Generation Three, Chapter Thirteen
The moment the plane touched down in Caramel Canyon, I pulled out my phone to call Lochi. I knew he was still in the air, so there was no rush, but I'd been thinking about him for the last thirteen hours. I cradled the phone to my ear with a shoulder as I pulled my bag out of the overhead compartment. One of the flight attendants, who I recognized, gave me an annoyed look but I ignored her as I waited for Lochi's voice mail to pick up. Finally I heard his sweet voice offering a brief greeting before the beep. "Hey, it's me. We just landed and I couldn't sleep because I was thinking about you. Call me when you're home...."
I'd barely stepped through the doors before being rushed at by a blur of pale green and purple. "Oh my goodness, thank the berry you're back!" Aubrie exclaimed. As she grabbed my arm, the cell phone fell from my ear and landed face down on the floor. I didn't have to look to know it had cracked. Slightly embarrassed, Aubrie scooped it up and offered it to me. "I'll get you a new one but it's not important right now," she hissed, throwing the phone into her own bag after I didn't take it from her. "We've got a problem."
"I just got off a thirteen hour flight and I am still on vacation. Whatever it is, I'm sure you can handle it," I said, preparing to make a beeline for customs and get home.
Aubrie's nails dug into my arm as she dragged me away from the terminal – and away from the crowd of passengers deplaning. "We lost a plane," she whispered fervently.
"You lost a plane?" I said slowly, willing my brain to process the words fast. "What do you mean by lost exactly?"
Aubrie's eyes darted around the concourse anxiously. "We should go. Mr. Dingley is waiting. He sent me to get you as soon as you landed..."
Reluctantly, I allowed her to lead me through the airport and up to the conference room on the fourth floor. Crete Dingley had his back to us when we entered but a half dozen others turned toward us as the door swished open. One look at their faces told me that 'lost' was not defined as 'misplaced' today. Without a word, I handed my bag to Aubrie, "I should have another one coming through baggage." She practically fled the room, eager to be away from the SimAm corporate crowd.
"Ah, Ms. Dust," Dingley turned around. His face, at least, seemed calm in the face of potential disaster. "I trust you've been briefed on the situation?"
"Not exactly sir. Aubrie said something about a lost plane but nothing more," I said. At his look of displeasure, I quickly added, "we were in the middle of the concourse – surrounded by customers and passengers. I'm sure she didn't want to alarm anyone."
"Of course," he said smoothly. He motioned toward an empty seat and then nodded to his own assistant, a wiry young man who rarely spoke. The screens that lined the side wall lit up, three with people obviously conference calling in and two with what appeared to be radar and weather scans. "Eighty-three minutes ago, flight six twenty-seven was diverted due to a dense storm." Though his mouth continued to move, I heard only mumbles and felt a wave of nausea overpower me. I stumbled for the chair he'd pointed to and fell in it, trying to catch my breath. "We lost radio contact seventy-two minutes ago and she disappeared... Miss Dust are you alright?"
"Wh-what was the flight number?" He repeated himself, obviously annoyed. "Excuse me," I ran for the door, stumbling over a trash can along the way. I barely made it into the hall before I collapsed.
Most of the suits looked around at each other confused but two came out to help me to my feet, reassuring me that I was okay.
After several long, slow breaths, I fumbled my way toward the restroom where I proceeded to lose my lunch and the three bags of pretzels I'd eaten during the flight. I was gone long enough that Aubrie had returned from baggage claim and was sent to check on me. "Ms. Dust?" She rapped lightly on the stall door, and when I didn't respond she knocked again. "Are you alright?"
"No," I choked out, still hovering over the toilet in case anything else found its way up. "No, I'm very much not okay."
Aubrie shuffled her feet nervously for a few minutes before speaking, "well Mister Dingley would like you to come back to the conference room. I mean he pretty much demanded it."
I got to my feet slowly, testing my balance for a moment before unlatching the door. "Well, perhaps you should tell Mister Dingley that I quit," I said. Leaning over the sink, I felt my head swimming again. "I know someone on the flight," I whispered finally.
Aubrie sucked in a breath, "oh! Oh I'm sure they'll understand then! Was it one of the crew?"
"Is it," I corrected, not willing to accept her use of the past-tense already. "And no – I don't think I know any of the crew but I suppose it's possible... wait, do you have a roster of the flight?" She rummaged in her bag for her tablet and after a few taps, she held it out to me. I scrolled past the passengers until I came to the crew list. Although I vaguely recognized one of the flight attendant's names, I couldn't recall her face. None of the pilots sounded familiar. "He's a passenger," I said finally, handing the tablet back to her. "A very close.... friend."
Aubrie nodded somberly, "I'll let them know you'll need a few minutes."
I considered relaying my message of quitting but let it go, time was of the essence now and I didn't want to quit in the middle of a crisis. With Aubrie gone, I took a few minutes to splash water on my face and steel my nerves. When I turned toward the door, as ready as I'd ever be, I came face to face with Crete Dingley. "I'm sorry – Aubrie explained that you had a personal friend on board."
"Have," I corrected. He understood, giving me a slight nod.
"I'd understand if you did not feel able to do the press conference Ms. Dust," he said. "I need someone detached enough to answer the barrage of questions."
I closed my eyes tightly and imagined the onslaught of reporters that would be gathering soon. "I can handle it," I said finally. Though I didn't feel confident, he seemed to accept my response. "If we could resume the briefing – I'll need as much as we know."
"Of course," he said, motioning toward the bathroom door. The short walk back to the conference room required every ounce of willpower to keep moving forward. A couple steps behind me, Dingley matched my pace and seemed prepared to catch me should I fall down. After I was situated, with more than one pair of eyes on me, he resumed his place at the head of the table. "As I was saying, five minutes and thirty-nine seconds after altering their course, we lost radio contact with the cockpit. They disappeared from radar seven minutes later over the Bekmes Desert in Tuatara." Behind him, the screens adjusted to display the flight path, and disappearance, of Flight 627.
"Is it possible, they adjusted the flight path to evade some unknown weather – beyond the storm?" I asked.
"Possible? Yes," one of the suits behind her chimed in. "But they should have been picked back up on primary or secondary radar by now. The most likely scenario is an uncontrolled landing in the desert."
"Oh come on Bahia – let's call it what it is, they crashed!" This came from one of the females in the room.
"I'd prefer 'uncontrolled landing' when addressing the public," Dingley said, training his eyes on me. I made a mental note and nodded. "Bahia is right, most likely the flight went down in the desert. Unfortunately, there are brownout conditions which will hamper any attempt at search and rescue until the storm passes. I've scheduled a press conference to make the initial announcement from here. But then I'll need you on a plane for Italy Ms. Dust, that's where the plane was headed and there will be a lot of families and local reporters clamoring for news."
As soon as the meeting ended, I fished out my house keys and handed them Aubrie. "I need clothes – uniform, suits, etc. I don't know how much – just use your best judgment and get back here quickly. There's a suitcase and a garment bag in the front hall closet. Understood?" Aubrie nodded before speeding off. In my pocket, my cell phone trilled to life – Cobalt. "Hey."
"Where are you? Everyone on your flight has come and gone from baggage claim..." Cobalt asked, worry in his voice. He was here to pick me up as he'd retrieved my car from airport parking shortly after I'd landed in China weeks ago.
"There's something going on – I'm in the airport but I'm flying out again in about an hour. Meet me at main security," I said, snapping the phone off before he could ask any questions. "I'll be right back," I said, though no one was paying attention to me anymore.
As I approached security, I saw Cobalt waiting impatiently off to the side. One of the security guards was eying him warily. I pulled the chief aside and pointed out my brother. After a quick explanation, Cobalt was ushered through with only cursory wave of the wand. "Zuli, what's going on? Why are you flying out again?"
"There's a situation and I need to be the face of SimAm," I said. I pulled all the papers he'd sent me from my bag and handed them over to him. "They're all signed. I'll be back – well I don't know when but I can't imagine I'll be gone too long. Don't move ahead too quickly."
"Zuli, wait – you know we'd never leave before saying goodbye right? I mean you're not coming back to an empty house," Cobalt said, fiddling with the papers anxiously. "In fact – we don't have to sell the house. You could move back in after..."
I shook my head, "no, no it should be sold. It's way too big for me. I gotta go, give my love to Sapphy, Cham and Cer okay? And Lotus." I turned to leave, heading right back for the conference room, but stopped after a half dozen steps. Cobalt was still standing there, clutching the legal papers in confusion. "Hey!" I shouted, drawing his attention again. "I met someone pretty great."
Cobalt grinned and closed the gap between us. "The Italian from the phone?"
"Yeah, the Italian," I said, swiping through my phone pictures to show him a selfie of Lochi and I in front of the Great Wall. "I think... I don't know what I think but he's pretty great."
"Well, that's a ringing endorsement from you! You gonna see him again?" Cobalt asked.
"I... I don't know. He was on this flight..." I trailed off as the tears pooled in my eyes. "Hopefully," I whispered. "I have to go – there's a press conference and then I'll be heading out." I shifted the bag on my shoulder and heard the clink of Chambray and Cerulean’s souvenirs. "Oh, here – there are souvenirs for everyone," I said, passing the bag to him. I retrieved my wallet, passport and SimAm ID from the bag quickly and then wrapped my arms around his neck. "Love you brother."
The initial press conference consisted of a lot of "that's currently under investigation" and "we have no information at this time." Basically code for we don't know anything. This, as usual, prompted dozens of attempted follow up questions I couldn't answer.
For the record, "uncontrolled landing" isn't much better than "crashed". Reporters aren't stupid. At least not entirely.
By the time I arrived in Italy, I'd run through every conceivable emotion. Cobalt had all but blown my new phone up with messages in the interim. He wasn't angry, simply checking on me in typical brother fashion.
I was met at the gate by a short, pale, white haired woman who turned out to be the Italian counterpart to Crete Dingley. "Lazuli Dust? My name is Pampas Mallo," she said, extending her hand.
"Do we have any more information?" I asked, falling into step behind her as she navigated through her airport.
"Unfortunately, no," she said with a frown. "The sandstorm engulfing the region has not dissipated and has, in fact, gotten worse. It's entirely possibly that the wreckage will be completely obscured even when it does pass."
"Then we've received no other word from the crew," I said, staggering back a few steps. Ms. Mallo paused, with pursed lips, as I recovered myself and continued following her.
"No, of course not. You were briefed on the situation before coming weren't you?" she asked, irritation in her voice.
I stifled the urge to snap at her and nodded. "We had very little information at the time. It's a fourteen hour flight Ms. Mallo, a lot could have happened."
"We've contacted the emergency contacts and next of kin for the majority of the passengers and crew. They've begun to gather here," she said, pausing outside a pair of double doors. From the look of it, it appeared to lead to one of the first class lounges. "There are a few that we haven't been able to get in touch with," she said, handing me a tablet.
"My job is Media Relations – not Family Relations," I pointed out, backing away from the doors quickly. "And if there's no new information, I can't tell them anything they don't already know."
"I'm well aware of your job Ms. Dust," she said. "I'm also aware that you had a personal friend on board the flight. You are more suited to talk to them than anyone else I've got. There's a press conference in an hour. In the meantime..." she pointed toward the double doors and then turned to walk away.
I considered running after her, insisting on doing anything but what she wanted, but ultimately pushed open the double doors. They rushed toward me the moment I entered, shouting questions and demanding answers. When they realized I knew nothing and was, in fact, one of them, they quietly returned to their seats and huddled in small groups. I scanned the room, looking for anyone who might belong to Lochi. I settled into a corner, distanced from the others, and pulled up the roster on the tablet. Beside each name was a list of the family contacted or attempted and a brief biography of the passenger. When I got to Lochi's name – there was nothing beside it.
I skimmed through the rest of the contents of the tablet – more maps of the area, the storms in question and a data from the weather center – while waiting for the press conference. With fifteen minutes to go, I stood up and began pacing the room – I realized I didn't even know where this press conference was and I'm sure I looked like hell after a fourteen hour flight. "Excuse me," a small voice said, drawing my gaze. A child, probably no more than eight, was curled against his mother. "Is that you?" he asked, raising a hand to point toward a row of framed magazine covers by the bar. There were the covers from the company magazine, sent out to club members and share holders every quarter. And on the most recent cover was my face – the face of SimAm.
"Yes," I said softly, kneeling beside him. "Yes it is. Is there anything I can get for you?" I asked, glancing toward his mother as well. "I don't know anything different than you do," I said quickly, before she could get too hopeful. Ms. Mallo appeared at the doors and beckoned me over, "not yet anyway," I said quickly, before getting to my feet.
"Are you ready?" she asked, fussing with her hair as we walked. Unlike Crete Dingley, who delegated all press time to me and a small team, I suspected Pampas Mallo was eager to get in front of the camera and put on a show.
I stopped and shook my head, "no, no I'm not. I can't..."
"You have to, you're who they find reassuring – for reasons I can't understand," she muttered.
"I don't have anything new to tell them though!" I exclaimed.
"You tell them we have people on the ground in Tuatara waiting for the storm to clear. You tell them we will find out what happened to Flight 627 and that we ask for their prayers in the mean time. You tell them we're doing everything we can Ms. Dust," she said before grabbing my arm and dragging me the rest of the way.
As I was pushed toward the podium, in front of a crowd of international reporters, the familiar click click click of cameras echoed around the room. Lights flashed, blinding me and everyone started to shout at once.
There was a prepared statement sitting on the podium but the flood of questions, and languages, made it impossible to read out loud. In a brief lull, I raised my hands to silence them. "The fact is, we know nothing more than the last press conference. Ho, ho! The conditions within the Bekmes Desert make it impossibly to send out a Search and Rescue team at this point. But they are waiting and they will be deployed as soon as possible. What we do know is this, Flight 627 took off with ninety-two passengers and six crew members. Each of those people has a family or friends – they have loved ones waiting for news. Those people are here in the building or on their own flights to get here – they need your thoughts and prayers. So while I have no answers to give you, I do have a request. Please keep our loved ones in your prayers tonight. Thank you."
As I stepped away from the podium, I handed the unread statement over to Ms. Mallo. "I quit. I was wrong – I can't do this and be one of them."