We were 700 miles over the ocean when the first bomber stood up. He wasn't hysterical. There was no "Allahu Akbar," no shouting, just an aura of extreme competence as he held up the device he'd assembled. I stayed in my seat as I'd been trained to do. I could see the news hitting the faces of the other passengers in different ways. Some crumpled in panic, some fixed into expressions of disbelief and numb calculation as though confronted with a particularly difficult math problem. I shifted my weight to the balls of my feet.
And just like that, he wasn't there. He jerked spasmodically then came apart mid-sentence. I saw a blur of movement and several arcs of blood and then he was in pieces in the aisle—his head and right arm no longer attached to his body. A series of gasps rippled through the cabin and one or two stifled screams.
No one could figure it out. The bomb hadn't detonated, but somehow the bomber had exploded. Some of the passengers began crying while others laughed nervously. They were alive.
Suddenly emboldened, they rushed what was left of the bomber. They argued about what had just happened, trying to ingratiate themselves into the narrative. Then an undercover air marshal materialised, holding his badge up like an amulet against evil, and shouted for calm.
Evan, the man next to me, smiled crookedly and refastened his seatbelt.
Hours before, the evening had started promisingly. First, the unexpected upgrade from business to first. Then through security in no time at all. No searches, no pat-downs. I must've looked like any other businesswoman at the end of a long trip. We even boarded on time.
As I sipped complimentary orange juice, the seat beside me remained empty. This was good because I had work to do and I couldn't afford the distraction. Then at the last possible second a group of very tall, very pale men and one woman boarded the plane.
There were six or seven of them and they looked like an athletic team from some obscure eastern European country. They walked with an easy grace and were exceptionally polite. One of them sat down next to me. He seemed apologetic for taking the seat. He said his name was Evan. He looked like a movie star, but one in black and white.
As we took off, he asked if I was travelling for business or pleasure. Strictly business, I said, hoping to put him off. But he was persistent. He asked me about my family. He asked what I wanted to do with my life. I lied about everything, but he didn't seem to care. He listened patiently, excusing himself periodically once the plane levelled off. Each time he returned he would bring me water or something from the galley. He flirted so shamelessly I almost forgot about the work I had to finish.
Then the incident with the bomber happened and the pilot decided to turn the plane around. That's when it got really weird.
Evan said to remain calm. He said it wasn't supposed to happen like this. He said I would see very little, but to perhaps put-on some noise-cancelling headphones, for there would be screaming—lots of screaming. Evan said that his kind had been making journeys like this for many years. First on ships and, more recently, on airplanes. The tone of his voice was reassuring if not his actual words.
After that, things happened more quickly than the eye could follow. The TSA undercover went first—the female straddling him tenderly before tearing his throat out. Then the pilots were ripped from the cockpit. We heard some of it over the PA. They seemed to be everywhere at once, visible in flashes, then gone. One of the male flight attendants seemed to be helping them; unlocking doors, pointing out pockets of resistance. The cabin lights flickered and went off. Passengers held up seat cushions for protection but the effect was laughable.
My pulse was racing. Evan looked at me like he could hear it. His face was a mask of sympathy. He said not to be afraid and I said that I wasn't.
There were rules. It had to be a night flight. It had to cross an ocean. It had to be in winter and of sufficiently northerly latitude to keep the plane in darkness for several hours. Bad weather was preferable. There could be no evidence. He named some famous plane crashes he'd been in.
He said he didn't want me to think of him as a monster.
There weren't many of them left. The books and movies exaggerated greatly. Many of them were even written by people of his kind, to spread a kind of romantic disinformation and dilute the horror of what they did. Things like slaughtering planeloads of people in cold blood. I nodded empathetically. While he told me this I could hear the screaming starting from the back of the plane. He put a cool but reassuring hand on my knee. Then he disappeared again.
Each time he returned to his seat he looked a little younger. His skin was subtly tauter and his cheeks more rosy. Evan's blue shirt was now stained purple with blood, a clean triangular V shape where the suit jacket had failed to cover the fabric.
His accent had many different inflections and odd turns of phrase. He spoke like he hadn't talked to anyone in a long time. He seemed lonely. Whatever was going on in the rest of the plane seemed less important than our conversation. He seemed to want to unburden himself.
He explained that his kind had a different relationship with time than we had. His people moved through a slow-motion world where every drop of falling rain could be seen and appreciated. It was a world of unspeakable beauty and grace. They aged, but at a much slower rate. The blood he said, gave them dominion over time. They could stroll across a busy freeway without any effort or danger. To the human eye, they would appear as little more than a blur. The only real threats to his kind were sunlight and fire. When it came time for the plane to crash, they would step through the slowly twisting debris and slip into the ocean depths. There they would wait for their rendezvous, safe from the sun, safe from fire.
I closed my eyes and marvelled at the seemingly coincidental chain of events that had brought me to this place. All of the weeks of questioning simply evaporated. A strange calmness descended on me.
I knew now that God had a plan for me. That this—and not the other—was what I had trained for. The plane shook violently. They were dumping fuel and one by one the engines were flaming out.
I asked if I could use the toilet. Evan smiled at me like I was six years old. Just keep your eyes down he said protectively. But the blood was unavoidable. There were body parts everywhere. The grey-white plastic of the cabin was smeared with matter. I passed the flight attendant. He sat alone amid the splatter, staring ahead catatonically. Whatever he'd been promised hadn't included this. He opened another mini bottle of whiskey and poured the contents down his throat.
I seemed to be under Evan's protection. The others let me pass unimpeded. There were only a handful of passengers left alive and they had made a desperate stand in the galley. They screamed at me to help them but there was nothing I could do. One by one they were ripped away.
As I picked my way down the aisle I realised something else. Evan trusted me. My cover was too good even for his heightened senses. He hadn't questioned my handbag or laptop case. Maybe he saw something kindred in us.
But something must have struck him as wrong. No sooner than I'd locked the bathroom door than he was outside. Are you okay in there? His voice was all concern. Something occurred to me, he said. What's that? I said. There are many, many kinds of monster in this world. This is true, I said. Then he laughed in such a way that it took the oxygen from my lungs.
The screams outside had died down only to be replaced by arguing. The language was unfamiliar but it was spoken so quickly that it could only be them. I thought I could detect Evan's voice but the bickering soon grew as fast and metallic as the feed from a modem.
I could hear them scrabbling at the door of the toilet, trying to find purchase somewhere on the slick plastic. I tried to keep my hands steady as I worked but between the plane's careening descent and the flurry of activity outside, I had to start over many times.
I could hear the flight attendant outside. He told them there was a quick release mechanism to disable the lock. They started snarling for my blood. Evan quieted them down. He asked me if I wanted eternal life and I smiled and said that I did. I remembered what the old Imam had told me.
When they finally pried the door open, I was ready. I was as calm as I'd been trained to be. I didn't scream "Allahu Akbar" or do anything hysterical. I just pressed the button and became fire.