The bump was enough to spill a small quantity of his drink.
He reached over to the table—convenient, really, that the space was so small—and picked up a napkin. Carefully he blotted up the spill, avoiding the printouts strewn across the desk.
As he opened the trash panel and threw the napkin in, it occurred to him belatedly that the bump had been unusually strong. He frowned, then checked his watch. Time for a break anyway. Time to play his favorite mental game – where, exactly, was he?
The short answer was that he was home, as always. Looking around confirmed this—the same desk, same bed, same small kitchen and eating area, all of it crammed into a space that was about 19 feet long, 7 feet wide, and 7 feet high. This allowed the exterior dimensions to be exactly 20 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 8 feet high—the size of the standard twenty-foot equivalent unit used by shipping companies all over the world.
No coincidence, of course. In fact, at this moment his home was being shipped to South America, site of his next job. The door was shut. Above it a red light glowed; “do not exit.” The blinds on the window opposite the door were also shut, although he could open them if he wanted. He didn’t want to, however. His TEU was painted bright red, to indicate that its contents were a little less sturdy than the plastic toys and toaster ovens that fill most shipping containers. Hence the nickname for people like him—“redwalls.” Most crane operators, when they saw a red TEU, would be careful to load it on the ship last, so it was at the top. Some, however, took a sadistic pleasure in stuffing a red TEU way down in the bottom of the hold, and he had no particular desire to find out which was the case this time.
He was on a ship, he was almost certain. Years of travel with no view outside had desensitized him to most feelings of motion, but that bump had felt more like a ship coming into a dock a little too hard, rather than a plane landing or a truck hitting a bump in the road. A status indicator on the wall confirmed that his support TEU, painted bright green, was hooked up next to him, giving him a month of air, water, and food. On a plane they usually didn’t bother hooking it up.
On a ship, as expected…certainly there had been enough lead time to get him to South America by ship, but he never knew what Magellan was thinking. Sometimes Magellan would hold him back longer than necessary, even if it meant he had to fly him to the site. Flying the TEU was prohibitively expensive, he knew, although in point of fact he neither knew nor cared how much any of this cost; he only knew that if he went where Magellan told him to and did his job for his clients, his bank account would continue to grow, and someone would keep paying the bills that allowed him to continue his fantastical lifestyle.
He checked his display. He could simply have asked where he was, and gotten a result so accurate that he could determine how high the waves were by monitoring the change in position. But that was too easy. In any case, living as he did, his exact position was generally irrelevant, as long as he was on track to get to his next client on time (which the display informed him, in the one section that he could not remove, would mean arriving in 2 days, 3 hours). What mattered was his level of connectivity to the worldwide data network, and the speed with which needed physical items could be brought to him.
Assuming the boat had docked, his connectivity should be pretty high, once the ship’s main data cable was hooked up to a landline. Still with satellite bandwidth increasing so rapidly, it was hard to tell any difference from what was available at sea…He checked on what foods he could get. A milkshake was ten minutes away, presumably from the ship’s kitchen; a freshly cooked steak was half an hour away, that must be from a restaurant on shore. He brought up his personal craving, a bagel with cream cheese from his favorite bakery in New York City. It showed the usual time, four hours. Enough time for a young man in a new suit to be dispatched to the store, purchase the item, and through a combination of limousines, airplanes, and helicopters, deliver it to him. There was no cost listed beside the items; if he needed a bagel, then nothing would do but that heaven and earth move to bring him his bagel. The cost was something for Magellan to hide in a client’s bill.
Playing around with the availability of certain brand-name fast-food items, he decided that the ship was docked in San Juan, Puerto Rico. After hesitating a bit, he confirmed this with the display. He checked his watch again. Time to get some sleep. He had to make sure his sleep schedule had him waking up a few hours before he arrived at the client’s site.
The first TEU apartment was in Tokyo Harbor, a development known as Kiseki City. It had begun as a way to simplify construction. Every unit was self-contained, with standardized connections for air, water, network, waste, and so on, and by making them the standard shipping size, they could be built anywhere in the world and delivered easily. Kiseki City had been constructed next to the floating airport, and soon a certain class of knowledge workers began to gravitate to it, workers who valued the proximity to the airport above all else, and who spent so little time in their homes that the small size didn’t bother them.
Eventually someone had the idea of modifying Kiseki City so that individual containers could be detached and sent to the other TEU apartments that were springing up around the globe. But the inhabitants still traveled separately, meeting up with their movable homes for long-term assignments elsewhere.
Finally, with the development of the green support TEUs, the infrastructure was in place to allow people to move inside their homes, the ultimate travel perk for those who could command it.
His nominal home was Bak Stad, a TEU apartment outside Rotterdam. In practice this merely meant that on the rare occasions when a job finished before a new one had been lined up, his TEU would be loaded on a ship bound in the general direction of the Netherlands. Often, before he arrived back home, Magellan would call and he would get redirected somewhere else.
It was a shame, in a way. With his TEU nestled in its berth in Bak Stad, his window afforded him a beautiful view over the water. Any food or product was available within hours. He could leave his TEU, stroll the common areas, occasionally chat with his neighbors, other redwalls like himself. Many of them would be gone, off on their own jobs. Bak Stad was fully leased, but rarely more than one-third full.
When he awoke, a message was waiting for him from Idea Auction, a knowledge broker. To amuse himself he occasionally bid, sight unseen, on the right to have a first peek at new writing from various deep thinkers. In this case, the message informed him that he had placed the second-highest bid on a 546-word pensee from Naoe Hoshizaki, a young topological economist. The highest bidder had seen it a week ago; he would now have one day before the third-place bidder was given an hour to look at it, at which point it would be released to the world.
He read the document, a quick insight into the way daylight savings time affected the interaction between stock prices on the New York and Tokyo exchanges. Interesting, but he wasn’t sure how he was going to use the idea to get rich in the next 24 hours. It wasn’t so much his location, somewhere amidst a pile of containers on a ship in the Caribbean; he was as connected as he ever was. He simply didn’t have the energy, or the time, to concentrate on it, with his arrival at the client site less than 48 hours away. He wondered idly what the high bidder had been up to in the past week.
Meeting a client for the first time made him nervous. He was aware that his services were expensive, compounded by his mode of travel. Emerging from his TEU, he often felt like an alien landing on Earth. He knew that some people mocked him, comparing him to a baby who always needed the same car seat and the same pacifier wherever they traveled. Still it was hard, leaving his ultra-tech, air-conditioned TEU, as often as not stepping into the kind of inhospitable climate where his expertise was most in demand, not to feel superior to the poor wretches, doomed to a life of first-class airline tickets and catered limousine rides.
The alarm went off two hours before he was due at the client, but he had been lying awake for fifteen minutes. Having spent every night for the last six years sleeping in his TEU, the display had a pretty good idea of how long he would sleep on a given night, and had suggested the proper time for him to go to sleep. In fact it was now two o’clock in the afternoon, local time, but he had long ago abandoned any attempt to synchronize his sleep patterns with the concept of local nighttime.
His first meeting with the client was to take place near the dock. He would shake some hands, then board a helicopter for the ride out to the site, while his TEU followed behind in a truck. The helicopter ride was superfluous, but his clients liked to show off their own fancy means of transportation.
He took a leisurely shower, then had a light snack. Despite his nerves, he enjoyed these moments tremendously. He had done all his homework; everything was ready. All that remained was for him to use his intelligence to solve problems. He was supremely confident of his ability to do so.
Magellan called with some words of encouragement. Although he pictured Magellan as a man, he had never met him in person, and on the phone Magellan had his voice resynthed to be exactly halfway between male and female. He was fairly certain that Magellan was male—most people in this line of work were—and merely disguised his gender to add to the aura of mystery that surrounded him.
The light above the door glowed green. He picked up a small case and removed what looked like a pair of contact lenses, inserting one into each eye. These were his iEyes, officially known as “electronic vision enhancers.” The front of the iEye captured the image coming into each eye, “enhanced” it in realtime, and displayed the result on the back, for his eye to see. If the iEye knew enough about an area, it could turn night to day; in a more general situation, it could detect the temperature of objects, and also overlay information over the image, such as the names of people he was talking to. As an added bonus, it captured a continuous video feed, which it relayed back to the display inside his TEU. This last feature made the iEye quite illegal, but he had found its usefulness outweighed any moral qualms.
The door opened. He stepped out, the king bringing his court to a new stop on the royal round. A man shook his hand, then another. The second man had germs all over his hand, which the iEye labeled in glowing purple. Now his own hand glowed purple. His health was paramount; a sick day would cost an incalculable amount, and any illness could be life threatening inside the TEU. He walked off with the two men, holding his own hand away from him like a dead animal.
He was back in his TEU, on a truck, with his support TEU behind him. After a few days of meetings at his client’s headquarters, he was relocating to the job site. The site had been prepared per the instructions Magellan had sent, so that his TEU would be connected to the local infrastructure. This was the last time he would be hooked up to the support TEU for months.
The ride was estimated to take eight hours, so he settled down for a nap, trying to ignore the unevenness of the road.
He woke up, overcome by a feeling that something was wrong.
He was not moving. Had they arrived, or had the truck stopped? Then he noticed that the display was indicating no support—his TEU was self-powered, a condition it could maintain for only about a week. Perhaps workers were in the process of switching him from the support TEU to the permanent hookups. He waited for a few minutes, but the display did not change.
Annoyed, he strode to the display, and then noticed another warning displayed—“no network.” He spoke out loud: “call Magellan.” Normally this would have been picked up by the microphone embedded in his cheek and relayed to the computer embedded in his armpit, and the call would have been placed. Instead, the speaker behind his ear beeped regularly. A busy signal, a relic of ancient phones that had survived to the present, but a sound he almost never heard.
When he placed a call, his voice took many hops. First a small electrode near his heart sent the signal into his bloodstream, turning his body into an antenna. This signal was normally picked up by his TEU, but could also connect to local wireless infrastructure, or failing that, one of the GWI satellites overhead. He had never been in a situation where none of those worked.
He sat for a moment, pondering his options. The client was responsible for transporting him to the site, thus any delay was not his fault. He smiled weakly to himself…having assured himself that his relationship with the client was covered, he could now turn to the minor matter of his own survival.
A brief wave of panic swept over him, but he steeled himself and fought it off. The TEU was working; its batteries were fully charged. He had a week of power and food; in any case, the air outside was presumably breathable, the climate mild. Humans had survived for millennia in similar conditions without the aid of TEUs, although at times he found it hard to believe. More than a few hours of separation from his TEU tended to make him feel naked.
He pressed the button to open the window, unsure what he would see. No surprise, just jungle. It appeared to be drizzling lightly.
He checked the display again; still no connection. Shrugging, he grabbed his jacket and stood in front of the door, wondering. He pressed the button to open it.
The smell hit him first, as always. After the antiseptic air inside the TEU, real nature was a shock. He felt as though he could smell every grain of dirt, every leaf on the trees, every drop of rain falling from the sky.
He stepped out the door and swung himself down to the ground.
The door of the truck was open, the cab empty, the keys gone. His support TEU was still sitting on the truck behind him, but the cables had been disconnected. With a shock he realized that he had no knowledge of how to connect them, and no tools either. The dirt road stretched away in either direction, empty. He walked all around the truck, but could find no clue as to what had happened.
He climbed up into the cab, grasped the steering wheel. It had been a decade since he had driven a car. He closed the doors to keep the rain out, and examined the various dials. Eventually he concluded that the truck had no data connection.
Sitting in the cab, he admired the commanding view of the road ahead. His TEU was incredible, but ultimately it depended on lesser forms of transportation to go anywhere. He moved his hands over the steering wheel, pretending to drive it. The truck would have no part of such fantasies, and remained solidly stuck on the road.
He opened the glove compartment, found an owner’s manual. His schoolboy Spanish was rusty with age; in his line of work, everyone he dealt with spoke English. His display back in the TEU could have translated for him, but he had nothing better to do.
After an hour he had worked his way through most of the manual. Useless unless he could find the keys, in which case it could be the most critical knowledge he had. But the keys were gone, along with the driver, any sign of his client, and possibly civilization itself.
Eventually he climbed down from the cab and re-entered his TEU. The normalcy was shocking; with the door and window closed, he could pretend that nothing was amiss. Only the warnings glowing faintly on the display hinted at the situation he was in.
He had several printed books in his TEU, a non-work-related luxury. He immersed himself in one, bewildered by his sudden glut of free time. He could not help glancing over at the display every few pages, but nothing changed. He was alone.
Finally, he slept. That was the first day.
On the third day, when he opened the door to his TEU, she was standing there.
Magellan had sent him copious information about the job site before he arrived, and after consulting the display he had decided the risk of encountering any threatening or poisonous animal was small. Reassured, he had spent the second day exploring the jungle around the TEU. For the most part it was the same in every direction, bisected by the road. About a mile from his TEU there was a small lake. He felt as if his brain were hurting from lack of use…he needed a problem to tackle. Absent that, he prepared lunch from the food available in the TEU. He carried it off to the lake and enjoyed his picnic. That night, exhausted from his travels, he slept soundly.
On the third day, when he opened the door to his TEU, she was standing there.
At first, he didn’t notice her, expecting to see the same jungle panorama that had greeted him the two previous days.
When he did see her, he jumped back in alarm, his heart pounding.
He had removed his iEyes, realizing that in this unfamiliar environment, they added nothing. She was the first person he had met in a long time that he had not been prepped about, that Magellan had not sent him a long dossier about.
“Hello?” he tried to say, but his throat was too dry. With his phone not working, he had not spoken in two days. He swallowed and tried again. “Hello?” Did she speak English? Why would she? Why wouldn’t she? Why, in fact, would anything be or not be a certain way?
She smiled at him. She had plain, even features. He could not guess at her ethnicity. She wore jeans, a t-shirt, a jacket, boots.
She lived in a small cabin a few miles away. To her the jungle was an endless source of food, ridiculously easy to obtain. She fed him lunch: fish, a melon he could not identify, odd-tasting milk, a fruit that looked vaguely kiwi-like.
He brought her back to the TEU for dinner. He showed her his display, his books. She smiled slightly at everything. He bristled at this: he expected—what exactly? Awe? Shock? Fear? Incomprehension? Not this sense of mild amusement.
She ate everything he served her, although he realized that the food was stunningly bland. At her cabin, he had watched her prepare everything for lunch; here he simply punched some buttons on the display, and four minutes later he opened a panel and there was the food. She watched all this, inscrutably.
Later, she sat down on the bed. He sat down beside her. The bed, he realized, was quite small. Her cabin was about the same size as his TEU, but she had a much larger bed. A bigger table, also. No display, though.
That night, he dreamed strange, wild dreams. His lifestyle allowed precious little social contact with women, and often that was paid for by his clients. But this!
It had just been one kiss, but the promise—the delightful promise—of what might follow…he tossed and turned, alone in his small bed in his TEU.
The next day he walked down to her cabin, but she wasn’t there. Puzzled, he walked back to his TEU. As he approached he saw her, a little further down the road, watching him.
Suddenly the speaker in his ear burbled. He jumped at the unexpected sound. It was Magellan on the line…a long explanation…civil unrest, client in trouble, communication disruption throughout the country, intentional jamming of satellites…was he OK? A truck would be along in a few hours to pick him up, take him and his TEU back to port, on to his next job, which Magellan had already arranged. Quite an opportunity, his services so much in demand, the new client was quite excited that he was available.
He walked up next to his TEU. Back on the grid, able to sense its own position and his, it opened the door for him.
He looked at her, standing at the edge of the road, smiling at him.
He looked up, inside his TEU. He could see the display, glowing happily, no warnings displayed.
He looked back at her.
(c) Copyright 2001 Adam Barr. All rights reserved.
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