Christopher sat in the pilot’s seat. He still felt like a passenger, panic-stricken and helpless while his body seemed to act of its own accord. There was some part of him that knew what it was doing. A part he wasn’t familiar with. A part that took in the situation without emotion and formulated a plan.
The lights and screens in front of Christopher flickered and died. He had touched nothing. The noise of the engines changed timbre, then cut out entirely, leaving only the roar of the wind.
He looked for landmarks through the windows. If he was anywhere close to his original destination, the only human habitation this far north would be small towns and villages. He didn’t see any lights on the ground.
Tentatively, he gripped the flight stick. This felt like a point of no return. He knew nothing about the plane, but it had apparently been flying itself. Was there an autopilot? In any case, he was introducing his own control into the equation. Whatever happened next, good or bad, would be his own fault.
The plane was going to crash. That was an inescapable fact. He probably couldn’t land a plane under the best conditions. Were there parachutes? He didn’t know where they would be.
A crash would almost certainly kill him. People survived plane crashes sometimes, but it was all down to luck. Would it be better to jump? Avoid the crash altogether? Without a parachute, he’d be splattered across some mountainside.
People jumped out of planes in action movies. They’d jump an absurdly long distance, land in water, and be running and gunning a scene later. Of course, that wasn’t real life. Still, real people jumped long distances into water. Cliff divers. Olympic divers.
He tried turning the plane, ever so slightly to the left. His instinct told him that he would have to really muscle the yoke, but it was actually a lot like driving a car. The plane slowly banked to the left. The nose nudged forward as well, and Christopher had to pull back to keep it level.
It was eerily quiet without the sound of the engines, leaving only the noise of the wind across the outside of the craft.
Christopher continued to bank gradually left, afraid that any attempt at a tighter turn would send the craft spinning out of control. He squinted into the dark landscape below, looking for the telltale glint of moonlight on water. All he saw was a shadowy mix of pines and rocky ridges.
When he finally saw water, he immediately realized he had two major problems. First, it was difficult to tell exactly where the water was. A glint here or there didn’t tell him how big the body of water was, or where the shore was. Second, he was very high, moving very fast. He didn’t know how big the waves on a placid mountain lake might be, but they were barely pinpricks of light from his vantage.
He tried to hold the plane in a wide, lazy spiral, in hopes of slowly descending while keeping the lake in view. The plane felt sluggish, and Christopher quickly discovered that his own internal sense of balance was fighting him up in the air. There was no flat horizon for reference. He was surrounded by jagged peaks, indistinct against the clouded sky. He felt the plane accelerating, nose too far forward, but when he pulled back to compensate, he had the sudden sensation that the nose was far too high, headed toward a catastrophic stall.
Christopher felt panic reaching up from his stomach into his chest. He he had been holding his breath, and his teeth hurt from clenching. He had no training. There was no way he could keep the plane level, and it was even more far-fetched that he’d be able to manage a nice spiral down to the water.
Instead, he turned the plane until the moon was more or less behind him, then tipped the nose down. He thought the water was beneath and perhaps behind him now. The plane was descending fast. The trees below, still indistinct, felt uncomfortably close. Facing the nearby mountains, snow-dusted ridges aglow in the moonlight, he realized that he was now below the tops of the larger peaks. If he kept going, he would crash head-on.
He continued in the same direction as long as he dared, feeling like he could vomit at any moment. He could only guess at the distances. Finally, he began to turn. He kept the nose of the plane slightly down, and felt the pressure of the g-forces before he realized he was in a much tighter turn than before. The entire airplane shook.
“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” Christopher said under his breath, yanking the control back the other direction. Now the nose was too high. Christopher could see stars peaking through the clouds, directly ahead. He couldn’t see the ground.
His mind was blank with fear. He had no idea how to control this thing. He was going to die.
At that moment, an overwhelming sense of detachment hit him. He felt his adrenaline-soaked body, but it was like a machine he was driving — one step removed from him. Likewise, his panicked thoughts were muffled, like someone was shouting in a room down the hall.
That other part of Christopher, detached from the emotion and the bodily chemicals, guided him. Look for the moon. Aim toward it. Find the moonlight on the water as you approach.
It wasn’t like talking to himself, where he was really carrying both sides of a conversation. This felt more like some internal filter had shut down. Like a door had opened in his chest, allowing these instructions in his guts to make their way up to his brain.
Wherever the instructions came from, they had a better grip on the situation than he did, so he did his best to follow them. With the nose of the aircraft already too high in the sky, it wasn’t hard to find the moon, still some 45 degrees to his left. He stopped fighting the controls and let the plane continue its too-tight bank toward the moonlight. He did his best to tip the nose back toward the earth.
The moon moved toward the center of the windshield, then continued past, still accelerating. Christopher pulled back slowly, still keeping the nose down. He nearly fell out of the seat. The plane shook so hard he thought it might break in half. The moon was high and at an angle now, but coming back in the right direction.
The clouds around the moon parted, imparting fresh light on the landscape, and Christopher became aware of a ridge as the plane was passing over it. It could have been five feet below, or fifty.
He didn’t see the glint of the moon on the water until it was already beneath the plane. How big was the lake? Was it too late now? Wasn’t he still too high up?
It doesn’t matter, the internal voice told him. There was no way he could bring the plane around again, and even if he could, the moon would be behind him and it would be nearly impossible to see the water. It wouldn’t matter how high he was.
Jump now, and there’s a chance. Wait, and there isn’t.
Christopher forced himself to let go of the controls, jumped out of the seat and tried to run down the narrow aisle between seats. He misjudged how tilted the plane was, and veered hard into a seat, knocking the breath out of him.
He continued down the aisle, struggling to breathe, grabbing the chair backs and pulling himself more than walking. The nose of the plane was plunging now. He reached the back of the plane, the rearmost seat quickly becoming a ledge that held him on a steepening slope. His backpack and the other luggage strained at the netting that held them. There would be no time to extricate anything.
Christopher half-crawled, half-climbed the rear seat to reach the doorway. It had a lever slightly inset, with a helpful red arrow painted beneath. He pulled it in the indicated direction with a satisfying “thunk.” It barely opened, thrumming in the wind.
Christopher had expected it to slam open or even be torn off, but the door faced the wrong direction — the airflow was holding it closed. He gave it a shove, but was only able to move it an inch or two before it slammed back.
He found a foothold in the metal connections between the seat and the floor, pressed his back and shoulder against the door, and pushed. The handle dug into his back. The door gave a few inches, and he held it, trying to push hard enough to lock his knees. The gap was wide enough to force an arm through. He took a deep breath and shoved again, trying to force his upper body through. As the roaring wind whipped at his hair, he tried not to imagine what would happen if the door slammed shut with his head in it.
Squirming and shoving, Christopher forced his upper body through the door and became intensely aware that he was hanging out of a plane. The clawing fear in his chest tried to reassert itself, but the calm calculation that was driving him left no room for doubt.
What he was doing was insane. He would probably die. But the alternative was to definitely die. There was no time, and there was no room for argument.
He pushed with arms and legs, the metal door scraping his back and stomach and tearing the hem of his shirt. He felt a button pop, and then, as though that were the last thing holding him in, he slid out of the aircraft and into the night sky.
He tumbled violently end-over-end, first screaming and then vomiting into the cold night air. He wanted to curl into a ball, to hide from the wind that tore at him, but that quiet internal voice told him he needed to stabilize and orient himself. He flung his arms and legs out wide, centrifugal force aiding him against the wind, his tumble slowing to a ponderous pirouette.
A shoe tumbled past. It was his own, pulled off his foot as he slid through the plane door.
There was a sudden flash of light, an instant sunrise, followed a fraction of a second later by a shockwave of heat and noise. Christopher had just enough time to register a fireball outlining trees and rocks in searing light, and pull his limbs in before he was engulfed in pain.