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 92 inches high, 92 inches wide, and 19 feet long: 147 square feet of living area. The interior dimensions were dictated by the exterior dimensions: exactly 20 feet long, 8 1/2 feet wide, and 8 feet high--the size of a standard shipping container, the twenty-foot equivalent unit or TEU, used by shipping companies all over the world.
No coincidence, of course. In fact, at this moment his TEU was being shipped to South America, site of his next job. The door was shut. Above it a red light glowed, implying a stern warning: "Do not exit!" The blinds on the window opposite the door were also shut, although he could have opened them if he wished. In all likelihood the view would be the outer wall of another TEU stacked next to his, likely painted a rusty brown or dull blue. Quite unlike his own, covered in a garishly bright red, to indicate that the 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 encountered a red TEU, would be careful to load it on the ship last, at the top. Some, however, took a sadistic pleasure in stuffing red TEUs 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 to the outside had desensitized him to most feelings of motion, but that bump had felt like a ship coming into a dock a little too hard, rather than a plane landing or a truck hitting a pothole 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 could predict Magellan's thoughts on transportation. Sometimes Magellan would hold him back longer than necessary, even if it meant flying him to the site. Was this to keep him available in case better jobs came along, or merely to force clients to realize how dependent they were on his services? Flying the TEU was prohibitively expensive, he knew, although he cared little for the cost; he knew only that if he went where Magellan told him and did his job for his clients, someone would keep paying the bills that allowed him to continue his fantastical lifestyle.
He checked his display. He could easily have asked where he was, and gotten a result so accurate that he could gauge the swell of the waves by monitoring changes 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 ship 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 were available to order. A milkshake was ten minutes away, presumably from the ship's kitchen; a freshly cooked steak would take half an hour, meaning it would come 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 an expensive suit to be dispatched to the store, stand in line with other hungry customers, shout out his order to the man behind the counter, wait for the bagel to be toasted just so and slathered with cream cheese, pay for it, and then, through a combination of limousines, airplanes, and helicopters, deliver the brown paper bag and its precious contents 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 expense was something for Magellan to hide in the client's bill.
Experimenting 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 on the display. He checked his watch again. Time to get some rest. He had to coordinate his sleep schedule so he would be waking up a few hours before he arrived at the client's site.
The accommodations in which he found himself were the result of a long evolution that began in 1956, when Malcolm McLean sent the first containerized ship from Port Newark to Houston. Critics sneered, but McLean's breakthrough signaled the beginning of the end of break-bulk shipping, in which items were loaded and unloaded individually. Four years after the Ideal-X discharged its load of 58 containers, a dedicated container terminal was built at Port Elizabeth. In 1969 Richard Gibney, frustrated by variations in container sizes, coined the term TEU to refer to one whose exterior dimensions were eight feet wide and twenty feet long.
The first TEU apartment was in Tokyo Harbor, a development known as Kiseki City. It began as a way to simplify construction. Every unit was self-contained, with standardized connections for air, water, network, waste, and so on, and because they were the size of a standard shipping container, they could be built anywhere in the world and delivered easily. Kiseki City had been constructed on top of the main Japanese data backbone, right next to the new 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 one section of Kiseki City to include cranes, 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, home to the largest container port in Europe. In practice this 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 direction of the Netherlands. Often, before he arrived back home, Magellan would call and he would be 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. The message informed him that he had placed the second-highest bid on a 546-word essay 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 arbitrage between the New York and Tokyo stock exchanges. Interesting, but he wasn't sure how he was going to use the idea to enrich himself in the next 24 hours. It wasn't his location, buried in 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, but a quick scan of the East-West Index revealed no unusual trading patterns.
Meeting a client for the first time made him nervous. He was aware that his services, compounded by his mode of travel, were prohibitively expensive. Emerging from his TEU, he felt like an alien landing on Earth. He knew that some people mocked redwalls, called them "red inks", compared them to babies who always needed the same car seat and the same pacifier wherever they traveled. Yet 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 he encountered, doomed to a life of first-class airline tickets and catered limousine rides.
To occupy his time, he spent a few hours playing World Conquest. As he played, the display tracked and analyzed his moves. By now, he knew, it could simulate his play almost perfectly. He was proud of the fact that he was good enough to compete in the top division, in which he had to make every move himself, but demands on his time had grown, and he was currently playing a few divisions down, in which the display was allowed to make up to 20% of his moves. He checked what had been done on his behalf since he last played, and confirmed that the simulation of himself remained perfect.
The alarm went off two hours before he was due at the client, but he had been lying awake for fifteen minutes. Having monitored him as he 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 bedtime the night before. 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, pose for a few pictures, then board a helicopter for the ride out to the client's headquarters, while his TEU followed behind in a truck. The helicopter ride was superfluous, but he would indulge his clients as they showed off their own fancy means of transportation.
As he lay there, a voice echoed in his ear. "Arbol...tree... telefono...telephone... nave...ship," it intoned in a soothing voice. To help him improve his Spanish, he had instructed the display to repeat words whenever it detected that he was unoccupied. Now, however, he wanted a few moments of real silence. He subvocalized the word "Stop," and the voice went away.
Lying in bed, he reflected on the fact that the alarm sounding meant that he had exactly the right amount of time to prepare himself, requiring neither wasteful inactivity nor undue hurry. He savored the feeling of accuracy, of machinelike precision, that this gave him. He took a shower, got dressed, then ate 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 his aura of mystery.
The light above the door glowed green. He picked up a small case and removed what appeared to be 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--the government, as it typically did in such cases, had made the technology legal only if it provided a way for it to be detected and disabled by government agencies--but he had found its usefulness outweighed any legal worries, and beyond that his lifestyle made him essentially impossible to prosecute.
He had prepared for this moment extensively, running through many possible scenarios projected onto his iEyes: the initial encounter, the presentation he would give, the meetings that would follow. He had varied the audience response in each case, from indifferent to hostile to welcoming. Unlikely that he would encounter a situation for which he had not rehearsed...still he held his breath as the door slid open. He stepped out, a king arriving at 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, a ride that was estimated to take eight hours. 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 road was uneven, but his body was used to such trips, and he quickly fell asleep.
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 approximately one 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 swung his feet out of bed and strode to the display, and then noticed another warning displayed--"no network." Unnerved, he spoke out loud: "Call Magellan." Normally this would have been picked up by the microphone embedded in his cheek and relayed to the phone embedded in his armpit, and the call would have been placed. Instead, his earpiece beeped regularly. A busy signal, an audio 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 phone 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; 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 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, swung himself down to the ground, walked around to the front of the truck. The jungle was eerily quiet, so quiet that it made his ears ring. It was missing a sound to which he had become so accustomed that he did not realize how accustomed he was, a sound that he had come to associate with the march of progress: the high-pitched whine, barely audible, impossible to locate.
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 slowly around the truck, but could find no clue as to what had happened.
Climbing up into the cab, he 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 unchanging road ahead. His TEU was the height of technology, but ultimately it depended on lesser forms of transportation to go anywhere. The truck had no thumbprint reader, no retina scanner, no adaptive mirrors. It was a throwback, a precise combination of physical artifacts, metal and plastic and rubber, a reminder of a time when computers were viewed as more fallible than humans. The operation of the truck would have been obvious to Henry Ford, dreaming of an assembly line on the banks of the River Rouge, but it was beyond his skill. He moved his hands over the steering wheel, imagining himself driving such a vehicle down the road. The truck would have no part of such fantasies, and remained stolidly immobile on the road.
He opened the glove compartment, found an owner's manual. His Spanish was rusty, even augmented with the vocabulary drills he had done during his spare moments in the TEU. In his line of work, everyone he dealt with spoke English, or provided translators. 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 knowledge unless he could find the keys, of course. 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.
Bewildered by his sudden glut of free time, he sat at his display paging through a current bestseller. This one allowed customization of the two main characters, the protagonist and his nemesis. He had given the protagonist his own name, of course; the nemesis he had named Magellan, in a moment of whimsy that he still puzzled over. He could not resist constantly checking the corner of the display, but the warnings remained. 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 his brain registered what his eyes were seeing, he jumped back in alarm, his heart pounding.
He had not bothered to wear 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?
Her stare was level. He could not guess at her ethnicity. She wore jeans, a t-shirt, a jacket, boots.
She led him away into the forest, moving effortlessly, but waiting patiently as he struggled over fallen logs and under thick branches. After a few miles they arrived at a small cabin. She fed him lunch: fish, a melon he could not identify, odd-tasting milk, a fruit that looked vaguely kiwi-like. Afterwards, she showed him where she had fished, harvested, plucked. To her the jungle was an endless source of food, astonishingly easy to obtain.
Outside her cabin, he surreptitiously dropped a small device known as a gypsy, which combined a phone and a locator device. Calls to the phone were greeted with a digitized voice reading back the exact location of the device. It was simple to have his own phone lock on to the gypsy, combine the information it was returning with the location of his own phone, and lead him on a precise path back to the gypsy.
He brought her back to the TEU for dinner. He showed her his display, his desk, his cramped living quarters. She smiled slightly at everything. He bristled at this: he expected--what exactly? Awe? Fear? Incomprehension? Anything but this sense of mild amusement.
She ate everything he served her, although he realized, to his surprise and chagrin, that the food was stunningly bland. At her cabin, he had watched her prepare the ingredients for lunch; here he punched a few buttons on the display, and four minutes later he opened a panel to reveal the food. She watched all this, inscrutably.
Afterwards, he led her into the forest, following the directions from his earpiece that guided him towards the gypsy, hoping to impress her with his tracking skills. They soon reached a small clearing with the stump of a tree in the middle. According to the relay from the gypsy they should have been at the cabin, but it was nowhere to be seen.
Smiling, she reached into the rotting stump of the log, pulled out the gypsy, and handed it to him, wordlessly. Then she led him through the woods to her cabin.
The next morning, he woke with a strange disconnected feeling, which he couldn't place at first. He felt a chirping in his ear and realized that he had been woken up by his earpiece. This was how he normally woke up: the jarring sensation was because he had been woken up by his earpiece while lying on a pile of leaves in a cabin in the middle of a jungle.
After he signaled that he was awake, a voice began talking in his ear - the almost-but-not-quite human voice that he had assigned to the display in his TEU. Evidently, someone or something was trying to open the door of the TEU.
Normally, the TEU would open only in his presence, and it was hardened enough that it was essentially impossible to open without destroying it. But the attack signified the presence of life, likely human life, of which he had seen none in the jungle so far beyond the woman who lay beside him. It meant danger, but also the possibility of an explanation for the strange events of the past few days.
The two of them ate quickly and set off through the jungle. When his earpiece warned him that they were approaching the TEU, he stopped, and put his finger to his lips. She smiled, put her hand on his hand, and gently moved it back down to his side. She stepped past him and quietly led the way for the last little stretch.
Hidden in the vegetation by the side of the road, they could see the reason for the TEU's distress call. A man holding a rifle was standing in front of the door, running his finger along the seam at the bottom. Another man, also armed, was sitting in the passenger's side of the truck cab, warily surveying the jungle. A few scratches and discolorations on the red paint showed the result of futile attempts to force the door open.
The TEU could be opened remotely, but it required entering a code on a keypad, located on the opposite side of the truck from their vantage point near the door. After some gesturing and handwaving, he communicated what he hoped was the essence of his plan. She took a few steps and melted into the jungle. He crouched where he was, waiting, wondering if she understood the full extent of what she was about to participate in.
Suddenly the noise of a falling tree shattered the silence. He had been expecting it, but it still made his heart leap. The effect on the two men was much more dramatic. Both rushed to the side of the road, weapons at the ready, peering into the dense growth. He took advantage of the distraction to run, crouching, across to the other side of the road. Then, while the men debated between themselves what to do next, he hurried to the side of the truck, gently slid open the keypad cover, and typed in the code.
The trap was ready, if the bait worked...Back at the side of the road, kneeling next to the tire, he could look under the truck and see the legs of the two men. He silently instructed the door to open, and heard the sudden outcry from the men when it did. One pair of legs disappeared. He waited, hoping. Would the second man go in also? Finally, after what seemed an interminable wait, the second set of legs swung up and out of sight. He quickly shut the door behind them.
As he approached the keypad again, he wondered, as he often had, what had inspired the designers of the TEU to include the feature he was about to use. He thought of the code he had memorized years before, and how he had tried to imagine scenarios in which he would have to use it. Or was it, perhaps, someone else who was supposed to use the code, with him inside the TEU? Magellan had promised him that they were the only two people who knew the code, but even if that were true, he felt little comfort at the thought.
As his hand came to rest on the cool plastic of the buttons, he had a brief flicker of doubt. He looked at the red button beside it, covered in warning messages. Yes, the assets in the TEU had to be protected, and the men inside could do a lot of damage once they overcame their curiosity. He thought of how he had felt as he crouched in the forest, unarmed, watching the men trying to break into the TEU. His TEU!
The men weren't as heavy as he had thought they would be, not with two people to carry them. As they walked back to the TEU, a sudden glint on the ground caught his eyes. Puzzled, he scrabbled around in the ground, and after some digging discovered a single key, on a plain metal keychain.
Just then he heard a radio squawk from the direction where they had left the men. A sense of urgency gripped him. Could the key be what he hoped it was, beyond any reasonable expectation? The two men undoubtedly knew others who would investigate if they did not return. Moving the truck and the TEU somewhere else on the road had suddenly become very important. They hurried back to the truck.
They key fit the ignition perfectly. The truck started up and sat there rumbling. He felt a huge sense of accomplishment, of being proven right, as when a long-debated assumption was suddenly, against all odds, proven correct, as when an unstable construction of desperate guesses and dubious logic collapsed into a single incontrovertible fact.
His relief was short-lived, quickly replaced with another feeling: Now what? He thought back to the manual he had read days before, trying to recall the instructions, so foreign to him. Sitting in the seat, he attempted what seemed to be the right combination of pushing pedals and moving the gear shift, but the truck only lurched forward a foot before stopping. A second attempt proved no more fruitful. He could feel the sweat beading on his brow.
He felt her hand on his. With a rush of comprehension, he lowered himself down from the cab and walk around to the passenger seat, while she slid over to the driver's side.
After a while it seemed that they had traveled a safe distance, and the jungle was starting to darken in the heavy shade of the trees. He opened the door of the TEU, climbed in, and helped her in after him. He attempted to demonstrate how he would sleep on the floor while she could have the bed, but she seemed unwilling to remain in the TEU. Thinking back to the sterile yet brutal events that had taken place inside, he could begin to understand.
After gathering some leaves to make reasonable sleeping mats, they both fell asleep in the jungle next to the TEU.
He was awakened by his earpiece--not the gently increasing chime of the alarm, or the disembodied tone of the TEU, but a real live human, a voice full of alarm and stress and other authentic human emotions. 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. Magellan talked and talked. He had still not said anything in reply.
He stood up, faced the TEU. Back on the grid, able to sense its own position and his, it opened the door for him.
He looked back at her, still asleep at the edge of the road.
He looked up, inside his TEU. He could see the display, glowing happily, no warnings displayed.
He looked back at her.