Darkness Before The Dawn

by Bel-wah

(See PART 1 for disclaimer)



A distant voice… so far away, yet so close, calling to her.

"Captain… please.…"

There it was again! Like a drowning swimmer being towed to shore, Kate allowed herself to be pulled along by it, letting it lead her home.

"Ngghhh—" Good grief. Was that god-awful sound coming from her? There was no way to know, since she couldn’t seem to detach her tongue from the roof of her mouth in order to form a question.

"Ssssh… take it easy," there was relief in the voice now, Catherine could tell. "You’re gonna be okay…."

She tried to open her eyes, but they seemed to be stuck too, and so the pilot decided to figure out whatever she could without the benefit of sight. She could feel the vibrations of the big 777-200 along the length of her body, so that meant they were still up in the air – thank God – although she must be lying down. Voices were arguing nearby in a language she didn’t understand, and there were other sounds: lower, softer cries, or the occasional whimper. Something wet and cold, reminding her of a puppy-dog’s nose, kept pressing against her cheek and forehead.

"C’mon, wake up, please?"

There was that other voice again. So close. So familiar. So… "Ha - Hanson??"

Kate moved as she uttered the name… tried sitting up, and immediately she regretted it. Sure, her eyes snapped open at last, but little good they did her. Everything was a blur.

"No-no-no," hands were pressing her back down, and Kate was aware now that it was a cool compress she felt, slipping off of her forehead—no, there… it was being arranged back into place again.

Kate blinked her eyes shut, squeezing them tight, and tried opening them again - without moving this time.

The strategy worked.

Now she could see the pale, concerned face and green eyes of Rebecca Hanson hovering above her.

"How are you feeling?"

"What’s going on?" The pilot ignored the young flight attendant’s question, even as recent events came flooding back to her. Cautiously, she tried easing herself up on her elbows, and realized she was stretched out in a first class seat. The simple motion brought a wave of dizziness to her head and stomach, but she fought against it, and remained relatively upright.

"I – I’m not really sure," Rebecca looked looked worriedly over her shoulder, and her voice was hushed. "They’ve moved all the passengers out of first class – this is a buffer zone here, I guess, and Cindy and Alan and the rest of us have been just trying to stay out of their way and do what they say.


"She… she’s taking care of Bill," Becky replied, and her voice broke at that.

"Wha—" Kate followed Becky’s gaze to the aft section of the first class cabin. There was Bill Samuelson, her first officer, one arm hanging limply down the side of a fully extended seat, his head pitched back, his tie missing. The ghostly whiteness of his face stood in stark contrast to the vibrant crimson coloring on the front of his formerly white Orbis shirt. Joan Wetherill sat by his side, rummaging through the galley’s first aid kit, doing her best to staunch the bleeding. She whispered softly to him as she worked, but Bill’s eyes remained shut. He did not hear her.

"Bill!" Fire surged through Kate’s veins at the sight, and she sat up the rest of the way, releasing a loud groan in the process. "Dammit!" she muttered under her breath, bringing a hand to her head.

"Careful," Becky said, "You’ve got a nasty cut there." She lifted the compress back towards Kate’s forehead.

"Enough of that," the pilot swatted the young woman’s hand away. Someone had stolen her plane, shot her first officer, terrorized her passengers and crew, and given her one hell of a headache, besides. Catherine Phillips had but one thought: to find out who and what she was dealing with. Now.

Becky flinched back a bit. "Well," she said doubtfully, examining the angry wound, "looks like the bleeding’s stopped at least."

"Who are these people?" Catherine swung her gaze around the first class cabin. There were Nathan and Alan, hands tied behind their backs, sitting sullenly on the floor near the galley. A sandy-haired man wearing a black jacket stood not far from them, pistol in hand. Cindy was next to Joan, helping her with Bill, while Trish Dugan sat in a seat nearby, crying softly.

Kate could see the fear that haunted their eyes, saw it in every one of them. And no wonder.

"My name is Alexandra," a cold voice said, and Kate ignored the ache in her skull as she turned to face the woman who emerged from the cockpit.

The tall blonde. Loud arguing was coming from behind her, and the pilot noted that the door to the flight deck had been propped open. The better to keep an eye on the prisoners, Kate guessed.

"Who is flying this plane?" the pilot demanded, struggling to stand. She felt Hanson’s hand on her arm, attempting to restrain her.

"Stay where you are," Alexandra said, but Kate kept coming.

"Stay…." she repeated, as if to a dog, this time, pointing her gun at the dark-haired woman for emphasis.

Kate stopped, and she could hear Hanson’s sigh of relief.

Alexandra lowered her weapon. "I’m sorry I hurt you earlier. It couldn’t be helped."

"Oh, really?" Kate shot the woman blue dagger-eyes, just so they understood one another. She could tell by what she saw in the black pools she found there, that they did. "Tell that to him," and she nodded towards her prone first officer.

A tall, thin-featured man wearing a herringbone jacket came out of the flight deck, and he carefully apprised Catherine with his gaze. "If your pilot had not resisted, we wouldn’t have had to hurt him."

"He needs a doctor," Kate turned to Bill, taking in his clammy features, his labored breathing. "Can we ask the passengers—"

"Already did, Captain," Joan lifted her head from her patient. "Can you believe it?" she laughed bitterly, "not a doctor on this plane."

"Let me have a look—" Kate started towards Bill.

"No!" the tall man waved her back with his pistol. "Leave it to her," he jerked his head towards Joan. "You all must stay where you are. He will receive help when we land!"

Kate tore her gaze away from Bill and exhaled sharply, her frustration reaching the boiling point. "And just who is flying this plane?" she was getting more worried by the minute. "Who… what are you?"

The man’s slate-gray eyes narrowed. "My name is Stefan Bukoshi," he said, stepping closer to Kate. The pilot was a tall woman but Stefan bested her by several inches. Still, she did not back down. She held her ground against him.

"I am a patriot of the Kosovo Liberation Army, as are my colleagues," he waved his arms around the plane in a grand gesture. "We have issued a statement of our demands," Stefan continued, as if he were reading a press release, "You and the passengers will be released after we land, once those demands are met." He paused, turning his eyes towards the injured first officer. "Your pilot will receive proper medical attention, I assure you, after we arrive in Tirana."

"Where?" the confusion in Becky’s voice was plain.

"Albania…." Kate breathed, answering for the Kosovar. She was beginning to get the picture.

"Do as we say," his voice was icy. "Listen to Alexandra and Mishka," he gestured towards the sandy-haired man, "and no one gets hurt." He spun on his heels and returned to the cockpit.

"Too late for that," Kate murmured, feeling the Hanson girl shiver at her side.

Kate understood her fear, hell, she was scared herself, although she would rather die before ever letting it show. But at the same time she fought against a fury and an outrage that threatened to drive all common sense and focus from her mind. She needed to stay calm, to conserve her energy, and to come up with some type of a plan. Because no matter what sort of a shipwreck she considered her own life to be right now, these good people around her didn’t deserve to die.

And who the fuck is flying my plane?!!

Catherine Phillips made up her mind that she would find out for herself. And soon.


"Merda, Stefan! What were you thinking, shooting that pilot!"

Roberto Andizzi cast a furtive, sidelong glare at the Kosovar, before returning his attention to the maddening array of gauges and cockpit displays before him in the big 777-200. Sure, the fly-by-wire system made his job a relatively easy one. But it wouldn’t have hurt to have a pilot with hands-on 777 experience nearby, in case he needed an assist.

"The pilot resisted," Stefan said, shoving his pistol into his belt, "you saw it!"

"I saw no such thing," Roberto swore angrily. His directions had been to get into the pilot’s seat as soon as possible, and he had done that, after giving the older man they’d found in the cockpit a good whack on the skull. He’d thought the worst was over with then, at least until Stefan stormed in behind him.

Yes, the pilot had struggled, but only half-heartedly. He, Roberto, had really knocked him for a loop. The next thing he knew, Stefan’s gun had gone off. There was no reason for it. It only made things messy, he thought, glancing briefly at the spatters of blood on the cockpit floor. What had he gotten himself into here?

"Merda!" Roberto repeated, gripping the control column tightly. He considered himself a good pilot… had earned himself quite the reputation in the Aeronautica Militare. But the planes he was used to flying – the smaller Fiats and Aermacchi MB 339s, were nothing compared to this jet. Once in a while he’d been able to get behind the stick of a big C130 out of Rivolto Air Base, and it was for that reason, or so Alexandra had told him, that Stefan wanted him as a part of their team. But he had never considered the possibility that he’d be flying solo.

"What’s done, is done," Stefan said, moving behind the pilot’s seat. "Now, there is no turning back." He reached a hand to the control displays on a ceiling panel, examining them. For him, the discussion regarding the wounded pilot was closed. "Have we heard anything back from the authorities regarding our demands?"

"No," Roberto’s jaw was clenched. "Not a word."


A glittering pair of blue eyes followed the hijackers about on their every move, and soon Catherine Phillips felt she had some sense at least of what their strategy was with the passengers. There were four of the hijackers that she could tell. Two in the cockpit: Stefan and ‘whomever,’ although by process of elimination and based on what Hanson could recall seeing, Kate suspected that it was their Italian Lothario from First Class. Additionally, there were two who prowled the first class cabin and beyond: Alexandra and Mishka. Since they were so few in number, the plan seemed to be to basically keep themselves out of reach of the 300 or so frightened and panicky passengers, concentrating instead on the nerve center of the aircraft.

From time to time they would send one of the female attendants back into the main cabin, with instructions to do a quick sweep and calm the passengers. During that time, one of the hijackers would stand at the top of the business class section, ominously brandishing a pistol, until the attendant returned.

Keeping Nathan Berbick and Alan Ross restrained by their own neckties, sitting on the floor of the first-class cabin on the starboard side, was again designed to control any potential source of resistance. Kate couldn’t tell whether the male flight attendants were more furious or frightened. Probably a good bit of both, she decided.

Just now, Alexandra had stepped back into the cockpit for the time being, and Mishka had escorted Cindy Walters out into the main cabin area for a passenger check. The southerner had looked fearful, being motioned forward at the point of a gun, but she was holding up well in spite of it.

All-in-all, the hijackers were shrewd enough, Kate considered. Success – and survival – were at the front of the plane, and they knew it. Maybe there’s a way I can use that to my advantage, the pilot thought, and then she turned her eyes to Bill Samuelson. Her heart skipped a beat. The first officer hadn’t moved at all since he’d been shot. His breath was coming in shallow gasps, and his blanched features told of the amount of blood he’d lost.

"How’s he doing?" Kate wanted to know, desperate to get him the help he needed.

Joan Wetherill stopped fiddling with a box of band-aids, and turned to Kate. The pilot could see that the senior flight attendant’s nerves were frayed, her reddened eyes brimming with tears.

"Considering the top-notch medical care I’m giving him?" her voice was bitter, "not good." She turned back to the older man’s deathly still form. "If I could just get this bleeding to stop…." A sob escaped her throat then.

"You’re doing the best you can, Joan, I’m sure Bill knows that."

Catherine was surprised to hear Hanson speaking up beside her.

"He’ll be okay, I’m sure of it," the young woman added.

"Thank YOU, Miss Pollyanna!" Trish Dugan snarled from her seat in the rear of the cabin. "Have you looked around here lately? A hijacker is flying this plane – taking us God knows where. Bill got shot and is probably gonna die. Terrorists are holding guns on us and they’re probably gonna kill us too – that is if they don’t crash this plane first!"

Becky’s eyes widened at this assault from such an unexpected source.

The flight attendant’s voice reached a near-hysterical pitch, and there was a heated flush to her face. "What I DON’T need, is the likes of YOU pumping sunshine up my ass!"

"Trish!" Nathan shouted from his awkward position on the floor, "Shut up, will you?"

"Make me!" Trish screeched over the hum of the plane’s engines.

A shocked silence descended within the first class cabin.

Finally, a low, rumbling voice filled the void. "What’s your name?"

"You know damn right w—"

"WHAT… is your name?" Catherine repeated, cutting her off.

"Trish Dugan," the flight attendant replied, thrusting her chin out defiantly.

"Dugan…" the pilot blinked her eyes up to the ceiling and then down again, nodding. "I’m going to remember that. Listen, Dugan…" Kate pushed herself to her feet, ignoring the throbbing drumbeat in her skull. Leaning on the seatback behind her, she faced Trish dead-on. "Knock it off."

"You can’t—"

"Ssssh!" Kate cocked her head to one side, holding up a silencing finger. "Not a word!" she said, parting her lips to reveal a cold, chilling smile. "Got it?" She narrowed her eyes at the flight attendant. "Or I will personally shove something up your ass, and it won’t be sunshine."

"Y—you wouldn’t…." There was a glimmer of fear in Trish’s eyes now, as she shrank back into her seat, trying to get out of the range of this wild animal that used to be her captain.

"Try me, lady."

Trish started to speak, but when the captain continued to smile, raising an eyebrow expectantly at her, almost daring her to utter a word, she backed down and clamped her mouth shut. With an exasperated snort, she swung herself around and stared silently at the inky-blackness outside her window.

The tension broke. Kate released a sigh, and lowered herself heavily back into her seat.

"Are you okay?" Becky touched a hand to her arm, and Kate could hear the concern in her voice.

"Fine," she said too quickly.

"She’s just scared, you know," Becky said softly. Green eyes looked up at Kate. "We all are."

"Scared or not, there’s no reason for her to snap out that way," the pilot retorted. "It just makes things worse for everybody." Not to mention, she thought, she didn’t like the woman talking that way to Hanson. It just wasn’t professional.

"She’s wrong, isn’t she?" Becky’s voice was softer still. "We are going to make it, right? Bill… is going to make it?"

Dammit, why was the kid putting her on the spot like this? "She’s wrong," Kate said firmly, and she silently cursed herself for making such rash promises. "I’m going to get us out of this."

Kate could sense Hanson relax a bit, and she took some satisfaction in that.

"Good." Becky smiled at Kate’s words. "I know he and Linda were planning a big vacation this summer, for their 30th anniversary. He’d hate to miss that."


"Bill’s wife."

"Oh," Kate said. "I didn’t know he was married. Uh… any kids?"

"Two grown sons – Jimmy got married last year - and a grandchild on the way." Hanson was looking at her curiously.

Kate coughed. "I – that’s nice." How many times had she flown with Bill Samuelson, and never taken the time to find out anything more personal from him than the latest satellite weather reports? He was a first officer she respected and admired, and yet she’d never told him so. Damn.

"How about you?"

"What?" The pilot looked nervously around the plane, wondering if it were possible to change her seat while the hijackers were gone. This Hanson was making her entirely too uncomfortable.

"Do you have… any family?"

Kate hesitated a moment before answering. Did the young blonde next to her really want to hear all about her dysfunctional family? About her drunk, dead father? About how her own pride and ego helped to get Brendan killed? At least she still had one brother left. Never mind the fact that they hadn’t spoken in years.

Or maybe the girl wanted to hear about the mother she still had in Queens. She lived only the East River away from Kate’s Manhattan apartment, but they might as well have been an ocean apart.

"No… not really." Kate gave her the short answer.

"What’s that supposed to mean?" Becky pressed.

Dammit, why didn’t the girl just back off? Catherine released a sharp breath between her pursed lips. "It’s a long story," she said. "I’m not married, if that’s what you’re asking."

A pause. "How about you? Any family?" The pilot surprised herself, asking that question. All it did was serve to sustain this ridiculous conversation. What was the matter with her?

"Oh yeah!" Becky replied, brightening. "I was born in Los Angeles, and my parents still live there. I’ve got an older brother and sister, Johnny and Eileen, and two nieces – so far!"

Kate could hear the affection in the younger woman’s voice as she talked about her family. "What are your nieces’ names?" she asked through gritted teeth.

"Cally is five and… Rebecca," she said proudly, but we call her ‘Becca for short, just so we keep ourselves straight, she was seven last month. They’re Eileen’s kids. I love ‘em so much! They are the best."

Becky hesitated, gulping hard, and then continued. "I promised the girls that I would bring them back souvenirs from Rome. I thought maybe… you know… a couple of those little miniature Coliseums… or else some t-shirts—"

Before Catherine knew what was happening, tears began to spill down Rebecca’s face.

The pilot shifted uneasily in her seat. So, Hanson was a weeper. Great.

"I- I’m sorry," Becky said, embarrassed. "It’s just that I miss them right now." Quickly, she brushed the tears away with her fist, sniffling. "I’ll be fine," she forced a smile. "Really… I will."

Catherine leaned back in her seat, and sighed. She’d better come up with her plan fast, she thought, before Hanson totally fell to pieces. Still, there was something about the girl’s pluckiness, her attitude… that was not entirely off-putting.

"Both," Kate said.


"You’ll get them both, Hanson. The miniatures and the t-shirts. I promise you that."


Stefan and Alexandra emerged from the cockpit together, a silent, conspiratorial look passing between them. A child was crying loudly in the business class section just beyond the closed curtain, and Alexandra moved down the aisle to check it out. Drawing her pistol, she swept the curtain aside and disappeared.

Stefan watched her go, frowning, and then he turned to face Catherine, his gimlet eyes running her through.

"What’s going on?" the pilot boldly asked.

The hijacker sat down sideways on the arm of a seat across from her, and without a trace of emotion he raised the gun to her chest.

"You came from the cockpit. You know how to fly this plane?"

"That’s debatable," she replied.

In a flash she saw it, the back of Stefan’s hand hurtling through the air towards her, but she had no time to react, no way to protect herself from it. The force of his slap whipped her head around sideways and partially shoved her into Hanson.

"Captain!" she heard the young woman gasp, and she felt smaller hands trying to steady her.

Kate slowly turned back to face Bukoshi. She tasted the blood on her lip. "Nice," she said, her tone low and threatening, "Look’s like you’ve found something you’re good at."

Stefan raised a hand to her again, and she could see the fury in his eyes, the purpling flush to his face, as he struggled to control his anger. Some semblance of sanity won out, and the man lowered his fist. "I ask you again," he said in a clipped, dangerous voice, "can you fly this plane?" And casually, as if on a whim, he turned the pistol towards Becky. He never took his eyes off of Kate, perhaps recognizing for the first time the danger she posed to his mission. "Well?"

"Yes," Kate replied, not hesitating this time.

"Interesting…" it was apparent Stefan’s mind was racing, "…now that we understand one another. But to answer your question – Captain, is it? – we are still on course for Tirana."

"It’ll be close," Kate said, indifferently, and she had to raise her voice over the sound of the crying child in order to be heard. He was positively bawling now, and another infant joined in with gusto.

"What will be close?" Stefan stood, his irritation with the racket growing with each passing minute.

"Our fuel," Kate simply replied. Her ears were still ringing from Stefan’s last backhand, but she knew well enough that if she could spark confusion and uncertainty among the hijackers, it couldn’t hurt. "Tirana is a good 350 miles beyond Rome, over open water. I’m not sure what heading your boy in the cockpit has us on, but it doesn’t take much for an inexperienced pilot to burn through fuel needlessly. I wonder at this point if we’ve even got enough left to get to Rome!" and she turned away, dabbing at her lip with the soft cloth Hanson offered her.

"You…" Stefan worked his jaw, and his narrow face hardened. He was about to respond to the pilot, when Mishka burst back through the curtain. Alexandra and Cindy were nowhere in sight. The blood-curdling cries of the children were absolutely deafening now, and Mishka was clearly overwhelmed.

"Shut them UP!" Stefan whirled on Mishka. The younger man’s eyes widened, and he shook his head helplessly.

"Alex and the stewardess are trying… C- Cindy thinks it’s their ears…."

Stefan took a step towards business class, his eyes ablaze. "If you can’t keep them quiet," he roared, then I will!" And with that, he shifted the pistol from one hand to the other, the butt of it facing out, and took off for the curtain.

Damn, I must be getting slow, Kate thought, for she had only just gripped the armrest of her seat when Rebecca Hanson flew past her. She raced towards the rear of the cabin, cutting off Stefan, throwing herself in his path.

"Hanson!" was all she could cry, forcing her aching muscles into a half-standing position. Kate could see Joan’s shocked stare, and Trish Dugan let out an ungodly scream.

"No!" Becky raised her palms as if to ward off the Kosovar. "Please," she said, "leave them be. Me… Cindy… Trish… let us back there. There are over 300 frightened people who need our help! If you just give us a chance—"

"Return to your seat, NOW!" Stefan’s voice shook with rage, and he flipped the pistol so that the muzzle of it now faced Becky.

Kate had seen enough. She started to move.

"Stay where you are." She heard the unmistakable click of a pistol cock, and she looked across the cabin to see that Mishka had her in his sights. Dammit! The pilot froze, but her mind was on hyperdrive. What was with this Hanson? Had she lost her mind?

"Please," Becky was backing up as Stefan continued to press forward. "I’m begging you," and her voice cracked with emotion, "Leave them alone. They don’t mean it. They’re just children! Do whatever you want with me… they’re the innocents here."

"Not anymore," Stefan hissed. He was scant inches from the young blonde, and slowly, deliberately, he raised his pistol to her face, using the tip of the barrel to trace a deadly line along her cheek and chin.

Catherine was livid. Who the hell did this creep think he was? And worse, she was furious with herself for not being able to do anything about it. Kate could see Becky stiffen, boring her green eyes into the hijacker. There was fear there, she could see, and anger too. Kate knew a little something about that, she thought, watching beads of perspiration suddenly form on Hanson’s brow.

No-one in the cabin moved. They were all ensnared in the standoff, in this battle of wills.

"What are you going to do," Becky asked, her voice quiet and controlled, "shoot me?"

Oh God… Kate groaned. It was all she could do not to turn her eyes away from the disaster that was sure to follow.

Rebecca broke, but in a way Catherine never could have predicted: she kept her eyes level with Stefan’s, and cautiously raised her hand to the pistol.

When Hanson’s fingers lightly touched the gun, Kate was frantic. But Mishka’s eyes were on the pilot, and his pistol kept her trapped in her place.

Instead, Kate could only stand and watch as a look of revulsion flashed over the girl’s face, quickly bleeding into defiance. With a shaking hand, Rebecca carefully guided the muzzle sideways, until it was no longer pointed at her.

It was only then that the room began to breathe again.

"Oh, God," Kate heard Joan moan.

"Jesus Christ, Champ," Alan murmured.

"Stefan," Mishka kept his pistol pointed at Kate, "she’s right. Let’s use some of these women here to control the passengers. What harm could it do? This one-at-a-time, once-in-a-while… it isn’t working!" His eyes darted from the pilot to the Kosovar.

Stefan Bukoshi’s chest heaved in angry frustration, as he pondered that thought for a moment. He glared around the first class cabin, acutely aware of all the eyes upon him. Watching. Waiting.

"Very well," he said. "You –" he wagged his pistol at Trish, "go with her."

"Thank you!" Becky breathed a sigh of relief, "You won’t be sorry."

"Keep them quiet, Miss…" his eyes flickered to her name tag, "…Hanson," he warned her, "or it is you who will be sorry."

It had been a long time since Kate had felt as helpless as she did right now. She watched Hanson nod at the hijacker, running a hand through her short blonde hair as she did so.

"C’mon Trish," Becky said. The chastened, older flight attendant appeared to be in a state of shock. "Let’s see if we can’t find those kids some juice," and she turned to leave. But before she did, with one hand on the curtain, she turned to look back at Kate, and gave her a forced, ‘see you later’ smile.

The pilot felt the corner of her own mouth curl up, and she discretely lifted her hand in a small, encouraging wave. She locked eyes with the smaller woman, holding her in her gaze, as if to will some of her own strength into the girl.

God knows, Catherine thought as Hanson disappeared through the curtain, she’s going to need it.


It wasn’t until Rebecca Hanson began transferring ice from the freezer bucket into a tray of small cups, that she realized she was shaking like a leaf.

She stopped what she was doing, and steadied herself by leaning her hands flat on the counter-top in the aft galley. Calm down girl! She concentrated on breathing deeply, on regaining her composure. The hum of the aircraft’s engines, normally a soothing, centering sound to her, left her cold. Perhaps, because for the first time ever in her Orbis career, she wasn’t sure just where she was heading.

God, what was going on here? In the last hour and a half, her world had been turned upside down. Those people with their guns… they had come from no-where. One minute, she and Joan had been trying to extricate that woman from the lavatory.

The next, all hell had broken lose.

There were the shouts and screams of the passengers, and Becky had to admit that her own had been among them, particularly after she’d heard that great crashing sound behind her. From the corner of her eye, she’d seen a blur of motion and of bodies and then, to her horror, she saw Captain Phillips crumpled on the deck.

Becky had instinctively lunged for her, but that blonde woman had blocked her way. And Mishka… waving his pistol from the rear of the cabin… Becky had never been so terrified in all her life. So wild was the look in the young man’s eyes, that she feared the gun would go off at any moment.

She’d been too scared to move, and even more afraid not to, in those first chaotic moments when the hijackers had herded them together, shrieking for them to give in, to get down.

And then another burst of movement near the cockpit. It was the captain, staggering towards the door. But when Becky had seen Alexandra react and deliver a crunching blow to the tall, dark woman’s skull with her pistol, she felt sure she would faint herself.

Until she heard the gunshot.

Everything changed. In a flash of sickening clarity, Becky had realized then that she would need to stay strong, to keep her head. She was responsible for her passengers, for their welfare, and she resolved she would do her damnedest to keep them safe from harm. Whatever it would take to insure their survival. Not to mention that of her fellow crewmembers.

And, if she got lucky, she might just make it herself in the bargain.

It was that determination that had galvanized her into action when Stefan had threatened those children. Becky hadn’t stopped to think about the risks or the consequences. She only knew that she was all that stood between the hijacker and those innocents. She’d had to do something.

Becky felt slightly ill now, as her mind skipped back to that confrontation, and what might have happened if Stefan hadn’t backed down. She’d gotten lucky, that was all, and she shivered at that thought. It was eminently apparent to her that the Kosovar was not normally the ‘backing down’ type.

Becky reached for a pitcher of water, and began filling the cups. The passengers had gotten calmer, seeing additional flight attendants moving up and down the aisles, almost as if they were providing normal in-flight service.

But the reality was far from routine, Becky knew. She wasn’t sure whether the captain had been telling the truth about their fuel situation – it had sounded plausible enough. One thing was for certain, and that was that the pilot was quickly making an enemy of the lead hijacker, Stefan.

A knot formed in the young woman’s stomach as she considered that fact.

The captain had sworn to her that everything would be okay, but right now Becky wondered just how she intended to make that happen. After the blows she had taken from the hijackers… it had seemed forever to Becky before the bleeding had stopped… an eternity before captain’s blue eyes had finally fluttered open after that first attack.

Too damn much blood… Rebecca thought, and she felt the tightness in her chest as she remembered how terrible Bill had looked when they dragged him out of the cockpit.

Becky picked up her tray of ice water, and headed out into the coach cabin. She took a deep breath, steeling herself, forcing a smile to her face. She had to appear confident, calm, to her passengers.

"Ice water?"

An elderly woman gratefully took a cup in a gnarled, trembling hand. "Are we going to die?"

"No… everything’s going to be fine," Becky patted her shoulder reassuringly.

The captain said we’d be okay, Rebecca silently repeated to herself as she moved up the aisle. And in spite of how perilous things looked at the moment, there was something about Catherine Phillips’ resolve, the determination in her voice when she spoke, the flash in her eyes, that made Becky want to believe in her with all her heart. As though it were perfectly normal… routine… for her to have complete faith in this utter stranger. When she’d sat next to her in that first class cabin, she could feel it. The confidence fairly rolled off of her in waves. Even when Stefan challenged her, she stood her ground.

Maybe we’ll get through this after all, Becky thought. Just as the captain says.

God, how she wanted to believe in her.


Kate watched Mishka Rhu pace up and down in the front of the first class section, looking like a man who would rather be anywhere else than where he was. His eyes darted furiously around the cabin, as though he were looking for the nearest exit sign. He would check on Alan and Nathan, and then stomp back to inspect the wounded Bill Samuelson and the senior flight attendant who ministered to him. The first officer still had not stirred, but at least he appeared as stabilized as possible, given the circumstances.

Periodically, the sandy-haired Mishka would squeeze his fists and dig down deep into the pockets of his black coat, and once he even produced what appeared to be a photograph from one of them. But what concerned Kate most of all was they way the ethnic Albanian kept playing with his pistol, nervously cocking and uncocking it.

In Catherine Phillips’ book, one should never pick up a gun unless they were fully capable of using it. She wasn’t sure whether Mishka Rhu was. Not yet, anyway, not from the clues she’d managed to pick up from him.

The young man was obviously in over his head, the pilot could tell that much. She’d seen very little interaction between him and Alexandra, and he seemed to be following Stefan’s lead more out of fear and obedience, rather than anything else.

Kate sighed. She realized she was going to need help if she wanted to regain control of her plane, and looking to this frazzled Kosovar for assistance was as good a place as any to start.

"Can I have some water, please?" Kate was parched, and her voice certainly reflected that fact.

A pair of hazel eyes rested on her for a moment, and then Mishka silently turned towards the forward galley. Quickly, he returned, cautiously handing Kate a cup of water.

"Thanks," she said, relishing the exquisite taste and feel of the cool liquid sliding down her throat.

Mishka began to turn away.


He paused, regarding her questioningly.

"I – I wanted to thank you," Kate thought fast, "for convincing Stefan to let us help the passengers. I was worried," she lowered her eyes, "people could have been hurt."

"It was the right thing to do," Mishka gruffly replied. "Your little friend was right."

Friend? Kate thought the hijacker’s choice of words odd, but she let it pass.

Suddenly, exhaustion seemed to flood through Mishka, and he sighed and took a seat across the aisle from the pilot. Still, he kept his pistol drawn.

"I hate flying," he said glumly. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard.

The plane was vibrating more than it had in the last hour, and unfortunately Kate had no idea as to why. She estimated that if the Italian pilot had maintained the airspeed programmed into the flight director, that they were about an hour out of Rome. Tirana would be roughly on the same vector, on the far side of the Adriatic. It was still dark outside the windows of the big jet, but dawn would be coming soon.

"I can’t say I would’ve given you a smoother ride," Kate offered him a weak smile.

Mishka grunted and looked away. Raised voices were once again coming from the cockpit, and it was obvious the Kosovar was trying to listen in.

During a lull in the argument, the pilot thought she’d give conversation another try. "Do you have any family in Kosovo, Mishka?"

Right question or wrong, Kate couldn’t be sure, but it elicited an immediate, emotional response.

"What do you care?" he shouted, as pain and anguish seared across his face.

"I care," Kate said quietly, and she was surprised to find that she did.

Mishka ran the sleeve of his coat under his nose, and turned a pair of bloodshot, tearful eyes to her. "I am here to win independence for my homeland. To avenge the slaughter of thousands of my people. But I can never bring back… Natasha."

"Natasha was—"

"My baby sister," he began to sob. "So young, so innocent… with her whole life ahead of her. And the Serbs killed her. Butchers!" he cried.

"I am so sorry," Kate reached her hand across the aisle and placed it comfortingly on his arm.

He did not pull away.

"But you have to help me, Mishka. Help me to understand what you’re doing now. How hurting these innocent people makes all that go away?"

The Kosovar lifted his eyes to meet two sparkling blue orbs. He saw no guile in them, and for the first time during this interminable flight, he began to wonder if there might be a way out of this mess. If only Stefan hadn’t shot that pilot….

Echoing Mishka’s thoughts, the pilot nodded towards her first officer. "When does the hurting stop?"

She felt as though she had made some small strides with Mishka; the young man’s face was a road-map of emotions, and in truth it pained Catherine to see the suffering and desperation that were apparent there.

"Stefan..." Mishka seemed to be at a loss for words, "Stefan says that by bringing America directly into the war, we will be able to force the Serbs out of Kosovo. We can’t do it on our own! We don’t want a ‘NATO’ peace. We will not rest until we have complete independence from Yugoslavia!" His voice rose with the passion of that last statement.

"Everyone wants to be free," Catherine said. "I understand that. But are you fighting for it in a way that would make Natasha proud of you?"

Mishka blinked, and turned away. "I never asked her."

"I don’t think you needed to," Kate said. And a silence fell between them.

After a time, loud voices again drifted in from the cockpit, words Kate could not understand. Mishka pushed himself to his feet, cocking his head, and listened intently.

"What is it?"

The pilot was surprised when the Kosovar answered her, though he seemed to be speaking more to himself as he did so. "It’s Roberto," he said. "He’s telling Stefan that we can’t go to Tirana after all. The Albanians are refusing us safe haven. We must fly on to Kosovo."

With a sharp hitch, Kate sucked in her breath, turning to the blackness outside her window. For Captain Catherine Phillips, this never-ending night had just gotten a helluva lot darker. And even more deadly.


"You’re mad, Stefan!" Roberto swore. "This is suicide!" The Italian’s dark features were flushed with anger. "We can’t just… fly into Pristina! There’s a war going on! And if I’m reading this fuel display properly," he banged the tip of a finger on the screen, "I’m not certain we even have enough fuel to make it!"

"Our Albanian brothers have turned us away?" Stefan sneered, gazing out the front windscreen into the blackness, "We will show them! We will fly this plane all the way to Kosovo. To our capital!" Stefan’s eyes blazed. "That bitch was lying to save her own skin. We must have enough fuel! In a plane of this size!"

"I’m telling you no, Stefan!" Roberto was panicking now. He never imagined that Albania would refuse them – weren’t they allies, after all? And now, the alternative that Stefan was suggesting – to fly into the devil’s mouth of a war zone – no way. Roberto Andizzi did not sign up for this. Surely, his Alex would understand. He was refusing Stefan only to save all their lives.

This battle to free Kosovo, they would have to leave for another day.

"To Pristina," Stefan insisted. "Tell them."

"Don’t you understand, you idiot? They won’t even talk to me! They’ll shoot us down like dogs, I tell you - and they’ll be glad of it! We will be illegally entering Serb-controlled airspace!"

Stefan’s eyes narrowed at the pilot’s words.

"It’s suicide…." he muttered again, desperately examining the display panels, wishing he could find a better solution there.

Just then, Alexandra returned to the cockpit. Other than the pistol she held, her cool, calm exterior gave no indication that she had been helping to hold an entire plane hostage over the past several hours. Rather, she looked as though she’d simply strayed out of a page from Vogue, in search of a canapé or two.

"What’s happening?" she swung her eyes from Roberto to Stefan.

"Tirana is refusing us landing rights," Stefan explained, eyeing Alexandra carefully. "We are going on to Pristina. But Roberto here seems to have a problem with that. There is no reasoning with him, Alexandra," the Kosovar said in a hardened voice, "none at all."

A pause, and then Alexandra slowly, seductively, moved closer to Roberto.

"Roberto, darling, is this true?"

"We can’t go to Pristina," Roberto cried out. "We’ll be shot out of the sky before we can get ten kilometers inside the border! I won’t do it I tell you!"

Trying to figure out how to fly this blasted plane was one thing, but understanding his ravishing Alexandra Sadrio was another. She was a thing of simple beauty. Closer and closer she came, smiling, and a wave of relief swept through Roberto. She understood him, clearly saw the logic of his reasoning, and he pushed himself back from the control column to welcome her into an unexpected embrace.

Yes, he thought, as he felt her lips caress his own, together they would stand up to Stefan. Later, after this was all over, he would find another way to help Alexandra free her homeland. But that would have to wait until after their holiday in Ischia.

"Alex… please.…" he groaned, feeling her hands roaming along his arms, his back, tracing the line of his strong muscles. The sensation was electrifying. God, he and Alexandra were so good together! So what if Stefan was watching them? Let the bastard suffer!

The tall blonde’s tongue danced with his, flicking, teasing, and then forcefully probing deeper, just as her hands moved around towards his middle, snagging his belt buckle.

"Il mio dio!" Roberto sighed. His woman’s passion for him was insatiable!

Suddenly, Alexandra broke away.

Roberto was left breathless; his Alexandra had stolen away his wind with the heat of her kisses.

Alexandra smiled thinly at him, her lips still red from her assault on him.

"Sciocco," she said, still smiling. Fool. She tapped the tip of his nose with her index finger.

"What--?" At first he thought he had misunderstood. And then he saw her back away, still smiling all the while, only now she was holding a second pistol in her hand.

His. She had cleanly plucked it from him.

Dumbly, he regarded her, trying to process what he was seeing. No….

Alexandra was standing next to Stefan now. She tucked the additional pistol into the rear waistband of her slacks, hiding the weapon from view with her dark blazer. Then, in a move that rocked Roberto to his core, she leaned into Stefan, put her hand on the back of his neck, and kissed him deeply.

After a few scant seconds that seemed an eternity, Alexandra came up for air. She swiveled her head towards Roberto, an evil smirk now over-spreading her features. Beside her, Stefan too smiled. A cold, possessive grin that told Roberto he’d been bested. Alexandra was no longer his. If she ever had been.

"We are going home to Pristina," the blonde Kosovar told him. "Whether you are flying this plane or not.

That did it. "Puttana!" the Italian roared, lunging for her.

And then the cold muzzle of Stefan’s pistol jammed hard against his cheek, stopping Roberto in his tracks. The pilot was sweating now, staining through his expensive custom-made shirt. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut, fearing what was to come. How had he mistaken that trash for a real woman?

"You will fly this plane," Stefan said, his lips close against Roberto’s ear, "or I will shoot you where you stand."

Roberto bobbed his head in agreement, feeling the pressure of the gun leave his cheek after one final jab. He opened his eyes, and slowly made his way back to the pilot’s seat, acutely aware of Alex and Stefan watching him.

So, he could die now, by Stefan’s hand, or die later, at the business end of a Serbian surface-to-air missile.

‘Later’ sounded good to Roberto Andizzi. At least he would have the satisfaction of seeing that bastard and whore go down with him.


"Mishka, what now?" Kate pressed. The commotion in the cockpit had risen in tempo after Alexandra had returned. "I can’t understand it, but it doesn’t sound good."

"Roberto doesn’t want to go to Pristina… he says we’ll be shot down—"

"He’s right," Kate said gravely, boring her blue eyes into Mishka. She was making a connection with him, she could feel it. But time was running out.

"Stefan… Stefan is… forcing him to do it." Mishka turned away and ran his hand through his hair. With a sigh, he began pacing again.

"Mishka, listen to me." Kate swung a quick, furtive glance at her colleagues around the cabin: they all were showing signs of the strain of being pushed to their emotional and physical limits. They couldn’t take much more.

"You’ve got to do something," she continued. "We… have got to do something."

Hazel eyes met Catherine’s in a glimmer of understanding.

"Don’t you see?" The pilot rushed on, "We won’t have to worry about getting shot down, we’ll already have flamed out into the Adriatic for lack of fuel!"

The Kosovar hesitated. "I don’t know… what if—"

"Look, Mishka, I’m a pilot, not a diplomat. But it seems to me that your cause is a just one. Your people have suffered terribly. But hasn’t there been enough dying already?" Kate gestured towards the rear of the plane. "Threatening these people… leading them to their deaths… what kind of justice is that? It makes you no better than the evil you’re fighting against!" She paused, gazing levelly at him. "Don’t give into it… like Stefan has."

"It wasn’t supposed to happen this way…." Mishka’s shoulders sagged, and he plopped down into the seat next to the pilot. For the first time, he lowered his pistol.

"Let me land this plane," Kate said firmly. "We can still save Bill… nobody else has to be hurt."

"I don’t know.…" tears began to roll down Mishka’s face.

"It’s hard to live and work peacefully to see your homeland through to independence," Kate said, "but it’s worth it, I think. Violence and death, that’s easy way out. It’s your choice to make." Wow, Catherine wondered to herself, when did you become such a philosopher? Especially when she considered the fact that she had preached to Mishka a doctrine that she herself hadn’t always thought was true. When did all that change? Catherine Phillips hadn’t a clue.

With a soft sob, Mishka reached into his coat pocket and withdrew a battered photograph. A young, dark-haired girl, with an angelic, gap-toothed smile gazed up at him. "Natasha…." he cried. Cried as he hadn’t allowed himself to do since longer than he could remember.



Alexandra Sadrio emerged through the cockpit door. The blonde, dark-eyed woman bore no signs of the drama that had just unfolded on the flight deck, other than running the sleeve of her blazer across her mouth. Mishka was standing at the front of the cabin, his pistol trained on Alan and Nathan.

"We’re going to Pristina," the blonde said calmly, carefully eyeing Mishka for his response.

Mishka smiled thinly. "Home," he replied.

Alexandra nodded an affirmation. "Where are those stewardesses?" she complained. "They’ve been back there too long!" She began to move past Mishka and Kate.

It all hinged on Mishka now, Kate worried. Could he do it?

The blonde was two steps beyond Mishka, and just in front of where the tall pilot was seated.

And then it happened. There was Mishka, sweeping up behind Alexandra, chopping down on her pistol arm and clamping a hand over her mouth. The pistol fell harmlessly to the deck.

That was Kate’s signal to spring into action. She lunged towards the woman, just as Alexandra shoved her elbow sharply into Mishka’s gut.

"Oof!" he staggered backwards.

Kate rammed shoulder-first into the hijacker, driving her back and over the top of a seat. The pilot followed her.

"Ohhh…." Kate heard a cry from the rear of the plane. Hanson, evidently, had re-appeared.

"I’m getting the gun," came Alan Ross’s hoarse whisper. He and Nathan had been freed of their bonds by Mishka, as part of the plan.

The wind was knocked out of both women, as they fell between the rows of seats. But the pilot had landed on top of Alexandra, and for a moment they both were still, locking eyes on one another; each apprising, ascertaining the strengths of the other. Kate, gasping for breath, was stunned at the level of hatred she saw in the blonde’s eyes.

The black eyes narrowed. Suddenly, a bended knee came up, and the Kosovar planted a foot firmly in Kate’s stomach. Back the pilot flew over the seats from whence she came, twisting, and landing hard in the aisle on her right side. This one’s not going down without a fight, she thought, quickly scrambling to her feet, worrying that the skirmish would attract Stefan’s attention.

And then she froze.

For the first time, Alexandra looked slightly the worse for the wear. Her finely coifed hair was askew, and the shirttail of her silk blouse trailed down the side of her hip. Her chest heaved in fury, as she pointed a second pistol at Catherine.

Alexandra began swinging the weapon around the cabin, and she took a step towards the cockpit. "Don’t move, anyone!" her voice was a choking rasp.

Kate kept her eye on the gun. She rolled lightly on the balls of her feet, thinking fast, considering her options. Mishka was breathing heavily, just getting to his feet. Alan and Nathan had stopped dead in their tracks, the fear of ending up like Bill very real in both their eyes. And there was Joan, leaning her body over the unconscious pilot, in a protective gesture.

"Don’t, Captain," it was Hanson’s voice, low and pleading behind her.

Kate swiveled back to Alexandra. She could see a flash of triumph pass over the woman’s face… a gleam in her eyes. She was enjoying her victory.

Dammit, this has to stop! Kate thought, and she threw herself on the hijacker.

The gun was pointing directly at her. She could see Alexandra’s finger whiten on the trigger.


Nothing happened.

Catherine barreled into Alexandra, taking her down hard this time, shoving her onto the deck. She had to admit it, she enjoyed the look of stunned shock on the tall blonde’s face, wondering what the hell had just happened. And then she started to struggle beneath her. Kate hauled back and slammed her fist into the woman’s jaw, and the resistance stopped.

"Sorry if that hurt you," Kate muttered grimly to the unconscious woman, echoing the hijacker’s own words earlier, "but it couldn’t be helped." She stood with a groan, dusting herself off.


Kate turned around to see a blanched, wide-eyed Rebecca Hanson.

"You are insane," Becky said, aghast.

"I’ve been called worse," Catherine grinned. "Actually…" she pulled a small narrow pin, about an inch long, from her pocket. She proudly displayed it to her slack-jawed crewmates. "… I knew the pistol wouldn’t work without this."

"A firing pin," Mishka drew up behind her. He took the pin from her, examining it.

"Yeah," Kate said. "I found it in the lavatory after Roberto was in there."

"But how did you know whose gun—" Becky was having trouble following the pilot’s reasoning.

"I knew Stefan’s pistol worked," Kate soberly nodded towards Bill, "and you weren’t in first class," she looked at Mishka.

"But still," Becky persisted, gazing at the pilot in wonder, "how did you know whether that was Roberto’s or Alexandra’s gun?"

Kate hesitated. "I didn’t" she said simply, and shrugged. "But it seemed as good a time as any to take a chance."

Becky closed her eyes and breathed deeply. Stay calm… stay calm… she chanted to herself, holding onto a nearby seat-back for balance. This Catherine Philips was just crazy enough to maybe save all their lives.

"Tie her up and keep an eye on her," Kate said to Mishka. She moved closer to the Kosovar. "You okay?"

He gulped hard and nodded an affirmative.

Catherine gave his arm a gentle squeeze. "Ya done good. Now," steel-blue eyes flickered towards the cockpit, "I’m gonna go get my god-damned plane back."


There was no time to waste. Kate cautiously approached the flight deck, silently motioning to Alan and Nathan behind her. They had their instructions. She would go for Stefan. They would follow after she’d disarmed him – how she wasn’t quite sure yet - and get him out of the cockpit. They’d have to make sure Roberto wasn’t giving them any trouble, either. But after what Mishka had heard earlier, she doubted it.

Mishka… Kate’s heart went out to the young man. He’d simply been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Given similar circumstances, Kate wondered whether she might’ve done the same as he? She would never know.

She had asked Mishka and the rest of her crew-mates to steer clear of the cockpit unless absolutely necessary; with so much delicate equipment in the ‘front office’ needed to fly the big bird, the last thing she wanted was to see any of it damaged.

The pilot breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth several times, in quick succession, energizing herself. She nodded reassuringly at Alan and Nathan. The young men looked scared, but also determined to help wrest control of the plane back from the hijackers. This was the only chance they would get.

Catherine felt cold. Goose-bumps peppered her forearms, a result of the chilled air being pumped through the cabin by the plane’s environmental controls. She had to remember to adjust that once she regained her pilot’s seat. Her hands were cold, particularly the one that gripped butt of the pistol to which she’d just added a missing firing pin. And there was a calm, calculating coldness in her mind… the pit of her stomach… her heart. She’d found it best in the past to enter such a state of focused, heightened awareness, prior to undertaking any mission. In her mind, by separating herself from her emotions, and from those of the people around her, she was more effectively able to achieve her objective. Never had she needed that skill more, than at this very moment.

The tall, dark woman silently mouthed a ‘now’ to the men, and she ducked into the cockpit, pistol drawn.

There was Roberto, sitting at the controls. The Italian spun around in his seat, nervous perspiration dotting his brow, and a stricken, sickly look on his handsome features.

Where the hell was Stefan?

Too late, Catherine realized something must’ve tipped him off. She followed Roberto’s wide, green eyes to the cockpit door.

Shit! Stefan had been behind it. The door swung forward, hard, smashing into Kate’s side, throwing her into the bulkhead. The pilot watched helplessly as her pistol was jarred loose and flew to the opposite side of the cabin.

Quickly, she recovered, knowing her life depended on it. She moved towards Stefan, catching the maddened gleam of fury in his ghostly eyes, and she watched him take aim with his pistol.

Kate felt herself slightly lose contact with the floor of the plane, as it dipped in the sky. That damned heavy air again, but she welcomed it this time, because it was just enough to temporarily throw Stefan off his balance. He flailed his arms wildly, and Kate heard the sickening pop! of a shot plunking into the insulated ceiling of the plane. Taking advantage, she swung her foot into the air, landing it solidly on his wrist. Now it was the hijacker’s turn to be disarmed. Thank God for ‘Unarmed Combat’ ! wisped through her brain. A course at the Academy that had been a guilty pleasure of the pilot’s.

"You…!" Stefan roared in pain, backing away, fumbling for something in his coat pocket.

"It’s over, Stefan," Kate growled, moving in close. Was he carrying another weapon? She couldn’t be sure. At the same time, she desperately tried to track down the other two guns in the cockpit. "Don’t even think about it, Roberto," she called back over her shoulder.

"No….no-no-no…" came the anguished cry of relief from behind her. "Grazie Dio… thank God you are here!"

Stefan stumbled against the starboard bulkhead, as turbulence once again rocked the plane. "I said stay back!"

"No way," Kate countered, holding up a warning hand towards the cockpit door. It was too soon for the young flight attendants, not until she’d broken Stefan. "Mishka’s given up!" And then, thinking ‘why not?’ she added, "Alexandra has, too!"

"You’re lying," he swore, spittle flying from his mouth.

"Why don’t you go in there and ask them?"

"NO!!!" And then Stefan found what he was looking for. He whipped from his pocket a small device; to Kate it reminded her more of a travel alarm clock, than anything else. However, judging by the curled red and blue wires dangling from the back of it, she feared it was anything but.

"I will blow this plane from the sky!" he shook the device at her, his thumb poised over an orange button, "I swear it."

Fuck! The pilot thought. Could it be a bomb – really? How could one have gotten aboard? With all the security checks at JFK and at Orbis… impossible. Still, the hijackers had somehow managed to get those modified firearms on the plane. Was it too big a stretch to consider they’d done the same with an explosive device? Kate shuddered at that thought.

"Stefan – no!" Roberto shrieked.

"Keep your hands on that stick, Roberto!" Kate warned.

"Si… si bella!"

She returned her attention to Stefan. "Give that to me," she stepped in closer.

"Keep back!" he screeched, shrinking into the bulkhead.

"Look around you," Kate waved her arm, her heart pounding in her chest like a trip-hammer, "it’s all over."

Stefan shifted his eyes from the cockpit door, to the front windscreen, and finally back to the tall pilot. First his homeland had rejected him, then his allies, and now his friends and his lover. He, a man who once thought he had nothing to lose, had lost everything.


Stefan’s lower lip trembled slightly. Taking in a great gulp of air, he made his decision. If this was a battle he could not win, then neither would anyone else.

"It’s over," Kate repeated, reaching out her hand to receive the detonator.

"Not yet," the Kosovar replied, and his thumb pressed down on the button.

The hackles on the back of Kate’s neck stood up, and she froze, listening. For a moment, she thought the hijacker had been bluffing after all. They were all right! And then she felt a dull thump, coming from deep within the bowels of the plane. The muffled sound of it reminded Catherine of the times when she’d accidentally run her jeep over those dumb opossums on the night highway outside of Randolph.

In the split second that followed the thump – nothing happened. Kate turned a pair of startled, blue eyes to Stefan. She could see the confusion on his face. Obviously, this was not the outcome he’d been hoping for.

The pilot reached out for the Kosovar. "You’re coming with—"

She never finished the sentence.

Kate felt her body lift from the deck of the cockpit, and she temporarily imagined herself suspended in a weightless ballet, before she was roughly thrown down to the earth. The back of her head crunched against the thinly carpeted floor.

"Aaah!" she cried out, seeing stars. She lost track of Stefan.

Screams. Roberto’s? Her own? And then the harsh, grinding, metallic sound of something giving way. Like two wrecked bumpers scraping apart… or a fuselage being rented open.

Kate was rolling now, spinning towards the rear of the cockpit. In spite of the labored whine of the engines, the warning klaxons, the confusion of her spatial disorientation - her pilot’s training told her very well what was going on.

The plane was in a dive.


When she heard the shot fired, for the second time during the dark night Rebecca Hanson felt terror and helplessness wrench at her gut.

Trish Dugan yelped as though she had been the one fired upon.

"Oh no…" Cindy Walters face paled, and she gripped Joan’s arm, hard.

Mishka could not help it. With one look at Alexandra still slumbering peacefully, he started to move towards the cockpit.

Later, looking back on it, Becky wasn’t able to recall what inner force made her propel herself towards the front of the plane; what compelled her to push past Mishka, fighting the turbulence, stopping short only when she came up on Alan and Nathan crouched outside the cockpit door. She only knew that Captain Catherine Phillips was busy trying to save all their lives while risking her own… and she simply couldn’t stand by and do nothing if the taller woman was in trouble.

"Christ!" Alan swore. He spun around, grabbing Becky by the arm. "What the hell are you doing up here? Get back!"

"What’s happening?" Becky tried to control the anxiety in her voice. "I heard a shot--"

"That bastard Stefan!" Nathan’s dark eyes sparkled with both excitement and fear. "He tried taking a shot at the captain. And now—"

"We think he’s got a bomb!" Alan finished for him, his normally tan face had turned unusually sallow.

"No… we’ve got to help her!" Becky tried to wrench from Alan’s grasp.

Loud voices and a crash came from within the cockpit. Then, conversation. Tense, and in lowered tones.

"Not yet!" Nathan hissed. "The captain hasn’t given the signal!"

"Let me go—" The little blonde again tried pulling away, until she felt a rumble and a thud coming from beneath her feet. She froze. Not a good sign, feeling the floor undulate beneath her feet.

"What the fuck was that?" Nathan swiveled his head around the cabin, looking for the source of the sound.

Becky took advantage of her colleagues’ confusion, and she tugged herself free.

"Something’s wrong," he voice was hard, and her green eyes blazed at the men, challenging them.

Alan sighed. He knew he’d been beaten by the young Californian. She sure had one hell of a backbone for such a little thing! "Let’s go," he motioned to Nathan, "and you wait here, Champ, okay?"

Alan stood still, his warm blue eyes looking down upon her, waiting for her answer. In retrospect, Rebecca was sure she would have said ‘yes.’ It was just that she wasn’t given a chance to do so.

For there was no time for words, only the beginnings of a breathless scream, when the floor fell away from beneath her feet.


Oh God…. G-forces kicked in, pinning Catherine to the rear bulkhead like a wrestler to the mat. All sorts of debris flew by, blinding her: dust, papers, a gum wrapper. The breath was wrenched from her lungs, choking off any words… robbing her of her strength. The pilot didn’t know how severe the hull breach was, but the one thing she did know was that the only way they would have any chance at all was if she could make it to the 777-200’s control column.

Slowly, agonizingly, she began to inch her way across the flight deck, plotting a course for the pilot’s seat. She could see that Roberto had been thrown to starboard side of the cockpit, close to the first officer’s position.

Good, she thought grimly. I don’t have to actually kick him out of my seat! The pilot clawed at the woolen carpeting, straining… pulling on the soldered-down instrumentation panels, the frame which held the leathered seats. She wasn’t sure if she could actually smell smoke or if she imagined it, but just the hint of it creeping into her awareness jolted her with that last burst of energy she needed.

With a defiant cry issuing from her throat, the pilot heaved herself into her seat, shoving the dangling O2 mask aside. Many of the matrix displays either vibrated with incomprehensible data streams and warning flashes, or were entirely blacked out. Kate instantly understood that whatever else damage the blast had done, it had blown out the main electrical buses on the fly-by-wire system. All programmed controls and safeties were off. What flying remained to be done would be hands-on, from here-on-out.

Thank God the artificial horizon was still working, but Kate’s senses were already telling her what she needed to know. The diving plane was steeply banking to the left. Desperately, she jammed her foot on the right rudder pedal, so hard she thought she might punch a hole through the floor. She trimmed the right ailerons all the way, and she heard in response the wind screaming out a protest against the over-stressed wings. Finally, with a whisper of a prayer to a God she wasn’t sure she believed in, she pulled the control column up as far as it would go, desperately hoping that the nose of the diving 777-200 would respond.

It was a last ditch maneuver, she knew. Trying to trade airspeed for altitude this way, forcing the fuselage to its very limits, was a fool’s gamble even had her plane been whole. In the nightmare of her mind’s eye Kate, visualized the great wings of the Boeing jet ripping away from the airframe, surrendering to the immutable laws of physics. Then, it would be a race between the wings and the main fuselage, to see which would slam into the rock-hard ocean first.

"C’mon…" Kate willed the nose up. The aircraft heaved and shook, indignant at being flown in so outrageous a fashion, and the roar of the big PW4098 engines began to drown out the tornado winds in the cockpit.

"Do it…" The pilot’s hands rattled violently on the control column; the balky stick was rudely trying to throw her free. But Kate had already decided that one way or another, her hands were not leaving the controls of this plane. Her passengers’ lives were at stake. People who didn't deserve to die. People who had earned a second chance… the image of Mishka flashed before her eyes… and people whose lives had barely begun. People who had so much more living left to do. Hanson, for instance.

There! What was that? Kate thought she’d detected some slight change in the aircraft’s attitude. A quick check of the artificial horizon confirmed it. They had started to pull out of it!

"Go baby, go!" Kate could feel it now, the roiling of the blood in her veins that told her she had become one with the beast, had merged with it for a time, so as to save them both.

The pilot could see the gossamer-tipped whitecaps of the ocean below, glimmering in a pre-dawn glow, but the waters were not racing up quite so fast now.

"Unnhh…" Roberto started to regain his senses. He held the back of his head while scrambling into the co-pilot’s seat. "Wa—"

"Later," Kate shouted over the engines, her hands still in a white-knuckled death grip upon the sluggish wheel. It was like driving a fully loaded semi-trailer without power steering, Kate thought. The power of the dive was frightening. She swore she could hear the airframe’s rivets popping free, smell the brine of the salt waters languidly pulsating below.

After hours-long seconds, she felt the pressure on her aching back muscles ease, as the G-factor reduced in response to the plane’s leveling off. Finally, she had it! The plane pulled out of the dive, and not a moment too soon. Kate released the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. They were alive, for the moment anyway. Now, she had time to fully grasp the extent of the countless problems shouting at her from the control panels. But which indicators to trust or not?

A visual check out her starboard windscreen told her one flashing warning was very real: a fire in the number two engine. The blast must have splintered an oil or fuel line tracking through the wing. Without her FBW, it was difficult to tell. But the regulation response was a no-brainer. She flipped the cut-off switch to the engine, watching with relief as the fire sputtered and flamed out.

Their odds for survival had just gotten worse.

Under normal conditions, the plane could remain airborne with only one engine. But now… without knowing the fuselage damage, let alone how the explosion had affected the plane’s hydraulics, the pilot was worried about an engine stall or a rudder hard-over. Each were a distinct possibility with reduced airspeed and manual flying.

"Saddle up, Roberto," Kate gestured to the flight controls. "I’m going to need all the help I can get."

Motion. The rear of the cockpit. It was Stefan again. Didn’t that guy know when to stay down? Crawling along the floor… of course! He was reaching for a pistol wedged against a rear jumpseat.

Not good. There was no way she could leave her seat now, and still keep this plane in the air. She was helpless.

Dammit! she swore, as the plane started shuddering. What now? She could barely read the instruments vibrating on the panels.

"Yeeeah!" In through the cockpit door, burst Alan and Nathan. Bless their Orbis hearts, she was never so happy to see a flight crew in all her life.

"Get Stefan out of here!" Catherine growled, but her request was unnecessary. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Alan and Nathan tackle the hijacker, one leg each, as if they were playing in a rugby scrum, trying to drag him out.

Stefan almost had his fingers on the tip of a pistol, when the force of the men on him, together with another hit of air turbulence, pulled his hand up short. The weapon slid away from his outstretched grasp.

"Watch the gun!" Nathan’s voice.

"Dammit!" Kate fought to control the plane as it began to push into a right-hand turn, driven by the single port engine.

"I see it!" Alan sang out, but the Kosovar saw it, too. The plane chose that moment to roll sharply, right, then re-adjust itself as if it had a mind of its own. With a violent kick, Stefan managed to free one leg and shove Alan back on his haunches.

The jarring rattle of the aircraft sounded as if it were hitched to a runaway train, fighting Kate every inch of the way, as she frantically toggled and tested what controls she could get to.

"What do you want me to do?" Roberto’s shirt was drenched in sweat now.

Kate spared him a quick, no-nonsense glare. "Exactly what I say. Nothing more, nothing less."

The Italian pilot gulped and nodded, staring down at the displays.

Kate worked the rudder pedals furiously. "C’mon…"

The plane rolled again, not as severe a motion as the last, but it was enough for the pistol to slide across the decking and directly into Stefan’s hand.

"He’s got a gun!" Nathan’s voice rose an octave.

"Watch out—"


"What the – Becky!"

Catherine’s head swung around sharply at that, but from there on in, to her eye, everything rolled in slow motion.

Rebecca Hanson, rushing through the cockpit door, her green eyes sweeping around the flight deck, taking it all in, making contact with the pilot’s own sea-blue gaze, then moving on to the pistol in the hijacker’s hand.

Stefan, twisting on the floor of the plane, bringing Kate into his sights.

A wild-eyed look on Nathan’s face… the young man lunging for the weapon.

But Catherine Phillips already knew he would be too late. The airplane’s stick began to shudder in her fist. More warnings blared uselessly into the cockpit. A stall was close at hand.

Nooo! Kate had never felt more helpless in her life, yet still she continued to fight it. "C’mon you bastard!" she shouted at the control column, and she was forced to push the nose down again, generating airspeed. At the same, she braced herself for the ripping impact of the bullet she knew was coming.

The crackle of gunfire, more shouts – and Kate was surprised to feel nothing after all. But she heard it… a soft cry behind her, and a thud.

"Becky!" Alan’s croaking voice.

Anger, fear, and concern exploded in the pilot all at once. A desperate, quick glance behind her told her more than she needed to know. There was Hanson, slumped on the floor; a red, sticky wetness over-spreading the white, left shoulder of her blouse.

"No…" Kate groaned aloud, closing her eyes briefly against a vision that was wrong… all wrong. It should have been her lying there, not the young blonde. Damn you Hanson! She fought back the growing, fluttering panic in her stomach, and tried to overrule her lurching heart with all the practical sense she could muster, I’m not worth it!

Too late Nathan reached the gun, and unleashed a blistering uppercut to Stefan’s narrow, angled jaw. "Fuck you… fuck you…" the dark haired flight attendant sobbed, pounding on the terrorist.

The stick was shaking so hard in Kate’s hands now, that she feared her teeth might rattle out of her head. She did a quick inventory: hijackers out of commission – good. Explosion on board, major digital systems out, manual systems sluggish – not so good. Her first officer wounded, one engine dead, and Hanson… she pushed that thought out of her head.

By God, she still had one engine that worked. A rage boiled up within her, and a passion… a hunger for survival, did too. Whether she could attribute it to her Celtic mother, her Greek father, or a hybrid of both, she did not know. But as long as the plane had power, she had a chance.

After all they had been through, after all that had been ventured and sacrificed, she had no intention of losing this plane now.

"Alan… Nathan…" she shouted over the din, "get them out of here…" and looking at Hanson’s pale face, "help her…." she fought the tremor in her voice at that. Wordlessly, Alan was already scooping up the young woman into his arms.

Kate swallowed hard, and turned back to her controls. She stared out over the open water, her blue eyes mirrored in the ocean glimmering below.

"Prepare for an emergency landing. And shut my god-damned door!" There was a bang! as the door thwacked closed, and they were gone.

"W- wh- where are we landing, Capitano??" Roberto was in a near panic.

The pilot checked her few working displays, absorbing what the readings told her. Screw it all, she was bringing this bird in on time. Her eyes narrowed.



Concluded in Part 4

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