NEW YORK--Today Pan Arabia again appealed its embargo status to the United Nations. Pan Arabia's Industrial Party is pushing a platform to import nanocapacitors and other materials to develop the deserts as solar farms, allowing the nation to remain competitive in the European power market.
Brian Whitlowe woke from a dreamless sleep confused, light-headed and famished. There was neither light nor sound, and he couldn't move his arms or his legs. He called out, irritating his sore throat. He hardly recognized his own voice, it was so hoarse and muffled.
Just as he began to panic, the darkness above him turned into dim light. He blinked a few times before he could make out a female head silhouetted against the light, her hair a luminous halo.
"Good. You're waking up." Her voice was gentle. "Can you tell me where you were headed?"
He was lying in a box just large enough for his body and something he could feel against the soles of his shoes. His knapsack? He was cocooned by the foam covering the walls and floor of the box. It would have been comfortable if not for the sore throat and his panic that he couldn't move.
"Wha?" He tried to ask about his condition, but couldn't form the words in his dry mouth. He shook his head, increasing the dizziness until he closed his eyes again. Sleep reclaimed him.
The next time he woke up he was alone, still in the box, still unable to move. He was looking at a sterile gray ceiling, peppered with LEDs that provided the dim, almost soothing light around him. The top part of the walls that he could see were a dull gray. He could hear a low hum of some kind of machinery, but couldn't identify the sound. Something was wrong. Where the hell was he?
The last thing he could remember was reading iCan's email. Isaac Kann, his lab partner in college, had been the cocky kid among a class of self-proclaimed geniuses, who latched on to self-effacing Brian as the most likely lab partner to help him succeed. Although usually wrong, Isaac would wave his hand and shout out "I can!" whenever an instructor asked who could answer a question or do a task, so Brian had dubbed him "iCan."
"Hey Brian," iCan had written.
"I'm writing to eat crow. You were right. Bet you never expected to hear me admit that, didya? I know I ragged you for dropping out and taking the computer internship at the University of Chicago instead of finishing your degree.
"Well, I left UoC with my degree and massive student debt and scored a temp job doing contract work at Amalgamated Analytics. It was cool. Nice money, got my own apartment, lived well. Then the contract ended, and I was what I like to call 'underutilized.'
"I was careful for once, though. You'd be proud of me. I saved enough money so I could get by for at least three months. Plenty of time to find another job if I had to. Man, that was hard. But I figured it made sense when you suggested it.
"We never pay much attention to current events, do we? Well, you might want to change that. I didn't know about the banking amendment added to the Personal Accountability Act. It classifies anyone with 'no visible means of support' as 'high risk,' and allows banks to demand immediate and complete payment of a loan, at their discretion.
"My bank not so discreetly did just that. Obviously, I didn't have the money. I would have paid straight up for college if I had. So I had to declare bankruptcy. Lost my apartment, my car and every thing else of value, and was thrown into the 'labor pool' created by the Full Employment Bill.
"So now I work for AA again, only on a debt contract at half my old hire contract rate. The money goes to pay off my debt, except for what AA takes to cover my living expenses.
"It could be worse, though. I'm guaranteed housing and daily food. It's a lot like living in a dorm. I have a room with a roommate, a shower down the hall. No privacy and long hours. Yeah, just like a dorm. But, there are some good-looking women in bankruptcy! And the job is still cool.
"So you were right to pay your loans while you could and get a steady job.
"Speaking of jobs. Come to San Francisco and I can get you an interview at AA, and I'd get a referral bonus. Consider it, won't you? You'd love the San Francisco scene.
"Let me know. And catch me up with the gaming gang. They still using the bandwidth you 'arranged' for them?"
iCan's letter couldn't have been better timed. Brian had rung in the new year of 2070 by losing his job. The University of Chicago fired him for that arranged bandwidth--they used the term "misuse of university resources." In the almost nine months since, he'd yet to find a job, and his funds were nearly played out. So he'd arranged for a TransPod to San Francisco. That was it; he was in the TransPod in San Francisco. But, the depot at a major city like San Francisco wouldn't be so starkly utilitarian, would it? Shouldn't there be more bustle, decorations, something other than this gray dim room? It couldn't be because he traveled economy; at Chicago's Union Station, all classes boarded from the same terminal. Would Universal Transport Systems have a separate depot for economy class in San Francisco?
He tried to lick his dry lips, but his tongue stuck to his equally dry upper palate.
"Here, let me swab your mouth." Brian had been so wrapped up in his thoughts that he hadn't noticed the woman was back. "Open wide."
His jaw was stiff. He barely managed to open his mouth a crack when a gloved finger pulled it fully open and he felt a damp sponge scrape over his tongue and inner cheeks. He tried to sit up, but something was holding him down.
"Don't move yet," the woman cautioned. "We'll keep the restraints on until the sedatives wear off. Can you tell me where you were headed?
"To...to...." Brian could barely whisper. His mouth felt like sandpaper. "Dry...."
"Relax," she said. "You're doing fine. Let me swab again."
He opened his mouth. It was easier this time. He felt the cool swab slide over his tongue, and he allowed his eyes to fall closed. Again, he slept.
This time, he dreamed. iCan had arranged an interview for him at Amalgamated Analytics, just as he said in his email. There was no budget for transportation, though, so he took the cheapest TransPod alternative. The Pod resembled a coffin, and Brian felt he was being buried alive. He tried to get out of the box, but the trustees of the U were running toward him like peasants with pitchforks storming the castle to kill the vampire. It was the bandwidth he stole for the gaming club; they were hunting him down for a few bytes. Wait, that was funny.
Wait, that was real.
Not the pitchforks, of course. But being fired and iCan's potential job, his trip to San Francisco, all had really happened. It was coming back to him, now. He had taken one of the lowest-cost TransPods, which would carry an unconscious passenger for up to three days. The three-day window allowed UTS to delay the passenger's trip at any point in order to optimize the loads, thus saving money and allowing a lower price for the inconvenience. Once a Pod entered the transit system, it was all automated.
At Chicago's Union Station, where he began his trip, he almost changed his mind. One look at the coffin-like Pod made his nerves jump. It didn't look pleasant. It looked scary.
"You're the 4:30 to San Francisco, right?" The tech at the boarding depot stood up from a podium where he had been watching something on his pad and motioned to the third Pod from the left. "This one's yours. All prepped for a long trip. Here's your travel kit. Change back there."
He shoved gum to the left side of his mouth, then handed Brian what looked like a large diaper with tubes, and pointed behind a screen. When Brian came out changed into the catheter/diaper, the tech pointed to the bottom of the container.
"Luggage here," he said, shifting his gum to the right side of his mouth. He briefly looked over his tablet, and grunted.
"You got no emergency contact. No family?"
Brian shook his head. "No, my folks are dead and I'm an only child."
Brian had many friends, but none he would feel comfortable saddling with responsibility. He winced to himself. How had he become so alone? He had barely kept up with iCan. Chagrined, he again shook his head.
"Okay." The tech shrugged and pointed to a scanner next to the LCD strip on the side of the Pod. "Thumbprint here. I'll help you into the Pod and get you hooked up. The automatics take it from there."
"Um, I'm not sure..." Brian balked.
"No problem. Lot's of folks get cold feet when they see what a Pod looks like. You can walk if you want. Come back within two hours and I'll fit you in. If you aren't back in two hours, you lose your deposit." The tech took three vigorous chews on the gum. "You going, or can I get back to my show?"
Brian took hold of himself. No travel meant no job, meant no money, meant a debt contract. Unlike iCan with his finished degree, Brian would be lucky to get skilled manual labor.
"I'm traveling." He took a step toward the Pod. "Look, I'm a little claustrophobic, how--."
The tech shifted his gum one more time. "No problem. Everyone gets the heebie-jeebies when we close the lid. Take a swig of the sedative from that tube on the left at the head of the Pod and count to ten. I won't snap down the restraints or close the lid until you're in la-la-land. The other tube is your food, in case you go the full three days."
So Brian had thumbed the strip, loaded his knapsack, and positioned himself in the Pod. He was pleased to note that the UTS claims for the comfort of their Sensafoam product had been truth in advertising. He took a sip from the feed tube just above his head, and started to count. He didn't know if the tech counted all the way to ten; he had lost track of everything at five. Until he woke up here.
He was awake now, though groggy.
The technician came back and smiled kindly at him. He was about to ask her where he was, but she spoke first.
"You're looking more aware now. Here, let's get the restraints off and get you moving around a bit."
She unsnapped the belts above his legs and around his arms, then took each leg by turn to gently bend at the knee and rotate at the hip. She took each arm to bend at the elbow, and rotate in the shoulder. He was stiff, and the movements hurt, but it was a tolerable pain. When his joints felt looser, the technician helped him to sit up. His dizziness and the nausea both increased.
"Here," she said. "Stay seated while I get you some ice chips."
When she returned, he gratefully took some of the ice into his mouth. There was a slight metallic taste to the chips, but they were soothing and the nausea diminished. While not exactly dizzy any more, he still felt light-headed and strange.
Finally, she helped him to stand and step out of the Pod. The first step was unsteady and he bounced, as if he were tripping upwards. He took the second step more carefully.
Now that he could see complete walls, he knew they were in fact gray rock. He was in a relatively large room, where several empty Pods were arranged on a rough stone floor. There were no odors other than a slight acrid scent to the air. The temperature was a comfortable seventy degrees. The room had no windows, only a door at the far corner. The door was made up of panels of varying colors and textures, but he couldn't make out the material from where he stood. The hum came from medical equipment scattered throughout the room. Monitors of some sort, he assumed.
The light-head feeling was disconcerting. He was simultaneously aware of his queasy stomach and his hunger.
"Can you tell me where you were headed?" the technician asked again.
Brian turned and blinked at her. "San Francisco. Isn't that where I am?"
She looked at him with something akin to pity in her eyes. His stomach turned.
"No, I'm afraid not," she said carefully. "You were routed to Luna Colony. Welcome to the moon."