Librarian of Alexandria

I: When the planes stopped working

It was an unremarkable April evening when the planes stopped working.

The first flight to do so was Skyjet Flight A72 out of Long Beach. The shadows were already quite long and there was a pleasant evening breeze coming from the ocean. The people on the flight sat down and fastened in, checking their phones and reading books and ignoring the safety briefing. The plane taxied out to one end of the runway, sat for a minute, and then began to pick up speed, more and more, the wings rattling as it went. The passengers and the pilots and the flight attendants all braced, waiting for the moment that the wind picked up under the wings, that the plane began to pull back and pick itself up into the unremarkable sky above.

After several seconds, the pilot realized that something was wrong. They threw the brakes just a moment too late: the plane didn't stop short of the fence, but the collision was a mild one, and the sudden lurch it caused to the passengers only resulted in a few broken limbs. It was one of the luckier planes that evening.

It was the first but not the last. The reports came in all over: planes weren't taking off. They'd follow the procedures, get to the runway, pick up speed, and the wings would never grab the wind. There was confusion, and then panic. At first there was fear of mass sabotage, some kind of enemy of the state, but then the reports came in from elsewhere, from other states, from commercial flights and freight planes and hobbyists and tiny crop-dusters far outside of anywhere. The planes had stopped working.

When the people were taken away and the experts were brought in, they were mystified. Everything was in order, the plane was functioning fine, the systems were checked ahead-of-time, the engine was working, the fuel was full. They pulled out computers and paper and laid out all the details, going over all the checklists. Finally, one of them graphed out the wings, going back to the basics, the very fundamentals of flight, and sat confused.

It wouldn't work. They checked again and again, running model after model, solving equation after equation, but the numbers were clear: the aerodynamic and physical models simply showed that heavier-than-air flight was impossible. They consulted the textbooks, the manuals, all the resources, and found them mystifying: none of the math was correct. In fact, it was all so obviously incorrect, they wondered how nobody had ever noticed. Professors of mathematics and physics and engineering watched their own faces in the screens, recorded lectures they had made years, months, even just days before, where they held forth on the fundamental truths of aviation with confidence and sureness, and every figure and formula they cited was apparent and abject nonsense.

And yet, then they saw the planes. The planes, which had been flying for years. There were accounts describing a century of air flight. There were people who remembered flying, having flown. And the planes. We had built the planes, right? And not just the planes, but a whole infrastructure of flight, of airplanes, of airports, of factories and supply chains of engines and wings and parts. Comedians ineffectually tried to entertain audiences with tedious tales of airline food, people told stories of missed flights and airport awkwardness, columnists wrote op-eds about the necessity and the irrelevance and the inhumanity of the airport security apparatus. We all recalled these things. Even as the models showed the impossibility of flight, the planes which were in the air as flight A72 experienced its tragedy were arriving and landing on the tarmac. And yet, we could see, both in theory and practice, that planes could not fly. How could they ever have been? How can we even recall them?

It took less time than expected to plan and rearchitect the supply chains to account for the impossibility of flight. Package delivery took longer, sure, but we had the trucks, the boats, all the vehicles we'd had for centuries, the reliable ones that weren't based on fanciful misunderstandings or complete nonsense. It took longer for all vestiges of flight to escape modern life. Repurposing the airports and the vast land around them took years. And for generations, children would play with toys of planes and dream of being pilots. Fiction set in the recent—and eventually not-so-recent—past would include airports and planes, unsure whether the events depicted were fantasy when so many had depicted it as reality, or reality when the plain concrete facts of the world showed that it must be fantasy.

Long after it all, the experts would look at the old books and stare at the ghosts in the screen. The planes had worked once, hadn't they? The fantasies put together in the formulas of physics and aerodynamics, the great works of engineering… there was no way they could have worked and yet they did. It was a dream but it was true. How could it ever have been?

What all of them thought, but none of them said, was: which dream will be dispelled next?