‘Can you see anything yet?’ asked João, peering over his co-pilot’s shoulder.
They were flying low over the desert, the moon painting a blue line on the crests of the shadowy bruise of the erg almost brushing the fuselage below. The A380 was an ancient carcass salvaged for this one flight. At forty years old, it was still younger than any in the convoy flying behind them.
Vitor, his eyes hidden behind the disposable visor incongruously wrapped around his temples, flicked his eyes instinctively out to the horizon. For a moment, it was almost as if the face of a beast, with a burst of fur surrounding a long snout, stared at him from the dark sky.
He shook his head, glancing down at the flat console stapled over the cockpit controls. A clutch of wires snaked from it and into the control panel, rewiring the obsolete systems into its more modern computer.
For the last hour, their concentration on navigation had given way to a strident fear. They were almost out of fuel.
‘Either that transponder has a really short range, or we missed it,’ said Vitor despondently.
João opened a bag of chocolate biscuits from the pile behind his seat and chewed on one. If they missed the landing zone, they would have to ditch the planes well beyond any chance of rescue.
‘Two days’ work and retire forever,’ said Vitor bitterly, repeating the pitch which had led them there.
The Caracas Cartel had been shedding its pilots as it transitioned to entirely autonomous drones. Offered the choice between flying model planes at amusement parks or a one-time suicidal freight delivery, there had been more than sufficient volunteers from amongst those laid off.
Five Airbus A380s, average age forty-five, had been acquired. Their seats and fittings had been torn out and their control systems patched. Ten pilots were needed to fly the planes, masked and damped to prevent remote observation or interference, to a specific region in the Sahara, wait for a transponder signal to locate a temporary runway, and land them there. The pilots were then to be smuggled to Dakar and flown back to Brazil on a commercial flight.
Their pay from this one job would be sufficient to allow them to enjoy a wealthy retirement.
The catch was that they would be carrying five hundred tons of weapons and one hundred and fifty tons of synthetic heroin destined for Europe. A convoy of planes worth $75 billion would be hunted by both law enforcement and any of the other criminal syndicates. And the planes would be landing in the middle of the world’s most violent and hostile failed state, deep within an aggressively policed no-fly zone, to be met by its most violent and hostile occupants: the jihadis of Ansar Dine.
‘You worry too much,’ said João. ‘We’ve done this hundreds of times. Remember when we ditched an entire convoy in the Atacama when that Yanqui corvette caught us offshore?’
Vitor stifled momentary nausea. They were not inside those planes when they crashed but had been safely piloting them from a distant control room. What had the man said?
‘You will be flying blind, without anything but the most basic navigation, low and at speed to avoid pursuit, and no one can help you until you land where you’re supposed to.’ The words delivered in a quiet staccato by the stranger in the Panama hat who had arrived the day before they were due to leave.
‘Be sure, they will be listening,’ he had told them, his face obscured in the twilight of the room, and his strange blue eyes hidden beneath the white of his brim.
His smile had been wicked. ‘Everyone.’
In the darkness, each plane followed the lights of the one before and hoped that their leader knew where he was going.
At a specific time, and for a specific duration, a small short-range transponder was supposed to be turned on to guide them to the landing site. That time had passed and, almost two hours later, they had not yet heard it. In ten minutes, their agreed landing window would end, the transponder was due to be switched off, and they would be lost.
João reattached his visor, and the augmented-reality display flickered. He could see Vitor holding his virtual controls. He nodded, and authority was handed back to him. Vitor busied himself searching through the aether for the transponder signal.
As time ran down, they unconsciously began preparing for the inevitable. There was no way to let the other pilots know what they were about to do and, without a prepared runway, these vast planes would be difficult to land.
‘How far do you want to fly? It looks like we have about thirty minutes of fuel left,’ said Vitor.
João shook his head. ‘We’re getting further away from the transponder zone, and we’ve already risked too much. I’d rather land and hope they find us than be shot down by drones.’
‘And that box?’
Vitor had happened to observe as their bosses arrived to inspect the final cargo load. Saw them usher the man in the Panama hat up the ramp for a brief secretive visit into the hold. He was carrying a small square case when he arrived, and he left without it. Vitor hunted amongst the bales of heroin and crates of small arms. He could not find it.
‘It’s still better than being shot down by drones,’ said João.
‘OK, the others will have realized we’re lost by now,’ said Vitor, his hands numb with fear.
‘Brace yourself,’ said João, grinning, a chocolate biscuit clenched between his lips.
Landing went about as well as could be hoped given the uncertain terrain. João pancaked into the sand and skated over the tops of the erg before their aeroplane shoved its nose into the ground, coming to an obliterating stop. Two of the other A380s managed to land in parallel in a similarly shattering way.
The last two collided as they landed.
An overly high, unfortunately cambered peak flung the one into a rolling tumble and into the path of the other. They crumpled together. Their surplus fuel expanded and exploded, casting a sudden red glaze over the fury of the last few minutes.
There were survivors. João, Gabriela and Carlos stood blinking under the stars as fine white powder settled on them, like a surreal desert snowstorm.
They built a small cabin in the wreckage. They had a party that lasted two days, until Gabriela overdosed. A day later, João and Carlos ran out of water.
Within a week, the steady blast of the harmattan covered everything and buried the planes, and their cargo, in the desert.
In the sky, a face blurred within a burst of fur narrows his close-set eyes and grunts. There is so much more to know. He turns his gaze forward in time and further into the deep desert.