He had been flying airplanes for years. He started in the Air Force, flying the F-16. When his eyesight got too shitty with old age, he shifted to a classroom job but couldn’t stand the monotony. So he signed up for civilian work. He’d been piloting 747’s for United for 7 years. And in his entire career, had never witnessed anything as indescribably vile as what sat before him on tonight’s flight.
“What the fuck is this?” Riley asked, spearing at the bland, blackish meat substance on his plastic tray. “I know airline food has gone from worst to shit, but seriously?”
His co-pilot chuckled, his young, unlined face cracking with mirth. The fading sun in the distance reflected from his aviator shades as he leaned forward to adjust one of the hundreds of dials and levers on the control panel. He leaned back, turning toward Riley, who sat staring desultorily at his food.
“You know most of this food is based on a bet, right? I had this buddy in Omaha, worked for one of the food vendors that supplies most of the airlines. Said that they order Grade E beef, the old chickens from the farms that can’t produce eggs anymore, and use powdered milk and eggs for the recipes. Said these companies net like 70% on their sales.” He laughed once, turning back to the large panoramic cockpit windows and silencing a flashing light with a twist of the wrist.
“And the funniest thing is that the passengers are fricking thrilled when there’s a crappy meal on the flight, ‘cause we never feed anyone anymore. So everyone wins.”
Riley pushed some soggy peas to the side of his tray and threw in the towel. Or the fork, in this instance.
“Not everyone,” he said, ignoring his growling stomach. He turned his attention to his coffee, ignoring the bottle of water resting on the tray next to it. His wife got on him about not drinking enough water, but too much water made him have to pee, and it was too damned uncomfortable to piss in these cramped airplane bathrooms. His 6 foot 6 inch frame didn’t easily fit into the broom closets they made on these crates. Besides, coffee had water in it.
Trevor glanced back one more time.
“You know your old lady wants you pissing more. I could sell this information to her for a handy price,” he teased gently, taking a deep swig from his own bottle.
“You go right ahead. You know how much she hates you. Give it a shot. I’d like to see how far she can lodge her foot up your ass before you say word one.”
Trevor grunted once, shrugging unconcerned.
“She’s just pissed ‘cause of that one time.”
“You got drunk and screwed her sister at our anniversary party. In our kitchen,” Riley said, smiling despite himself at the memory of his wife’s shrieks. They had almost replaced the granite counter tops, but damn, it was funny.
“What can I say. I was caught up in the moment.”
Riley shook his head in mock resignation and grabbed his water bottle, conceding the point. At least in his head. As he brought the bottle to his lips, the door buzzer sounded, indicating someone looking to enter the cockpit. He checked the internal camera and recognized Terry, the chief purser, carrying more coffee. He smiled, putting the water down and standing up, hunching as he moved back toward the reinforced cockpit door.
Ever since 9-11, the cockpit doors on all major airliners had been refitted and reinforced, making it mandatory that the flight crews seal themselves in except for food and beverage deliveries by authorized personnel. Riley didn’t mind too much; if it kept him safe, and his ship from getting jacked, he was all about it.
Terry smiled as he opened the door. “Thought you might want some more wake juice before we landed,” she said, nodding to Trevor as she handed Riley a cup with cream and sugar. He couldn’t drink the stuff black.
Trevor waved over his shoulder as he answered the radio into his headset.
“Roger BWI, this is UA 789 heavy, requesting clarification. Coming to two zero four at twenty thousand feet and holding. Clarify previous, over.”
Riley got curious and thanked Terry, closing the door and locking it as he returned to his seat. He grabbed his headset and jammed it on his head, turning the volume up on the console.
“…say again, heavy traffic and ground concerns, over. Can’t fit you in for at least an hour, UA 789. We’ve got some problems down here that don’t seem to be going away, over.” The flight controller sounded a little testy, but they usually did. He supposed keeping thousands of planes in the air at the same time, every day, got old after a while.
“Roger that BWI, but we’ve got fuel concerns, over. We hit a severe head wind en route and are down to just south of thirty thousand liters. We will be bingo on the gas in 30 minutes. Confirm copy, over.” All traces of Trevor’s previous flippancy were gone, erased by a hard-nosed former Navy aviator who knew his job. He glanced over at Riley, saying nothing. They both knew the score. They were on the last leg of a flight out of Mexico City, non-stop into Baltimore Washington International. They weren’t going to wait an hour. One way or another, the plane was going to be on the ground in thirty minutes.
“Copy, UA 789 heavy. BWI out.”
Riley keyed in, unable to believe that BWI’s flight control just told them that they could run out of gas with 346 passengers on board, en route to DC.
“BWI, this is Captain Keyes, please confirm previous. Acknowledge that UA 789 heavy has insufficient fuel for suggested course. Request priority on runway 15R at previously scheduled arrival time, over.”
“God damn it, UA 789, you don’t seem to understand. I got no time to argue. There is … hey, shut the damn door before one of those things gets in here!”
He had clearly switched his conversation to someone in the room with him.
Back to them, he said shortly, “Fly as long as you can, 789. BWI over and out.”
Riley pressed the mic again, repeating a call for an answer. “What the hell is going on down there, BWI?” Nothing.
Riley looked at Trevor, waiting for a response. Nothing but dead air. Riley switched to an alternate frequency and tried again. Nothing.
“You hear any other traffic from other airplanes when you were on before?” Riley asked his copilot, checking the fuel reserves and making quick mental calculations. “You call DCA or IAD yet?” he asked, referring to Washington National and Dulles, the two other metro DC airports in the vicinity.
“No, didn’t try the other locations, but did hear a Continental 757 talking to BWI. Same concerns, same response. I’ll try to raise them.” He altered the dial setting and keyed his mic.
“I’m going to talk to Terry, let her know what’s going on.” He rose and reached the door. He turned back briefly. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this, Trevor.” His friend looked up.
“Yeah, boss. I heard that.” He started speaking into his mic as he turned the plane slightly to make the course correction advised by BWI. For now they’d have to stay on course, seeing as they didn’t have any other options.
He jerked the door open and walked out, seeing Terry emerge from the stairwell to the lower deck as he turned around. The first class passengers looked up, some of them smiling. Nearly half of the cabin appeared to be sleeping, heads down on their chests and breathing slowly, empty food trays ignored for the moment.
“Captain, I was just coming to see you,” said Terry breathlessly, looking around at the passengers warily. “Can I speak with you in the galley?” He nodded and they walked back to the galley past the tight spiral staircase to the Business and Economy Cabins downstairs. She drew the curtain and looked at him nervously, her blue eyes worried in her lightly lined face.
Terry had been a flight attendant for nearly 30 years, and had seen it all. Unruly passengers, bomb scares, fights. You name it, she had been there. And now she looked truly worried. Riley didn’t like that.
“Some people downstairs are getting sick, Captain. Fast. Right after the last food and beverage service, people started to complain about cramps and nausea and fever. I figured it was just a little airsickness from the turbulence over the Gulf, but it’s affecting almost half of the cabin. Some people are passing out down there.” Her voice was a touch frantic.
Riley looked up and past her, out the small round window into the late afternoon clouds streaming past. Most likely food poisoning, he thought. They hit some really rough air about three hundred miles South of Pensacola, which accounted for their rapid fuel consumption and their current predicament, but that can’t cause symptoms like those.
“Did you ask about any doctors?”
“Yes, but all I got was a podiatrist and two nurses. They’ve got no clue and people are starting to get real scared.”
“All right, try to make them comfortable. Leave them where they are. Once we have a better idea of how many people have whatever it is, we can think about moving them together, just in case it’s contagious. For now, we have bigger problems, believe it or not.” He told her about BWI’s holding instructions, and their fuel shortage. Her eyes widened once, briefly, and then it was all business.
“How about DCA or IAD,” she asked. “Or other planes? They must know more about what’s going on. Maybe they’re rerouting to other airports?”
He nodded, impressed again with how well she knew her job.
“I’ve got Trevor on that now. Stay near your station downstairs, I’ll call down when we know something. Let me know if anything progresses on our sick people. I don’t want to make it worse by moving them, but let’s keep an eye on the symptoms.”
She nodded and drew the curtain back quickly, stepping into the aisle and almost knocking a small Asian man down in the process. He stumbled backward, catching himself on the back of a seat and looking up.
“I believe I’m sick,” he started, and then fell to his knees as if his legs had just disintegrated. He collapsed onto his hands and retched onto the worn gray carpet. His body convulsed quickly, his back arched painfully. His head whipped back and forth several times in rapid succession, forcing vomit onto the floor in a wide arc around his position. A child sitting near shrieked and jumped into her seat, pulling her feet up quickly. From further up in the cabin, a woman’s voice said softly “Jesus Christ, that’s nasty.”
He stopped vomiting and stayed silent, immobile, his head motionless, seemingly staring at the pool of sputum beneath him. One long tendril of mucus led from his mouth to the floor, vibrating softly with each slow breath.
Terry moved forward slowly, her eyes wide. The other passengers recoiled, never expecting to see such a spectacle in First Class.
“Sir, are you …” she stopped as he raised his head. His skin had a pallid, gray cast to it. His eyes were slightly bloodshot. Riley stepped forward instinctively, feeling fearful of this man, but not knowing why. The man spoke, his voice hoarse.
“I … think I feel better. I’m … sorry, Captain.” His words were slurred, his speech halted, erratic. But he levered himself up, ignoring the puddle of effluent as he turned around and clumsily flopped into his seat. He fitted his seatbelt slowly around his waist, hands collapsing at his sides with the effort. Everyone else watched, mesmerized. Terry turned to Riley, her eyes asking the simple question “Will this be everyone in a few minutes?”
Riley put his hand on her shoulder briefly, and stepped gingerly over the puddle towards the cockpit. She disappeared down the ladder, as someone raised their voice from the bottom of the stairs. He buzzed the door, and Trevor unlocked it from inside, staying seated as Riley entered.
“Sitrep?” Riley asked, his military training emerging as he buckled in to his seat and positioned his microphone in front of his face.
“DCA and IAD are both negative on alternate sites; DCA has planes backed up on the tarmac, while IAD has some sort of fire in the terminal. Continental 389 reports no radio com from BWI. We’re up here with at least fifteen other planes, all bingo fuel.” His voice was clear, but somehow weak. Riley smelled it then, the rancid odor of vomit.
“You okay, Trevor?” he asked, looking over at the wastebasket next to his copilot. It was half full.
“Good to go,” he said, staring forward. “Had some air sickness a minute ago, but it passed.” He burped then, swallowing as he did to suppress the impulse. “I think I’ll hit the head for a sec. You good here?”
“Yeah, I’m good. While you’re back there, check in with Terry downstairs. Half the plane has some sort of food poisoning, and it’s starting to look pretty messy.” He downplayed the illness, recognizing that if it was serious, Trevor was in the same boat as the rest of the ill passengers.
“Roger that,” he said as he slipped through the armored door into the First Class cabin. Riley could hear raised voices as the door shut again. He quickly keyed the lock, sealing himself in.
In his ear, radio chatter had intensified. A Delta flight from Atlanta was circling the city at ten thousand feet, and having an animated conversation with Andrews Air Force base about no-fly areas. A commuter jet from Buffalo was diverting to Salisbury, in Maryland, despite warnings from a news chopper out of Baltimore that Salisbury was a no go due to low visibility from a forest fire. As he made new mental computations about their dwindling fuel, he heard a new player, this one an A-380, the newest Airbus model capable of hauling nearly 600 passengers.
“BWI, this is Emirates 465 heavy, please respond. I repeat, this is Emirates 465, and we are declaring an emergency. We can no longer hold in instructed pattern, and need to descend. Please respond.” The accent was European, French perhaps. And it was very, very worried.
“Emirates 465, this is Andrews Air Force base. You are approaching secure air space. Please divert to heading two three zero, over. Repeat instructions for copy, over.” The controller’s voice was firm, unyielding, and deadly serious.
“Andrews, this is Emirates 465 heavy. We are declaring an emergency and need to descend. We are on reserves and have 546 passengers on board. We have no choice, read?” The pilot had no options. He was descending toward DCA, his circle of BWI taking him on a track parallel to the Potomac, approaching the city from the South.
“Emirates 465, this is Andrews. You will divert now, copy? Your failure to comply will result in extreme measures. Confirm copy.”
Silence. No response. Riley turned his headset up, listening.
“Emirates 465, this is Andrews. Look out your port window, Captain. You need to divert now. Copy?”
No response. Riley knew the drill. There was an F-15 flying next to the massive airliner now, at this moment getting cleared hot.
“Jesus Christ Andrews, we’re in trouble here! You don’t understand! We have two engines off, and we’re practically gliding! We cannot divert, copy? I repeat, we must descend. Please con-….”
The radio hissed suddenly, static reigning. On the same channel, a startled exclamation from another pilot, his voice loud and stunned. “Christ! An F-15 just toasted the Emirates flight into the Potomac!”
Riley checked the radar, realizing that it was now one blip short. Radio chatter exploded, pilots requesting status from ground control, each other, and the military. No one responded with answers. Just more questions.
The cabin phone chimed, and he pounced on it, eager for a status update from Terry.
“Captain, there is some shit going down down here!” It wasn’t Terry. It wasn’t even a crew member. In the background, people were screaming. He heard shrieks of terror, and shouts of anger. He even heard what he thought was a low, trailing moan. They couldn’t possibly know about the fuel shortage or the circling. He hadn’t announced anything.
“Who is this?” he asked.
“Where is the chief purser? Put my crew on the phone now!”
The voice on the other end shouted, almost manic, “Man, there ain’t no one left from the crew. You gotta land! Like now, man!”
“Son, I don’t know what you’re talking ab…”
“These things are fucking biting people, man. This is some fucked up shit! I never…ah, get the fuck away from me you …” The voice got distant quickly as the phone was dropped; in the background, he heard a scuffle, then more shouts and screams. Fewer now.
He checked the fuel reserves and slammed his fingers against the keys that triggered the autopilot mechanism. Reaching under the seat, Riley did something he hoped never to have to do. He grabbed the handgun strapped underneath his seat, and unlatched the cockpit door.
Pressing his eye against the viewfinder in the door, his hand on the latch and his other hand clutching the 9 mm pistol, he couldn’t believe what he saw. Sleeping passengers. A semblance of normalcy. It was distinctly at odds with what he had heard.
He slowly opened the door, locking it carefully behind him with one eye on the cabin. The asian man from before was gone, footprints through the vomit ending in the back row of the upper cabin.
An elderly man in a Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts sat closest to the flight deck, head lolling to the side. A slight trickle of drool gathered in the corner of his mouth as he breathed in slowly. His hand dangled limply over the arm rest.
He moved forward slowly, noticing for the first time that the cabin was only half full. There should have been twice as many people in First Class. He looked down at the floor between the seats, seeing the spilled food and overturned trays.
Shit, he thought. There were more people here. They must have gone downstairs.
His head jerked up suddenly, ears picking up more than the drone of the engines and the sounds from below. Chaos reigned in the floor below; he could hear the scuffling and the yells. They filtered up through the spiral staircase like songs on the wind. But closer still, he sensed movement.
Stepping forward, he crouched closer to the floor, marking the footprints that led through the vomit to the last row. They stopped suddenly before the stairway. A foot protruded ever so slightly from the space between the seats. It moved abruptly, jerking and twitching.
His grip on the pistol tightened, thumb flicking the safety off slowly and deliberately.
From below, a bellowing scream of anguish, torn off at the throat. Then silence.
Footsteps thumped heavily against the bottom steps but another scream ended the escape attempt. He knew now that people were dying, and they were dying painfully.
He slowly circled around the far side of the next to last row, training the pistol toward the floor boards. He wasn’t at all prepared for what he saw.
The asian man who had so violently wretched in the cabin before was crouched on the floor. A young man clad in a tee shirt and bermuda shorts sat strapped in to his seat, glassy eyes staring straight ahead. A grimace of pain shot through his lifeless face.
From the waist up, he was unmarred. His shirt, untouched by blood or signs of distress, still happily read “My Wiener is Big in Japan.” A picture of a small dachshund was emblazoned proudly on the front.
From the waist down, he had been devoured. His leg muscles had been torn from the bone, hanging down from the calves and ankles to touch the blood-soaked blue carpet. His shoes, once stylish white and black athletic shoes, were dyed a gruesome crimson, speckled with darker spots of other detritus.
The asian man didn’t flinch when Riley rounded the corner. He was intent on his meal. Hand darted from the legs to the mouth so quickly that Riley wasn’t entirely sure what was happening at first. But the working of the jaws and the mindless groans of satisfaction quickly set in.
He threw up in his mouth. Quickly, quietly, but out of necessity. Gritting his teeth through the bile, he swallowed, raising his pistol and grimacing as he did so. The asian man looked up suddenly, turning his head quickly and animal-like as if he detected a sound or a smell. His dead, white eyes locked on Riley’s. His hand fell to the floor, leaving a fist of meat on the carpet as he prepared to lever himself up. Riley’s finger tightened on the trigger, aiming for the body. He knew that if the bullet went wide, the cabin could decompress suddenly and rip the plane apart.
Behind him, sudden sounds of thrashing and a low, guttural growl tore his eyes to the side for a mere second. Before he could track the origin of the sound, he was pushed backward against the back of a seat. The gun discharged loudly, and a burst of wet matter sprayed against the beige cabin walls.
The asian man, covered in blood and vomit and with a new hole in his upper thigh, was pressing himself against Riley, head darting forward, teeth gnashing in frustration. He kicked out, pressing his foot against the man’s thigh and pulling his gun hand down from where it was locked against the man’s chest. Giving him just enough room to press the muzzle against his chest, he fired again. A smoking hole appeared in the man’s suit lapel, but he pressed on, unfazed.
Riley cursed, pushing the man back with his free hand, and bringing the gun around to club him with the barrel of the pistol. The small man fell to the floor, head partially caved on one side. One eye was closed, partially destroyed by the impact of the steel pistol. One eye was still open, and it watched as Riley quickly kneeled on its chest, inserted the pistol in the mouth, and quickly squeezed the trigger–all in one fluid motion.
The creature’s head exploded against the floor, Riley’s bet that the bullet wouldn’t travel through two floors to the outer fuselage having paid off. He pushed himself quickly up, and turned to a nightmare. Between himself and the cabin, undulating arms reached for the aisle. The passengers who had been sleeping before were now awake. They stretched out for him from their seats.
He stepped back, prepared to shoot. But then his eye caught the blinking light over the nearest seat. He almost laughed. Thank God for the Fasten Seat Belt light, he thought.
Each of the passengers was strapped to their seat, and apparently none of them retained the knowledge required to undue the fastener. He stepped through the arms carefully, grateful for the wide aisles in First Class.
A hand from the third row locked briefly on his belt as he stumbled away from the back of the cabin. He brought the gun down hard on the wrist, hearing a crack as the hand loosened briefly. He sprinted the last few rows, turning around briefly before he inserted the key into the door to the cockpit.
His former passengers were all taken ill. Their eyes, glassy and white, rimmed with red. Their limbs seemed stiff, their motions jerky and uncoordinated. Mouths moved almost in unison as they stared at him, sensing that he was not one of them. Sensing that he was something to be desired.
Shuddering, he quickly turned the key. Behind him, the sounds of many feet on the stairway to the First Class cabin. Not wanting to wait and see who appeared, he slammed the door behind him and threw the security bar across as quickly as he could.
Almost immediately, the cabin door shook suddenly against its housing, as if a body had thrown itself against the door. He looked in the camera. Trevor was pinned against the door, two passengers pressing him against the bulkhead by the arms, heads bent low. His voice came through the thick door; Riley raised his hand to come to his aid.
“Don’t open the … ahhh, God Damn… don’t open the door …” his voice trailed into a scream. A loud, pained, high-pitched scream. Riley checked the monitor again. The passengers were bent over his copilot’s body. Blood stained his white uniform, covering him and his assailants alike. He backed into his chair again, ringing the main cabin on the phone.
He tried again.
It rang, and rang, and rang.
No one picked up.
The fuel alarm trilled.
He silenced it with a flick of his finger.
The cabin door shook again.
The plastic and metal suddenly felt woefully insufficient as a barrier.
From outside, the sounds of people moving; of hands sliding against the door. Then another crash against the door. And another. And another.
He checked the monitor again. The screen was full of passengers, all covered in various fluids. Vomit, blood, and other matter littered the cabin walls. He rang the main cabin once more. Nothing.
He made his decision. His mind flashed to his wife, and his two sons. Their pictures were in his wallet, but his hands had other things to do. He turned the plane hard to port, towards the city.
“Andrews, this is UA 789 heavy, declaring an emergency. Request clearance to line up for DCA approach.”
He knew it wouldn’t come. He wasn’t even lined up. Andrews could see that clearly. He was coming in fast and low, from the West. They would know. He knew they would act.
“Negative UA 789 heavy, turn South, repeat turn South. This is restricted air space. Your course is directly in violation of air space regulations. Turn around or you will be brought down. Period. Repeat for copy, over.”
“Affirmative, Andrews. Lima Charlie. Thank you, and God Bless.” He turned off his transmitter, pressing the throttle forward and feeling the jumbo jet eat the miles as it descended. He was aiming for the Potomac. It was the only place he could put down that wouldn’t land in populated areas. Whatever was happening down there didn’t hold a candle to what he was carrying in this plane. He didn’t have the fuel for the ocean, but he could try for the river.
His air speed reached 500 knots as the engines powered the massive machine forward.
This time a different voice. “UA 789, please respond.”
He ignored it. He knew who it was. Riley looked out his window to the sleek fighter hundreds of feet off his port side, twin contrails streaming behind. The pilot made a ‘turn around’ gesture with his hand.
“UA 789, this is it. You have 4 seconds to begin turn.” Silence.
Then a real voice.
No more officiousness, no more orders.
“Please, man. I can’t do this again.”
The voice was pained, pleading.
“Please turn around. Don’t make me do it.”
Riley felt for him.
He had a job to do, and he was doing it.
But so was Riley.
The radio spoke again. One more time.
“Fuck, man. Have it your way.”
The fighter disappeared into the clouds, its nose rising up and peeling back.
From behind him, the door cracked. The group outside had reached critical mass, and was pushing and pounding and slamming into the reinforced door. The structural plastic was giving way, steel bars bending to the weight.
The fuel alarm rang again. In the distance, the Washington Monument rose from the mall. Several plumes of smoke were visible from the city center. People were everywhere. The free ways were jammed. As the massive jet screamed over Arlington and Falls Church at barely two thousand feet, the number three engine sputtered and died, quickly followed by number two.
The door behind him shuddered as the passengers slammed into it. Locks burst. The door cracked open. Bloody, groping hands snaked into the cockpit.
The airspeed dropped; the stall warning blared. “Stall, Stall, Stall,” it repeated, and he didn’t have the hand to turn it off. He knew he’d have to time it exactly, bank drastically and sharply at the last second into the water.
From behind the jet, a streak of fire rocketed past the cockpit. A missile from the fighter. It flew wide, passing the nose of the plane by mere feet. It careened into the blue sky, blaring out of visual range to the starboard side of the plane. It had missed.
The door slammed open behind him, bodies piling into the small space.
From his time as a fighter pilot he knew why the missile didn’t impact. The pilot hadn’t gained enough distance to allow the heat seeker to arm. “Shit,” he heard the pilot say softly, and knew that he was out of time.
The Lincoln Memorial. The Smithsonian. The GW bridge. He was here. The National Mall was in front of the nose. Numbers 1 and 4 died. The cockpit shrieked with electronic objections. Time to make the turn.
With an explosion of intense pain, blood exploded across the controls. His neck burned in agony, and his arms were ripped from the controls. He grabbed for them, but he was fighting several people. Or people that used to be people.
Shit, he thought, before it ended.
This isn’t going to end well for anyone.
The snarling face of his copilot obscured his view of the impact as the airliner slammed through the cherry blossom trees lining the Potomac and directly into the national mall.
The fuselage tore into the reflecting pool, sending geysers of water and clouds of metal and stone into the grass and trees. Wings with silent engines tore from the body, cartwheeling into Constitution and Independence avenues, exploding against packed traffic and fleeing pedestrians. Chunks of aircraft aluminum became deadly shrapnel, as the fuselage rolled to its starboard side and turned crosswise, showing its belly to the National Monument as it slid to a fiery, shuddering stop against the World War II memorial. The tail, having been shorn off almost immediately, lay covered in water and oil in the remnants of the reflecting pool adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial. The nose was shattered, the cockpit gone. There were no explosions. No fires. There was no fuel left in the plane to burn.
No sirens blared, no firetrucks arrived. Around the crash site, some people ran. Most walked.
Very, very slowly.
From the snarled wreckage of the mangled machine, forms crawled. Men, women, children. Economy, business, mileage plus members, First Class, medallion elite. All were crushed and maimed. Bloody and broken. But they survived: not in mind, but in body.
They fell from the broken gashes in the aluminum frame, they shambled from the gaping hole where the tail had been.
Almost as one, they slowly emerged into the daylight, and into the new world.