his adversary.
Still holding the gun with both of his hands, Pietrantoni released his right hand and punched the terrorist’s face, partially connecting. It was not a strong blow, but the fist hit the fake paramedic in the eye and he winced, partially releasing the pistol.
At that very moment, Emmanuel tackled the terrorist from behind, carrying the man with him over the Governor, and making him lose his grip on the gun. Screaming with anger and fear, the copilot began to pound the terrorist’s face with both of his fists, not noticing that his enemy had slid his hand to his belt, and brought out a large, two-sided blade.
Swiping it upwards, he stuck it partially between Emmanuel’s right shoulder blade and his back, piercing his right lung.
The copilot screamed in anguish, arching his back and trying to reach the knife but failing to grasp it. The terrorist moved his hand back to stab him a second time, but Pietrantoni let go the gun and caught his wrist between both of his hands, pulling the knife back.
Emmanuel dropped sideways, falling off the terrorist.
For the fraction of a second, Pietrantoni continued to pull backwards on the fake paramedic’s hand. But then, realizing there was no one between the terrorist and the knife, he reversed his thrust and pushed the knife hand toward his foe. Surprised, the fake paramedic tried to avoid stabbing himself, but Pietrantoni added his weight to the blade’s involuntary trajectory.
The knife plunged into the middle of the terrorist’s chest, all the way to the hilt. The wounded man wailed in agony and tried to draw out the blade, but Pietrantoni hung on, keeping it embedded in the terrorist’s breast.
“No! No! Take it out!” Yousef shrieked desperately, as blood gushed out of the wound. “It hurts!”
However, Pietrantoni continued to press the knife into the man’s body, his face showing no sympathy, his eyes only reflecting a grim determination.
“You infected my son with ebola,” he told the wounded terrorist. “I hope you go straight to hell!”
Suddenly, unexpectedly, their weight began to lessen as the plane went into its next parabolic curve, and the men began to float again. Feeling the loss of gravity, the fake paramedic slipped his feet under his adversary and kicked him away.
The force of the blow threw the Governor towards the cabin’s ceiling. Trying to hold on to the knife’s hilt, Pietrantoni saw the blade slip out of his enemy’s chest, followed by several floating round droplets of blood.
The thin terrorist with the soured expression thrust himself forward, in the direction of the cockpit, apparently attempting to escape from his angry foe. However, he had other intentions.
The gun that Pietrantoni had dropped was also floating in that direction, and the terrorist grabbed it. Grasping with his free hand the upper end of a back seat, he tried to turn towards the Governor, and steady himself sufficiently to fire his newly acquired weapon.
Pietrantoni urgently searched for any ridge which he could use to grab and propel himself against the gunman. However, he found none.
Barely managing to turn his feet towards the ceiling, he pushed himself away from the stretcher, in the hopes of drawing the fire away from his son. He landed under a small laminated table bolted to the floor, less than ten feet away from the terrorist, and not big enough to cover half of his body.
He struggled to right himself, but knew there was no way he could get to the terrorist before the latter fired his gun. The gunman, still expelling round red blood droplets into the air, sighted him and pressed the trigger.
At that same moment, Emmanuel struck the fake paramedic by the legs from behind, upending him and making him rotate upwards. The shot went wide, puncturing a hole on the cabin’s ceiling, close to the terrorist.
Air began to immediately rush outward, pulling the wounded terrorist’s body upwards. The gunman shrieked in pain, his body glued to the ceiling, the pressure of the escaping air sucking painfully at the skin in his stomach, where his body had come into contact with the bullet hole.
Pietrantoni managed to push himself toward the immobilized terrorist, and forcefully grabbed his arm, tearing the gun away from his hand.
But his efforts were unnecessary. The fake paramedic was rapidly losing both his strength and his consciousness.
As the air zipped out of the perforated ceiling, the temperature began to grow colder.
“The plane is descending,” Martínez shouted from the cockpit. “Is everything all right?”
“I’m…wounded,” Emmanuel half-shouted, half-gasped back to Martínez. “One of those assholes stabbed me in the back.”
“What about the other one?” Pietrantoni asked him, as he tried to reach the wounded copilot.
“The other paramedic?” Emmanuel responded. “He’s dead. I think he broke his neck during our first ascent.”
Just then, the weightlessness rapidly diminished, and both Pietrantoni and Emmanuel plopped back into the aisle. The wounded gunman, however, stayed glued to the ceiling by the stomach, already unconscious, his hands and legs hanging limply by his side, the pressure of the escaping air still keeping him there.
Pietrantoni clumsily stood up and touched the terrorist’s neck. There was no pulse.
Exhausted, he trudged back to the cockpit.
“The terrorists are both dead,” he told Martínez.
The pilot acknowledged the information with a curt nod. “I’m dropping to eight thousand feet. Don’t be surprised when the dead paramedic drops to the ground. It should be any moment now.”
As if confirming Martínez’s prediction, the stabbed gunman suddenly fell to the floor. Air continued to filter rapidly out of the cabin through the bullet hole in the ceiling, but as the jet descended its flow diminished progressively.
Still panting, Pietrantoni patted the pilot’s shoulder.
“Well done. Now let’s see how we get rid of the bomb, and get your man to a hospital.”
(Chapter LVI will be posted on Monday, November 2)