Take a look at Alan Averill’s The Beautiful Land, out today from Ace Books:
Takahiro O’Leary has a very special job? working for the Axon Corporation as an explorer of parallel timelines as many and as varied as anyone could imagine. A great gig until information he brought back gave Axon the means to maximize profits by changing the past, present, and future of this world.
If Axon succeeds, Tak will lose Samira Moheb, the woman he has loved since high school because her future will cease to exist. A veteran of the Iraq War suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Samira can barely function in her everyday life, much less deal with Tak’s ravings of multiple realities. The only way to save her is for Tak to use the time travel device he “borrowed” to transport them both to an alternate timeline.
But what neither Tak nor Axon knows is that the actual inventor of the device is searching for a timeline called the Beautiful Land and he intends to destroy every other possible present and future to find it. The switch is thrown, and reality begins to warp horribly. And Tak realizes that to save Sam, he must save the entire world?.
Tak is almost twelve hours in to the flight before he notices that something has gone seriously wrong. With only three hours to go on the Sydney to Los Angeles nonstop, the plane is dark, travelers are sleeping, and the attendants should be strapped into their seats with a book or chatting quietly in the galley area. This time, however, things are different. Instead of engaging in mindless chatter, the attendants are buzzing through the aisles with nervous looks on their faces. Occasionally, two or three will duck off behind the bulkhead for a brief, whispered meeting, then emerge from either side and whisk their way up and down the aisles some more.
At first, Tak thinks that there’s some kind of low-key mechanical problem—the flaps are a bit sticky, or the hydraulic pressure is off. But after watching the attendants scuttle back and forth for the better part of an hour, he dismisses this option. He’s been on planes with problems before, seen that flavor of panic on attendant’s faces. This is different. It’s almost like they’re moving up and down the aisles to avoid attracting attention to something.
Or someone, he thinks suddenly. Could be a problem with a passenger. Medical emergency up in first class, maybe? Some drunk asshat making jokes about lighting his shoes on fire?
He’s on the end of a four-seat aisle in the very last row. That is where Tak prefers to sit. He likes being able to see the entire plane in motion, likes being able to predict and adapt to anything that might come his way. The only things he has to worry about behind him are a pair of lavatories and a small galley, where they store the beverage cart. Some would consider this level of caution to be excessive, but Tak doesn’t care. After the last four years of his life, he readily allows himself a healthy dose of paranoia.
As he watches the attendants try not to look as worried as they clearly are, he absentmindedly runs one hand back and forth over the slim, silver briefcase in his lap. He thinks about mechanical problems and terrorists and unexplained airline disasters that spontaneously occur at forty thousand feet and gives a small chuckle. Oh man, if you guys only knew what this was. That would really give you something to worry about.
The chuckle fades. His last thought—if you only knew what this was—rolls around and around in his brain, gathering momentum like a snowball down a mountain. As it grows, Tak starts to feel something approaching nervousness for the first time since takeoff. He runs his thumbs over the latches of the case and lets the thought fester as he turns one eye toward a group of four attendants standing next to the first-class curtain. They’re well trained, but not perfect. Eyes occasionally dart to the rear of the cabin, then down again. Bodies are shifted ever so slightly toward the back, as if ready to spring on a problem. After a few minutes, Tak leans his head into the aisle and tilts it to the side like a dog hearing a quizzical noise. One of the attendants catches his eye and snaps her head around so fast her neck threatens to break. As he stares at the back of her head, he can almost physically feel her trying not to look at him.
The snowball thought is massive now, rolling over trees and skiers and Swiss mountain chalets with impunity. He licks his lips, grabs the briefcase with one hand, and slowly stands up. Not all the way; just enough to keep his knees slightly bent, as if he’s going to reach into the overhead compartment and remove a book. As he stands, he keeps his eyes focused on the seat back in front of him. Wait for it, he tells himself. Wait. Wait. Waaaaait . . . Now.
Tak looks up. Nine wide-eyed fl ight attendants stare back. As soon as their eyes meet, the attendants see that he sees and quickly busy themselves with random tasks that are suddenly very important.
Oh, fuck me running. They know.
Tak doesn’t know how they know, or even how much they know, but it’s clearly enough to assure that a platoon of federal agents will be waiting for him when they land. He drops back down in his seat and allows himself a minute of silent cursing and panicking. Shit! Aw, shit on a shingle! How the hell did they know? Why’d they let me leave Australia if they knew?
Tak gets his thoughts under control and quickly considers the question. Either his employers knew his plan and let him go because they want the briefcase to end up in the United States, or they only realized what he had done once the plane was off the ground. Tak thinks that the second option is much more likely. American border security was a mess of gung ho cowboys and angry civil servants; even his employer’s impressive political connections wouldn’t be able to account for every possible twist. Hell, what if some minimum-wage TSA agent opened the briefcase and started fiddling around? No, they’d clearly discovered that the briefcase was missing, realized who had stolen it, then twisted arms to make sure that it never left the plane.
Tak swears once more and begins drumming his fingers on the lid of the briefcase. It makes a pleasant, hollow sound that he doesn’t have time to appreciate. In less than three hours, they will be on the ground, a gaggle of large men in suits will be waiting for him, and everything will be royally screwed. He runs through various scenarios in his head and quickly dismisses them all. Bailing out over the ocean? Trying to force the back door as soon as they land? Taking a hostage? None of those are even remotely decent options.
You could use it, Tak thinks suddenly. It’s just a bunch of flight attendants and maybe an air marshal up here—they wouldn’t be able to stop you.
It’s a wild thought, crazy, but now that it’s in his head, it pulls up a recliner, cracks a beer, and refuses to leave. He mulls it over for a good fifteen minutes while the attendants continue to ignore him as hard as possible. Using the device on a moving plane would very likely kill him. Or not. It all depends on where he ends up. Would he reappear at the very spot where he’d activated the device—thousands of feet in the air over the Pacific Ocean? Or would he travel as the plane traveled and pop back into existence once the jet was safely on the ground? And then there’s the question of power: did he have enough to make an unplanned jump? Wish I’d had time to test this thing, he thinks to himself.
In the end, Tak makes the decision the way he makes all of his important choices: by wrestling with it for a while before kicking down the door and barging through. He suddenly bolts to his feet, secures the briefcase, and slides into the aisle. Before the attendants can do more than begin to point, he slips into the lavatory and locks the door.
There isn’t room for the briefcase on the counter, so he sets it on the lid of the toilet and stares at himself in the mirror. He’s more haggard than he remembers, with dark circles under his eyes and a kind of maniacal smile permanently plastered to his face. He’s wearing a blue T-shirt that reads MARIO IS FULL OF WIN under a black sport coat, and his hair is sticking up even higher than normal. The entire ensemble is a bit unsettling—no wonder the attendants are so damn nervous.
The FASTEN SEAT BELT light dings on. Outside, someone knocks on the door. “Sir,” she says. “Sir, we need you to return to your seat.” Tak knows this is a lie. The plane is fine; it’s him they’re worried about.
He ignores the attendant’s knocking, sits on the toilet, and pulls the briefcase to his lap. Unlatching either side, he grabs the top with both hands and pulls it open. Instantly, the bathroom is filled with a dim green glow that swirls across the walls like a miniature aurora borealis, shifting and changing by the second. No matter how many times he witnesses it, Tak continues to think it’s the most beautiful thing in the world.
The briefcase contains a round glass panel from which the green glow emanates, six metal knobs, and five small lights. Three of these lights are illuminated red, albeit faintly, which is a good sign. If those are the battery indicators—and he’s fairly sure that they are—he should have enough juice left for three jumps. Of course, he’s not entirely sure that’s what the lights mean. He didn’t design the device, after all: he just stole it and fled the country.
The attendant knocks again, louder. Tak continues to ignore her and removes a small, leather-bound book from his pants pocket. He puts his tongue between his teeth and starts flipping through it, scanning page after page of seemingly random numbers with scrawled notations next to each one:
1 2 1 0 3 0 — Wasteland
2 7 2 1 8 8 — Wasteland
7 1 3 2 1 0 — False London
9 4 3 4 7 1 — Decent. Not much to eat.
5 4 2 1 1 0 — Wasteland
1 1 1 1 1 1 — Never go here again!
2 1 2 6 7 6 — Wasteland
1 2 1 3 0 0 —
Possible winner! Update: Conduit dead.
. . . And so on, through the entire notebook, hundreds upon hundreds of entries crammed onto the front and back of each page. He runs his finger up and down each entry and flips pages at a frantic pace. The gentle knock at the door is suddenly replaced with a loud banging and an angry male voice.
“Hey! Get out of there now!” cries the voice. “Get out before we break it down!”
The voice is from a passenger—loud and slurred with a flight’s worth of alcohol—and Tak realizes he doesn’t have time for perfect jump. After a moment, he settles on an entry near the middle of the book:
1 3 1 2 0 0 — Mostly safe. Watch for acid rain.
He wipes sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his jacket and stuffs the notebook back into his pocket. He can hear lots of voices from behind the door—more than a few passengers have clearly joined the mob. The words “briefcase” and “bomb” are being tossed around, and Tak suddenly realizes how his employers must have played this to the flight crew. If they think the device is a bomb, they won’t touch it. They’ll arrest him and wait for a disposal unit. At which point, it’s a simple matter to get your own people onto the plane, secure the briefcase, and whisk it back to Australia.
“Clever bastards,” mutters Tak. He reaches into the case and twists the first knob one click to the right. This causes the green light to brighten and a small humming sound to emanate from somewhere deep inside the device. He twists the second knob three times, the third knob once, and the fourth knob twice. With each click, the humming grows louder and more furious. Each twist produces a slightly different tone, and when Tak finishes twisting, the end result is a chord of almost terrible beauty.
The door shudders in its frame: someone, probably the angry drunk, has decided that it’s time to stop asking nicely and just kick the damn thing down. The foot strikes the door again, then pauses as the humming grows in intensity. Tak grins slightly as he imagines passengers huddled around a bathroom door with brilliant green light pouring out of it while some wannabe hero starts kicking in the door. You’re probably not their favorite person in the world right now, Drunky.
The musical chord rings out with new fury as the device powers up. Just before it reaches fever pitch, Tak wipes his fingers on his pants, places them on either side of the round glass panel, and waits. He’s more nervous than he’s been in a long time, but also excited. If it works, it’s gonna be one hell of a surprise to everyone involved. And if it doesn’t . . . Well, at least he’ll finally know what it’s like to fall to his death.
The light turns blinding. His fingers begin to stretch across the surface of the panel, becoming impossibly long and thin before finally vanishing altogether. Tak’s head begins to fog over with a familiar sensation, random thoughts and memories jumbling together into an incoherent blur. He has just enough time to regret not having time for his usual prejump meal before the light becomes his entire world. There is a brief flash, a mighty roar from the depths of the briefcase, then nothing.
Seconds later, the door crashes open, and a large man stumbles through and does a face-plant against the cold steel urinal. One hand, reaching out for support, crashes through the thin metal on the bottom of the toilet and emerges covered in a viscous blue film. The people behind him all take an involuntary step back, then a step forward, as if they can’t quite convince themselves of what just happened. Because what they are seeing is, quite frankly, impossible.
Takahiro O’Leary is gone.
When Tak’s plane touches down, a dozen black SUVs barrel down the runway to meet it. All air traffic into LAX has been diverted for the last fifteen minutes, which means that thousands of people are currently spinning around the airport in a permanent holding pattern so this single plane can take all the time it needs. As the 747 deploys its air brakes, the cars roll in on either side with sirens blaring. Men and women in serious clothing and sunglasses sit behind the wheels and communicate to each other through small earpieces. At one point, a large van with the word SWAT painted on the side takes up a position behind the plane. A square-jawed man with a helmet leans out the window of the van and points a large machine gun at the plane, as if expecting someone to hop out the back door with guns blazing. It’s an eye-rolling show of force even for L.A., and if Tak were still on the plane, he’d be laughing his ass off . But Tak is not on the plane; indeed, Tak O’Leary is nowhere to be found. And thus all the hullabaloo.
Instead of moving to a gate, the plane rolls over to a small, unused hangar on the edge of the airport. This is where the real party starts, as employees of every government agency imaginable begin lining up like customers at a drab-suit convention: air marshals, TSA agents, LAPD, the FBI, the Port Authority, U.S. Customs and Immigration, even a couple of unidentified large guys from Homeland Security, who just stand to the side and mutter to each other. If you work for an agency with a lot of letters in its name, this is clearly the place to be.
The plane coasts inside the hangar and powers down, engines spinning slower and slower until they finally give up the effort and come to a stop. For nearly forty minutes, nothing much happens, save the agency heads engaging in a spirited discussion as to how to let passengers off and who should be the first to board the plane. At one point, a mobile staircase is rolled up to the front door, only to be removed a few minutes later. The spirited discussion turns heated, cell phones are produced, and various high-ranking people are called. Inside the plane, weary passengers peer out of oval windows with a mixture of frustration and fear. The ones in the back know that something very odd has happened, while the ones closer to the front are running on rumors spread by those in the rear. In the cockpit, the pilot and copilot chat on the radio and endlessly fiddle with buttons.
Finally, the stairway is rolled back into place. The SWAT team moves into position, stationing four men with large guns at the bottom of the plane and four more men on the steps of the staircase. Once they are ready—a state they signify with a needlessly complex series of hand signals—a man from the FBI walks between them and takes up residence next to the door. At this point, the passengers are hopeful that they will finally be let out and arrested or waterboarded or whatever the hell is going to happen, because any of that would be preferable to spending one more minute on the goddamn airplane. But it is not to be. The FBI man is literally reaching for the handle when he suddenly gets interested in his earpiece again and turns his back on the door. The SWAT team hears one guy inside the plane yell “Oh, come on!” in a joyless display of frustration. Thankfully, his anger doesn’t have to burn long—after a minute, the FBI man is joined by the large men from Homeland Security, and the door is finally opened.
It takes almost two hours to get the passengers off the plane. As they step out the door, their IDs are perused by the men from Homeland. Once this is done, the travelers walk down the steps, through a gauntlet of heavily armed police, and over to a corner of the hangar. At this point, their IDs are compared against some kind of official list held by a bored-looking man with huge eyeglasses. After this man has confi rmed that they are who they claim to be, they are taken to a different corner of the hangar, where a very apologetic and harried member of the airline PR staff offers them coffee or soda, gives them a sandwich, and maintains a tight-lipped smile while the passenger unloads all of his or her frustrations. The passengers are then left to mill around in the small corner, which smells of metal shavings and stale gasoline. A few of the more experienced travelers curl up on the ground and go to sleep, but most of the others either stand around looking dour or sit on the ground looking dour.
As this is occurring, various government officials are pulling luggage from the underside of the plane. In plain view of the passengers, each suitcase, duffel bag, and poorly taped cardboard box is opened and searched—just in case the missing man from Australia happened to crawl into the luggage compartment and fold himself into the size of an egg-salad sandwich. At one point an agent reaches into a hidden side pocket of a black duffel and pulls out a Ziploc bag with four joints inside; much to the relief of a wide-eyed teenager from Brisbane, he just stuffs them back inside and keeps searching.
While the passengers are being questioned—or yelling at the poor PR woman—and the agents are searching through their luggage, a small tanker truck arrives. It rolls into position underneath the wing and disgorges a pair of overalls-clad men who unroll a hose from the side of the tank and attach it to the plane’s waste-containment system. Ten minutes and a lot of noisy sucking later, the truck is full, the plane is empty, and an unfortunate man from TSA is peering inside the holding tanks with a flashlight in one hand and his tie held over his mouth in the other. After he pronounces the holding tank clean, one of the overall guys sticks a long metal pipe inside and starts moving it around. Everyone watching expects to hear the missing passenger cry out in pain, but the pipe just clangs back and forth against the sides with a dull, hollow sound.
All of the stranded travelers are then loaded into a large bus with a yellow roof. The PR woman, who received two aspirin and a bottle of Jack Daniels from one of the attendants, is saying something to the busload of passengers. When she finishes, there is another round of loud and angry grumbling, but then one of the SWAT guys with a big gun steps up into the front of the bus, and that pretty much ends the conversation.
The bus pulls away in a cloud of exhaust and drops the passengers in the back area of one of the terminals, where they spend the next seven hours answering questions about a man few of them even remember seeing on the flight. A particularly upset fellow—who by now has progressed from roaring drunk to just hungover—tells a harrowing tale about how he tried to save the plane by kicking down the lavatory door, but otherwise offers no useful information. Eventually, someone manages to make a phone call to the local news media, who show up in droves and demand to know why American citizens are being held against their will. Microphones are thrust at spokespeople, tearful children are filmed asking for their parents, and the whole thing dissolves into a large ball of chaos.
At this point, the agencies involved throw up their hands and let the passengers go. None of them are happy about the decision, but there really isn’t anything else to be done. The passengers are clean. The plane is clean. The law-enforcement folks have done everything but strip it down to the bolts and sell it off for scrap, and there is simply no Tak to be found. Somehow, a grown man has found a way to vanish from an international flight forty thousand feet over the Pacific Ocean.
The government agents eventually drive away to fill out paperwork and try and explain the mess to their bosses. The plane is rolled out of the hangar and cleaned by a janitorial crew that has no idea what all the excitement is about. Dusk turns to night turns to dawn, and at ten o’clock the next morning, a new and sunny group of passengers files onto the flight and begins cramming their absurdly sized belongings in the overhead bins—none of them suspecting that all the LAX madness they heard about on the news yesterday occurred on this very plane. The first-class passengers settle in with their orange juice and vodka; the rest of the plane flips through in-flight magazines and wonder what movies will be shown.
But just as the pilot is getting ready to retract the jetway, a terrible noise roars out from the back of the plane. There is a round of gasps and screams as the noise continues, then another round when a brilliant green flash bursts out from the cracks around the lavatory door. Before anyone has time to start panicking, a man with a silver briefcase suddenly comes crashing out of the bathroom. His shirt is torn across the front, and there are bright red scratches on his face and chest. One of his shoes is melted, filling the air with the scent of burning rubber and plastic. But most disturbingly, the man’s spiky black hair appears to be smoking.
The passengers stare at the man. The man stares back. Then he smiles. His smile gets wider and wider, almost contagiously so, before he finally raises his eyebrows and addresses the stunned travelers.
“Holy shit!” he says cheerfully. “I don’t believe that worked!”
Then, before anyone can respond, he forces open the rear door of the plane, leaps onto the runway tarmac, and goes running off into the sunshine of another beautiful Los Angeles morning.
The Beautiful Land © Alan Averill 2013