Authors: Stephen King (ed),Bev Vincent (ed)
He wished now that the man would reappear, pull off the cowling plate and ruin the engine. It gave him a sense of vengeful pleasure to know that only he stood between catastrophe and the more than thirty people aboard. If he chose, he could allow that catastrophe to take place. Wilson smiled without humor. There would be a royal suicide, he thought.
The little man dropped down again and Wilson saw that what he’d thought was correct—the man had pressed the plate back into place before jumping away. For, now, he was prying it up again and it was raising easily, peeling back like skin excised by some grotesque surgeon. The motion of the wing was very broken but the man seemed to have no difficulty staying balanced.
Once more Wilson felt panic. What was he to do? No one believed him. If he tried to convince them any more they’d probably restrain him by force. If he asked the stewardess to sit by him it would be, at best, only a momentary reprieve. The second she departed or, remaining, fell asleep, the man would return. Even if she stayed awake beside him, what was to keep the man from tampering with the engines on the other wing? Wilson shuddered, a coldness of dread misting along his bones.
Dear God, there was nothing to be done.
He twitched as, across the window through which he watched the little man, the pilot’s reflection passed. The insanity of the moment almost broke him—the man and the pilot within feet of each other, both seen by him yet not aware of one another. No, that was wrong. The little man had glanced across his shoulder as the pilot passed. As if he knew there was no need to leap off any more, that Wilson’s capacity for interfering was at an end. Wilson suddenly trembled with mind-searing rage. I’ll kill you! he thought! You filthy little animal, I’ll
Outside, the engine faltered.
It lasted only for a second, but, in that second, it seemed to Wilson as if his heart had, also, stopped. He pressed against the window, staring. The man had bent the cowling plate far back and now was on his knees, poking a curious hand into the engine.
“Don’t,” Wilson heard the whimper of his own voice begging.
Again, the engine failed. Wilson looked around in horror. Was everyone deaf? He raised his hand to press the button for the stewardess, then jerked it back. No, they’d lock him up, restrain him somehow. And he was the only one who knew what was happening, the only one who could help.
Wilson bit his lower lip until the pain made him whimper. He twisted around again and jolted. The stewardess was hurrying down the rocking aisle. She’d heard it! He watched her fixedly and saw her glance at him as she passed his seat.
She stopped three seats down the aisle. Someone else had heard! Wilson watched the stewardess as she leaned over, talking to the unseen passenger. Outside, the engine coughed again. Wilson jerked his head around and looked out with horror-pinched eyes.
!” he whined.
He turned again and saw the stewardess coming back up the aisle. She didn’t look alarmed. Wilson stared at her with unbelieving eyes. It wasn’t possible. He twisted around to follow her swaying movement and saw her turn in at the kitchen.
Wilson was shaking so badly now he couldn’t stop. No one had heard.
No one knew.
Suddenly, Wilson bent over and slid his overnight bag out from under the seat. Unzipping it, he jerked out his briefcase and threw it on the carpeting. Then, reaching in again, he grabbed the oilskin envelope and straightened up. From the corners of his eyes, he saw the stewardess coming back and pushed the bag beneath the seat with his shoes, shoving the oilskin envelope beside himself. He sat there rigidly, breath quavering in his chest, as she went by.
Then he pulled the envelope into his lap and untied it. His movements were so feverish that he almost dropped the pistol. He caught it by the barrel, then clutched at the stock with white-knuckled fingers and pushed off the safety catch. He glanced outside and felt himself grow cold.
The man was looking at him.
Wilson pressed his shaking lips together. It was impossible that the man knew what he intended. He swallowed and tried to catch his breath. He shifted his gaze to where the stewardess was handing some pills to the passenger ahead, then looked back at the wing. The man was turning to the engine once again, reaching in. Wilson’s grip tightened on the pistol. He began to raise it.
Suddenly, he lowered it. The window was too thick. The bullet might be deflected and kill one of the passengers. He shuddered and stared out at the little man. Again the engine failed and Wilson saw an eruption of sparks cast light across the man’s animal features. He braced himself. There was only one answer.
He looked down at the handle of the emergency door. There was a transparent cover over it. Wilson pulled it free and dropped it. He looked outside. The man was still there, crouched and probing at the engine with his hand. Wilson sucked in trembling breath. He put his left hand on the door handle and tested. It wouldn’t move downward. Upward there was play.
Abruptly, Wilson let go and put the pistol in his lap. No time for argument, he told himself. With shaking hands, he buckled the belt across his thighs. When the door was opened, there would be a tremendous rushing out of air. For the safety of the ship, he must not go with it.
Now. Wilson picked the pistol up again, his heartbeat staggering. He’d have to be sudden, accurate. If he missed, the man might jump onto the other wing—worse, onto the tail assembly where, inviolate, he could rupture wires, mangle flaps, destroy the balance of the ship. No, this was the only way. He’d fire low and try to hit the man in the chest or stomach. Wilson filled his lungs with air. Now, he thought.
The stewardess came up the aisle as Wilson started pulling at the handle. For a moment, frozen in her steps, she couldn’t speak. A look of stupefied horror distended her features and she raised one hand as if imploring him. Then, suddenly, her voice was shrilling above the noise of the engines.
Mr. Wilson, no
“Get back!” cried Wilson and he wrenched the handle up.
The door seemed to disappear. One second it was by him, in his grip. The next, with a hissing roar, it was gone.
In the same instant, Wilson felt himself enveloped by a monstrous suction which tried to tear him from his seat. His head and shoulders left the cabin and, suddenly, he was breathing tenuous, freezing air. For a moment, eardrums almost bursting from the thunder of the engines, eyes blinded by the arctic winds, he forgot the man. It seemed he heard a prick of screaming in the maelstrom that surrounded him, a distant shout.
Then Wilson saw the man.
He was walking across the wing, gnarled form leaning forward, talon-twisted hands outstretched in eagerness. Wilson flung his arm up, fired. The explosion was like a popping in the roaring violence of the air. The man staggered, lashed out and Wilson felt a streak of pain across his head. He fired again at immediate range and saw the man go flailing backward—then, suddenly, disappear with no more solidity than a paper doll swept in a gale. Wilson felt a bursting numbness in his brain. He felt the pistol torn from failing fingers.
Then all was lost in winter darkness.
He stirred and mumbled. There was a warmness trickling in his veins, his limbs felt wooden. In the darkness, he could hear a shuffling sound, a delicate swirl of voices. He was lying, face up, on something—moving, joggling. A cold wind sprinkled on his face, he felt the surface tilt beneath him.
He sighed. The plane was landed and he was being carried off on a stretcher. His head wound, likely, plus an injection to quiet him.
“Nuttiest way of tryin’ to commit suicide
ever heard of,” said a voice somewhere.
Wilson felt the pleasure of amusement. Whoever spoke was wrong, of course. As would be established soon enough when the engine was examined and they checked his wound more closely. Then they’d realize that he’d saved them all.
Wilson slept without dreams.
The Flying Machine
Although Bierce lived into the age of flight (he died in 1914), one doubts if he ever actually flew. The vignette that follows is less about airplanes than it is about the gullibility of people willing to invest in them, and it certainly helps to explain his nickname, which was “Bitter” Bierce. My own favorite Bierce
: “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”
An Ingenious Man who had built a flying-machine invited a great concourse of people to see it go up. At the appointed moment, everything being ready, he boarded the car and turned on the power. The machine immediately broke through the massive substructure upon which it was builded, and sank out of sight into the earth, the aeronaut springing out barely in time to save himself.
“Well,” said he, “I have done enough to demonstrate the correctness of my details. The defects,” he added, with a look at the ruined brick-work, “are merely basic and fundamental.”
Upon this assurance the people came forward with subscriptions to build a second machine.
Here’s the thing about air travel: once the plane takes off, you’re in it for the duration. Tubb combines that simple, irrefutable fact with an extremely original—and sinister—time travel concept. To say more would spoil this nasty, chilling, one-of-a-kind story. Edwin Charles Tubb was one of Great Britain’s most prolific science fiction writers. In a career spanning almost sixty years, he wrote at least 150 novels and over a dozen short story collections. He edited
Authentic Science Fiction
in 1956-57 and, under a variety of pseudonyms, wrote most of the stories himself (including the book review column). “Lucifer!” is one of his best. It received a Special Award for Best Short Story at the first Eurocon in 1972.
It was a device of great social convenience and everyone used it. Everyone, in this case, meaning the Special People all of whom were rich, charming and socially successful. Those who had dropped in to study an amusing primitive culture and those who, for personal reasons, preferred to remain on a world where they could be very large fish in a very small sea.
The Special People, dilettantes of the Intergalactic Set, protected and cossetted by their science, playing their games with the local natives and careful always to preserve their anonymity. But accidents can happen even to the superhuman. Stupid things which, because of their low order of probability, were statistically impossible.
Like a steel cable snapping when the safe it was supporting hung twenty feet above the ground. The safe fell, smashing the sidewalk but doing no other damage. The cable, suddenly released from strain, snapped like a whip, the end jerking in a random motion impossible to predict. The odds against it hitting any one particular place were astronomical. The odds against one of the Special People being in just that spot at that exact time were so high as to negate normal probability. But it happened. The frayed end of the cable hit a skull, shredding bone, brain and tissue in an ungodly mess. A surgically implanted mechanism sent out a distress call. The man’s friends received the signal. Frank Weston got the body.
Frank Weston, anachronism. In a modern age no man should have to drag a twisted foot through 28 years of his life. Especially when he has the face of a Renaissance angel. But if he looked like an angel he was a fallen one. The dead couldn’t be hurt but their relatives could. Tell a suicide’s father that his dead girl was pregnant. A doting mother that the apple of her eye was loathsomely diseased. They didn’t bother to check, why should they? And, even if they did, so what? Anyone could make a mistake and he was a morgue attendant not a doctor.
Dispassionately he examined the new delivery. The cable had done a good job of ruining the face—visual identification was impossible. Blood had ruined the suit but enough remained to show the wearer had bought pricey material. The wallet contained few bills but a lot of credit cards. There was some loose change, a cigarette case, a cigarette lighter, keys, wrist-watch, tiepin…They made little rustling noises as Frank fed them into an envelope. He paused when he saw the ring.
Sometimes, in his job, an unscrupulous man could make a little on the side. Frank had no scruples only defensive caution. The ring could have been lost before the stiff arrived in his care. The hand was caked with blood and maybe no one had noticed it. Even if they had it would be his word against theirs. If he could get it off, wash the hand free of blood, stash it away and act innocent, the ring would be his. And he would get it off if he had to smash the hand to do it. Accidents sometimes made strange injuries.
An hour later they arrived to claim the body. Quiet men, two of them, neatly dressed and calmly determined. The dead man was their business associate. They gave his name and address, the description of the suit he was wearing, other information. There was no question of crime and no reason to hold the body.
One of them looked sharply at Frank. “Is this all he had on him?”
“That’s right,” said Frank. “You’ve got it all. Sign here and he’s yours.”
“One moment.” The two men looked at each other then the one who had spoken turned to Frank. “Our friend wore a ring. It was something like this.” He extended his hand. “The ring had a stone and a wide band. Could we have it please?”
Frank was stubborn. “I haven’t got it. I haven’t even seen it. He wasn’t wearing it when he came in here.”
Again the silent conference. “The ring has no intrinsic value but it does have sentimental worth. I would be prepared to pay one hundred dollars for it and no questions will be asked.”
“Why tell me?” said Frank coldly. Inside he felt the growing warmth that stemmed from sadistical pleasure. How he didn’t know but he was hurting this man. “You gonna sign or what?” He turned the knife. “You think I stole something you call the cops. Either way get out of here.”
In the dog hours he examined what he had stolen. Sitting hunched in his usual corner of the canteen, masked by a newspaper, to the others in the place just another part of the furniture. Slowly he turned the ring. The band was thick and wide, raised in one part, a prominence which could be flattened by the pressure of a finger. The stone was flat, dull, probably a poorly ground specimen of the semi-precious group. The metal could have been plated alloy. If it was, a hundred dollars could buy any of a dozen like it.
But—would a man dressed as the stiff had been dressed wear such a ring?
The corpse had reeked of money. The cigarette case and lighter had been of jewelled platinum—too hot to think of stealing. The credit cards would have taken him around the world and first class all the way. Would a man like that wear a lousy hundred-dollar ring?
Blankly he stared across the canteen. Facing his table three men sat over their coffee. One of them straightened, rose, stretched and headed towards the door.
Scowling Frank dropped his eyes to the ring. Had he thrown away a hundred dollars for the sake of some junk? His fingernail touched the protuberance. It sank a little and, impatiently, he pressed it flush.
Nothing aside from the fact that the man who had risen from the facing table and who had walked towards the door was suddenly sitting at the table again. As Frank watched he rose, stretched and walked towards the door. Frank pressed the stud. Nothing happened.
He frowned and tried again. Abruptly the man was back at his table. He rose, stretched, headed towards the door. Frank pressed the stud and held it down, counting. Fifty-seven seconds and suddenly the man was back at his table again. He rose, stretched, headed towards the door. This time, Frank let him go.
He knew now what it was he had.
He leaned back filled with the wonder of it. Of the Special People he knew nothing but his own race had bred scientists and, even though a sadist, Frank was no fool. A man would want to keep something like this to himself. He would need to have it close to hand at all times. It would need to be in a form where he could use it quickly. So what better than a ring? Compact. Ornamental. Probably everlasting.
A one-way time machine.
Luck, the fortuitous combination of favourable circumstances, but who needs luck when they know what is going to happen fifty-seven seconds in advance? Call it a minute. Not long?
Try holding your breath that long. Try resting your hand on a red-hot stove for even half that time. In a minute you can walk a hundred yards, run a quarter of a mile, fall three. You can conceive, die, get married. Fifty-seven seconds is enough for a lot of things.
For a card to turn, a ball to settle, a pair of dice tumble to rest. Frank was a sure-fire winner and in more ways than one.
He stretched, enjoyed the shower, the impact of hot water driven at high pressure. He turned a control and gasped as the water turned to ice and made goose pimples rise on his skin. A cold bath in winter is hardship when you have no choice, a pleasant titivation when you have. He jerked the control back to hot, waited, then cut the spray and stepped from the shower drying himself on a fluffy towel.
“Frank, darling, are you going to be much longer?”
A female voice with the peculiar intonation of the inbred upper classes; a member of the aristocracy by marriage and birth. The Lady Jane Smyth-Connors was rich, curious, bored and impatient.
“A moment, honey,” he called and dropped the towel. Smiling he looked down at himself. Money had taken care of the twisted foot. Money had taken care of a lot of other things, his clothes, his accent, the education of his tastes. He was still a fallen angel but there was bright new gilt on his broken wings.
“Coming!” His jaws tightened until the muscles ached. The high-toned, high-stepping bitch! She’d fallen for his face and reputation and was going to pay for her curiosity. But that could wait. First the spider had to get the fly well and truly in his web.
A silk robe to cover his nakedness. Brushes to tidy his hair. A spray gave insurance against halitosis. The stallion was almost ready to perform.
The bathroom had a window. He drew the curtains and looked at the night. Way down low a scatter of lights carpeted the misty ground. London was a nice city, England a nice place. Very nice, especially to gamblers—they paid no tax on winnings. And here, more than anywhere, high prizes were to be won. Not just for cash, that was for plebians, but make the right connections and every day would be Christmas.
London. A city the Special People held in high regard.
Impatience. Irritation. Arrogance. The woman waited to be served.
She was tall with a peculiar angularity, an overgrown schoolgirl who should be wearing tweeds and carrying a hockey stick. But the appearance was deceptive. Generations of inbreeding had done more than fashion the distribution of flesh and bone. It had developed a ripe decadence and created a mass of seething frustrations. She was clinically insane but in her class people were never thought insane only “eccentric,” never stupid only “thoughtless,” never spiteful or cruel only “amusing.”
He reached out, took her in his arms, pressed the ball of each thumb against her eyes. She strained back from the sudden pain. He pressed harder and she screamed from agony and the stomach-wrenching fear of blindness. In his mind a mental clock counted seconds. Fifty-one…fifty-two…
His fingers clamped down on the ring.
He reached out and took her in his arms, heart still pounding from the pleasure of having inflicted pain. He kissed her with practiced skill, nibbling her gently with his teeth. He ran his hands over her body, thin material rustling as it fell from her shoulders. He bit a little harder and felt her tense.
“Don’t do that!” she said abruptly. “I hate anyone doing that!”
One bad mark. Frank counted seconds as he reached for the light switch. With darkness she squirmed, pushed herself free of his arms.
“I hate the dark! Must you be like all the others?”
Two bad marks. Twenty-seconds to go. Time for one more quick exploration. His hands groped, made contact, moved with educated determination. She sighed with pleasure.
He activated the ring.
He reached out and took her in his arms, this time making no attempt to either nibble or bite. Her clothing rustled to the floor and the skin gleamed like pearl in the light. He looked at her, boldly admiring, and his hands moved in the way which gave her pleasure.
She closed her eyes, fingernails digging into his back. “Talk to me,” she demanded. “Talk to me!”
He began counting seconds.
Later, as she lay in satiated sleep, he rested, smoking, thinking, oddly amused. He had been the perfect lover. He had said and done the exact things she wanted in the exact order she wanted them and, more important than anything else, had said and done them without her prompting him at any time. He had been a reflection of herself. An echo of her needs—and why not? He had worked hard to map the blueprint of her desires. Exploring, investigating, erasing all false starts and mistakes. What else could he have been but perfect?
He turned, looking down at the woman, seeing her not as flesh and blood but as the rung of a ladder leading to acceptance. Frank Weston had come a long way. He intended to keep climbing.
She sighed, opened her eyes, looked at the classical beauty of his face. “Darling!”
He said what she wanted him to say.
She sighed again, same sound different meaning. “I’ll see you tonight?”
“Frank!” Jealousy reared her upright. “Why not? You said—”
“I know what I said and I meant every word of it,” he interrupted. “But I have to fly to New York. Business,” he added. “After all I do have to make a living.”
She caught the bait. “You don’t have to worry about that. I’ll speak to Daddy and—”
He closed her lips with his own. “I still have to go,” he insisted. Beneath the covers his hands did what she wanted them to do. “And when I return—”
“I’ll get a divorce,” she said. “We’ll be married.”
Christmas, he thought, as dawn paled the sky.
fly with me!
said the song, me being a gleaming new Comet, two stewardesses all legs and eyes and silken hair with a “you may look at me because I’m beautiful but you must never, ever touch” attitude, a flight crew and seventy-three other passengers only eighteen of which were travelling first class. Room for everyone and Frank was glad of it.
He felt tired. The night had been hectic and the morning no better. It was good to sit and relax neatly strapped in a form-fitting chair as the jets gulped air and spewed it behind in a man-made hurricane which sent the plane down the runway and up into the sky. London fell away to one side, the clouds dropped like tufts of dirty cotton and then there was only the sun, a watchful eye in an immense iris of blue.
Go West, young man, he thought smugly. Why? For no reason other than he liked to travel and a little absence could make a heart grow fonder. And there was a kick in flying. He liked to look down and think of all the emptiness between him and the ground. Feel his stomach tighten with acrophobia, the delicious sensation of fear experienced in perfect safety. Height had no meaning in a plane. All you had to do was to look straight ahead and you could be in a Pullman.