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The Harder They Fall (HBTC #3)

CHAPTER ONE

    Descending through the heavy grey cloud towards Kathmandu, the liner jerked sharply to the left, the flicker of the cabin lights temporarily illuminating the sudden trajectory of in-flight magazines and near-empty plastic cups as they paused at the lip of a tray and then tumbled down into the aisle. Droplets of rain squashed flat and dispersed against the window, distorting the occasional too-close peak of mountain jutting high and proud, black and formidable. The passenger nearest reached out a hand without looking and pulled to a close the only blind that remained open. Even the crew were strapped to their seats, feigning a carefree conversation and convincing no-one, on account of the darting eye movements that accompanied it. The jet levelled out once more and the announcement came that landing would be underway imminently, with apologies for the turbulence of its undertaking, as if the pilots themselves were somehow to blame. Less experienced passengers sighed in relief; those with more flying hours under their belts closed their eyes in silent prayer to deities various and unknown. The danger was far from over, and with the sound of the rain amplifying the drone of the engines, it was a landing destined to remain secured in memory for the rest of their lives, however long these might be.
    Dan touched his brother's arm, both envious and amazed at Andy's ability to sleep so soundly while travelling. He'd slumbered his way through the vast majority of the twelve hours they had spent in the air, not to mention most of the seven endured waiting for their onward flight from Istanbul, and now, with the noise of the engines once again rising to a scream, he barely stirred. Dan poked him in the side and he jumped.
    "What you do that for?" he slurred with a stretch and a yawn.
    "We're about to land." Dan lifted the blind with the intention of demonstrating how close to ground level they were, only to be met by an impenetrable haze of greyish-white. "Or not," he said dubiously. The engines continued to screech as the plane banked left and upwards.
    "Whoa. Has it been like this the whole way?" Andy was now fully awake and rather in need of a pee, but it would have to wait. There was no way he'd be allowed out of his seat.
    "Only for the last half hour or so." Dan closed his eyes. The turbulence was giving him nausea and he was desperate to get off the plane. He wasn't about to tell his brother this though, for it would be an admission of weakness; something else Andy was better at than he was. It hadn't gone unnoticed, but Andy did the decent thing and didn't say a word.
    "Good, err, afternoon," the voice of the pilot again, not sounding quite so confident as it had a few minutes previously. "Unfortunately we have had to abort the landing, due to poor visibility. We have five minutes' worth of fuel, so we will not be diverting, but we will be taking a different approach within the next couple of minutes. Please remain in your seats. Thank you."
    The flight was perhaps half-full, mostly hikers and others whose hobbies involved travelling, dotted with the odd businessman here and there, sporting not-so-casual casual attire, their gaze artificially focused on a laptop or tablet. Even so, the din produced by multiple voices repeatedly muttering "five minutes' worth of fuel" was quite remarkable. Andy glanced down the aisle towards the air stewards, one of whom sensed his eyes on her and turned and smiled weakly, but kept her poker face. Dan still had his eyes closed, so Andy picked up his two day old newspaper and flicked to a random page. The headline loomed large and significant: 'Families reeling after plane trip ends in tragedy'. He quickly closed the paper again and pushed it away, although he wasn't especially worried; he'd been on many flights far scarier than this, for instance, where one of the engines failed—he'd done that one twice—or indeed where the only engine failed. Fortunately it was a motor glider and the descent was all the more beautiful for the lack of noise, if not a little longer in duration than anticipated.
    "How long till we land, d'you reckon?" Andy asked, his mind idling on that thought.
    "Oh, I'd say less than five minutes," Dan retorted, without opening his eyes. It would probably have been less difficult if he did open them, for he was alert to every sound and motion. The entire craft shuddered from the vibration of the wings, dropping sharply before rising again just as quickly. All the while they were flying upwards and at a steep incline to the left, with bags sliding from under seats, their owners unable to reach out and rescue them. Then the noise stopped.
    Cautiously Dan opened one eye and tilted his head so that he could see between the seats in front, and thereon diagonally across the plane. Everyone was still and mute, seemingly struck silent by terror. They were dropping rapidly, quietly out of the sky. They were all going to die. Dan screwed his eyes tightly shut again and swallowed hard in an attempt to alleviate the pressure in his ears, but it was useless. Gravity is an unbeatable enemy and there is no point fighting it. Instead, he, like everyone else aboard, allowed his mind to wander wherever it wanted to. He thought back to the last time he asked Adele to marry him, stopping long enough to regret not fighting harder, ignoring the pain in his chest as he fought to breathe. Why hadn't the oxygen masks dropped down? Or maybe they had, but he would need to open his eyes to find out and try as he might, he couldn't do it. He couldn't bear to witness his own death coming up to meet him. Back further still, to the birth of his daughter, bypassing the time he had nearly died and straight through the years to his early twenties, newly home from university, with his life ahead of him. Had he achieved everything he wanted? Of course not! Who has by the time they're thirty-eight? Such a ridiculous, nondescript age to die.
    It had to be only seconds now until they hit the ground. Soon the screaming would start, of this he was certain, for he could feel the panic starting to well in his gut, the pressure rising in his head, his shoulders squeezing in on his blood vessels. No air. No breath. How much longer now? Would he know about it when it happened? To be one of the lone survivors, trapped along with the dead, waiting for the flames to engulf them; that, surely, must be worse than outright death?
    At least he was with his brother and he was so thankful for this that the tears fell of their own accord, unchecked by pride or other false emotion. So often they had fought about nothing of any great consequence, not compared to this thing. Whatever had passed between them, however great their differences, all that mattered now was that Andy would be here with him at the end. He tried to reach out to his brother, but there was too much force against him and he couldn't move. The harder he struggled, the more difficult it became and then the screaming began. Not long now until it was all over, their lives to be consigned to some voyeuristic documentary. Dan found his god and relinquished his body.

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