The gist: Mark Oates are his family are preparing to travel to Mars. They are waiting their turn to use The Jaunt, a teleportation device discovered centuries ago that transports one across great distances almost instantaneously. There is one rule: A person must be asleep when they travel through The Jaunt. It's his children's first time to do so, and they're nervous, so to pass the time, Mark tells them the history of this revolutionary technology in an attempt to calm their nerves.
The takeaway: This is one of my two favorite Stephen King short stories. Part of why I love The Jaunt so much is because it's such a deviation from his usual work; King is great at finding horror in the mundane, which is why I think he does so well with small-town scares, but it's rare that he would delve into a futuristic setting like this one. I've always thought that science fiction and horror go so well together; it's one of those combinations that just work, like peanut butter and chocolate, and there's no better proof of that than The Jaunt.
There are two stories being told here: One that Mark tells his children, and the pieces that he purposely leaves out. Both are true, but they tell very different sides of the long and bloody history of the Jaunt. The big shocker is in the ending, but this is truly a story that knows how to build on details. As a reader, you're not just being led to the twist; it's the twist that adds meat to the body of the story. It wouldn't be as effective without that ending, but it certainly could still stand on its own.
The irony is that Mark tells them this story to allay the kids' fears before their first Jaunt, when the discovery of the technology is inherently unsavory. Even he knows it's not a story suited for children. And it got me thinking that this is true of any major scientific breakthrough, not just something that seems as far-fetched as teleportation: Science can be a messy business, and even the discoveries most beneficial to mankind comes at cost few of us really stop to think about, like the long years, arduous research, and ethical gray areas.
"This is the last call for Jaunt-701," the pleasant female voice echoed through the Blue Concourse of New York's Port Authority Terminal. The PAT had not changed much in the last three hundred years or so - it was still gungy and a little frightening. The automated female voice was probably the most plesant thing about it. "This is Jaunt Service to Whitehead City, Mars," the voice continued. "All ticketed passengers should now be in the Blue Concourse sleep lounge. Make sure your validation papers are in order. Thank you."The upstairs lounge was not at all grungy. It was wall-to-wall carpeted in oyster gray. The walls were an eggshell white and hung with pleasant nonrepresentational prints. A steady, soothing progression of colors met and swirled on the ceiling. There were one hundred couches in the large room, neatly spaced in rows of ten. Five Jaunt attendants circulate, speaking in low, cherry voices and offering glasses of milk. At one side of the room was the entranceway, flanked by armed guards and another Jaunt attendant who was checking the validation papers of a latecomer, a harried-looking businessman with the New York World Times folded under one arm. Directly opposite, the floor dropped away in a trough about five feet wide and perhaps ten feet long; it passed through a doorless opening and looked a bit like a child's slide. The Oates family lay side by side on four Jaunt couches near the far end of the room. Mark Oates and his wife, Marilys, flanked the two children. "Daddy, will you tell me about the Jaunt now?" Ricky asked. "You promised." "Yeah, Dad, you promised," Patricia added, and giggled shilly for no good reason. A Businessman with a build like a bull glanced over at them and went back to the fodder of papers he was examining as he lay on his back, his spit-shined shoes neatly together.
From everywhere came the low murmur of conversation and the rustle of passengers settling down on the Jaunt couches. Mark glanced over at Marilys Oates and winked. She winked back, but she was almost as nervous as Patty sounded. Why not? Mark thought. First Jaunt for all three of them. He and Marilys had discussed the advantages and drawbacks of moving the whole family for the last six months - since he'd gotten notification from Texaco Water that he was being transferred to Whitehead City. Finally they had decided that all of them would go for the two years Mark would be stationed on Mars. He wondered now, looking at Marilys's pale face, if she was regretting the decision. He glanced at his watch and saw it was still almost half an hour to Jaunt-time. That was enough time to tell the story ... and he supposed it would take the kids' minds off their nervousness. Who knew, maybe it would even cool Marilys out a little. "All right," he said. Ricky and Pat were watching him seriously, his son twelve, his daughter nine. He told himself again that Ricky would be deep in the swamp of puberty and his daughter would likely be developing breast by the time they got back to earth, and again found it difficult to believe. The kids would be going to the tiny Whitehead Combined School with the hundred-odd engineering and oil-company brats that were there; his son might well be going on a geology field trip to Phobos not so many months distant. It was difficult to believe ... but true. Who knows ? he thought wryly. maybe it'll do something about my Jaunt-jumps, too. "So far as we know," he began, "the Jaunt was invented about three hundred and twenty years ago, around the year 1987, by a fellow named Victor Carune. He did it as part of a private research project that was funded by some government money ... and eventually the government took it over, of course. In the end it came down to either the government or the oil companies. The reason we don't know the exact date is because Carune was something of an eccentric - " "You mean he was crazy, Dad?" Ricky asked. "Eccentric means a little bit crazy, dear," Marilys said, and smiled across the children at Mark. She looked a little less nervous now, he thought. "Oh." "Anyway, he'd been experimenting with the process for quite some time before he informed the government of what he had," Mark went on, "and he only told them because he was running out of money and they weren't going to re-fund him." "Your money cheerfully refunded," Pat said, and giggled shrilly again.
"That's right, honey," Mark said, and ruffled her hair gently. At the far end of the room he saw a door slide noiselessly open and two more attendants came out, dressed in the bright red jumpers of the Jaunt Service, pushing a rolling table. On it was a stainless-steel nozzle attached to a rubber hose; beneath the table's skirts, tastefully hidden, Mark knew there were two bottles of gas; in the net bag hooked to the side were one hundred disposable masks. Mark went on talking, not wanting his people to see the representative of Lethe until they had to. And, if he was given enough time to tell the whole story, they would welcome the gas-passers with open arms.
Considering the alternative.
"Of course, you know that the Jaunt is teleportation, no more or less," he said. "Sometimes in college chemistry and physics they call it the Carune Process, but it's really teleportation, and it was Carune himself - if you can believe the stories - who named it the Jaunt.' He was a science-fiction reader, and there's a story by a man named Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination it's called, and this fellow Bester made up the word 'jaunte' for teleportation in it. Except in his book, you could Jaunt just by thinking about it, and we can't really do that." The attendants were fixing a mask to the steel nozzle and handing it to an elderly woman at the far end of the room. She took it, inhaled once, and fell quiet and limp on her couch. Her shirt had pulled up a little, revealing one slack thigh road-mapped with varicose veins. An attendant considerately readjusted for her while the other pulled off the used mask and affixed a fresh one. It was a process that made Mark think of the plastic glasses in motel rooms.
He wished to God that Patty would cool out a little bit; he had seen children who had to be held down, and sometimes they screamed as the rubber mask covered their faces. It was not an abnormal reaction in a child, he supposed, but it was nasty to watch and he didn't want to see it happen to Patty. About Rick he felt more confident.
"I guess you could say the Jaunt came along at the last possible moment," he resumed. He spoke toward Ricky, but reached across and took his daughter's hand. Her palm was cool and sweating lightly. "The world was running out of oil, and most of what was left belonged to the middle-eastern desert peoples, who were committed to using it as a political weapon. They had formed an oil cartel they called OPEC - "
"What's a cartel, Daddy?" Patty asked.
"Well, a monopoly," Mark said.
"Like a club, honey," Marilys said. "And you could only be in that club if you had lots of oil."
"I don't have time to sketch the whole mess in for you," Mark said. "You'll study some of it in school, but it was a mess - let's let it go at that. If you owned a car, you could only drive it two days a week, and gasoline cost fifteen oldbucks a gallon - " "Gosh," Ricky said, "it only costs four cents or so a gallon now, doesn't it, Dad?"
Mark smiled. "That's why we are going where we're going, Rick. There's enough oil on Mars to last almost eight thousand years, and enough on Venus to last another twenty thousand ... but oil isn't even important, anymore. Now what we need most of all is - " "Water!" Patty cried, and the Businessman looked up from his papers and smiled at her for a moment.
"That's right," Mark said. "Because in the years between 1960 and 2030, we poisoned most of ours. The first water lift from the Martian ice-caps was called -"
"Operation Straw." That was Ricky.
"Yes, 2045 or thereabouts. But long before that, the Jaunt was being used to find sources of clean water here on earth. And now water is our major Martian export ... the oil's strictly a sideline. But it was important then."
The kids nodded.
"The point is, those things were always there, but we were only able to get it because of the Jaunt. When Carune invented his process, the world was slipping into a dark age. The winter before, over ten thousand people had frozen to death in the United States alone because there wasn't enough energy to heat them."
"Oh, yuck," Patty said matter-of-factly.
Mark glanced to his right and saw the attendants talking to a timid-looking man, persuading him.
At last he took the mask seemed to fall dead on his couch seconds later. First-timer, Mark thought. You can always tell.
"For Carune, it started with a pencil ... some keys ... a wrist watch ... then some mice. The mice showed him there was a problem ..."
Victor Carune came back to his laboratory in a stumbling fever of excitement. He thought he knew how Morse had felt, and Alexander Graham Bell, and Edison . . . but this was bigger than all of them, and twice he had almost wrecked the truck on the way back from the pet shop in New Paltz, where he had spend his last twenty dollars on nine white mice. What he had left in the world was ninety-three cents in his right front pocket and the eighteen dollars in his savings account . . . but this did not occur to him. And if it had, it certainly would not have bothered him. The lab was in a renovated barn at the end of a mile-long dirt road off Route 26. It was making the turn onto this road where he had just missed cracking up his Brat pickup truck for the second time. The gas tank was almost empty and there would be no more for ten days to two weeks, but this did not concern him, either. His mind was in a delirious whirl. What had happened was not totally unexpected, no.
One of the reasons the government had funded him even to the paltry tune of twenty thousand a year was because the unrealized possibility had always been there in the field of particle transmission. But to have it happen like this . . . suddenly . . . with no warning . . . and powered by less electricity than was needed to run a color TV . . . God! Christ!
He brought the Brat to a screech-halt in the dirt of the door yard, grabbed the box on the dirty seat beside him by its grab-handles (on the box were dogs and cats and hamsters and goldfish and the legend I CAME FROM STACKPOLE'S HOUSE OF PETS) and ran for the big double doors. From inside the box came the scurry and whisk of his test subjects. He tried to push one of the big doors open along its track, and when it wouldn't budge, he remembered that he had locked it. Carune uttered a loud "Shit!" and fumbled for his keys. The government commanded that the lab be locked at all times - it was one of the strings they put on their money - but Carune kept forgetting. He brought his keys out and for a moment simply stared at them, mesmerized, running the ball of his thumb over the notches in the Brat's ignition key. He thought again: God! Christ! Then he scrabbled through the keys on the ring for the Yale key that unlocked the barn door.
As the first telephone had been used inadvertently - Bell crying into it, "Watson, come here!" when he spilled some acid on his papers and himself - so the first act of teleportation had occurred by accident. Victor Carune had teleported the first two fingers of his left hand across the fifty-yard width of the barn.
Carune had set up two portals at opposite sides of the barn. On his end was a simple ion gun, available from any electronics supply warehouse for under five hundred dollars. On the other end, standing just beyond the far portal - both of them rectangular and the size of a paperback book - was a cloud chamber. Between them was what appeared to be an opaque shower curtain, except that shower curtains are not made of lead. The idea was to shoot the ions through Portal One and then walk around and watch them streaming across the cloud chamber standing just beyond Portal Two, with the lead shield between to prove they really were being transmitted. Except that, for the last two years, the process had only worked twice, and Carune didn't have the slightest idea why. As he was setting the ion gun in place, his fingers had slipped through the portal - ordinarily no problem, but this morning his hip had also brushed the toggle switch on the control panel at the left of the portal. He was not aware of what had happened - the machinery gave off only the lowest audible hum - until he felt a tingling sensation in his fingers.
"It was not like an electric shock," Carune wrote in his one and only article on the subject before the government shut him up. The article was published, of all places, in Popular Mechanics. He had sold it to them for seven hundred and fifty dollars in a last-ditch effort to keep the Jaunt a matter of private enterprise. "There was none of that unpleasant tingle that one gets if one grasps a frayed lamp cord, for instance. It was more like the sensation one gets if one puts one's hand on the casing of some small machine that is working very hard. The vibration is so fast and light that it is, literally, a tingling sensation. "Then I looked down at the portal and saw that my index finger was gone on a diagonal slant through the middle knuckle, and my second finger was gone slightly above that.
In addition, the nail portion of my third finger had disappeared." Carune had jerked his hand back instinctively, crying out. He so much expected to see blood, he wrote later, that he actually hallucinated blood for a moment or two. His elbow struck the ion gun and knocked it off the table.
He stood there with his fingers in his mouth, verifying that they were still there, and whole. The thought that he had been working too hard crossed his mind. And then the other thought crossed his mind: the thought that the last set of modifications might have . . . might have done something.
He did not push his fingers back in; in fact, Carune only Jaunted once more in his entire life.
At first, he did nothing. He took a long, aimless walk around the barn, running his hands through his hair, wondering if he should call Carson in New Jersey or perhaps Buffington in Charlotte. Carson wouldn't accept a collect phone call, the cheap ass-kissing bastard, but Buffington probably would. Then an idea struck and he ran across to Portal Two, thinking that if his fingers had actually crossed the barn, there might be some sign of it.
There was not, of course. Portal Two stood atop three stacked Pomona orange crates, looking like nothing so much as one of those toy guillotines missing the blade. On one side of its stainless-steel frame was a plug-in jack, from which a cord ran back to the transmission terminal, which was little more than a particle transformer hooked into a computer feed-line.
Which reminded him -
Carune glanced at his watch and saw it was quarter past eleven. His deal with the government consisted of short money, plus computer time, which was infinitely valuable. His computer tie-in lasted until three o'clock this afternoon, and then it was good-bye until Monday. He had to get moving, had to do something - "I glanced at the pile of crates again," Carune writes in his Popular Mechanics article, "and then I looked at the pads of my fingers. And sure enough, the proof was there. It would not, I thought then convince anyone but myself; but in the beginning, of course, it is only one's self that one has to convince."
"What was it, Dad?" Ricky asked.
"Yeah!" Patty added. "What?"
Mark grinned a little. They were all hooked now, even Marilys. They had nearly forgotten where they were. From the corner of his eye he could see the Jaunt attendants whisper-wheeling their cart slowly among the Jaunters, putting them to sleep. It was never as rapid a process in the civilian sector as it was in the military, he had discovered; civilians got nervous and wanted to talk it over. The nozzle and the rubber mask were too reminiscent of hospital operating rooms, where the surgeon with his knives lurked somewhere behind the anaesthetist with her selection of gases in stainless-steel canisters. Sometimes there was panic, hysteria; and always there were a few who simply lost their nerve. Mark had observed two of these as he spoke to the children: two men who had simply arisen from their couches, walked across to the entryway with no fanfare at all, unpinned the validation papers that had been affixed to their lapels, turned them in, and exited without looking back. Jaunt attendants were under strict instructions not to argue with those who left; there were always standbys, sometimes as many as forty or fifty of them, hoping against hope. As those who simply couldn't take it left, standbys were let in with their own validations pinned to their shirts. "Carune found two splinters in his index finger," he told the children. "He took them out and put them aside. One was lost, but you can see the other one in the Smithsonian Annex in Washington. It's in a hermetically sealed glass case near the moon rocks the first space travellers brought back from the moon - " "Our moon, Dad, or one of Mars's?" Ricky asked.
"Ours," Mark said, smiling a little. "Only one manned rocket flight has ever landed on Mars, Ricky, and that was a French expedition somewhere about 2030. Anyway, that's why there happens to be a plain old splinter from an orange crate in the Smithsonian Institution. Because it's the first object that we have that was actually teleported - Jaunted - across space."
"What happened then?" Patty asked. "Well, according to the story, Carune ran . . ."
Carune ran back to Portal One and stood there for a moment, heart thudding, out of breath. Got to calm down, he told himself. Got to think about this. You can't maximize your time if you go off half-cocked. Deliberately disregarding the forefront of his mind, which was screaming at him to hurry up and do something, he dug his nail-clippers out of his pocket and used the point of the file to dig the splinters out of his index finger. He dropped them onto the white inner sleeve of a Hershey bar he had eaten while tinkering with the transformer and trying to widen its afferent capability (he had apparently succeeded in that beyond his wildest dreams). One rolled off the wrapper and was lost; the other ended up in the Smithsonian Institution, locked in a glass case that was cordoned off with thick velvet ropes and watched vigilantly and eternally by a computer-monitored closed-circuit TV camera.
The splinter extraction finished, Carune felt a little calmer. A pencil. That was as good as anything. He took one from beside the clipboard on the shelf above him and ran it gently into Portal One. It disappeared smoothly, inch by inch, like something in an optical illusion or in a very good magician's trick. The pencil had said EBERHARD FABER NO. 2 on one of its sides, black letters stamped on yellow-painted wood. When he had pushed the pencil in until all but EBERH had disappeared, Carune walked around to the other side of Portal One.
He looked in. He saw the pencil in cut-off view, as if a knife had chopped smoothly through it. Carune felt with his fingers where the rest of the pencil should have been, and of course there was nothing. He ran across the barn to Portal Two, and there was the missing part of the pencil, lying on the top crate. Heart thumping so hard that it seemed to shake his entire chest, Carune grasped the sharpened point of his pencil and pulled it the rest of the way through.
He held it up; he looked at it. Suddenly he took it and wrote IT WORKS! on a piece of barn-board. He wrote it so hard that the lead snapped on the last letter. Carune began to laugh shrilly in the empty barn; to laugh so hard that he startled the sleeping swallows into flight among the high rafters.
"Works!" he shouted, and ran back to Portal One. He was waving his arms, the broken pencil knotted up in one fist. "Works! Works! Do you hear me, Carson, you prick? It works AND I DID IT!"
"Mark, watch what you say to the children," Marilys reproached him.
Mark shrugged. "It's what he's supposed to have said."
"Well, can't you do a little selective editing?"
"Dad?" Patty asked. "Is that pencil in the museum, too?" "Does a bear shit in the woods?" Mark said, and then clapped one hand over his mouth. Both children giggled wildly - but that shrill note was gone from Patty's voice, Mark was glad to hear - and after a moment of trying to look serious, Marilys began to giggle too.
The keys went through next; Carune simply tossed them through the portal. He was beginning to think on track again now, and it seemed to him that the first thing that needed finding out was if the process produced things on the other end exactly as they had been, or if they were in any way changed by the trip.
He saw the keys go through and disappear; at exactly the same moment he heard them jingle on the crate across the barn. He ran across - really only trotting now - and on the way he paused to shove the lead shower curtain back on its track. He didn't need either it or the ion gun now. Just as well, since the ion gun was smashed beyond repair. He grabbed the keys, went to the lock the government had forced him to put on the door, and tried the Yale key. It worked perfectly. He tried the house key. It also worked. So did the keys which opened his file cabinets and the one which started the Brat pickup.
Carune pocketed the keys and took off his watch. It was a Seiko quartz LC with a built-in calculator below the digital face twenty-four tiny buttons that would allow him to do everything from addition to subtraction to square roots. A delicate piece of machinery - and just as important, a chronometer. Carune put it down in front of Portal One and pushed it through with a pencil.
He ran across and grabbed it up. When he put it through, the watch had said 11:31:07. It now said 11:31:49. Very good. Right on the money, only he should have had an assistant over there to peg the fact that there had been no time gain once and forever. Well, no matter. Soon enough the government would have him wading hip deep in assistants. He tried the calculator.
Two and two still made four, eight divided by four was still two; the square root of eleven was still 3.3166247 . . . and so on. That was when he decided it was mouse-time. "What happened with the mice, Dad?" Ricky asked.
Mark hesitated briefly. There would have to be some caution here, if he didn't want to scare his children (not to mention his wife) into hysteria minutes away from their first Jaunt. The major thing was to leave them with the knowledge that everything was all right now, that the problem had been licked.
"As I said, there was a slight problem . . ."
Yes. Horror, lunacy, and death. How's that for a slight problem, kids? Carune set the box which read I CAME FROM STACKPOLE'S HOUSE OF PETS down on the shelf and glanced at his watch. Damned if he hadn't put the thing on upside down. He turned it around and saw that it was a quarter of two. He had only an hour and a quarter of computer time left. How the time flies when you're having fun, he thought, and giggled wildly. He opened the box, reached in, and pulled out a squeaking white mouse by the tail. He put it down in front of Portal One and said, "Go on, mouse." The mouse promptly ran down the side of the orange crate on which the portal stood and scattered across the floor. Cursing, Carune chased it, and managed to actually get one hand on it before it squirmed through a crack between two boards and was gone.
"SHIT!" Carune screamed, and ran back to the box of mice. He was just in time to knock two potential escapees back into the box. He got a second mouse, holding this one around the body (he was by trade a physicist, and the ways of white mice were foreign to him), and slammed the lid of the box back down.
This one he gave the old heave-ho. It clutched at Carune's palm, but to no avail; it went head over ratty little paws through Portal One. Carune heard it immediately land on the crates across the barn. This time he sprinted, remembering how easily the first mouse had eluded him. He need not have worried. The white mouse merely crouched on the crate, its eyes dull, its sides aspirating weakly. Carune slowed down and approached it carefully; he was not a man used to fooling with mice, but you didn't have to be a forty-year veteran to see something was terribly wrong here. ("The mouse didn't feel so good after it went through," Mark Oates told his children with a wide smile that was only noticeably false to his wife.) Carune touched the mouse. It was like touching something inert - packed straw or sawdust, perhaps - except for the aspirating sides. The mouse did not look around at Carune; it stared straight ahead. He had thrown in a squirming, very frisky and alive little animal; here was something that seemed to be a living waxwork likeness of a mouse. Then Carune snapped his fingers in front of the mouse's small pink eyes.
It blinked . . . and fell dead on its side.
"So Carune decided to try another mouse," Mark said.
"What happened to the first mouse?" Ricky asked.
Mark produced that wide smile again. "It was retired with full honors," he said.
Carune found a paper bag and put the mouse into it. He would take it to Mosconi, the vet, that evening.
Mosconi could dissect it and tell him if its inner works had been rearranged. The government would disapprove his bringing a private citizen into a project which would be classified triple top secret as soon as they knew about it. Tough titty, as the kitty was reputed to have said to the babes who complained about the warmth of the milk. Carune was determined that the Great White Father in Washington would know about this as late in the game as possible. For all the scant help the Great White Father had given him, he could wait. Tough titty. Then he remembered that Mosconi lived way the hell and gone on the other side of New Paltz, and that there wasn't enough gas in the Brat to get even halfway across town . . . let alone back.
But it was 2:03 - he had less than an hour of computer time left. He would worry about the goddamn dissection later.
Carune constructed a makeshift chute leading to the entrance of Portal One (really the first Jaunt-Slide, Mark told the children, and Patty found the idea of a Jaunt-Slide for mice deliciously funny) and dropped a fresh white mouse into it. He blocked the end with a large book, and after a few moments of aimless pattering and sniffling, the mouse went through the portal and disappeared.
Carune ran back across the barn. The mouse was DOA. There was no blood, no bodily swellings to indicate that a radical change in pressure had ruptured something inside. Carune supposed that oxygen starvation might - He shook his head impatiently. It took the white mouse only nanoseconds to go through; his own watch had confirmed that time remained a constant in the process, or damn close to it.
The second white mouse joined the first in the paper sack. Carune got a third out (a fourth, if you counted the fortunate mouse that had escaped through the crack), wondering for the first time which would end first - his computer time or his supply of mice.
He held this one firmly around the body and forced its haunches through the portal. Across the room he saw the haunches reappear . . . just the haunches. The disembodied little feet were digging frantically at the rough wood of the crate.
Carune pulled the mouse back. No catatonia here; it bit the webbing between his thumb and forefinger hard enough to bring blood. Carune dropped the mouse hurriedly back into the I CAME FROM STACKPOLE'S HOUSE OF PETS box and used the small bottle of hydrogen peroxide in his lab first-aid kit to disinfect the bite.
He put a Band-Aid over it, then rummaged around until he found a pair of heavy work-gloves. He could feel the time running out, running out, running out. It was 2:11 now.
He got another mouse out and pushed it through backward - all the way. He hurried across to Portal Two. This mouse lived for almost two minutes; it even walked a little, after a fashion. It staggered across the Pomona orange crate, fell on its side, struggled weakly to its feet, and then only squatted there. Carune snapped his fingers near its head and it lurched perhaps four steps further before falling on its side again. The aspiration of its sides slowed ... slowed ... stopped. It was dead. Carune felt a chill.
He went back, got another mouse, and pushed it halfway through headfirst. He saw it reappear at the other end, just the head . . . then the neck and chest. Cautiously, Carune relaxed his grip on the mouse's body, ready to grab if it got frisky. It didn't. The mouse only stood there, half of it on one side of the barn, half on the other.
Carune jogged back to Portal Two.
The mouse was alive, but its pink eyes were glazed and dull. Its whiskers didn't move. Going around to the back of the portal, Carune saw an amazing sight; as he had seen the pencil in cutaway, so now he saw the mouse. He saw the vertebrae of its tiny spine ending abruptly in round white circles; he saw its blood moving through the vessels; he saw the tissue moving gently with the tide of life around its minuscule gullet. If nothing else, he thought (and wrote later in his Popular Mechanics article), it would make a wonderful diagnostic tool. Then he noticed that the tidal movement of the tissues had ceased. The mouse had died.
Carune pulled the mouse out by the snout, not liking the feel of it, and dropped it into the paper sack with its companions. Enough with the white mice, he decided. The mice die. They die if you put them through all the way, and they die if you put them through halfway headfirst. Put them through halfway butt-first, they stay frisky.
What the hell is in there?
Sensory input, he thought almost randomly.
When they go through they see something - hear something - touch something - God, maybe even smell something - that literally kills them. What? He had no idea - but he meant to find out.Carune still had almost forty minutes before COMLINK pulled the data base out from under him. He unscrewed the thermometer from the wall beside his kitchen door, trotted back to the barn with it, and put it through the portals. The thermometer went in at 83 degrees F; it came out at 83 degrees F. He rummaged through the spare room where he kept a few toys to amuse his grandchildren with; among them he found a packet of balloons. He blew one of them up, tied it off, and batted it through the portal. It came out intact and unharmed - a start down the road toward answering his question about a sudden change in pressure somehow caused by what he was already thinking of as the Jaunting process.
With five minutes to go before the witching hour, he ran into his house, snatched up his goldfish bowl (inside, Percy and Patrick swished their tails and darted about in agitation) and ran back with it. He shoved the goldfish bowl through Portal One.
He hurried across to Portal Two, where his goldfish bowl sat on the crate. Patrick was floating belly-up; Percy swam slowly around near the bottom of the bowl, as if dazed. A moment later he also floated belly-up. Carune was reaching for the goldfish bowl when Percy gave a weak flick of his tail and resumed his lackadaisical swimming. Slowly, he seemed to throw off whatever the effect had been, and by the time Carune got back from Mosconi's Veterinary Clinic that night at nine o'clock, Percy seemed as perky as ever.
Patrick was dead.
Carune fed Percy a double ration of fish food and gave Patrick a hero's burial in the garden.
After the computer had cut him out for the day, Carune decided to hitch a ride over to Mosconi's. Accordingly, he was standing on the shoulder of Route 26 at a quarter of four that afternoon, dressed in jeans and a loud plaid sport coat, his thumb out, a paper bag in his other hand. Finally, a kid driving a Chevette not much bigger than a sardine can pulled over, and Carune got in. "What you got in the bag, my man?" "Bunch of dead mice," Carune said. Eventually another car stopped. When the farmer behind the wheel asked about the bag, Carune told him it was a couple of sandwiches.
Mosconi dissected one of the mice on the spot, and agreed to dissect the others later and call Carune on the telephone with the results. The initial result was not very encouraging; so far as Mosconi could tell, the mouse he had opened up was perfectly healthy except for the fact that it was dead.
"Victor Carune was eccentric, but he was no fool, "Mark said. The Jaunt attendants were getting close now, and he supposed he would have to hurry up . . . or he would be finishing this in the Wake-Up Room in Whitehead City. "Hitching a ride back Home that night - and he had to walk most of the way, so the story goes - he realized that he had maybe solved a third of the energy crisis at one single stroke. All the goods that had to go by train and truck and boat and plane before that day could be Jaunted. You could write a letter to your friend in London or Rome or Senegal, and he could have it the very next day - without an ounce of oil needing to be burned. We take it for granted, but it was a big thing to Carune, believe me. And to everyone else, as well."
"But what happened to the mice, Daddy?" Rick asked. "That's what Carune kept asking himself," Mark said, "because he also realized that if people could use the Jaunt, that would solve almost all of the energy crisis. And that we might be able to conquer space. In his Popular Mechanics article he said that even the stars could finally be ours. And the metaphor he used was crossing a shallow stream without getting your shoes wet. You'd just get a big rock, and throw it in the stream, then get another rock, stand on the first rock, and throw that into the stream, go back and get a third rock, go back to the second rock, throw the third rock into the stream, and keep up like that until you'd made a path of stepping-stones all the way across the stream . . . or in this case, the solar system, or maybe even the galaxy." "I don't get that at all," Patty said.
"That's because you got turkey-turds for brains," Ricky said smugly.
"I do not! Daddy, Ricky said - "
"Children, don't," Marilys said gently.
"Carune pretty much foresaw what has happened," Mark said. "Drone rocket ships programmed to land, first on the moon, then on Mars, then on Venus and the outer moons of Jupiter . . . drones really only programmed to do one thing after they landed - " "Set up a Jaunt station for astronauts," Ricky said. Mark nodded. "And now there are scientific outposts all over the solar system, and maybe someday, long after we're gone, there will even be another planet for us. There are Jaunt-ships on their way to four different star systems with solar systems of their own . . . but it'll be a long, long time before they get there."
"I want to know what happened to the mice," Patty said impatiently. "Well, eventually the government got into it," Mark said. "Carune kept them out as long as he could, but finally they got wind of it and landed on him with both feet. Carune was nominal head of the Jaunt project until he died ten years later, but he was never really in charge of it again." "Jeez, the poor guy!" Rick said.
"But he got to be a hero," Patricia said. "He's in all the history books, just like President Lincoln and President Hart."
I'm sure that's a great comfort to him . . . wherever he is, Mark thought, and then went on, carefully glossing over the rough parts. The government, which had been pushed to the wall by the escalating energy crisis, did indeed come in with both feet. They wanted the Jaunt on a paying basis as soon as possible - like yesterday. Faced with economic chaos and the increasingly probable picture of anarchy and mass starvation in the 1990's, only last-ditch pleading made them put off announcement of the Jaunt before an exhaustive spectrographic analysis of Jaunted articles could be completed. When the analyses were complete - and showed no changes in the makeup of Jaunted artifacts - the existence of the Jaunt was announced with international hoopla. Showing intelligence for once (necessity is, after all, the mother of invention), the U.S. government put Young and Rubicam in charge of the PR.
That was where the myth-making around Victor Carune, an elderly, rather peculiar man who showered perhaps twice a week and changed his clothes only when he thought of it, began. Young and Rubicam and the agencies which followed them turned Carune into a combination of Thomas Edison, Eli Whitney, Pecos Bill, and Flash Gordon. The blackly funny part of all this (and Mark Oates did not pass this on to his family) was that Victor Carune might even then have been dead or insane; art imitates life, they say, and Carune would have been familiar with the Robert Heinlein novel about the doubles who stand in for figures in the public eye. Victor Carune was a problem; a nagging problem that wouldn't go away. He was a loudmouthed foot-dragger, a holdover from the Ecological Sixties - a time when there was still enough energy floating around to allow foot-dragging as a luxury. These, on the other hand, were the Nasty Eighties, with coal clouds befouling the sky and a long section of the California coastline expected to be uninhabitable for perhaps sixty years due to a nuclear "excursion."
Victor Carune remained a problem until about 1991 and then he became a rubber stamp, smiling, quiet, grandfatherly; a figure seen waving from podiums in newsfilms. In 1993, three years before he officially died, he rode in the pace-car at the Tournament of Roses Parade.
Puzzling. And a little ominous.
The results of the announcement of the Jaunt - of working teleportation - on October 19th, 1988, was a hammerstroke of worldwide excitement and economic upheaval. On the world money markets, the battered old American dollar suddenly skyrocketed through the roof. People who had bought gold at eight hundred and six dollars an ounce suddenly found that a pound of gold would bring something less than twelve hundred dollars. In the year between the announcement of the Jaunt and the first working Jaunt-Stations in New York and L.A., the stock market climbed a little over a thousand points. The price of oil dropped only seventy cents a barrel, but by 1994, with Jaunt-Stations crisscrossing the U.S. at the pressure-points of seventy major cities, OPEC had ceased to exist, and the price of oil began to tumble. By 1998, with Stations in most free-world cities and goods routinely Jaunted between Tokyo and Paris, Paris and London, London and New York, New York and Berlin, oil had dropped to fourteen dollars a barrel. By 2006, when people at last began to use the Jaunt on a regular basis, the stock market had levelled off five thousand points above its 1987 levels, oil was selling for six dollars a barrel, and the oil companies had begun to change their names. Texaco became Texaco Oil/Water, and Mobil had become Mobil Hydro-2-Ox.
By 2045, water-prospecting became the big game and oil had become what it had been in 1906: a toy.
"What about the mice, Daddy?" Patty asked impatiently. "What happened to the mice?"
Mark decided it might be okay now, and he drew the attention of his children to the Jaunt attendants, who were passing gas out only three aisles from them. Rick only nodded, but Patty looked troubled as a lady with a fashionably shaved-and-painted head took a whiff from the rubber mask and fell unconscious.
"Can't Jaunt when you're awake, can you, Dad?" Ricky said. Mark nodded and smiled reassuringly at Patricia. "Carune understood even before the government got into it," he said.
"How did the government get into it, Mark?" Marilys asked. Mark smiled. "Computer time," he said. "The data base. That was the only thing that Carune couldn't beg, borrow, or steal. The computer handled the actual particulate transmission - billions of pieces of information. It's still the computer, you know, that makes sure you don't come through with your head somewhere in the middle of your stomach." Marilys shuddered. "Don't be frightened," he said. "There's never been a screw-up like that, Mare. Never."
"There's always a first time," she muttered.
Mark looked at Ricky. "How did he know?" he asked his son. "How did Carune know you had to be asleep, Rick?"
"When he put the mice in backwards," Rick said slowly, "they were all right. At least as long as he didn't put them all in. They were only - well, messed up - when he put them in headfirst. Right?" "Right," Mark said. The Jaunt attendants were moving in now, wheeling their silent cart of oblivion. He wasn't going to have time to finish after all; perhaps it was just as well. "It didn't take many experiments to clarify what was happening, of course. The Jaunt killed the entire trucking Business, kids, but at least it took the pressure off the experimenters - " Yes. Foot-dragging had become a luxury again, and the tests had gone on for better than twenty years, although Carune's first tests with drugged mice had convinced him that unconscious animals were not subject to what was known forever after as the Organic Effect or, more simply, the Jaunt Effect.
He and Mosconi had drugged several mice, put them through Portal One, retrieved them at the other side, and had waited anxiously for their test subjects to reawaken . . . or to die. They had reawakened, and after a brief recovery period they had taken up their mouse-lives - eating, fucking, playing, and shitting - with no ill effects whatsoever. Those mice became the first of several generations which were studied with great interest. They showed no long-term ill effects; they did not die sooner, their pups were not born with two heads or green fur and neither did these pups show any other longterm effects.
"When did they start with people, Dad?" Rick asked, although he had certainly read this in school. "Tell that part!"
"I wanna know what happened to the mice!'' Patty said again. Although the Jaunt attendants had now reached the head of their aisle (they themselves were near the foot), Mark Oates paused a moment to reflect. His daughter, who knew less, had nevertheless listened to her heart and asked the right question. Therefore, it was his son's question he chose to answer.
The first human Jaunters had not been astronauts or test pilots; they were convict volunteers who had not even been screened with any particular interest in their psychological stability. In fact, it was the view of the scientists now in charge (Carune was not one of them; he had become what is commonly called a titular head) that the freakier they were, the better; if a mental spaz could go through and come out all rightor at least, no worse than he or she had been going in then the process was probably safe for the executives, politicians, and fashion models of the world.
Half a dozen of these volunteers were brought to Province, Vermont (a site which had since become every bit as famous as Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, had once been), gassed, and fed through the portals exactly two hand-miles apart, one by one.
Mark told his children this, because of course all six of the volunteers came back just fine and feeling perky, thank you. He did not tell them about the purported seventh volunteer. This figure, who might have been real, or myth, or (most probably) a combination of the two, even had a name: Rudy Foggia. Foggia was supposed to have been a convicted murderer, sentenced to death in the state of Florida for the murders of four old people at a Sarasota bridge party. According to the apocrypha, the combined forces of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Effa Bee Eye had come to Foggia with a unique, one-time, take-it-or-leave-it, absolutely-not-to-be-repeated offer. Take the Jaunt wide awake. Come through okay and we put your pardon, signed by Governor Thurgood, in your hand. Out you walk, free to follow the One True Cross or to off a few more old folks playing bridge in their yellow pants and white shoes. Come through dead or insane, tough titty. As the kitty was purported to have said. What do you say?
Foggia, who understood that Florida was one state that really meant Business about the death penalty and whose lawyer had told him that he was in all probability the next to ride Old Sparky, said okay. Enough scientists to fill a jury box (with four or five left over as alternates) were present on the Great Day in the summer of 2007, but if the Foggia story was trueand Mark Oates believed it probably washe doubted if it had been any of the scientists who talked. More likely it had been one of the guards who had flown with Foggia from Raiford to Montpelier and then escorted him from Montpelier to Province in an armored truck.
"If I come through this alive," Foggia is reported to have said, "I want a chicken dinner before I blow this joint." He then stepped through Portal One and reappeared at Portal Two immediately.
He came through alive, but Rudy Foggia was in no condition to eat his chicken dinner. In the space it took to Jaunt across the two miles (pegged at 0.000000000067 of a second by computer), Foggia's hair had turned snow white. His face had not changed in any physical way it was not lined or jowly or wastedbut it gave the impression of great, almost incredible age. Foggia shuffled out of the portal, his eyes bulging blankly, his mouth twitching, his hands splayed out in front of him. Presently he began to drool. The scientists who had gathered around drew away from him and no, Mark really doubted if any of them had talked; they knew about the rats, after all, and the guinea pigs, and the hamsters; any animal, in fact, with more brains than your average flatworm. They must have felt a bit like those German scientists who tried to impregnate Jewish women with the sperm of German shepherds.
"What happened?" one of the scientists shouted (is reputed to have shouted). It was the only question Foggia had a chance to answer. "It's eternity in there," he said, and dropped dead of what was diagnosed as a massive heart attack. The scientists foregathered there were left with his corpse (which was neatly taken care of by the CIA and the Effa Bee Eye) and that strange and awful dying declaration: It's eternity in there.
"Daddy, I want to know what happened to the mice," Patty repeated. The only reason she had a chance to ask again was because the man in the expensive suit and the Eterna-Shine shoes had developed into something of a problem for the Jaunt attendants. He didn't really want to take the gas, and was disguising it with a lot of bluff, bully-boy talk. The attendants were doing their job as well as they could smiling, cajoling, persuading but it had slowed them down.
Mark sighed. He had opened the subjectonly as a way of distracting his children from the pre-Jaunt festivities, it was true, but he had opened itand now he supposed he would have to close it as truthfully as he could without alarming them or upsetting them. He would not tell them, for instance, about C. K. Summer's book, The politics of the Jaunt, which contained one section called "The Jaunt Under the Rose," a compendium of the more believable rumors about the Jaunt. The story of Rudy Foggia, he of the bridgeclub murders and the uneaten chicken dinner, was in there. There were also case histories of some other thirty (or more . . . or less . . . or who knows) volunteers, scapegoats, or madmen who had Jaunted wide awake over the last three hundred years. Most of them arrived at the other end dead. The rest were hopelessly insane. In some cases, the act of reemerging had actually seemed to shock them to death. Summer's section of Jaunt rumors and apocrypha contained other unsettling intelligence as well: the Jaunt had apparently been used several times as a murder weapon. In the most famous (and only documented) case, which had occurred a mere thirty years ago, a Jaunt researcher named Lester Michaelson had tied up his wife with their daughter's plexiplast Dreamropes and pushed her, screaming, through the Jaunt portal at Silver City, Nevada. But before doing it, Michaelson had pushed the Nil button on his Jaunt board, erasing each and every one of the hundreds of thousands of possible portals through which Mrs. Michaelson might have emerged - anywhere from neighboring Reno to the experimental Jaunt-Station on Io, one of the Jovian moons. So there was Mrs. Michaelson, Jaunting forever somewhere out there in the ozone. Michaelson's lawyer, after Michaelson had been held sane and able to stand trial for what he had done (within the narrow limits of the law, perhaps he was sane, but in any practical sense, Lester Michaelson was just as mad as a hatter), had ciphered a novel defense: his client could not be tried for murder because no one could prove conclusively that Mrs. Michaelson was dead. This had raised the terrible specter of the woman, discorporeal but somehow still sentient, screaming in limbo . . . forever. Michaelson was convicted and executed. In addition, Summers suggested, the Jaunt had been used by various tinpot dictators to get rid of political dissidents and political adversaries; some thought that the Mafia had their own illegal Jaunt-Stations, tied into the central Jaunt computer through their CIA connections. It was suggested that the Mafia used the Jaunt's Nil capability to get rid of bodies which, unlike that of the unfortunate Mrs. Michaelson, were already dead. Seen in that light, the Jaunt became the ultimate Jimmy Hoffa machine, ever so much better than the local gravel pit or quarry. All of this had led to Summer's conclusions and theories about the Jaunt; and that, of course, led back to Patty's persistent question about the mice. "Well," Mark said slowly, as his wife signaled with her eyes for him to be careful, "even now no one really knows, Patty. But all the experiments with animals including the mice seemed to lead to the conclusion that while the Jaunt is almost instantaneous physically, it takes a long, long time mentally." "I don't get it," Patty said glumly. "I knew I wouldn't."But Ricky was looking at his father thoughtfully. "They went on thinking," he said. "The test animals. And so would we, if we didn't get knocked out." "Yes," Mark said. "That's what we believe now."Something was dawning in Ricky's eyes. Fright? Excitement? "It isn't just teleportation, is it, Dad? It's some kind of time-warp."It's eternity in there, Mark thought."In a way," he said. "But that's a comic-book phrase it sounds good but doesn't really mean anything, Rick. It seems to revolve around the idea of consciousness, and the fact that consciousness doesn't particulate it remains whole and constant. It also retains some screwy sense of time. But we don't know how pure consciousness would measure time, or even if that concept has any meaning to pure mind. We can't even conceive what pure mind might be." Mark fell silent, troubled by his son's eyes, which were suddenly so sharp and curious. He understands but he doesn't understand, Mark thought. Your mind can be your best friend; it can keep you amused even when there's nothing to read, nothing to do. But it can turn on you when it's left with no input for too long. It can turn on you, which means that it turns on itself, savages itself, perhaps consumes itself in an unthinkable act of auto-cannibalism. How long in there, in terms of years? 0.000000000067 seconds for the body to Jaunt, but how long for the unparticulated consciousness? A hundred years? A thousand? A million? A billion? How long alone with your thoughts in an endless field of white? And then, when a billion eternities have passed, the crashing return of light and form and body. Who wouldn't go insane? "Ricky"he began, but the Jaunt attendants had arrived with their cart. "Are you ready?" one asked. Mark nodded. "Daddy, I'm scared," Patty said in a thin voice. "Will it hurt?" "No, honey, of course it won't hurt," Mark said, and his voice was calm enough, but his heart was beating a little fastit always did, although this would be something like his twenty-fifth Jaunt. "I'll go first and you'll see how easy it is."The Jaunt attendant looked at him questioningly. Mark nodded and made a smile. The mask descended. Mark took it in his own hands and breathed deep of the dark.
The first thing he became aware of was the hard black Martian sky as seen through the top of the dome which surrounded Whitehead City. It was night here, and the stars sprawled with a fiery brilliance undreamed of on earth. The second thing he became aware of was some sort of disturbance in the recovery room mutters, then shouts, then a shrill scream. Oh dear God, that's Marilys! he thought, and struggled up from his Jaunt couch, fighting the waves of dizziness. There was another scream, and he saw Jaunt attendants running toward their couches, their bright red jumpers flying around their knees. Marilys staggered toward him, pointing. She screamed again and then collapsed on the floor, sending an unoccupied Jaunt couch rolling slowly down the aisle with one weakly clutching hand. But Mark had already followed the direction of her pointing finger. He had seen. It hadn't been fright in Ricky's eyes; it had been excitement. He should have known, because he knew Ricky. Ricky, who had fallen out of the highest crotch of the tree in their backyard in Schenectady when he was only seven, who had broken his arm (and was lucky that had been all he'd broken); Ricky who dared to go faster and further on his Slideboard than any other kid in the neighborhood; Ricky who was first to take any dare. Ricky and fear were not well acquainted. Until now. Beside Ricky, his sister still mercifully slept. The thing that had been his son bounced and writhed on its Jaunt couch, a twelve-year-old boy with a snow-white fall of hair and eyes which were incredibly ancient, the corneas gone a sickly yellow. Here was a creature older than time masquerading as a boy; and yet it bounced and writhed with a kind of horrid, obscene glee, and at its choked, lunatic cackles the Jaunt attendants drew back in terror. Some of them fled, although they had been trained to cope with just such an unthinkable eventuality. The old-young legs twitched and quivered. Claw hands beat and twisted and danced on the air; abruptly they descended and the thing that had been his son began to claw at its face. "Longer than you think, Dad!" it cackled. "Longer than you think! Held my breath when they gave me the gas! Wanted to see! I saw! I saw! Longer than you think!" Cackling and screeching, the thing on the Jaunt couch suddenly clawed its own eyes out. Blood gouted. The recovery room was an aviary of screaming voices now. "Longer than you think, Dad! I saw! I saw! Long Jaunt! Longer than you think"It said other things before the Jaunt attendants were finally able to bear it away, rolling its couch swiftly away as it screamed and clawed at the eyes that had seen the unseeable forever and ever; it said other things, and then it began to scream, but Mark Oates didn't hear it because by then he was screaming himself.