Passengers board the plane and sit waiting. In first class, they stretch their legs out, check cell phones for messages they are not expecting, fidget with wristwatches, bottles of sparkling water, the seat's cooling vent. They sigh impatiently at the coach passengers who are still boarding, bulky backpacks and carry-ons buffeting the sides of the upholstered seats.
Beyond the velvety, navy curtain divider, passengers are elbow-to-elbow, hoisting baggage into the overhead bins, shuffling past each other, trading seats, shouting to companions several rows away. A young mother in sweatpants scolds a small child for having sticky hands, and the child begins wailing. In front of her, two complete strangers make eye contact and smile tensely before looking away.
Takeoff goes smoothly, and by the time the Boeing 747 has reached a cruising altitude of 34,000 feet, the passengers have settled in. In business class, they doze with arms crossed over their chests, while the coach passengers shift restlessly, reading cheap paperback novels or chatting quietly with each other. It’s a surprise when the aircraft suddenly begins to shake, little jolts that grow into a violent turbulence.
It is a crash—an explosion, fire, smoke pouring from a bent and ruined structure. But not the plane; it is the Earth that crashes. It bursts into flames and burns to blackened cinders, leaving nothing, nobody, only the plane.
Pinned by the nylon seat belts, the passengers are shaken from side to side, reminded that they are nothing but animals caught in something bigger than themselves. The fear is dizzying, or electric, or numbing. First class and coach alike yell, pray, curse. In coach, some of the children start to cry, but then—the shaking stops, replaced by an immeasurably soft stillness.
The breathless passengers look back and forth at each other. Nobody knows what to say because nobody knows what happened. Numb, they remain seated, belts fastened, waiting for an explanation. They lift the shades and look out the plastic windows, but find only a void where the Earth used to be, and the lonesome smell of brush fire in November.
Finally, the reassuring and dishonest announcement comes over the intercom. The cockpit’s crew doesn't know what else to do, doesn't know what to say. Everyone is told to wait, that an unexpected air disturbance has knocked them off-course. It will be corrected soon, thank you for your patience. They wait for a long, long time.
Someone in coach asks the panicked question, and it spreads. The stewards and stewardesses repeat the intercom announcement, but look around uneasily. They wring their hands, disappear into the cockpit, and come out still wringing their hands.
“What happened? What's going on?” The passengers repeat the questions so many times that they lose meaning; the words begin to feel foreign in their mouths.
“Please, calm yourselves. We're figuring it out, everything will be figured out soon.”
The booze goes first, of course, as the first-class passengers fumble with the little plastic baggies of prescription pills they brought for the lengthy flight. They need something to take the edge off their nerves, they need to forget the crash, they need to forget the future. Plastic, single-serving bottles of Chardonnay and Merlot line the aisle. One by one, passengers lapse into a warm, humming doze as the pills mute any panic or fear. Some of the children are quietly crying.
Eventually there is no more booze, and the plastic baggies have been emptied and turned inside out. The sleepiness has worn off and everybody is awake, alert, and tense. Fights break out. Some end with bruised knuckles and bloody noses, but nothing is any different—they're still on a plane with no Earth beneath them, and could perish at any minute, alone in space.
Hours and hours and hours pass. The coach passengers grow restless, then bold. They leave their seats, pace the aisles, pull down their carry-on bags and dig through them. Some shout over the stewards and stewardesses, force their way through the blue velvet divider curtain into first class, and then into the cock pit. Some of the first-class passengers try to stop them, others sit and watch. Upon finding no answers, no explanation, and no clear leader, a sense of hopelessness settles over first class and coach alike. Reality has been upended, overturned, and they have been left with nothing but the endless expanse of black space beyond the airtight plastic windows.
As cellphone batteries die, the passengers lose track of time, and fear fades to numbness. At any moment, the air recycling system could fail, or one of the engines might explode. They will eventually run out of food, clothing will wear to pieces, people will die. What will they do with corpses? A body won't fit down the vacuum flushing toilet, and they ran out of hand sanitizer quite some time ago.
They discuss these issues amongst themselves, try to come up with some sort of plan. The businessmen in first class grind their teeth, insisting: “What we need is a leader, someone in charge.”
Unwilling to submit to self-appointed authority from beyond the velvet blue divider curtain, passengers in coach roll their eyes, threaten to fight back, challenge first class’s right to authority. Housewives tell everyone that they need to calm down. The stewards and stewardesses do their best to keep things in order, but their faith has been shaken by the entire experience. The gold crosses around their necks seem tacky now, and during the quiet moments, they become aware of a certain hollowness in their chest, a space that didn't used to be there.
Tensions between first class and coach continuously mount and dissipate, but in the meanwhile passengers curl up under the paper-thin blankets provided by the airline and doze. They sit in the aisles and play with the children. They reread the books they brought, then trade them with others and reread those. They share little packages of sawdust pretzels, and talk about the things they miss: families, and friends, and beloved pet dogs that used to lick their toes in the mornings; favorite jogging routes, the smell of snow, restaurants with fish tacos that were just to die for.
At least it doesn't matter when they run out of fuel—there is no longer an atmosphere for them to propel against, no longer any gravity to fight, no more places for them to go to. The plane is simply suspended, drifting through space much the same as it was before. Except, perhaps, a little quieter.
Over the course of months, their bodies grow accustomed to the dry, recycled air. After a difficult adjustment, they find themselves perfectly capable of living on pretzels and syrupy-sweet ginger ale. When the pretzels run out, they consume little bags of peanuts. When the ginger ale is gone, they switch to bottled water. It tastes like plastic, but no one says anything and soon they don't even notice.
The issue of leadership has slowly fallen by the wayside. Does it matter, with no land to fight over, no taxes to be collected, no religion to spread or resources to be claimed? Once the velvet divider curtain is taken down, there’s no socioeconomic ladder to be climbed. Everybody's hair is equally greasy, after enough time. They all smell equally bad. It becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to cling to pride; eventually, it becomes impossible.
Driven by boredom and the need for more leg-room, they focus their attention on the plane's interior. There’s at least one engineer on board, and a few particularly clever hobbyists; with unlimited free time, they are able to figure out a way to remove most of the seats, and they cannibalize the parts to build a space more conducive to habitation. They fashion beds out of the buoyant cushions, and pillows from the excess upholstery. They create space to move, to lie down, to stand up. The airline blankets can be used to make small tents, the most privacy anyone has. Satisfied with their work, the engineers and hobbyists see it as the crowning achievement of their respective careers.
Years pass, and by the time they finally run out of peanuts, they find they no longer need to eat, that the chemical composition of their bodies has shifted in such a way that they are capable of producing all of the nutrients they need in order to survive. They are amazed—how could this be possible? They think back to high school science classes and try to remember what they learned about evolution, adaptation, Darwin, but it has been so long that they can't recall. All they know is that the rules that bound them on Earth are no longer applicable.
Decisions begin to be made collectively. Disputes are settled by witnesses or close friends, and the lack of privacy keeps anyone from acting out. A collective consciousness begins to form, as the housewives become indistinguishable from the teens, from the stewards and stewardesses, from the businessmen and former bullies and engineers.
Without a planet to orbit the sun, there's no way for them to mark the passage of time, but it does pass. People grow old and wrinkled, their eyes grow filmy. When the time finally comes, a clever adaptation of the pressure-sealed garbage chute in the back of the plane allows for a dignified means of disposal.
The children have grown to be adults, explored sex under the too-thin airline blankets and in the lavatory, the red “occupied” lit up. They have given birth to their own children who will grow to be small, more compact for the limited space. Their skin is a soft bluish hue—the air recycling system has been slowly failing for years, and their bodies have been forced to adapt to decreasing oxygen levels. Still, the elf-like children thrive, and their children's children thrive, and their children after that.
Such a long time passes, generation after generation of people, each more remarkable than the next. More and more changes occur, small chemical shifts in tightly-curled DNA. When the plane finally fails, when the welding breaks apart and the airtight plastic windows crumble, the passengers find they no longer need it. The great metal hull has served them only as a chrysalis, housing their incredible transformation. Leaving the curling hunks of metal and plastic to slowly drift apart, forgotten, they evolve outward and into the expanse.
AMANDA K HORN has served as an editor for publications including the Columbia Journal <