This is the story of the day I didn’t die.
I know. That’s most days. Every day, actually, except for one, and when that day happens you don’t actually get to be the one telling the story. Well, trust me. Roll with it.
My name is Elena Irizarri. I was about to be— half an hour away, maybe—the most famous nerd in human history. My face next to ‘nerd’ in the dictionary level famous. Who is this ‘Gates’ person? famous. All I had to do was walk out on stage as soon as my introduction was finished, wave, walk through one door, and walk out another.
The doors were fifteen feet apart, and I wouldn’t be walking through the space in between. That was the tricky part. We had finally cracked it: human teleportation, across, at least in theory, unlimited distance.
The guy doing my introduction was a billionaire. He was one of maybe half a dozen extraordinarily wealthy people who had poured truly unseemly amounts of cash into the enterprise my father and uncle had started decades ago, and of the original moneybags who were still alive he’d donated the most, so he got to bask in the attention as we proved ourselves to the world.
Sadly, neither Dad nor Uncle Epigmenio were around to witness the proceedings. Dad had passed away fifteen years ago, and Tío Epi … well, that’s a long story, one that ends with he wasn’t allowed on the premises any longer. Dad had come up with the theoretical underpinnings of teleportation in grad school, and had followed it with a monomania that would have landed all of us in the poorhouse had he not made friends with the sole scion of one of the wealthiest families on the East Coast. The Humboldts knew genius when they saw it, and they also saw ancillary benefits when they saw them. They bankrolled Dad’s experiments until those side benefits started producing money on their own, and after that investors never stopped calling.
Here’s how teleportation works, in a nutshell: first, an object is transformed into a data stream on a molecular level. Then that data stream is piped at the speed of light to what is effectively a giant 3D printer some distance away. That 3D printer rebuilds the object. Kapow! Instantaneous (well, really fast) travel across intense distances.
Every single word in that sentence was impossible when Dad got started. Moving the data alone—a small rock needed terabytes of data to properly replicate—required innovations in data storage and transfer that made Moore’s Law slow and obsolete and basically rebuilt the entire communications industry from the ground up. Along the way, we invented replication, which was easier than teleportation—because you needed to be able to scan something on a molecular level and then rebuild a perfect copy before you even tackled the question of moving that data. That shook up entire industries too, although it was expensive and complicated enough that it hadn’t come close to being widely available yet.
By the time Dad was 60 and I was 10—it took him a while to get around to having a family—they had managed to transform most of Puerto Rico into a tech hub and he was ready to start trials with living things. By the time I was old enough to help with the family business, we were starting to think about moving on to vertebrates. God, the fights we had with ethics boards, every step of the way, and the painstaking work needed to make sure that the animals weren’t feeling pain, that they were maintaining their memories, that what came out of one teleporter was really the same creature as the one that went in—and all the work necessary to handle the step up in object complexity that came along with it. Even a simple worm is an order of magnitude more complicated than any artificial object. A goat? Forget about it.
Okay, I guess I got around to Tío Epi after all: he started secret animal trials way before we were ready, and hid them from all of us. He was in his nineties now; I hadn’t seen him in decades but from all reports he was still hale and hearty and basically hated everyone connected with the company.
I snapped out of my reverie long enough to listen to Bill Humboldt’s speech for a few minutes. He wasn’t even a third of the way through; I’d seen the final draft. Still plenty of time to wait.
Interesting things happen when you start talking about teleporting people. We’d done everything we could, as I said to ensure that the animal at one end of a ‘port was the same animal at the other end. We’d tested memory, personality, we’d given an animal a command and then teleported it and then watched as the animal that came out the other side performed that command, everything we could think of. And, amazingly, we’d done it without very many catastrophic failures, a fun euphemism that meant “dead animals.” As it worked out, all the safety protocols we’d built into object teleportation meant that trying and failing to transport a living thing just meant that nothing happened—a partially successful teleport, which is way grosser than you think it is no matter how active your imagination is—was an incredibly rare occurrence.
But yeah. The problem was people. People have souls. Or maybe they don’t! It’s not like we’d managed to find the things, or empirically demonstrate their existence or their non-existence. But even if we don’t really have souls, we certainly think and feel like we have souls, and it turns out that a whole lot of people have real problems with the idea that they could literally be broken down into zeroes and ones and rebuilt and the thing that was rebuilt was still them. More people were willing to simply die than have some other thing with their memories and personality running around pretending to be them, convinced it was them—and once that idea of teleportation took root in someone’s head, it was damned hard to dislodge it.
So the “human trials” portion of the process just sort of … never happened. We couldn’t make anyone be a subject, and no ethics board anywhere would approve the trials, and even an attempt to get some death row prisoners to volunteer got shot down by the government. We’d made Puerto Rico a state and they still wouldn’t let us.
Which was why the first human teleported was going to be me. In front of an exclusive gathering of several hundred people. And on live TV.
I really, really hoped it was going to work.
The crowd went nuts. I’d spaced out again; apparently Bill was done with his speech, and there was a handler approaching me with a mildly worried you probably need to get your butt on stage now look on his face.
I wasn’t supposed to talk. I had a speech in my pocket, but I wasn’t to say a word until the performance was over.
There were two teleportation pods on the stage. The first was at stage level, but the second was on poles, several feet above the ground, with a little stairway off to the side. It had been pointed out to us that doing a teleportation trick on a stage would look exactly like every magician’s trick ever employed for hundreds of years; we hoped that by lifting the destination pod a few feet up would sufficiently prove that I hadn’t just climbed down through the stage.
I shook hands with Bill and waved to the crowd and then went to the first pod. They’d told me that what with trying to whip the crowd into a frenzy and basic showmanship I should expect about two minutes between going into the first pod and coming out of the second. It would take a little bit longer than that; the data transfer time was nearly nonexistent at this distance but I wouldn’t perceive any of that.
I wouldn’t be able to hear or see a thing once going inside the pod; animal trials had shown that it was best if the pods were complete sensory deprivation chambers. Being in one place and then being in a completely different place in the blink of an eye had proved to be highly agitating to our more intelligent test subjects.
So I stood there in the dark. Two minutes was an incredibly long time when you couldn’t see or hear anything, so I did a countdown in my head. At about the 2:30 mark I felt a painful ripple across my entire body. It hurt more than I had expected, actually; we’d sent animals through with sensors embedded in their brains and they generally didn’t show much of a pain response at all, although there was clearly a sensory component to being ripped apart and being put back together.
Okay. I was across, and I’d survived. Now to wait for the door to open.
And about ten seconds later, it did. The sudden bright light meant it took a moment to orient myself and realize something had gone terribly wrong.
I was still in the first pod. I hadn’t moved. The test was a failure.
So why was everyone applauding so loudly? Bill Humboldt had never looked happier. The crowd was on their feet and everyone was going nuts.
And Bill was pointing at the second pod. No one was looking at me.
What the hell was going on? I took a couple of steps out of my pod, surprised at how shaky my knees were. I hadn’t even written a “well, that didn’t work” speech.
And then watched as I stepped out of the second pod, reaching out to take Bill’s hand as I walked down the stairs. The other me had shaky knees, too.
My hair looks terrible, I thought, ridiculously.
I didn’t know what to do. No one could see me.
“Bill!” I shouted. No reaction. I started shouting to myself and abruptly realized I didn’t know what to call me. I just walked over, standing right behind Bill, watching as I came down the stairs.
Bill turned, letting go of my hand, and walked straight through me on his way back to the podium.
And the other one—the other me—it looked at me. Straight in the eye.
And it winked.
And it walked through me on the way to the podium, pulled my speech out of my pocket, and delivered it. Flawlessly. I stood there in disbelief as it happened.
What had we done?