by Jude M. Eriksen
“Well, your vitals look good,” the doctor said, gazing down at the digital tablet in his hand.
“Why do I feel so weak then?” James asked.
“Without more information, I’d really just be guessing. You could start by telling me what you do for a living.”
“I work for Telecorp.”
“Interesting,” the doctor said. “Can you elaborate?”
“I’m a class two technician, which means I’m qualified to repair any type of inanimate transport. I can also work on single-subject animate transports, but I’m not allowed to touch any of the multi-subject units or the medical applications.”
“Go on,” the doctor said as he removed a metal stylus from his pocket and scribbled something on his tablet.
“What else do you want to know?”
“Has anything unusual happened at work recently? Any accidents or things of that nature?”
“We got a service request last Friday from a guy whose unit was randomly locking out. When I got to his place and started going through his transport’s event logs, the onboard algorithmic sequencer—the thing that coordinates disintegration and reintegration of matter during transport—was so out of date, my diagnostic scanner didn’t even recognize the version number. How it ended up on his machine, I couldn’t even hazard a guess.”
The doctor nodded thoughtfully as he jotted down something else on his tablet.
“Anyway,” James continued, “to make a long story short, I had to revise the unit’s firmware from a back-up. After it rebooted, I ran a few simulations and when no more cautions popped up, I set it back to run mode and packed up my tools.”
“That’s it?” the doctor asked, raising his eyebrows.
“Well, there is something, but you have to swear you won’t tell anyone.”
“You have my word.”
“Company policy stipulates that all technicians teleport through approved transport nodes only while on the job, but I was already running late for a date with my girlfriend. Instead of walking back to the dedicated company node down the street, I transported directly from the customer’s place to the nightclub she and I had agreed to meet at earlier.”
“And the next day you started to feel ill?”
“Yeah, the next morning I thought I was just really hung over, but by supper time I started to feel even weaker. You don’t think it has anything to do with that guy’s transport, do you?”
“It’s hard to say, but I think this definitely warrants taking a closer look at you. If you have the time this morning, there’s a special scan I like to run on you.”
“Why?” James asked, shifting uneasily on the examination table. “You think I’ve suffered some kind of genetic corruption or something?”
“Not exactly,” the doctor said, setting his tablet aside. “When you mentioned outdated algorithms, it made me think of an elective course I took back in my college days. The professor who taught it had been part of the original team that developed teleportation technology back in the forties. He spent an entire week recounting the various hurdles they encountered in the beginning. Being a technician yourself, though, I’m sure you’ve heard it all before.”
“Actually,” James said, “the instructors at the vocational school I trained at didn’t go into much detail about the history of teleportation. We were taught just enough about how the various components worked in order to make effective repairs.”
“I see. Well, this professor explained to us that the engineers in those early days utilized a new type of pattern-recognition AI to generate the first algorithmic sequencer for use in their prototype transport nodes—it being the only way to sort out the massive complexity of breaking a person’s body down at the subatomic level and then rebuilding it again. Unfortunately, that algorithm resulted in a number of body integrity issues among the test animals they transported during those first trials.”
“What sort of issues?” James asked, swallowing hard.
“There were cases of semi-coherent reintegration, where the animals came through as insubstantial apparitions because only half of their atoms had made the crossing. Others came through fully corporeal but with grotesque deformations. Imagine chimps coming out the exit node with elongated, banana-shaped skulls—their skin stretched to the breaking point over their shrieking faces—or dogs that came through with spaghetti-like bodies that stretched out for dozens of meters.
“There were other things too: bizarre mass re-distributions, where the test subjects reappeared with reams of excess skin but no skeleton to hang it on. There were also instances of tissue translocations, where internal body parts materialized externally or vice-versa. The professor showed us some pictures once. Not pretty, let me tell you. One depicted a cat whose entire arterial system had reformed outside its body. Another showed a baboon, whose dissected brain revealed a functioning eye and several clenched toes buried deep within its grey matter. There were other problems too, but I think you get the idea. Until they realized it had something to do with that AI-generated algorithm, a lot of animals needlessly suffered and died.”
“You needn’t worry about any of that, though. If you had a major teleporter-induced body integrity issue, it would be obvious by now. In all likelihood, you just have the flu. The scan I’m suggesting would simply be to rule out less likely causes of your fatigue.”
“Alright,” James said with a shaky sigh, “let’s do it then.”
“Come with me,” the doctor said as he opened the examining room door and ushered James into the hallway outside.
At the end of the hallway, they came to an unmarked door. It opened on to a glass-enclosed walkway that bisected a stretch of manicured lawn between the medical center and a tall grey building to the north. At the other end, they came to another set of doors with a prominent sign above them that read: Restricted Area-Authorized Personnel Only. As the doctor held a key card up to a small scanner mounted on the wall, the doors opened on their own.
A multi-story facility with a vast hexagonal atrium at its core awaited them on the other side. Dozens of people in white uniforms wandered the stacked tiers encircling it as tropical birds sang from the top of a massive baobab tree growing beneath a geodesic glass roof high above. Sleek elevators crawled up and down the support columns ringing the atrium, like beetles made of steel and glass.
“Hold up,” James said.
“I can’t walk much farther. My legs feel like jelly.”
“Wait here,” the doctor said before disappearing into an adjacent alcove. A moment later he returned, wheeling a sleek carbon-fibre wheelchair in front of him. “Get in. I’ll push you the rest of the way.”
Feeling more than a little ridiculous, James reluctantly sat down in the chair and let the doctor push him toward one of the elevators sitting idle on the far side.
“Lambert, Phillip Jerome. Level C5,” the doctor said as they entered the empty lift.
“Voice pattern recognized. Level C5, confirm?” a synthetic female voice intoned.
“What is this place?” James asked as the elevator dropped through the floor and picked up speed.
“The scanning machine I’m taking you to is a very expensive piece of equipment, so we’ve worked out an arrangement with the military’s research and development division to access theirs from time to time.”
“This place is military?”
“Military science, yes.”
When the readout on the smoked-glass panel in front of James indicated they’d reached the desired sub-level, the elevator shuddered to a stop.
“Containment suite five,” the robotic voice said.
A long rectangular tunnel, fashioned out of smooth concrete, receded away from them when the doors hissed opened. They followed it to a large circular room, where a metal surgical table sporting leather restraints stood at its center. A faint odour of bleach hung in the air as the doctor wheeled James toward a smaller room on the opposite side, where the scanner awaited them.
Skinned with glossy black panels, the hulking machine dominating the interior of the ancillary room looked like an MRI crossed with a meat grinder. A sliding plastic table protruded like a rigid white tongue from a tunnel passing through the middle of it. Rows of serrated tines—the colour of blood—lined the inside circumference of the tunnel’s interior. The ones comprising the first row all curved clockwise, while the next row curved counter-clockwise—alternating like that throughout its length.
“It looks like it wants to eat me,” James said, regarding it like a mouse staring into the yawning gullet of a rattlesnake.
“Those tines look scary, but they’re harmless,” Doctor Lambert said as he wheeled a portable computer terminal over. “They’re there to ensure the scanning field is evenly dispersed. Without them, the emitters would produce hot spots and we don’t want that.”
“Will it hurt?”
“Not at all. Now, if you’d be so kind as to lie down on the table with your feet pointing into the hole, we can get started.”
James stood up from the wheelchair on shaky legs and shuffled over to the table. He’d scarcely laid down on its cool surface when it retracted into the interior of the machine, entombing him within its toothy confines.
“OK James, it’s going to take a minute for the scanner to warm up. When it’s ready, you’ll hear a chime. Try not to move around too much or the computer might have difficulty creating a good image. Understood?”
James nodded. He wished his girlfriend could’ve been here, but her stupid boss had refused to give her the morning off.
A series of clicks preceded a low whine that rose in pitch as some mechanism inside the machine wound up. Seconds later, pulsing vibrations surged through the sliding table, making James’s teeth chatter. A throbbing bass note joined in as the howling whine reached a plateau.
Ding, ding, ding. Ding, ding, ding.
“Alright,” the doctor said from somewhere behind him, “here we go.”
A long beep sounded, followed by heavy rhythmic thumping that increased in ferocity until it seemed the scanner might tear itself apart. On and on it went, banging and crashing away until another long beep signaled the scan had reached its completion. As the machine slowly wound down again, the table slid back out of the hole.
“You see? That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Doctor Lambert said as he turned his attention back toward the screen on the portable computer terminal beside him. He opened his mouth to say something else when his eyes grew wide.
“What is it?” James asked.
“Holy Moses,” the doctor whispered as the color in his face drained away. He looked from the screen to James and back again. “Oh, James. It’s—well, take a look for yourself.”
Doctor Lambert swiveled the terminal around so James could see. On the built-in screen, a three dimensional digital video recording of his translucent body ran in a loop as a time-stamp in the upper-left corner counted off the seconds. The outlines of his bones glowed blue, while pulsing red blood vessels fed the familiar shapes of orange-tinted organs. Feathery yellow nerve fibres ran up his arms and legs before entering his spinal column, where they rose to meet the bulbous convolutions at the base of the brains inside his skull. Nothing appeared out of place. He was about to say as much when he saw its ghostly outline—like semi-transparent glass.
The thing within his chest cavity vaguely resembled a huge prawn, with a segmented tail and long, thread-like antennae that sprouted from its flattened head. The antennae had inserted themselves into various nerve bundles and he could see them pulsing in time with each beat of his heart. A pair of serrated mandibles jutting out on either side of a nightmarish tooth-ringed mouth appeared to be grasping hold of his thyroid gland.
“What is that?” James asked, his voice cracking.
“I—I’m not quite sure,” the doctor said. “I think it might be a parasite of some kind.”
“A what?” James asked His eyes bulged as he stared down at the screen.
“It must’ve attached to you when you transported from that customer’s node the other day.”
“Attached to me?” James said as he slipped off the table and started pacing back and forth. “So is it going to kill me or what?”
“First you need to calm down and then I’ll explain as best I can.”
James glared at the doctor for several seconds before sitting back down on the edge of the table with an exasperated sigh.
“We all know the basics of how teleportation works,” the doctor said. “You step into a node at point A and step out of another at point B—all within a matter of milliseconds—but the scientists who pioneered the technology learned early on that those tiny units of time are very telling about the actual distances involved. It turns out that the path from point A to point B isn’t necessarily a straight line.”
“What is it then?”
“I’m getting to that. After the failures of those first animal trials, the engineers became convinced that the math controlling the process was the culprit. Subsequently, they created a retooled version of the AI-generated algorithm and, when they sent the next batch of test animals through, every single one came out the other end in perfect condition. When they showed no signs of disease after several months of observation, the first human trials were initiated.
“They approached a number of death row inmates, offering conditional pardons if they submitted themselves to a teleportation sequence. Several agreed and were transported without incident, but then a murderer by the name of Roderick Cooper went through and soon after developed a peculiar weakness throughout his body. Within a matter of weeks, he became incapable of caring for himself and over the next few months grew progressively more frail until he shriveled up and faded away.
“Though the imaging technology we have today didn’t exist back then, the scientists who examined him while he still clung to life were able to find indirect evidence that something had latched on to him during transport. They theorized that this ephemeral presence was ultimately responsible for draining away his vitality, but they didn’t understand why it had only affected Roderick.
“The program was halted while they mounted an investigation, but the only discrepancy they could find between his transit and the others was the length of time it took: Roderick’s had taken several dozen milliseconds longer.
“Several months passed before a young engineer finally cracked the problem. While comparing the metadata from Roderick’s transport to the other transports, she discovered that the retooled algorithmic sequencer had randomly influenced the trajectory of the quantum stream carrying Roderick’s disintegrated body. Instead of proceeding directly from node A to node B, it had followed a massive parabolic arc into deep space. After some number crunching, her team was amazed to discover how far it really extended—apparently to the edge of the observable universe and back again. Maybe even farther, some of them believed. Somewhere within the quantum foam of those unimaginable distances, they theorized that a peculiar form of life existed and that these creatures—under the right circumstances—might be able to interact with a subject during transit.”
“Fuck me,” James said, it being all he could muster as his mind reeled at what he was being told.
“Something good came out of it, though,” the doctor said. “It took two more years and tens of thousands of man hours, but eventually they scrapped that AI-generated algorithm altogether and wrote one of their own. The next round of trials resulted in thousands of incident-free transports—with no more random parabolas jutting out into the infinite—thus ushering in the era of reliable and safe teleportation we enjoy today.”
“I don’t want to hear any more.” James said as his heart fluttered inside his chest. “Just tell me there’s a way to get rid of it.”
“I was just about to say so, but yes, there is a procedure.”
“So, what are we waiting for?”
“I understand your sense of urgency James, but this isn’t something you can just flip a switch to resolve. It’ll require a group of highly-trained people working together to pull off. Before that can happen, though, I need to make a couple of calls.”
“Whatever. Go make your calls,” James said, running shaking fingers through his sweat-soaked hair.
As the doctor stepped out of the scanning room and pulled a portable phone out of his coat pocket, James’s returned his attention to the video still playing on the terminal. How could a doctor know so much about this shit? I fix teleportation nodes for a living and I’ve never heard of these parasites or any of that other stuff he mentioned. Nobody would teleport if they knew that sort of thing could happen.
Several moments passed and the doctor returned with a broad smile on his face.
“You’re in luck today, my friend. Most of the necessary people were already in the building. I’m just waiting for a specialist colleague of mine to arrive and then we can make an attempt to get that thing out of you.”
“Promise me something first,” James said.
“I don’t want to end up like that Roderick guy you mentioned. If this doesn’t work, I’d rather be euthanized.”
“I promise we’ll do all I can to make sure that doesn’t happen. Now please, come with me and we’ll get you prepped.”
In the suite outside the scanning room, several people wearing white plastic gowns and face masks were already gathering as Doctor Lambert directed James to the surgical table. After removing his shirt and pants, a nurse helped him on to the table before securing his arms and legs with the leather straps hanging down from its sides.
“Are those really necessary?” he asked.
“It’s for your own safety.”
He nodded and let her continue.
With her task completed, she stepped out of the way as other personnel wheeled in carts loaded with various instruments and monitoring equipment. Behind them, an older man in black surgical regalia entered the room.
“I understand you have an unwanted guest,” he said in a grandfatherly tone as he approached the table and smiled down at James. His clean-shaven face was marred by numerous acne pock marks.
“Yup,” James said meekly.
“Doctor Lambert is a good friend of mine, so when he called I came as quickly as I could.”
“I’m sorry you had to cut your vacation short, Bill,” Doctor Lambert said, who’d also put on a black gown.
“No worries old friend,” the older man said, shaking Doctor Lambert’s hand. “A specimen this rare definitely warrants an interruption to my holiday. Besides, the beaches in Greenland are so overcrowded this time of year anyway.”
“I thought you’d feel that way.”
“Alright,” the surgeon said, looking around the room, “if everyone’s ready, we can begin. James, we’re going to have to get a little invasive here.”
Before James could reply, the nurse who’d strapped him down pushed a thin metal probe into the thickest part of his left bicep. On the other side of the table, an another nurse poked a cannula into the back of his hand and affixed the clear tubing dangling from it to an IV bag hanging from a nearby portable stand.
“That’s wasn’t so bad,” James said when they’d finished.
The surgeon ignored him as he waved in yet another nurse, who held a metal contraption in her hands. The polished black surfaces of its articulating segments belied a deeper opalescence that distorted the light, causing the reflections of the surrounding room within it to warp and stretch in a curious way.
“Insert the attenuator nurse,” the surgeon said.
Two burly attendants appeared out of nowhere and grabbed hold of James’s legs. As they pulled them apart, the nurse introduced the device to his back passage.
“Hey, what the hell? Stop that,” James protested as the thing in the nurse’s hands came to life and began to wriggle its way inside.
“Oh God, that hurts,” James wailed as he strained against the straps.
“Attenuator is in position, Sir,” the nurse said. “I have a good signal on my board.”
“Excellent. Lower the phase converter if you please, Doctor Lambert.”
A cover in the ceiling above the table slid back, revealing a curved rectangular panel that descended on a pneumatic piston until it came to rest about a meter above James’s body. Thousands of thread-like gold filaments covered its surface, criss-crossing in a hatched diamond pattern.
“Phase converter locked,” Doctor Lambert said.
“Commence charging,” said the surgeon as he pulled his mask up over his face. Doctor Lambert also affixed his mask as he thumbed several switches on a nearby console and a faint humming sound emanated from the panel hanging above James.
“This is it people,” said the surgeon. “You all know your jobs.”
“Wait,” James said, gasping for breath as the thing inside his bowel pulsed like a mechanical heart. “Doctor Lambert, please.”
“What is it?” he said, leaning in.
“I can’t do this. You’ve got to make them stop.”
“I’m afraid I wasn’t entirely forthcoming with you, James. There’s no going back now. That thing we put inside of you—it doesn’t come back out. Even as we speak, it’s rooting itself deeper into your nervous system. I apologize, but you have no idea how long we’ve been waiting for this opportunity. Even though we rigged a number of transport nodes to keep reverting to the flawed algorithm, there was never any guarantee we’d actually catch one of these things. I wasn’t lying when I told you how rare they are. If it wasn’t for extremely bad luck you wouldn’t have any at all.”
James struggled against the restraints, but it was no use. They had him locked up tight. Then, as Doctor Lambert straightened, he noticed the pin affixed to the lapel of his surgical gown and the insignia stamped on it.
“You’re military,” James said. “Black projects.”
“Good eye. You didn’t really think a regular doctor would know about all that stuff I mentioned, did you?”
“Are you even a real doctor?”
“Among other things, yes.”
“You were never going to help me, were you?”
“James, we’re not monsters. If we could save your life and recover the specimen, we would. Unfortunately, these things are extremely fragile in their incorporeal form and previous experience has taught us that it comes down to one or the other. I’m truly sorry.”
“Fuck you,” James said defiantly before spitting into his eyes.
Doctor Lambert recoiled like he’d been stung by a wasp as he frantically swiped at the spittle with the sleeve of his gown.
“Just for that, there will be no pain suppressants for you. Enjoy your live birth,” he said before turning his attention back to the surgeon. “Ready when you are, Sir.”
One of the attendants handed the surgeon a wireless controller with two joysticks poking out the top. As he worked the sticks, the device inside James’s bowel began to move again. A pinching sensation in his upper abdomen caused the console monitoring his pulse to beep faster.
“Alright, the attenuator is fully interfaced,” he said. “Energize the converter.”
“Everybody stand back,” Doctor Lambert said as he twisted a large black knob on the control board beside him. The others took several steps back as the panel above the table hummed louder. At the same time, something stirred inside James’s chest.
“More output,” the older surgeon said.
As Doctor Lambert turned the dial up several more notches, the sense of pressure in James’s chest cavity increased ten-fold. His ribs began to bulge outward as the flesh over his sternum grew taut. He bellowed out a bloodcurdling scream as he thrashed against the leather straps holding him down.
“I can’t concentrate with all that screaming,” the surgeon shouted, his brow furrowing. “Shut him up.”
One of the nurses moved in and thrust a hollow rubber device down James’s throat until he gagged.
“That’s better,” said the surgeon.
As his insides were displaced and his ribs snapped one after the other to accommodate the thing materializing within him, James’s consciousness mercifully departed. Seconds later, in a shocking spray of gore, it burst forth from its fleshy confines and detached from the twitching corpse. A pair of long, wiry antennae withdrew from the dripping viscera and wiggled in the air as if to say, "Hello."
“Quick,” the surgeon said. “Raise the containment barrier.”
Doctor Lambert toggled a red switch on the terminal before him and watched as a thick glass tube rose up from the floor around the table where James’s lifeless body lay. When it made contact with a metal ring embedded in the ceiling, a soft tone sounded.
The doctors pulled their masks down and gazed in fascination as the pinkish-coloured creature began to feed. Its sizable mandibles dug into the slack face and tore out a piece of cheek, then passed the dripping chunk of flesh into its drooling mouth. Swallowing greedily, it dove back in for more, rooting around like a truffle pig who’d found the mother lode.
The elder surgeon turned toward Doctor Lambert and clapped him on the back.
“Simply astounding, isn’t it Phillip?”
“Without a doubt, Sir.”
“I think you should have the honour of informing the General that we’ve finally succeeded in manifesting a living supra-tangential entity. After all, it was you who brought the host to us.”
“It would be my pleasure, Bill. What about the subject’s remains?”
“The usual—put it in a transport node and null coordinate it, then remove any mention of his visit to the clinic from the database.”
“Yes Sir,” Doctor Lambert said, looking one last time at the thing hovering over James’s body before departing. As the creature’s carapace began to harden, its color darkened from light pink to a lustrous black, similar to volcanic glass. Withdrawing its head from the ruinous crater James’s face had become, it regarded the doctor with a multitude of glistening black eyes. Within them, he sensed something more than just animal instinct. He sensed intelligence in the way it gazed steadily back at him—malevolent, to be sure, but also keenly aware. The general would be pleased indeed.