At a fair pace, the journey from the BART station to the sorting station took about two hours. Along the way, he passed many familiar faces of those he had waited within line in recent years. Many along the way may call out his name in cheer as he passed, "Kalyan, the greatest line surrogate I have known," or "there is Kalyan, the fastest man in San Francisco." Both monikers were generous and heartwarming. Kalyan was too humble a man to think of himself in these terms. He focused on the patron's needs, and of getting to the front of the line.
The smell of the sorting station permeated through the mask 50 yards before seeing the light in the tunnel. The air was thick and heavy on his skin. The breath of humanity saturated the ceiling in a thick cloud of moisture and condensation dripping from the tiles. Thick beads rolled down the walls like raindrops on a window during a summer shower.
Arriving at the high dome of the sorting station he could see that the security gate he needed to pass through had mechanical issues. All who were close enough to see it watched as the attendant kicked it, cursed at it, and hit it with the metal tool intended to fix it.
Kalyan had politely made his way through the onlookers to the gate, and approached the attendant to say, "My friend, is there anything I can do to help."
He was a young and frustrated man. His face red from the heat and frustration looked to Kalyan with a distant and unfocused stair. It reminded Kalyan of a learning screen about the extinct animal called a baboon.
Kalyan reached into his backpack and removed one of the tricks to his profession, an energy bar. "My friend, you look like you need some help. Here, please, take this." He offered him the wrapped bar. Removing a small plastic bottle of water, he handed that to him as well. "Here, take this too."
The attendant, realizing what it was, instinctually grabbed at the gifts, ripped off the wrapping, and consumed it in one large gulp. This was followed by the twist from little cap from the water bottle, and sucking so fast the water had short time to pass his mouth and into the man's belly.
Kalyan could see the focus return to his eyes, his breathing steady, and his mind calm. His voice came through the blue mask, "Now tell me, friend, what happened?"
The attendant replied by pointing up, "The moisture haze. The breath of humanity. All the moisture, on the electronics, the security gate."
"Ah, I see, I see," Kalyan said. "And what is that in your hand? A tool?"
The attendant looked to his hand and recognized that long handled flathead was a tool.
"And that is to open the gate, yes?"
Kalyan opened his hand, and the attendant gave him the tool. Kalyan took a good look at the gate, walked through to the other side and examined the arch in consideration of his story. Where he saw that the smoke was coming out, Kalyan took the tool and wedged it in the seam. The little metal plate popped out and landed on the floor with a tink.
"Do you have other tools?" He asked the attendant.
"I do." He said reaching to his belt.
"Come, look, please. Let us focus on this here." Kalyan's calm and father voice encouraged. "Look, see, do you recognize this?"
"I do," said the man looking in. "That is the t17 connector. I have one of those here in my pocket."
"And you can exchange the bad part, here now?"
"Yes, yes, I can do this."
Kalyan stepped back to give the man as much space as he could. The woman in line for security asked, "What did you do to that man?"
"I gave him some food and water. He couldn't focus."
"Oh." She said with a worn and tired reply. "You must be rich to give away food and water."
"I am not a rich man. I have to get my patron to the front of the line. That is my job." Kalyan explained.
He could see that this woman, like the attendant, like all those waiting in line, were tired and hungry. This was the nature of the world. Those who had a patron, those supporting the men who run the world lived in a state of constant exhaustion with too much to do and too little sleep. It was a more desirable standing than those without means or patrons. He would do anything to avoid being one of the unemployed. The anxiety and stress of not having a job, a home, of knowing where you belong, alone amongst a sea of other lonely hopeless masses feeling you might drown at any moment.
There were a final snap and a click that returned the security gate to life. It set the lights to green. The whir of the dynamoelectric rotor field built to a steady state of normal.
"Please," the attendant said, "go right ahead."
Kalyan smiled and nodded his head in thanks to the attendant and the security agents watched him pass through without a problem.
"Thank you." Kalyan nodded and smiled.
The attendant, with a grateful grin, said, "No, thank you."
Before pressing on through to the free-range crowd on the other side of security, Kalyan looked back on the hazy structure of the sorting station, its massive reinforced columns holding up the ceiling, birds nesting in the beams, and the geometric shapes of humanity held in place by the red electric wires and stanchions.
Each time he came to the airport Kalyan thought to himself, "What a beautiful world we live in where we could build such amazing things, where brothers and sisters of humanity could live together in peace, and the ability to get ahead in the world only takes a little extra work."
A crushing blow from the left struck Kalyan. It knocked him to the ground. In a micro flash of memory he knew, before hitting the tile, his number one goal would be to stand back up as fast as possible. He knew that the number one cause of death was trampling under foot. In a moment emblazed in his memory for all time, he could see his late wife's tears, as he pulled her hand to get her to her feet. The two had been walking, side by side, and when he looked away for only a moment, she was gone. Pulled under the feet of humanity. By the time hear could hear her, could find only her hand, he took is, and pulled with all his might, every ounce of strength, but with no success. She was already being mashed into the steel metal plates being turned into calories for the great city to consume.
Kalyan at least had a chance. These floors were tile. While he would not come out of this situation unscathed, as long as he could get to his feet quickly, he should be able to survive.
The moment his right hand hit the floor, a foot found it and stepped on it. He had to ignore the pain and focus on getting up. Madhubala's face gave him the strength to counter the pain, "I must get up."
His left hand steadied under his body as more and more feet began to find him and step on him. Kalyan tucked into a ball, his knees forced to the tile as he rolled and knocked others down. He looked up to see that it was starting to cause a chain reaction, as they tripped on him. The surprised face of a young woman, only inches from him, looked on in pain and fear not knowing what was happening. He knew that look. He knew that woman would soon be with his wife.
He yelled at her, "Get up! Get up!"
Kalyan moved from the curled ball on his knees to a position crouching, and as rose back up, breaching to the surface and the faces of humanity, he felt reborn. From this height, Kalyan looked to the spot where he saw the woman fall and the cascade continued. Heads dropped from sight to what he assumed was the floor below. It was like a boulder hidden in a river waiting to be struck and take its victims below.
Kalyan made his way to the closest wall. This was the most dangerous place in the airport. These free-range waiting areas had no rules, no order, no stations or electrified fields keeping people in place. His strategy was to follow the wall of terminal one as far as he could. He wanted to get past this to the front where the terminal line formed, where he could align with the patron arrival area.
Inching along the wall, he followed where other successful line surrogates made way, leaving the locals and the crazies in the center. Kalyan once heard that there were masses of people in the center that had been trapped. A sense of being drawn into the crowd was comforting, assuming that the person in front of you knew what they were doing. Then, for no reason, the person in front of you stops. A push from behind follows as others hadn't anticipated the break. Like a line of dominos, the bodies are stacked and fall.
This tale was difficult for Kalyan to believe. He had been here long enough, late enough, to see the self-automated cleaning systems engage in their programmed carnage. It was clear in his mind the busy night he had just cleared the free range area to a safe space to meet his patron. His ankle caught in the stainless steel piston that rose from the floor and found his trousers. He had to cut the pant leg off that night to keep his foot. Then, there were the screams as the self-automated cleaning systems came alive with a whir and hum of electrical current. The pressing of desperate flesh to escape the machine that would clear the area, wash the floors of the material slurry, and wax the tiles. Sadly, many patrons lost their place in line that day. So many missed flights, so many missed connections.
In the original design of the terminal, Kalyan had learned that like the BART, there were chairs for people to wait. Those had been removed in remodeling decades ago. What remained were sections between the walled corridors that were larger spaces. There was a choice. The dilemma was, he could continue to follow the wall, which was safer, but much longer as a route, or make his way into the masses, and aim to find safety at each of the square columns of the section.
He had tried this second option in the past before there was a Madhubala at home. Removing the communicator from his breast pocket, he looked to the present time and calculated how long it would take him to align with his patron by both estimations. The prudent course of action would be to follow the wall. When he reached the second and third of these sections, he would recalculate his progress.
The painted cinderblock walls of the corridor were nearly rubbed smooth from all the hands that felt their way along it. Kalyan inching his way along the wall for a good 40 minutes had to stop. A "Terron Trap" had formed around an active electrical outlet. Dozens have stopped at this point forming a personal bubble around the wall blocking forward passage. Each needed to re-charge their communicator and plugged into each other's connector creating a daisy chain of tangled wires into the one outlet. It was rare to find a public outlet that still worked. Once discovered, a "Terron Trap" formed and blew out the circuit. Sometimes they impacted the whole areas lighting, other times it would just cause a small fire and a few deaths.
Kalyan waited. This was part of his profession and patience the desired quality on his resume. He could feel the press of others move past him that were freely floating in the currents of humanity. Kalyan stays close to that wall, not wanting to get dragged away.
A woman's voice called from behind, "Kalyan? Is that you? I can not tell from your mask."
Glancing over his left shoulder, he could see it was his friend, "Minmei! How are you it is good to see you again."
"What has happened? Why have we stopped?" She asked.
"Terron Trap." He said over the noise of the crowd.
"Can we get around?"
"I don't want to risk it. Its rather large, a dozen or more are huddled and wired. Best to wait. Let it blow. They will soon be gone." He urged.
Minmei looked behind her to see the growing swell stopped along the wall behind her. "I don't want to be here for the self-automated cleaners." She shouted.
"Those run on the 30th, and it is only the 15th." He reassured.
"No, they have reset to run twice a month, the 15th and the 30th. We need to move, we need to go, there are only a few hours." She yelled.
"15th and the 30th? Where did you hear such a thing?" He tested.
"The learning screens in the security zone. Why do you think the lines were so short today?"
His first thoughts, his only real thoughts, were about Madhubala. She would be alone. No Mother, no father, and so rare a girl in the world, an only child. For the first time in many months, Kalyan was anxious.
"We must get out of here. We must go." Kalyan said.
He reached down, and in an uncommon move, took the hand of Minmei. He could feel the warmth of her hand through the latex glove. She was not a tall woman. She was not a big woman. He lead her in front of himself carefully, so she was between the Terron Trap and himself. She was removed from the pressure behind her. He took the brunt as the weight shifted against him. He lifted her body up from the floor and used her much like one would hold a shield. The pressure from the push of bodies against him pushed Kalyan forward. He didn't fight it. Instead, that momentum went through his body, up his arms, and into Minmei. She was now moving forward along the wall and wedged into the smallest space against the smoothed cinder block and the Terron Trap.
There was flash, and smoke, followed by the groan of disappointment from dozens. The members of the Terron Trap looked up from the charging deceives becoming aware of what happened.
Another push from the forces behind Kalyan came, worked through him, and pressed against Minmei, dislodging the wires, freeing the group from the wall.
A look of surprise flashed across the faces of the members of the Terron Trap as a quick and fluid movement from the rushing waves of people caught them in the flow. The power cords snagged at a few, then entangled the entire bunch. There was a surge of panic as most tried to cling to the wall and escape the bindings of communicator cables, but they were all dragged into the mire of momentum, swept into the currents of the free range, and carried away down the corridor in screams for help and of pain.
Kalyan, with Minmei still in his arms, saw an opportunity. It was a clearing on the wall. As the ball of bodies pulled by the wire dragged along the floor, Kalyan rushed to stay a few steps behind it, but never on it, or close enough to get tripped up.
He started to move faster to keep pace with the clearing as it moved forward, awash in free space he had rarely known outside his studio apartment.
Minmei, looked into Kalyan face unaware of what was behind her as he carried her forward. "Keep going." She encouraged. "Don't stop." She said. "Get us out of here."
The two followed the tangle remains of the Terron Trap as it dissolved in parts dragged through the large room, to the next corridor. Others behind Kalyan had formed a train, pushing him forward, keeping the momentum going, putting others out of their way past the third large room, to the final gate where they could align with their patrons.
As the glorious view of the final gate came into view, Kalyan became joyous. He said to Minmei, "We are almost there, I can see the gate."
A worried look now on her face asked loudly, "How will we stop."
Kalyan was even more worried than before. His heels started to dig in, his legs, pumping so hard, and so fast, now felt like jelly. The burning from such muscle use had weakened him.
They were nearing the gate. He could see where the floor pistons would shoot up in a short time. He had to find a way to stop, to get out of the way, and to make it through the gate to align with his patron.
Without much thought, going purely on instinct, Kalyan said, "Get ready, we are going to roll."
Before the words could leave her mouth, questioning the meaning, Kalyan leaned hard to his right, pulling Minmie close, and tucking her into a ball with his torso. The two spun against the wall, pressed like a line of clay in the hands of an artist, between the wall on one side, and the rush of people in an uncontrolled push of momentum on the other side. Kalyan's feet danced in a balanced spin, always moving, keeping the roll until the pressure of force stopped.
A little dizzy from the spin, Kalyan and Minmie watched as the headless snake line of people lacking leadership drove right into the plasma security wall and disintegrated into a sizzled plum vapor.
The incident had caught the attention of all in the corridor. It was a moment of unity in a mass of chaos. Kalyan took the opportunity of clear visibility and alignment, by taking Minmie by the hand and loudly saying, "excuse me," and "pardon me," in the silence wiggling his way to the gate.
Kalyan checked to make sure his communicator was undamaged, and still masked in an avatar of his patron, quickly making his way through the last gate to the area of alignment. On the clear side, turned to check on Minmie, and she was no longer right behind him. She was stopped in the security cylinder with a red beacon flashing on top. Trapped in the tube, he could almost hear her screams and the desperate pounding as her little hands struck the sealed container. All he could do is watch as mechanism lowered and replaced her prison with a nearly identical one above.
The security agent working this gate proceeded with business as usual, looking to Kalyan to see if there would be trouble or protest.
Kalyan smiled politely at the man in the poly carbonatite body armor knowing there was nothing he could do for Minmie. She had been a good travel companion and taken him very far. Perhaps they would release her finding it was a monitor error. They may recycle her, like so many criminals had been processed. Then his mind turned to Madhubala, who needed him. And they needed this job. Minmie's patron would need a new line surrogate, no matter what became of her. One that could get them on that flight.
A klaxon sounded. The yellow strobe lights of the free-range area began to flash. The focus of the crowd from the incident turned quickly to panic with this 30-minute warning until the self-automated cleaners started. She was right. The scheduled had changed to the 15th and the 30th. The efforts to get here quickly were well worth it.
Kalyan turned away from the worried masses and looked to the alignment center. These were the line surrogates like himself that would get patrons on flights, which helped the men who ran the world. It was a place of luxury, where 200 plastic molded chairs in rows of 20 would hold those lucky few who made it this far could sit and reserve a spot for their patron. Here, the air was clear, the room was cool, and thin carpet welcomed your feet. Between every other seat was a single outlet where electricity made by the efforts of citizens steps poured out freely.
He scanned the room looking for an open seat. There were still a few. Kalyan checked in with the gate hostess, providing his patrons' name, flight, and time. She confirmed the information and identity, then assigned him to seat 142, near the transparent viewing wall.
He was gracious and kind in thanking her. There was some pride as he strolled to his chair. Taking the seat, plugging into the system, he removed a cushion from the backpack that was red rubber. He opened the node and blew into it until fully inflated, set it on the chair, and lowered himself into comfort. The woman to his right and man to his left were not friends yet, but he knew that over the next thirteen hours, they would become good friends. Just like he a Joe Burger did. Just like so many people over the years had become. He started by asking the one question everyone had an opinion on these days, "Have you been tracking the Delta Driver?" It sparked the interest of everyone in earshot.
With keen and cunning, he took a moment of satisfaction to know he was so much more than a Dabbawala like his father. He was a line surrogate, a respected member of society.
Nearly the time of the flight, a soothing chime sounded through the alignment room. It woke those in slumber and brought all to their feet. The transparent viewing wall transitioned to reveal the first of the patrons arrive. The first patron was a man, tall, and handsome. He entered the room on the patron side of the wall. He looked clean. His teeth were white. Kalyan imagined that he could smell the soap and cleaning products through the hermetically sealed wall.
The hostess voice came through the speaker, "Mr. Green."
The line surrogate standing about 50 people away raised the communicator into the air, and the yellow glow of the virtual image of Mr. Green turned green.
Without a missed step, on his side of the wall, Mr. Green walked through the far door, and on to his flight.
Mr. Greens line surrogate, the transaction now completed, walked to the single door in the room marked Exit.
Three more people entered the patron room, three new names called, and the process for the surrogate repeated for three more.
The fifth patron that entered was the man Kalyan represented. He knew him on sight. For an instant, Kalyan thought the two had made eye contact, and that the man smiled his way. Could the patrons see into the line surrogate room?
Kalyan raised his communicator high, taking pride in a job well done, helping the men who run the world. His communicator turned green, and on inspection, the transaction was complete. $500 placed into his account, with an additional $75 with a text note added: "Thank you."
Madhubala would still have a place to live. There would be enough money for food, to replenish his travel supplies, and to find and solicit his services to Minmei's patron. It was the way of the world.
With a hard push at the exit door, it opened. This private corridor was almost empty. It would take him all the way back to the BART stop. There was never a rush in this corridor as he would linger and enjoy the amount of free and open space it provided. It was the perk of this position that most outside the profession never knew about. Free and open space that one had to themselves. On his first job, Kalyan ran as fast as he could. There had never been the opportunity in America. It was something he missed from childhood.
On the way home, he decided to stop at the market to see if there were any fruits or vegetables available again. He did love the taste of blueberries. If he could find them still, he wanted to give Madhubala that chance to love them too.