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Somewhere, almost thirty thousand feet above the many forests of the South American country of Brazil, a plane cruises casually towards its predetermined destination. Only this airplane is not expected at an airport, no company name adorns the plane’s side. There is no in-flight movie, no pre-packaged peanuts, no hot towels or pillows. It is two o’clock in the morning, Eastern Time, and the cabin is eerily quiet. Every vanity light off, all tray-tables in the upright and locked position.
If one were to open the small door at the front of the cabin to the cockpit, one would be assured to see the half-circle of a head with a pilot cap resting on it peaking over the seat, albeit at a jaunty angle. No one does, however. The dark figures slumped over in their seats would have no reason to doubt anything about the competence of their pilot. They have no reason to glance toward the back of the cabin, to notice the absence of parachutes, the absence of emergency exits. It is as mundane, as inconspicuous as a plane could hope to be. For a day, the occupants of the 747 could imagine they were upon a military stealth bomber, if they wanted to break the monotony. They won’t. They have no reason to imagine anything at the moment. The monotony will not last forever anyway. Within minutes, a bomb detonates under the third engine. None of the passengers are roused from their slumber. They remain as they were, unresponsive. The figure on which the pilot’s cap rests can only stare at the many instruments, all of them screaming out for help, indicating fuel leaks, a nosedive, depressurization.
Suddenly the auto-pilot indicator light blinks on. Slowly but surely the many flashing lights extinguish, leaving the cockpit in the darkness it had been in previously. The nosedive becomes a controlled descent. Every occupant of the cabin sits, frozen in their seats, oxygen masks hanging in front of them, unused.
The plane finishes its descent, cutting a crooked line through the large canopy of trees. It slides to a stop in a large clearing. The plane is surely lost, crashed in the middle of nowhere. But somehow, miraculously, a full salvage crew is already on the scene. The boarding ladder descends. A team of men clad in jumpsuits enter the plane, purposefully. They remove the dummies from the cabin. They remove the dummies from the cockpit. The black box is removed and placed in a matte black suitcase before being whisked away. Other workers begin strapping the wreckage to several flatbed trucks emerging from the forest, a trail of felled trees and snapped branches in their wake. The flatbeds cart the wreckage back into the forest, disappearing into the tree-line. Eventually, the forest is quiet once again. The roar of the flatbeds now miles away, the loud shouts of the workers are now only heard in the local bars, miles from the crash.
Two men remain on the site. They are wearing suits and ties, hardhats upon their heads and clipboards in their hands. One stands surveying the clearing. With a look of sheer disappointment on his face, he begins to slowly scribble on his clipboard: Explosive device was set on the third engine from the left-- two dummies were not found/recovered on scene-- emergency autopilot still functional-- autopilot still recovers in situations of pilot apathy, introduction of explosives, as well as the previously tested EMP pulses…
The other man stands a few feet away. He stares at his shoes. His boredom is palpable, and his partner finally turns to address him, “What’s your problem?”
“Doesn’t look like nothing. Get on task. We have important work to do here.”
“Of course,” the bored worker said. The bite of sarcasm was clear. The superior turned to his aide with a look that could shatter glass and barked,
“I want to get my work done, not get an ethics lesson. I won’t tolerate a subordinate telling me what to do, or think.” The two men stare at each other briefly, intensely, and immediately turn away. Professionalism returns, it is time to work again.
“We need to get these samples back to the States; there are tests to be run.”
The two drove out of the forest, their jeep struggling to keep its footing on ground that has never known the weight of wheels in a forest that has never known the sound of a car’s engine. It would be another hour until they even reached a road, another hour after that until they would reach the airport. They sat in silence. Both knew that that was how it would remain until they were both home. The boss, sitting in the passenger seat, briefly envied his aide. The aide had the comfort of the simple act of driving to help keep his silence; the boss would have to use his willpower alone.
When their plane had finally landed, the first thing either of them saw was the plane that had carried the wreckage from the test back to the United States. It should have been offloaded by now, something was wrong. Reaching into his briefcase for a pair of binoculars the man saw a flurry of activity coming from the plane. That was expected. What he also saw, however, disturbed him. Jump-suit clad workers pinned up against black sedans in handcuffs. Men in jackets emblazoned with the letters ATF, tearing up the plane, scribbling notes on clipboards.
He turned to his aide; the time for silence was over,
“Stay in the jeep, do not even look towards the plane. Wipe down the jeep, and wait for my call, I have to get something,” he spoke out of the corner of his mouth. There was no response. His aide was nowhere to be found. Looking once more through the binoculars, he saw his aide, walking briskly towards the seized plane. Blissfully ignorant of the countless arrests occurring at the scene, he was ready to redeem himself to his employer. After all, the plane was supposed to be offloaded by now, someone had messed up, and that someone would have to be fired. The boss saw through the binoculars as the inevitable tragedy unfolded. His aide, walking up to the plane, arms outstretched, calling out for the supervisor, where was the supervisor? He watched as an ATF agent restrained him, amidst his fervent protest.
It was a shame really. He was so close. He would have to start over, find a new safe haven. He wasn’t welcome in the States anymore… that much was just made very clear. But he would find somewhere else to stay, and he would succeed. He would beat that auto-pilot someday, somehow.
The ATF had finished carting off the suspects, and was almost done with the plane. They had also seized a black jeep, loaded in the back of a plane arriving from the same small airport in Brazil. It would still have to go through forensics, but the agents knew it would come up clean. It’s happened before. The U.K. two years ago, Canada last year. Three identical black jeeps with tinted windows, three identical wrecked planes found smuggled into International airports. Black boxes, always missing. Scores of workers in jump-suits, who never spoke a word after their arrest. Visible attempts to remove the emergency auto-pilot. At least those were always intact. If anyone managed to crack the auto-pilot, bad things would happen.
A small single engine Cessna takes off from the airport and cruises casually toward its predetermined destination. No company name adorns the plane’s side. There is no in-flight movie, no pre-packaged peanuts, no hot towels or pillows. A single man sits in the cockpit. He wears a suit and tie. He carries no identification, no bags, just a small, matte black suitcase. He will be flying for several more hours. A small airport in Russia is expecting his small plane, along with a new crew and a new beginning, another chance to succeed, waits for him there.