In the Event of a Systems Failure by Alyssa Greene
Editorial intern Taylor Favour on today's bonus story: Throughout “In the Event of a Systems Failure,” Alyssa Greene captivates by explaining a crime that takes place on an airline named -- ominously -- “Smiling Skies.”
In the Event of a Systems Failure
At the beginning of the promotional video, marked as Exhibit 71 during the trial, Alison Kelley looks into the camera and says, “You know what scares me most about flying? It’s not just the plane going down. It’s knowing you’re going to die, and waiting for the end.”
The film cuts to the crowded interior of a 737. A bright light flashes; passengers scream as the cabin shakes.
Kelley narrates in voice over. “When I was a student, lightning struck the plane that was taking me home. For a moment, it felt like we were falling. Of course, everything was fine. But the woman next to me was hysterical.”
The camera zooms in on two passengers: Alison Kelley and a middle-aged woman. The older woman sobs as Kelley holds her hands.
“This woman,” Kelley narrates, “was stuck in a thankless job and hadn’t spoken to her son in years. When she thought her life was ending, she felt nothing but regret.”
The video cuts back to Kelley. Dressed in a white lab coat, she stands next to a cross-sectional model of a commercial aircraft carrier.
“That’s where Smiling Skies steps in,” she says, beaming at the camera. She points to a series of gray metal cannisters concealed within the plane’s ventilation system. “Fitted to the air ducts of a plane, our emergency tranquilizer can be deployed in a matter of seconds by the flick of a switch in the cockpit. In the unfortunate event of a systems failure, gas fills the cabin, inducing feelings of fulfillment and satisfaction. Never again will travelers feel so much as a second of regret when plummeting from the sky.”
Court documents revealed that marketing the product proved difficult. Obvious legal obstacles aside, potential buyers and investors were confused. If the gas was so amazing, they asked, why not just blast it on every flight? Why stop with planes? Why not schools, factories, office buildings?
Smiling Skies executives tugged at their collars, chuckled nervously. The long-term health implications of the product were untested, they explained. Habitual use was out of the question. However, they saw no reason why it couldn’t be used to comfort those who were about to die.
In fact, anecdotal evidence of dangerous side effects existed at the earliest stage of the company’s inception. Late one night, some lab technicians at Smiling Skies’ parent company, GX Pharmaceuticals, curious about a life of fulfillment, filled a balloon with a small quantity of the gas and took turns inhaling. Because the hospital records fell under the purview of trade secrets, GX did not have to divulge the specifics of their injuries. Attorneys successfully filed a motion to prohibit any language that might compromise its intellectual property; any use of the word neurotoxin was immediately stricken from the record.
When no major airline made use of Smiling Skies’ services, the company reevaluated its strategy. New brochures were printed, again featuring Alison Kelley, this time framing the product as an ideal addition to a private plane. “The Ultimate Luxury,” read the ad copy.
Trade magazines dismissed the endeavor as crackpot; the company was mocked mercilessly online. But after a matter of weeks, the world moved on. Most forgot the company even existed until the black box was found.
The crash killed six passengers, executives at lucrative biotech start-ups. Newspapers called their loss a national tragedy. The pilot, co-pilot, and two flight attendants also perished.
When investigators played back the recording of the flight’s final moments, they heard nothing but calm.
“The warning light came on,” the pilot said. “I feel so light.”
“No matter,” said the co-pilot. “It will be over soon enough.”
“Yes. Life has been sweet, hasn’t—”
The subsequent investigation uncovered a strange kind of black market among the ultra-rich. Illegally outfitting private planes with Smiling Skies’ emergency gas was at first just another mark of exclusivity. Membership in an elite club, revealed by a raised eyebrow, a conspiratorial smile: “Guess what this baby’s got on board.”
As the novelty wore off, the source of the thrill shifted. Each flight became a chance to spit in the face of misfortune: not even death could scare them now. But soon each safe landing felt like a disappointment. With each disembarkation they couldn’t help but think, What if? Some began experimenting with turning on the gas in the cabin mid-flight. Just for a few seconds. Then for a few minutes.
Acquaintances of the victims reported that their behavior had been increasingly erratic in the weeks leading up to their deaths. The investigators’ final report confirmed what many had speculated: the disaster could easily have been averted, had the crew only felt motivated to act.
While media outlets frenzied around the most lurid details, one journalist dug up an odd detail. Alison Kelley, the face of Smiling Skies, was a marketing fiction. The journalist tracked down Tricia Davies, a waitress and would-be actress.
“They told me it was a joke,” she said in the interview. “I didn’t know it was real.”
Overwhelmed by the ubiquity of the Kelley promotional materials, Davies dyed her hair and hid beneath sunglasses and a baseball cap. Still, some people squinted at her and wondered, “Don’t I know her from somewhere?”
Amidst the troves of documents about chemical weapons and defense contracting disclosed by GX during discovery, investigators found a memo from some of GX’s chemical engineers, addressed to the executive board. While testing chemical agents for potential military applications, researchers noticed that certain pesticides induced feelings of apparent bliss in lab rats, and later in dogs and primates. They sought permission to use one of the accounting department’s shell companies to sell their surplus product.
“Why not,” the memo reasoned, “try to do a little good in the world?”
Alyssa Greene is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Utah. She is an editorial assistant for the Lambda Literary Review, and a reader for Quarterly West and Western Humanities Review. She holds a PhD in German literature from Columbia University.