Cold Fire Page 20

"Not serious," Delbaugh said. Aware that someone had entered Delbaugh glanced back at Jim. In the captain's position, Jim would have been sweating like a race-lathered horse, but Delbaugh's face glistened with only a fine sheen of perspiration, as if someone had spritzed him with a plant mister. His voice was steady: "You're him?" "Yeah," Jim said.


Delbaugh looked forward again. "We're coming around," he said to Anilov, and the co-pilot nodded. Delbaugh ordered a throttle change, and the man on the floor complied. Then, speaking to Jim without looking at him, the captain said, "You knew it was going to happen.”


"Yeah.”


"So what else can you tell me?" Bracing himself against a bulkhead as the plane shuddered and wallowed again, Jim said, "Total hydraulic failure.”


"I mean, something I don't know," Delbaugh replied with cool sarcasm.


It justifiably could have been an angry snarl, but he was admirably in command of himself. Then he spoke to approach control, obtaining new instructions.


Listening, Jim realized that the Dubuque tower was going to bring in Flight 246 by way of a series of 360-degree turns, in an attempt to line it up with one of the runways. The pilots could not easily guide the plane into a straight approach, as usual, because they had no real control. The disabled craft's maddening tendency to turn endlessly to the right was now to be incorporated into a breathtakingly conceived plan that would let it find its way into the barn like a stubborn bull determined to resist the herder and follow its own route home. If the radius of each turn was carefully calculated and matched to an equally precise rate of descent, they might eventually be able to bring head-on to a runway and all the way in.


Impact in five minutes.


Jim twitched in shock and almost spoke those four words aloud when they came to him.


Instead, when the captain finished talking to the tower, Jim said, "Is your landing gear operable?" "We got it down and locked," Delbaugh confirmed.


"Then we might make it.”


"We will make it," Delbaugh said. "Unless there's another surprise waiting for us.”


"There is," Jim said.


The captain glanced worriedly at him again. "What?" Impact in four minutes "For one thing, there'll be a sudden windshear as you're going in oblique to you, so it won't drive you into the ground.


But the reflected updraft from it will give you a couple bad moments.


It'll be like you're flying over a washboard.”


"What're you talking about?" Anilov demanded.


"When you're making your final approach, a few hundred feet from the end of the runway, you'll still be at an angle," Jim said, once more al lowing some omniscient higher power to speak through him, "but you'll have to go for it anyway, no other choice.”


"How can you know that?" the flight engineer demanded.


Ignoring the question, Jim went on, and the words came in a rush: "The plane'll suddenly drop to the right, the wing'll hit the ground, and you'll cartwheel down the runway, end over end, off it, into a field.


The whole damn plane'll come apart and burn.”


The red-haired man in civilian clothes, operating the throttles, looked back at Jim in disbelief "What crock of shit is this, who the hell do you think you are?" "He knew about engine number two before it blew up," Delbaugh said coolly.


Aware that they were entering the second of the trio of planned degree turns and that time was swiftly running out, Jim said, "None of you in the cockpit will die, but you'll lose a hundred and forty-seven passengers, plus four flight attendants.”


"Oh my God," Delbaugh said softly.


"He can't know this," Anilov objected.


Impact in three minutes Delbaugh gave additional instructions to the red-haired man, who manipulated the throttles. One engine grew louder, the other softer, and the big craft began its second turn, shedding some altitude as it went.


Jim said, "But there's a warning, just before the plane tips to the right.”


"What?" Delbaugh said, still unable to look at him, straining to get what response he could from the wheel.


"You won't recognize what it means, it's a strange sound, like nothing you've heard before, because it's a structural failure in the wing coupling, where it's fixed to the fuselage. A sharp twang, like a giant steel-guitar string. When you hear it, if you increase power to the port engine immediately, compensating to the left, you'll keep her from cart-wheeling.”


Anilov had lost his patience. "This is nuts. Slay, I can't think with this guy here.”


Jim knew Anilov was right. Both System Aircraft Maintenance in San Francisco and the dispatcher had been silent for a while, hesitant to interfere with the crew's concentration. If he stayed there, even without saying another word, he might unintentionally distract them at a crucial moment.


Besides, he sensed that there was nothing more of value that he would be given to tell them.


He left the flight deck and moved as quickly as possible toward row sixteen.


Impact in two minutes Holly kept watching for Jim Ironheart, hoping he would rejoin them.


She wanted him nearby when the worst happened. She had not forgotten the bizarre dream from last night, the monstrous creature that had seemed to come out of her nightmare and into her motel room; neither had she forgotten how many people he had killed in his quest to protect the lives of the innocent, nor how savagely he slaughtered Norman Rink in that Atlanta convenience store. But the dark side of him was outweighed by the light. Though an aura of danger surrounded him, she also felt curiously safe in his company, as if within the protective nimbus of a guardian angel.


Through the public-address system, one of the flight attendants was instructing them on emergency procedures. Other attendants were positioned throughout the plane, making sure everyone was following directions.


The DC-10 was wallowing and shimmying again. Worse, although without a wooden timber anywhere in its structure, it was creaking like a sailing ship on a storm-tossed sea. The sky was blue beyond the portholes, but evidently the air was more than blustery; it was raging, tumultuous.


None of the passengers had any illusions now. They knew they were going in for a landing under the worst conditions, and that it would be rough.


Maybe fatal. Throughout the enormous plane, people were surprisingly quiet, as if they were in a cathedral during a solemn service. Perhaps, in their minds' eyes, they were experiencing their own funerals.


Jim appeared out of the first-class section and approached along the port aisle. Holly was immensely relieved to see him. He paused only to smile encouragingly at the Dubroveks, and to put his hand on Holly's shoulder and give her a gentle squeeze of reassurance. Then he settled into the seat behind her.


The plane hit a patch of turbulence worse than anything before.


She was half convinced that they were no longer flying but sledding across corrugated steel.


Christine took Holly's hand and held it briefly, as if they were old friends-which, in a curious way, they were, thanks to the imminence of death, which had a bonding effect on people.


"Good luck, Holly.”


"You, too," Holly said.


Beyond her mother, little Casey looked so small.


Even the flight attendants were seated now, and in the position they had instructed the passengers to take. Finally Holly followed their example and assumed the posture that contributed to the best chance of survival in a crash: belted securely in the seat, bent forward, head tucked between her knees, gripping her ankles with her hands.


The plane came out of the shattered air, slipping down glass-smooth for a moment. But before Holly had time to feel any relief, the whole sky seemed to be shaking as though gremlins were standing at the four corners and snapping it like a blanket.


Overhead storage compartments popped open. Traincases, valises, jackets, and personal items flew out and rained down on the seats.


Something struck the center of Holly's bowed back, bouncing off her. It was not heavy, hardly hurt at all, but she suddenly worried that a traincase, laden with some woman's makeup and jars of face cream, would drop at precisely the right angle to crack her spine.


Captain Sleighton Delbaugh called out instructions to Yankowski, who continued to kneel between the pilots, operating the throttles while they were preoccupied with maintaining what little control they had left. He was braced, but a hard landing was not going to be kind to him.


They were coming out of the third and final 360-degree turn. The runway was ahead of them, but not straight-on, just as Jim--damn, he'd never gotten the guy's last name-had predicted.


Also as the stranger had foreseen, they were descending through exceptional turbulence, bucking and shuddering as if they were in a big old bus with a couple of bent axles, thundering down a steep and rugged mountain road. Delbaugh had never seen anything like it; even if the plane had been intact, he'd have been concerned about landing in those treacherous crosswinds and powerful rising thermals.


But he could not pull up and go on, hoping for better conditions at another airport or on another pass at this one. They had kept the jumbo jet in the air for thirty-three minutes since the tail-engine explosion.


That was a feat of which they could be proud, but skill and cleverness and intelligence and nerve were not enough to carry them much farther.


Minute by minute, and now second by second, keeping the stricken DC-10 in the air was increasingly like trying to fly a massive rock.


They were about two thousand meters from the end of the runway and closing fast.


Delbaugh thought of his wife and seventeen-year-old son at home in Westlake Village, north of Los Angeles, and he thought of his other son, Tom, who was already on his way to Willamette to get ready for his junior year. He longed to touch their faces and hold them close.


He was not afraid for himself Well, not much. His relatively mild concern for his own safety was not a result of the stranger's prediction that the flight crew would survive, because he didn't know if the guy's premonitions were always correct. In part, it was just that he didn't have time to be concerned about himself Fifteen hundred meters.


Mainly, he was worried about his passengers and crew, who trusted him with their lives. If any part of the crash was his fault, due to a lack of resolve or nerve or quickness, all the good he had done and tried to do in his life would not compensate for this one catastrophic failure.


Perhaps that attitude proved that he was, as some friends suggested, too hard on himself, but he knew that many pilots worked under no less heavy a sense of responsibility.


He remembered what the stranger had said:". . you'll lose a hundred andforty-seven passengers. . ." His hands throbbed with pain as he kept a tight grip on the yoke, which vibrated violently.


". . plus four flight attendants. . .”


Twelve hundred meters.


"She wants to come right," Delbaugh said.


"Hold her!" Anilov said, for at this low altitude and on an approach, it was all in Delbaugh's hands.


One hundred and fifty-one dead, all those families bereaved, countles other lives altered by a single tragedy.


Eleven hundred meters.


But how the hell could that guy know how many would die? Not possible.


Was he trying to say he was clairvoyant or what? It was all a crock, as Yankowski had said. Yeah, but he knew about the engine before it exploded, he knew about the washboard turbulence, and only an idiot would discount all of that.


A thousand meters.


"Here we go," Delbaugh heard himself say.


Bent forward in his seat, head between his knees, gripping his ankles, Jim Ironheart thought of the punchline to an old joke: kiss your ass goodbye.


He prayed that by his own actions he had not disrupted the river of fate to such an extent that he would wash away not only himself and the Dubroveks but other people on Flight 246 who had never been meant to die in the crash. Because of what he had told the pilot, he had potentially altered the future, and now what happened might be worse, not better, than what had been meant to happen.


The higher power working through him had seemed, ultimately, to approve of his attempt to save more lives than just those of Christine and Casey. On the other hand, the nature and identity of that power was so enigmatic that only a fool would presume to understand its motives or intentions.


The plane shivered and shook. The scream of the engines seemed to grow ever more shrill.


He stared at the deck beneath his feet, expecting it to burst open.


More than anything, he was afraid for Holly Thorne. Her presence on the flight was a profound deviation from the script that fate had originally written. He was eaten by a fear that he might save the lives of more people on the plane than he'd at first intended-but that Holly would be broken in half by the impact.


As the DC-10 quaked and rattled its way toward the earth, Holly squeezed herself into as tight a package as she could, and closed her eyes.


In her private darkness, faces swam through her mind: her mom and dad, which was to be expected; Lenny Callaway, the first boy she had ever loved, which was not expected, because she had not seen him since they were both sixteen; Mrs. Rooney, a high-school teacher who had taken a special interest in her; Lori Clugar, her best friend all through high school and half of college, before life had carried them to different corners of the country and out of touch; and more than a dozen others, all of whom she had loved and still loved. No one person could have occupied her thoughts for more than a fraction of a second, yet the nearness of death seemed to distort time, so she felt as if she were lingering with each beloved face.


What flashed before her was not her life, but the special people in it though in a way that was the same thing.


Even above the creak-rumble-shriek of the jet, and in spite of her focus on the faces in her mind, she heard Christine Dubrovek speak to her daughter in the last moments of their shaky descent: "I love you, Casey.”


Holly began to cry.


Three hundred meters.


Delbaugh had the nose up.


Everything looked good. As good as it could look under the circumstances.


They were at a slight angle to the runway, but he might be able to realign the aircraft once they were on the ground. If he couldn't bring it around to any useful degree, they would roll three thousand or maybe even four thousand feet before their angle of approach carried them off the edge of the pavement and into a field where it appeared that a crop of some kind had been harvested recently. That was not a desirable termination point, but at least by then a lot of their momentum would have been lost; the plane might still break up, depending on the nature of the bare earth under its wheels, but there was little chance that it would disintegrate catastrophically.

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