Today's Reading

4

Negotiable Sense of Place

Whatever liminal grace informs airports—some sense of perpetual arrival and departure, of being in an anonymous crowd united in separation from their proper lives—is absent now; the terminal stinks of disinfectant, and stalls blink garishly, trying to sell her perfume, T-shirts, duty-free alcohol, things Irina could not ever imagine wanting, and she has a sudden and overwhelming sense that the trip was a mistake, that she does not after all need the money, and wishes with all her being that she hadn't come.

The terminal funnels her to the entry checkpoint; they make you go through security again, when you get off a plane from LA, an uncomfortable reminder of how bad things are in that city. On the customs card she lists her profession as "computational translator," as accurate a description as any. This late there's only one guard, who stops reading the news on his phone long enough to take her card and wave her through the humming scan tunnel but she stops, says, "I have an implant," fishing through her purse for the letter on FAA letterhead certifying that, yes, she has a cranial implant, yes, it is the legal kind, no, it is not construed as a munition. With it, she forgets nothing. Only a few dozen people ever got her kind, less than ten are left, and she dreads questions. (Even the simplest implants are getting phased out—you used to need one to be a combat officer in the Marines, but the technology never really matured and now no one much uses them.) The guard reads the letter, eyes her skull with professional interest (she always wears bangs, against this very eventuality), and says, "Is it one of those direct connections to the net?" As he seems kind, and is without swagger, she delays her course toward hotel and sleep long enough to muster a smile and say, "It's memory," then retrieves the letter in the same motion that carries her into the scanner. The screen of the guard's laptop is reflected in the chromed walls; she sees herself as a ghost, walking, bones and the hardware in her bag glowing slightly, as does the arc of the device just behind her forehead.

As she rides the conveyor belts past empty storefronts, a closed Koffee Kiosk senses her gaze and illuminates itself, its marquee displaying helically frothed cappuccinos twirling through an abstract mathematical space. A direct connection to the net, she reflects, feels like an airport at night (the implant has this feature, but she almost always keeps it turned off)—something about being bombarded by sterile, impersonal and ultimately vacuous information, though part of her wishes that the Koffee Kiosk were open; she briefly considers turning on her wireless, cracking the Kiosk's security as she would an eggshell, making it give her coffee.

Finally, the double doors to the outside, their surfaces glowing with a last, desperate attempt to sell her discount fares to Gdansk, Helsinki, Reykjavík, and then they whisk open. As the cool outside air envelops her, the sense that place is fundamentally negotiable—endemic, she suspects, to airports—departs.

On the curb, she smells the chaparral in the hills, the fog, and knows where she is. As though in acknowledgment of this, a drone cab pulls to the front of the empty taxi queue. It's painted bright green, marking it as robotic. She gets in and a video screen on the inside of the door lights up; a software agent appears, a sort of sexy cartoon librarian who says, "Welcome to...the San Francisco Airport! Where can I take you tonight?" and beams. Her business being the inner lives of AIs, she knows exactly how little this one has, and touches the small button on the screen that dismisses the friendly interface. "Destination, please," says a calm, genderless voice. She finds the option that brings up a keyboard on the screen
and types in the name of the hotel.

The cab winds its way through the labyrinth of over- and underpasses that lead out of the airport and onto the freeway, where it pulls into the designated drone lanes. A semi barrels past, its hood a prickling, insect-splattered expanse of stubby antennae, cameras, other protuberances that she can't identify but that must be sensors of some kind; she can't help but read the windowless cab as the face of a blind man with his visual prosthetic. The tank rushes by and she glimpses colored stickers indicating a payload of extreme
toxicity. She feels a stab of pity for the people who once drove trucks long distances, how boring their lives must have been. There are stories, probably urban legends, about drone trucks disappearing, usually in the fog, in the mountains where radio signals get distorted, their cargoes of industrial solvents, Italian shoes, heirloom tomatoes surfacing in distant markets. Myths, most likely, grounded in occasional database errors, and in the slight eeriness of the things, roaring through the night with their sightless faces.

A drone Mercedes passes her, the light of streetlamps revealing a middle-aged suit looking absurdly vulnerable as he nods over a closed laptop. There was a psychological shift, with drone cars, that made people act less like they were in semipublic and more like they were in their bedrooms. She often saw people getting dressed, men bucking in the confined space to get their legs into pants, women putting on makeup or stockings, anonymity substituting for privacy. Now there's a car full of kids, the boys drinking whisky from cans, the girls' faces glowing, laughing at nothing, off on an endless cruise through the night, converging, briefly, at bars, but always believing that the final destination, some desirable center, is elsewhere, a promise never realized, and so, with blood alcohol no impediment to motion, they are, with each arrival, already preparing to disappear; she wants to disappear with them.

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