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Module 4: Anthrax

“Five Tickets to Nowhere”

The jet bridge whines softly as it retracts. Inside the aircraft, the hush of the ventilation system whispers through the confines of the coach section where Mrs. K’s students sit in a row just past the wing.

“You’d think if they could pay for this trip, they could at least put us in first class,” grumbles Angelica. The four had initially been excited when their teacher told them about the international field trip Pierpont was sponsoring for them over spring break in conjunction with their class. On the company’s vast budget, they would be attending a World Health Organization conference at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, where the latest updates on avian flu, AIDS, and other current crises were on the agenda. Experts in infectious disease from around the globe were set to attend. Maxine in particularly seems thrilled at the idea of meeting some of the scientists whose research they had studied in class.

“Please stop kicking,” hisses Maxine, at which Fallon’s twitching foot immediately freezes. Trying to hide his reddening face, he pushes up the window shade to stare at the blank tarmac of Raleigh-Durham International Airport. The sun rose only an hour ago for this early morning flight, and the sky still bears a few streaks of pre-dawn grey.

He begins to think that sitting next to Maxine wasn’t such a good idea. However, judging by the way Angelica and Lang quickly chose the seats not adjacent to his own, he suspects he actually didn’t have any other option. Regardless, this has the potential to be a very long flight. If only he could just get through it without embarrassing himself further….

Angelica leans back in her chair, just in time for the flight attendant to chime in with an entirely too-cheerful reminder: “Please return seat backs and tray tables to the upright position and prepare for takeoff.” Rolling her eyes, she presses the button returning her seat to its previously uncomfortable position. Lang, sitting beside her, a paperback clasped between his hands, focuses intently on the page.

“What are you reading?” asks Angelica, leaning over to discern the title above the top margin.

“Paradise Lost,” he replies, not bothering to look up. The red-head’s shadow blocks his light, and he winces imperceptibly at the disruption.

“I think we talked about that in AP English,” Angelica says, sitting back in her own chair as the plane’s engine drones louder, accompanied by the grind of retracting landing gear. “It’s about the garden of Eden or something, right?”

Lang turns the page quickly before answering, licking his finger to separate the sheets. “Something like that.”

“What part are you on?” She unlocks the tray table, but quickly refastens it as the flight attendant passes through the cabin. The woman shoots her a slightly unpleasant look, and Angelica has the feeling she and the flight attendant are not going to be getting along over the next eight hours.

“Lucifer is flying through the underworld,” says Lang and, as if on cue, begins reading aloud.

As when far off at Sea a Fleet descri’d
Hangs in the Clouds, by Equinoctal Winds
Close sailing from Bengala, or the Isles
Of Ternate and Tidore, whence Merchants bring
Their spicy Drugs: they on the Trading Flood
Through the wide Ethiopian to the Cape
Ply stemming nightly toward the Pole. So seem’d
Far off the flying Fiend.

The whine of the engine picks up as the plane jolts from the ground, and Lang decides not to compete further with the rising din. Angelica peers down the aisle, to where Mrs. K sits quietly, dozing beneath a sleep mask. Even though they had all risen at five that morning to make the flight, their teacher seems to be the only one who is tired.

“Good grief, do you ever sit still!” exclaims Maxine, as Fallon’s fingers immediately cease their rapping on the armrest between them. Folding his arms tightly, he sighs and pulls the visor of his baseball cap further over his eyes. Kicking his protruding backpack further under the seat in front of him, Fallon recalls the delay caused by his luggage that morning.

Moving through the heightened security checkpoints around the international terminal, the four students and their teacher had been pulled over as part of the random screening process. Unfortunately, Fallon hadn’t thought to run his laundry last night, and the guard opening his duffel bag had discovered a sweater covered with white powder. While the residue had been merely the remains of a doughnut from last week, the finding kept them at the gate for an hour, and Mrs. K had been concerned that they would miss their flight as well as their connection in New York.

Deciding this trip can’t get any worse – at least for now – Fallon leans back and falls asleep.


The transfer at JFK goes uneventfully, and the five don’t even have to leave the plane. During the bustling transition of passengers, with bags moved in and out of the cramped overhead compartments, Mrs. K remains asleep – Angelica wonders if their instructor has been getting enough rest lately. Since the movies don’t start until the trans- Atlantic phase of their flight, the four students busy themselves reading. While Maxine, Lang, and Angelica work on material due in class next week, Fallon pursues the in-flight magazine, moving to the editorials once the crossword proves too difficult. One of these articles is entitled The Spore Scare:

“Anthrax is something to be concerned about . . . vats of the deadly bacteria can be maintained with minimal technology, and turned into weapons of vast destructive capability.”

Fallon sets the magazine down for a second, pondering the issue: if it’s so easy to make these weapons, why haven’t attacks already occurred? Thinking to ask Mrs. K, he looks over the back of his seat, and sees that she is still fast asleep. He looks over at Maxine, who has traded her coursepack for a math textbook of some sort.

“What is that?” he asks.

“Linear algebra,” she answers, hastily erasing a line on the paper interspersed between the opened pages. Looking up, and seeing the lack of comprehension on his face, she adds: “Matrices. It’s math on matrices.”

Removing his cap, Fallon absently scratches his head. “Never heard of it.” Maxine shrugs as if his ignorance were entirely expected, and returns to punching numbers into her calculator. Trying desperately to break the silence setting between them, Fallon tries a different topic.

“So it looks like they’re showing some good stuff on this trip,” he says, flipping through the movies section of the magazine.

“You know,” she replies, turning towards him again and barely concealing her irritation, “you really don’t have to talk the whole trip. In fact, I actually have a lot of work to do. I think there’s like ten radio channels,” she adds, pointing to the headset in the pocket before him, “maybe you could listen to that.”

Demoralized, Fallon takes the headset and tunes out the rest of the passengers, whose soft murmurings barely disturb him as he drifts off once more. Across the aisle, Angelica leans over Lang to get a look at the view outside.

“I think that might be the coastline,” she says, turning back to the monitor in the seat back which displaying a digital image of their flight path. “We should be over Newfoundland by now.”

Lang, clearly less than thrilled by this revelation, looks up only a moment from his book. “Do you see any cloud-rabbits, too? Actually,” he waves his hand, “don’t bother – I only want to know about kitty cat-shaped clouds. Please keep me apprised of the situation as it develops.”

Angelica glares at him. “You know, you could at least try and be polite sometimes. Then maybe you wouldn’t be going to prom alone.”

She settles back into her chair, while he continues to glare at his book. Though he doesn’t show it, her words sting him – it’s not that he’s been disliked at Fairview, just ignored by everyone but the teachers. Quiet and contemplative, he feels like any social life in high school has long passed him by.

A sudden noise jolts him from this reverie, and he looks over to see Fallon snoring loudly across the aisle, while Maxine sighs in frustration. Clearly, this is going to be a long flight.


Fallon is shaken awake hours later by Maxine, who hisses in his ear.

“Wake up, we’re landing. They said we’ll have to get off quickly – something about airspace regulations.”

After getting over the initial confusion of waking, along with the realization that this might be the first time – and last – that Maxine actually touches him, Fallon notices that the lights are all off in the cabin. A trail of yellow dots lights the central aisle while, somewhere near the cabin, a faint red glow illuminates the gloom. Checking the ceiling above, he notices that the oxygen masks remain behind their pressure-loaded panels. Apparently, something else is wrong, and the stewardess voice carries a hint of distress over the speaker.

“Ladies and gentleman, we’re afraid we’ve had to divert our flight path. We received a communication from JFK that unidentified spores were discovered on a US Airways flight to Hamburg, and for safety reasons, all flight within the last twenty four hours are being rerouted from major international hubs.”

“What’s going on?” Fallon whispers to Maxine, “if we can’t land in Paris, where are we going?” As if in response, the flight attendant continues.

“Air traffic control in Paris has asked us to refrain from landing until the situation is resolved. We’ve been rerouted in the meantime to the air force base in Malkinagrad. The government of Malkinagrad has given us permission for all passengers to disembark before the flight crew continues to Hauser Air Base; we recommend all boarded passengers exit the aircraft during this period, as civilian access inside the Air Base is restricted, and we cannot guarantee that you will be reboarded in a timely fashion. Thank you for your patience, and please prepare for landing. Due to air space restrictions, we will only be able to remain at the Malkinagrad airport for two hours, so please disembark as quickly as possible. A service agent will contact you to reschedule your flight.”

The landing gear whines below them as it emerges from the hull, though the night sky outside the window is too dark to tell how close they are to the landing strip.

“Where the heck is Malkinagrad?” says Fallon.

“It’s between Kaliningrad and Lithuania,” says Mrs. K, who is now seated behind Fallon and Maxine, leafing busily through their travel documents. “It’s part of the former Soviet Union. Fortunately, I think we can get a direct flight from here back to Paris once this situation resolves – there’s been a lot of biotechnology buildup around the capital in the last year, so the number of flights landing here is a lot more than it used to be. I think Pierpont actually may have a facility here.”

Angelica leans in to hear the conversation. “Do you really think there was some kind of bioterrorism attack on that plane going to Germany? Seems pretty drastic to reroute everything out of New York like this. What do they think the spores are? Anthrax?”

“I don’t know,” says Mrs. K, “I just hope we can get out of here soon. I’m going to call the Pierpont representative as soon as we land – please get all your things together so we can get off the plane quickly.”

Fallon leans over to retrieve his backpack, thinking that this flight has gotten a lot longer than even he expected.

1. If you’ve traveled recently, do you think it’s likely that someone could get spores through airport security? Why or why not?
2. Based on what you know about the biology of anthrax, what safety precautions should passengers aboard the flight mentioned above take to avoid infection?
3. What quarantine measures might an airport use? How would they test to see if a passenger was infected with anthrax?