Short Story – Two point five minutes

The door behind Nadya slid shut with a satisfying thwup sound. She sat down, facing the display on the wall. A progress bar worked its way up to a hundred percent before fading away, and a female voice announced that the scan was complete. Nadya breathed in deep, twice, then opened her briefcase and took out the cleaver. A beautiful thing, bought two years prior at a market in Namwon. There were no decorative carvings or anything like that, but the shape of the blade had a pleasant balance to it. It wasn’t sterile, though that hardly mattered now, did it?
She laid the palm of her left hand flat on the floor and raised the knife with her right. She hesitated, and lowered it again. For a while she sat frozen like that. Cross-legged, taking shallow breaths, hovering the cleaver a few inches above the floor. Then in a single swift motion she raised it and brought it down hard.
The pain overwhelmed her. It hijacked her senses and replaced every thought and impression with a single blinding white visceral screech. Then it waned, or rather transcended. It became a numb, throbbing sensation that seemed to fill the world but left the front of her mind alone.
She opened her eyes. Inspected the mess with the same childlike curiosity that first inspired her to do it. She had failed to cut quite through the middle and ring finger, and had missed the pinkie altogether, but the index finger had come clean off. She took it up and studied it. Turned it over, weighed it in her palm, picked and scraped with her thumbnail at the parts poking out of the back end. She bounced it against a wall, then leaned over to pick it back up. In the next moment, she ceased to exist.

The process of disassembling, moving and then reassembling clusters of atoms would be difficult and unsafe, and arguably not even possible. When teleporters were invented, they were therefore in practice just chemical scanners and printers. A transmission unit scans the arrangement of matter contained in its interior. This information is sent to a recipient unit, which assembles those contents. The transmission unit then destroys the original and stores the matter for future use. To prevent accidents, there’s a feedback procedure before every trip: once the data is registered on the recipient unit, it’s sent back to the transmitter. There, it’s compared to the original data of the scan to make sure it hasn’t been corrupted along the way. Once the data is verified, a confirmation is sent to the recipient unit, which goes through with the printing before signalling the transmitter to destroy the original.
This safety measure has a side effect. From the completion of the scan – which of course includes the traveller’s thoughts and memories up to but not beyond that point – to the moment when the transmission unit’s content is destroyed, there’s a delay of two point five minutes. Whatever a traveller does during this window is entirely consequence-free. Everything contained within the booth’s inner coating is disintegrated, and the traveller stepping out at the other end will never have experienced what happened after the scan.

The door behind Joy slid shut with that familiar thwup sound. She walked over to the LED touchscreen while the scanner was still processing, and changed the display settings. During post-scan waits the screen will by default show a calming blue colour, as not to remind travellers of their impending deaths, but it can be set to show a 150-second countdown instead. Some maintenance guy had explained this while her project was still in the planning phase. One of those little features that nobody thinks to look for.
A prerecorded voice announced that the scan was complete. Joy opened her bag and got out a bottle of ink, three calligraphy brushes and the by now rather worn square of canvas, empty save for her signature in the bottom right corner. She was still proud of this project. Her conceptual masterpiece. The blank slate housing thousands of artworks no living person had ever seen.
She dipped the smallest brush and held it over the canvas, wondering what to paint. She never decided in advance. That would ruin the mystery. She glanced at the countdown. 117 seconds. 116.
She could, she realized, refrain from painting anything. Secretly mock her scanned and future self and the potential buyer alike. But she shouldn’t. That would just be childish and meta in all the wrong ways.
104. 103. 102.
She could paint an orchid. She had a different ongoing project which involved painting lots of orchids and syringes. The orchids were enjoyable, and she had grown quite good at them. But that would be unimaginative. Teleporters were the one place where she was free to paint anything. To make another orchid would be a wasted opportunity. She looked around the booth for inspiration but found none. Apart from the display (86. 85.) and the contours of the door, it was all one unbroken white surface. She could try to depict the display, but she figured she must have done that dozens of times before. She wished she’d brought watercolours instead of ink. This morning she had been in an ink kind of mood, wanting to capture complex movements with a few artfully careless strokes. Now she wanted texture, nuance. She wanted to paint autumn forests, mixing a new tone of orange for each individual leaf. She could try some greyscale thing with lines; varying her thickness and spacing to create effects of light and shadow. But that would feel like an exercise in technique. She loathed those.
51. 50. 49. 48.
The ink on her brush had gone dry. She dipped it again. Then she laid it aside, and instead picked up and dipped the thickest brush. That didn’t help. She stared at the canvas. Then glanced at the display. 36 seconds. She could paint a clock. But she had probably done that quite a few times as well. The mental leap from a countdown display to a clock is hardly a long one. For the same reason she then ruled out painting a bag, a door, herself, a frame of canvas, a paintbrush and a beret.
She could paint a croissant. It could be quite fun, actually, emulating the shadows of its flaky surface with hundreds of tiny shaky strokes. But she wouldn’t have time for that, now. She had twelve seconds left. There would be nothing poetic about the destruction of a half-finished outline of a croissant. Eleven seconds. Ten. ‘Fuck it’, she though, and doodled a bunny. Then the doodled bunny and she were both erased from the face of the Earth.
In a little over two thousand trips she had doodled eighteen hundred and twenty-three bunnies.

The door slid shut behind Cassie and Jake. Its faint thwup sound filled Jake, as always, with anticipatory dread.
He had developed a crush on Cassie in fourth grade, and it hadn’t gone away since. He didn’t tell her then. The years had passed, they had gone through primary and secondary school in their housing project in Southampton, moved into apartments in the outskirts of the same housing project in Southampton, then had independently of each other applied for and been enrolled in the psychology programme at the University of Johannesburg. He sure as hell wouldn’t tell her now. Their polite platonic acquaintanceship was so firmly established that any change was unthinkable. And besides, she had a girlfriend.
He had, however, decided that he would tell her after the scan. After every scan. It didn’t make sense, but he found a strange comfort in it. The idea that a version of him would confess to a version of her twice a day gave him some sense of closure.
A speaker voice announced that the scan was complete. Jake took a deep breath. Then another. And a third. He clenched his fists, closed his eyelids. He stood like that for a while, fists clenching and unclenching. Then he opened his eyes and turned to Cassie.
She had produced a lighter and was meditatively setting one of her textbooks on fire.
Jake swallowed, licked his lips and opened his mouth to speak. He had no idea what to say. He closed his mouth. Then his eyes. Then he opened his eyes and turned to the blue display on the wall, as if hoping to hypnotize himself into talking. He began thinking of what to say. First he mapped out the sentences; which pieces of information to convey and in what order. He should start by saying he had something to say and that he wouldn’t say it if not for the teleporter delay thing. Then he should go straight to the revealing-his-love part, after which he could explain in more detail how far back it went and such. Finally he could ask how she would respond if he’d said it, so to speak, for real. With the overarching structure now laid out, he proceeded to fill it out, phrasing the sentences word for word. Once finished he repeated it to himself to make sure he had it all memorized. Then he repeated it once more.
He turned back toward Cassie. All her textbooks now lay in a glowing pile at her feet, and she had moved on to burning five-pound notes from her wallet. Jake took one more deep breath, then opened his mouth and spoke. Cassie looked up, and as Jake made his way through his statement her facial expression went from surprise through worry to pained compassion. Her fist twitched, and the banknotes crumbled and fell. She opened her mouth to reply.
There was a loud, blaring beep.
Then, a moment of dumbfounded silence.
The speaker voice crackled online. It said that the travel had been cancelled due to transmission errors, that all fares had been refunded, that the unit would shut down for repair and that TraveLite Inc apologized for the inconvenience. Cassie swore. A long line of expletives mixing the more mundane fucks and shits and cunts with a number of terms Jake didn’t know the meaning of, and some he had never even heard. She then dropped to the floor and tried to extinguish the smouldering textbooks. Beside them, the door slid open with a muffled hiss.

The door behind Daniel slid shut with a thwup sound. He let his eyes rest on the LED display tracking the scanner’s progress, while absent-mindedly smoothing out some creases on his shirt. As soon as the bar was full, he stopped, moments before a speaker voice announced that the scan was complete. It struck him that everyone must have heard that announcement thousands of times, yet experienced each as the first. He tried to find this interesting, but failed.
He felt uneasy. No, not uneasy. Guilty.
From the way people talked about the post-scan delay, speculating and making jokes about how they and others spent it, he felt like he was supposed to treat it as an opportunity. Instead, it was a bore. A commute that he couldn’t even make use of. There was no point in planning his dinner, no point in reading his mail. Heck, there wasn’t even a point in smoothing out the creases on his shirt. What was wrong with him, compared to everyone else? Why couldn’t he think of a single way to enjoy this? He took out his phone to check if he had any notifications in Shogun Quest, but then remembered the booth had no coverage. He considered smashing the phone, but the idea didn’t appeal to him. He put the phone back in his pocket, then looked around the booth.
What did other people do here? Who knew? There were no clues left to help him guess, which, again, was kind of the point.
As it turned out, there actually was one clue. A dark droplet of some dried-up liquid had collected in a thin gash in the floor, where it must have been outside the programmed reach of the disintegrator. Soy sauce, perhaps. Or wine.
That was quite clever, come to think of it. Bringing some nice food and drink into the booth, then spending the delay enjoying a brief but free meal. Pity he didn’t think of that earlier. He had neither food nor drink on him. He did have some blackberry pastilles, though. He plopped one into his mouth. The taste subsided after fifteen, maybe twenty seconds. He continued chewing at the bland, rubbery pulp as it gradually melted away. He pondered for a while if he should eat a second one, and decided to do so.
He then scratched the bridge of his nose, and was disintegrated.

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One Response to Short Story – Two point five minutes

  1. Andy Strahl says:

    I did enjoy it! And it was exactly log enough to red between the Thwup an—

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