Master of the Universe

STORIES that stretch your mind

The Best Metaphysical Fiction of the year from Thresholds Quarterly

Masters of the Universe
by Elaine Hatfield

Pepper was shaken awake. Her mind had been in the clouds, drifting far above the Glamour magazine now lying in her lap, when the United pilot’s laconic voice crackled out over the loudspeaker, jolting her awake.
“Oh great,” she thought. “We’re finally coming in for the landing.” Pepper was starting to get restless. She and her husband Mark had left LaGuardia at 9 a.m. She checked her watch. It was 9:55 Chicago time now.

They should be touching down in about twenty minutes.

The pilot’s soothing voice cut in again.

“This is Captain Bruyere. Ground control has just informed me that O’Hare is temporarily socked in. Nothing is coming in or going out. We’ve been instructed to maintain our holding pattern until a severe thunderstorm which is currently stalled right over O’Hare passes. Control estimates that should take only another twenty minutes or so. Since we still have plenty of fuel, we’ll just hang in there until they give us the go-ahead. Currently, our estimated landing time is 10:34 Central DT.”

Pepper sighed and reached over to the side of her armrest to press the seat button and ease her seat back into a more comfortable position. Thank God she and Mark had been able to get a first-class up-grade. In first-class, the New York-Chicago shuttle was a breeze. By the time you drank a glass of champagne, nibbled a few salted Brazil nuts and ate a soggy little breakfast, you were home. Even with a twenty minute delay it wasn’t so bad. Otherwise....

They circled for an hour. Dark thunder clouds hovered beneath them, unmoving. Now and then a spike of lightning ripped through the sky, outlining the clouds’ contours in incandescent purples.

Then there was a cough of static and Captain Bruyere came on again. His voice was lazy as smoke. It wafted out over the intercom. Every now and then the gravelly sounds of static interrupted his message. “Well, folks, we’ve held out as long as we can. We’re the last plane still in the air. But now our gas supply is running low and so I guess it’s time to try to head on in to Milwaukee for an emergency landing.”

Shards of rain pelted the United Airbus as it accelerated, turned, and began to hurtle down. Outwardly, Pepper was cool and collected, but inwardly, she was panic stricken.

“Out of gas. An emergency landing!”

She tried to reassure herself. Of course they would be all right. She was being ridiculous. She looked over at Mark, they smiled reassuringly at one another, and squeezed hands.

But what if the weather was really bad in Milwaukee? What if Captain Bruyere, Macho flyboy, had waited too long? She began to pray silently.

“Bless me O’Lord for I have sinned. I firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace to sin no more...something, something. Now and at the hour of my death.”

Pepper was no longer a practicing Catholic, but when something scared her, she often lapsed and began to beg God-the-Daddy to intercede.

Then the plane broke through the cottony clouds which had been obscuring General Mitchell Field and suddenly it was obvious that they had never been in danger. It was a golden summer day in Milwaukee.
“Boy!” thought Pepper, “United certainly ought to hire a communications consultant. Why in God’s name would a pilot casually announce that he was going to “try” to land in Milwaukee? Mention an emergency landing?”

She was just starting to breathe easily again, tracking United Flight 342’s shuddering descent onto General Mitchell field, when the business type in Seat 3B directly across from her pushed up unsteadily from his seat, ignoring the blinking fasten-your-seatbelt sign, and began to lurch toward the pilots’ cabin. The steward froze for a moment, startled and confused and then hurriedly flicked open his seatbelt, got up, and intercepted him.

“Would you please return to your seat sir? We’re still coming in for a landing.”

Clearly Seat 3B was a mover and shaker used to getting his own way. He stopped in his tracks, glared, and said briskly, “I want to talk to the pilot. Now!”

Pepper took a good look at the VIP. On first glance, he just looked like any other conservative businessman. His carefully tousled hair was definitely some New York stylist’s idea of what a business big-shot should wear. He wore a handsomely cut navy Armani blazer, stone-washed Levis, and black Reeboks. Master of the Universe on a Holiday. But traces of the brute remained. He had bloodshot eyes and his face was slack and waxy. He was a drinker. A big bull of a man, beginning to go to seed. He thrust his Paleognathic jaw into the young cabin attendant’s face and repeated his demand, “Take me to see the captain. Now.” Now, Pepper’s heart stopped. She appreciated with horror how big the VIP was and how little was the attendant. My God, she thought. What is Seat 3B doing? This was not the time for a disgruntled customer to have a little chat with the pilot. She wanted the pilot to be very happy, exceedingly calm, right now. She wanted him to devote full attention to the landing. Sit down, she commanded silently. Sit down, you jerk!
The skinny little attendant assured Seat 3B that he could see Captain Bruyere just as soon as they were safely settled on the ground.

“We’ll take care of it,” he said soothingly. The VIP hesitated, weighing his options, nodded a curt assent, and reluctantly headed back to his seat.

The plane’s wheels touched down in a perfect landing, it taxied for a few minutes, and finally shivered to a slightly jerky stop in the middle of a huge field. They really were in General Mitchell airfield, Pepper thought. The airport itself was nowhere in sight.

The VIP was up on his feet, the second tires hit tarmac. He pushed past the attendant and began to pound on the Captain’s cabin door.

“How long are we going to be stuck here?” he asked. “I’m supposed to be in Chicago. Now!”
Captain Bruyere stepped out of his cabin, smiling agreeably. “Well, I can see I’m taking my life in my hands by coming out here,” he said with good nature. Then he got down to business.

“The latest information I have is this. Chicago is hopeful that the storm will pass over O’Hare fairly soon. Right now, we’re waiting for a gas truck to come out here and refill our tanks. That shouldn’t take more than ten or fifteen minutes. I’ve already asked for permission to return to O’Hare. If we’re lucky, we should be on our way soon. I’m hopeful we’ll be taking off pretty soon."

The VIP and the pilot continued to wrangle. Pepper couldn’t make out what they were saying, but it was clear that the VIP wasn’t going to take “Yes” for an answer.

Seat 3B’s panic and anger were contagious. As Captain Bruyere and the VIP continued to clash, now and then a worried looking businessman or two would make their way to the front and join in the brouhaha.

Curious, Pepper turned around and craned her neck to see what was going on in the back of the cabin. There sat neat rows of Masters-of-the-Universe-in-training, all with cellular phones pressed to their ears, caught up in frantic conversations. A cacophony of cellular messages flew between the Ruling-class executives and their beleaguered secretaries and wives. Fascinated, Pepper tuned in to first one and then another of the conferences.

“See if you can get me something from Milwaukee to Minneapolis. Milwaukee to Denver. Anything. I could head to Tampa and then back to Chicago via Nashville. Try American. Northwest. Shuttles. Anything.”

“See if there are any Avis, Hertz, or Budget Rent-a-Cars available at Mitchell. If there’s nothing available, check the cab and private limo services. See if they have anything.”

“Cancel my meeting in Chicago.”

“Find out if my Honolulu flight will be delayed.”

“I don’t like it here. Get me back to New York,” said the Master directly behind her. Pepper recognized that tone. When her daughter was three she was into power. Anytime Pepper asked her to do anything, she’d glare, tighten her jaw, and recite her mantra, “Nobody tells me what to do. I won’t! You can’t make me.” Then she’d stamp her tiny foot. “I don’t want to go to Chicago,” repeated the VIP. Pepper smiled. A three-year-old Master having a tantrum.

The flight attendant walked to and fro, trying to still the babble of voices with bribes of free champagne, cocktails, cokes, orange juice and water.

Twenty minutes passed. By now the cabin was becoming oppressively hot and stuffy. Pepper began to pant. She was certainly glad she’d worn old clothes. Her T-shirt was damp under the arms. Rivulets of sweat ran down her back. Captain Bruyere apologized but said there was nothing he could do about it. The plane hadn’t been refueled yet. They just had to wait. God, thought Pepper. I wish those guys would sit down. If they’d move away from the hatch, she and Mark could catch some air.

The negotiations between the VIPs and the pilot got hotter. The Captain of Industry issued an ultimatum, “I’m getting out. Now.”

The pilot tried to placate him, “There’s no way to get out. Look. We’re not at the airport. There’s no terminal. No waiting room. No gate. No walkway. And no entrance or exit ramps. We aren’t at the airport. We are sitting on tarmac out in the middle of nowhere, waiting for a fuel truck.”

That kind of defeatist talk wasn’t about to stop Seat 3B.

“You get on the blower and tell one of United’s service reps to get over here. I’m not waiting around here all night. Anytime there’s a storm like this, O’Hare is always backed up for hours. You know it and I know it.

“By now there must be thousands of little airplanes sitting on the ground ... in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Madison ... waiting for clearance. And when O’Hare does clear, it’s the regularly scheduled planes that are going to be waved in first. They won’t get to us until everything clears out late tonight. We could be stuck here all night. I want out. You get a ladder over here and let me out. The service attendant can take me to the terminal.

“I’ll be responsible for my own reservations.”

The VIP’s panic spread like wildfire. All night! The VIP wannabees could be stuck here all night! Again they rushed to man their cellular phones, shouting fevered instructions. Pepper was reminded of those grainy old war movies. Battle-weary GIs, frantically cranking their mud splattered walkie-talkies. “Alpha company to Long Sam. Alpha to Long Sam. We’re pinned down. I repeat. We’re pinned down. Do you read me? We need help. Do you read me?”

Captain Bruyere was no help. He was cheerful, sweetly reasonable, and honest. It didn’t help at all. He was sure we’d be out “soon,” but he “couldn’t guarantee it.” He urged us to “just sit tight.” They were working on it, he assured us. The cellular din got louder.

The lyrics might vary, but the chorus remained the same, “Get me out’a here.”

Ten minutes later Captain Bruyere obliged. He announced, “A few of the first-class passengers have come up with some suggestions which I must admit are pretty creative. For some of you, Milwaukee is a final destination. You probably will wish to get out here.

“Some of you are hoping to rent cars and drive to Chicago. There are two serious problems with this solution. Currently Avis and Hertz have no cars on hand. They expect some to be returned in a few hours but there is no way of knowing whether or not the rentals will in fact be turned in on time, given the weather conditions and all the delays. There is a shuttle bus from Mitchell Field to Chicago, but it won’t be arriving until 3:30 p.m. Then, although the drive from Milwaukee to Chicago usually takes only two, two-and-a-half, it could take as long as five, since you might be heading into rush hour traffic. I wouldn’t chance it myself. It’s only noon now. I think you’re better off sticking with us.

“Nonetheless,” Captain Bruyere said, “a service representative is on his way to the airbus, and any passengers who insist on getting out will be allowed to do so." But again, he wouldn’t advise it. He couldn’t guarantee that they’d get out in the next few minutes, of course, but the odds were in their favor.

Pepper breathed a sigh of relief, “Thank God.”

Seat 3B and his comrades were scary. If the creme-de-la-creme were this sour, what in God’s name would of happened if the flight had been filled with a bunch of sodden athletes, rock-musicians, or thugs? A vision of the Boys in the Hood, advancing on the cowering captain and lone first-class steward flashed into her mind. She had always taken the Captain’s authority for granted, but now she realized just how fragile that authority was.

“Those imbeciles.”

The United rep arrived, unlatched the exit door, and said that any passengers who wished to depart could now do so.

“Please have your ticket ready to show to the attendant at the exit door,” he cautioned. The VIP, the five wannabees, and a young mother dragging a backpack and a bedraggled toddler behind her, approached the front door. The rep asked for their tickets but the VIP dismissed him.

“My ticket is in my suitcase,” he lied, and pushed his way through, clearing a path for the others. As they departed, the six-pack of executives flashed the steward a smug, triumphant smile. It had been a titanic contest of will – Civility versus Commerce – and Commerce had won hands down. Commerce must not be detained. The planet called. The VIPs disembarked, the front hatch closed, and a new calm settled over the plane.

Captain Bruyere was obviously relieved too. His voice lilted over the intercom. He thanked the passengers for their patience and said that the flight attendants would be coming down the aisle with complementary beverages – champagne, cocktails, and cokes. Suddenly everyone was in a relieved, festive mood.

When the skinny little steward approached Pepper, she was overcome with a sudden desire to let him know how much she sympathized with him for all the guff he’d had to endure. She knew he couldn’t say anything about the Great Escape himself, but she could.

She beamed him a smile and said, “Well, it’s certainly nice and quiet now that the big-shots are gone.” The steward smiled back. He knew just what she was trying to say. Those imbeciles.

The coded mutual consolation was interrupted by the pilot’s cheerful voice.

“Well, I’ve just received a message from control. We’ve just been cleared for take off. Right now, we are first in line. I think we can all agree that we want to get out while the getting is good, so I’ll ask you all to sit down and buckle up. Hopefully, we’ll be taking off in a few minutes.

“Will the flight attendants please sit down and prepare for take-off.

“Currently, our estimated time of arrival is 12:43 p.m. Central DT.”

Pepper looked at Mark and Mark looked back. Then they both burst into laughter.

Everyone hurriedly sat down, buckled up, and the plane began to taxi into position. As it lifted off, Pepper looked down and spotted the service representative and the VIP’s trudging along the tarmac. When the little band of evacuees heard the roar of the plane, they looked up. When they realized what was happening, they began to shout. She could just imagine what they were saying. “Stop. Let us back on. We’ve got important business to conductttttttttt.” They waved frantically, trying to flag down the plane. As the plane circled and rose, Pepper watched their little VIP figures, still waving, shrink to the size of ants and then disappear. Masters of the Universe. Small Masters.

Everyone on the plane cheered the take off. They were still smiling when the plane touched down at O’Hare at 12:42 p.m.•

Author’s note: This title refers to Tom Wolfe’s pungent phrase in Bonfire of the Vanities.

Elaine Hatfield is a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii. She has published short stories in Canadian, Australian, and American Literary magazines and two of her books have won awards from the American Psychological Foundation. She has received Distinguished Scientist Awards for a lifetime of scientific achievement from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology and the University of Hawaii.

©1998 Thresholds Quarterly Vol. 16 No. 5

copyright School of Metaphysics 2002

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