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Paul Edmund Norman's Monthly Online Literary Magazine ~ July 2005 Issue No. 81



by Keith Robinson

          Mike Harris waited for the booth door to unlock with the usual hiss and clunk. "Booth clear," the computer's soft, female voice said. Mike turned and smiled at the next in line, a middle-aged woman.

"Good day, ma'am," he called above the background noise of hissing and clunking doors throughout the enormous length of the hall. "Welcome to Atlanta's Upload Center. And how are you today?"

"Just fine, thanks." The woman stood her suitcase in front of him and held out her ticket.

Mike took it from her. "Just a short hop today, then, Mrs. Warrington? Business or pleasure?" Without waiting for an answer he turned and opened a compartment door in the side of his booth, then reached for Mrs. Warrington's suitcase and inserted it into the narrow space. Mike closed the door and secured it. A light above the compartment illuminated bright amber and started flashing. "I hear Miami's stifling hot at the moment," he murmured conversationally.

The woman smiled politely, shrugged, and said nothing.

Suit yourself. "I have to ask you a couple of routine questions, ma'am. Did you pack your case yourself?"


"Have you given anyone else access to your case, or have you left your case unattended at any time?"


"Do you have anything to declare, such as knives, handguns, explosives, drugs of any kind...?"


Mike nodded and swung open a large glass door in the side of the booth. He waved the woman inside, and she swept by him and stood in the center of the three foot square space, looking upwards as if she were about to take a shower. Mike murmured, "Have a nice trip, ma'am," and swung the door closed. It hissed as bolts slid across from within, and a second light illuminated amber and started flashing, this one large and bright above the booth door.

Mike inserted the passenger's ticket into a slot, and a screen filled with text. "Requesting Booth at Miami MIA," the computer announced in dulcet tones. "Please stand by." A pause, and then, "Booth 21 at Miami MIA secured and ready. Channel locked. Subject is ready for transfer. Please proceed." Both amber-flashing lights suddenly turned green.

Mike gave a thumbs-up signal to the woman inside the booth and pressed a large button marked "Transfer." There was a flash and whine from within the booth. The door hissed and unlocked. "Booth clear," the computer said softly.

"Next," called Mike, gesturing to a man and woman. "Good day, sir and madam. Welcome to Atlanta's Upload Center. And how are you both today?"

"Can we go together?" the man asked, ignoring the pleasantries.

"I'm afraid not," Mike answered, shaking his head. "One passenger at a time, with as much luggage as the compartment can hold. Now, who's first?"

His watch beeped loudly: an incoming call.

"Um, excuse me a moment," he said to the couple. "Go ahead and put your case in, sir, while I answer this." He opened the luggage compartment door and stood aside, speaking into his watch. "Harris here."

"Mike?" squeaked a small voice from a tiny speaker. "It's Ned, in Download. We've got a problem. Um, a Code 417."

Mike blinked, absently watching the couple stuffing a large suitcase and a sleek briefcase into the compartment. "A what? Are you kidding?"

"No joke, man. We need you, pronto."

The couple, stepping back from the compartment after successfully loading half of their luggage, looked at him questioningly. "Problem?" ask the woman.

"Uh, no, nothing major," Mike lied. He turned and looked around, trying to spot a free member of staff among the Upload Center's two-hundred-strong workforce. "Joanne!" A short blonde woman, leaning lazily against her booth just fifteen yards away, jumped at her name. "Come and take over here, will you?"

Mike threaded his way past rows of booths and lines of waiting customers until he reached the main throughway, and then marched quickly along the hall that led to the other end of the Terminal. Arriving in the Download Center, he picked his way through a steady stream of new arrivals emerging from customs and let himself into the receiving area, nodding to the guard. Being Supervisor level, he had the rank and privilege to come and go as he pleased, and to work in either Upload or Download as he wished. He had no preference for either; he was sitting in for Upload today simply because they were a little light on staff, due to a bout of flu going around.

He made his way to Ned's booth. Ned Chapman was a good worker, but junior and untrained in special situations. "Ned," Mike announced, approaching the thin, wiry man with curly brown hair.

"Mike," Ned said quietly. He glanced around as a group of new arrivals walked by, heading for the customs area. "You're not gonna believe this, but we've got a blender-job. The computer has quarantined him for the moment, but he's getting a little panicky."

Mike strode over to the booth and peered in through the door. "Oh my God," he said softly. "What a mess."

The customer inside the booth was shouting something, but his words were unintelligible through the thick glass.

Mike turned back to Ned. "Okay, we're going to have to get him out of there and into a private room somewhere without making too much fuss."

Together, they glanced around the busy Download Center, with forty booths and operators, and worse, hundreds of new arrivals lined up and waiting to go through customs. So far, it appeared that nobody was paying them any special attention. But Mike was worried. Terminal ambulances were electric powered and small, but they still had red flashing lights and the word 'Emergency' emblazoned across the side. Everyone would be staring. "We can't afford this sort of attention right now."

"How about using the vending cart?" Ned suggested. "No one'll give it a second glance. We can stuff him inside and whisk him out of here in a flash, without any fuss."

Mike considered for a moment. "All right, let's do it."

The vending cart, an electric powered minivan that serviced the beverage machines throughout the Terminal, arrived at its usual lazy pace. Mike nodded in approval; not a single passenger glanced their way as the driver stopped and reversed up to the booth. Ned swung open the van's rear door and peered inside.

The driver climbed out and came around. "Okay," Mike said to him, "I need you to clear a space back here. Get those plastic cups out the way."

The driver shrugged and set to it while Mike went to the computer.

"Computer, Supervisor Harris here." The screen flashed the words 'Identification Confirmed,' and Mike continued. "You may unlock the door now. And bring up the customer details on the screen, would you?"

The computer analyzed his request for a moment, flooding the screen with information, and then the door hissed and clunked. Mike swung the door open and knelt beside the unfortunate customer.

"Uh, Mr. Turner," he said quietly, "can you hear me?"

A muffled shout came from somewhere within the twisted heap on the floor. Mike deciphered the words as something like, "What the devil's going on here? What's happened to me?"

Mike put a tentative hand on a bare, fleshy part of his customer, what he judged to be a shoulder. "Mr. Turner, you're from London, right? Well, I want to assure you that you're going to be just fine, so try to relax and we'll get you transported to somewhere a little more comfortable. Uh, my colleagues here are going to help me lift you into the, er, ambulance."

Another muffled complaint. Mike motioned for Ned and the van driver to help him. The van driver's eyes widened and his mouth opened to say something--but Mike glared at him. Shut the hell up.

Together, the three of them grabbed the customer wherever they guessed it would be okay to grab him, and awkwardly hoisted the heavy lump out of the booth and into the back of the vending cart. Puffing and panting, the driver muttered to himself that this sort of thing wasn't in his job description.

Mike dialed for the senior technician from the vidphone in one of the small, windowless interview rooms. While he waited for the technician to answer, he studied the blender-job on the table. Ned stood to one side, hand over his mouth, staring intently at the unfortunate traveler. The driver had been told to keep quiet and go about his business, and he'd gratefully left.

"This is Jeff," said the technician, appearing on the screen.

"Jeff, we need you," Mike said. "Interview 4. Get down here right away."

"Uh, right," said Jeff, and the screen went blank.

Mike approached the table. "Mr. Turner," he said loudly. "I know this must be very alarming for you, but rest assured that our best technician is on his way over here as we speak, and if anyone knows how to fix this, it's him. You're in good hands, Mr. Turner."

"Blasted mess, that's what this is," Mr. Turner's muffled voice came back. "Get this confounded shirt out of my mouth so I can talk properly!"

Frowning, Mike bent lower and circled the table, trying to find Mr. Turner's mouth. He eventually found it, close to the surface of the table, at the bottom of the curious, shapeless mound of flesh and clothing. He saw that the shirt, which merged with flesh in places, was blocking Mr. Turner's mouth, and he pulled it clear.

"That's better, blast it," Mr. Turner spluttered. "Now what in Heaven's name has happened to me? I can't see properly--my vision is blurred."

"That's because one eye is here, near your mouth, and the other is... well, somewhere else..." Mike searched briefly for the other eye. "Don't you worry, now, we'll--"

"Stop telling me not to worry!" yelled Mr. Turner. "You wait until my solicitor hears about this! He'll sue this confounded firm for every penny its worth. Bring back good old aeroplanes, that's what I say. Never had this sort of trouble with a Boeing 777, I can assure you!"

"True," Ned put in, "but when a 777 fell out of the sky, you had over five hundred dead passengers. Your situation is far from perfect, Mr. Turner, but at least we can put you right."

There was a silence, followed by a long sigh. "Where's this blasted technician chap, then?"

"On his way," Mike answered. "Uh... can I get you anything? A drink, perhaps?"

"With a straw?" Ned added.

"The last thing I need," Mr. Turner announced with obvious exasperation, "is a drink. I was actually rather expecting to go straight to the toilet upon arrival in Atlanta. I have to visit the boy's room, you know."

Mike and Ned exchanged a glance. "Get a cup," Mike ordered.

The technician arrived just then, and stood framed in the doorway with a stunned expression on his face. "What in the--"

"Ah, Jeff," Mike broke in loudly. "Come in and close the door."

"Here's a cup," said Ned doubtfully, holding aloft a small plastic coffee cup. "Er... where...?"

"Hurry!" barked Mr. Turner. "I can't hold it forever, you know!"

Mike leaned closer. "Mr. Turner, er... We need to, um... Could you tell us where...?"

"What are you blithering about, you blithering idiot?"

Jeff, not one to beat about the bush, leaned closer too. "We're trying to find your tackle, Mr. Turner."

Mike jabbed him hard on the arm, furious, and Jeff backed off. But at that moment, Ned, on the other side of the table, spoke up. "It's here! Found it!" Jeff was openly amazed. "Look at that! Meat and two veg--the whole set."

Mike glowered at him. "Okay, Ned," he said through gritted teeth, "get ready with the cup. Mr. Turner, you may now, um, let loose."

"Hey, why me?" Ned cried, but Mike ignored him.

He pulled Jeff to one side. "How can this happen?" he demanded in a fierce whisper. "Do you realize this guy from London could sue our asses off?"

"Not us," said Jeff confidently. "Ain't our problem, see? The screw-up was at the London end."

"It was?" Hope flared. "How can you be sure?"

"It's always the Download-end that causes blender-jobs," he explained, "but it only goes wrong because the template created during Upload gets screwed up. In other words, London uploaded our friend but the template to put him back together never made it here intact--so we couldn't download him properly. This is always the fault of the sender. Probably a glitch in the booth at London. Which Center was it?"

"Heathrow," Mike said, remembering the customer's details displayed by the booth computer.

"There you go, then," Jeff said, satisfied. "Now, Gatwick is reliable. But Heathrow? They need an overhaul. Doesn't happen often, but I'd bet your bottom dollar that most blender-jobs across the world come out of Heathrow."

Ned interrupted. "Mr. Turner has finished," he said sourly, holding up the cup. "Most of it made it into the cup."

"Mr. Turner," Mike said briskly. "I have it on good authority that it's London Heathrow that's at fault here, and not Atlanta Hartsfield."

"I don't give a stuff who's to blame," growled Mr. Turner. "I just want to be returned to normality. At once, do you hear me?"

"It ain't a problem, my man," Jeff said amiably. "All we need to do is get London to re-send that template. Then we can stuff you into a booth and do a bounce-back on you--er, in other words, download you to the same booth we upload you from, so you go through the teleportation process but don't actually go anywhere. We use bounce-backs to cure illnesses and stuff like that."

"What the blazes are you talking about?"

Jeff spread his hands. "By disassembling your molecular structure and then reassembling, we can weed out foreign bodies such as serious viruses, bullets if you're a gunshot victim, that sort of thing--"

"I meant," Mr. Turner growled impatiently, "why are you wasting time telling me all this? Just do it!"

Mike tapped Jeff on the shoulder. "Yes, Jeff--just do it."

They transported Mr. Turner to a private booth in the Terminal's Medical Wing. Mike made sure that his customer's luggage was collected and brought along, since the template had screwed that up too. Mr. Turner's luggage consisted of a brief case and a separate laptop bag, although they were currently fused together into one shapeless, black lump--curiously, with a convenient, unblended carrying handle. A notebook memory card poked out of one side, glinting brightly under the spotlights in the ceiling.

Two medical staff members were on hand, but they stood around in the background, on standby just in case. They'd taken a look at Mr. Turner, more out of curiosity than anything, and had checked to see that he wasn't having any difficulty breathing. It had taken a while to find a heartbeat; they'd discovered a tunnel-like opening somewhere under the various folds of fat--not so much a hole through the body but a cavity formed by an inside-out, messed up body that had collapsed in on itself, folding into a shapeless pile of bones, flesh and clothing. Shining a flashlight into the fold they'd peered through the rib cage and past an ear, and there, buried deep within the shapeless mound, was the heart, pumping normally--with the missing eye just above. The medical team had been satisfied, if a little disturbed. So now they waited to one side; this was, after all, a technical issue rather than a medical one, at least while there was still a chance for the blender-job to be unblended by the bounce-back process.

Jeff stood by the booth and spoke to the computer, setting things up. Mike and Ned struggled with Mr. Turner, putting him down onto the floor of the booth as gently as possible. Mr. Turner started to babble a little. "This will work, I assume? I'm not going to get worse, am I? I'll be returned to normal?"

You can't get any worse. "You'll be fine," Mike assured him. "The template recorded your entire molecular structure from head to toe, as well as that of your bags. As soon as we receive that template from London we can put you back to normal. It's like a... well, a blueprint, you see? Don't worry, Mr. Turner, you'll be fine."

Mike turned to see how Jeff was getting on, and was startled to find Jeff staring at him, his face ashen. Mike's heart skipped a beat and a chill went down his spine.

"What?" he asked quietly.

Jeff motioned him over to one side, away from the booth. "I think we might have to turn this over to the medical people, after all," he muttered. "London says that there's been a computer virus. Mr. Turner isn't the only blender-job today. Everyone sent out from Heathrow within a thirty second period of our friend here was also a blender-job." He nodded his head toward the booth. "Download Centers all over the world have received similar messed-up customers from London."

Mike closed his eyes.

"Of course," Jeff went on, "the moment Mr. Turner arrived here, the booth shut down and sent a signal back to Heathrow to shut down that booth too, pending investigation. Standard, automatic procedure. Same thing happened with all the other receiving booths all over the world, and in turn the uploading booths at Heathrow. But the virus got to all the booths at Heathrow simultaneously, and a hundred and twenty-two customers were uploaded and blended before anyone realized the problem."

"This doesn't change anything," Mike said firmly. "The templates are still in the computers, so we can--"

"No." Jeff shook his head slowly. "All the uploading booth computers were scrambled, the templates destroyed."

Ned, listening silently, put his face in his hands. Mike swallowed and pointed into the booth. "You mean... he's going to stay like that forever?"

Jeff shrugged.

"A hundred and twenty-two... " Mike murmured. "All over the world, you say?" He found a chair and sat down. "How can this have happened? How can the computers have been hacked?"

Jeff shrugged again. "Any spotty-faced kid with a few computer skills can hack into any computer, anywhere, if he really wants to. Look..." He shuffled his feet. "We could try one of the backup templates."

Mike frowned at him. "What?"

"Not many people know about them, not even staff, because the very fact that we hold them is like admitting the possibility of problems like this." Jeff looked nervous, but excitement crept over his face as he spoke. "They're random duplicates made of passengers from time to time. We have about a hundred copies at this Center alone. Mr. Turner could... you know... take his pick."

Mike stared at him, dumbfounded. He glanced over the misshapen passenger, who lay impatiently in the booth awaiting his return to normality. "You mean... ask him to choose a new face?"

Ned piped up, "And a new body. He could be tall, fit, handsome--it's a great idea!"

Mike watched Mr. Turner for a while. Fat fingers wriggled and flexed from somewhere along one side, just beneath an overhanging fold. Where were his feet? Buried inside there somewhere, along with internal organs and other things. Mike understood that the download had at least retained some integrity between the separate components--otherwise the result would have been a whole lot worse. As it was, the heart was intact, the brain functioning--everything was working relatively well. It was really just the layout they needed to work on.

He sighed. "Okay, let's do it." Jeff hurried away to make arrangements, and Mike murmured, "Stay with me, Ned."

He approached the passenger warily and located the single eyeball near the mouth. It rolled to look at him. "Mr. Turner, I'm afraid I have some bad news. We've, er, mislaid your body. Permanently." As the eye widened, Mike added quickly, "But how would you like to pick out a new one, courtesy of Atlanta's Upload Center? We have a wonderful selection..."


Read more of Keith's stories on his own story web site here

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