Put Me In An Airport

Put Me In An Airport

The title for this prompt may be a tribute to the Hat Films classic by the same name. (I can neither confirm nor deny.)

Anyway, this was the last prompt I wrote in 2018 (in case you wonder how big my buffer is). I squeezed it in on a Saturday, the day before we flew to the East Coast to visit my husband’s parents. There was a lot going on that day, and I worried it interfered with the concept. But when I went back to re-read it, I was thrilled with how it worked out.

I spent a lot of time on this one. My initial reaction to the image was a vast hub of modern travel. And it seems everyone agrees the next logical leap for us is either spaceships or teleportation. But both have been done. So I challenged myself to think about the next possible innovation, the next great leap for technology. And this is what I came up with.

This is one of those concepts that I’d greatly like to revisit, since it formed in my head as I wrote the words. Though I might have to wait for the muse to get back to me about it.

Side note: The hubs and I are going to visit friends next week. So the blog won’t update again until March 25th. See you then!
. . .

“People used to call them airports.”

Athendri blinked rapidly several times before she managed to tear her gaze away from the giant row of destination displays. There must be close to a thousand and she wasn’t sure she understood the sorting method. They weren’t in alphabetical order. Instead, each seemed to have its own six-digit code. But how was she supposed to find the code specific to her destination without scanning them all, she wasn’t sure.

When she turned, seeking the source of the voice, she found herself facing an odd avatar. Wrinkles carved deep across the skin and the hair was grey-white, though it still grew in thick curls from the top of the head and base of the chin. The old man wore a kindly smile, though, that instantly eased her anxieties.

“When they were still physical locations, you mean?”

The aged head dipped in a nod. “Indeed. Please pardon my presumption, young miss. But this would appear to be your first time.”

Rather than tensing for a retort, Athendri relaxed further. “What gave me away?” she asked with a chuckle. “The wide eyes or the blank stare?”

“Perhaps a little of both,” the old man admitted, folding his hands in front of him. He was tall, Athendri realized. What she had taken for a hump in his back turned out to be the curve of his shoulders as he bent down to her level. “Is this your first time?”

“Not in the Network, no.” She had received all the training as soon as she was old enough to handle the equipment, as did all children in this day and age. “But I’ve only visited local areas. So I’ve never been to a Hub.”

“They can be quite daunting,” the old man agreed. “Especially if you aren’t used to their functions. Remember, everything you see is designed to help your brain accept the vastness and strangeness of your surroundings. That’s why the airport model works so well. They always took up a lot of space to begin with. Besides, the designers wanted people to linger. There are plenty of things to do in an airport, if you know where to look.”

“I’m sure there are, and I’d love to explore. But I can’t seem to figure out where I’m supposed to go.” Athendri motioned back toward the notice boards. Many of the destinations had flipped to new positions, but it no more logical an order than they had been before.

The old man chuckled lightly, and it wasn’t a mocking sound. Straightening, closed his fingers around her wrist with great care and gave it a gentle squeeze. “You’re still thinking in a three-dimensional, limited-space fashion. This place is designed to interact directly with your mind, and it’s UI is even more complex than the Network with which you are familiar. Do you have an appointment?”

Athendri nodded, too mystified to offer any further response.

“Perfect. Then merely summon the confirmation number to the forefront of your mind and you will have the information you need.”

When the old man lifted his hand, Athendri found a piece of thick cardstock lying in the palm of her hand. She was familiar enough with the inner workings of the network not to question where it had come from. If this was some old-style travel hub, then the paper must represent her ticket. She recalled the confirmation number which had been sent to her this morning and it appeared on the empty card stock in bold, black numbers.

Something flashed on the screen overhead. With great relief, Athendri noted it was her destination. The moment she spied the six-digit code beside it, the cardstock shifted, bearing the new number.

“Excellent,” the old man murmured, nodding his head with appreciation. “You catch on quickly. How long before you’re due to depart?”

“Three hours,” Athendri replied without needing to think about it. Until she saw the breadth of the Hub, she wondered why they would ask her to arrive so far in advance. Now she saw it was to keep her from getting so caught up in the splendor of her surroundings that she forgot her purpose. “I have read about helpful programs that point travelers on their way,” she added, trying to ignore the color that crept into her cheeks. “Can I assume that you are one of them?”

“You could, if it pleased you. But I’m afraid you’d be incorrect. I am as flesh and blood as you are. Or was, at one point in time. I simply enjoy helping newcomers discover the wonders of the greater Network.”

“Now it’s I who must beg pardon for my presumption,” Athendri said in a rush. The fire in her cheeks spread at a rapid rate, consuming both her forehead and neck. She had hoped to master the visual override capabilities of the Network before her first transfer, but she could see she still had a long way to go.

“Nonsense.” The old man emphasized his answer with a flick of one narrow wrist. His smile had yet to falter, which reassured Athendri that she hadn’t stepped on any toes. “Though if you feel particularly driven to make it up to me, perhaps you would be willing to share a cup of coffee with a seasoned traveler before your departure?”

It was clear by the way the old man arched his shaggy eyebrows that Athendri was under no obligation to accept the request. She had never encountered a particularly aggressive user avatar, though she had tested all the usual failsafes in case she needed to make use of one. She supposed that anyone willing to present themselves as ancient when they could just as easily look like anything else was probably trustworthy. And after all, he had taken the time to explain the display system to her.

Suddenly, she was keenly aware that she stood in the middle of a crowded concourse, clutching a tiny piece of plain printed cardstock to her chest. Most of the travelers flowing around her pushed large suitcases or carried a series of brimming bags. They were only representations, of course, familiar fallbacks these numerous avatars had likely conjured out of habit. She could create one for herself, if she really wanted to. But it was her intention to transfer her whole self from one destination to another, which made the illusion of packing seem frivolous.

“You know what? Coffee would be great,” she managed. She tucked the card stock into the front pocket of her jacket so that she could clasp her hands in front of her. Hopefully that made her look somewhat more natural.

The old man seemed mildly amused by her reaction, but said nothing that could be construed as teasing. Instead, he bowed his head and motioned with one long arm toward an escalator. “If you will follow me, I know the perfect place.”

The airport, as her mysterious guide had called it, was overwhelming, to say the least. Not only was it filled to the brim with shoppers and travelers, it boasted every type of store front Athendri had ever imagined. In fact, there were objects for sale that she had never heard of. She wasn’t even sure they all had physical equivalents. Nor did she know how the intrepid shoppers ultimately transported their purchases home, though she supposed it was beyond the scope of her concern.

The Network predated her by several centuries. No doubt its Hubs functioned as slickly as any of the physical machines that kept it in operation. The fact that she could comprehend only a small slice of its capabilities was an intellectual limitation on her part rather than a tangible parameter for the construct to acknowledge. After all, everything she saw in the store-front windows was technically hypothetical. An idea given a shape her brain could quantify because machine code tended to send Network visitors into a genuine stupor.

To his credit, her guide slowed to wait for her every time she became distracted. He even went so far as to lean over her shoulder and explain a few of the more obscure contraptions, though she still couldn’t understand why anyone would want such things.

It was something of a relief to settle in the out of the way cafe, beneath the pastel colored awning of a fake umbrella. She had tasted coffee in the Network before, but this was her first truly out of body experience. The taste went far beyond what she expected, almost like a rainbow of sudden sensation filling her mind to its limit.

“I can’t believe it,” she murmured, peering at the dark liquid before venturing to take a second sip. “I think this might actually be better than the real thing.”

“Of course it is,” the old man replied, his smile turning into a triumphant grin. “Because it’s real. Realer than what you think of as the real thing, in many ways. After all, what is taste but a construct of the mind? A series of signals sent from one bunch of nerves to another. Wouldn’t all sensations be more real, more vivid if they were injected directly into the neurons that make sense of them?”

Athendri laughed as she lifted her cup back to her lips. “Such heavy philosophy is a little beyond my wheelhouse, I must admit. I was practically born into the Network. It was my playhouse when I was a child and my schoolhouse as I grew older. I can’t even conceive of a world without direct neural interface.” She paused for a moment, wondering if this old traveler could remember a time before direct to memory download. Something about the way he spoke made him seem ancient.

“Can I ask what it is you do?” she pressed gently when he didn’t respond. “You said you were a traveler. Are you some kind of guide?”

“Not in any official capacity, no. I suppose you could think of me as an archivist. I study the Network’s inner workings, and enhance them when I can. In the beginning, there weren’t more than a handful of us, though there might be close to a thousand by now.”

“Only a thousand?” Athendri blinked. “That would still be akin to little more than a handful considering how many billion souls move through the Network on any given day.”

The old man answered this with another light chuckle. “Perhaps you’re right. Thought it still seems like a great number to me, who started with one much smaller.”

Athendri bowed her head; it was a fair point. “If you study the Network, that must mean that you live inside it?” She leaned forward in her chair as she spoke, eager to hear the response. She couldn’t imagine severing all tethers to the outside world, but she had read several articles written by those who had. She was fascinated by the idea, by the endless possibilities a life lived fully within the Network could offer, though she wasn’t yet convinced the benefits were worth the sacrifices.

“I do, indeed,” the old man confirmed, once again bowing his head. “I come from a time when the flesh withered quickly. It took hardly any consideration to abandon a failing body for the prospect of an extended life.”

“How long have you been here?” Athendri demanded, momentarily forgetting her manners. The Network was only a few thousand years old, but rumor had it that some souls had inhabited it since the beginning. Rebels willing to sacrifice everything to prove their theories were sound. Some people even worshiped them, though Athendri thought it was silly to bring spirituality into such a heavily scientific construct.

“Only a few centuries,” her companion admitted with a small shrug. “Though I know several who can boast a thousand years to their credit.”

Athendri’s mouth fell open. What stories he must be able to tell! She could spend hours chatting with him and expect to learn a mere fraction of his knowledge of the Network and its Hubs. A great flood of questions was about to spill from her lips when a gentle warmth began to emanate from her pocket. With a jolt, she realized that three hours had almost passed already, and she had only just grown comfortable with the Hub and its surrounds.

“Worry not,” her companion said as he rose from his chair. “Should you ever wish to speak with me again, it will be a simple matter to send me a message.”

Athendri doubted that, not when she didn’t know her strange benefactor’s name. By the time she managed to open her mouth to ask what it was, he had already disappeared into the crowd moving across the concourse. She stared with dismay at the foot traffic, trying for several minutes to trace his path, but she saw no sign of him. Tall he may have been, but some of the avatars occupying the airport were truly massive in size, easy enough to hide behind.

And besides, if an archivist he truly was, he might know hidden paths her eyes could not see.

She’d better get on with her appointment anyway. She didn’t know what would happen if she missed it. These transfers had to be scheduled months in advance. She didn’t dare risk losing priority; her home Network was small. It had taken almost a year of exemplary work to gain this transfer.

Of course, she was terrified of what she would find when she opened her eyes. She had spent her entire life in a single body. It had been familiar and comfortable, perfectly tailored to her every whim.

The final portion of the process was supposed to be like waking from a dream. The technician reminded her as much as she settled into the chair.

“Don’t panic,” she said. “Just open your eyes and take a deep breath.”

Still, there was a moment of panic and uncertainty. She didn’t know where she was. Or even what she was, though she held fast to the who. Her lungs worked, drawing oxygen into her chest and bringing with it a sweet sense of clarity.

Athendri sat up and let her hands and eyes trail over her new body. It was thinner than she was used to, but that was easily fixed. The face would take some getting used to. The hair was bright red, though she thought she might dye the tips of it when she got the chance. Her wardrobe and possessions were easily transferred, and would likely be waiting for her when she reached her new address.

But as she made her way out of the physical terminal and into the transportation tube, she couldn’t stop thinking about the old man she had spent the afternoon with. He had recognized her as a young thing, unused to the bustle of true Network traffic and inexperienced with the true potential of the neural transfer.

Perhaps that was the point of his final message. Perhaps when she was clever enough to send him a message through the vast depths of the network, he would be all too pleased to speak with her again. It was a charming prospect, especially since she would very much like answers to her myriad of questions.

Grinning to herself, Athendri filed the notion away for a future rainy day and continued on the path that would allow her to discover her new identity.

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