Today, we have a story of the future, teleportation, and the high-octane transit breakdowns that occur therein, all of which is en route to becoming a major motion picture from Lionsgate. But first, a message from the author:
"Hello gentle readers,
This here's what we call an "abbreviated and embellished" excerpt from my novel, The Punch Escrow; words that here mean a bunch of the good bits from all over the cow on one plate—if you're willing to imagine my book as a cow. The story is set in 2147; a time when we've solved for air pollution by genetically engineering mosquitoes into living steam reformers, cleaning our air whilst pissing pure water on us from up on high. We've cured diseases, too—with the power of advanced nanotechnology. Most important to the plot however, is our adoption of teleportation as a means of getting around. It ain't cheap, but it's the only way to go if you've got the means and wherewithal.
-Tal M. Klein"
I was in the midst of travel-packing procrastination when an audio message from my wife, Sylvia, showed up on my comms.
"Hi, babe. Listen, things at work are quiet, so I'm getting out of here early while the getting's good. I'm going to depart directly from the TC here at IT. If you can't get ahold of me, I told Julie to give you—and only you—my GDS location. I am so ready for this. I love you."
She sounded hopeful. When she said, "I love you," I knew she meant, We'll get through this, but I wasn't so sure. Maybe that was why it had taken me all morning to start packing.
I took the elevator down and stepped onto the street. A green, blue, and purple rainbow arced overhead, indicating the mosquitoes were hard at work emptying their bladders on us, keeping us alive. The plan was to teleport to the San Jose Teleportation Center — we called 'em TCs — and from there hire a car to drive us to our resort in the mountains of Santa Elena.
Instead of watching the July Fourth Last War memorial fireworks, Sylvia's plan was to drink Cerveza Imperials in our hotel room hot tub and celebrate our independence from International Transport for a few days. She'd chosen Costa Rica because it was one of the few countries left that didn't have TCs everywhere, and it was the place where we had honeymooned ten years ago.
Shit. Where did she say we were supposed to meet?
I tried comming Sylvia.
Instead, an animated Rosie the Riveter avatar obscured my field of vision, causing me to trip on the sidewalk and bang my shin on my luggage. "Shit!"
I reduced the size of the comms window, making sure to dial down the background opacity so I could avoid any more obstacles.
The avatar displayed a concerned emoji expression. "Ouch. Are you okay, Joel?" It was Julie, Sylvia's AIDE, or Artificially Intelligent Digital Entity. Basically, a personal assistant app with extra cruft. They acted as proxies for their owners, doing everything from personal shopping to paying bills to interfacing with coworkers when the owner was indisposed.
I rubbed my shin. "Ouch is right. There goes my marathoning career."
"And look, you're outside! Is this your monthly day of exercise?" Julie's avatar gave a jaunty wink.
"You know, for a comedienne you're one hell of a personal assistant. Can we back-burner the hilarity, though? Sylvia unplugged before she told me where we were meeting."
"You betcha! Sylvia's looking forward to this; she told me to hold all her comms before she left. Except for you, natch. I've got a bunch of great canned responses in case any of her program managers try to interrupt her vacation. Do you want to hear 'em? They're hilarious!"
"I, uh, no. I'm almost at the TC, so I just need to know where she is. I don't want to spend the evening looking for her."
I crossed the street over to the Greenwich Village TC. Unlike several other places around the world where TCs were still lightly sprinkled with picketers harboring resentment at teleportation's upheaval of the transportation industry, or religious kooks trying to convince people the technology was murder, New York had instantly embraced punching for its obvious benefits. Prior to this, most religious types had been ambivalent to teleportation. It was a form of freight, not transportation. The very notion of organic teleportation was considered a fool's errand until 2109—technically impossible, owing to the fidget problem: living things are fidgety. Back then, a good real-time atomic model that could accurately predict and transmit what living things would do next was still a scientific wet dream.
But in my time, that problem had been solved 20 years ago. Punching had almost become too popular for some tastes as of late. For those who wanted to teleport across town, sometimes the length of the queue at the local TC might lead to a longer commute than a drone or a bus ride. IT kept promising the next generation of TCs would be able to teleport more than one person at a time, but gave no indication as to when these promises would become a reality.
"Okay. There's a rum joint called the Monkey Bar. It's walking distance from customs. I just sent you the GDS location. Don't be too late or she'll be dancing on the tables," she mockingly warned, disconnecting.
Just as I was about to step on the TC escalator, a young auburn-haired woman stepped in front of me. She looked out of place, even for NYC. She had animated, glowing LED strands of orange and red woven through her hair; they looked like smoldering embers. Her outfit was even weirder: a long, ruffled white gown, olive-green army jacket, and muddy hiking boots on her feet. She clutched a bag that appeared to contain a giant horse saddle and was deliberately blocking the entrance of the TC.
"Excuse me," I said, attempting to maneuver around her.
"Is this the Greenwich Village Teleportation Center?" she asked, looking me up and down like I was an extraterrestrial. Her delivery was curt, dismissive. I couldn't place the accent, somewhere Latin.
"That's what it says on the sign, lady," I said, responding in kind.
She nodded, and without another word stepped onto the moving walkway.
I got on right behind her. Weirdo.
I saw her stiffen as we went through the nanite misters, but the moving walkway continued, depositing us before the bank of outgoing teleportation chambers. She went into her chamber right before I did mine, giving me one last sidelong glance. I figured maybe it was her first time getting punched.
The barrier to my chamber lowered. I stepped into the foyer, dropping my luggage in the prescribed compartment and sitting in the chair that levitated into the Punch Escrow chamber. There, the conductor confirmed my destination, and I agreed to the displayed legalese. As the lights dimmed, I began to debate whether my first drink at the Monkey Bar should be a mojito or a zombie.
There was no blinding white flash to indicate my arrival in the San Jose TC vestibule. No alarms, no announcement. Just darkness. I didn't think much of it. I assumed there had been a brownout in Costa Rica; they still happened occasionally in non-thermal-powered countries. I got up and felt my way toward the exit, promptly slamming my nose into the concrete wall. Ow.
I heard muffled voices outside, and monkey-walked my way toward them, grasping onto the chair's magnetic guides against the wall and found myself face-to-face with the conductor.
The Greenwich conductor. He had orange hair, a purple birthmark on his face in the shape of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, and an open mouth. He gaped at me like he was seeing a ghost.
Son of a bitch. I'm still in New York.
"I think there's been a mistake," I said. Behind him, people were milling about in confusion and checking their comms. A red light blinked above each teleportation chamber.
"Hold on a sec!" The conductor's forehead was creased. "Shit. How the hell did you get out?"
"Door was open."
"Hold on." He was apparently on the comms with someone.
The conductor made a quick gesture, moving the conversation from his comms to a holographic projector somewhere in the wall. A man in a tidy IT lab coat appeared between us. He had gray hair that had fallen victim to male-pattern baldness, a paunch around his middle, and glittering pale-blue eyes. The only thing to indicate he wasn't in the room was a video refresh bar that went up and down his body.
"Is this him?" the projected man said to the conductor.
"Yes, sir," the conductor answered quickly, as if he were being questioned by a cop.
"Mr. Byram." The man paused, as if to afford the next thing he said some additional heft. "My name is William Taraval. I'm Head of Research and Development at International Transport. It appears we experienced a malfunction during your teleportation. We're still trying to get to the bottom of it." He paused. "Mr. Byram, may we speak privately?"
I gestured to invite Taraval into my comms. He went from standing a couple of meters away to suddenly being in my face. Too close. I quickly minimized his window to a less-intimate size.
"Thank you. A modicum of intimacy yields a plethora of dividends, wouldn't you say, Mr. Byram?" Taraval asked.
"Never mind. I know you do not recognize me, Mr. Byram, because we've never formally met. But I work with your wife. Sylvia."
"Right, she's mentioned you."
"Always in a positive light, I'm sure." He winked like a dorky uncle. "Naturally, she's mentioned you as well, Joel. I know this jaunt you were embarking upon is very important to her. However, we've just sustained a rather significant attack on our systems. Telemetry is being gathered. But this will require shutting down all TC operations for some time."
"Shit! Sylvia already ported down to Costa Rica."
"Yes, exactly. But we are not out of options."
"Fortunately, there are some TCs that are always operational. One of them is our development TC here at IT. I could send you from here to a hospital in San Jose. Unfortunately, all comms in Costa Rica are down, but once there, I'm sure you and Sylvia will be able to find each other. I've already flagged a car to pick you up outside the Greenwich TC. We're at Eight Hundred Second Avenue, as you know. Everything will be arranged by the time you get here. See you soon."
The comms window vanished.
As I headed out of the TC, I could see more people milling around and murmuring to their comms and one another. At first I thought they were grumbling about having to make alternate travel arrangements, but once I got outside, I saw everyone seemed to be doing it. I could overhear snatches of urgent conversation.
Wait. Did someone say there was an explosion?