Jerrod woke with a start. The room was dark, except for the on-off-on-off of a blinking florescent sign that the window curtain couldn’t quite block out. Where was he? A motel. The Shamrock Motel. A shabby little place on the outskirts of Casper, Wyoming, a town whose biggest claim to fame was — well, it didn’t really have one.
It felt like the right place for a man on the run to be. Jeeze, that’s what he was, wasn’t he? A man on the run, a fugitive from justice, like something out of a bad cops-and-robbers movie. Two days ago he had been Jerrod Max, phone support tech guy for SyncTec Software. Today, he was Jerrod Max, most wanted man in America. Well, maybe not the most wanted man in America. But he was probably on the list somewhere.
Heavy rain drummed on the roof. The clock radio on the nightstand by the bed claimed it was 10:02 p.m. He had slept nearly twelve hours straight through.
He turned on the lamp by the bed, revealing a room that somehow managed to be sparsely furnished and crowded at the same time: a double bed, a faux-mahogany table with a straight-back chair, a small television on a low, two-drawer dresser, and an air conditioning unit he hadn’t been able to get working. The carpet was worn and the walls were well past due for a paint job. On the whole, the place was a dump. At least the bathroom was clean. Mostly.
The room’s only redeeming virtue was its cost; it was cheap. That was important because he was going through money fast. Some of it had gone to breakfast at a place called Big Al’s Burgers. A cheeseburger, fries and well-aged coffee; breakfast of champions. He had found a Good Will store and bought some clothes because the old ones looked like someone had run through a dense forest in them and then spent a night and a day in a gravel car rolling across the Wyoming landscape at forty miles an hour. He also picked up a floppy broad-brimmed hat and a water-resistant coat. And some toiletries, and several bottles of water, and more energy bars; you couldn’t go wrong with energy bars. The motel room had brought his cash reserve down to about $250. That wasn’t going to last very long.
The black box mocked him from the table where he had left it when he collapsed exhausted into bed. “Hey boy,” it seemed to say. “Knee deep in horse pucky, ain’t ya. What you gonna do now?”
What was he going to do now? He had watched enough cop shows to know better than to use a cash machine or his credit card. His mom used to say, “Things could always be worse.” But honestly, he couldn’t imagine how at the moment. No matter which way you looked at it, he was up the proverbial creek without a paddle. SOL
Maybe it was time to find an FBI office and turn himself in. He doubted they could make a murder charge stick; they just said that to scare him. And it worked. But now that he’d had time to think about it, he figured they more than likely would want to avoid a lot of publicity, because it might raise more questions than they would want to answer. Whatever the box was, it was probably a national secret. Maybe they would just take it from him, drop the charges, and tell him forget he had ever seen it.
Jerrod wasn’t as paranoid as Parker, but something about the whole thing didn’t seem right. Neil Anderson’s words replayed in his mind. “They mustn’t get it back. They can’t be trusted with a weapon like that. No one can.” And then, “They’re going to kill the President.”
He dragged himself out of bed and immediately discovered muscles he’d forgotten he had. The 400 mile ride across the mostly-empty Wyoming landscape in a gravel car had done a number on his body. He took a long, hot shower and shaved, and felt almost normal again.
He had seen a Denny’s a few blocks down the street. It might not the greatest culinary experience in the world, but was reliable, inexpensive and — most important — open 24/7. The neighborhood was dark and looked like the kind of place you wouldn’t want to wander around in at night. He was, frankly, a little nervous. Which was ironic when you thought about the fact that he was the subject of a major federal and local law enforcement man hunt. The hat kept his head mostly dry, but the water-resistant coat offered little by way of resistance to the deluge. He was soaked by the time he took refuge in the restaurant.
There were more people than he would have expected, and he drew a few openly curious looks. Even the waitress approached him somewhat cautiously. He probably looked like a vagrant. Or a criminal. Oh, wait … he was a criminal. And a vagrant too, he supposed. Despite of that, he enjoyed a reasonably priced dinner of pork chops, mashed potatoes and green beans. He even treated himself to a piece of apple pie. For morale.
Tucked in his coat pocket was the mysterious black box. He had decided it wasn’t really a box at all; it was some kind of device; a device that responded to his touch; that somehow morphed its surface into a concave indentation, like something out of a sci-fi movie, and then morphed it back into a flat surface. He knew how to turn it on and off, but that was as far as he had gotten. He had decided not to risk playing with it while riding the rails. He imagined himself dropping it, watching it bounce off the train and on to the ground that was speeding by at forty miles per hour.
He left a generous tip. He wasn’t sure why; maybe he wanted to leave at least the waitress with a good impression of him. He returned to the motel, where he stripped out of his wet clothes and got into something dry. He took the device out of his pocket, set it on the desk, pulled up the chair, and sat, thinking.
“Okay,” he said after a while. “Here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to ask you some questions, and you’re going to answer them. Got it?”
He didn’t usually to talk to inanimate objects, except maybe his computer, which didn’t count because everybody talked to their computer. The device sat there unmoving and silent, looking very much like a television remote control without any buttons. He took its silence as assent.
Leaving it sitting on the desk, he touched it with his index finger. The indentation obediently morphed into existence and, when he withdrew his finger, morphed out of existence. So far, so good.
Using a facial tissue from the bathroom, he wrapped his finger and touched the device again. Nothing happened. He had half-expected that. It responded only to direct contact with his skin.
Discarding the tissue, he picked up the device and held it in the palm of his hand. As usual, the concave indentation morphed into existence. He turned his hand over and placed the device on the table upside down, with the indentation facing the table. He withdrew his hand and then touched the device with his finger. The indentation appeared on the side facing up. He leaned back in his chair.
“Well, well, well,” he said. “Aren’t you just full of surprises?”
The device wasn’t as scary as it had been at first. Apparently he was getting used to its unearthly spookiness. But it was getting weirder. Not only did it respond to his touch, and morph an indentation into and out of existence, it somehow knew which side was up, and produced the indentation on that side. Whatever it was, it was smart.
He picked it up and slid his thumb into the indentation to activate it. He studied the second button, which had now made its appearance. This was where he had gotten into trouble before. He was still working on the theory that that had been an hallucination. That was two days ago, and he hadn’t had any episodes like it since then. But he wasn’t entirely convinced it was an hallucination. It might have been something the device did.
He held his breath and gingerly placed his thumb into the second indentation, ready to drop the device at the first sign of trouble. Nothing happened.
He pressed a little harder. Still nothing. That was disappointing. It had to do something. Otherwise, why would it be there?
He pushed his thumb even harder into the indentation. The wall the table was against suddenly rushed at him.
“Aaah,” was all he got out before he passed through the wall and into the motel parking lot, which was dark and wet. He was most of the way across the lot when he finally managed to let go of the device. It bounced off the table and clattered on to the floor. He was back in the motel room, sitting at the desk, the device lying on the floor at his feet. The only thing that had changed was his breathing and his heart rate.
“Damn,” he said. “That’s incredible.”
It was just like before. Except the world didn’t spin wildly out of control this time. There was no way it was another hallucination; too much time had passed since the device had stung him. It had to be the device. It had done something to him. But what?
The wall hadn’t rushed toward him, of course. He had rushed toward it. And through it. And out into the parking lot. Then, when he let go of the device, he was back in the room.
He picked it up off the floor. “How did you do that?” It didn’t say anything, which was just as well because if it had, he probably would have wet his pants.
It had turned itself off when he dropped it. He turned it back on and stood facing the door to his room. His thumb pressed into the indentation again. As though it had a mind of its own, his thumb rocked forward a little.
The door, along with the wall, rushed toward him. “Whoa,” he said as he passed through it and into the hallway. This time he didn’t drop the device; instead, he lifted his thumb off the indentation, which brought him to an abrupt stop a few inches from the opposite side of the hall.
A middle-aged couple happened to be walking down the hall toward him. He turned his head to watch them. They were dressed like they were headed out for a night on the town. Did Casper have some kind of nightlife? They didn’t seem the least bit surprised when he appeared out of thin air in front of them.
The woman was explaining what their daughter had called about. He thought the man was going to run into him, but before he could react, the man walked through him, as though he wasn’t there. Jerrod turned his head and watched them continue down the hall.
His vision was slightly blurred, making the couple a little fuzzy or out of focus. With a shock, he realized why. He could see the couple in the hallway outside his room. But he could also see the inside of his room — the door, the bed and night stands, the faded carpet. It was like he was in two places at once, superimposed on each other. But that couldn’t be right. He shivered. Something was very wrong.
The couple disappear around a corner. The scent of lilacs tickled his nose; the woman’s perfume.
He turned the device off and found himself back in his room, where he had been standing before, where he had been standing all along in one of the two superimposed locations. The other one — the one in the hallway — was gone.
He sat on the chair and stared at the innocuous-looking black box resting in his palm. This was so far outside his experience that he didn’t even know how to think about it.
“What are you?” he said.
He wasn’t afraid of it. Or of what it had done. It seemed like he should be, but he wasn’t. In fact, he felt comfortable with it. Like it was an old friend; an old friend he wanted to get better acquainted with.
He stood and activated it again. He placed his thumb on the second button, and carefully pressed down. Nothing happened. When he had done this last time, he had pushed down and forward. Maybe it was like a joy stick. He gingerly pushed down and forward. The door — that entire end of the room, actually — moved toward him. He immediately took his thumb off the button, and the door stopped moving. But it wasn’t the door and wall that were moving, of course. It was him that was moving. It was hard to keep straight. He had floated, or glided, over the carpet. That’s the best description he could come up with.
He didn’t see two places superimposed on each other. He saw one place but from two slightly different vantage points. In both he was looking at the door. One of them was further away from the door than the other, which offset the two views from each other a bit. Maybe he really was in two places at the same time. Or maybe he had split into two versions of himself, one that moved and one that stayed where it was.
He put his thumb back in the depression and pushed down and back toward himself. He was not surprised when the moving view glided backward, away from the door. He was surprised when his moving self passed through his stationary self’s body, and he found himself staring at himself from behind. He took his thumb off the button.
Something was odd, which was a crazy thing to say since everything about the device was downright bizarre. The odd thing was that when his moving self was in front of his stationary self, he could not see it from his stationary self’s viewpoint. But now that his moving self was behind his stationary self, his moving self could see his stationary self.
His moving self must be invisible. Which would explain why the couple in the hallway hadn’t seen him. Actually, it was more than that. The man had walked right through his moving self. It wasn’t just invisible. It wasn’t there at all. It was a virtual self.
“Jeeze,” he said. “Could this possibly get any weirder?” He turned the device off and sat on the end of the bed.
The device had created a virtual version of him — a doppelganger — that wasn’t physically there but nonetheless let him see the world from its point of view. And not just see, but also hear and smell. If it had a decent range, the possibilities were mind-boggling.
He stood and turned so that he was facing down the length of the building. He slowly moved his doppelganger forward until it passed through the wall and into the next room. It’s single occupant, a man, was asleep on one of the twin beds. A suitcase was open on the other bed and clothes were scattered around. On the desk sat a laptop, the man’s wallet and his keys.
He continued moving forward, across the room and through the opposite wall, which put him in a utility closet. He kept going until he was in the next room, where he stopped. On the bed was a middle aged, somewhat overweight man having sex with a young woman. She couldn’t have been more than twenty. Judging by the clothes piled on the floor, he guessed she was a prostitute.
They had thrown the covers off the end of the bed, giving Jerrod a front row seat to some pretty explicit action, complete with sound effects. In the back of his mind, a voice told him he shouldn’t be watching this. He couldn’t decide if it was Trish’s voice or his mom’s. Either way, it couldn’t compete with a million years of evolutionary programming that gave override authority to the secondary male brain located below the belt.
When`the show was over, he returned to his room and took a break to get himself calmed down. Rocking his thumb forward in the second depression had created a doppelganger and moved it forward. Rocking his thumb backward had moved it backward. What would rocking to the left or the right do?
He activated the device, placed his thumb in the second depression, and leaned his thumb to the left. Nothing happened. At least not as far as he could tell. He leaned it to the right. Again, nothing happened that he could see. Maybe the doppelganger had to be out for them to work.
He faced the window and moved his doppelganger forward, passing through the window, through the shrubbery outside his window, through a parked F150 truck, and into the middle of the parking lot. It was dark — the motel didn’t provide much lighting — and it was raining hard again. He knew that because he could hear it pounding the blacktop and he could see it hitting the ground. But it was not hitting him. Which made sense; he was, after all, not really there. His doppelganger was. He — the real him — was back in his room.
He pushed his thumb to the left. Nothing happened. He pushed it to the right, with the same result. A faint, low-pitched hum found its way to his ears; so faint he had to concentrate on it to be sure it wasn’t his imagination. He lifted his thumb off the second button; the hum continued. He was pretty sure it hadn’t been there before. He pushed his thumb to the left. The hum stopped. He pushed his thumb to the right again, and the hum came back.
He turned his head one way, and then the other. The sound wasn’t coming from the device. It was coming from all around him. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw it: a faint shimmer in the air around him. It was about a foot from his body, and appeared to have him surrounded. The device had created some kind of screen or shield or energy field around him.
He reached out to touch it, but it expanded outward away from him. When he pulled his hand back to his body, it contracted down to its original size. Looking up, he saw that the field ended a few inches above his head. It extended down to the floor. He was enclosed in a nearly-invisible, cylinder of energy.
He played around with pushing left and pushing right until he figured out that those two motions changed the height and width of the energy field. Why he would want to do that, he had no idea. If he pushed to the left, the field would expand. If he pushed to the left again, it would contract. With careful handling, he could set the width to whatever he wanted. Pushing to the right did the same thing with the height of the field. In both cases, there was a minimum size, which appeared to be the size needed to completely contain his body.
What was it for? And why could its width and height be varied? Having been a fan of the Star Trek franchise — especially Deep Space Nine — he had lots of possibilities bouncing around in his head. But this wasn’t science fiction; this was real life, his life.
He turned the device off and retreated to the bathroom for a bio break and to splash cold water on his face.
He turned his attention back to the energy field. With a little trial and error, he determined that the field was created whenever the device was active. Apparently he just hadn’t noticed it before.
He reactivated the device and pressed on the second button, pushing forward on it. He moved through the door, and into the hallway again. He looked at the device. About half an inch below the second button, a third button had formed. He stared at it.
“Huh,” he said. “Where’d you come from?”
Without giving himself time to think about it, he put his thumb in the third depression and pressed down. His room vanished, leaving him in the hallway.
A door opened down the hall and a young women emerged. It was the prostitute. She let the door swing closed behind her and turned to face him. Her expression was a combination of caution and irritation.
“You got a problem?” she said. It was a challenge. Probably because he was staring at her.
“What? Uh …” She could see him. “Uh, no. No problem.” How could she see him?
She turned around and walked quickly down the hall and around the corner. He let himself into his room. He was alone; the doppelganger was gone.
He already knew that if his doppelganger was out and he turned the device off, the doppelganger vanished. But he had not turned the device off. He had pushed the third button. His doppelganger seemed to have vanished, but his real self appeared where the doppelganger had been. With the doppelganger out, he could choose where to be when the doppelganger vanished: he could be where he started, or he could be where the doppelganger had been.
His brain took several slow seconds to wrap itself around the implication: the harmless looking black box sitting in his hand was teleportation device. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to imagine some of the uses that could be put to. No wonder the government — or somebody in the government — wanted it back.
He spent the next hour experimenting with the device, and found out what the energy field was for. It turned out that when he teleported himself, everything inside the energy field went with him. If something was only partially inside the field, the field cut through it cleanly. That included metal, which he discovered by teleporting about half of the defunct air conditioner into an empty lot in an abandon lot across the street from the motel.
He also discovered that the teleporter worked in both directions. It teleported him and whatever else was inside the energy field, and at the same time teleported whatever was at the destination to his starting location. He knew this because in the lot across the street there was a chair, the corner of a bed, a piece of a table, and a piece of an air conditioning unit. In his room were three Miller Lite beer cans, a neatly sliced piece of railroad tie, and various weeds and grass. It was as though the device created two identical spaces and then swapped their contents.
The doppelganger’s position was determined not only by how far away from him it was, but also by the direction in which the device was pointed. One side effect of this was that if he had it out at a considerable distance, and then turned to face in a different direction, the doppelganger would travel with him. Except it was at the end of a whip, which meant it travelled very fast. It was a disorienting effect, and that must be what had happened at the cabin. It was like being on a spinning merry-go-round. Near the center of the merry-go-round, you would move slowly. But at the outer edge, you would move much faster.
He worked out two ways to deal with the problem. The first was to close his eyes when he turned himself and the device in a new direction. The second was to bring the doppelganger back in, face a new direction, and send it back out.
Its range was something of a disappointment. The further his doppelganger got from his starting location, the more difficult it became to hold it steady. It was like holding a telescope; the greater the magnification, the harder it was to keep it steady. Tiny movements of his hand resulted in large movements at a distance. At first, the empty lot was far as he could get without the doppelganger bouncing all over the place. He got better at it by concentrating on specific objects rather than just aiming at nothing in particular. By 4:00 in the morning, he was able to control the doppelganger at a range of about a mile.
Questions tumbled around in his head: Had the government discovered teleportation technology? Who else knew about it? What might someone do with it? What if it fell into the wrong hands? What was the government going to do with it? Were there more of them? Or was this a one-off, or a prototype? In any case, he now knew why the government was so anxious to get it back. Imagine a Special Forces team teleporting into a terrorist hideout. Or maybe just teleport a bomb in, step away and teleport out; then detonate the bomb. Or teleport into the Oval Office, grab the President, and teleport out with him. Or teleport into Fort Knox and then teleport out with a ton of gold.
The person who controlled the device would be unstoppable. Neil Anderson had understood that. “They mustn’t get it back,” he had said. “They can’t be trusted with a weapon like that. No one can.” Had he stolen the device and uses it to escape? And gotten shot in the process? That would explain what he was doing out in the middle of nowhere with two bullet holes in his back, and nobody else around. But who did he steal it from? The Navy? The CIA? A foreign government?
And, most important of all, what was Jerrod going to do with it?