One Small Step
Richard E.D. Jones
Neil Armstrong was a jerk.
I stand before the chromed steel and glass of the teleport pod, waiting. Waiting for my courage to show up from whatever tropical island its vacation had taken it. Waiting for the world to decide it was all a mistake and open the roads again. Waiting, most of all, for my own legs to make that “one small step.”
God, I hate those words.
Okay. Sure. Teleportation would have come into being without Neil Armstrong. He had nothing to do with its development and subsequent ubiquitous presence. I know all that. But, damn it, sometimes life just isn’t fair.
I step into the booth and curse the meretricious weasel troglodyting somewhere deep in the bowels of Unlimited Transport’s marketing department who just had to be a history buff. Really, who remembers that kind of minutiae so many years later? The idea behind teleportation is simple: you cover huge distances by making one tiny, little step into the booth.
“One small step.” Thanks to Unlimited Transport’s marketing tsunami, that phrase and the image of Armstrong’s boot touching lunar soil are everywhere. I look at the little image pasted above the booth keyboard. My left hand clenches tightly around my, so-far unused, UT debit chit, little muscle spasms making my entire arm quiver like a drunken hula dancer in an earthquake.
Reaching out, I touch the keyboard and bring the destination screen to life. Bright laser light paints the screen in vivid colors, fading to black and white as the boot crunches lunar regolith.
“Destination please.” A computer-enhanced male voice echoes the message lased onto the screen. It has to be computer generated. Nothing in nature could be that perfect. The voice is bright and friendly, suggesting complete competence and a willingness to do whatever is necessary for my utter satisfaction. I hate it instantly.
I miss my car. I miss riding down the road, autopilot engaged, chatting to friends via voicetech, while messaging business documents. My car sits in my front yard. But not for long. My street is blocked off and the neighborhood parking lot is now a playground. I’ve seen my neighbors staring at the car. They are mean-spirited people who teleport for fun. I think they have designs on my car. They scare me.
“Are you having difficulty selecting a destination? Perhaps I can help you take that one small step.”
I glare at the screen. The UT logo strobes through the spectrum. It is designed to draw attention. It draws only my wrath. But I have no choice. The bastards closed the roads and shut down the automobile factories. Working from home is no longer an option. My boss demands to see my real face. Receiving good work is no longer enough. He wants to _manage_. The cretin.
“Uptown Charlotte,” I say. I keep the hate from my voice, but only just barely. I try to be polite, even to machines.
“Could you be more specific please? I will need a transport code to properly place your arrival destination. I have constructed a map of your requested trip termination area. Please touch the screen and I will give you a list of terminals in that grid.”
I stab a finger into the display, violently ramming into the area surrounding the old Bank of America building. It isn’t a bank anymore. America is irrelevant. It makes no sense and less difference. Charlotte is too enamored of its past glories, meager as they are, to ever change the historical names.
“Thank you.” The screen displays a list of fourteen terminals in a two-block area. Fourteen. I can’t believe it. It’s almost as if people have forgotten the joys of a quick stroll around the block. Nobody walks anymore. Even a fast trip to the store requires a teleport.
I choose the terminal farthest from my office entrance. I will walk in protest. There’s little more I can do.
With trembling hands, I begin to punch the numbers into the old-fashioned numerical keypad. I’ve read all I can about the booths. Know your enemy, sort of thing. Some marketing moron, probably the same would-be guru who dredged Neil Armstrong from the dank basements of well-deserved obscurity, calculated that nostalgia for the days of non-transparent computing would flood customers’ hearts with warmth. Therefore, we push numbers. I feel like I’m back in the stone ages.
I don’t want to have my molecules disassembled and then reassembled. I don’t care that billions of teleports are happening right this very second. I don’t care about the astoundingly high success ratio. Well, all right. I do care about the astoundingly high success ratio. I care about that a lot. But I don’t want to. I don’t want to teleport.
I need to stop acting like a baby. I take a deep breath and begin keying in numbers. 1-2-9-8. My head swivels like an owl just introduced to the joys of heroate as I stare from the numbers on the screen to the numbers forming on the keypad. I have to get it right. 3-6-4-4-4.
Was that three fours or four fours? Damn.
I erase the numbers and start over. I move forward to push the last button. I’m on the blade’s edge. My breathing is ragged. I feel my heart pounding like a thief’s when the house computer finally twigs to the intrusion.
WHAM WHAM WHAM
“Come on, Jimbo. We ain’t got all day.”
My nerves, already stretched to the breaking point, snap clean through. I whirl and scream at my uncouth neighbor, Travis.
“Mind your own damn business. I’m going.” Philistine. He probably enjoys teleporting.
I turn back and reach for the keypad – “Now, Jimbo.” – when Travis’s sudden resumption of his attack on the teleport booth startles me. My finger hits 5. And 6.
“Oh, shiiiii,” I say and I explode.
Teleportation is, by definition, instantaneous. I know something is wrong the nano I touch the keypad. I feel my body break apart, as my constituent molecules disperse and are recorded for transmission. Pain tears through what used to be my body. I feel former nerves flame into open revolt, as my brain expands and dissipates.
I have no body, yet I feel the flow of information. Numbers, feeling like red, flash past in data-smeared waves. Digital voices sound like lemon, with just a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg. If I had a mouth, it would be frozen wide in a perpetual scream.
The sight of condensation beaded on the side of an ice-cold glass mug of Sierra Nevada pale ale heralds my arrival. Infinitely worse than the pain of departure, the fracturing compression of arrival is a hammer blow to my testicles. I feel as though I’m splitting in two. My brain arrives millennia before my body. Sensations flood through restored synapses. Blood again pumps through reintegrated vessels, as muscles reattach.
I implode and I say, “iiiiiiiittttt!”
My breath wheezes in and out, a bellows stoking the fires of life. My knees buckle, dropping me to the ground. The side of the booth slams into my head. Agony. I don’t have the breath to howl. By the time my breathing has returned to the general vicinity of normal, the pain has disappeared, leaving only memory.
“I made it.” My voice is a croaking whisper. I can barely believe it’s mine. “Oh, thank God. Oh, thank God.”
Without rising from my knees, I slam open the booth door and crawl out onto the sidewalk. The door whooshes shut behind me. I place trembling hands on the chromed-steel exterior and lever myself to standing position. This can’t be normal.
The booth door whooshes open again, taking with it my precarious grip on standing upright. I fall into the booth, nearly toppling a small, dark-haired woman. She skips aside as I collapse back into the interior.
“Are you all right?” she asks, bending down to my level.
“Yeah, I... Sorry. I’m just... Fine. I’m fine.”
I manage to stand without too much difficulty and brush the dirt from my pants and jacket. The woman smiles and walks briskly out of the booth, whistling a jaunty tune. I turn and stare at her. She’s okay. Nothing happened when she came through. I back out again and stare at the booth, a glare designed to slag metal and incinerate plastic. The booth is unaffected.
I turn and start walking toward my office. Halfway to the door, a visceral memory of the teleport washes through me. I’m left weak and gasping for air, like a construction rigger working the Way Out in a holed spacesuit. There is absolutely no way I’m going in to work today.
Touching the activation patch below my right ear, I link the telecom system and connect to work.
“Sanchez Sprockets. How may I help you?”
“Hi. It’s James. Can you get me the boss, please?”
“Of course, James.”
A few seconds later, Sanchez links in.
“Hello. Sanchez here.”
“Mr. Sanchez, sir? It’s James Fisher, I’m...”
“Fisher? But I...”
“I’m sorry, sir,” I interrupt. “I don’t think I can make it in today. I’m feeling really” COUGH “sick. Not well at all, sir. My doc links I might have the flu.”
“Fisher, what are you…”
“Thanks for understanding, sir.” I delink.
I turn back to the booth, my feeling of relief evaporating completely as I contemplate a return teleport home. In absolutely no way, shape, manner or form will I set foot in another teleport booth today. My only small steps will be the ones I take as I walk home. I pause a nano to try and remember the direction in which home lies, then set off up the middle of what used to be the street.
It’s not all that far, really. Even with the summer heat, I should be home before lunch. The street pavement is breaking up in places. Here and there someone has planted small trees. Intersections are covered with park benches. But nobody sits on the benches. No one kicks up the loose pieces of street. The only traffic seems to be to and from the teleport booths. I snort in disgust at the sight of the nearest workers as they stare in astonishment at the freak, the walking man.
I eschew one small step. In its place, I take many long steps, steps that move me forward and not into a technological trap. Walking, I am whole. A puddle looms before me. Breathing deep, I make a giant leap, for myself, landing on the far side. I laugh, intoxicated by the sheer joy of linear movement.
The walk does me good. I don’t remember the last time I spent three hours outside, much less walking under the warm summer sun. In the first hour, I loosen my shirt. In the second hour, I take my coat off and hang it over my shoulder. In the third hour, I decide that it is too lovely a day to be carrying a datacase. I leave the once-cherished item by the side of an abandoned road, one relic keeping another company.
By the time I reach home, I have decided against ever taking a teleport booth again. There are other jobs. I will move away from Charlotte, find a small town somewhere that has all the needs of a basic life within walking distance. I will live my life free of the tyranny of teleportation. I will leave the lemmings to their impending cliff edge. I am a free man, making many giant leaps.
Whistling a jaunty tune, surfacing from a childhood memory, I open the door to my home. I toss the key cards to the table on my right and head into the living room to begin my search for a new home, a new life.
“Wha... What’s going on here?” I ask.
I am sitting in my favorite chair, the one with the sprung tilting mechanism that always stops at exactly the wrong angle. It’s sentimental. I put my hand to the doorjamb to steady myself. My heart races through a series of syncopated beats. My breathing threatens to spiral out of control.
I stand in the doorway, but I am sitting in the chair. There is another me. I… He is sitting in the chair. His face is angular, just like mine. His red hair swirls slightly out of place because of a cow lick over his forehead, just like mine. He is wearing the same brown undersuit that I wear. The only difference, other than where we stand, is that he looks sad, while I am sure I look quite astonished.
My body feels inflated, struggling to withhold the fear and confusion swelling inside me. I reach up to rub my eyes, but no amount of scrubbing clears away this impossible vision. The world blurs. I struggle to regain control of my breathing. I must not pass out. There is something terribly wrong here. I fight through two controlled breaths. I am by no means back to normal, but I feel functional again. Barely.
Stepping forward, I decide to confront this… this imposter. I am a free man and I will not be intimidated in my own home. As I walk toward the man in the chair, his gaze shifts away from me and toward something over my right shoulder. I turn. My arm is grabbed, twisted painfully, and lodged up against my shoulder blade.
“O... Hey, I... Stop! Let me go.” Fear almost overwhelms me. I twist around to see who grabbed me and all I can see is a mirrored faceplate fronting a hard helmet. Vague images flicker on the exterior of the faceplate, the leftovers of a heads-up computer display showing on the interior.
“I’m sorry.” I can’t believe what I’m hearing. The imposter speaks with my own voice. Do I really sound like that?
“What...” My fear renders me almost speechless. I don’t understand. Who are these men? Why are they in my house? Somewhere, hiding deep below my escalating fear, I feel anger crouching down and waiting.
“Please,” the imposter says. “He... I... We deserve some sort of explanation. Please.” He reaches out his hand toward me, hesitates and then settles back in the chair, arms clutched tightly across his chest.
“Very well.” The voice issuing from the helmet is mechanical, synthesized. I am terrified of it instantly. If they are trying to destroy all concept of humanity in this helmeted person, they are succeeding quite well.
“There was a teleportation malfunction.”
“Well, obviously.” And suddenly terror feeds into anger. How dare they invade my home, my life, this way? “I fully intend to lodge a complaint with Unlimited Transport over this morning’s incident. I was quite put out. I…”
“It was a serious malfunction,” the helmeted man says, the mechanical sound of his voice draining it of all emotion or inflection. “More serious than you realize. You materialized in two places. Two of you now exist. This state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue.”
My doppelganger places his head in his hands. “They would have... resolved... the issue much sooner if they could have found you. How did you evade them?”
“I... I didn’t even know anyone was looking for me. I simply walked home.”
The helmeted man turns toward the other me. The other me looks up at the helmeted man and says, “I told you so. In this day, they didn’t believe someone would do that.”
“You have had your explanation. It is time to go.” The helmeted man drags me toward the front door, the dark, synthetic leather of his suit making small squeaking sounds.
“Me? Why me? Why not him?” Using my free arm, I point at the man sitting in my chair. His arms are wrapped around his shoulders and he is shaking. Tears stream down his cheeks.
“He is the first of you we contacted. Therefore, he is real. You are not. We followed the contingency plan.”
“You have contingency plans for this obscenity? How?” I shout, pulling against the agony of my twisted arm and shoulder. “How did you get here first?”
The other me does not answer. He only cries silently. The helmeted man speaks.
“He teleported home.”
I cannot believe what I am hearing. He... I teleported home? After that? I am betrayed. Betrayed by myself.
“You bastard,” I scream. The words break up like shattering china as hatred destroys my voice. I struggle against the steel grip of the helmeted man. I almost fight free when I feel a small stabbing pain in my neck. A wave of coldness spreads throughout my body as my limbs fail. My breathing labors and darkness closes in.
I cannot breathe. I do not feel my heart beat. I cannot see. I take one last giant leap.