Story | Incognito

I thought of being propelled towards a new existence, somewhere, a fresh state rather than a new place. For an eternity of time I believed that things should last forever, and when they did not I would look for something alternative, something like a religion. But a host of things have come and gone – languages, books, masterpieces, people – it was a fallacy to think that my own time should not pass equally.

The cabin clock pronounced each tick with a sound determined precisely by the mechanical assemblage stowed behind its round face. The light tick associated with the continuous release of a hand vibrated through the artificial air and echoed throughout the cabin. Then once finally landing upon my ears it brought a deep sleepiness over me.

‘It’s just a journey anyway’ said the man in the seat next to me.

He had a relaxed and confident expression on his face. It was the first time that he had spoken to me. He was not a native speaker, and I thought his voice might have expressed a hint of some other dialect from off the plains along the western continent.

‘What is just a journey?’ I replied.

‘The whole thing is, everything you’ve ever done, leading to this moment’.

‘You make it sound so terminal. So what happens now?’ I enquired.

He returned a smile and shrugged his shoulders. ‘It’s no big deal’ he said.

I sat back. The chair was thick and hugged my mid-torso, like some expensive automobile seats do. It was no ordinary chair. I thought I could sit there forever. Maybe I was stoned or drugged, and everything seemed draped in light, musky yellow, dreamy, soothing my every thought.

After a few minutes pondering, I re-enquired. ‘Why did you say that?’ I’m not sure if I understand what you mean?’

‘I’m just another man on board’, he replied.

I continued, ‘let’s say I do follow you. What does that mean for everyone else here? Not only us. Are they all here for the same reason? I mean, I think I knew this was going to happen, this time. Why did I know that? Why do I know it? Why would I in that case, knowing this, get on board. I’m also quite aware that you are somehow involved in all this.’

The man in the seat turned and regarded me directly for the first time. I noticed his old greying eyes. His face was long and exhibited the deep lines defined by many years. His skin was scratched and scathe from a lifetime of toll. He was at least forty years my senior.

‘There’s simply no way anyone could know when and where such an incident would occur. I, however, do have a little umbrella knowledge of these events’, he said.

‘And why is that?’ I replied.

‘Because I’m supposed to. That’s what I’m here for, and that’s why you’re here today.’

I wasn’t quite sure in which direction he was leading me. Just before I had time to reconsider, he lay the book he had been reading on the seat between us, gesturing for me to pick it up. I took it and leafed through the first few pages. There was a passage about a young teenage boy playing marbles in a school-yard, also a list of seemingly ordinary household objects, and finally some details of a nurse with a man in her care – something reminiscent of the Crimean War.

But for all my searching, I could not find any significance in relation to my current condition.

I directed my gaze past my new acquaintance and out the window where I could observe the burning oil fields far below us. Over incalculable distances refineries blazed throughout the dense, black night. In my mind I contrasted the generation of all that energy against the deadness of the dark atmosphere around us. Gradually everything revealed itself to me and I began to understand one thing quite clearly.

‘So I am going to die,’ I remarked.

‘Yes of course. Shortly before landing the pilot will lose control of the aircraft’.

‘And what then?’ I asked.

‘Well then you will no longer be unique. You shall then join the ranks of those before you.’

I paused for a moment.

‘I should be deeply troubled by that’ I responded.

‘Yes, that’s because you now realise who I am’, he replied.

He was right. I did now know who he was. As unsettling as it should have been to discover that I would soon die, I could not bring myself to despair. It was not required. As a younger man I had always thought of death as a distressing occurrence, associated with funeral and grief. For the longest time I even remember suffering panic attacks. Awakening alone in the dark, gasping for breath I would gradually recall some dream, thereafter laying the remainder of those nights gazing sleeplessly upwards. I wondered had my new acquaintance ever entertained such fears. But before I could ask, he resumed conversation with me.

‘Tell me how it is that you should have ended up on this flight despite having prior knowledge of its ultimate destination’.

‘Well it is only in retrospect that I believe I knew that’, I said.

‘Is it? Are you sure?’

I wasn’t sure. There was no point lying. I knew that he must be aware of my every thought, so I decided to let it rest. My thoughts were thereafter directed at the other passengers. I wondered what was to be their fate. I wondered if I alone was aware of the doomed nature of our flight. I felt sorry for the children.

‘Can they hear us?’ I asked.

‘No. You’re not speaking aloud’.

‘Then I must already be dead’

‘No, not yet. Everyone knows when they’re dead. It becomes quite clear.’

The time passed slower than before. The clock ticked in the cabin, and each shift of its mechanical hands consumed an everlasting moment. It was during one of these very moments that I noticed reflected in the clear glass face of the thing the aged face of my co-passenger, and for the entirety of that instant I recognised in him an ancient all-consuming sadness.

The jet flew on through the freezing thin air, through the eternal night outside – a night which wrapped itself out over the surface of the Earth far below. A dead stillness lay within the cabin as sleep took hold, and the man in the seat never said another word.

Conor Purcell is the editor of Wide Orbits.