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The Punch Escrow

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The Punch Escrow

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Author: Tal M. Klein
Publisher: Geek & Sundry, 2017

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Artificial Intelligence
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It's the year 2147. Advancements in nanotechnology have enabled us to control aging. We've genetically engineered mosquitoes to feast on carbon fumes instead of blood, ending air pollution. And teleportation has become the ideal mode of transportation, offered exclusively by International Transport, the world's most powerful corporation, in a world controlled by corporations.

Joel Byram spends his days training artificial-intelligence engines to act more human and trying to salvage his deteriorating marriage. He's pretty much an everyday twenty-second century guy with everyday problems, until he's accidentally duplicated while teleporting.

Now Joel must outsmart the shadowy organization that controls teleportation, outrun the religious sect out to destroy it, and find a way to get back to the woman he loves in a world that now has two of him.


Here Comes The Rain Again

I was in the midst of travel-packing procrastination when an audio message from 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. I wasn't as convinced that this second honeymoon was going to magically solve our marital problems. Maybe that was why it had taken me all morning to start packing.

After closing the message window, I threw some final items in my suitcase -- swimsuit, bug repellant, mouth cleaner. Then, satisfied that I had enough underwear and socks for the trip, I zipped up my bag, scratched Peeve behind the ears, and did a dummy check of the apartment. I put a sticky reminder on my comms to add the dog walker to our apartment's access list while we were gone.

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. The plan was to teleport to the San Jose TC, and from there hire a car to drive us to our resort in the mountains of Santa Elena. My wife had scheduled us a full itinerary of hiking in the cloud forest in search of quetzals, drinking terrible local wine, and getting into shouting matches with howler monkeys.

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.

Most were fairly businesslike, but Sylvia had put a lot of extra effort toward giving Julie a personality. My wife was an only child, often lonely growing up. Getting her very own AIDE when she joined IT must have felt a lot like being handed a brand-new sibling, only one who would always be there for her, would always support her, and would never, ever ask for money. Sylvia nurtured her new app. She confided in Julie, asked her for advice, pushed her to be assertive and wise and funny. She even taught her to be a feminist, hence Julie's choice of the Rosie avatar.

There was nothing wrong with the depth of their relationship, per se. Most people had a strong emotional bond with their AIDEs, somewhere on the spectrum between favorite pet and best friend, depending on one's needs. I, however, always saw AIDEs as buckets of semicognitive code with finite complexity, designed to create the illusion of sentience.

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."

"Sorry. I've been studying up on humor. A lot of research shows it puts you bipedal carbon plasma bags at ease."

"Oh, it's definitely working," I answered dryly, knowing she'd detect the sarcastic tone. This is why no self-respecting salter would ever own an AIDE. Their eagerness to please is practically an invitation to be pwnd, or maliciously salted. But hacking an AIDE is a felony, on the level of grand larceny. To a natural-born salter, it's like putting a carrot in front of a famished rabbit, then separating the two with an electrified grate. "Now that you've put me at ease, can you tell me where my wife is?"

"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."

"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."

"Oooh, maybe I should take my time then."

"Oooh, now you're the funny one. I should have you salt me. On second thought, no. If you did that, then everyone would just hang up on me."

"And they don't already?"

"No, they d--"

I hung up.

Just as I was about to step on the Greenwich Village 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 looked around as if unsure where to go next. I pointed her toward the shortest queue, then joined my own line. The woman went into her chamber right before I did, giving me one last sidelong glance. I figured it was her first time teleporting.

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.


Nothing happened.

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 on to the chair's magnetic guides against the wall to orient myself. Finally, after a few more painful bumps, I fumbled my way to the exit barrier. I pushed and pulled on the hard plastic until it lowered. I stepped over it, into the light, 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.

"Yes, sir."

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."

This guy is Sylvia's boss? Isn't he a bit of a muckety-muck for this? He sounded formal but sincere. His eyes sported the longest crow's feet I'd ever seen. "We're shutting down this TC until we can complete our investigation. In the meantime, I have

instructed the conductor here to refund your transport chits."

The conductor nodded eagerly. "Already done, sir. Like it never happened."

"Mr. Byram," Taraval continued, "may we speak privately?"

"Uh, sure."

"Thank you, James." He nodded to the conductor, who turned his back on me as if I were getting dressed. 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.

"A what?"

"Never mind. I know you do not recognize me, Mr. Byram, because we've never formally met. But I work with your wife. Sylvia."

The jerkwad boss who wrecked our anniversary last week. Yeah, I know who you are.

"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."

"We're not?"

"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 guess membership has its privileges, huh?"

"Indeed. Sylvia's happiness is paramount to us."

"Uh-huh. So I just head on over to IT HQ?"

"Yes, 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.

Shit always goes wrong when Sylvia and I go on vacation. We've always referred to these mishaps as adventures, because we don't want to call them vacation fuckups. Besides, who wants to have a textbook holiday anyway? Half the fun is partaking in some ridiculous misadventure that you can later tell your friends over drinks.

Our last vacation in Hawaii came to a premature end when we had to be airlifted by drone from the side of the Kilauea volcano after some work emergency that absolutely could not be solved without Sylvia came up. I was pretty pissed about it at the time, but these days it makes me laugh. I already imagined her cracking up at my retelling of this particular event, especially the part about me slamming my face into the wall.

"Okay, change of plans," I told the conductor, and turned back toward the Escrow room. "I'll just get my luggage."

"Well, uh, that's the good news, sir," said the conductor in an earnest, non-New York accent. Maybe he actually was from Michigan. "Your baggage was successfully ported. That's the last piece of information we got before the comms went dead. We always move inorganic before organic. Little-known fact: your clothes get to where you're going before you do. Good thing you're not naked right now, ha-ha."

I hate it when people who aren't funny try to be funny.

"So how do I find my stuff?"

"Yes. Yes," he answered someone on his comms, then focused on me. "Uh, as soon as things get back online, I'll personally get in touch with the San Jose conductor and ensure they deliver your bags to your final destination," he assured me.

"Okay, thanks." At least I won't have to haul my luggage across town.

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?

Copyright © 2017 by Tal M. Klein


The Punch Escrow

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