By John Leahy
The plane began to move. Irving Whyte and his twin sons Josh and Casey waved at their shade-wearing mother who stood on the tarmac waving back at them. Regina Whyte was smiling broadly, looking every inch the Alusol Sherman executive in a dark power-suit. The best farewell her husband could manage in return was a faint grin. It was impossible to smile wholesomely at his wife with that asshole standing beside her.
Irving glanced sideways at Harvey Ackermann who was furiously swiping at his cell, his tie blowing in the wind. Ackermann lifted his head and said something to Regina and the last thing Irving saw before his wife slipped out of view behind him was her talking and then laughing with that bastard.
It hadn’t been much of a visit. Well, not for Irving and the boys anyway. The best part of a day and a half hopping down along the American continent from Houston to Mexico City, then onto Antofagasta and finally a propeller plane ride to San Pedro de Atacama. It had taken them a full day to recover after the ordeal. The boys hadn’t complained though. The trip to see their Mom had been their idea. They’d wanted to see where their mother had been working so hard for over two years. What they had complained to their Dad about had been the short amount of time that they’d spent with her. They’d been prepared for their mother’s long working days—but what they hadn’t been expecting was the huge amount of time she spent on her cell and conferencing on her iPad when she got home in the evening. Of course, most of that cell/iPad time had been spent in touch with him—Harvey asshole-Ackermann.
The kernel of the issue wasn’t even the fact that she spent so much time talking to the fucker— it was that she seemed to enjoy it so much. She smiled too much when she was at it. It was the smile of a woman who was lying in bed with a guy, the two of them naked under the covers, talking after sex. That was the bottom fucking line of it all.
Irving killed his dreadful train of thought and looked out the window as the small airport terminal sped past them. His blood was thumping in his ears. The plane began to rise into the air. His heart sank. Great he thought. A day and a half of exhausting flying and airport-ing ahead. Plenty of time to contemplate Ackermann screwing my wife. Plenty of time to contemplate how good he is in bed and how much she likes it.
And then after that, back to his rotten chef job in what felt like the busiest hotel in Houston, surrounded by incompetent kitchen staff, waiters and managers. Irving looked sideways at Josh and Casey. In the seat beside him, Casey was listening to music on his phone, his eyes closed. Beyond him, Josh was simply staring calmly toward the front of the plane.
Irving looked back out the window beside him and drew a deep breath. They were up high now, and in the distance, he could make out the Atacama salt flats where Alusol Sherman, Regina’s company, were busy extracting enormous amounts of lithium to use in the batteries of electric cars all over the world. Regina was an upper-level executive, liaising between three demanding entities: the bottomless money-appetite of head office back home in Houston, the red-tape bureaucrats of the Chilean government, and the demands of the workforce whose thirst for increased wages grew in line with the rise in the company’s share price. For keeping this delicate triangle from disintegrating, she was on a salary that was over three times her husband’s. It was how they could afford to send Josh and Casey to a private school—a good private school.
It was also the reason that Irving and the boys got to see Regina for no more than six weeks a year.
And it’s also the reason that Harvey Ackermann’s dick is where mine used to be.
Irving let out a long, stressed breath and took a book from his travel bag and started reading. A part of him was actually looking forward to getting back to work in his sweaty, noisy hotel kitchen with his lousy workmates. At least he’d be too busy there to be thinking all these fucking thoughts. No pun intended, a smartass voice in his head said.
About two hundred miles south of the Costa Rican coastline, something caught Captain Oscar DiForzio’s attention. It wasn’t anything in the sky—which was a perfectly normal, clear blue. The sun was an orthodox orange ball descending off to his left. No—what had caught his eye—or the bottom of his gaze, to be exact, was below him. Had been below him, at this stage. In the twenty or so seconds that he’d been pondering the strange event (if it had happened at all), the nose of the Airbus A330 had moved forward, obscuring the “occurrence” from view. He opened his mouth to ask his co-pilot Henry Tulswicke if he’d seen it, but then closed it again. Henry was busy checking some controls and Oscar didn’t want to interrupt him for something that he only thought he might have seen. Oscar blinked, a worm of concern tightening in his gut.
But I DID see it, a voice said in his head. I DID. Only for maybe a couple of seconds, but I DID see it. I DID see a piece of cloud detach itself from the blanket of white beneath us and begin to rise upward.
He scratched the side of his face. So, I saw something weird. This is my two hundred and thirty-eighth long haul flight and I’ve never seen anything that weird before. I saw a bit of a cloud do something freaky. Big deal.
“Hey Mom, look!”
Irving Whyte had been drifting pleasantly toward sleep and the sound of the girl’s exclamation now pulled him back into the land of wakefulness.
“Wow…that’s really strange.”
Irving opened his eyes. The girl in the window seat just ahead of him was staring out the window, as was her mother beside her. Irving turned to his left. What greeted his gaze was pretty odd, all right. About a hundred feet from the plane, a cloud, roughly circular in shape, was keeping pace with them. Irving looked downward. The thick blanket of cloud below them was maybe half a kilometer down. What was this straggler doing out on its own? And a bit more disconcertingly, what was it doing travelling alongside them at over five hundred miles per hour?
Irving looked in front of him again and saw that several people in the seats ahead were watching the extraordinary development. From beside him, Casey said:
“That is so weird.”
Irving saw that his son was looking intently beyond him at the cloud. Casey’s headphones were hanging loosely around his neck, tinny music coming from them. Irving turned back toward the window and a knot tied in his stomach when he saw that the cloud was moving toward the plane. It drew closer until it was near the wing, at which point it was sucked into the powerful Rolls Royce engine.
Irving looked ahead of him again. Almost every head that he could see was turned toward the window. Looking behind him, he saw likewise. He watched the cloud again. More than half of it had disappeared inside the engine now.
“What the hell?” he heard someone up ahead ask, concern in their voice.
Irving’s stomach was churning a little too. Was the cloud liable to damage the engine? It didn’t appear to be doing so. The plane was still powering on through the sky, the muted roar of its progress not sounding any different.
Eventually all the cloud was gone.
Irving stared at the engine. Its turbines were still a blur, no disturbance to be seen. There was no smoke coming from the contraption. And most reassuringly of all, there were no weird sounds or turbulence. So that was it. One weird cloud now done and dusted.
“Wow” Casey said softly beside him. “You ever see anything like that before, Dad?”
“First time for everything, I guess” Casey added. “Even creepy clouds.”
Irving was trying to sound light, but the event had unnerved him. He’d never heard of anything like this happening, and he was a big fan of the more unorthodox stuff on the documentary channels.
“Well” Casey said, lifting his hands to his headphones. “It’s history now”. He put his headphones back on, a slight look of concern on his features.
“Sure is” Irving added.
He noticed that Josh was asleep, oblivious to what had taken place. Good. Irving looked out the window again, at a mercifully normal sky. After a while he closed his eyes and waited for sleep to take him.
“What the hell is that?”
Irving’s eyes flew open at the sound of the voice. Feeling quite alert, he figured he’d only been asleep for a few minutes. There was a lot of mumbling going on. Looking up, he saw straight away what the exclamation had been about. At the flight attendant station up ahead, a white vapor was emanating from what Irving presumed was an air-conditioning duct. It stayed near the ceiling, making its way out of the station and along the cabin, between both aisles. It moved quickly and was quite thick. Irving couldn’t see the ceiling through it.
“Christ…it’s some kinda’ gas leak!” someone declared anxiously, causing the passengers’ mumbling to rise in volume to borderline panic level. A man got to his feet a little bit ahead of Irving. Irving presumed this was the gas leak theorist. It was only at that point that Irving realized Casey was gone from his seat. In the aisle seat, Josh was amazingly still asleep. As the white substance made its way past his seat row, Irving turned to watch its continued progress.
His stomach churned madly. He had a bad feeling about the white stuff. His heart pounded and his mind whirled. First, there had been the weird cloud. Now there was this. This stealthily sliding dry ice, or whatever it was.
“What IS it?” a woman cawed in fear. “Is it smoke? Are we on fire?”
Something deep inside Irving was calling for attention, calling for calm. Irving didn’t want to give it a soapbox, but he couldn’t shut it up.
It’s not some gas this deep presence spoke up calmly from within him. It’s not DRY ICE the voice added in an almost mocking tone. It’s not smoke. Part of you knows what it is, Irving, but you think you’re crazy to entertain the thought.
No, I’m not going to listen to this Irving said to himself, dimly aware that his hands were shaking. I’m not even going to THINK it—
It’s the CLOUD that awful calm voice interrupted. The cloud that was outside a few minutes ago.
The prospect hit him like a sledgehammer.
No, it’s not the fucking cloud, the part of his mind that was trying to squash this madness yammered frantically. Clouds don’t get sucked into airplane engines and get themselves pumped into the cabin like something out of a cheap horror movie.
The white stuff began to descend from the ceiling.
People began to make all manner of distressed sounds— cries, hollers, moans, shouts, the occasional shriek. When the white reached a height that was just below the base of the overhead luggage holders, it quickly snaked in over the seat rows.
“Jesus Christ!” a man exclaimed from ahead of Irving, terror in his voice. The man stood up from his window seat and pushed his way frantically past the two people in the row beside him. He got about three steps along the aisle when some of the white from the ceiling overhead puffed downward and encircled his torso just above the waist. He got one step further before letting out a primordial roar of pain and he collapsed to the floor, where his expressions of agony continued. From where he sat in Casey’s seat, Irving couldn’t see what was happening to the unfortunate soul, and even though part of him was screaming not to look, Irving got slowly to his feet. His head only a few inches from the bizarre white blanket above him, he gaped at the gruesome scene that greeted his eyes a few feet from the attendant station.
“Oh my God!!!” a woman screamed from near the fallen man.
The man had hardly been on the ground ten seconds and already his stomach and its environs were mostly gone. The white (the cloud, Irving, the cloud that horrible calm voice in his head reminded him) had—eaten his entire midriff. The white had divided itself in two upon the doomed form. One half of the dreadful substance was currently working its way upward through the soft tissue inside the man’s ribcage while the other half devoured the tops of the man’s thighs. Irving was barely cognizant of the smell— a faint cocktail of coppery blood, mixed with bile, urine and feces. He had a feeling that some of the constituent odors were not just coming from the carcass on the ground. The Dantean nightmare was getting the better of the bodily functions of some of the other passengers too.
The ravaged man’s fingers drummed mindlessly on the ground as his body continued to disappear before the progress of the white fog. Over the gibbering and panic in his own cabin, Irving could hear consternation in the neighboring first class cabin too. Presumably, the same ordeal was being endured there.
The door of the toilet near the flight attendant station cracked open and Irving saw Casey look out tentatively. Irving saw his son’s eyes frantically scan the cabin before resting in terror on the two-thirds eaten form on the ground not far from his feet.
“Get back inside!!!” Irving shouted over the racket, flapping an arm in the air. “Get back inside!”
Casey lifted his shocked gaze, his eyes locking on his father’s.
“Get back in the toilet!” Irving shouted, his legs rubbery with fear beneath him. A flight attendant dashed toward the open door, and pushed Casey inside before rushing in herself and locking it. Irving felt relief settle in his gut.
“Dad, what the hell is going on? WHAT HAPPENED TO THAT GUY???”
Irving looked down at Josh and his heart sank. His second son’s face was terror-stricken, his eyes and cheeks red with the sleep he’d just been yanked from by over a hundred panicking passengers. What a reality to return to from a dream! What if the kid had been dreaming of a pretty girl? From that to this—abomination? A man-eating mist that had turned a peaceful herd of passengers into a demented swarm, defecating itself with panic?
Irving’s mouth worked wordlessly. He wanted to say something to his boy. But there was nothing to say. At least, nothing he could think of. He looked around, his overloaded brain feeling as though it was independent of his body. He was the only person standing—well, half-standing. He looked up at the horrible white layer above him, less than a foot from his forehead.
Suddenly he could hardly hear the crying and terrified wailing that surrounded him. The cloud was swirling. Churning and weaving in and around itself like eerie clouds on some of those strange other-galaxy planets he’d seen on Discovery channel documentaries. Not taking his eyes from the ominous sight, Irving began to lower himself into the seat next to Josh.
“Dad, what’s that stuff doing?” Josh asked, almost crying.
“What the hell IS IT?” The level of hysteria in the cabin was creeping upward as passengers reacted to the latest development. It was clear from the even higher-pitched screams and barks of horror that no-one saw the new, roiling movement of the cloud as good.
Irving swallowed. It’s getting ready, a voice said from a dark pit in his mind.
“Dad!” Josh sobbed.
His gaze still fixed on the swirling, menacing enigma overhead, Irving thrust his hand out toward his son. Josh grasped it eagerly and they both squeezed tightly.
Some white puffed downward and engulfed Irving’s midriff. He stared at it. Suddenly his fear was numbed as he stared at the fog. It was almost beautiful, the pale, ghostly shroud. He roared in pain.
He’d never known pain like this could exist. It was like someone had thrown a bucket of particularly vicious acid on him. All he could do was feel this pain and roar. Everybody was screaming. He felt it was only a matter of time before the bellowing and shrieking burst his eardrums. He realized that beside him, Josh was screaming and that his son’s hand was no longer gripping his. Josh’s agony was more than Irving could bear. He couldn’t look to his right. He couldn’t watch his boy’s…devouring.
Irving lifted his hands to his ears and did his best to block out the sounds of torment all around him. He could feel himself growing weaker and his consciousness beginning to lessen. It felt almost ethereal, being suddenly inside a half-silent world. It was almost dreamlike.
(Maybe it is just a dream. Just a particularly bad nightmare. You’ll wake up any second now and Casey will be sitting beside you with his precious headphones on and Josh will be asleep and not roaring his lungs out while his guts are being eaten by some hell-fog.)
Irving’s legs slid off the seat and onto the ground where the mist continued to gorge itself on them. More of the white continued to tunnel its way through the upper half of his body. He knew that he only had a few seconds before he greyed out. Or died. Mercifully the dreadful pain was subsiding. The edge of his seat—where his legs had been—was dark and shiny with blood.
What a way to go, his darkening mind thought. You didn’t see this ahead of you when you got up this morning! It isn’t fair he thought bitterly. I don’t deserve this end! It should be Harvey fucking Ackermann sitting here, getting eaten alive. That’s what wife-fucking, corporate, obsessive cellphone-swipers deserved. Not decent family men like me…
Irving realized he couldn’t breathe anymore.
That’s because your lungs are being eaten now.
Then there was nothing.
A little over twenty minutes later, in the cockpit, Captain Oscar DiForzio spoke. There hadn’t been a sound from the first-class cabin behind them in over ten minutes.
“You—think it’s over?”
His frail voice sounded both terrified and defeated.
Co-pilot Henry Tulswicke didn’t answer immediately. He was gazing at the cabin door.
He drew a deep and shuddering breath. When the consternation had started in the cabin behind them, he and Oscar had opined that maybe a drunken passenger was having a meltdown. As they’d anxiously awaited a phone call from a flight attendant at the other end informing them that an airport diversion might be a wise course of action, Oscar had brought up the subject of the strange cloud he’d seen earlier. This had caused a bomb of nausea to go off in Henry’s gut. Only two days before, he had been on a night out with an Air Force friend, Travis Baird, in Honolulu. After a few too many beers, Travis had informed Henry of the fate of a cargo plane that had crashed into the ocean a few miles east of Oahu.
It had made the news—Henry could remember it himself. Fourteen military personnel had been on board—pilot, co-pilot and twelve marines including one Captain and one Major. What hadn’t made the news, and never would, Travis had informed him in a low voice, was the fact that the wreckage of the plane had been found in shallow water only a few hours after it had gone down. The bodies had all been on board, or at least what remained of them. Which had been very little aside from their skeletons. A friend of Travis’s had been on air traffic control on the morning that the flight had gone down and had taken the mayday message from the pilot on the plane.
The pilot had been barely coherent. He’d garbled about the co-pilot having gone into the cargo bay to see what was causing a major panic back there. The co-pilot had told him that what appeared to be a toxic gas had seeped into the plane and this gas was now eating the bodies of everyone in the cargo bay. The pilot’s alarmed voice had turned into a shriek as he’d informed Travis’s friend that the gas was now streaming in through the cockpit door. The pilot had then started screaming and a few seconds later the line had gone dead.
Henry lowered his head and turned away from the door. He figured that whatever had happened in the cabin behind them was over, all right. Everybody was dead now. It was strange. One minute, people are banging on your door, begging you to let them in, their voices full of tears. Begging you to let them away from the nightmare surrounding them. And then a little bit later…silence.
Henry looked out the window and a knot tightened in his nausea-tenderized stomach. Off ahead to the left was a cloud, all on its own in a clear blue sky, slowly banking away from the plane.
As Henry Tulswicke watched the cloud leave his field of vision, Casey Whyte put his hand on the toilet door latch. His fingers shook.
“Please. No. Not yet. Just…just a little while longer.”
Casey turned and looked at the flight attendant whose terrified form was pressed against the corner of the tiny cubicle. Her cheeks were wet with tears.
Casey slowly let his hand fall from the latch. In his mind’s eye, he could see himself and the attendant wandering aimlessly down the cabin-aisle, surveying the rows of death. What was the point? At least everyone was alive in here.
He’d held his composure fine until then, but abruptly, what strength he had left vanished like a puff of smoke and he began to sob. He shielded his eyes with his hand and lowered his head. He tried to shut out of his mind the sight of his father waving frantically at him to get back inside the toilet, Josh sitting beside him looking around in panic.
Casey cried freely. The flight attendant put her arms around him.
The throng was now much bigger than before it had found the jet. It had fed well, having eaten three hundred and fifty-five humans and that meant many of its members had acquired the strength to divide, their replicated selves now added to the collective.
The throng had come to Earth with its numbers depleted, having lost a huge swathe of its kind on a world not unlike this new one. It had been hovering over a bay, feeding on some airborne creatures when a vast entity emerged from the water beneath it and swallowed nearly two-thirds of the throng before crashing back into the blue. A huge splash of water had soared into the air upon the giant’s re-entry. It was the first time that the throng had encountered seawater and those of its members who were not drenched by it were horrified by the shrieks of agony they heard in their minds as their colleagues were burned to nothing by the horrible, dissolved salts of the water.
The survivors had risen high into the air, fearful of the monster emerging from the water again and seeking more of their number. The throng gazed at the water below. It could not see fifty feet beneath the surface where the beast’s stomach tore open, its wall having been devoured from the inside out by the swallowed members of the throng. The freed members screamed as they expressed their second of agony before blinking out of existence, melted to nothing by the saltwater.
The remnants of the throng had fled the planet in despair, reduced to a tenth of its original number. In desperation, it opened a wormhole in space and a few minutes later emerged randomly less than ten feet over another ocean of that accursed, all-consuming seawater! Initially the throng had surmised that the wormhole had failed and that it was back on the planet that it had only just left. It realized that the atmosphere here was much less dense, and the clouds high above it were white, not green. What dreadful odds, though! Two seawater-inundated worlds in succession!
Immediately the throng rose high into the sky. There was nothing but water for as far as it could see in any direction. It saw no sign of life until the following morning when it came across the cargo plane. It entered the primitive electro-mechanical device and ate the life-forms aboard leaving only the protective bones of the creatures behind. The meal had been small, with only a little bit of food for each member of the throng, none were capable of division afterward.
But the collective was impressed with the taste of these beings! Most pleasing indeed! The members couldn’t wait to encounter more of them. The throng had searched for two days but the wait had certainly been worth it! Three hundred and fifty-five of the delicious creatures packed tightly in one of their primitive flyers! All members had gorged themselves and all had divided, some twice.
A few hours later, with night falling, the throng spotted something moving through the water far below it. Curious, it descended. From a kilometer away, it could fully make out a large metal structure, its surface laden with other small flyers. The monstrosity was hopelessly primitive, crawling along slowly and weighed down with heavy, backward weaponry. As it drew closer to the craft a wave of elation surged through the throng. It could sense the huge number of humans scurrying about in the bowels of the simple beast! Thousands of them!
Even though it had feasted only a few hours earlier, the throng was still hungry. It was always hungry, truth be told. As the lumbering water-hulk loomed large below it, the throng sensed hundreds of ways it could access the feeding ground beneath its deck. They were so open and defenseless, these delicious humans! There were a few of them moving about on the surface of the contraption, tending to the ridiculous little flying devices. The throng would leave them till after the great feast below.
Yes! Time to dine.