My old friend Daniel had provided a sobering example to all of us, an example that makes one shudder down to their bones. He had graduated from university with a degree in subatomic physics, before following a number of poorly-paid jobs that had led off like the paths made by sheep, fading away into nowhere. He had defaulted on his rent and he thereafter became like a shrinking man, shrivelling into the size of an insect whilst the same old bills and payments loomed around him, the same size as before but now gigantic. He finally went home to live with his mother.
Neither of them could stand each other, and so Daniel spent every evening lying in his tiny, child’s room, lying there as uselessly as the dust which lay on everything. He had no money for the pub or the cinema. You fall behind from your friends without money, they become vague, uncertain figures trotting far ahead in the sunshine, whilst you drop back, saddled down by the weight of your poverty.
On the third day, his mother gave him an ultimatum. If he did not stop smoking, she would leave. She owned a miserable little dog called Joshua – the sort of thing that you would pick up and use to wipe the table if you were not thinking – and this feeble creature had been apparently made deeply upset by Daniel’s arrival.
“It’s the cigarettes!” his mother warned. “His lungs are unable to cope.”
Joshua looked up at them with huge, sad eyes. Daniel was very glad that Joshua could not talk, else he was sure that Joshua would be now making the most infernal fuss. A gambling man, Daniel calculated that a good smart kick would either kill this dog or vastly improve his character, and watching Joshua now, Daniel’s foot reverberated with the knowledge of all of the massive power collected inside it.
His mother had announced that she would leave in such a way that really meant, “you should leave.” She was hardly going to trot off with her rat-sized dog and leave Daniel to enjoy the peace of her abandoned apartment. She had lately grown fearful in dealing with Daniel, as if he was an unpredictable new electrical appliance that might malfunction disruptively if she tilted it the wrong way.
Outside, rain followed arctic winds. Under Edinburgh’s sky, summer was unimaginable, as far-fetched as any scenario from science fiction. One trying to smoke was conscious only of the stinging rain and the cold that seemed to sneak in around your neck and snort down your back. Daniel could no longer smoke indoors or outside. Joshua seemed no happier, but he appeared to have been begrudgingly appeased.
One day Daniel left a message for me at the offices of Pollock Halls. He asked me to visit him at the laboratories in the University of Edinburgh’s Informatics Forum. He wanted me to help him finalise a project that could be submitted as part of a postgraduate application. I toyed with the feasibility of ignoring this message, for I had resolved not to visit Daniel until he had found a job, knowing how melancholy unemployed people can be. I was also aware that I could be at best only amused by Daniel’s research, as it was often scarcely comprehensible.
For example, there was that weekend when Daniel had claimed to have discovered a new form of proton. We both spent over sixteen hours reading through pages of binary code as they were churned out of a computer system, searching for a particular nine digits. We never found them, although Daniel still claims to this day that they are buried somewhere within his forty thousand pages of code.
I phoned Daniel to acquire more details about the project and the nature of my involvement. I put the phone down none the wiser, but he had sounded very droll, which intrigued me because Daniel had no previous record of ever having a sense of humour. I finally decided to make an appearance at the laboratories. Daniel was planted in the entrance with a cigarette and after waiting for him to finish, I followed him along a series of corridors, whilst the throb of the outside world grew steadily fainter.
A large airy studio which looked like somewhere you would find ballet dancers rehearsing. Smirking to himself, Daniel showed me what looked like the sort of booth where you have your passport photo taken. He gave a short demonstration in which he sat a potted cactus in the booth and then pulled the little curtain over it. He typed some instructions into a laptop which was connected to the booth and then there was a flat little sound like somebody cupping their hands together. Daniel pulled the curtain back and the cactus was gone.
I waited for a solution to reach me. “This isn’t a magic trick, is it?”
I nodded grimly. Daniel asked me to watch a patch of floor on the other side of the studio, and here the cactus duly materialised. It had a slight smell of burning and it was a little warm, but it was otherwise quite solid.
To my immense surprise, I was now more than amused. “We’ve discussed teleportation before and you’ve always maintained that you need to have a sort of bucket of electrified jelly established at the destination, to allow the teleported matter to reform.”
Daniel laughed again. His laughter has a very boyish and an almost unused quality, like the first taste of lemonade from a newly opened bottle. It suddenly seemed as if he had never laughed so much in his life until this moment.
“The maths is complex,” Daniel said dryly, “but in this new system the matter contracts in a single movement, rather like a heartbeat, into a sort of temporary black hole and the same matter will expand within a successive black hole created using a proton laser. The laser is trained using the coordinates on my laptop.”
Daniels grinned. “I’m actually using GoogleEarth.”
I was trying to remonstrate with Daniel, but I found myself sinking helplessly to my knees. It was then as if there had been a great crack in my chest and hundreds of clouds were racing through my head.
“Am I going too quickly?” Daniel asked with a sudden wonder. “Would you like another demonstration?”
“This is incredible,” I whispered. “You’ve changed everything. The economy will skyrocket. Goods and resources can be transported around the world in an instant. All restrictions upon human transport are now obsolete. My God…” for a moment I nodded at the very extremes of consciousness, “what will happen to the tram?”
“Biggy,” Daniel waved his hands in impatience. “I’ve invented this for smokers.”
Unable to comprehend what he was saying, I just gazed at him.
“It’s incredibly inconvenient to smoke if you live in Edinburgh. With my machine, smokers can be teleported to somewhere… sunnier… nicer… less windy… when they need a cigarette.”
“You’ve invented human teleportation… for smokers?”
A distant, utopian look came into Daniel’s eyes. “The technology costs practically nothing. I’ll put this on the market for less than thirty pounds, so that every smoker will be able to afford one…”
As I was going under again, a branch of sense shot past and I grabbed for it. “The world doesn’t work like that, Daniel. They tried to improve the lives of smokers with E-cigarettes, and the anti-smoking lobby simply hounded the manufacturers out of business. The system will crush you.”
Daniel ignored me. “I want to remove the booth from this laboratory to my mother’s house. It’s made from university materials, but it’s still my booth. I’m figuring that the Informatics Forum will settle down once it gets dark, and we should be able to dismantle the booth and carry it across to Leith.”
“It can’t teleport itself?”
Daniel looked at me. “Are you trying to be funny?”
The thing weighed an absolute ton. Half way down Leith Walk, I vowed to whatever God who might be listening that from now on, I would go to the gym daily. At one point I broke down and begged Daniel to hail a taxi, but he told me that he did not have enough change. Indeed, until they paid his Jobseekers he had only a pound in all the world.
I forced him to stop outside Shrubhill place. Half of my clothes were suddenly unnecessary and I was slipping about inside them in discomfort. I had scarcely flapped some warm air into my face before we had to begin again.
There were stairs waiting – there always are – and it quickly became apparent that the teleportation booth had not been dismantled enough, for it got stuck trying to scrape through a succession of doorways. There was neither sufficient space for it in Daniel’s bedroom nor room to assemble it.
Daniel’s mother made us both mugs of thick, rather foul tea. Daniel had told her that this machine would make their fortune and that it would get her a free holiday in the Mediterranean. It had not occurred to her that these two things might be unconnected.
We finally had the booth back to its old shape, stuck out between the bed and the wardrobe, and blocking all the light from the window. “Now, we can have a cigarette!” Daniel roared, looking suddenly a little mad.
The next problem was that once we were both teleported, nobody would remain at the original end to bring us back again. Daniel did not trust his mother to operate the machine, but there was a loud Indian family spilling out of the next flat and from all of the kids chasing a ball around in the garden, we selected the one who looked the most sensible. He admittedly could not have been more than eight years old. Daniel told him that he could have a pound if he followed our instructions correctly.
Daniel went over the instructions twice and the kid looked suitably solemn at all of his new responsibilities. I privately doubted that he could even speak English. Then Daniel and I climbed into the booth and Daniel pulled the little curtain over.
I sat back in anticipation. “Are we going to die?”
“Well, I’ve only tested it on a cactus before. I’ve called the cactus Laika, of course.”
I suddenly froze. “Seriously? I’m a test pilot?”
“Ah, relax. I can’t think of anything that could possibly go wrong.”
“Hey, stop this thing! We really need to think about it!”
“Relax. It will be fine.”
“Yes, we’ll end up on the moon or at the bottom of the sea or in some country we’ve never heard of before.”
“No, the destination is the only sure thing. The risk is that our bodies will re-materialise in a microscopic form or as the size of windmills. You’ll know that scene from David Cronenburg’s The Fly when they try to teleport a baboon and it arrives at the other end inside out, screeching and with all of its internal organs bouncing about like popcorn…”
I shifted uneasily in my seat. “Now is not the best time to think about that scene…”
We burst out of the booth like parachutists, to be hit with the sight of huge mountains, vastly green and drenched in sunshine. I was on my feet in an instant, running my hands through thick grass and tangled wildflowers. The air was richer and cooler than wine. Daniel bellowed at the soaring blue sky and the faintest of echoes flashed wondrously around the rim of the mountains.
“Where are we?” I cried.
Daniel smiled and he nodded his head with satisfaction as if along to some jaunty, triumphant music. “New Zealand.”
We were ecstatic, we had circumnavigated the world, and then Daniel’s face fell.
“What is it? What’s gone wrong?”
Daniel looked up at me, stunned, before he finally managed to choke out that he had forgotten his lighter.
I chuckled. “Like them going to the moon and leaving the golf balls behind?”
“I’ve ruined everything.”
“It’s okay. I have a lighter here.”
We each smoked a cigarette and took it slowly, taking pleasure in the smoke and the sunshine, whilst New Zealand lay immaculate at our feet.
After five minutes, Daniel sent a text message to the Indian kid to initiate our return. The expense of texting from across the world is probably the greatest drawback of the process. We had to pinpoint the time of our return to ensure that we were in a seated position. If we were returned standing, then we might bump our heads against the ceiling of the booth.
Once home, we found the Indian kid to be completely unnerved and as soon as Daniel had put the pound coin into his little paw, he shot away squealing for his mother.
Stepping out of the booth, I had noticed that the leather of my shoes was now very dry and that Daniel’s hair had a faint burning smell. Even though I had only been away for ten minutes, I felt exhausted. Yet it had been a very informative and satisfactory day, and I thanked Daniel on the doorstep for taking me into his confidence.
Daniel’s mother had already gone to bed by the time that he turned in, but her miserable little dog was still yapping in the living room. Unable to sleep, Daniel finally went in search of the creature, he scooped it up, and he carried it whimpering to his room. He set the coordinates for somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. He will have to treat his mother to quite a holiday before she can ever forgive him.
[Tychy has previously written about E-cigarettes here. Ed.]