Photo by Michael Kucharski on Unsplash
"American Aerial Cruise Lines service to Seattle is now boarding,” said the PA system. Silence followed. The usual hustling, queuing, and shuffling were missing. American Aerial Cruise Lines' boarding process was usually tranquil. The Line flew from a private aerodrome with one gate. Seventeen passengers waited to board.
American Aerial Cruise Lines operated a fleet of a dozen blimps. Each blimp accommodated twenty-four passengers. The blimps offered quiet, gentle trips along scenic routes. Blimps cruised the front range of the Rockies, the Great Lakes, the Hudson River, and the Pacific coast.
Captain Jonathon McLeish stood at the head of the gangway with his first officer, Marie Gupta, waiting to greet their passengers. McLeish was a former Navy pilot. Gupta came from commercial aviation.
McLeish and Gupta greeted their passengers by name. Most received the same greeting, "Welcome aboard American Aerial Cruise Lines. Please, verify all your luggage is in your stateroom. Join us for the mandatory safety briefing in the lounge before departure."
On every cruise, some passengers needed special attention starting when they boarded. This cruise was no exception.
Ramon Trudeau, and his wife Cleo, needed special attention. Cleo was pregnant and rode in a wheelchair. Trudeau pushed his wife's wheelchair. The chair was laden with medical equipment. The Trudeaus were heading for a specialist in Seattle. They booked passage for the blimp's quiet and absence of stress. The blimp could cater to her needs. She needed to soak her feet in a mineral solution every three hours. Three five-gallon bottles of mineral solution were in their cabin as well as extra towels.
Ramon Trudeau must be a dedicated husband, Gupta thought. We're not cheap.
There was one business traveler Gaia Alexius. She was a speaker at a climate change conference next week. She thought she was important. She chose to travel by blimp for ecological reasons.
The final passengers needing attention were a honeymoon couple, Harrison, and Juliet Funar. They planned to spend their honeymoon backpacking in the Cascades. The aerial cruise was a surprise wedding present. "Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Funar," McLeish began. "I hope you enjoy your cruise. Please, ensure all your luggage is in your stateroom. You must attend the safety briefing in the lounge. We don't want to interrupt anything," McLeish said. Harrison Funar smiled. Juliet Funar blushed.
Wonder how many trays they're going to order? McLeish thought.
The passengers congregated in the lounge.
"Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for flying with American Aerial Cruise Lines. Welcome aboard the airship Volans," the captain began. "I will be brief. This meeting takes the place of the demonstration of the seat belts you have on the airlines. We do have seat belts. Please, use them, when directed."
"There is a rail around your beds for the same reason. A curtain pulls down on the open side of the bed to serve as a seat belt. We recommend you use it."
"In case of an emergency, you will find a life jacket at the back of your closet. Emergency exits at the front and rear of the airship and in the lounge."
"We recommend you open windows in your cabin for ventilation. We do have the ability to close all windows remotely. Please, do not rest anything in an open window. Occasionally, we hit a rain squall and close the windows."
"Our estimated flight time to Seattle is thirty-six hours. We will probably be cruising at about five hundred feet and thirty-five miles an hour. We will serve breakfast as soon as I turn off the seatbelt sign. Have a nice flight."
McLeish found Gupta already on the bridge. They ran through the preflight checklist as the blimp moved out of the hangar.
"Checklist complete, captain," Gupta reported.
McLeish opened the PA system. "Ladies and gentlemen, we are ready to depart. Please, have your seatbelts fastened."
A blimp's take-off lacks the drama of an airplane's take-off. The blimp is released from the mooring mast and begins to rise. The six engines channeled their thrust upward. The blimp floats away. Upon reaching cruising altitude, the engines switch to drive the blimp forward. The captain keyed his mike, "Ladies and gentlemen, we are at our cruising altitude. Feel free to move about the ship and enjoy your breakfast."
The captain turned to his first officer, "Marie, get some breakfast and some sleep. See you in six hours."
"Sounds good," she replied as she left the cabin.
The weather was clear. The forecast called for mild winds. NASA said an asteroid would pass beyond the moon sometime tonight. A calm flight is in the offing, he thought. The asteroid could be an interesting nonevent. Hope the stewards get the breakfast trays here soon.
Once aloft, the Trudeaus went to their cabin to allow Mrs. Trudeau to rest. Stewards brought breakfast trays to the bridge. The Funars headed for their cabin after a hasty breakfast. They requested lunch trays. The other passengers spent the day getting acquainted, watching the ships and dolphins, playing cards, and reading. The flight was calm.
At six PM, Captain McLeish sat down at the captain's table. Six people asked to dine with him. Gaia Alexius was seated across from the captain. A retired couple, John and Margot Bucur, were to the captain's right. A pair of travel authors, Petr and Olivia Majerczyk, sat to the captain's left. Henry Gaiser, an EMT, completed the table. Tonight, as on most nights, the conversation went to unusual places.
As they were served, Ms. Alexius directed the conversation to an unexpected direction. "Captain," she asked, "why doesn't the airship have electric motors? Electric motors are better for the environment."
"The company did consider electric motors but chose not to use them," McLeish began.
"Don't they care about the environment?" Ms. Alexius demanded.
"We care about our passengers," McLeish began. "Our tickets are pricey. The space required for batteries would eliminate half the staterooms and double ticket prices. The diesel engines let us turn a ship around more rapidly. Another crew is waiting for us in Seattle. They will sail the next morning after we arrive. Batteries could not recharge that fast."
"The environment should come before profits."
"There are regular sail-only charters between San Diego and Seattle. Why aren't you sailing with them?" McLeish asked.
"They cost too much and couldn't get me there in time," Gaia replied.
McLeish let the matter drop.
Gaiser jumped into the void, "Why the seven AM departure, captain?"
"We want to pass San Francisco after dark. The lights of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge are beautiful. It takes fourteen hours to get from San Diego to San Francisco."
"Makes sense, I suppose," Gaiser said.
"I saw something in the papers about an asteroid," Mrs. Bucur said. "Do you think we will see it?"
"Maybe," McLeish replied. "I don't remember seeing when the asteroid would be visible."
"I hope we get lucky," Mrs. Bucur replied.
The conversation drifted through multiple alleys.
At seven PM, the captain thanked his guests for their company. He excused himself. He was due on the bridge.
Marie Gupta watched McLeish come into the bridge. "I've had a quiet watch, Jonathon. Let's see you keep it up," she said with a smile.
"I'll do my best, Marie," he replied. "Go get some supper and some sleep."
McLeish, Nigel Brockton the copilot, and Nancy Ledesma the engineer/navigator settled into their watch. They reached San Francisco Bay shortly after dark. The lights were outstanding.
The next two hours were uneventful. Then Ledesma asked intensely, "Captain is that the asteroid NASA mentioned dead ahead?"
A red streak appeared in the sky. It was falling fast.
McLeish did answer her question. "Hard aport!" he ordered. "Engines to full power. Come about to a southwest heading. Close the windows and put on the seat belt light."
"What's happening?" Brockton asked as he complied.
"I think NASA was wrong about that asteroid. The red streak looks like a meteor. I don't want to be there when it hits. I hope it burns up," McLeish replied. "Hang on."
McLeish's hope went unrealized. Brockton barely brought the Volans' nose around as the meteor slammed into the cliffs on the shore. A loud explosion followed. The explosion sent a shock wave in all directions. The Volans, being lighter than air, was pushed like a leaf in the wind.
"Keep the nose up!" McLeish ordered.
"Aye, sir," Brockton responded as he fought the controls.
"Try and keep her between five hundred and a thousand feet. Don't be worried about the heading if we don't get turned around," McLeish ordered.
The airship bucked like a bronco. The passengers would later agree if their experience could make a good theme park ride. No one was sure how long the shock wave drove them or at what speed. The designers of the Volans did a good job, and the airship rode the shock wave.
When the winds settled, McLeish turned to Brockton, "What's our heading?"
"Our heading is 220 degrees, sir," Brockton replied.
"We want to head due west. Engines to one-third power," McLeish ordered.
"Due west, sir?" That makes no sense. He wants to go further off course, Brockton wondered.
"I know what you're thinking. We don't know what is happening on shore. I want to assess our situation before we turn east. We know we don't want to go south," McLeish explained.
"Aye, aye, sir," the copilot answered.
The captain keyed his mike, "Ladies and gentlemen, I believe a meteor struck the cliffs to our east, creating a shock wave. We just rode the wave. We are in no danger. My crew and I are assessing our situation. I will be in the lounge in about a half hour to explain our situation. Officers to the bridge."
McLeish turned to his engineer, Nancy Ledesma, "What's our status?" he asked.
Before Ledesma could answer, Marie Gupta entered the bridge.
"Just a minute, Nancy," McLeish said. "Marie, how are the passengers?"
"Shaken up," she replied. "Not everyone got on their seatbelt. I don't think we have any serious injuries. Mr. Gaiser attended to the passengers as best he could."
"Good," he replied. He turned back to his engineer, "Sorry for the interruption, Nancy. What's our status?"
"I am still checking systems. This what I know," Ledesma began. "The pressure in all the gas bags is normal. The engines are all running fine. The impact threw dust in the air. Our radar just shows snow. Hopefully nothing will get fouled flying through it. Now the bad news. The shock wave had an electromagnetic wave with it. I don't know how much equipment it impacted. The GPS isn't working. Either I do not get a signal, or the response makes no sense."
"What do you mean makes no sense?" Gupta inquired.
"We've got a reading that says we're off Japan. I don't think we went through some time warp like the movies," the engineer said. "I can't pick up anything on the radio. I don't if it's our equipment or whether the California stations knocked off the air."
"How would the meteor knock stations off the air?" the captain asked.
"The meteor, probably not. Remember the meteor impacted in California? We don't know what fault lines triggered. I would expect earthquakes which could silence stations."
"Anything else?" the captain asked. If that is not enough, he thought.
"We don't know what time it is. Our timepieces are electronic. The ones I've checked showed very different times."
By the time Ms. Ledesma finished, the other officers had reached the bridge. The captain asked her for a recap for the sake of the other officers.
After a pause, Marie Gupta asked, "What now, captain?"
"We need to ensure the integrity of the ship. I want riggers monitoring the gas bags. They are to report to the bridge by the house phone every half hour, more often if they find a problem," McLeish began trying to sound confident.
McLeish turned to the purser, Samuel O'Grady, "Add Mr. Gaiser to the crew's manifest. He might as well get paid. Inspect every cabin and check for damage. We must know the walls are sound. Note any damage. Drinks are on the house for the next hour. We will offer the midnight buffet if the kitchen is functional."
"I need the engineers to do everything to make radio contact with someone. "
He paused and pulled out a pocket watch, "This is my grandfather's pocket chronometer. I carry it as a token, but it is accurate. According to it, the time is now 2307 hours. We will use that as ship's time. Set your timepieces."
McLeish instructed both copilots. "Brockton, you and Vargas, staff the bridge. Keep steady on our current heading."
Turning to his assembled officers, McLeish asked, "Any questions?" There were none.
He continued, "Gupta and O'Grady, organize our efforts. We don't know when we can go back to normal watches. I am going to the lounge. I need the plan when I get back."
McLeish headed for the lounge.
McLeish found chaos in the lounge. The bartender was trying to keep order. McLeish jumped up on the bar.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please be quiet so I can tell you what we know," McLeish began.
A babble of questions and demands assaulted the captain. He waited a minute and raised his hands.
"Take a seat and be quiet, please. I can't answer twenty questions at once. You will have a chance to ask questions."
The crowd found seats. McLeish met multiple intense expressions.
"Let me begin by assuring you that we are safe. The ship has not sustained structural
damage. We are inspecting all cabins and the airbags. You will hear people walking above your head tonight," the captain began.
He continued, "We think a meteor hit the cliffs east of us. We did not have time to warn you. We turned the ship's bow away from the shore to protect the ship and yourselves. The meteor generated a shock wave. The shock wave drove us out to sea. The shock wave messed with our electronics. Our GPS is not working. We have lost radio contact. My crew will be working through the night to re-establish communications."
He paused for a minute before continuing. "Let me expand on my comment about our safety. We can stay aloft indefinitely as the gas bags are intact.
"We have three limitations: food, water, and fuel. We need to conserve all three. "
"We left San Diego with enough food for one week under normal conditions. We will serve a midnight buffet tonight. A normal breakfast will be available tomorrow morning. We will reevaluate our approach tomorrow."
"We started with enough fuel for a week at our normal cruising speed, longer if we slow down."
"Water is the most problematic. Our recycling facilities are limited. We recycle water from wash basins and showers, not from toilets. To conserve water, we are suspending the laundry service. You will have to make do with the towels you have. Showers will only be available between seven and eight AM and eight and nine PM."
"Finally, I doubt any of you has compared timepieces. If they are electronic, they are probably wrong," the captain paused and extracted his chronometer from his vest. "I am holding a pocket chronometer. I believe its reading is accurate. We are using this as ship's time. If you want to reset your timepiece, the time is now 11:37 PM."
McLeish waited as some people reset their watches. This will get ugly, he thought.
"I will now try to answer your questions. One at a time, please."
Petr Majerczyk's hand shot up first, "If the GPS is down and we are off course, how will we get back on course?"
"Good question, Mr. Majerczyk," McLeish began. "We have options. The best-case scenario is the GPS starts working. Failing that, we have a sextant on board. If we can see the sun, I can calculate our position. We plan to turn north in about a half-hour. We will cross the shipping routes for Portland and Seattle. We can hail a ship and ask for their position. If the ship is heading for Seattle, we'll follow the ship."
Another hand shot up, "If we're going to turn north, what direction are we heading now?"
"We turned southwest to minimize the damage from the shock wave. We are currently heading due west at about fifteen miles an hour. We don't need to go any further south," the captain replied.
"Why aren't we just heading back toward shore?" demanded Ms. Alexius.
"We don't know what is happening on shore. We must pass the meteor's impact sight. If it's throwing rocks, we want to stay away," the captain answered. Ms. Alexis' expression showed she wasn't satisfied.
"When will we get to Seattle?" came a question from the back.
"I don't know. We have lost at least two hours. We are out to sea and must make up that distance. We were nineteen hours out of San Diego when the meteor hit. It will probably be at least another twenty hours to Seattle, maybe more."
"Why not head back to San Diego?" John Bucur asked.
"We were past the point of no return when the meteor hit. I presume we still are," the captain replied.
"When can we open the windows?" a voice demanded.
"I don't know. The meteor kicked tons of dust into the air. Until the skies clear, the windows will stay closed."
"Was this the work of space aliens?" asked a younger voice.
"I doubt it. Even if it was space aliens, they haven't tried to board us," the captain replied, trying not to laugh.
A crew member handed McLeish a note. "I have just been informed the crew finished checking the cabins. We have no structural damage. The shock wave tossed people's belongings about. If something of yours broke, take a picture so the company can make good the damage. The rear observation deck is closed for the rest of the trip. The shock wave cracked the plexiglass. Are there any other questions?"
The captain was met by sour expressions and shaking heads, but no questions.
"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Either I or first officer Gupta will be at breakfast to answer questions. Is Mr. Gaiser in the lounge?" Gaiser's hand shot up. "Could I speak to you for a moment before I return to the bridge?"
Gaiser approached the captain. "Mr. Gaiser, thank you for caring for passengers. Mostly bumps and bruises?" the captain began.
"You are welcome. You are right about the injuries. We may have a few sprained wrists," the EMT replied.
"I added you to the crew roster. So, you will be paid. We may not be out of the woods yet," McLeish continued, "I'll talk to the purser about where we slot you."
"I appreciate that captain. Thank you. Just so you know, I was an Army medic before I became an EMT," the EMT replied.
McLeish entered the bridge. "What is our status?" he demanded.
O'Grady responded first. "I sent that note to the lounge. We are still checking the kitchen equipment. The refrigerators and freezers are working. We are checking the stoves."
"Very good. Do we have a bullhorn, and an air horn, on board?" McLeish replied.
"Maybe. I will check, sir," the purser responded. Why would he want those things? O'Grady wondered.
"Ms. Gupta, status, please."
"Captain, we have full control of the ship. The airbags are fully pressurized. We checked with mechanical gauges. Our heading is due west," the first officer responded. "Mr. O'Grady and I have worked out six-hour watches to monitor the ship, especially the airbags."
"Very good. Can we see the surface of the ocean?" he replied.
"Ms. Ledesma, status, please."
"Captain, we have run self-checks and diagnostics on the equipment. The equipment passes. The GPS still is not working. We cannot pick up anything on the radio," the engineer replied.
"Very good. Everyone, thank you for your work. At 2400 hours, ship's time, we'll turn due north at the current speed. We need to post lookouts at first light. We need to hail any boat or ship we find. Hopefully, we can get a good heading. We need to implement our plan," the captain said.
Turning to the first officer, he said, "Marie, which one of us sleeps first? Whoever takes the first watch has to answer questions at breakfast."
The first officer laughed, "If that's my choice, I'll get some sleep."
The night passed slowly. Visibility was restricted by the falling dust. Ledesma kept trying the radio and GPS with the same result. The lookouts reported shortly after five AM. Just before McLeish's watch ended, one of the lookouts spotted a sailboat with furled sails.
"Drop to one hundred feet and pull within a hundred yards of that sailboat," McLeish ordered. "Ledesma, try and raise the sailboat on the radio."
"Aye, aye, sir," Brockton responded. I hope this works. We'll be flying way too low, he thought as he complied.
The Volans slowed and dropped. The radio remained silent. When the airship was parallel to the sailboat, McLeish opened a window and sounded the airhorn multiple times. A head popped out of the cabin.
McLeish turned on the bullhorn, "Ahoy!" he called.
The person on the boat cupped his hands and shouted, "Ahoy."
McLeish replied, "We're the airship Volans. What's your heading?"
"Let me check," the person replied. He ducked into the boat's well. "I'm heading five degrees north. My GPS isn't functioning. Are you in distress?"
"We were hit by a shock wave when the meteor hit. Our GPS isn't responding either. Thanks for verifying our heading. Why are you out here?" the captain responded.
"I was in San Francisco Bay last night. A good size tremor hit. I don't know how big. Probably over seven. I saw some fires break out and the Golden Gate sway. I just cast off," the figure replied. "Planning to head to a friend's place in Oregon."
"A meteor struck north of us. You may want to get further out to sea. What's your boat's name?" McLeish asked.
"This is the California Girl," the sailor replied.
McLeish got an idea, "Do you see an antenna hanging under our gondola?"
"If you mean like a long wire, no," the sailor replied.
"Fair winds and following seas," McLeish replied with a wave.
McLeish turned to Brockton, "Bring us to five hundred feet. Heading 350 degrees northwest. Hold the course for a half hour and come about to due north. Make a note of that boat in the log."
Phew, Brockton thought. We got away with it. "Aye, aye, sir."
"Ms. Ledesma looks like we're not alone with GPS problems. More important, the shockwave must have severed our antenna. That explains the radio problems," McLeish said.
"Semi-good news, sir," she replied.
"Can we rig some kind of antenna?" the captain asked.
"I'll have to think about it. Maybe, sir," the engineer replied.
"I don't care if we run cable in the corridor. Do what you can."
"Aye, aye, sir."
The bullhorn and airhorn woke Gupta. She appeared on the bridge early.
"What was all noise?" she asked with a smile.
"We found a sailboat. He confirmed our compass reading is right. His GPS isn't working. If we can get out from under this dust, ours may work. We learned an earthquake happened in San Francisco. We discovered we lost our antenna. Ledesma is trying to figure out if we can replace it somehow. I think we want to stand several miles offshore and then head north at our current speed," McLeish answered.
"Is the radar picking up anything but snow?" Ms. Gupta asked.
"No, ma'am," Ledesma replied.
"You know we're going to be over six hours late?" Gupta asked McLeish.
"We're not technically late yet. I want to be safe," he replied.
"Sounds good," she replied. "Good luck at breakfast."
As McLeish left the bridge, the availability of showers was announced.
McLeish didn't try to nap before breakfast. He showered, shaved, and changed his uniform. He went to the lounge. He knew he'd be early for breakfast, but he needed coffee.
In the lounge he got a cup of coffee and took a seat. He was going to wait until most of the passengers arrived.
The buffet opened at seven. The offerings looked normal. In a few minutes, the rapidly scrubbed passengers queued up.
McLeish stood up, "Ladies and gentlemen, please get your breakfast. Once most of you are seated, I will tell you what happened overnight."
The groggy passengers got their meals and found their seats. When a dozen people were seated, McLeish began his report.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we are heading north. About an hour ago, you probably heard an air horn. We found and hailed a sailboat. We confirmed our compass is correct. The sailboat's GPS wasn't working. We discovered the shockwave snapped our antenna. We are trying to create a workaround. Not great news, but positive. We learned the meteor probably triggered earthquakes around San Francisco," McLeish reported.
The passengers took a few minutes to digest McLeish's information. The questions started.
"When will we get to Seattle?" was the first question.
"We will be at least six hours late, probably more."
"Why aren't we going faster?" Ms. Alexius demanded. "I have to attend a conference."
"We know the compass is right. We still don't know our exact position. I don't want to find ourselves in Alaska. We hope our lookouts will spot a ship that might give us our position. Once we have an exact position, we may pick up the pace."
"We are keeping the water limitations in place and the windows closed. We will decide about the midnight buffet by dinner. Any other questions?"
A teenage passenger raised her hand. "In school, we learned a meteor killed the dinosaurs. Did something like that happen last night? Could we be the last people on earth?" she asked nervously.
"Miss, we know we can't be the only people on earth. There was at least one person on the sailboat. If a meteor the size of the one that killed the dinosaurs hit last night, we'd be dead. I'm sure you're not the only one thinking that way," McLeish replied gently. "Anything else?" Silence followed. McLeish got his breakfast and went to bed.
McLeish's alarm went off five hours later. He threw water on his face, dressed, and headed for the bridge.
Just before he reached the bridge door, McLeish felt a tap on his shoulder. "Captain?" an urgent voice sounded behind him. McLeish turned around and found himself facing Ramon Trudeau. Trudeau held a handgun.
This is impossible, McLeish thought.
Trudeau's face was drawn and hard. "My wife needs to get to her doctor! Get in there and stop stalling. Get this thing moving!" Trudeau demanded.
McLeish thought for a minute. "Mr. Trudeau put the gun down. We are doing what we can to get to Seattle."
"I don't want to hear it. We need to get going!" Trudeau demanded, jabbing McLeish with the gun.
"I can't. The door is locked from the inside," McLeish said, trying to get a good idea.
McLeish knocked using a rhythm signaling the door should not open. What next? McLeish thought.
A door slammed open behind Trudeau. A very unpregnant Mrs. Trudeau ran into the passageway screaming, "They're dead! They're all dead! I'm not wearing that gross thing again!"
Trudeau half-turned. His hand holding the gun dropped away from McLeish. McLeish punched Trudeau in the jaw. Trudeau dropped the gun. McLeish had not noticed a second door had opened. John Bucur kicked away the gun and wrestled Trudeau to the ground.
McLeish was stunned. What? How? He thought.
"Captain, do you have something I can use to restrain this bird?" Bucur asked, "Rope, belts, duct tape?"
"Sure," a stunned McLeish replied. He picked up the house phone. He called the purser. "Get to bridge with the cable tie handcuffs!" he ordered.
Mr. Bucur looked up at the captain, "I need to reintroduce myself. John Bucur, retired detective sergeant, Boise Police Department. I heard the screaming, and old training kicked in."
O'Grady hustled up with the cable tie handcuffs. Bucur professionally handcuffed Trudeau. O'Grady was the closest thing the blimp had to a security section. He was over his head.
"If I may make a suggestion, gentlemen," Bucur began. "Mr. Trudeau needs to be arrested and read his rights. You have a solid case for air piracy and unauthorized possession of a handgun on an aircraft. With your authorization, I would be glad to do the formalities."
"Add Mr. Bucur to the crew manifest as an assistant purser," McLeish instructed.
"Immediately," the purser replied. That covers us, McLeish thought.
Turning to Bucur, McLeish said, "Please proceed, sir."
Bucur recited a Miranda warning to Trudeau and charged him.
"Mr. Bucur, I am out of my depth," McLeish admitted. "What do we do next?"
"I think we should find out why Mrs. Trudeau was screaming," the detective replied.
"Would you please find Mrs. Trudeau, Mr. O'Grady?" the captain asked.
The purser left to find the lady.
While they waited, a fishy smell filled the corridor. "What could cause the smell, captain?" Bucur asked. McLeish shrugged.
O'Grady returned a few minutes later with a shaken Cleo Trudeau. Mrs. Trudeau held a large glass of wine.
Bucur took over. "Mrs. Trudeau, my name is John Bucur. I am an assistant purser and a retired police officer. I'd like to ask you some questions."
Cleo gulped wine and nodded yes.
"Mrs. Trudeau, you screamed, 'They're dead!'. Who is dead?"
"The fish are dead."
A puzzled Bucur asked, "What fish?"
"The fish in the shower," Cleo answered, swallowing more wine.
"Would you show me, please?" Bucur continued quietly.
The captain, the detective, and Mrs. Trudeau entered Trudeau's stateroom. She led them to the bathroom. The shower drain was plugged. Floating in the shower were two ugly fishes. The fishes were about eight inches long. The fishes were dead. Lying next to the tub was the prosthetic belly Mrs. Trudeau wore.
Bucur was perplexed. He recovered quickly. "Mr. O'Grady, would you have someone from the kitchen come here with a sealable freezer bag? We should put the fish in the bag and mark the bag EVIDENCE. Have the bag placed in the freezer until we get to Seattle. I'm not sure what the fish are evidence of, but they've got to be evidence of something."
O'Grady called the galley. "I need a large freezer bag in cabin five right away." He listened for a minute and turned to the detective. "He's on the way," he reported.
"Good. Once the fish are in the freezer, seal this room. A Do Not Disturb sign should do. OK?" the detective instructed. O'Grady nodded yes.
The detective faced the captain, "Can we talk someplace else? If I'm in this stink much longer, Margot won't let me back in our cabin."
"We can talk in my cabin," the captain replied. "Mr. O'Grady join us after this cabin is squared away."
A few minutes later, the group reconvened in the captain's cabin. The cabin had a small sitting area. The Trudeaus were seated. The captain, detective, and purser stood. Mr. Bucur began the conversation.
"Mrs. Trudeau…" he tried to begin.
"Let's get one thing straight,' Ms. Trudeau interrupted. "I am not married to that sleazeball. My name is Trudeau. But I'm Ms. Trudeau."
Slightly taken back, the detective resumed his inquiry. "Ms. Trudeau, why were there fish in the shower?" he asked calmly.
"This started about two weeks ago. I work as a stripper. The pay is good if you can put up with creeps. Ramon is one of our least creepy regulars. He approached me with a proposal. I told him no way I was marrying him."
"He replied, 'I have a business proposal. If I said proposition, you really would have got mad. You can make about $11,000 in two days.'"
I replied, "I'm a stripper. I'm not a hooker or a porn queen. How could I make that kind of money?"
"He said, 'You will keep your clothes on. I need help to deliver some fish.'"
"I was getting agitated. No one pays that much to deliver fish!"
"He said, 'This isn't simple. Let's go to Johnny's Diner across the street. Order what you want. Just promise to hear me out.'"
Ms. Trudeau took a drink of her wine and continued, "Johnny's is a safe place. I agreed. We ordered. He started explaining before we got the food."
"He started, 'Sometimes someone finds a kind of fish scientists think died out with the dinosaurs. That kind of fish shows up occasionally in the Indian Ocean. A rare, possibly prehistoric, fish started showing up in a small Mexican village. The fish taste lousy. The people figured they could sell the fish to collectors, like drug lords. Since the fish are rare, there is a market. I distribute exotic fish and animals. My supplier can get some fish. I have a customer in Seattle.'"
"OK, so you rent a car or a truck," I says.
"'Won't work,' he says, 'the only thing that works is a blimp.'"
"I don't have any fancy education, but I'm not stupid. Those things fly over football games. How is that going help?'" I asked.
"'You're close,' he said. 'There's a company that offers blimp cruises between here and Seattle.'"
"I still don't get what you want from me?"
"'Here's the part where you need to listen.' I nodded yes. 'We book passage as Mr. and Mrs. Trudeau. I get a fake ID with your last name. Maybe you've heard, when an actress needs to look pregnant, they put a big bubble thing under her top?' I nodded again. 'We got something like that. We seal the fish inside the bubble and strap it on you to before you board. We tell the blimp people you're having a rough pregnancy and need to see a doctor in Seattle. You put on some pale makeup and ride in a wheelchair. Once in the cabin, you take off the belly and only the belly. I tell the blimp line you need to soak your feet and have big bottles of mineral water in the cabin. The mineral water is seawater. We plug the shower and fill it with water from the bottles. Everything three hours, we change the water. You don't have to touch the fish. You help wipe down the shower with a towel. Your meals will be served in the cabin. And you won't be able to shower.'"
"That's nuts," I told him. "Why would I do that?"
"'When you put on the belly, you get $1,000 cash and a physical airline ticket to wherever you want. You wear the belly to get on and off the blimp. When you get off the blimp, you get $10,000 cash. That's why,' he replied as he bit his burger."
"I had to think about that. A girl can't be too careful. Do know how long it would take to get that kind of cash stuffed in my garter?" I said," I'll do it, but with a few conditions."
"What were your conditions?" the detective asked.
"I had to count the $11,000 before I put on the belly. I needed to see the airline ticket. I got the $10,000 when we got to our cabin." Cleo continued before taking another drink of wine.
"Weren't afraid you'd be involved in something illegal?" the captain asked.
"I'm no lawyer," she said, "it looked like the only thing I might be guilty of was impersonating his wife. I doubt that's a crime."
Trying to get back on track, the detective asked, "He agreed to his conditions?"
"He did. Ramon fixed things with the club's manager. The day before we left, he called and told me to get ready. I packed an overnight bag. When we left, Ramon picked me up in a limo. There was a big jug in the backseat with us. I counted the cash, and we left."
"About a block from the terminal, we stop. Ramon gets the belly out of the trunk. There were fish in the jug. Ramon puts the fish in the belly. My makeup makes me look like a zombie. I strap on the belly. I get in the wheelchair at the terminal, and we board."
"I was glad when the safety briefing was over and we went to the cabin," she continued. "I took off the belly. Big bottles were waiting in the cabin. Ramon showed me how to wipe out the shower. We filled the shower from the bottles and opened the bathroom windows. We dumped the fish in the shower and waited for our breakfast trays."
Cleo took another drink of wine. She noticed her glass was empty. "Can I get a refill?" she asked.
"We'll order a refill while you finish your story," the captain said quietly. He picked up the phone and called the bar.
"OK," she replied. "Not much more to tell. Ramon's plan worked fine until the meteor hit. When the ship started bucking, water got thrown out of the shower. Ramon just kept trying to pour in more water. I tried to mop up the water with towels. I don't know how we kept standing. We noticed the windows were shut, and we couldn't open them. Ramon went to the meeting in the lounge. He came back and told me we had problems. The windows couldn’t be opened. We weren't going to get more towels. And the blimp was slowing down. Keeping the fish alive would be a challenge."
"We did what we could until we were almost out of water. Ramon took linen from empty cabins. There wasn't enough seawater. Ramon went berserk. The fish were dying. I screamed. You know the rest. Where's my wine?" she concluded.
"What do we do?" the captain asked the detective.
Bucur's brow furled. "Let's work through this a step at a time. We must restrain Ramon, whatever his name is. We seal the Trudeau's cabin. I can't think of anything to charge Ms. Trudeau with," he began.
"Was Ms. Trudeau right about empty cabins?" the detective asked O'Shay. O'Shay nodded.
"Let me make some suggestions," Bucur said. "Mr. O'Shay, please make sure two empty cabins have linen. Captain, wait here with Ramon. I will go to Trudeau's cabin with Ms. Trudeau. She will be allowed to pick up her belongings and move to a new cabin. We collect Ramon's belonging and move him to another cabin. We lock him in. We seal Trudeau's original cabin. Does that make sense, captain?"
"Can't think of anything better," McLeish said with a sigh.
"Where's my wine?" interjected Ms. Trudeau.
Ramon broke his silence, "Give me the money back, witch!" Everyone ignored him.
"Sounds good, Mr. Bucur," the captain said.
The Trudeaus had settled in their new cabins when the announcement "Captain to the bridge" came over the public address system.
Gupta has got to wondering what is happening, McLeish thought. I'd better hustle.
McLeish gave the all-is clear knock on the bridge door. The door opened.
Ms. Gupta greeted him, "What adventures have you been having? We lock the door and then nothing."
"Not much," McLeish returned, "We had a hijacking attempt. We were smuggling ugly fish. And we have a new assistant purser."
"Is satisfying your curiosity the only reason for paging me?"
"Our watch is about to end. Two things you should know. Ledesma has rigged an antenna. The new antenna is about a third the size it should be. Ledesma dropped a cable through the ceiling of the rear observation deck. We don't know the range," Ms. Gupta began.
"We think we are picking up a ship on radar. The image isn't clear, but it's not snow."
"Those are two pieces of good news. What is our distance from the ship?" the captain said.
"The ship appears to be about fifteen miles to the northwest."
"Engines to normal cruising speed, but gently. Head for the ship. Your watch is relieved, Ms. Gupta," the captain said.
"Thank you, captain. I can't speak for everyone else. I'll stay here until we know if we found a ship," the first officer responded.
"In that case, have the galley bring us lunch trays."
"Aye, aye, sir."
Twenty-five minutes later, a shape appeared in the fog of dust. The shape looked like a cargo ship and was moving under power.
Ledesma tried hailing the ship. Initially, static filled the speakers. The captain was about to order another hail when a voice erupted from the speakers.
"Airship Volans, this is the merchant ship United Merchandiser, go ahead."
McLeish grabbed the microphone. "United Merchandiser, where are you bound, and what is your heading?"
"We're about seven hours out of Seattle." An exact heading followed.
A sigh of relief filled the Volans' bridge.
McLeish replied, "May I speak with your captain, please?"
"This is the captain," came the reply.
"We were about thirty miles from the meteor strike. Our navigation gear is giving us problems. Will we cause a problem if we tag along with you?" McLeish asked.
"As long as you stay several hundred yards astern, no problem. Glad to help," the Merchandiser's captain replied.
"Will do, captain. What is your speed? We are using a jury-rigged antenna. Could you contact our company to let them know we're coming in?"
"We are holding twenty knots. Give us frequency, call sign, and message," the Merchandiser replied.
McLeish supplied the frequency and call sign. "Message follows," he continued, "Request representatives of our HR department, the U.S. Marshall's Office, and the Fish and Wildlife Service meet us when we arrive."
"I know it sounds screwy. When we reach port, I will buy you a drink and explain," McLeish replied.
"Will do," the Merchandiser's captain replied.
McLeish keyed the microphone. "Ladies and gentlemen, you may have noticed a ship through the windows. The ship is heading for Seattle. We will follow the ship and hope to be in Seattle in about seven hours." Cheers came from the lounge.
Seven and a half hours later, the Volans followed the United Merchandiser into Seattle harbor. McLeish gave the United Merchandiser's captain his cell phone number, thanked him for his help, and renewed his offer of a drink and an explanation.
The Volans landed at the Seattle Aerodrome. The landing was uneventful. The same could not be said for offboarding. Getting off the blimp wasn't the problem; the world had changed in the forty-eight hours they'd been aloft. The passengers thought they had gone through a time warp. The skies were grey with dust. Seattle's daily rain showers gave way to mud showers. The dust decreased the sun's intensities making solar farms almost useless. Satellite communication and commercial air traffic were sporadic west of Denver. Things were worse in California. San Francisco and Los Angeles experienced significant earthquakes. Some fires broke out, and buildings collapsed. The airports were closed. The biggest problem was the disruption of the electric grid. The quakes hit early in most EV charging periods. People who tried to flee in their EVs experienced inoperative charging stations and exhausted batteries. Thousands of electric vehicles were dumped in ditches. People hoped the situation was temporary.
Most of the Volans' passengers received an apology, a full refund of their fare, and a discount on a future flight. Authors wanting to write books about the passengers’ experiences besieged them.
Majerczyks had begun their book while on board. Normally, they worked hard to make travel sound like an adventure. They had a genuine adventure. This book would be different and could change their careers.
Gaiser and Bucur dealt with HR to get paid. The cruise line asked Bucur to train pursers for handling situations like the one on the Volans.
"Unless the job is part-time and in Boise, no," he answered. "Margot would kill me." He did stick around to help turn over Ramon.
Ramon Trudeau's real name was Ramon Gastonovich. He was silent as the US Marshalls took him into custody.
The Fish and Wildlife Service sent Agent Maria Gomez. She was baffled.
"Why did you ask me to meet the blimp?" she asked O'Grady.
"Come with me," he replied as he led her to the freezer. He extracted the freezer bag containing fish. "We had passengers trying to transport these. The fish originated in Mexico and are valuable to collectors. We called for you as we don't know anything about the fish. Was a crime committed?"
"Dammed if I know," Agent Gomez replied.
Agent Gomez interviewed Ms. Trudeau. Ms. Trudeau stuck to her story. Gastonovich was silent. The agent packed the fish in ice and headed for the University of Washington. At the University, the ichthyologists fell all over themselves. The agent presented them with an unknown species possibly related to coelacanths in the Indian Ocean.
Unknown species cannot be on the endangered species list, she thought. I doubt a crime had been committed.
Agent Gomez gave the scientists the fish and let the matter drop.
Cleo Trudeau gave the authorities dispositions and disappeared.
Ms. Alexius got a huge shock. She was an environmentalist and the environment changed without her permission. Her conference happened. Attendance was low due to transportation issues. Speeches about electric cars and solar panels rang hollow. The phrase most often heard was "The situation is temporary." No one was sure. Scientists noted a phenomenon called Seismic Dominos by the press. The meteor triggered earthquakes on the faults. The earthquakes triggered volcanos. Mt. St. Helens erupted. Popocatepetl showed signs of awakening. There were rumblings in Yellowstone. Each event kicked more dust into the atmosphere. No one knew where it would end. As in the past, the world might adjust its temperature without any environmentalist solutions.
McLeish kept his promise to the captain of the United Merchandiser. After he finished, the Merchandiser's captain asked, "Were you shooting a movie?" They both laughed.
The Volans received a new antenna. Radio direction finders were installed for navigation purposes in place of GPS. Shattered plexiglass was replaced.
McLeish and the crew were hailed as heroes. They received a paid layover during the ship's repairs.
The crew was also besieged by authors.
Aircraft using jet engines were grounded west of Denver until the skies cleared. The blimps were the largest commercial aircraft operating on the west coast. Corporate spied an opportunity. Several cabins were gutted. Airline seats were installed in place of furniture. The remodeled blimps could carry twice as many passengers. The seats were booked almost immediately. The blimps would cruise at a higher speed. Adding more blimps to the west coast was discussed.
What next? McLeish wondered. I still have a good job. I just hope the next flight is not another adventure like the last cruise. The Navy was less stressful. Only time will tell. Better make sure grandpa's chronometer keeps working.
Alan lives in suburban Detroit with his charming and understanding wife. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan. He has been published internationally. His stories have appeared in As You Were: The Military Review, Vol. 16, Round Table Literary Journal, 101words.org (multiple times), commuterlit.com, and CafeLit.uk.co.
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