Short Story - The Trip

This is a science fiction story, though it's more of a social commentary. I don't expect that it's original or ground breaking, just fun. That is why we read short stories, isn't it? 

I wrote this while working as a technical writer in corporate America. If you've ever seen the movie Office Space then you have some idea what that's like and you may understand my motivation. At one point I was one of the highest paid technical writers in NYC, which is saying quite a bit. That was shortly before I joined the Dot Com boom and experienced a brief flirtation with wealth. I was never like the people in this story though. I always had one rule: never work for someone who knows your job. If someone knows what you do, then that person can expect you to do it efficiently. Forget that noise! I was like Scotty in engineering. "Yes captain, I can do that...it will take four days!" Sure it will, Scotty. Sure it will. 

The Trip

by

Michael Edelson

     Whenever I’m in the tubeway I always think back to my ninth birthday. My father took me to the opening of a very long movie at a brand new theater across town. Back in the 20s a forty five minute movie was considered normal, and I did enjoy it, though I’ve no doubt that part of it was the novelty of actually getting to spend time with my old man. It was that first ride on the tubetrain that really captured my imagination and made that day memorable though.

     It’s hard for me to rationalize what I ever saw in the tubeway when I look at it through adult eyes, but I can’t deny that I sometimes get a tingle when I see the sleek tubetrain pull up to the station. The only thing I can think of is that when I was nine, the then futuristic looking train represented my hope for a better and calmer tomorrow. Gliding through translucent tunnels on maglev rails at over three hundred miles per hour, the train was quiet, and despite its speed, somehow serene. You could actually expect to find a seat back then, and the cushions were new and smelled like fresh plastic.

     The train itself no longer holds any interest for me,  particularly because I can’t usually see much of it from inside. In fact I can barely stand without pressing up against the people around me. The smell of mingled sweat is unpleasant and strong, despite the untiring efforts of the train’s filtration system. The smell follows me everywhere I go, and no matter how many times I have my apartment cleaned I can’t seem to rid myself of it.

     All around me, eyephones are blinking and passenger’s eyes are darting back forth as they respond to images only they can see. I can make out fragments of a dozen or more conversations taking place within a few feet of where I’m standing. Just as I’m about to sigh with disgust, my own eyephone blinks with an incoming call. I am no stranger to hypocrisy.

     A subconscious effort of will on my part displays a true-to-life image of my assistant overlaid on the scene in front of me.

     “Mr. Wang?” he says in that ridiculously whiny voice he considers respectful. He fears me, of course, as his job is the only thing keeping him out of the undercity. There is a place in our society for people without corporate affiliation, but it’s not a place anyone in their right mind would want to be.

     “Yes?” I reply, almost in a whisper. I have no desire to add to the din around me, though on an average twenty minute commute I deal with no less than five or six calls, most of them from my sniveling assistant. Of course that’s in the privacy of my acar. It’s been years since I’ve had to take the tubetrain.

     “Sorry to disturb you, sir, but Sudhir Pandit from Yamamoto needs to confirm some of the details of your meeting next week.”

     I sigh. “Carl, I’m on vacation. Can’t this wait four days?”

     He swallows, sensing my irritation. “I’m sorry, sir, but technically your vacation doesn’t start for another two hours and Mr. Pandit insists…”

     “Put him through,” I say, trying my best to keep the resignation out of my voice. It only takes me a minute to deal with the hard faced Indian, but then most things today take only a minute or two. Efficiency is not only the new religion, it’s practically the law.

     My father used to tell me that when I grew up, I would be someone important, that I would climb above the squirming masses and their uber-hectic lives. He was partially right, I am someone very important. In a society where world leaders spend their time begging for corporate handouts to fund their social programs, being the CFO of a fortune one hundred firm is like being the prime minister of a small nation back when the world was at least partially sane. Yet in my cushy executive acar I am just as busy and overwhelmed as these miserable wretches crowded into this tubetrain capsule. Am I really better off? So much of life is online that how you get around and what sort of office you sit in makes little difference.

     If there were a better way to live, I’d call my life a dismal failure when held up against my father’s hopes, but there isn’t, not really. I suppose I could go to work for Globacom. They’ve offered to buy out my portfolio and their upper management doesn’t work on Sundays. If you believe rumors, though, they’ll be going Chapter 32 within the year. Risking unemployment and a possible one way trip to the undercity is not worth a few supposed days off, if you ask me.

     It’s not like I need to take chances. I am one of the least unfortunate of the non-investment class. My portfolio is worth more than a billion, but it’s all funny money. The only truly rich of today’s world sit on corporate boards. The rest of us are only permitted the illusion of wealth, so long as we continue to spend our lives working to enrich the elites of the upper crust. As a wage slave, I am permitted to keep only a tiny fraction of my assets in liquid form, the rest must be invested in my company’s stock with a conditional vestment based on my continued employment. So I might be as rich as a board member of a less prosperous corporation, but only as long as I continue to work. The board member actually has real money. I wonder who bought that law.

     To be fair, my life has no small share of privileges, and this tubetrain ride is taking me to one of them. As I’ve mentioned, I’m far too high up the ladder to ride the train, but today I decided to remind myself of what I was leaving behind, however temporarily. I’m on my way to the cosmoport to catch a shuttle to Isley Station in high Earth orbit. From there I will take the journey of a lifetime, something I have worked my ass off for ever since I’ve read about it in the scientific journals. It can be said that my current status is owed at least in part to my ambition to one day be able to afford this incredible luxury.

It is without exception the most expensive vacation money can buy, by an extremely wide margin. One step down the ladder is the Red Sands resort on Mars, and I can go there 368 times for what this one trip is costing me. Assuming I had the time to go to Mars, of course. I don’t feel bad, though. One thing you can always do with funny money is spend it, as long as it’s not on assets. So why not blow a fifth of my portfolio on something that will make me truly happy, at least for a little while?

     The train ride is a blur. I try very hard to pay attention, to revel in the drudgery of common life before embarking on my voyage, but I can’t. I’m too excited. I feel alive for the first time since I can remember.

     The train pulls into the cosmoport and I hustle to get off in the few seconds I have before the doors close. Trying to press my way down the right passageway I fight through the crowds as the moving floor carries me to shuttle check in. Another call comes in on my eyephone and I deal with it without paying too much attention, just like always. I notice that I have about 140 emails, but technically I don’t have to get those until I come back from vacation, so I don’t.

     Security is over quickly, and the full body scan is interesting as always. Like most people, I look over it, trying to spot tumors. Why not? You never know.

     Before long I’m sitting in a seat in the shuttle listening to safety warnings from the cockpit. Blah, blah, blah. As though they really care if I die. I’ve already signed the damned waiver. At least first class isn’t as crowded as the rest of the cabin. I can actually sit without touching anyone.

     Takeoff is uneventful and smooth, and I doze of for a little while before the shuttle breaks the atmosphere. As I wipe the sleep from my eyes, we dock with the station and people are already crawling over each other trying to get to their carryons. Space flight isn’t cheap, so these bustling mad persons are all high ranking executives. Look at how successful they all are. Can’t even spare a minute to disembark gracefully.

     Once I step onto Isley, things become much less hectic. The halls are nearly empty. I can walk without bumping into people. I stop for a snack and there are only two people in line ahead of me. I am starting to get really excited. Just being on this station is vacation enough for most people, but not for me. I’m taken back to that day at the movies with my father again. I can remember my childish excitement and I’m thrilled to be feeling it again with all its intensity! Now, for once, my money is worth something to me. I’ve never reveled in the power my position gives me they way most of my peers do. I just don’t get their desire to force their pathetic wills on others, or their constant need to display their opulence. It’s amazing to me that even in 2065 the best and brightest of us can’t overcome our most basic human instincts.

     Here I am, finally, at the entrance to the embarkation center. I am greeted by a smiling woman in a lab coverall.

     “Mr. Wang,” she says, extending her hand. I shake it. “We are honored to host you today. Would you like to take a tour of the facilities before you depart?”

     “Not really,” I say. I’m very eager to get started.”

     She smiles. “Certainly sir. If you’re ready, then, please follow me.”

     She takes me down a few corridors. I pass a room where two CEOs I recognize from last week’s Intracom conference are receiving a lecture around a 3V set. The disembodied voice is talking about relativity and the direct subtraction of energy, whatever that means. I’m curious about the details, but not enough to postpone my vacation or to risk getting caught up in a networking session. I don’t like being so eager or impatient, but that’s the way life has made me.

     We go through a door and emerge into what looks like a large hangar bay. In the bay are three silver spheres about the size of a tubetrain section floating above the floor. A maglev bridge connects a door on the surface of each sphere to a metal stairway. Surrounding each sphere are robotic arms that terminate in a point of light that glows so brightly that I can’t look directly at it. I stop for a bit, staring at the one that is to be mine. I know it’s mine because it’s the only one with an open door.

     “Amazing, aren’t they?” the woman says. I think she must have told me her name at one point, but I can’t remember. Sometimes details just get lost in the noise.

     “Yes,” I say, not wanting to take my eyes off the sphere. “I’ve always wondered…ah, never mind.” I don’t have time for this. I’m spending enough money on this vacation to start a mid size company. I want to get underway before some emergency at the office calls me back. Once in the sphere, I’ll be safe, but out here...

     “Are you certain? I can give you a brief rundown. Or you can ask a question. I promise to make the answer as quick and concise as possible.”

     “Quick? Well I guess it can’t hurt. I was just wondering. Isn’t it supposed to work the other way around? I don’t know much about relativity, but…”

     “It can work both ways,” she replies, not even momentarily confused by my poorly phrased question. My scientific education is minimal and I don’t exactly have time to better myself. “What we do is more akin to deceleration, relative to the Earth.”

     “Won’t that mean the sphere has to go somewhere? Or rather not go and be left behind?”

     “Normally, yes, but we’re not actually changing its velocity. Were extracting energy directly, which gives us the same results without the necessity for displacement.”

     “I see,” I lie. I don’t really understand the nuances, but then I don’t really care. “I’m ready to get started.”

     She smiles and points toward the stairs. I walk up, focusing on each step as my heart pounds in my chest with excitement. I take one last look at the brilliant sphere, then step inside. The door hisses shut behind me.

     “We’ll begin as soon as you are ready, sir,” the woman’s voice says through an intercom in the sphere.

     I step through another door four feet from the first and into a small but comfortable living space. The spherical walls are white and glaring, but soon they will show whatever animated landscape or other image I want them to show. I think I’ll start with a mountain lake in what Colorado used to look like. No one around, of course. The one thing I don’t want to see is a human being.

     There is a comfortable lavatory, a kitchenette stocked with sufficient food for my “trip,” a couch, a bed and some other furniture. I have water, various hard and soft drinks and of course lots of snacks. Even real fruit. I sit on the plush sofa near the bookcase and browse the titles, relishing in the smell of the leather bindings. A 3V set in the floor is supposed to be stocked with nearly every movie and serial ever made. An eLife headset lies on a small coffee table. It’s supposed to have special games and simulations, ones that last for days or weeks instead of minutes.

     The most prominent feature, at least to me, is a clock on the wall. It is an old fashioned digital clock with large red digits. Above the display are words that send a tingle down my spine; “Earth Time(GMT)”. The seconds tick away.

     “We are ready when you are, sir,” the woman’s voice says. “Just say the word.”

     “I’m ready.” I shout eagerly.

     I feel a little strange as the floor seems to lurch under my feet, though of course the sphere doesn’t move. That much I do understand. I stare at the Earth Time clock incredulously as the changing numbers begin to slow down. In just a few perceived seconds, the time on the clock reads 07:16:11. And doesn’t change. I stare at the clock, refusing to look away, until it ticks over. It now reads 07:16:12. According my eyephone, sixty seconds have passed. My vacation is four Earth days long. It’s what I get every year. I will be here for eight months.

     Eight whole months. Nothing can disturb me, it is impossible to communicate with the outside world. I will talk to no one, see no one. I will read, watch 3V, play eLife games, whatever I want. I think I’ll start with a long nap. I’m really very tired.

     What an amazing privilege I have earned. Not even the irony of it can ruin the moment. The pinnacle of human technological achievement is the ability to give us back the very thing we started with. No matter. At least for me, the promise of the bright future I first saw in that sleek tubetrain nearly 40 years ago has finally materialized. I can, at last, afford some free time. I wish my father were here to see me.