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The Jaunt, Page 2

Stephen King

  The splinter extraction finished, Carune felt a little calmer. A pencil. That was as good as anything. He took one from beside the clipboard on the shelf above him and ran it gently into Portal One. It disappeared smoothly, inch by inch, like something in an optical illusion or in a very good magician's trick. The pencil had said eberhard faber no. 2 on one of its sides, black letters stamped on yellow-painted wood. When he had pushed the pencil in until all but eberh had disappeared, Carune walked around to the other side of Portal One. He looked in.

  He saw the pencil in cut-off view, as if a knife had chopped smoothly through it. Carune felt with his fingers where the rest of the pencil should have been, and of course there was nothing. He ran across the barn to Portal Two, and there was the missing part of the pencil, lying on the top crate. Heart thumping so hard that it seemed to shake his entire chest, Carune grasped the sharpened point of his pencil and pulled it the rest of the way through.

  He held it up; he looked at it. Suddenly he took it and wrote it works' on a piece of barn-board. He wrote it so hard that the lead snapped on the last letter. Carune began to laugh shrilly in the empty barn; to laugh so hard that he startled the sleeping swallows into flight among the high rafters.

  "Works!" he shouted, and ran back to Portal One. He was waving his arms, the broken pencil knotted up in one fist. "Works! Works! Do you hear me, Carson, you prick? It works AND I DID IT!''

  "Mark, watch what you say to the children," Marilys reproached him.

  Mark shrugged. "It's what he's supposed to have said." "Well, can't you do a little selective editing?" "Dad?" Patty asked. "Is that pencil in the museum, too?" "Does a bear shit in the woods?" Mark said, and then clapped one hand over his mouth. Both children giggled wildly—but that shrill note was gone from Patty's voice, Mark was glad to hear—and after a moment of trying to look serious, Marilys began to giggle too.

  The keys went through next; Carune simply tossed them through the portal. He was beginning to think on track again now, and it seemed to him that the first thing that needed finding out was if the process produced things on the other end exactly as they had been, or if they were in any way changed by the trip.

  He saw the keys go through and disappear; at exactly the same moment he heard them jingle on the crate across the barn. He ran across—really only trotting now—and on the way he paused to shove the lead shower curtain back on its track. He didn't need either it or the ion gun now. Just as well, since the ion gun was smashed beyond repair.

  He grabbed the keys, went to the lock the government had forced him to put on the door, and tried the Yale key. It worked perfectly. He tried the house key. It also worked. So did the keys which opened his file cabinets and the one which started the Brat pickup.

  Carune pocketed the keys and took off his watch. It was a Seiko quartz LC with a built-in calculator below the digital face—twenty-four tiny buttons that would allow him to do everything from addition to subtraction to square roots. A delicate piece of machinery—and just as important, a chronometer. Carune put it down in front of Portal One and pushed it through with a pencil.

  He ran across and grabbed it up. When he put it through, the watch had said 11:31:07. It now said 11:31:49. Very good. Right on the money, only he should have had an assistant over there to peg the fact that there had been no time gain once and forever. Well, no matter. Soon enough the government would have him wading hip-deep in assistants.

  He tried the calculator. Two and two still made four, eight divided by four was still two; the square root of eleven was still 3.3166247 . . . and so on.

  That was when he decided it was mouse-time.

  "What happened with the mice, Dad?" Ricky asked.

  Mark hesitated briefly. There would have to be some caution here, if he didn't want to scare his children (not to mention his wife) into hysteria minutes away from their first Jaunt. The major thing was to leave them with the knowledge that everything was all right now, that the problem had been licked.

  "As I said, there was a slight problem ..."

  Yes. Horror, lunacy, and death. How's that for a slight problem, kids?

  Carune set the box which read I came from stackpole's house of pets down on the shelf and glanced at his watch. Damned if he hadn't put the thing on upside down. He turned it around and saw that it was a quarter of two. He had only an hour and a quarter of computer time left How the time flies when you're having fun, he thought, and giggled wildly.

  He opened the box, reached in, and pulled out a squeaking white mouse by the tail. He put it down in front of Portal One and said, "Go on, mouse." The mouse promptly ran down the side of the orange crate on which the portal stood and scuttered across the floor.

  Cursing, Carune chased it, and managed to actually get one hand on it before it squirmed through a crack between two boards and was gone.

  "SHIT!" Carune screamed, and ran back to the box of mice. He was just in time to knock two potential escapees back into the box. He got a second mouse, holding this one around the body (he was by trade a physicist, and the ways of white mice were foreign to him), and slammed the lid of the box back down.

  This one he gave the old heave-ho. It clutched at Canine's palm, but to no avail; it went head over ratty little paws through Portal One. Carune heard it immediately land on the crates across the barn.

  This time he sprinted, remembering how easily the first mouse had eluded him. He need not have worried. The white mouse merely crouched on the crate, its eyes dull, its sides aspirating weakly. Carune slowed down and approached it carefully; he was not a man used to fooling with mice, but you didn't have to be a forty-year veteran to see something was terribly wrong here.

  ("The mouse didn't feel so good after it went through," Mark Oates told his children with a wide smile that was only noticeably false to his wife.)

  Carune touched the mouse. It was like touching something inert—packed straw or sawdust, perhaps—except for the aspirating sides. The mouse did not look around at Carune; it stared straight ahead. He had thrown in a squirming, very frisky and alive little animal; here was something that seemed to be a living waxwork likeness of a mouse.

  Then Carune snapped his fingers in front of the mouse's small pink eyes. It blinked . . and fell dead on its side.

  "So Carune decided to try another mouse," Mark said. "What happened to the first mouse?" Ricky asked.

  Mark produced that wide smile again "It was retired with full honors," he said

  Canine found a paper bag and put the mouse into it He would take it to Mosconi, the vet, that evening Mosconi could dissect it and tell him if its inner works had been rearranged The government would disapprove his bringing a private citizen into a project which would be classified triple top secret as soon as they knew about it Tough titty, as the kitty was reputed to have said to the babes who complained about the warmth of the milk Canine was determined that the Great White Father in Washington would know about this as late in the game as possible For all the scant help the Great White Father had given him, he could wait Tough titty

  Then he remembered that Mosconi lived way the hell and gone on the other side of New Paltz, and that there wasn't enough gas in the Brat to get even halfway across town let alone back

  But it was 2 03—he had less than an hour of computer time left He would worry about the goddam dissection later

  Canine constructed a makeshift chute leading to the entrance of Portal One (really the first Jaunt Slide, Mark told the children, and Patty found the idea of a Jaunt-Slide for mice dehciously funny) and dropped a fresh white mouse into it He blocked the end with a large book, and after a few moments of aimless pattenng and sniffing, the mouse went through the portal and disappeared

  Canine ran back across the barn

  The mouse was DOA

  There was no blood, no bodily swellings to indicate that a radical change in pressure had ruptured something inside Carune supposed that oxygen starvation might—

  He shook his head impatiently It took th
e white mouse only nanoseconds to go through, his own watch had confirmed that time remained a constant in the process, or damn close to it

  The second white mouse joined the first in the paper sack Carune got a third out (a fourth, if you counted the fortunate mouse that had escaped through the crack), wondering for the first time which would end first—his computer time or his supply of mice

  He held this one firmly around the body and forced its haunches through the portal Across the room he saw the haunches reappear just the haunches The disembodied little feet were digging frantically at the rough wood of the crate

  Carune pulled the mouse back No catatoma here, it bit the webbing between his thumb and forefinger hard enough to bring blood Carune dropped the mouse hurriedly back into the i came from STACKPOLE s house of pets box and used the small bottle of hydrogen peroxide in his lab first aid kit to disinfect the bite

  He put a Band Aid over it, then rummaged around until he found a pair of heavy work-gloves He could feel the time running out, running out, running out It was 2 11 now

  He got another mouse out and pushed it through backward— all the way He humed across to Portal Two This mouse lived for almost two minutes, it even walked a little, after a fashion It staggered across the Pomona orange crate, fell on its side, struggled weakly to its feet, and then only squatted there Carune snapped his fingers near its head and it lurched perhaps four steps further before falling on its side again The aspiration of its sides slowed slowed stopped It was dead

  Carune felt a chill

  He went back, got another mouse, and pushed it halfway through headfirst He saw it reappear at the other end, just the head then the neck and chest Cautiously, Carune relaxed his grip on the mouse's body, ready to grab it it got frisky It didn't The mouse only stood there, half of it on one side of the barn, half on the other

  Carune jogged back to Portal Two

  The mouse was alive, but its pink eyes were glazed and dull Its whiskers didn't move Going around to the back of the portal, Carune saw an amazing sight, as he had seen the pencil in cutaway, so now he saw the mouse He saw the vertebrae of its tiny spine ending abruptly in round white circles, he saw its blood moving through the vessels, he saw the tissue moving gently with the tide of life around its minuscule gullet If nothing else, he thought (and wrote later in his Popular Mechanics article), it would make a wonderful diagnostic tool

  Then he noticed that the tidal movement of the tissues had ceased The mouse had died

  Carune pulled the mouse out by the snout, not liking the feel of it, and dropped it into the paper sack with its companions. Enough with the white mice, he decided. The mice die. They die if you put them through all the way, and they die if you put them through halfway headfirst. Put them through halfway butt-first, they stay frisky.

  What the hell is in there?

  Sensory input, he thought almost randomly. When they go through they see something—hear something—touch something—God, maybe even smell something—that literally kills them. What?

  He had no idea—but he meant to find out.

  Carune still had almost forty minutes before COMLINK pulled the data base out from under him. He unscrewed the thermometer from the wall beside his kitchen door, trotted back to the bam with it, and put it through the portals. The thermometer went in at 83 degrees F; it came out at 83 degrees F. He rummaged through the spare room where he kept a few toys to amuse his grandchildren with; among them he found a packet of balloons. He blew one of them up, tied it off, and batted it through the portal. It came out intact and unharmed—a start down the road toward answering his question about a sudden change in pressure somehow caused by what he was already thinking of as the Jaunting process.

  With five minutes to go before the witching hour, he ran into his house, snatched up his goldfish bowl (inside, Percy and Patrick swished their tails and darted about in agitation) and ran back with it. He shoved the goldfish bowl through Portal One.

  He hurried across to Portal Two, where his goldfish bowl sat on the crate. Patrick was floating belly-up; Percy swam slowly around near the bottom of the bowl, as if dazed. A moment later he also floated belly-up. Canine was reaching for the goldfish bowl when Percy gave a weak flick of his tail and resumed his lackadaisical swimming. Slowly, he seemed to throw off whatever the effect had been, and by the time Carune got back from Mosconi's Veterinary Clinic that night at nine o'clock, Percy seemed as perky as ever.

  Patrick was dead.

  Carune fed Percy a double ration of fish food and gave Patrick a hero's burial in the garden.

  After the computer had cut him out for the day, Carune decided to hitch a ride over to Mosconi's. Accordingly, he was standing on the shoulder of Route 26 at a quarter of four that afternoon, dressed in jeans and a loud plaid sport coat, his thumb out, a paper bag in his other hand.

  Finally, a kid driving a Chevette not much bigger than a sardine can pulled over, and Carune got in. "What you got in the bag, my man?"

  "Bunch of dead mice," Carune said. Eventually another car stopped. When the farmer behind the wheel asked about the bag, Carune told him it was a couple of sandwiches.

  Mosconi dissected one of the mice on the spot, and agreed to dissect the others later and call Carune on the telephone with the results. The initial result was not very encouraging; so far as Mosconi could tell, the mouse he had opened up was perfectly healthy except for the fact that it was dead.


  "Victor Carune was eccentric, but he was no fool," Mark said. The Jaunt attendants were getting close now, and he supposed he would have to hurry up ... or he would be finishing this in the Wake-Up Room in Whitehead City. "Hitching a ride back home that night—and he had to walk most of the way, so the story goes—he realized that he had maybe solved a third of the energy crisis at one single stroke. All the goods that had to go by train and truck and boat and plane before that day could be Jaunted. You could write a letter to your friend in London or Rome or Senegal, and he could have it the very next day—without an ounce of oil needing to be burned. We take it for granted, but it was a big thing to Carune, believe me. And to everyone else, as well."

  "But what happened to the mice, Daddy?" Rick asked.

  "That's what Carune kept asking himself," Mark said, "because he also realized that if people could use the Jaunt, that would solve almost all of the energy crisis. And that we might be' able to conquer space. In his Popular Mechanics article he said that even the stars could finally be ours. And the metaphor he used was crossing a shallow stream without getting your shoes wet. You'd just get a big rock, and throw it in the stream, then get another rock, stand on the first rock, and throw that into the stream, go back and get a third rock, go back to the second rock, throw the third rock into the stream, and keep up like that until you'd made a path of stepping-stones all the way across the stream ... or in this case, the solar system, or maybe even the galaxy."

  "I don't get that at all," Patty said.

  "That's because you got turkey-turds for brains," Ricky said smugly.

  "I do not.' Daddy, Ricky said—"

  "Children, don't," Marilys said gently.

  "Carune pretty much foresaw what has happened," Mark said. "Drone rocket ships programmed to land, first on the moon, then on Mars, then on Venus and the outer moons of Jupiter . . . drones really only programmed to do one thing after they landed—''

  "Set up a Jaunt station for astronauts," Ricky said.

  Mark nodded. "And now there are scientific outposts all over the solar system, and maybe someday, long after we're gone, there will even be another planet for us. There are Jaunt-ships on their way to four different star systems with solar systems of their own . . . but it'll be a long, long time before they get there."

  "I want to know what happened to the mice," Patty said impatiently.

  "Well, eventually the government got into it," Mark said. "Carune kept them out as long as he could, but finally they got wind of it and landed on him with both feet. Carune
was nominal head of the Jaunt project until he died ten years later, but he was never really in charge of it again."

  "Jeez, the poor guy!" Rick said.

  "But he got to be a hero," Patricia said. "He's in all the history books, just like President Lincoln and President Hart."

  I'm sure that's a great comfort to him . . . wherever he is, Mark thought, and then went on, carefully glossing over the rough parts.

  The government, which had been pushed to the wall by the escalating energy crisis, did indeed come in with both feet. They wanted the Jaunt on a paying basis as soon as possible— like yesterday. Faced with economic chaos and the increasingly probable picture of anarchy and mass starvation in the 1990's, only last-ditch pleading made them put off announcement of the Jaunt before an exhaustive spectrographic analysis of Jaunted articles could be completed. When the analyses were complete—and showed no changes in the makeup of Jaunted artifacts—the existence of the Jaunt was announced with international hoopla. Showing intelligence for once (necessity is, after all, the mother of invention), the U.S. government put Young and Rubicam in charge of the pr.

  That was where the myth-making around Victor Carune, an elderly, rather peculiar man who showered perhaps twice a week and changed his clothes only when he thought of it, began. Young and Rubicam and the agencies which followed them turned Carune into a combination of Thomas Edison, Eli Whitney, Pecos Bill, and Flash Gordon. The blackly funny part of all this (and Mark Gates did not pass this on to his family) was that Victor Carune might even then have been dead or insane; art imitates life, they say, and Carune would have been familiar with the Robert Heinlein novel about the doubles who stand in for figures in the public eye.

  Victor Carune was a problem; a nagging problem that wouldn't go away. He was a loudmouthed foot-dragger, a holdover from the Ecological Sixties—a time when there was still enough energy floating around to allow foot-dragging as a luxury. These, on the other hand, were the Nasty Eighties, with coal clouds befouling the sky and a long section of the California coastline expected to be uninhabitable for perhaps sixty years due to a nuclear "excursion."