Axxón 160, March 2006
(Translation: Daniel W. Koon)
What happened to me?... Simple, really. I got fed up. Yeah, the pay was good, wicked good, considering that there was nothing to do up there but just watch it pile up down here in my bank account.
So how to explain what it was?... There’s this book, “Way Station”. A classic nowadays. I’ve read it more times than I care to remember. To tell the truth, and in light of my own story, I have to admit that that book became a kind of talisman for me. Tons of other stuff has happened to me over the years, events that appeared, flamed out and then vanished, but those pages have remained with me, a wrinkled paper icon handed down to me from my grandfather back when I was barely able to spell out its title.
“It’s a relic,” he told me as he showed me how to turn the pages one by one so as not to crack the paper. He was referring to the object, of course, but to me, smack dab in the middle of the age of discovery, that wasn’t enough, and so I focused my attention on the contents, that mysterious message encoded in ink on paper. Without noticing, and so my reading improved and I managed to fit the puzzle pieces together. I was forging a mirror image inside myself, written in fire, a powerful mandate that would lead me, so many years later, all the way up there, more alone than even the most unlucky of oysters, chained to that asteroid.
I was Post Manager, guardian of the Way Station, a relief point in the voyage between one half of the galaxy and the other. Out on the ass end of the universe.
Had anyone else ever fulfilled his commission as rigorously as me? I doubt it. Still, the conditions weren’t as faithful to the book as I was. I didn’t live in a pleasant country landscape, but on a filthy asteroid where I could barely move without banging into one or the other sides of my metal cage. There were no trees outside, no rivers, not even wild hazelnuts. No autumn breezes, although I rather suspect that this was probably due to the asteroid’s total lack of atmosphere. There were only rocks and, okay, yes, a sky crammed to the rafters with stars. But the differences didn’t end there. In my contract, among other things, they had left out the clause guaranteeing me my youth for the duration of my tour of duty; I got old up there, just like everybody else down here. Or maybe more so, because I was bored. I had my books, yes, but they were virtual ones; it’s not the same. Things to keep me busy? My list of chores was pretty meager, just three duties: to be present for each transfer, to watch each transfer carefully, and to report any hypothetical mishap. Not that any ever happened, obviously.
And there weren’t any Hazers either, although that, in the end, was a relief. I shudder to think what might have happened to me if one of them had died on me in mid-transit. Where would I have buried it? For me, the passenger was no more than just a formless mass which I saw appear in the tray, lie around just long enough for the equipment to reset and for the energy pulse to recharge, and then disappear. One, two, three. How could I even extract the data I would need to determine whether someone had died?
So then, no farewell chats with my passengers, no stimulating rounds of chess, no fleeting friendships. Nothing. Until that day, I had seen only the obligatory minute and a half (One minute and forty seconds, precisely, between arrival and departure) of the various somber and inexpressive vacuum-packed diplomats, jet-setting executives and assorted nobodies. Folks I didn’t really give two shakes about one way or the other, but not just any old riffraff. Travel don’t come cheap.
I had plenty of time to think, since there wasn’t much else to do; I had run out of amusements long ago. It was just a low-level station, simply for transit, far removed from any conceivable destination terminals. The kind that’s not even equipped with decompressors. Nobody could send anything useful to the station by net, and nothing could be sent out from it. Me, I had arrived on a conventional ship when I was put in charge of my post, and that’s how I was supposed to leave. The passengers simply passed through. Pre-packaged.
My, it all brings back childhood memories to me again: my grandpa trying to show me some pictures of his childhood heroes, Japanese anime in its original 2D format. He had given me access to a data storage sector of the home computer so I could satisfy my thirst. His ancient files were stored there. I shut myself up in my room, eager to start my feast, but after a little while I had to call him to tell him that his files were ruined. I saw nothing but strange symbols and letters grouped together without any hint of order. A formless mess. At first he sat down in front of the holo, clueless, not knowing what to say, but suddenly it came to him.
“Crap, I forgot! Those are zipped files, that’s why you couldn’t make sense of them. It’s in an outdated format, and the computer isn’t set up to decode them.
“Then you mean I can’t view them?”
“Nobody said that. No sirree! You’ve always got to have an ace up your sleeve. Hey, Dora!” That’s what he called our home computer, even though that wasn’t her name. And he yelled for her, over his shoulder, as if she were in another room.
“I want you to load a Windows sub-environment, with all the apps. Here, in this room.”
“Windows again, Pops?... Is that necessary?”
“Did you install the interpreters and decompressors in the old Zip format, like I asked you to before?”
“Just as I thought. Go screw yourself, then! Bring on them Windows!”
The images were pretty, despite all the problems we had setting it up. He had to reboot the sub-environment three times, and Dora was in a foul mood for the rest of the day, just like my mom whenever she was suffering her migraines. But what really fascinated me was the process, which I somehow associated in my mind with the hermetic impossibility that a printed book posed for anyone who didn’t have the key, the code in which it was written.
“I don’t understand, Grandpa. Why did you mix up all these symbols like that so that it took so much work to dig up the image again? Didn’t you want anybody to see it?”
“No, that’s not it,” he told me. “It’s a question of space. There are millions of data bits in an image, but lots of them are redundant or zeroes. Empty, nothing. If you want to store the files without taking up too much space, or if you want to send them through a medium where size is important, you use a process that compresses the information. Nowadays there are algorithms that are infinitely more powerful, but back then it was Zip, and Zip really wasn’t all that bad.”
Now I realize that back then I didn’t understand any of what he was saying. But I didn’t worry about it either. I just nodded my head, and then I went on to some other topic. Now I do understand. Boy, do I understand.
Instantaneous teletransportation has its twists and turns. The traveler lies down on a stretcher (okay, it only looks like a stretcher), naked beneath a sheet. Once sound asleep, the sheet is removed. It’s not a question of wasting energy transporting dead weight, and, at any rate, the subject doesn’t mind. They put him to sleep to keep him from wigging out during the process. When the subject wakes up at his final destination, an identical sheet is placed on top of him. I think there’s some other reason why they scrupulously insist on not transporting anything but a body and only a body, something having to do with some old story involving a housefly, but I’m not 100% sure.
The teletransportation itself consists in dismantling the body and then reassembling it at the destination. So far so good. The problems arise in the intermediate processes. There are bottlenecks: the data extracted in the dismantling, which are needed for the reassembling, have to travel to the destination point, and despite the fact that they exploit the properties of singularities for the rough approximation, sometimes the residual distances elevate the risk of information degradation to unacceptable levels. That’s why there are way stations. No jump is allowed to exceed the safety margins. If the destination is further, additional intermediate points are added and way stations installed where the traveler can materialize for a few instants before being shot off again.
But distance isn’t the only problem. Bandwidth is another. That’s where the true cost of running the system comes from; everything else is just investment and maintenance. The equation is simple: the more information you send, the higher the cost. It was a real problem at first until somebody noticed that the human body is full of empty spaces and molecules repeated ad nauseam. Redundant information. Why knock yourself out transmitting all the data that’s been read, if a compression algorithm can reduce the complete packet to a smaller size without losing a single bit in the process?
The traveler dematerializes, then, at the departure station. The information is processed and compressed, and that’s the data packet that is transmitted, now compacted and much, much smaller. At the destination, an inverse algorithm reassembles the information and the traveler materializes as if he’s just left the house. There is one additional economy: the way stations, if they’re needed, are simple. You don’t need to install decompressors at each station; the functions of restoring and refreshing are satisfied just as simply with the compressed packet. And so what materializes there isn’t very easy on the eyes: a pellet of collapsed matter, with maybe one or two hints of structure to give away its organic origin. Gross.
That’s exactly what this business was all about. I was leafing though my stimvids for the nth time, with the usual results. That is to say, none. Not even my hairs move anymore. Not from that, or the others, or the books, nothing. Sick of it all and with an indescribable loneliness putting a chill on everything, I felt like the unluckiest of souls. And the stupidest, too, for having volunteered to crawl into that cage. Just as I heard the signal for a transfer in progress, I was reaching that inverse nirvana which in those cases substitutes for an orgasm and which, I suppose, is the mother of all suicide fantasies. Once certain limits have been passed, some emergencies are no longer negotiable.
Still, everything went fine and everything was under control; I was already much more than used to it. I wasn’t going to kill myself; the engineers are just overly paranoid when it comes to a Station’s security. I guess it’s exactly because they know what goes on inside there. But they were afraid, no doubt about that. They doped me up on gas and dispatched an express ship with my replacement. I’m not complaining; I couldn’t take it out there any more. But I’m not crazy. No sir. They misread me. I had no intentions of killing myself. Like I said. I would never have ordered the computer to open the windows on the station like they say I did. That’s just not true. There aren’t even any windows.
Everything was going fine, or, at the very least, within the norms. Countdown on the display, data packet received, lump materializing. An especially revolting lump. As I let the minute and a half tick by, I glanced over, out of pure routine, at the transfer sleeve.
And then I saw the name of the passenger du jour.
As soon as it had finally sunk in that I really had The Diva in front of me, in flesh and blood, although not exactly in that order, my mind exploded. All my fuses fused.
I began to cry. Sure, I was desperate. Maybe I did change a little.
What would you have done? I had every last gram of the most sensual and coveted female in all the galaxy there in front of me, naked like the day she was born and within my grasp, all mine but converted into a freeze-dried packet, a plate of broth, a mass of fused organs! A fucking Zip file, and me without Dora or any aces up my sleeve!
Warning: Take great care decompressing compressed files. Be careful; your mental health could be adversely affected.
Four months ago, on publishing “En alas de mariposa” [On butterfly wings] by Ricardo Castrilli, we said that he needed no introduction. But this is a good time to reiterate the coordinates of his stories in Axxón: “Cronoplasma" (Chronoplasm: Axxón 139), "Propiedad horizontal" (Horizontal property: 140), "Tiempo, maldita daga" (Time, cursèd dagger: 145), "Iniciación" (Initiation: 147), "Resplandores" (Glimmerings: 151), "Muchacha en pabellón con fondo de volcanes" (Girl in a pavillion with volcanoes in the background: 152) and the previously cited "En alas de mariposa" (156). Without fear of repeating ourselves we assure you that this story (“Zip”) does not resemble any others that the author has written, and perhaps any others that anyone else has ever written either.
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