The pilot and navigator tensed as the flock swooped and turned, until it was flying directly towards them, less than a mile away now.
Hoa Man tried to take evasive action, but the birds turned with him, getting closer, ever closer, until they were all he could see, all that anyone could see; the cockpit window was filled with the birds, coming relentlessly towards them, a huge black cloud of birds that seemed to fill the whole sky.
Glauber watched as the birds soared towards the aircraft. The woman next to him gripped his arm reflexively, her fingers tight with anxiety.
The birds swarmed from all sides, all over the aircraft, and the plane lurched up and down as if hitting turbulence. Glauber heard the woman next to him scream, heard others scream all through the cabin; and then the birds were gone, the sky outside clear once more.
‘What the hell is going on?’ the woman asked breathlessly. ‘What do they want?’
Glauber’s brow furrowed, as he searched the sky for the birds. What do they want? He had never considered the idea. What do animals want? Food, shelter, to reproduce; Glauber knew that, as far as an animal could want anything, it wanted to survive. But how was this behaviour accomplishing anything? Flying towards the plane in a group of thousands, maybe millions, then breaking away and flying off? It seemed that the purpose was merely to frighten the people in the aircraft, but that was clearly ridiculous. Why would any animal want to do that?
‘I don’t know,’ he admitted.
There were cries from around the cabin — There! — Over on the right! — There they are! — and Glauber saw them again, circling in smaller groups, swarming and then breaking away as they had before. But he realized moments later that this was another group entirely. Surely it must be. The aircraft would be travelling at well over five hundred miles per hour, an impossible speed for birds to keep pace with.
This realization filled him with even greater horror. It was as if nature was rebelling. It seemed utterly impossible for there to be another group of these birds; but there they were, as before, coalescing into a huge, living, pulsating mass.
‘They’re coming again,’ Flight Navigator Huan said, his voice urgent, panic creeping in. Their flight training was rigorous — what to do in case of mechanical malfunction, terrorist attack, even how to keep control in the face of a hurricane — but nothing had prepared him for this.
‘A different flock,’ Man said, his tone uneven, disbelieving.
Huan nodded his head; he could see the two separate groups on his radar system, the first group left far behind. Two separate groups of birds, both acting in a way which seemed to contradict the very laws of nature. What did it mean?
But then this group of birds was on them also, and he heard Man grunting with the effort of keeping the plane stable as it was rocked up and down, side to side, by the army — for that was surely the word for it — of winged creatures, no longer the benign little angels that Huan had once believed them to be, but savage beasts, cruel and vindictive.
The plane was rocked harder this time, for longer, but the army finally passed again, flying away to swarm and regroup. Huan breathed a sigh of relief.
‘Damage report?’ Man demanded, doing his best to retain his professionalism, although the sweat that dripped down his face revealed the pressure he was under.
Huan’s keen eyes swept the instruments, trying to identify any irregularities — altitude, oil pressure, fuel, engine temperature, bearing, rudder adjustment — but miraculously everything was still fine, all as it should be.
‘Nothing,’ he reported, regaining some of his own composure.
Glauber wasn’t sure which was more frightening — the third group of birds, massing again in their millions underneath the dark, ominous clouds, creating a huge, even more menacing cloud of their own — or the scene inside the aircraft, where fear and panic were starting to take hold.
Some people merely stared out of the tiny windows in open-mouthed disbelief, whilst others screamed, screams of a sort that Glauber had never before heard in his life — screams of pure terror. Children sobbed gently or cried hysterically; actually, not just the children, Glauber realized, but men and women too. Most people who weren’t screaming were crying.
Others, however, were more active. Some were hammering on the cockpit door, demanding answers from the flight crew, and Glauber was disgusted as he saw a big, bearded man grab a stewardess by the front of her dress and slam her into the toilet door, yelling in her face. He was tackled to the floor by other passengers.
Another man had begun to talk loudly, preaching to the passengers — this is it, it’s finally time, better repent now, Judgement Day has come, it’s the time of the Apocalypse.
Further along, one family was taking down their luggage from the overhead racks, almost as if they expected to be getting off the plane at any moment, forgetting they were still thirty-eight thousand feet in the air. Shock, Glauber thought.
Glauber glanced to his side, saw the woman bent with her head between her knees, muttering prayers to herself — actually, Glauber realized, it was the same prayer, repeated over and over and over again. He himself wasn’t in shock. He felt something different. Disbelief perhaps? Disbelief that something like this was happening?
No. As the third group of birds began to converge on the aircraft, starting their final approach in one huge amorphous mass, moving with seemingly demonic intent, Glauber realized what he felt was acceptance.
He knew he was going to die.
In the cockpit, Man was the first to scream, just half a second before Huan.
The third attack had started the same way as the first two. Anticipating the move, Man had violently turned the aircraft, cutting across the line of attacking birds, avoiding them entirely.
Man had taken a short breath, allowed himself a brief glimmer of hope, but then he saw the birds ahead had been a decoy. His evasive action had taken his airplane, his crew, and his three hundred and fifty-six passengers directly into the path of another flock, this one even bigger, a fact neither man thought possible but which was undeniable. There must be tens of millions of them, Man thought with a shudder, just before they reached the plane.
The first line of birds hit the cockpit window, bodies breaking across the glass, bones, feathers and blood smeared and splattered everywhere. Then the next wave hit, then the next, wave after wave after wave of broken and smashed bodies, until the window started to break, to cave inwards.
Huan, despite his fear and panic, still managed to notice the warning lights go on for the engines, first one, then two, then three, then four, until all engines were out, and his mind was still able to process the fact that the birds had flown straight into the huge, churning jet engines, sacrificing themselves to destroy the aircraft, just as the birds were doing against the windscreen in front of him. He noticed the altitude start to drop, saw how cabin pressure was being lost in the main passenger area, realized that the birds must have broken through the cabin windows.
And then the reinforced glass of the cockpit finally gave way, and Huan’s screams were forever silenced by a crushing mass of feathers, blood and bone.
Glauber could now hear nothing — not the prayers of the woman next to him, nor the cries of the children, nor the screams of everyone else.