By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate Dim Thule-
From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime,
Out of SPACE – Out of TIME.
Edgar Allen Poe, Dream-Land.
He woke up and found himself huddled on a bench in a busy airport terminal. If he hadn't been so drowsy he would probably have been alarmed, for he had no memories of anything prior to the intense disorientation of his dreams. He couldn't remember his name, or anything that had ever happened to him, before waking up in that airport terminal.
Holding his nerves at bay, he attempted to get his bearings. He sat up on the bench, and looked around. The terminal was a vast, ovoid-shaped structure, with its latticed ceiling curving high above the activity on the floor. Every surface was white, gleaming and reflective, and through the curving lattice work of the ceiling, and glass walls broken into cubes by white frames, he saw a pure, pulsating blue sky.
In contrast to the sharp clarity of the terminal's appearance, its sound was distant and diffuse, like the low, steady hum of a hidden machinery. Feet clacked on the tiled floor, the walkers becoming upturned shadows that arced across its polished sheen. Their voices coalesced into a happy, bee-like static that ebbed and swelled in waves across the terminal. Behind this sound, a woman's voice rose intermittently to make announcements on a tinny intercom. Her language and accent were so unfamiliar to him, and the effect of her voice so mysterious, that he could only picture her hidden behind a musty black veil, fingering the beads of some forgotten heresy as she made her muffled announcements.
He marvelled at the hive-like bustle of the terminal, its suggestion of a factory that produced steady, minute permutations in the global pattern of human dispersal, and in the private, intangible allotment of human destinies. People moved this way and that, across the busy floor, up escalators and away out of view on mobile walkways. They were all charged with the mingled anxiety and giddy excitement of imminent departure. Here and there, he saw other individuals who appeared, like himself, blear-eyed and disorientated, as though they had just awoken in an unfamiliar skin. He was struck abruptly by an oddity in the whole scene: nobody was carrying luggage of any kind.
Taking all this in, it occurred to him that he had a perfectly adequate memory of the most generalized things. He know what airports were. He knew what airplanes, taxies and buses were. In the broadest strokes, he know what the world was, and how one functioned in it. What he lacked completely was a memory of particular things. This extended beyond his own identity. He tried to remember what year it was, and found he was uncertain which decade. When he tried to remember who was the president of America, no particular president emerged, only a kind of composite image: an energetic, middle-aged man in a suit with a gleaming smile. This happened, again and again, with popular music, fashion and technology. His mind seemed to possess only rough templates, or an awareness of the precursors of things, rather than their present, living instances.
Growing more troubled, he turned his attention back to the terminal. The benches were arranged in rows that faced the terminal's massive electronic display, a black rectangle affixed to the downward curvature of the ceiling. Some of the destinations were immediately familiar to him, evoking second-hand memories of famous landmarks and national stereotypes. Others, he was certain, he had never encountered before, and their names affected him like pieces of music or passages of recondite poetry.
At the bottom centre of the display, a smaller screen was tuned to what he assumed was a news channel. This news channel, however, was subject to an instantly notable and deeply alienating peculiarly: there were no people in it. It alternated between long, static shots of a studio in which two empty chairs regarded the viewer portentously, and wide, rapidly cutting shots of urban locations equally devoid of human presence. When the news programme broke for commercials, he was initially relived to find that these, at least, contained people. However, just as the news reportage lacked its crucial human element, the advertisements were rendered stark by the absence of the objects which were their chief subject. The beaming actors mimed the various pleasures and utilities of absent, notional consumer products, producing an effect which he found almost as forlorn as the empty spaces of the news programme.
Turning back to the people milling about beneath the display, he began to notice other things. There were, as far as he could see, no children in the terminal. He estimated that the average age was somewhere between forty and sixty. He saw one teenager, and some who were in their twenties, but they were outliers. Their clothing had the same indefinite quality which characterized his memories. Most of it was impossible to pin down to any specific decade. Where the clothing did evoke a particular period, it did so in an unconvincing fashion, like a much later recreation for a television show or magazine spread. Finding nothing in the scene to place the terminal in either time or space, he resolved that he had to speak to somebody.
Standing up, he found himself initially dizzy and nauseous. The use of his body felt peculiar, as though his mind floated in a jittery, pliant suit of rubber. After a few steps, however, his body gradually regained its sense of solidity and continuity. The queues to the check-in desks were far too long, so he decided to accost the first person that crossed his path. This turned out to be a women whom he guessed to be in her mid-forties. She had the general appearance of an academic or solicitor: a small, stoutish figure, short brown hair and a kindly bespectacled face.
'Excuse me,' he said, 'please, pardon me, do you speak English?' She paused.
'Yes, yes I do.' A French accent, he thought.
'This will seem like a really strange question. Could you tell me the name of this airport?' She smiled indulgently: 'This is the Intermundia Airport. Or one of them, at any rate.' She was beginning to move away again.
'But, I'm sorry, I really don't know where I am. That name doesn't mean anything to me. What country are we in?' She touched his shoulder gently.
'We aren't in any country, really. Look. I can tell that you are new. All this is very....disorientating and overwhelming at first. But it's okay, you will get used to it. You need to relax, take a deep breath. I assume that you haven't seen your case officer yet?'
'My what?', he enquired, becoming impatient despite himself.
'Your case officer. Have you had a session with your case officer yet?' He could only shake his head. 'Well, you'll be called very soon, to have a meeting with them. They will explain everything to you. Really, it's okay, they'll explain everything.' Her owlish face was beginning to drift back into the crowd. He looked at her imploringly. She patted his shoulder again. 'I can't help you now. But don't worry. Just wait for the meeting. Things will be clearer.' She turned, and walked away.
It was becoming increasingly difficult to stave off his mounting anxiety. He was troubled now by two things. First of all, he was suffering from extreme amnesia. Perhaps worse still, however, his memory was still sufficient to emphasize that his current situation was utterly bizarre and even sinister. Was he dreaming? Though the most desirable solution, he ruled this out almost instantly. He had no doubt that his perceptions were veridical – had he been dreaming, his awareness of the wrongness of everything would have nudged him to wakefulness long ago. Was he going mad? Again, though this might have been an almost reassuring explanation, it seemed untenable. His reasoning felt completely lucid and clear-sighted. What troubled him more than any temporary foible or malfunction of his brain was the conviction that everything around him was real. His amnesia, and the unnerving oddities of the airport terminal, were a related phenomenon.
Was he a political prisoner of some kind? The woman's reference to a case officer suggested that he had fallen under the jurisdiction of some bureaucracy or other. He couldn't persuade himself, however, that the situation was merely political. The airport's unnerving air of insularity and timelessness suggested an order that existed aloof from politics, operating in a place untouched by the world's fluctuating values and fortunes. His suspicion was that something had been done to his mind to render it as neutral and indistinct as the airport itself.
He turned to make his way back to the bench and discovered that the precise location where he had been sleeping was now occupied by an elderly woman. She too was curled up asleep, her face obscured by wan, diaphanous hands clenched as though in prayer. He had to get out of the terminal, and far away and fast. To the right of the benches, through the milling crowds, he saw a row of automatic exit doors bathed in sunlight gleam. He ambled towards them, trying not to let his pace betray his urgency.
Outside in the glare, he found only a vaster sense of confinement. The airport was marooned in an aesthetically spartan landscape of transport hubs, served by a wide, teaming motorway. People were disembarking from taxies and busies at a ramp, and again he noted that none of them carried luggage. Squinting airport staff wheeled empty luggage trolleys along the concourse, imparting a peculiar sense of theatre or ritual. Across the motorway, accessible by an overpass, there was a long, five-story concrete structure, composed of a lattice of narrow conservatory balconies. Elevated above the roof, large unlit neon letters identified the building as the “I N T E R M U N D I A O V E R N I G H T.” The conservatory rooms contained identical furnishing: a two-seater couch and wicker-table facing the glass, and a bureau with a seat facing the wall. A painting hung over the bureaus. Although he couldn't make out the details, it was clearly the same study in each room.
Even from that distance, through the gasoline haze of the motorway, everything in the little conservatories seemed faded, decrepit and somehow mortally dispiriting. Though he had no precise memory of any other, he felt certain that the Intermundia Overnight was among the least welcoming of all hostelries. Many of the conservatories were occupied. The distribution of those who sat facing the glass, and those with their backs turned at the bureaus, formed an eerie binary code. He felt as though the people seated at the wicker-tables watched him with a kind of unwavering intensity, like individuals who have been brutalized by a regime of boredom to the point of cultivating cerebral, highly specialized homicidal tendencies.
Beyond the Overnight, there was a vast parking lot, and after that what appeared to be an exact facsimile of the terminal he had just existed. The harsh concrete terrain of motorway, overpasses and expansive parking lots stretched as far as his eyes could register. Trying to escape on foot was pointless.
Up to that point, a kind of premonitory anxiety had kept his attention focused on the surrounding buildings. Now he looked fully into the blue sky, and his brain reeled. The pulsating quality he had earlier noted was a result of the exhaust fumes of a staggering volume of airplanes. The sky was full of them: the nearer ones like flocks of birds, and those further off like swarms of locusts. Their flight paths seemed to extend indefinitely into the horizon, becoming at the limits of visibility like tiny evening stars. It was a beautiful and terrifying spectacle, a dance of metal fuselages becoming liquid and molten in the sunlight, rising like scattered motes against the crisp, boundless blue.