The moment of transportation is what I imagine death will be like – nothingness, a lack of existence. I close my eyes, and there is a stutter of reality, a split second where there is nothing, there is no me. I am nothingness as I am scanned, as my atoms are torn apart by magnetic fields even as the data that describes the placement of each of those atoms is sent on a tight beam, information jumping between electron pairs instantaneously, to another arm of our galaxy.
I remain nothingness as the data is received in our neighboring galaxy and more atoms are washed from their containment vats to reconstruct me in a glorified 3-D printer. And then suddenly I am something, someone again as I open my eyes, as I un-die.
It's an extended blink; one moment, I am in the transportation facility on Earth, the next opening my eyes on some distant world with the all-clear sounding, signaling back that I have arrived safely and the last few packets of my data can be purged from the buffers. It is something I have done countless times, traveling for conferences and lectures. It is as commonplace as walking through a doorway.
But this time I open my eyes from that timeless blink to the dull orange lighting reserved for emergencies.
"Professor, thank God we got you," a man says, grabbing my elbow.
I try to step away from him, but his fingers dig in with bruising force; I get an impression of dark hair, neatly parted, a nondescript navy blue suit. "What--"
"We're not sure yet. The transportation facility on Earth lost power before we got the end signal. We can't raise anyone."
"Stop it. Let me--" I jerk my arm from his grasp, taking a step back into the smooth metal wall behind me. "Please, calm down. There is a rational explanation for all of this, I'm certain."
He shakes his head. "I'm sorry, but you need to come with me. Until we're certain what's happened, my first priority is to keep you safe."
"And who are you?"
"Agent Clarke," he says, fishing a government ID from his pocket and holding it up. "Professor, I must ask you to come with me. There's already been one device that's gone off here, and we have reason to think there might be more."
"A device," I repeat.
"An… explosive device." He holds out his hand. "I'll explain as soon as we know more."
I bite my lip, barely noticing the sweet, waxy taste of my lipstick, and nod, leaving the safety of the wall to come with him. He hustles me through the dark building; I think that I smell smoke, though I'm afraid to ask for confirmation. A few people rush by us, back and forth in the hall, not giving us a second glance. Agent Clarke pulls me along as fast as my legs will carry me. Twice, I stumble and almost fall. The second time I take off my shoes, deep plum-colored pumps that my husband gave to me on my last birthday, and leave them in the middle of the hall.
A car with tinted windows, and a short drive; I hear sirens, very faintly through the doors. We stop in an underground parking garage and hurry across it, the textured concrete tearing at the bottoms of my stockings. Agent Clarke swipes an ID card, leans forward for a retinal scan, and then I am dragged into the echoing and empty security lobby of an office building.
"You'll be safe here," Agent Clarke says. "I'm sorry for the rush, Professor Stewart." He points down the hall. "There's a conference room down that way, and the restrooms. Let me... sorry, please excuse me for a moment."
He doesn't wait for me to respond; he just walks away, two fingers pressed against his ear as he receives some sort of call. I make my way slowly down the thinly carpeted hall. The air feels cold; even with my blazer on, I'm shivering. In the bathroom, I take the time to wipe off my makeup, which has made dark smudges on my cheeks. I wasn't even aware of crying. I wash my feet as well, rolling up my ruined stockings and stuffing them into the tiny, brushed metal trash can next to the sink. Such simple things are calming, and I do my best to think about the immediate, the smudges of dirt, and nothing more.
The cuts and scrapes on my feet sting as I limp my way back up the hall, to the conference room. There are fourteen chairs, a glass table, and an animated seascape on one wall instead of windows. I take a chair facing the frosted glass outer wall and wait, sitting with my knees drawn up to my chest.
Agent Clarke appears as a blur on the other side of the glass and lets himself in. He has two coffee cups, and sets one down in front of me. It smells slightly acid. "It's only instant, sorry," he says.
"Agent--" I stop, clear my throat, and try again. "Agent Clarke, what is going on?"
He wraps his hands around his own coffee cup and sighs. "Details are still sketchy," he says, "but what we do know is that it was a terrorist attack. Probably the Illyrian Separatists, though no one has claimed responsibility yet. At least three targets have been hit, two on Earth, one here." He gives me a look of sympathy and concern, one that I don't want to see. "One was the transportation facility you came through. We don't know how bad the damage is."
"No," I whisper. My family had been there, to send me off with a hug from my husband and a sloppy kiss from my little girl, a 'Have fun at your conference, honey,' and a 'See you, mommy!'
"Professor, I'm sorry. Rescue crews are there as we speak--"
"No, no, no!" I repeat myself, over and over, until I can drown out what he is saying. I end up on my feet, pacing in front of the seascape, hitting the back of one hand against it, the other clenched into a fist.
"Professor," he says again, "I am sorry. We are sorry. So sorry. But we need you now. The Union needs you now."
I shake my head, leaning one shoulder against the smooth, silent seascape with its crashing waves. My throat is so tight I can barely speak. "I don't do government work."
"We know," Agent Clarke says. "We respect your convictions, Professor. But... you can come up with encryption schemes like it's breathing, and it takes our people months to break them. You're the best, better than anyone we have. And now we're under attack. You're under attack. The information is out there."
And so is my family, my life, out there and under attack. Despair makes a knot in my stomach, with a burning core of sick anger. I imagine the transportation facility, a pile of smoking rubble with traces of my daughter's blood on the broken concrete. I can't dig in with my hands and break my nails on the remains of those walls. Since the moment my daughter first fluttered inside me, I have been a mother first, a professor second. Until today, the two have never been in opposition. "All right," I say. "Just this once."
It is not simple, or easy, or fast. Agent Clarke vanishes, leaving his coffee sitting on the table. I sink down against the wall and cry until I can barely see, let alone breathe, then crawl to the table on my hands and knees and drink the awful, acidic, now cold coffee that he had brought me. Hours pass before he returns with a data set up, and the first round of files, and a ham sandwich that he presses into my hands.
I set the sandwich aside, preferring to think about the files and the purity of the numbers. After a cursory check, I look up at him, my hands stilling on the holographic keys. "These aren't military files," I say.
He nods. "We know. This wasn't an official military act."
"This is domestic encryption." I frown. "Bank records, maybe."
Agent Clarke's lips compress in a tight frown. "They got their money from somewhere."
I close my eyes tightly for a moment. Bombs aren't free, of course. The murder of children requires financing, just like a house. "Is there anything yet? Video? Pictures? Anything?"
"If you really want to see, Professor, it's loaded for you. But... you don't want to. It's worse than you can imagine."
I smile bitterly at him. "I'm a mother. No matter how bad it is, I've already imagined worse."
I drop the files and reach for the video, falling back in to the sick horror that has powered me through the last few hours. No, it's not as bad as I have imagined; I see no scraps of black hair in the breeze, no tiny hand peeking from the rubble of the building I'd once stood in. But I also see no hope. The fire and smoke pale in comparison to that.
Sick and cold, I make Agent Clarke throw the sandwich away, and then I decrypt his files for him. The coding is complex and elegant, the sort I normally enjoy working with; I feel nothing, not even satisfaction, as I break the encryption open and hand them over.
"I'm sorry, Professor," he says. "Truly sorry." More men in blue suits like his show up; they transform the conference room into a home of sorts for me, with a small cot and a few folding screens for privacy. I sleep because there is nothing else I can do, and wake with a headache, a metallic taste in my mouth from grinding my teeth as I sleep.
Days pass, becoming one week, then two, then three. There are more attacks, more videos, and more files to decrypt. I spend every moment I am not working on searching the news sites, looking for something I cannot quantify. I am not the only mother rendered childless in this attack, and that is some small comfort even as it feeds back into my own feelings.
No one has been caught yet, no group prosecuted for the murder of my daughter or my husband, or of the twenty other people who died that day. But they are close, I am told. Each day, each file, we are one step closer. Agent Clarke learns quickly that I am a vegetarian, and that I don't believe in breakfast. He brings me books, old ones that were used to decorate the executive office of this former company. I like the smell of the paper.
"Do you have any children?" I ask one day.
"Two," he says, setting down a new book next to the data deck. "Cassy and Michael." He gives me the smile of a proud father.
"Are they safe?" I ask quietly.
"They are. Thanks to what you're doing here." He smiles. "They're with their grandmother on Prolix now. That's enough of a backwater, at least."
I nod, and smile, thought it's a weak one. "I bet you miss them." It's still too soon to think of someone else's little girl without thinking immediately of my own, of the last warm moment when I hugged her, before transportation.
"Every day," he says, then shrugs. "But we all do what we have to," he said. "And I'm not going to leave you here alone."
This time my smile is a little stronger. Of all of the agents that move in and out of my little world, he is the only one that I really speak to. "I appreciate that." A soft tone plays to indicate that the new batch has finished loading. I am not ready to retreat to my files yet. Without meaning to, I grasp at the last conversation I had with my husband, about his banal, stupid hobby that I now regret ever dismissing because it was so important to him. "Think they'll do a Six-System Tournament this year?"
"Security will be tighter than..." he stops, sucking at his teeth, which is a thing he does when he's trying not to say something vulgar in front of me. It is a trait I find endearing, because the alternative would be to feel insulted. "... than a really tight thing," he finishes lamely. "But I've got my fingers crossed. It'd give people a lot of hope, right, get us feeling normal again. And I really want my chance to cheer for the Astros."
"Yes," I say, my stomach clenching into a sick ball and closing off my throat. I do my best to smile, hoping the expression shows no strain. "I... uh... I do as well. We'll just have to keep our fingers crossed. Oh well... I suppose I'd better get to these."
“I'll leave you alone for a bit. Want me to bring you anything?”
My mouth feels dry. “A tea would be lovely.”
I hesitate, and curse myself for doing it. “Something with some spice in it. Yes, that would be nice.”
I sit up straight in my chair and grasp the edge of the table. After Agent Clarke leaves the room, I do not move; I stare at my data deck, trying to remember what a normal expression feels like.
The last conversation, with my husband: his joyful bantering of statistics and averages for players that I cared nothing about, for a game that I found boring. And his lamentation, well-worn over the weeks, that his beloved Astros were out of the running for this year.
I go to my favorite news site and call up the sports page, a place I've never bothered to look at before now. It agrees with what my husband had said; the discussion of the other users does as well. Perhaps Agent Clarke misspoke; it seems a reasonable enough conclusion. And yet I cannot dismiss the casual, stupid comment from my mind. In that moment, he'd had the same tone of ridiculous enthusiasm that my husband had always used when speaking of the game.
Just to double check, I go to the official tournament site. It says essentially the same thing as Agent Clarke, that the tournament is suspended pending approval. It lists the teams in the running and offers me a flashing, technicolor chance to buy their merchandise, and the Astros are not among them. I run a few more searches, delving deeper and deeper, finding smaller sites where fans discuss statistics and lament their favorite team.
By the third search, there is no mention at all of the tournament being canceled.
Agent Clarke returns with my tea, and I quickly close up the sites I've been looking at and pretend to be working. As soon as he leaves, I write a simple routine for my data deck to execute and have it trace through the route that all of the data from the sports sites has taken.
All come from the same source, the same server. It is also, I find, the same server as my news site when I run another set of traces. I sip my room temperature tea and try to untangle the implications.
There is a false server, a shadow internet that seems to be solely for my benefit, a copy that it seems has been strategically changed at the places I might casually see, or explore in conjunction with my work. The purpose of this seems clear enough, if filled with chilling paranoia. I have always refused to work for governments in the past; my work has often taken me in direct opposition to them, trying to protect personal privacy with encryption that cannot be easily broken. But if this is truly a lie, a show put up for my benefit, I have been tricked into reversing that work.
And I now know that Agent Clarke, who has smiled and offered me tea even as he's lied to me, cannot possibly be trusted.
What other lies have I been fed, then? And despite myself, I feel hope. My situation is likely dangerous, quite possibly desperate. But I can hope that at the other side of it, my daughter waits for her mother to come home.
I am patient; anyone of my profession must be, and I have few choices. I smile and make chitchat and build a new program one line at a time, to help with the decryption, I explain. I test the boundaries of the network, cautiously exploring what is allowed in and allowed out. It is clever; had I not been looking, I never would have found the borders of my world, or the thin line through which my files pass, tying me to the planetary network.
Weeks later, after a file batch has completed, I tell my little program to execute, and wait. I am mediocre as a programmer, but I know how to disguise data, and I hope that will be enough. I page through another book, smelling the old paper, and wait with my heart in my throat.
Five minutes later the lights go out, and my hands go so loose with relief that I nearly drop the book. There is no time to hesitate. Arms trembling as I push the door open, I slip out of the conference room and move quietly down the hall. Around the corner, I hear Agent Clarke walking, the white circle of a flashlight moving along the floor in front of him. "—well, I don't care how hard it is. Get the damn lights back up. We're at a delicate phase. And clear the area, in case—" He is talking in to a handheld, I guess, and he sounds angry. I freeze for a moment, not breathing, and then make myself move slowly again; every nerve screams to run, but that would be too loud.
I have no real plan of escape, because I have no real idea of where I am. But now I have made my opportunity and I cannot sit idly and wait, chipping away at the privacy of millions. I reach the lobby and slip out, holding my breath as I shut the door, so slowly. The click as the door meets is frame is deafening. Frantically, I fumble in the dark for one of the chairs that I saw on my way in, barking my shins sharply against one before I get a good grip on it and jam it against the door.
There is light in the parking garage, showing dully through the front door. It's enough that I can see by. I run, feet slapping the rough concrete, my heart in my throat. Two cars are parked within reach; without the keys, they are useless. There is a linked chain gate across the entrance, and the small security station. I huddle behind it and wait, counting my heart beats in an effort to remain calm. "Come on," I mouth, not even willing to whisper, terrified that somehow, they will hear me if they haven't already seen me. "Come on, damnit, come on!"
I hear sirens in the distance, emergency vehicles called by the false medical alarm I have triggered with my little program. The sleek white shape of an ambulance pulls up. Its presence overrides the security gates and both roll up into the ceiling and lock there. I wait until the ambulance is inside, the doors open and spilling out two men in green jumpsuits, before I edge under the gate, barely daring to breathe. The burnt orange sky above is streaked with the red and copper of sunrise. Tears spill down my cheeks; I have not seen the sun, the sky, in weeks.
I don't recognize the street or any of the buildings, but that is to be expected. I pick a direction and run. Two streets, three, and I hear a car behind me; I dive into an alleyway, stumbling, almost falling as I scramble around a stinking, dark brown metal dumpster. I tear my jacket on the corner of it, leaving skin behind in the process, but continue to run.
I can trust nothing, no one, not so close to Agent Clarke and my well-disguised prison.
The alley is dark, the walls going up forever, and the end of it feels an eternity away. I step on broken glass and bite back a scream. No time to stop and check the damage. I limp on, as fast as I can, barely able to hear over the rush of blood in my ears.
I burst free of the alley into a dead intersection; the traffic lights sway faintly in the breeze. There are no cars. More buildings, warehouses, squat offices, their doors firmly closed. I catch a glimmer of light, the bright colors of neon hidden far down a street, and summon some hidden cache of endurance to force my legs to move.
It's the side entrance of an indoor mall, the neon arrow pointing around toward the real entrance. I limp up the ramp to the door, leaving slick, bloody foot prints behind. I yank on the door. It's locked, and I bark out a sob; I have never felt so exposed in my life. My back prickles. I expect to hear shouts, or feel darts punching in to my spine as I limp back down the ramp and cast about the alley for a rock, anything I can use to break the glass. I find a chunk of concrete and heave it through the door, hoping that my desperation will be forgiven.
The mall is deserted, cold and echoing. I limp along as quickly as I can, needing to find someone, anyone; cleaning person or security guard or coffee shop employee, it doesn't matter to me. I see something from the corner of my eye, something impossibly familiar and wrong; I stop, and turn to look in the front windows of an electronics store, at the flat display panels next to a half-open security gate. Someone's keys lay in a jumble in front of the gate; it should be my first warning, but I cannot look away. I press my hands against the warm glass, even the sound of my own heartbeat retreating as I stare.
It is me on those screens, but an older me, a me with graying hair and a tiny scar on my forehead that I don't have. There is no sound as I walk down the steps of a building, smiling, mouth open to answer questions. The title at the bottom of the screen reads, 'Professor Annabelle Stewart receives prestigious Hye-Seung Lifetime Achievement Award for her efforts in domestic privacy.' I choke, mouth working uselessly as I try to make sense of this. I am in two places; I am two people. Am I the same person who walks down those stairs, who smiles, who—
A hand grabs my shoulder, yanks me back from the window. I stumble, a low moan escaping my mouth. I don't resist as I am forced to knees, my hands limp and useless at my sides. I see Agent Clarke's reflection in the shop window, a dim outline with no smile. I see his hand move, feel the cold barrel of a gun press against the back of my head.
“You shouldn't have done that,” he says, sounding angry, as if he's the one that has been betrayed. “It was the Astros, right? A fucking baseball team, of all things. I should have paid attention when the analysts flagged your sports searches.”
"None of it was true," I whisper. My throat is too tight to breathe, let alone speak. "None of it was true. There aren't terrorists."
"If there aren't, it's because you've helped us. You think you're protecting the poor little everyman from the big bad government? You don't control who uses your work."
And so they have tricked me into breaking my own encryption schemes. I cough out a sound that is half-sob, half-laugh. "I-I-I d-don't..." Hot tears spill down my stiff, cold cheeks as I suck in a shaking breath. I want to be angry now, angry for letting them manipulate my false grief, for compromising my own principles, no matter how temporarily. But I can't feel anything but terror clawing at my stomach. "I don't work for the government."
"Yeah, well," he says, "maybe the fourth time will be the charm."
Somehow, I smile even as my shoulders shake. My call for help has already escaped, flying low through a gateway where all the guards face outward. Unlike me, it can't be stopped. I'd thought that one of my students might find it. Perhaps now, I will find it myself, read my own fears and my own story, and find where the massive, planet-sized archives that contain the copy of my life at the moment of transportation. And perhaps not just my life, perhaps a hundred of us, a thousand were dying like this each day, only to live on in someone free, who does not know what sort of bravery they have been and will be capable of.
Even as I die, I still live. I will die, and I will live and fight. It makes me giddy, makes me laugh even as more tears spill down my cheeks.
I hear the whine of the gun's power cell cycling up.
The click of the trigger.
The moment of transportation is what I imag . . .
x x x
And I really mean “The end.” An old device handled well by a debut writer, here. Nice job, Rachael. Welcome to anotherealm. Join me in saying hi to Rachael on our BBS. -GM