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The Jaunt

Stephen King

  The Jaunt

  by Stephen King

  "This is the last call for Jaunt-701," the pleasant female voice echoed through the Blue Concourse of New York's Port Authority Terminal. The PAT had not changed much in the last three hundred years or so—it was still grungy and a little frightening. The automated female voice was probably the most pleasant thing about it. "This is Jaunt Service to Whitehead City, Mars," the voice continued. "All ticketed passengers should now be in the Blue Concourse sleep lounge. Make sure your validation papers are in order. Thank you."

  The upstairs sleep lounge was not at all grungy. It was wall-to-wall carpeted in oyster gray. The walls were eggshell white, and hung with pleasant nonrepresentational prints. A steady, soothing progression of colors met and swirled on the ceiling. There were one hundred couches in the large room, neatly spaced in rows of ten. Five Jaunt attendants circulated, speaking in low, cheery voices and offering glasses of milk. At one side of the room was the entrance way, flanked by armed guards and another Jaunt attendant who was checking the validation papers of a latecomer, a harried-looking businessman with the New York World-Times folded under one arm. Directly opposite, the floor dropped away in a trough about five feet wide and perhaps ten feet long; it passed through a doorless opening and looked a bit like a child's slide.

  The Gates family lay side by side on four Jaunt couches near the far end of the room. Mark Gates and his wife, Marilys, flanked the two children.

  "Daddy, will you tell me about the Jaunt now?" Ricky asked. "You promised."

  "Yeah, Dad, you promised," Patricia added, and giggled shrilly for no good reason.

  A businessman with a build like a bull glanced over at them and then went back to the folder of papers he was examining as be lay on his back, his spit-shined shoes neatly -together. From everywhere came the low murmur of conversation and the rustle of passengers settling down on the Jaunt couches.

  Mark glanced over at Marilys Gates and winked. She winked back, but she was almost as nervous as Patty sounded. Why not? Mark thought. First Jaunt for all three of them. He and Marilys had discussed the advantages and drawbacks of moving the whole family for the last six months—since he'd gotten notification from Texaco Water that he was being transferred to Whitehead City. Finally they had decided that all of them would go for the two years Mark would be stationed on Mars. He wondered now, looking at Marilys's pale face, if she was regretting the decision.

  He glanced at his watch and saw it was still almost half an hour to Jaunt-time. That was enough time to tell the story . . . and he supposed it would take the kids' minds off their nervousness. Who knew, maybe it would even cool Marilys out a little.

  "All right," he said. Ricky and Pat were watching him seriously, his son twelve, his daughter nine. He told himself again that Ricky would be deep in the swamp of puberty and his daughter would likely be developing breasts by the time they got back to earth, and again found it difficult to believe. The kids would be going to the tiny Whitehead Combined School with the hundred-odd engineering and oil-company brats that were there; his son might well be going on a geology field trip to Phobos not so many months distant. It was difficult to believe ... but true.

  Who knows? he thought wryly. Maybe it'll do something about my Jaunt-jumps, too.

  "So far as we know," he began, "the Jaunt was invented about three hundred and twenty years ago, around the year 1987, by a fellow named Victor Canine. He did it as part of a private research project that was funded by some government money . . . and eventually the government took it over, of course. In the end it came down to either the government or the oil companies. The reason we don't know the exact date is because Carune was something of an eccentric—"

  "You mean he was crazy, Dad?" Ricky asked.

  "Eccentric means a little bit crazy, dear," Marilys said, and smiled across the children at Mark. She looked a little less nervous now, he thought.


  "Anyway, he'd been experimenting with the process for quite some time before he informed the government of what he had," Mark went on, "and he only told them because he was running out of money and they weren't going to re-fund him."

  "Your money cheerfully refunded," Pat said, and giggled shrilly again.

  "That's right, honey," Mark said, and ruffled her hair gently. At the far end of the room he saw a door slide noiselessly open and two more attendants came out, dressed in the bright red jumpers of the Jaunt Service, pushing a rolling table. On it was a stainless-steel nozzle attached to a rubber hose; beneath the table's skirts, tastefully hidden, Mark knew there were two bottles of gas; in the net bag hooked to the side were one hundred disposable masks. Mark went on talking, not wanting his people to see the representatives of Lethe until they had to. And, if he was given enough time to tell the whole story, they would welcome the gas-passers with open arms.

  Considering the alternative.

  "Of course, you know that the Jaunt is teleportation, no more or less," he said. "Sometimes in college chemistry and physics they call it the Carune Process, but it's really teleportation, and it was Carune himself—if you can believe the stories—who named it 'the Jaunt.' He was a science-fiction reader, and there's a story by a man named Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination it's called, and this fellow Bester made up the word 'jaunte' for teleportation in it.

  Except in his book, you could Jaunt just by thinking about it, and we can't really do that."

  The attendants were fixing a mask to the steel nozzle and handing it to an elderly woman at the far end of the room. She took it, inhaled once, and fell quiet and limp on her couch. Her skirt had pulled up a little, revealing one slack thigh road-mapped with varicose veins. An attendant considerately readjusted it for her while the other pulled off the used mask and affixed a fresh one. It was a process that made Mark think of the plastic glasses in motel rooms. He wished to God that Patty would cool out a little bit; he had seen children who had to be held down, and sometimes they screamed as the libber mask covered their faces. It was not an abnormal reaction in a child, he supposed, but it was nasty to watch and he didn't want to see it happen to Patty. About Rick he felt more confident.

  "I guess you could say the Jaunt came along at the last possible moment," he resumed. He spoke toward Ricky, but reached across and took his daughter's hand. Her fingers closed over his with an immediate panicky tightness. Her palm was cool and sweating lightly. "The world was running out of oil, and most of what was left belonged to the middle-eastarn desert peoples, who were committed to using it as a political weapon. They had formed an oil cartel they called OPEC— "

  "What's a cartel, Daddy?" Patty asked.

  "Well, a monopoly," Mark said.

  "Like a club, honey," Marilys said. "And you could only be in that club if you had lots of oil."


  "1 don't have time to sketch the whole mess in for you," Mark said. "You'll study some of it in school, but it was a mess—let's let it go at that. If you owned a car, you could only drive it two days a week, and gasoline cost fifteen oldbucks a gallon—"

  "Gosh," Ricky said, "it only costs four cents or so a gallon now, doesn't it, Dad?"

  Mark smiled. "That's why we're going where we're going, Rick. There's enough oil on Mars to last almost eight thousand years, and enough on Venus to last another twenty thousand ... but oil isn't even that important, anymore. Now what we need most of all is—"

  "Water!" Patty cried, and the businessman looked up from his papers and smiled at her for a moment,

  "That's right," Mark said. "Because in the years between 1960 and 2030, we poisoned most of ours. The first waterlift from the Martian ice-caps was called—"

  "Operation Straw." That was Ricky.

  "Yes. 2045 or thereabouts. But long before that, the
Jaunt was being used to find sources of clean water here on earth. And now water is our major Martian export ... the oil's strictly a sideline. But it was important then."

  The kids nodded.

  "The point is, those things were always there, but we were only able to get it because of the Jaunt. When Carune invented his process, the world was slipping into a new dark age. The winter before, over ten thousand people had frozen to death in the United States alone because there wasn't enough energy to heat them."

  "Oh, yuck," Patty said matter-of-factly.

  Mark glanced to his right and saw the attendants talking to a timid-looking man, persuading him. At last he took the mask and seemed to fall dead on his couch seconds later. First-timer, Mark thought. You can always tell.

  "For Carune, it started with a pencil . . . some keys ... a wristwatch . . then some mice. The mice showed him there was a problem ..."

  Victor Carune came back to his laboratory in a stumbling fever of excitement. He thought he knew now how Morse had felt, and Alexander Graham Bell, and Edison . . . but this was bigger than all of them, and twice he had almost wrecked the truck on the way back from the pet shop in New Paltz, where he had spent his last twenty dollars on nine white mice. What he had left in the world was the ninety-three cents in his right front pocket and the eighteen dollars in his savings account ... but this did not occur to him. And if it had, it certainly would not have bothered him.

  The lab was in a renovated barn at the end of a mile-long dirt road off Route 26. It was making the turn onto this road where he had just missed cracking up his Brat pickup truck for the second time. The gas tank was almost empty and there would be no more for ten days to two weeks, but this did not concern him, either. His mind was in a delirious whirl.

  What had happened was not totally unexpected, no. One of the reasons the government had funded him even to the paltry tune of twenty thousand a year was because the unrealized possibility had always been there in the field of particle transmission.

  But to have it happen like this . . . suddenly . . . with no warning . . . and powered by less electricity than was needed to run a color TV . . . God! Christ!

  He brought the Brat to a screech-halt in the dirt of the dooryard, grabbed the box on the dirty seat beside him by its grab-handles (on-the box were dogs and cats and hamsters and goldfish and the legend i came from stackpole's house of PETS) and ran for the big double doors. From inside the box came the scurry and whisk of his test subjects.

  He tried to push one of the big doors open along its track, and when it wouldn't budge, he remembered that he had locked it. Carune uttered a loud "Shit!" and fumbled for his keys. The government commanded that the lab be locked at all times—it was one of the strings they put on their money— but Carune kept forgetting.

  He brought his keys out and for a moment simply stared at them, mesmerized, running the ball of his thumb over the notches in the Brat's ignition key. He thought again: God! Christ! Then he scrabbled through the keys on the ring for the Yale key that unlocked the barn door.

  As the first telephone had been used inadvertently—Bell crying into it, "Watson, come here!" when he spilled some acid on his papers and himself—so the first act of teleportation had occurred by accident. Victor Carune had teleported the first two fingers of his left hand across the fifty-yard width of the barn.

  Carune had set up two portals at opposite sides of the barn. On his end was a simple ion gun, available from any electronics supply warehouse for under five hundred dollars. On the other end, standing just beyond the far portal—both of them rectangular and the size of a paperback book—was a cloud chamber. Between them was what appeared to be an opaque shower curtain, except that shower curtains are not made of lead. The idea was to shoot the ions through Portal One and then walk around and watch them streaming across the cloud chamber standing just beyond Portal Two, with the lead shield between to prove they really were being transmitted. Except that, for the last two years, the process had only worked twice, and Canine didn't have the slightest idea why.

  As he was setting the ion gun in place, his fingers had slipped through the portal—ordinarily no problem, but this morning his hip had also brushed the toggle switch on the control panel at the left of the portal. He was not aware of what had happened—the machinery gave off only the lowest audible hum—until he felt a tingling sensation in his fingers.

  "It was not like an electric shock," Canine wrote in his one and only article on the subject before the government shut him up. The article was published, of all places, in Popular Mechanics. He had sold it to them for seven hundred and fifty dollars in a last-ditch effort to keep the Jaunt a matter of private enterprise. "There was none of that unpleasant tingle that one gets if one grasps a frayed lamp cord, for instance. It was more like the sensation one gets if one puts one's hand on the casing of some small machine that is working very hard. The vibration is so fast and light that it is, literally, a tingling sensation.

  "Then I looked down at the portal and saw that my index finger was gone on a diagonal slant through the middle knuckle, and my second finger was gone slightly above that. In addition, the nail portion of my third finger had disappeared.''

  Canine had jerked his hand back instinctively, crying out. He so much expected to see blood, he wrote later, that he actually hallucinated blood for a moment or two. His elbow struck the ion gun and knocked it off the table.

  He stood there with his fingers in his mouth, verifying that they were still there, and whole. The thought that he had been working too hard crossed his mind. And then the other thought crossed his mind: the thought that the last set of modifications might have . . . might have done something.

  He did not push his fingers back in; in fact, Canine only Jaunted once more in his entire life.

  At first, he did nothing. He took a long, aimless walk around the barn, running his hands through his hair, wondering if he should call Carson in New Jersey or perhaps Buffington in Charlotte. Carson wouldn't accept a collect phone call, the cheap ass-kissing bastard, but Buffington probably would. Then an idea struck and he ran across to Portal Two, thinking that if his fingers had actually crossed the barn, there might be some sign of it.

  There was not, of course. Portal Two stood atop three stacked Pomona orange crates, looking like nothing so much as one of those toy guillotines missing the blade. On one side of its stainless-steel frame was a plug-in jack, from which a cord ran back to the transmission terminal, which was little more than a particle transformer hooked into a computer feed-line.

  Which reminded him—

  Canine glanced at his watch and saw it was quarter past eleven. His deal with the government consisted of short money, plus computer time, which was infinitely valuable. His computer tie-in lasted until three o'clock this afternoon, and then it was good-bye until Monday. He had to get moving, had to do something—

  "I glanced at the pile of crates again," Canine writes in his Popular Mechanics article, "and then I looked at the pads of my fingers. And sure enough, the proof was there. It would not, I thought then, convince anyone but myself; but in the beginning, of course, it is only one's self that one has to convince."

  "What was it, Dad?" Ricky asked.

  "Yeah!" Patty added. "What?"

  Mark grinned a little. They were all hooked now, even Marilys. They had nearly forgotten where they were. From the corner of his eye he could see the Jaunt attendants whisper-wheeling their cart slowly among the Jaunters, putting them to sleep. It was never as rapid a process in the civilian sector as it was in the military, he had discovered; civilians got nervous and wanted to talk it over. The nozzle and the rubber mask were too reminiscent of hospital operating rooms, where the surgeon with his knives lurked somewhere behind the anesthetist with her selection of gases in stainless-steel canisters. Sometimes there was panic, hysteria; and always there were a few who simply lost their nerve. Mark had observed two of these as he spoke to the children: two men who had simply arisen from their cou
ches, walked across to the entry-way with no fanfare at all, unpinned the validation papers that had been affixed to their lapels, turned them in, and exited without looking back. Jaunt attendants were under strict instructions not to argue with those who left; there were always standbys, sometimes as many as forty or fifty of them, hoping against hope. As those who simply couldn't take it left, standbys were let in with their own validations pinned to their shirts.

  "Canine found two splinters in his index finger," he told the children. "He took them out and put them aside. One was lost, but you can see the other one in the Smithsonian Annex in Washington. It's in a hermetically sealed glass case near the moon rocks the first space travelers brought back from the moon—''

  "Our moon, Dad, or one of Mars's?" Ricky asked.

  "Ours," Mark said, smiling a little. "Only one manned rocket flight has ever landed on Mars, Ricky, and that was a French expedition somewhere about 2030. Anyway, that's why there happens to be a plain old splinter from an orange crate in the Smithsonian Institution. Because it's the first object that we have that was actually teleported—jaunted— across space."

  "What happened then?" Patty asked.

  "Well, according to the story, Canine ran..."

  Carune ran back to Portal One and stood there for a moment, heart thudding, out of breath. Got to calm down, he told himself. Got to think about this. You can't maximize your time if you go off half-cocked.

  Deliberately disregarding the forefront of his mind, which was screaming at him to hurry up and do something, he dug his nail-clippers out of his pocket and used the point of the file to dig the splinters out of his index finger. He dropped them onto the white inner sleeve of a Hershey bar he had eaten while tinkering with the transformer and trying to widen its afferent capability (he had apparently succeeded in that beyond his wildest dreams). One rolled off the wrapper and was lost; the other ended up in the Smithsonian Institution, locked in a glass case that was cordoned off with thick velvet ropes and watched vigilantly and eternally by a computer-monitored closed-circuit TV camera.