Two point five minutes
The door behind Rita 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. Rita 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, but that didn’t matter, now. 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 just sat like that. Cross-legged. Taking shallow breaths. Cleaver hovering a few centimetres 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, replaced every thought and impression with a single blinding white visceral screech. Then it waned. Or rather, transcended. 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 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 moment that followed, she ceased to exist.
The process of disassembling, moving and then reassembling clusters of atoms would be difficult and unsafe. Some have argued that it’s impossible. When teleporters were invented, they were therefore in practice just chemical scanners and printers. A transmission unit scans the arrangement of matter contained within its chamber. This information is sent to a recipient unit, which assembles those contents. The transmission unit then destroys the original and stores the raw 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 integrity of 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. The recipient unit replicates the traveller as they were when they scanned – their body, their thoughts and their memories up to that point. But between the completion of the scan and the disintegration of the transmission unit’s contents, there is 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 erased, 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. Tapped it with two fingers to bring up the graphical options menu. During post-scan waits the screen will by default show a calming blue colour, as not to remind travellers of their impending deaths. It can, however, be set to show a hundred-and-fifty-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 pre-recorded 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 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. One hundred and seventeen seconds. One hundred and sixteen. 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.
One hundred and four. One hundred and three. One hundred and two.
She could paint an orchid. She had another ongoing project which involved painting lots of orchids and syringes. The orchids were fun to paint, and she’d grown quite good at them too. Just a few flicks of the wrist, letting the bristles trail off in all the right places, and you could swear you were looking at actual sunlight tracing the petal veins. 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 (eighty-six, eighty-five) and the outline 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 hated those.
Fifty-one. Fifty. Forty-nine. Forty-eight.
The ink on her brush had gone dry. She dipped it again. Then she laid it aside, and instead picked up and dipped a different one. The widest. That didn’t help. She stared at the canvas. Then glanced at the display. Thirty-six 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 a flaky surface with hundreds of jittery 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 croissant. Eleven seconds. Ten. ‘Fuck’, she though, and doodled a bunny. Then the doodled bunny and she were 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 hadn’t told her then. The years had passed. They had gone through primary and secondary school in their housing project in Southampton, and become something like friends. Then he had moved into a different apartment at the eastern end of the same project, and a few months later she moved to the southern end. They’d spent a couple years working odd jobs in different parts of the city. Saying hi if they met in the street, and exchanging some small talk now and then at the parties of mutual friends. Then he’d applied for and been enrolled in the psychology programme at the University of Johannesburg, and it turned out she’d independently done the same. They’d fallen into a natural habit of porting to school together. Sometimes she would join his circle of campus friends for lunch if hers weren’t available. But 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. He found a strange comfort in that. The idea that a version of him would confess to a version of her twice a day gave him some semblance of closure.
A speaker voice announced that the scan was complete. Jake took a deep breath. Then another one. And a third. He dug his nails into his palms and closed his eyes. 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 stood meditatively setting 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 again. Then he opened his eyes and turned to the blue display on the wall, as if hoping to hypnotize himself into talking. He started trying to think 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 memorised. Then he repeated it once again. He turned back to 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 and 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, the unit would shut down for repair and 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 words whose meanings Jake didn’t know. 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 Rubem slid shut with a thwup sound. He let his eyes rest on the LED display tracking the scanner’s progress, while absentmindedly 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. Not 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 new notifications in Shogun Quest, but then remembered the booth had no coverage. He considered smashing the phone. The idea didn’t really appeal to him, so he didn’t. 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.