by Roger Ley
Other stories by Roger Ley
It wouldn’t be a long flight, and I hoped that the aisle seat next to me would stay empty, but no such luck, a young woman took it. I checked her over as she lifted her bag up to the overhead locker. You can’t help it: I mean, I may be a priest but I still have a full set of human instincts, although these days, thank God, age has blunted some of them, made them easier to handle. She nodded to me as she took her seat, she was very attractive, wearing a black business suit with a short jacket and knee-length skirt. I decided to include her in my prayers, always my policy when I see a good-looking woman: I pray that their beauty doesn’t lead them into sin. I’d talked about this years ago at the seminary near Dublin with my confessor, Father George. Truth be told it had been his idea, and it seemed to work for me.
After take-off I dozed for a while. When I awoke, I half-opened my eyes and saw that my companion was mouthing silently and moving her fingers. Was she praying, saying the Rosary? Perhaps she was a nervous flier. As I moved, she looked over and smiled. ‘I hope I didn’t wake you, Father, I was just finishing my report.’
Report? It was the first time I’d heard praying referred to as that, and I was in the business, so to speak, perhaps it was some new slang I’d not heard. I couldn’t place her accent. Perhaps English wasn’t her mother tongue, and she’d learned the language with a British accent, rather than the more usual American.
The flight attendant brought drinks, he told us we’d be landing at Santiago in about an hour. ‘We’ll be down before that,’ said my companion. She stared into her gin and tonic for a moment, then looked up and offered me her hand.
‘My name’s Farina, at least that’s my original’s name.’
Original name, did she mean her maiden name. She smiled brightly and asked me why I was flying to Santiago. I told her I was visiting my sister who lived in Valparaiso. We chatted about this and that and I told her the story of my sister’s whirlwind romance with her Chilean boyfriend, after they’d met on a blind date. It was twenty years ago, when they were both working in London, but women love to hear about that sort of thing. I asked her what she did for a living.
‘I’m an air crash investigator,’ she said.
I was impressed. ‘So, you must have had a lot of training for that.’
‘My original did.’
Original, again, I was puzzled, but years of listening to confessions had taught me to let people talk, and things would usually become clear in the end.
‘So, do you investigate all sorts of air crashes or do you specialise?’ I was just making conversation, she had amber-coloured eyes, unusual and quite captivating.
‘Well, Farina does. She specialises in unexplained commercial aviation accidents of the early 21st century.’
‘I haven’t heard of any air crashes in South America recently.’
‘No, but there’ll be one soon,’ she said.
‘Really, so you know which planes are going to crash beforehand?’ I chuckled as I raised my glass to my lips.
‘On this occasion, yes, because it’ll be this one.’ The plane bumped at just that moment, it took me by surprise, but it was nothing. I mopped at my spilt drink with a tissue. ‘I’ve found that some of the navigation systems are wrongly calibrated, and there is an unusual wind shear in the Jetstream.’ She stared at me intently. ‘The pilots think they’re travelling faster than they are. Then there’s the fog over the mountains that we need to cross. It all adds up, it’s always a combination of factors that lead to an accident.’ She nodded sagely and appeared to relax. ‘The pilots will try to land too early and fly into a mountain. The plane will disappear, so I conjecture it will be covered by ice and snow. Difficult terrain, impossible to find, unusually the flight recorder will be destroyed.’ She sat back and looked at me, ‘What a shame there isn’t room for us to fool around. I’d like to have tried it once.’ There was a wistfulness in her voice.
I hoped she was joking, she could see my dog collar, although it isn’t always as big a deterrent as you might think. Just for a moment an inappropriate picture of the two of us came into my mind. I really would have to include her in my prayers as soon as possible.
I took a slow sip of my single malt. ‘How could you possibly know all this before it’s actually happened?’ I was beginning to feel uncomfortable sitting next to her. We hadn’t been given an inflight meal, so, thankfully, there was no plastic cutlery around – I knew a man who was killed with a sharpened tooth brush when I worked as a prison chaplain.
‘Well, Father,’ she leaned closer. ‘Actually, I’m a synthetic, an artificial person.’
‘A synthetic? You mean you were grown in a tank? Like in the movies?’ I laughed quietly, but she didn’t. I looked around to see if there were any flight attendants nearby in case I needed any help. Unfortunately, they were all busy towards the back of the plane: there seemed to be some sort of medical emergency, an overweight male passenger lay in the aisle with people gathered around him. I could go down there and offer to give him extreme unction, I might be safer.
‘Yes, Father, grown for this assignment.’
I wondered if she was making this up as she went along, or was she suffering a long-term delusion. She didn’t seem delusional.
I pointed at her glass and tried to crack her logic, ‘Do synthetics need to drink?’
‘It’s just a social convention, I can void food and liquids later.’
She was so attractive, perhaps she was an entertainer of some sort, maybe this was a spoof laid on by my “friends” at the seminary. I looked around but couldn’t see anyone using their smartphone to film us. I tried a different tack.
‘So, how come you can tell me all this? Isn’t it against the rules, against the Prime Directive, so to speak?’
‘You’d be right under normal circumstances, Father, but as we have such a short time left, and there will be no survivors….’ She left the rest unsaid.
‘No survivors? How do you feel about that?’ I was remembering one of the many counselling courses I’d taken over the years.
‘I’ve transmitted all the data and fulfilled my function. Copies get deleted, it’s just a fact of life. My original lives on, that should be all that matters.’ I noticed there were tears in her eyes. ‘But the thing is, Father, it seems such a waste. I could have had a life. I’m not supposed to feel like this, there must have been a mistake in the copying process. Synths of my grade are not supposed to have emotions.’ She began weeping quietly.’
I put an arm around her. ‘There, there, my child, don’t upset yourself. Now tell me, is there any medication that you’re supposed to be taking? Let’s just have a little look in your purse, here.’ The lighting dimmed as we started losing height and slid into the cloud bank covering the Andes.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the Captain has illuminated the seat belt signs as we are beginning our descent into Santiago International airport. Please ensure that your seat back and folding tray are in the upright position,’ said the recorded voice.
I couldn’t find any medication, so I comforted the “crash dummy” and wondered idly if a “synthetic person” could have a soul. It would make for an interesting discussion with my students next semester.
Our seats were near the front of the plane, the security door to the flight deck opened, and a young pilot, most probably the first officer, stepped out and looked anxiously down the aisle towards the knot of people gathered around the fallen passenger.
Suddenly, behind him, an alarm began to warble and I heard a robotic voice repeating: ‘Pull up, pull up, pull up, pull up….’