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Short story: Shortcuts


The old man’s message was very clear – walk carefully! Do not disturb the tunnels! By Brian TrentIllustration by James Nathan


James Nathan

She stepped from a crowded Riyadh street to a high altitude Nepalese village and then into a Montreal rainstorm. Three countries, three continents, and her 15-minute coffee break was almost over, and she still hadn’t found what she needed.

Autumn Feist had bought some butter tea and incense sticks in Nepal from a wizened old shopkeeper, but in Riyadh the tapestries she wanted were far outside her price-range. Now she took a moment to orient herself. The change in locales was always dizzying; from a blistering Middle Eastern sun to the smell of joss sticks to this abrupt downpour. Standing at the teleport platform, she spied the marketplace. The rain was scattering customers like ants. Vendors were closing everything down before her very eyes: automated tables drawing shut like giant oysters, the overhead canopy unfurling like a protective carnival tent.

Autumn glanced at her watch: 1:51. In nine minutes she needed to be back in Paris.

She dashed into a warren of fairground kiosks. She had fleeting glimpses of items as they were packed away; one kiosk displayed an assortment of discount mirrors, and in them she caught her own miserable, drenched face, hair plastered to her neck and cheeks, make-up streaked like face-paint, as if she had not been teleporting around the world so much as devolving into earlier phases of human evolution, and had now become a forlorn Neanderthal. Autumn felt a sob welling in her chest.

“Do you sell Oriental wares here?” she asked the last vendor in the row. “I can see tapestries in those boxes! Are they Tibetan? Or Chinese?”

The vendor squinted at her, his hands still closing up the boxes. “I’m sorry ma’am, but the market is closed. I have a few tapestries yes, but—”

“Could I just see them?”

“We reopen tomorrow.”

Autumn conjured her best smile. “Tomorrow is his birthday! If… um… you could…” She heard the slur in her voice. The world turned gray at the edges and suddenly she was falling…

“Whoa! Lady! Are you okay?”

Lady, you went from twelve-thousand-feet to sea-level in
a second! You can’t do that! You’ll get an embolism!”

When Autumn opened her eyes, she realised she must have blacked out. Three vendors crouched over her, their faces wrinkled in concern. She found herself lying on the wet asphalt, her clothes sodden to the last fiber.

“Just take it easy,” a vendor told her, helping her to rise. “I saw you pop in through the gate. Where were you coming from?”

“Nepal,” she said weakly. “They didn’t have what I… what I…”

The vendor was a heavy-browed man with mutton-chops and a handlebar moustache. “Nepal?” he cried, and he glanced at her bags. “The Blue Pearl Shopping District? Lady, you went from twelve-thousand-feet to sea-level in a second! You can’t do that! You’ll get an embolism!”

Autumn looked to her watch: 1:57.

She squirmed away from their restraining hands and staggered to her feet. Her business skirt was soaked through, and one stocking had shredded in three places when she fell. With an exasperated heave that was more anguish than anger, she snatched up her shopping bags of incense sticks and butter tea, and made a sprint for the teleport platform. Canadian security guards stood there like a pair of chessmen.

The teleport gate flashed and crackled.

A man flew out from it. He collided with one guard from behind, shoved the other, and charged straight for Autumn.

In the moments before impact, she formed rapid impressions: he was old, bald but for a wreath of white hair like Caesar’s laurel, and wore a navy blue sweatshirt and hoodie that still had tags on it. For the second time that day, she went sprawling.

The old man pressed his lips against her ear. Autumn felt a scream surging up inside her.

“Hide it!” the man cried. “Keep it away from them! Please!”

The scream loosened from her throat. The old man clasped one hand over her mouth. His palm smelled of juniper.

“If you use it yourself, walk carefully! Do not disturb the tunnels! Do you hear me? Do not disturb the tunnels!”

The gate flashed and crackled again. Autumn blinked, then shielded her face as new legs ran around and over her. Shiny black shoes smelling of new leather. Angry shouts and threats.

And then an explosion that made the ground shudder beneath her.

James Nathan

Autumn returned to work at 2:17.

When she teleported into the office lobby, she made quite the scene.
She imagined how she must appear: wild-eyed, saturated, scuffed and ruffled. She was instantly escorted to the onsite physician, and minutes later her boss rushed in.

“Charles, I’m sorry I’m late,” Autumn told him.

“The reports are all over the news,” he gasped. “Some guy blew himself up in Montreal! Jesus, Autumn, are you all right? Security said you gated from there!”

She thought of the bald man who had tackled her. “He blew himself up?”

Charles rattled off what he’d parsed from citizen journalists and confused police reports. Dr. Victor Ortiz of Baltimore, Maryland had led Interpol on a merry chase across the globe, from his laboratory office to a gruesome end in Canada. He apparently made a quick detour to a rock quarry in Mongolia, too, where he swiped three sticks of dynamite that granted his explosive exit from life.

“I’m fine, Charles,” Autumn said, thinking only that she no longer had to worry about being fired for going over her allotted coffee break. All was forgiven, it seemed, when violence was involved.

Charles sent her home as soon as the onsite physician pronounced her well enough to leave. She had sustained mild abrasions and bruising to her backside. Her lip had split where the wild-eyed assailant had pressed his juniper-smelling hand.

Ten minutes later she stepped through the lobby portal, mindful of all the stares, and was whisked one hundred miles to her neighbourhood gateway.

It was evening before she found the device in her bag.

Autumn took a hot bubble bath, made herself noodle soup, and curled into bed beneath puffy blankets and a fortress of pillows. Then she spoke aloud into the otherwise empty apartment, her datalink translating the words into the message body of an email to Lenny:

Sender: Autumn Feist

Date: 7.12.71 15:31

Message: Just wait until I tell you about the day I had. Call me, okay?

She embedded the message with a snapshot of a newsclip showing the damaged Canadian marketplace.

Autumn poured out the contents of her shopping bag onto the mattress. Butter tea. Incense. Lenny’s wealthy wife probably bought him a month-long stay in Tibet with the Dalai Lama as personal companion. Autumn fingered her paltry gifts, wondering if she still had the miles on her card to continue her search tomorrow now that she was being handed a day off from the grind.

James Nathan

Her t-card plan granted her five thousand miles per month. A slim plan, allowing for precious few excursions, like when Lenny and her had enjoyed dinner in Nassau. Or when they had seen mountain gorillas in a Kenyan habitat. Or when they enjoyed a passionate evening on a torch-studded boardwalk in Sri Lanka beneath a crescent moon while surrounded by waves like melting green glass. These coveted getaways had to be on her t-card, for Lenny’s wife Jessica reviewed the household finances with an electron microscope. She’d be sure to investigate any mysterious charges.

Autumn huddled under the blankets, her chill from the day’s rain and excitement persisting like an ache in her bones. The thought occurred, as it often did, that someday she might palm Lenny’s t-card and use it on their conspiratorial escapades, specifically to raise Jessica’s alarm. Incur the wrath and subsequent emotional explosion.

Hell, she thought, I already survived one explosion today and –

As she moved the boxes, she noticed something among them that she hadn’t bought. It was neither butter tea nor incense sticks. It looked, actually, like an old-style beeper she’d seen in flatfilms.

Autumn lifted it for closer inspection. Compact, black, rectangular, and very heavy, as if beneath its plastic shell was a wedge of iron. It was featureless except for two pale buttons. The buttons were marked SEARCH and ACTIVATE, respectively.

She remembered the old man’s strangled, furious whisper and the smell of his hand against her mouth:

Hide it! Keep it away from them! Please!

A thrill of fear and curiosity took hold of her thoughts. When the global teleport system went online, every talking head heralded it as miraculous. The silver bullet to a worldwide economic collapse caused by fossil fuel depletion. The rusted graveyards of old cars and trains gave way to gateways. Malthusian fatalism blinked away in the face of instantaneous transport.

Of course, such instantaneous transport came along with a few unpleasant addendums: diseases with unfettered access to every point on the planet; criminals unhindered by walls and borders; and deranged lunatics who could zip from one continent to another in a stomp of destruction.

And leave mysterious artifacts behind them, Autumn thought. She glided her fingers over the buttons but was afraid to press them.

If you use it yourself, walk carefully! Do not disturb the tunnels! Do you hear me? Do not disturb the tunnels!

What the hell was this thing? Press a button and then… what? A cheery electronic cough from the device, followed by a hologram droning on about government secrets?

Autumn licked her lips in nervous habit. She took another anxious breath.

Then she pressed SEARCH.

A shimmering tunnel materialised, running like a swollen loop of intestine through the study and bookcases of the room.

Lenny was lining up a bank-shot on his red billiards table, a half-drained glass of bourbon on the rim, when Autumn was suddenly standing in front of him.

The ice in his glass cracked.

He had time to blurt out, “How the hell did you…?” before she was suddenly in his arms, lips firmly planted against his. His arms came around her in a swift, warm embrace.

“I missed you!” she whispered sweetly, and then frowned as she tasted the bourbon on his breath and in his beard. “Are you drunk?”

“Haven’t made a shot yet,” he said lamely, and then cupped her face in his hands and gave an appraising, disbelieving look. “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about your email. What in the hell were you doing in Montreal?” His eyes were glazed and confused. “How did you get in here?”

She brandished the device and grinned. “Did you know a wormhole reticulum touches your house?”

Lenny stared openly at the contraption. “I don’t understand…”

Autumn laughed. “Watch this!” She pointed the device into the remainder of the study and pressed SEARCH. A cone of pale light spread from the lens like a flashlight.

Her lover yelped, not at the light but at what it revealed. A shimmering tunnel materialised, running like a swollen loop of intestine through the study and bookcases of the room.

Feeling immensely pleased with herself, Autumn waved the “flashlight” back and forth. Wherever its illumination fell, further wormhole architecture flushed into view: a labyrinth of twisting passageways branching up through his ceiling and down through the floor. Like the intricate tunnelwork of a vast ant-farm. Most of the tunnels were distant, faint, like a weak mirage.

“Except for this one,” Autumn said, striding to a stunningly visible wormhole. She pretended to stroke its scintillating exterior. “This one touches the plane. You could stake a private gateway if you wanted!” Autumn gave a bitter laugh, “Wouldn’t Jessica like that? She could zip straight to Rodeo Drive from the comfort of her own home! Avoid the unwashed masses altogether!”

Lenny was still gripping the pool cue. With his free hand, he beckoned for the strange device. He seemed to weigh it in his hands. The wormhole network blossomed in and out of visibility with each bob of his palm.

“A portable wormhole finder?” he said at last.

“It sort of fell into my hands, babe.”

But Lenny didn’t seem amused. A cleanbot rolled into the room and he jerked a glare at its approach. “Not now!” Lenny snapped, and the machine halted, rotated, and rolled out of sight. He tossed the pool cue aside and examined the device with meticulous, awe-struck attention.

“What’s the ACTIVATE button do?” he asked.

Flush with giddiness, Autumn snatched it from his hand. She aimed the device at the nearby wormhole and pressed the button.

The “flashlight” beam intensified. The wormhole split around its blistering light.

“Now you see me!” she cried, leaping towards the wormhole.

She vanished.

The wormhole vanished, too, the device and the magical light and the sound of Autumn’s voice. Lenny staggered drunkenly.

“Autumn!”

A moment later she reappeared, stepping out of the air itself.

She threw herself into his arms again. “Do you know what this means?”

He turned away and leaned against the billiards table like a sailor sick at the rails.

“Lenny?”

“This makes teleport gateways irrelevant,” he muttered. “If it can find a reticulum anywhere…”

“Not anywhere. The wormholes only touch Earth in a few places. I had to walk six blocks from my apartment before I found a point of contact. Know where it was?” Her eyes shone. “Behind a laundromat! Near their dumpster! I used the SEARCH function to find it, and then I just walked into it. Like a kid behind a curtain!” She twirled around in delight, saw the beaker of bourbon, and swept it up, taking a swig straight from the bottle.

Lenny said, “This is incredible.” But he sounded less amazed than unsettled. He paced around the study, sobering with each step.

James Nathan

From deeper in the house, a door slammed shut.

“Honey!” a voice called.

Lenny straightened. “It’s Jessica. You need to leave.” He frowned as he saw Autumn at the bar, casually pouring two glasses of bourbon.

With a sly glimmer in her eyes, Autumn intoned, “This is how we met, remember? You walked into my restaurant with your buddies, came up to the bar, and said ‘bourbon.’ And I looked you straight in the eye and said, ‘No, it’s Autumn.’”

Lenny was typically the measure of unflappable cool. If he had been intoxicated minutes ago, he expertly buried its noticeable effects and steered her away from the drinks. “She can’t catch you here. And you can’t be walking around with this… this thing. Do you truly appreciate the danger here? Whoever you stole that from is going to come looking for it!”

“No he won’t,” she said, rising to the anger in his eyes. “He’s dead.”

She could see that Lenny got it. “That lunatic in Canada?” he said, only the vaguest slur in his voice.

Jessica’s voice sounded again, closer. “Honey? Are you in here?”

He turned towards the door. Autumn wrenched him back to her.

“He gave it to me before he killed himself,” she said quickly.

“You have to go to the police, Autumn!”

“Why?”

“Why? Because it’s not yours!”

“No, it’s ours.” She leaned towards him. “It’s our own private shortcut! For your birthday, sweetie! Let’s go for a walk… anywhere we like!”

The door swung open.

Lenny spun around, knocking the beaker off the counter in his haste.

Jessica strode into the study carrying two shopping bags. Her large eyes settled on the spilled drink. “Honey, is that really how you want to start off the evening?”

He scooped up Autumn’s drink and handed it to her. “Yes. Now that you’re here.”

She smiled and kissed him. Lenny stole an anxious glance to the bar.

Autumn was gone.

From the gray-and-white severity of the wormhole tunnel, Autumn watched them. It was like trying to squint through a dead TV channel of “snow.” The wormhole membrane was rubbery where she pressed her hands, and it muffled the sounds coming from the billiards room. Lenny’s voice was a deep, unintelligible warble. Jessica sounded like a squeaking guinea pig.

The distorted shadows of her lover and his wife exited the study together. Autumn shadowed them, grinning as she passed through the rectangular pool table, but then she found her progress arrested as the tunnel didn’t extend further into the house. It curved away from the kitchen and foyer, through Lenny’s garage and out into his backyard. The wormhole was spongy, rubbery and strangely vulnerable, beneath her feet. Other tunnels of the cosmic corridor branched in numerous directions, like ghostly pipes riddling the universe.

If you use it yourself, walk carefully! the madman had insisted.

Autumn felt she could kick a hole in the tunnel beneath her. Walk carefully, indeed.

An email suddenly splashed onto her eye-lens:

Sender: Lenny Wolverton

Date: 7.12.71 20:50

Message: Was I hallucinating? Are you still nearby? Baby, let’s meet for breakfast tomorrow at Lena’s. Love you, my Autumn.

The news was still fresh; the deceased scientist was a popular search.
He had been a founder of the global teleport system itself.

So, Autumn mused, emails can reach me in here. There was comfort in that, to know that she wasn’t entirely cut off from Earth. The idea of being lost in here made her skin crawl.

She carefully trod from the Wolverton residence to the laundromat parking lot. It sharpened into crisp focus as she neared.

She pressed ACTIVATE on the device.

The wormhole’s rubbery gray-white membrane split asunder beneath the golden light. Autumn stepped from the breach, laughing as fresh oxygen and bright daylight greeted her.

She flicked the suppressant off and hurried home with a skip in her step.

“The wormhole reticulum is one of the underlying features of the universe,” the computer explained in its cheerlessly patient voice. “It is a subdimensional network first discovered in the quantum macrofoam by Professors Shinichi Sena and Tensei Apostolou at Tokyo University in –”

From the kitchen, Autumn lowered the egg-battered chicken fillets into a skillet and shouted, “Skip to the next section!”

“The roots of the global teleport system lay in the discovery that where reticulum space-time overlap exists, also known as cosmic-local junctures (CLJ), a spontaneous transmittal of matter occurs. It should be noted that despite popular perception, this transmittal does not in fact exceed the speed of light, and has been measured at—”

“Skip to the next section and raise volume!” Autumn snapped over the crackle of the skillet, and then, thinking fast, added, “Can a person enter a CLJ and not be spontaneously transmitted?”

The computer hesitated. She imagined she could hear its processors grinding in desperation.

Finally, it replied, “Investigation into the interior of wormholes has failed due to the spontaneous transmittal of mass between CLJs. Professor Amanda Greenburg of MIT famously attempted to counter this problem: She attached a probe to the end of a steel wire-cable and sent the probe into a gateway. The moment the probe was gated through, the force of instantaneous transmittal snapped the cable with a measured force of—”

Autumn grilled the computer through dinner, combing online research journals and encyclopedias. She was still asking questions when the dishes were washed and left to dry in their little plastic racks.

No one’s ever seen the inside of a wormhole, she realised with awe. We shuttle through at near-light-speed. The only exceptions were the late Doctor Victor Ortiz…

And me.

“Tell me about Dr. Victor Ortiz.”

The news was still fresh; the deceased scientist was a popular search. He had been a founder of the global teleport system itself, a researcher at a teleport institute in Maryland, and the first westerner to work with Sena and Apostolou on “mapping” places where the reticulum came closest to Earth: the so-called CLJs. This cooperation had resulted in the very first teleport in history: a tiny ship-in-a-bottle sent from Tokyo to Maryland. It was a backstage pass. A cosmic expressway that reached to the stars themselves. A shortcut for the human race.

Autumn regarded the device.

My shortcut.

To whatever I want.

Lena’s was a popular diner the size of a modest warehouse, where droves of morning commuters were tended by industrious platoons of waiters. Autumn met Lenny early; the couple settled into a corner table, and once their breakfast order was placed, he took her hand and listened, unblinking, as she related how the device had come to her.

Autumn spoke at a breathless pace. “This Ortiz developed something truly revolutionary, Len. He figured out how to penetrate a wormhole tunnel as a stable mass, somehow preventing the instantaneous transport that usually happens!”

Her lover grinned and kissed her hand, his beard tickling her knuckles. "You sound like a scientist. Maybe you should apply to the Maryland Institute; I hear they have an opening.”

Autumn paled and withdrew her hand. “That’s sick!”

Lenny’s forehead creased with a protestation of innocence. “I’m sorry, babe. I make jokes when I’m nervous.”

“What are you nervous about?”

He frowned. “How can you ask me that? You said yourself this guy was being chased down by cops or agents of some kind. Do you have any idea what a device like that could mean in the wrong hands?” His eyes strayed to her purse.

“I have a few ideas, yes.”

“I don’t think you do, Autumn.”

“I do,” she protested.

“No, you—”

“It’s the ultimate stealth,” she cut him off, lowering her voice to such a pitch that he had to strain across the table to hear her. “You could move a squad of soldiers over a designated coordinate and have them step through without detection. You could murder, steal, or sabotage without any walls or security systems to stop you. You could smuggle things through a wormhole without authorities intercepting you at the regular gateways. You could drag in a nuclear bomb, push it along the wormhole, and gate it into a shopping mall.” Her eyes smoldered. “Yeah, Lenny, I know what it means. I’m not an idiot.”

“I’ll bet Ortiz killed himself to prevent others from obtaining that knowledge.”

“I’m sure.” Autumn sipped her coffee.

Lenny noticed something in her expression. “What are you thinking?”

“That I have the most powerful device on the planet. That I can use it however I want.”

He stared in disbelief. “And do what with it? Be the next Bonnie and Clyde? You want to sneak into bank vaults?”
He quieted as the waitress arrived with their breakfast plates.

When the woman was gone, Autumn leaned forward to kiss his ear. Her voice was a bee’s hum: “I’m gonna sell it, Len.”

He jerked in his seat. “Autumn, you…”

“Just listen to me! Sooner or later someone’s going to figure out to replicate Ortiz’s work. But at this particular moment in time, I’ve got the only one! I can name my price, Lenny.”

Lenny’s face turned ashen. He stirred his coffee. His fingers were trembling.

“Financial independence,” Autumn said, seeing the need to spell it out for him. “For both of us. You no longer tethered to Jessica’s money. Me no longer imprisoned by debt, stuck in that damn job. We can go anywhere we want.” She looked sidelong at him. “If you still want me, Lenny.”

He made a disgusted sound. “How can you even ask me that?”

“Maybe you’ve been slumming with me.”

She had meant it as a joke – a bitter joke, since the thought often crossed her mind. But his reaction was wholly incendiary. His eyes kindled in outrage, his lips curled into a snarl. He slammed his fist down on the table so hard the coffee surged over the mug and onto his omelette.

“It was a joke!” she pleaded.

“A bad one!”

“I’m sorry.”

His mouth quivered in his beard. “How would you sell it? Gonna take out an ad?”

Autumn brightened. “Yes, in a way. I’m going to leave a calling card at Ortiz’s lab with the equivalent of a ransom note.”

Lenny gaped at her.

“His lab is reachable by wormhole, Lenny. Everyone knows that: The first teleport in history was made there. All I have to do is use my magic shortcut from a local access point. Then I slip into the lab director’s office, after hours, and leave my message.”

“What message?”

“Oh, something like, ‘Dear kind sir. As you can see from my skillful entry into your office, I have something that Ortiz built and you want. It’s a buyer’s market.’"

“And then?”

“Then I tell them where to make the money drop. Somewhere public. Somewhere I can access by wormhole. I’ll pop in like a jack-in-the-box, snatch the money, and pop out. I’ll leave them a note where they can find the device.”

“It might be easier to just rob a bank!” Lenny shook his head and rubbed his temples.

“Become Bonnie and Clyde, you mean?”

He settled into a sullen silence. Lenny never liked having his own words thrown back at him.

It was a silence that continued through the remainder of breakfast. Only later, arriving at the gateway several blocks north of Lena’s, did he finally turn to her and say, “I want you to be careful, Autumn. I love you and couldn’t bear if anything happened to you.”

She stepped through the gateway.

Back to her neighborhood of clustered brick apartments and rusted catwalks. A dense, cotton-white fog had enveloped everything.

She reached the front door to her building.

In the glassy reflection of its window, she saw men approaching behind her.

He seemed to sense what she planned because his smile vanished,
his hand plunged into his pocket.

Autumn dashed into the narrow alley between apartment structures. She scrambled up a pile of garbage and, with an agility that shocked even her, vaulted the chain-link fence.

“Miss Feist?”

She spun around with a yelp. One of the men had reached the fence. He wore a pleasant enough smile, and he touched the fence with the gentleness of a father watching his son’s soccer game.

“My name is Dan. I’m with Interpol’s Criminal Investigations, Gateway Unit. May I have a word with you?”

Autumn grimaced. “Stay the hell away from me,” she warned.

“I only want to talk.”

“About?”

“We know you were the last person who had contact with Doctor Ortiz before he died.” He hesitated and grinned, showing teeth the color of polished ivory. “There’s a reward for anything he may have told you. Or left in your keeping.”

Autumn’s heart flipped in an apoplexy of terror.

She backed away from his smile. “Oh yeah? You make the check out to me? I sign a non-disclosure agreement, scout’s honor?”

“Sounds reasonable.”

“Guess Ortiz didn’t think it was so reasonable, right?”

Dan’s smile faltered. “Ortiz was an unscrupulous thief. He knew what he was doing. You… clearly… don’t.”

Autumn turned to see two burly fellows approaching her from the other end of the alley.

“Not a lot of choices, Miss Feist,” the man with the ivory smile purred.

Autumn looked backed to him.

She offered a grin of her own.

“Choices,” she said, “are all mine, now.”

He seemed to sense what she planned because his smile vanished, his hand plunged into his pocket, and then Autumn ran straight towards the nearest wall. Peripherally, she saw a pistol.

ACTIVATE!

She heard the gunshot even as she tumbled into the gray-white wormhole walls. They rippled from her impact like gelatin, sending visible shockwaves both ways along the reticulum like a tidal wave.

Autumn collapsed to the rubbery floor, but she was grinning fiercely. Let them try to follow her. She was beyond their reach. The wormhole continued to vibrate and ripple around her like an undulating waterbed. Slowly, she began to laugh.

Then she suddenly remembered Ortiz’ warning:

If you use it yourself, walk carefully! Do not disturb the tunnels! Do you hear me? Do not disturb the tunnels!

Autumn turned onto her side, staring down the rippling wormhole tunnel.

As if in reply to the disturbance she had caused, something came rushing at her from over that ghostly horizon.

Sender: Autumn Feist

Date: 7.13.71 11:02

Message: Lenny! Oh GOD! These aren’t shortcuts! Cosmic wormholes are created… by giant cosmic wor –

Brian Trent is science fiction writer. He lives in New England, somewhere between a city and a forest.
James Nathan is an illustrator based in Bristol, UK.
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