The cave was night-dark and claustrophobic, crowded with indistinct shapes. Christopher struggled to identify his surroundings through eyes bleary with sleep. All around him was loud buzzing; it permeated his body. He pressed his palms to his eyes and breathed deep, trying to clear his head.
His surroundings were shadowy, but Christopher could make more sense of the shapes around him as he blinked away his grogginess. The hunched shapes were seats. He fumbled around, felt the thin padding beneath and behind him, felt the armrests.
Christopher’s perception shifted and he understood what he was seeing. Not a cave; an airplane cabin. Why had he thought it was a cave? Moonlight illuminated the small, round windows. The prop engines buzzed. Now that he was paying attention, Christopher could feel their vibration through his seat.
He tried again to blink away the sleepiness that clung like cobwebs. Even when he had pulled all-nighters in college, he hadn’t felt this brain-dead. This was worse than a hangover.
The other salespeople had warned him against sleeping on planes. Better to hold out and hit a new time zone running. They all had their little rituals and superstitions for effective travel. He had rolled his eyes, but it all seemed less absurd now, as his brain pounded against his skull.
He tried to stand and found himself still seat-belted. He fumbled the clasp open and got to his feet, immediately banging his head on the sloped ceiling above. For a moment, pain cut through the fog of his thoughts.
It was too dark in the passenger section of the little plane. Before he had dozed off, Christopher recalled little LEDs along the aisle floor between the seats, and recessed lights hidden in the seam between wall and ceiling. This little plane had pairs of seats back-to-back, and he was facing the tail. He had to turn around to face the front of the plane. There were only eight pairs of seats in the passenger area, and Christopher’s was in the middle.
The seats were all empty.
Christopher took a few tentative steps forward, sidling up the narrow aisle. Nobody was slouching or sleeping against the window. The seats were definitely empty. Hadn’t there been passengers on the plane with him?
He struggled to remember, stepping back toward his own seat. There were two pairs of seats ahead of him, and one pair behind. Beyond that was the tiny toilet that faced the boarding door, the privacy curtain open, the toilet unoccupied. What little space was left in the tail end was taken up by the luggage area, separated from the passengers by netting that attached to hooks along the walls, floor and ceiling. The netting was detached from several of the floor hooks. Christopher’s travel backpack lay on the other side, next to a black duffel bag and a large travel suitcase with a blue and green floral pattern. Those other bags weren’t his. They had to belong to someone.
He tried to think back to boarding the little plane in Anchorage. It felt like a long time ago. Christopher had never tried any drugs stronger than alcohol or coffee, but he wondered if this was what it might feel like. Like there was a gauzy separation between his sense of self and the thinking part of his brain.
There had been a person, a man, who had stepped onto the plane before him. Younger, Christopher thought. Dark hair, parted. Jeans and a brown sport coat. The coat stood out vividly. It was a very “70s TV professor” look that reminded Christopher vaguely of the suit his father had worn in old wedding photos.
There had been a middle-aged woman too. Older than Christopher, maybe in her forties? She had boarded after him and gone to one of the front seats. All he could picture of her was a tight bun of blond hair, loose wisps of gray at her temples.
Had they landed and taken off again, all while he slept? Wasn’t it a direct flight? He found his boarding pass in his pocket, but it was impossible to read the smudged text on the low-res picture of Alaskan mountains and forests. Why was it so dark?
In the curve where ceiling met wall above each seat, there were shapes and depressions. Christopher ran a hand along them, trying to find some button or control for the lights. He found what felt like a vent, and what might be a light in a sort of ball socket that allowed it to rotate. There was no control for the light, as far as he could tell.
The plane shuddered and lurched, forcing Christopher to grab on to the seat back. He froze as a thought meandered through the maze of his brain. He looked toward the front of the plane.
He had only ever flown on large commercial flights. He was used to thinking of the passenger area of the plane being a separate universe from the pilot’s cabin. He had vague memories of a time before 9/11 when kids could meet the pilot in the middle of a flight and the cockpit was wide open and friendly, but all of his adult life, the doors to the front of any passenger plane had been locked like a vault.
On this little plane, however, there was only a curtain between the eight passenger seats and the two-seat cockpit of the plane. Christopher could ask the pilot to turn on the interior lights. He could ask what had happened to the other two passengers. He’d probably feel like a fool when the pilot explained the flight plan that was no doubt printed on his boarding pass.
He felt a heart-thumping trepidation sidling up the aisle toward the cockpit. He tried to think exactly what he wanted to ask the pilot. The plane lurched again, and Christopher fell forward. He tried to grab the faux-wooden partition that bordered the curtain, but missed and got tangled in the curtain itself.
The curtain was attached to a rail with metal rings, and there was a series of snaps as they tore away. The curtain slid to the side, and Christopher stumbled awkwardly against the partition, halfway into the cockpit, left arm still wrapped in the curtain.
The only light in the cockpit came from the glow of the instruments: panels of LEDs, switches, buttons, dials and levers, and three small monitors. They illuminated two empty seats.
Christopher stared at the myriad instruments for a moment. The monitors showed a little representation of the plane superimposed over lines that must be altitude or angle or something, and a crawling topographic map of mountainous terrain, overlaid with dozens of readouts, numbers, dials and graphs.
Christopher knew there were reasonable explanations for the missing passengers. He had no trouble coming up with potential explanations for that. When he saw the pilot’s seat empty, however, his mind stopped working for a moment. There was no explanation for Christopher being on a plane with no pilot.
He looked through the front windshield. They were definitely in the air. The moon was visible among wispy clouds, off to the left. The darkness below was rough and textured: pine forest and snowy rock. Glints of moonlight on water. The ground appeared worryingly close, but it was difficult to tell by the moonlight.
Christopher could feel his own heart, beating too fast in his chest. He heard his breathing over the buzz of the prop engines. He looked past the curtain, down the aisle to the luggage area at the back of the plane. He was incredibly alone.
The mental fog that had surrounded him since he woke now threatened to envelop him completely. He was numb. He was aware of his own hands shaking, but he couldn’t feel them. His body was something entirely disconnected from him.
He felt something else: a wordless voice, a stream of dispassionate information at the back of his head. It told him, with neither interest or judgment, that he needed to act immediately or he was going to die.