June 19, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

This story was written for the MSc Science Communication course at Imperial College London, for assessment as part of the Narrative module.

By Monty F. Gould
February 2023

When somebody’s brain lacks oxygen, they begin to act irrationally. From the outside, they seem confused, like their conscious thoughts are gently but surely slipping away. It didn’t feel that way to me though. It didn’t feel like my mind was shutting down, the once vivid synapses departing one by one as my consciousness faded. It felt, instead, like I was experiencing a surreal and dreamlike opposite; my mind was lighting up with possibilities overlapping one another. Each distinct sequence of potential events
competed with one another to be seated within my reality. They pushed and pulled and fought until I was living multiple lives simultaneously, and, consequently, dying multiple deaths.

Sanders is to my right, speaking on the radio, wishing the air traffic controller goodnight as we pass between control centres. Watching his smile as he did so was calming, his thousands of hours of experience cradling my mere forty or so. I could see our reflections in the glass windscreen, our transparent projections standing out against the inviting black night in front of us. The hours ahead would allow us to contemplate; I would be thinking of the end of my training and the start of my career, and, of course, the end of my engagement and the start of my marriage. I had been working relentlessly to lay this future out before myself. I would spend those hours examining every step I was taking towards the life I had planned. What would Sanders be contemplating and examining? He was already well past the life achievements I was so desperately chasing. It would have been over twenty years since his own training had ended, since he laid out his future and took these same steps. He was changing the radio’s transmission frequency when that dark mirror I was peering through transformed before me with a bright flash of light. The window heater beside Sanders was on fire. By the time I am turning to him, he is already masked and delicately pressing buttons, his calm demeanour somehow only breaking ever so slightly. The smoke is impeding my view of him when I put on my own oxygen mask and grab the centre stick beside me, instinctively turning the plane back towards the runway we had departed from only thirty minutes earlier. The black smoke and harsh alarms are cutting through that serene and peaceful night that had filled the cockpit moments before.

Sanders is to my right, speaking on the radio, wishing the air traffic controller goodnight as we pass between control centres; I know it is now my responsibility to contact the next Area Control Centre. I watch as Sanders takes off his headset and stands up slowly. He is stretching his arms wide across the cockpit, accustomed to the body of a jet this large and the freedom of movement it was allowing us. Most of my training was spent in smaller planes with claustrophobic interiors and constant scrutiny, but Sanders was trusting me with full control now. He was yawning as he passed me, his hand on my shoulder, before unlocking the door and making his way to the bathroom in the cabin. I was alone. No one was watching me. No one was judging my every move. I could close my eyes for just a moment and listen to the comforting hum of the engines, the faint murmur of passengers in their seats, and the white noise of the radio static. I remember it is my turn to contact the next tower and interrupt the cockpit’s soothing harmony. I open my eyes and begin reaching for a dial when the plane shakes violently; a hole breaking open in the fuselage drains the plane of air almost instantly. I pull my hand away from the radio and am quickly raising it now to reach for my oxygen mask. An identical mask drops down above the seat where Sanders should have been, the flashing lights of the cockpit’s instruments illuminating his absence. With no oxygen supply in the bathroom, he would already have suffocated by the time I am sharply guiding the plane to bank left. Images of him begin to fill my mind as the flow of oxygen in my mask weakens. I am turning again to look at his seat.

Sanders is to my right, speaking on the radio, wishing the air traffic controller goodnight as we pass between control centres. There is a momentary silence as he forces a smile. I was trying to look beyond it this time, to some underlying truth he was concealing. He had briefly opened up to me about living alone; he had offered up this information to me almost immediately after I had told him about my engagement. I know now that he was clinically depressed, that his marriage had long fallen apart, and that, in those precious periods away from work, he would spend countless hours on flight simulators in the dark of his home, meticulously practising the series of manoeuvres he would take that night. I didn’t know it then. I was still searching his expression for any semblance of these hidden realities when he was gesturing towards the door and drawing my attention away. A request from a flight attendant, he sighs. Even though I hadn’t heard it, I was nonetheless getting out of my seat to exit the cockpit. His voice gives me comfort and reassurance, the same comfort and reassurance I hope I can give him in return over the hours I would spend with him that night. I was closing the door behind me, thinking of the questions I could carefully ask him that could perhaps guide us towards some meaningful exchange. I could have been there for him. I could have brought these truths to light. Nobody was waiting for me on the other side of the door, which loudly locks behind me. I was scanning for crew members when the lights went dim, the dark outside now making its way into the cabin and covering us. I feel the cabin depressurise suddenly and see masks drop to each passenger, their initial confusion now turning to panic. Before I can get to the emergency oxygen supplies, the plane swings left, throwing my head against the cabin wall. I fall to the floor. I am gasping for air as I try to get back to my feet, pulling myself up by the handle of the locked cockpit door.

I am somehow back in the cockpit. My thoughts are directed now to an emergency landing and the need to begin the descent. Through the smoke I see Sanders’s outline reaching up, his face is visible now, his confident smile completely gone. Despite the intensity of my training, I am unable to keep my mind from turning to my fiancé and the life we will lead; she is a pilot too, we had met in flight school. The silhouette in the pilot’s seat is hers now, but it can’t be. I am transfixed as Sanders is moving towards the back of the cockpit, tethered to the plane by a plastic tube running between an oxygen bottle and her mask. No, I know it isn’t her. I am certain it is. The cord is straining as he reaches for the fire extinguisher. The tube comes out of the bottle and, in an instant, the oxygen ignites beside me. In the blinding flames, I see her eyes.

Sanders is gone and I am alone in the cockpit again. The mask on my face was barely delivering enough oxygen to keep me alive. Where was the fire? Did the breaking windscreen put it out? No, wait, right, it was an explosion in the fuselage, not a fire in the cockpit. How did I know it was an explosion out in the cabin if I was still here in the cockpit? My mind is reeling as I’m trying to make a distress call, thinking back to my training. Maybe I can emergency land in that small town where I got my license all those years ago, where I fell in love with her, where I planned my future so perfectly. I was so safe then. I fumble at the buttons and lights go out across the control panel. I look out the windscreen and my reflection stares back at me. The darkness of the night stares back at me. The future and the past are all staring at me as I am turning the plane back around. Autopilot engages at some point, but I’m not sure if I was still conscious by then. Maybe I had my eyes closed, listening to the sounds of the plane once again, or maybe I was leaning up against the cockpit door.

I struggle to get up as the plane continues to bank left. It would have been no use to try and get back into the cockpit once Sanders had locked it from the inside. But I thought it was Sanders who went to the bathroom, so I didn’t understand why I was on the cabin side of the door and not the cockpit side. The oxygen was just as thin out here anyway so it wouldn’t make a difference. I gasp at the air yet again. Maybe I could put the fire out with the extinguisher that Sanders gave me. Each breath feels like my last. Is the plane still able to land with a hole in the fuselage? What do I need to do? The darkness of that night embraces me. I stop searching for answers.

I am alone in the plane now, everyone else has disappeared. The two hundred passengers, the cabin crew I was searching for, Sanders, the fire, my fiancé, my reflection, the darkness – they are gone.

I watch as the aircraft disappears from the radars as each tracking system onboard switches off in quick succession. I see the plane skirt the border between airspaces and onto an airway Rrute where it would blend in with the dozens of other planes. I watch the wreckage search begin whilst the plane is still in the air. I listen to the countless attempts to contact those onboard as the pursuit of a final certainty stretches from days to months to years.

With enough evidence they might learn the truth, collapsing those infinite possible final moments into one linear path of precise cause and effect. On the other hand, they might never find what they are looking for; each new piece of evidence asking more questions than it resolves. Possibilities continue to multiply and intersect as we all search on for an answer. As I wait impatiently, Sanders is to my right, speaking on the radio, wishing the air traffic controller goodnight as we pass between control centres again.