Deserve Neither

Copyright Ken Brady. No reproduction without express permission from the author.
(Originally published in DAILY CABAL, 2010)

When you sit down next to him you feel immediately uncomfortable. You tell yourself it’s just the amount of data streaming through his young body. It’s the potential radiation. Not the eerie way his pale skin seems almost translucent. Not the way he stares at the seatback. Not that with one glance he can know everything about you.

Couldn’t be that.

You were happy to get an exit row – one small luxury – until you spotted him. If it weren’t a full flight, you would ask to move. Instead you fasten your belt and hope he can’t tell what you’re thinking.

“Everything will be fine,” he says. His voice is quiet, distant. He looks out the window as the plane pushes back.

Your eyes dart his way.

“Excuse me?”

“Don’t worry. That’s what you want to hear, right?”

You poke through the in-flight magazine, try the crossword. What’s an eight letter word for paranoia?

On take-off, the hair stands up on your neck. The data makes you feel weird. They say you shouldn’t be able to feel it.

He’s looking out the window and you know he’s communicating with the rest of them, one in every plane. They do so much to keep you safe. Route your flights, help land in bad weather, keep everything running smoothly. And they watch everyone.

They watch you.

Back when you could afford it you flew first class so you didn’t have to see them. You could believe they were a cost-saving experiment, a safety contingent, a necessary evil like full-body scans or strip-searches or profiling. You could pretend it didn’t concern you.

When you level of at thirty-seven thousand, out over the ocean, he puts a pill in his mouth and dry swallows. He leans toward you, still not looking your way.

“We’re all going to die,” he says.

“Someday,” you say.

“Some sooner than others.”

The silence is as total as it’s possible to be given the roar of jet engines. You grip your armrests until your fingers ache.

“Your seat cushion functions as a floatation device,” he says. For the first time, he looks your way. “Please don’t hate us.”

“For what?”

“For stopping you.”

Looking into his eyes, you know he sees everything. Fake Canadian passport, real name, identity as an early test subject for the Airborne Defense Node project, bad dreams, bomb smuggled into cargo, microtransmitter in your molar.

Your first urge is to run, but you’re on an airplane. Your second is to bite down hard.

“Don’t,” he says. “It needs to be done another way.”

You barely breathe.

“Tired,” he says. His eyes close and the lights in the plane flicker, the plane lurching to one side. His eyes flutter open again and the lights return. The plane stabilizes.

“If you survive,” he says, “tell them it was too much to expect us to save them all.”

His eyes close and the feeling of pulsing data fades amid the darkness.