Mark Prager loved Monopoly as a child. Despite the game’s basic reliance on random chance - dice, shuffled decks of cards - he developed an inexplicable propensity for monetary success in the game. He fell in love with Monopoly, and by the time he reached eight years old his older sister refused to play with him. Over the years this affinity and affection for money turned into an accounting degree, a successful career as a certified public accountant, and admirable - if modest - success as a day trader.
Mark never showed much of an interest in aviation. He routinely boarded airplanes as a passenger, of course, and he had heard once or twice that someone named Bernoulli was pretty important. He knew next to nothing about the design, engineering, mechanics, or operation of an airplane.
Therefore, it stands to reason that despite an aerospace knowledge that barely qualified as basic, Mark Prager knew with a high degree of certainty that when a wing separates itself from its aircraft - as had just happened, right outside his window, on a small chartered jet 38,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean - it is often unplanned and just as often problematic.
The audible warning about the autopilot disengaging was lost in the chaos that ensued in the cockpit. Captain Miranda Lester nearly lost her headset as the aircraft rolled wildly. She could hear screams and commotion from the cabin, beyond the cockpit door. She quickly ruled out a bomb or missile; there was no explosion, just a bit of a clunking sound before the plane lurched. Plus, she knew what it was like to get shot at while flying missions in Afghanistan.
Miranda cursed loudly and fought with the yoke, trying to regain some kind of control. After a few moments she had the plane tenuously level, and immediately her first officer, Richelle Durston, grabbed the emergency checklist. “What the hell was that?” Richelle asked.
Miranda gritted her teeth as she struggled with the controls. “Nothing good. We’ve got a loss of thrust and the plane keeps wanting to roll to starboard. I’m putting the nose down so we don’t stall.”
A few seconds later the intercom buzzed from the cabin. “Flight deck,” Miranda answered. “Is everyone okay back there?”
The flight attendant, Jessi Moloney, ignored Miranda’s inquiry and responded in a terse but calm voice. “The port wing is gone.”
“You mean the port engine, right?”
“No. The whole port wing.” Wailing and loud chatter could be heard in the background.
Miranda and Richelle exchanged glances, the former still struggling to keep the plane close to level. “To hell with the checklist, then,” Richelle said, scrambling to unbuckle her seat belts.
“Jessi, you have three minutes to get everybody ready to scram,” Miranda said, lowering the nose further, putting the plane into an aggressive descent.
“Understood.” The cabin phone hung up.
Richelle had unbuttoned her uniform shirt and was shaking it off her arms, revealing the emergency harness underneath. “You ever do live training for this?” she asked.
“Not on this scale. Nobody has.”
“Right.” She pulled a small card out of one of the pockets of the harness, examining a table of numerical data. “Okay, we have 40 passengers on board, so that means two of us take thirteen and one takes fourteen.”
“No,” Miranda called out as a slight bit of turbulence, normally inconsequential, jarred the plane. “I have to scram alone and maintain control. You two will need to take everyone with you.”
Richelle’s eyes moved down the card, her eyes eventually settling on a row labeled “20”. It was highlighted in yellow, as were several rows above it. “That’s an extra 40 or 50 feet. It’s past the yellow line.”
“This is not up for debate. I may not even be able to scram before the plane dives. You are not leaving any passengers with me.” Miranda’s eyes stayed locked on her instruments, but she turned her head in Richelle’s direction. “Two and a half minutes.”
Richelle sighed. “Okay.” She stuffed the card back in her harness pocket, then reached over Miranda’s shoulders from behind and unbuttoned her uniform shirt, then reached further down and unbuckled her seat belts. She knew Miranda might not have the precious seconds she would need to do this herself. Finally, Richelle grabbed the plane’s maintenance log and tucked it in her harness. “Good luck,” she said before opening the cockpit door.
In the cabin, Jessi had also shed her shirt and was preparing people to scram. Passengers were quickly donning harnesses of their own. A cluster of people was forming at the front of the plane. A man held a piece of cloth to a bleeding head wound; a young woman looked as if she were trying not to move her arm. Richelle stood next to Jessi and put a hand on her shoulder. “We’re taking everybody. Just you and me.”
Jessi’s eyes widened only briefly. She didn’t want to panic the passengers any more by showing too much emotion. “That bad?”
“Miranda isn’t sure she’s going to make it off.”
Jessi nodded, then immediately continued the scram effort. “Okay, listen up! I need everyone in two groups of twenty. Those of you closest to the front of the plane will go first with me. Start clipping onto each other, then those of you on the ends of the line will both clip to me. As soon as my group is away, Richelle’s group can come to the front. We have about sixty seconds. Go!”
Passengers began reaching for the sides of their harnesses and extending a bungee-like cable, clipping on to partners’ cables at both sides. Jessi quickly counted heads as the passengers at the ends of her line were holding out their hooks to her, harried looks on their faces. She pulled them close to her and allowed them to hook on, backing up to the cabin door.
Richelle spoke up to provide further instructions. “The cables stretch up to thirty feet each, so a max of sixty feet between you and each of your partners. My cables have 100 feet, so my partners have up to 130 feet. Everyone jumps in pairs.” She looked to her partners, the two closest to her. “As soon as I jump, you two have two seconds to jump.” She then looked up at everyone else. “Each other pair only has one second before you get yanked out of the plane. Got it?”
“13,000 feet!” Miranda shouted from the cockpit. “Cabin depress!”
As soon as Jessi felt the pressure stop changing in her ears, she yanked the emergency lever on the door and it swung open inward, the sudden roar of air almost deafening. Miranda was leveling the plane as best she could, but the floor still rocked and twisted underneath her and the plane was obviously still descending. Jessi poked her head out of the doorway and was thankful that if they got to keep only one wing, it wasn’t on the same side of the plane as the door, lest they jump right into a jet engine.
Reaching into the top of her harness, Jessi grabbed the mouthguard and pulled it and its attached duct out. Her heels inches from the great blue yonder, she shouted above the din of wind. “Here we go! Three… two… one…”
Jessi brought the mouthguard to her mouth, bit down, and leaned backward.
Still in the cabin, Richelle was practically shoving the first scram group out of the plane, and everyone made it out. Crews had at least practiced the evacuation portion of a scram, and the many drills during training had certainly helped. She wanted to look down but knew she didn’t have time. Turning her back to the door just as Jessi had, she herded her group as close as possible and clipped onto her partners.
“Give us twenty seconds and we’re out!” Richelle called to the cockpit.
“Copy!” Miranda shouted between expletives as the plane buffeted.
“Three… two… one…”
Against her better judgment, Richelle had gone skydiving before and swore never to do it again. She was sick for days afterward. The few brief moments of free fall that she experienced now began to bring back the same unpleasant sensations.
After three seconds, the accelerometer in her harness kicked in.
At 7500 feet, Miranda looked over her shoulder. Everyone was away; at least 42 people would survive. The tricky part was getting that number up to 43.
She estimated that she could get to the door from her seat in about five seconds. But what would the doomed plane do during those five seconds? She let go of the yoke just slightly to gauge the aircraft’s response; it held for a second, then leaned violently. Grabbing the yoke again, Miranda wrestled it back to something resembling level and tried to engage the autopilot just for grins. It didn’t work, and she envisioned some line of code in the onboard computer laughing at her as if to say, “You think I’m going to fly this?!”
The water below was steadily moving faster underneath. Running out of time and ideas, Miranda reached behind her to see if her shoulder belt would reach around the yoke. It did - barely - but it pulled the nose of the plane up. She tried slipping the other shoulder belt around the yoke for stability. The plane was surprisingly stable, if headed for an imminent stall, but she only needed five seconds.
5000 feet - no more time. Miranda took control one last time, pushed the nose of the plane down to regain some air speed, then slipped one belt over the yoke as she slid out of her seat, then strapped the other belt back on and made a break for it. Halfway to the door she could feel the plane tipping, but she already knew she’d made it. She leapt through the door and into the open air.
Jessi’s first reaction was relief at seeing everyone make it out of the plane. Her next reaction was shock at how forceful the deepest breath of her life was.
The skirt of her flight attendant uniform ripped away almost instantly as her torso began to rapidly grow outward in all directions. In nearly the blink of an eye her view became obscured by expanding domes of cleavage, and only a split second after that could she see her stomach just beyond her breasts. Her underwear was giving her a wedgie, but by the time Jessi tried to reach behind her back and fix it she had nothing to reach with; in little more than a second, her arms - and legs - had blown up, stiffened, and then stretched out across her body until they were simply gone. And an instant after that she didn’t have to worry about the underwear anymore anyway.
The rush of wind at Jessi’s newly rounded back subsided as she continued to increase in size; the harness, stretching around her sides, was doing exactly what it was supposed to do, blowing her up to slow her down. Her breasts grew wider, if not further out. She finally felt something bump into her at the base of each breast, the first tethered passengers coming down for a smooth landing on top of her. The sudden weight increase excited the accelerometer, and the air forced itself down Jessi’s throat with an increased vigor. It increased again as more passengers landed on top of her. What had been her shoulders began to bulge around her face as her neck disappeared.
Jessi had lost count of the number of passengers she now carried across her chest and stomach, and she hadn’t even noticed that she couldn’t move her hands and feet. She was still compensating, still inflating at a wild pace, the passengers feeling so small on top of her. But their descent was much calmer now, and she felt her growth begin to slow to a crawl, the wind tunnel in her esophagus reduced to a whisper. When she was certain she could not feel her huge body stretching any longer, she pushed the mouth guard out of her mouth with her tongue. The world was upside down to her, the water slowly rising to meet her at a safe, comfortable three meters per second while her blond hair gently bristled about her face.
Mark Prager was the last person from Richelle’s group out of the plane. He barely had time to look down below him before he noticed that something very unusual was happening. He was over a hundred feet above, so it wasn’t until Richelle’s skirt ripped away from her widening waist and hips that the reality of this solution became apparent.
He could see that Richelle was growing at an incredible pace, and the harness - with its straps stretching around her sides and between her shoulders and groin - was growing with her. In one second she looked like some busty pregnant blow-up doll. Just another second later the look was even more extreme, with breasts peeking out around all sides of the harness while her stomach became more prominent and her limbs began to bloat up. Mark looked to his sides to double-check the cables on his own harness, and when he returned his gaze to Richelle she looked markedly less feminine; her breasts had become truly massive bulges, but the other curves that had so capably filled out Richelle’s pilot uniform just minutes prior had become much more simplified.
Mark realized that Richelle was rising up to meet him. Another moment of observation convinced him to correct himself: she wasn’t rising,she was just decelerating as she grew. He could see people starting to lay against her side, clinging to her stomach, a breast, anything they could get a hold of as her now-spherical body continued growing and drifting down. He was worried that he would land on top of another passenger, unable to control his own fall, until someone looked up and grabbed his arm at the last second, guiding him in for a firm yet painless landing somewhere on Richelle’s stomach.
And then Richelle began to grow even faster, her stretching skin producing a tangible sensation beneath him as the stretchy cords held Mark and his fellow passengers snugly against her. Mark picked his head up and noticed what he thought might have been Richelle’s navel next to him. As his pilot grew he watched the shallow concave feature gradually widen and fill in until he couldn’t distinguish it from the surrounding skin.
Mark could tell they were falling more slowly now, but he had trouble seeing how far up they were since Richelle blocked his view of the horizon. “Above” him he could still see the low hills of her breasts sprawling across her chest. The stretching sensation beneath him subsided until he couldn’t tell whether he felt it or not.
And then, at long last, he felt the slightest bump and then a gentle rocking motion. They had made it: Richelle had guided them to a soft landing in the Atlantic.
Mark picked up his head once again. “Is everybody okay?” he shouted. An indeterminate number of voices responded. Reaching to his side, he unhooked one cable and, with considerable effort, stretched it to the cable on his other side and latched them together. He then unhooked himself from them and squirmed his way out from underneath. Crawling on his hands and knees, he tenderly traversed Richelle’s body laterally, checking on those still strapped in. Then he went to check on her.
As he crawled between the bizarre sight of such absurdly distorted breasts, he tried as hard as he could not to touch them. Despite their survival being the primary concern, he felt like Richelle still deserved at least some shred of dignity. He followed the longitudinal straps toward her shoulders, the curve of her body gradually becoming steeper. Fortunately Richelle had rolled forward a bit so the angle wasn’t too extreme. He finally encountered the main assembly of her harness and found a hook there to latch onto. Just a couple of feet below that was her face, surrounded by pressurized flesh, her rich black hair oozing out from between her head and body and fanning out below. The hose and mouthguard dangled inches from her chin.
“Are you alright??” he asked.
Richelle’s eyes danced, trying to make eye contact with him. He could tell she was trying to move her head, but it was firmly held in place. “I… I think so,” she said. “What about everybody else?”
“We’re fine. We all made it.”
Richelle wept softly.
Mark reached down to gently hold her cheek, giving her a moment to process the news. She had fulfilled her obligation with flying colors. That might at least help her justify… this.
After what seemed like an appropriate amount of time, Mark finally spoke up. “So what happens now?”
“My harness has an emergency transponder,” Richelle said. “It activated as soon as I jumped, so they know exactly where we are. It could be a few hours before a military ship or cruiseliner is diverted to help, though.”
“And what about…” Mark debated finishing his question.
“Me?” Richelle interrupted, then sighed. “I don’t know. Nobody does.”
Richelle looked toward her harness even though she couldn’t see it. “There’s a folded up card in the pocket there. Pull it out.”
Mark fumbled with the pocket and found the card. The word “SCRAM” was printed at the top, and then a table full of data in very small type filled the card below it. “Okay.”
“You see the lines highlighted in yellow?”
“Yeah.” Mark looked up and down the table; the first line in yellow was ‘15’. He then noticed the header for that column: ‘# Pass’ - number of passengers.
“Anything above yellow is the number of passengers I can save and have a ‘good’ chance of returning to normal.”
Mark had remembered that they had split the plane into two groups of 20. The applicable line on the table was well within the yellow area. He held his breath a moment. “What is a ‘good’ chance?”
Richelle sighed. “Fifty percent or better. And the chances decrease with each extra passenger.”
“Jesus.” The number ‘277’ was listed next to ‘20’ on the table. Mark followed the column up and identified that column as ‘Dia’. “What is ‘dia?’”
Richelle sighed again. “Diameter. In feet.”
Mark’s face paled. “So you’re 277 feet wide??”
“I don’t know,” Richelle replied, half annoyed, half dejected. “Those are all based on averages. I might be smaller or larger. An accelerometer tells the harness to blow me up as big as I need to be for a three-meter-per-second landing.”
Mark didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing. His eyes wandered down the card a couple rows further, finding red highlighting instead of yellow. “What do the red rows mean?”
“It means all bets are off at those sizes.”
Mark continued past the fold in the card, watching the diameters pass 300, then eventually 400 and 500. “Goodness. Can people really get that big?”
“You don’t understand,” Richelle responded with a cold tinge to her voice. “It means all bets are off.”
The two sat silently for a couple minutes. Mark wished there was something he could say, some way to thank her that didn’t sound trite or just terribly insufficient. Richelle was still coming to grips with the entire ordeal; losing a plane would have been bad enough by itself. They could both hear - and she could feel - the ocean waves lapping against her back far below. Mark finally broke the silence. “Well, I think I’m going to go back… uh… up?... and check on the-- ”
“No,” Richelle interjected, her voice wavering. “I don’t really want to be alone right now.”
Mark placed a hand on Richelle’s surface and patted her gently. “Well, in a way, you’re not alone even if I do go back.”
Richelle chuckled and sniffled. “Okay. Just… please stay here.”
As it turned out, Miranda had fully inflated - for her, a mere 50 feet wide or so - by the time the plane lost control and entered a steep pitch and roll before falling out of view behind the globe of her body. She cursed herself; she would have had the time to take passengers with her after all, and the additional burden that she forced upon Richelle and Jessi could be ruinous for them.
But as she gently floated down to the ocean, Miranda told herself that she couldn’t second-guess her decisions. She may have had enough time to get them out of the plane, but she had no way to be sure that she would have had enough altitude. She was probably at 4000 feet or even a little less by the time she bailed. Her thoughts were too scrambled, her adrenaline still too ramped to do the rough math in her head, but she would have been cutting it very, very close.
She also tried to force herself not to second-guess the wing. There may very well have been something they missed in pre-flight, but odds are it wasn’t anything they would have noticed from the cockpit. There would be investigations, of course, scrutinizing every moment of her and Richelle’s flight, and as standard procedure she would be grounded for months. “Actually,” she thought, “I’ll be grounded for months anyway.”
For now, though, Miranda just needed to wait, and hope that whoever showed up first would have enough aloe vera for the sunburn she was about to get.