At night Oʻahu viewed from the air looked like a butchered cybernetic monster.

David Goldberg

The bulk of its carcass was laid out along the leeward coast, its spine of freeways burning red and white, while skyscraping clusters of bones punched through massive wounds in the land, surrounded by bleeding grids of light. Waikiki, Makiki, Kaka‘ako, Aiea, and the distant citadel of Kapolei crawled with Polynesian LED architectural tattoos, and bristled with searchlights evoking the NeoTokyo of classical anime.

As the aging Dreamliner did the big U-turn above the ewa plains to descend over Pearl Harbor, Kay zoomed the view on his cabin window. Parade-sized projections of Aulani’s most popular characters performed on rooftops in slow motion cartoon glee. Pinching in further, Kay could see silhouettes of people mingling among night-lit swimming pools, sparkling constellations of tiki torches, hanging hydroponic gardens, various examples of ugly photovoltaic public art, and a dozen different styles of idle wind turbine.

The blue holographic menace of Stitch, at least thirty feet tall, looked up from a proportional Happy Meal, and leapt for the descending plane. Children seated a few rows up squealed as hazy fries tumbled from the gaping mouth of the button-eyed beast. Kay watched the fries flicker away as tombstone-sized ghost teeth snapped shut on the plane’s wing. Poorly defended phones all over the cabin pinged triumphantly as Stitch unleashed a swarm of electronic coupons.

Then the plane left the projector’s range and the character stuttered, shimmered, and was gone.

“That was the famous scene from Aulani’s “Stitch’s Sneaky Attack,” recreated just for Hawaiian Airlines’ Vegas Honolulu arc,” the flightbot voice murmured intimately to Kay through the headrest’s integrated audio system. It was like having a high-end waiter discretely lean in for menu consultation. “We hope you’ve enjoyed the fastest and safest route to Paradise. Please shut down any computing processes you may have initiated during the flight, as cloud services will be disconnected in five minutes. Hawaiian Airlines is not responsible for any data loss incurred.”

The lady in the seat next to him began mumbling and swatting at the invisible user interface elements her Glass was throwing up in front of her. She was a middle aged Asian with blurry genes, maybe a local back from a gambling trip. She wore command and control rings on every finger, a gaudy miniature zoo of Chinese zodiac animals. Kay fished the narrow slab of his phone out of the seatback pocket.

The flightbot continued: “At this time State law dictates that we must activate the Visitor’s Bureau agent that was installed in your system when you checked in.”

Kay stared hard at his phone to unlock it, and the screen gracefully unfolded like a cat waking from a nap. His system assembled and began automatically negotiating with the Bureau. Identity verification, standard terrorist detection routines, credit checks, and medical history scans. Half alert for errors, warnings or intrusions, he watched the game of residency and citizenship play itself. No fruit. No bugs. Unlicensed DNA? No. Arriving from Asia? No. All immunizations patched? Yes. It was like watching an insect hive, or a simulation of molecular interaction. If everything checked out, the final mosaic on his screen would have no black, gray, or red gaps.

“If this is your first time in Hawaiʻi,” continued the voice, panned slightly to the left, “on behalf of the captain, our flight systems, and the entire corporate body of Hawaiian Airlines, we’d like to say aloooooha!”

The bulk of the passengers, various Chinese workgroups on mass vacations Kay guessed, raised an offbeat chorus of alohas in return. His neighbor mouthed the word soundlessly complete with the long “O.”

Not local.

“If you are returning home, we’d like to double that aloha. Hawaiian Airlines, working closely with Host Culture, has done its part to keep the ʻaina exactly the way you remember it.” The voice put a gentle but noticeable emphasis on “remember,” as a slide guitar accompanied by a long low vocal note crept into the sonic atmosphere.

“And if you’re an honored guest, know that these islands are everything you’ve been promised and more. Your system has already been updated with a range of fully interactive, Host Culture approved courtesy activity guides.”

The voice paused politely and the woman next to Kay began finger-tutting through her UI, no doubt evading ads, digging past useless chrome, and surfing yelps down to hidden layers of discounts. He thought about something a teacher said in his final semester: “The world has receded… permanently.” Kay felt that Hawaiʻi might still offer a challenge to such a statement, and was home to prove it as part of his thesis.

“Whether you are headed to O’ahu’s beaches, agri-vacay facilities, archaeological simulations, or any of our world renowned entertainment hale, the freeport of Greater Metrohawaii awaits you.”

Kay’s phone shivered to get his attention and saw that his system had finished dealing with the State cloud, which welcomed him home with cascades of digital lei woven out of bright origami data. Strobing bubbles indicated that six hidden contract bombs had been defused, and another two spinning lightning bolts flagged thwarted identity infection routines. There was no indication that the glitchware wasn’t State-sponsored, and that was good news. With Federal presence in Hawaiʻi so thin these days, he could understand why the local US government would resort to micro-ransom and EULA spam. One by one he flicked the notices off his screen, proud of his system’s vigilance.

“We’ll be landing shortly,” the voice continued with authority undertones mixed a little higher. “As a courtesy gesture to the next passenger, please deposit all waste in the armrest slots, restore your cabin window to live view at 1X magnification, and reset your seatback screen. Mahalo.”

All those things could be accomplished automatically, but Kay recognized this as basic aloha training for tourists who were coming from places where thinking seven customers ahead was an alien concept.

The voice faded into the drone of the engines, air circulators, and the increasing volume of a machine-extrapolated Cazimero tune. He tapped and pinched out to his cabin windowʻs home view and saw the glowing net of busy Makakilo streets cast across the Waianae foothills.

He caught his breath, wondering if she still lived there, then promptly pushed the thought away.

The seatback screen framed Host Culture’s casino complexes on Ford Island. He smirked a little. That land had been contested for hundreds of years over fishing rights, but now the people fought to catch Asian whales while hologram zeroes kamikaze’d the USS Arizona every night, forever.

The screen hiccupped into monochrome for a moment, and then full-color bloomed into the latest iteration of anonymous Hawaiian beauty that was the airline’s logo. Her skin was brown, flawless, and rendered beyond photorealism with a layer of sophisticated near-subliminal dynamic textures. Delicate waves were rippling and breaking across the barely-disturbed sand of her face. Her black irises shone like wet stone.

Kay knew he was asking for trouble if he maintained eye contact with the logo, but he was a sucker for detail. He couldn’t help himself. After four years of expensive face-to-face education on the US mainland he was returning home with an almost-finished degree in Detail Harvesting. Time to put it to use.

Each ghostly wave was unique, perfectly refracting, and carrying colorful little bits of coral and shiny pebbles. The animation wasn’t on top of her skin, and her face wasn’t exactly transparent. It existed in that subdermal layer where in real life photons bounced around for a while, giving off that glow of life. Kay could almost feel it more than he could see it. Trapped by the exquisite ad, realizing that his training was apparently useless in the real world, Kay muted his father’s sarcasm before it got a chance to play in his head.

He heard the whine of the landing gear extending, and almost shook himself free of the logo’s spell, but a rising feeling of reminiscence had already been broadcast by his biotelemetry signals: pupil dilation, facial micromuscular patterns, blood circulation maps, and gaze tracking. Kay knew that all this stuff was originally used for early detection of the deadly avian flu popularly known as “Big Bird,” but someone clever had repurposed the tech to steal memories… or, more accurately, their correlatives.

For a moment he was back at Magic Island looking down at his feet next to hers, washed together in the gentle glimmering surges of gold and blue. An echo like this was particularly valuable because it was locally produced, and from a time before Ala Moana Beach Park was mostly sea wall. Hawaiian Airlines wasn’t in his head or heart, but it knew everything about his personal history and social network.

Kay sighed with resignation. Hawaiʻi still had magic, and nostalgia was a powerful medium. They had probably cooked up the right set of triggers in the cabin window and seatback screen.

The plane touched down with a bounce and a rattle as the engine reversal vibrated the entire cabin, his headrest largely muffling the sound via built-in noise cancellation. Someone applauded. The lady took off her Glass (last year’s Google-Chanel he noted), put it away in a neck pouch, and spent taxi time adjusting the little snakes, lions, and dragons that decorated her knuckles.

On the screen the surrealism in the logo’s face faded, and the ambient soundtrack sung something about a gypsy musician, a hard heart, and a hard head. Then the Hawaiian Airlines lady, a distant cousin of Gauguin’s beauties, looked straight at him and winked suggestively.

Kay started with surprise, refocused, and saw only her over-the-horizon look.

That was definitely not a commercial interaction approved by Host Culture.

His phone made a little coughing jerk in his hand, announcing a confirmed deal for 50% at Kimo’s House o’ HI Steaks with a cartoon graphic of the island chain rendered as if it were grilled meat.

“Chikushō,” Kay muttered.

To Be Continued…