Cradleland

A three of hearts, a four of hearts, a five of clubs, and an eight of diamonds are in his hand.

Pedro Gomez looks intently at the community cards on the table and then at the other two people sitting at the table. The last community card, an ace of clubs, appear.

"Shit," says Pedro, throwing down his cards, having failed to make the straight. He is now out of chips.

"Guess it is not your day," says a man with sandy-blond hair.

"You'd better have better luck flying me home than you had at the table, lady," Pedro says to an auburn-haired lady in a white long-sleeved blouse.

"Sure thing," replies Angela Bowen. "I can't wait to get home myself."

Pedro looks at a clock mounted on the wall. The time is 2:30, about three hours before his flight leaves.

"Don't want to buy in?" asks the man with sandy blond hair.

"No thank you," replies Pedro. He looks at a board with a list written in erasable marker. "A couple of people are arriving; you'll have some more."

"More victims," says Angela.

Pedro steps outside the lounge for the pilots of Delta Airlines, located in the Delta Airlines office suite in Terminal 3 of John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York. A few hours ago, he flew a Boeing 747 in, arriving from Heathrow Airport in London.

Opening his Nokia cellular phone, he selects an entry from the phone's memory. He hears the ringing.

"I am opening your blouse with my teeth," he says in a seductive voice. "Taking off each button, one by one. And then I will go down…"

"Who's this?" asks a high –pitched male voice.

Pedro drops the Nokia, and then picks it up from the carpeted floor. "Just give it to her, okay?" he whispers, embarrassment in his voice.

"Hello?" asks a female voice.

"I am opening your blouse with my teeth," he says in a seductive voice. "Taking off each button, one by one. And then I will pull your panties down with my teeth."

"Pedro. Where are you now?"

"JFK in New York, Dana. I flew in from London a few hours ago. What time is it there now?"

"Uh…11:37. I'm just preparing lunch for the boys. I invited a couple of friends over."

"Any girls among them?"

"Pedro, they're too young for that."

"They'll still be too young for that when they're sixteen."

"You taking them out to the park?"

"You know how hot it gets here. Soccer practice isn't till six in the afternoon."

"I'll be catching the next flight home, Dana. I guess I'll be there…" Pedro does a quick mental calculation in his head "…about nine tonight."

"See you soon. Love you."

"I know."

Pedro hangs up the cell phone and immediately sees one of the Delta Airline managers, wearing a blue coat over a white collared shirt; the coat has the Delta Airlines logo on the upper left torso.

"Gomez," says the manager. "Miller called in sick; he won't be able to fly on Flight 2."

"And?" asks the pilot.

"Since you are already taking Flight 2 to go home, I want you to be the captain."

"Sure," replies Pedro. "Anything else?"

"Come with me."

Pedro accompanies the manager into an office. Behind the desk is a view of JFK Airport. A DC-8 lands on a nearby runway.

A bald man wearing a short sleeve shirt and Levi's jeans stands in the office.

"Mick Fontana, Glendale PD," says the man.

Pedro knows where Glendale is; it is ten miles from Los Angeles, and twenty-eight miles from his home in Santa Clarita.

"Pedro Gomez," says the pilot, extending his hand. "I'm going to be the captain for Delta Flight 2. What is that about?"

"Well, Mr. Gomez," says Fontana, "I am here to pick up a suspect we're extraditing from New York. His name's Vincent Barton." Fontana hands Pedro a file.

"We've given Officer Fontana and his prisoner seats in the business class section," says the manager. "We'll have a meeting with the flight crew at four."

"I'll go over the flight plan to L.A.," says Pedro, leaving the manager's office.

Oooooooooo

Anthony Stamper steps out of the blue Ford Econoline van after it pulls next to a white curb at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Glancing around, he can see taxis, private autos, buses, and the occasional limousine dropping off passengers.

"Here you go," he says, giving the driver of the airport shuttle van a five-dollar gratuity. Stamper, wearing a backpack with clothes packed inside, and carrying a case containing his Apple iBook G4 portable computer, walks along the sidewalk, entering through the doors into Terminal 3, which serves Delta Airlines.

He briefly looks at the boarding pass that he printed from his printer at home; the boarding pass is for Flight 2, departing from JFK towards Los Angeles International Airport at 5:40 – a little over an hour from now. He looks at the line for people waiting to receive his boarding pass, and thanks himself that he chose to print the boarding pass at home.

There is no avoiding the next line, though. It is the line for the security checkpoint just before the gates. Standing behind a family of four, he waits for over twenty minutes before reaching the checkpoints. He places his backpack, computer case, wallet, keys, loafer shoes, and Seiko watch onto plastic trays that go through an X-Ray machine. After walking through the metal detector, not setting off a sound, he collects his things, puts on his wristwatch and shoes, and walks towards the boarding gates.

In his line of work, he had flown on more than one occasion, usually over the weekends. He looks at a screen showing the flight schedules.

At least the flight is on schedule.

Walking along the concourse, he passes by retail shops and restaurants for travelers, selling souvenirs and newspapers and magazines and candy.

"Tony!" he hears.

Stamper looks towards the Sam Adams Brewhouse and sees his colleague, Casey Fuller, sitting at a wooden table. The restaurant is crowded with patrons having a drink or two while waiting for their next flight. Cocktail servers in short skirts carry trays laden with food or drink.

"Casey," says Stamper. "What are you doing here?"

"Having a drink," replies Fuller. "And where are you off to?"

"L.A.," replies Stamper, sitting down on a stool next to the table. "I'm attending a symposium at UCLA tomorrow; it's on studying the spectra of quasars. What is going on with you?"

"I'm heading for Denver; my flight leaves in half an hour."

"Denver," says Stamper. "The one in Florida?"

"Ha ha," replies Fuller. "But, man, have I got to tell you something. You see, two weeks a couple of grad students and I got back from southern Mexico and guess what we found digging there?"

"A fossilized taco?"

"An arrowhead. A steel arrowhead."

"The conquistadors had bows and arrows; guns were not as reliable then."

"But it didn't come from the conquistadors," says Fuller. "Carbon dating on associated objects show that the arrowhead is over fifteen hundred years old, give or take thirty years."

"Let me guess," says Stamper. "The natives didn't know how to make steel."

"The Mayans weren't known for steel making," says Fuller, sipping a dark beer from a glass. "Nothing like the ruins of blast furnaces or forges was ever found. And the steel from the arrowhead – it's some pretty advanced shit. It looks like modern day steelwork. So either the Mayans had this steel industry that no one discovered, or they were trading with someone else who had steel."

"Or the arrowhead was made from a meteorite that fell from space," suggests Stamper.

"Working with iron is a bit different than working with gold or silver. Besides, iron would have been even more valuable to the Mayans than gold, if the only iron they had was from a rock from space. They'd have used it to make swords and jewelry."

"So when will your findings be published?"

"I submitted the paper today."

"Maybe you will win a Nobel Prize," says Stamper.

Oooooooo

Pedro and Angela step inside a Boeing 767-300 as it is being prepared for flight by the Delta ground crews; engineers inspect the General Electric CF6-80A turbofan engines that provide power for the jet. A janitor vacuums the interior of the passenger cabin.

"Here," says a supervising mechanic as he hands a report to Pedro. "Everything looks okay."

The airline captain looks at the maintenance checklist.

"Food and drink is being loaded up," says a woman wearing a blue outfit, watching as workers load food and drink onto the plane.

"Okay, Harriet," replies Angela. She steps into the 767's cockpit and sits in the copilot's seat. She flips switches to check the engine instruments and the flight instruments to ensure that they are in working order. "Instruments are okay," she says.

"Same here," says Pedro, sitting in the pilot's seat.

A tractor pulls the jet by its nose landing gear towards a gate in Terminal 3. Guided by a driver in its cab, a passenger boarding bridge is docked with the port side of the plane.

Oooooooo

Lani walks to the waiting area next to the gate and sits down. She puts down a thirty-two-ounce cup from Burger King and picks up a paper bag with the Abercrombie and Fitch logo. Her two friends Jenna and Katie – both of them blond teenage girls, stand up along with the others waiting for Flight 2. The three girls could look like sisters, though in fact they are classmates who went with her on a post high-school graduation trip to New York City, a gift from their respective parents. They had visited the Statue of Liberty, strolled through Central Park, walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, and attended an event in Madison Square Garden. They did not even stay at a hotel, but at a private apartment that Jenna's dad rents out for his frequent business trips to the city. Over one hundred other people wait in the boarding area, some reading the New York Times or Newsweek or U.S. News and World Report or Cosmopolitan or People, others playing handheld video games like Sony PlayStation Portables and Nintendo DS's, and others using laptop computers, and others just taking a nap.

"Is that who I think it is?" asks Lani, glancing at a familiar-looking face.

"We should get a picture," says Katie.

A voice over the speaker announces that Delta Airlines Flight 2 is now boarding for Los Angeles.

"We need to get in line."

And so they do, along with everyone else waiting for Flight 2. An airline agent makes sure to check each person's boarding pass as they walk through the door that leads to the passenger boarding bridge connected to the plane. Attendants inside the 767 passenger cabin assist them into getting into their seats.

"You stay here," Mick Fontana says to a man sitting between him and the window.

Inside the cockpit, Pedro and Angela make a last-second check of the plane's instruments.

"So what are you going to do after we land?" asks Pedro.

"Well, let's see," answers Angela. "The 405 should be clear, and the bars will be open 'till 2, so…I don't know what I will do. What is a lady to do with all the hot places still open?"

"Delta Airlines Flight 2 to JFK Ground Control," says the airline captain into the microphone of his headset. "We are ready to move out."

"Copy that," says a ground controller. "Stand by."

A tractor pushes the 767 into position so that its nose faces away from the terminal building. Pedro and Angela receive instruction from JFK Ground Control. After a few minutes, the plane taxis through the taxiways into position, waiting for takeoff on Runway 4L.

"Delta Flight 2, we are transferring you to tower control," says the ground controller.

"Delta Flight 2, this is Tower Control," says an air traffic controller. "Standby."

"Copy that," says the pilot. He and his copilot wait, as planes take off from and land on the runway, guided by JFK's air traffic controllers. Inside the passenger cabin, the seat belt lights come on.

"Delta Flight 2, you are cleared for takeoff from runway Four-Lima," Pedro and Angela hear.

The 767 is taxied onto Runway 4L. Pedro pushes the throttle forward, and the engines accelerate the plane, its landing gears rolling along the concrete surface of the runway. The air pressure under the wing increases. The landing gear tires lose touch with the runway, indicated by the sound of tire on concrete suddenly stopping. The pilots can see the Brooklyn skyline, which disappears as the 767's nose is pulled up. Only the afternoon sky is visible.

When the plane reaches twenty-four thousand feet, Pedro speaks to the intercom. "All passengers, this is the captain speaking," he says. "The time now is 5:55 Eastern Time. We should be arriving in L.A. at about 9 P.M. Pacific Time. We will be starting beverage service soon."

After a few minutes, beverage service starts. Harriet pushes the drinks trolley, which contains all sorts of drinks from Coca-Cola to Red Bull to Budweiser.

The flight attendant comes across a man in an olive-green Class "A" uniform of the United States Marine Corps.

"I'll just have some water please," says the Marine.

"Okay then," replies Harriet. "On vacation?"

"I coming back from Iraq; the Marines put me on a commercial flight. All I want is to hold my baby girl for the first time."

Ooooooooo

Pedro glances at his digital watch, which tells time very accurately. He then glances out the cockpit window, revealing the night sky.

"All passengers, this is the captain speaking," he says. "We will begin our descent into the L.A. area shortly. Please put all trays in the upright positions and fasten seat belts. Secure all loose items."

He and Angela prepare for the final approach towards Los Angeles International Airport, which had been predetermined before taking off from New York. The plane starts its descent. Some of the passengers look out the window, seeing the dark desert floor below.

And then, a flash of light in brilliant colors appears. The white shirts worn by Pedro and Angela reflect these colors.

The plane then descends faster than expected. Pedro increases the power and adjusts the roll, putting the 767 back on a level flight.

"What the hell was that?" asks Angela.

"Turbulence, I guess," replies the flight captain, shrugging his shoulders. He adjusts the frequency on the radio. "Delta Airlines Flight 2 to SoCal Approach Control," he says. "We are descending into the L.A. area."

Three seconds later, Pedro notices something is wrong.

The Southern California Consolidated Terminal Radar Approach Control (SoCal TRACON), which directs aircraft to and from airports in Southern California, does not reply.

"Delta 2 to SoCal Approach Control," repeats Pedro. "Respond."

There is no response.

Angela checks the frequency setting of the radio.

"Right frequency," she says.

"Delta 2 to SoCal Approach Control," the captain repeats one more time. "Please respond."

There is no reply.

Pedro switches to another frequency. "LAARTC," he says, "this is Delta 2. We have no response from SoCal Approach Control. We need instruction."

No instruction is given.

"What the hell?" asks Angela. "They can't all be on break."

Pedro tries to call the Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control, with no response. "Let's try the airport." He switches frequency again. "Delta 2 to L.A. Tower, please respond."

There is no response.

The captain reads through a list of southern California airports. He tries to contact each and every airport.

No response.

He switches to another frequency.

"Delta 2 to FAA Emergency," he says. "I have a situation here. Please respond."

There is only silence.

FAA Emergency not responding is like calling 911 and only getting a ringing phone.

Pedro switches to UNICOM, a frequency used by private pilots. There should be chatter on this station, from the pilot of a Gulfstream V talking to Air Route Traffic Control, to Cessna pilots talking to approach control to land at some small airport.

UNICOM is silent.

Finally, Pedro tries one last frequency. He switches the frequency to NORAD. It had been a long time since he spoke with NORAD, and then he was not flying civilian airliners.

"Air Force Control, this is Delta Flight 2," he says. "I can't raise anyone else."

He prepares for an Air Force sergeant to yell at him, to tell him to get the fuck off a military frequency, to threaten to have his pilot's license revoked.

But there is only silence, which is even worse.

In absolute frustration, Pedro rips off his headset and throws it down. A dark cloud overtakes his mind. For the Air Force to go silent is unthinkable.

"Cell phone isn't getting reception," says Angela, closing her Motorola cellular phone. "What do we do, sir?"

Pedro takes a few deep breaths. "Well, we can stay up here for two more hours," says the captain. "We keep the FAA Emergency frequency open, in case someone tries to contact us."

"What happened?" asks Angela. "What knocked out air traffic control?"

"I don't know," replies Pedro. "I'm not getting the ILS beacons from LAX or any of the airports. That light…"

"I've heard of something. It's called EMP. It could knock out electronics."

"The plane's electronics still work. If there was EMP, the electronics would have been fried, and we'd crash."

"Maybe the effect was only on the ground. Where are we?"

"We should be over the Pacific Ocean now," answers the captain. "We still have inertial navigation. There aren't any other aircraft nearby, which is good."

"Last thing we need is a mid-air collision," says Angela.

Inside the passenger cabin, Anthony Stamper checks his watch.

We should have landed by now.

Two hours later, Angela notices something.

"The sky," she says.

"What about it?" asks Pedro.

He looks out and sees the answer.

The sky is unmistakably getting lighter.