The line was tremendously long. Longer than usual. Duncan sighed and wondered why coming home from long, exhausting business trips was always, always worse than going out. Either it rained, or the teleport net was down, or some new flare-up in the galactic war had destroyed one of the transfer planets—it was always something.
Duncan let his eyes wander and spotted the guy two ahead of him in line. Totally hot. Broad shouldered, close-cropped blond hair, and an ass to die for. Well, at least there was something to look at while he waited. The bored teenager in front of him ceased to exist as far as Duncan was concerned.
The totally hot guy was wearing loose, light-fiber casual clothes that somehow complemented his lusciously sculpted body better than tights would have. The material was thin and translucent and looked incredibly natural and comfortable, and seemed to shimmer and flow as the blond shifted his weight. When he set down his satchel, the symphony of movement in the perfectly defined muscles of his back, arms, and shoulders, accentuated by the gossamer fabric, weakened Duncan's knees enough that he nearly stumbled forward.
Duncan had ample time to consider and contemplate the work of art before him, because the line took twenty minutes to process as far as the hot young man—apparently generating as output a large number of disgruntled travelers who hadn't liked what they'd heard at the counter. They streamed part Duncan with frowns and red faces, but he didn't really pay much attention—his attention was engaged elsewhere. He had just decided that the gauzy pullover shirt the blond was wearing must be that Omegan Metasilk he'd been hearing about when the guy finally got to the front of the line.
“One ticket to Earth teleport 721, please,” the blond said in a rich baritone. Duncan's stomach flipped unexpectedly—the blond was going to port 721. That was only twelve ports away from Duncan's hometown!
“Sorry, sir, all Earth destinations are off-line,” the counter girl told him robotically, for probably the six hundredth timed that day. The twinge in Duncan's stomach turned leaden. No wonder everyone was cheesed! Probably two thirds of this line was headed to Earth or somewhere else via Earth. Earth was the teleport hub of the whole Megalinnic Rim.
“Aw, geez,” the boy in front of Duncan muttered to himself.
“Why is that?” the blond asked reasonably.
“Death Star 17 is blocking transmissions to Earth, sir,” the counter girl said in a dead voice. “All Earth-bound passengers are being placed in stasis for transmission as soon as Earth is on-line. Please proceed to—”
“What about Venus?” the blond asked. “That has to be a different line of sight even from out here.”
Duncan looked up, surprised. He didn't like the idea of stasis—he'd heard horror stories of passengers placed in stasis and forgotten about for decades. He had to be back in BosWash by Sunday! But Venus? Was that still even on the network? No one he knew had been to Venus in years.
The counter girl, stunned by this innovation in her routine, took several seconds to respond, but when she did, it was to try to realign her world to what she knew. “Venus is not a standard destination, sir. I'm sure it's not available. Please proceed—”
“Could you check please?” the blond said patiently.
Duncan considered, chewing his lip. Getting back into the Solar System should help. The interference from the Death Star would be completely out of range, sp getting back to Earth from Venus should be a snap. Assuming the teleport was even up. He noticed the teen was listening carefully to all this as well.
The counter girl looked up from her terminal. “According to this, sir, Venus is available,” she said, some surprise breaking through her monotone. “But I don't—”
“Why don't you go ahead and book me through to Venus, then,” the blond said reasonably. “I'll reroute myself from there.”
The counter girl looked like she was about to argue, but it turned out she wasn't interested in expending the effort. Instead she heaved a sigh to herself and started clacking away. In a moment she looked up again. “Meal?”
“No.” Duncan shuddered. He'd had a meal infusion on a long teleport—once.
Something pinged. The girl handed the blond guy a small white wafer of plastic. “Here you go, sir,” she said flatly. “Gate ZZ-9. Have a pleasant trip. Next!”
A few moments later Duncan found himself alone in a desolate corner of the complex with the blond hunk and the teen. There was no one else in sight, except for the shimmering holo-attendant by the gate, which was busy reading Mad Galaxy magazine. The entire corridor was darksome and a little chilly, as if he were entering a cathedral crypt rather than a modern-day tele-gate.
Feeling foolish standing around with only two other fellow passengers, Duncan stuck out his hand to the blond. “Duncan,” he said.
“André,” the blond said, flashing a mesmerizing grin. He had a very pleasant handshake.
“I'm Eric,” the teen said, asserting himself. Duncan and André both turned to him, having momentarily forgotten him, and smiled sheepishly. He was tall and gangly, Duncan noted, like he was stretching out of his clothes, but older than he looked, he decided. His arms were surprisingly hairy, compared to the soft, thin swath of hair on André's forearms, and a few strands of dark hair poked out of the neck of his tee-shirt.
Duncan looked around, but no one else was approaching. By chance the people behind him in line had been headed in the opposite direction, toward Galactic Zero, and probably no one past them had heard André's peculiar suggestion. It was just them.
André shrugged. “Shall we?”
Duncan gestured toward the gate, indicating that André should go first. The blond grinned and moved toward the gate. He feel in behind him, the teen trailing them.
“Please have your wafers out and reader for the scanner,” the holo-attendant murmured without looking up. “Enjoy your trip and thank you for teleporting with Gateway Teleports.”
André presented his chip to the scanner, which pinged happily. He stepped through with a crackle and was gone. A moment later, Duncan did the same. As he passed through the gateway everything went black.
A few seconds and an eternity later Duncan emerged from the gateway on the other side. Immediately, he knew something was wrong. He felt sick, nauseated—more so than usual for a teleport jump. But it wasn't just that that felt weird.
He looked around in a daze. The room was dark, or maybe his eyes weren't working properly, and filled with an unpleasant whine, as of overtaxed turbines. The ground around him was dusty and was littered with charred circuit boards and stray bits of copper wiring. The air smelt of fried wiring and other things he couldn't place.
Duncan raised his eyes and froze.
Standing in front of him, ripping apart machinery and fumbling with controls, were four Andrés—all of them very distressed and unhappy. They looked up at him and gaped. “Shit!” the nearest one said.
“What—” Duncan began, but one of the Andrés yelled out “Step away!”
Duncan, however, felt immobilized and could not obey. A split-second later someone popped out of the gateway behind him and blundered into him, knocking him down. He assumed numbly that it must be Eric, but when he rolled over, stiff and sore, he found that the body that had fallen across him was—André's body.
But something felt very queer. Duncan's vision blurred, and his mind seemed to stiffen as though it was trying to create a deadly migraine out of nothing. He took a few deep breaths and realized that he, that somehow he, it wasn't possible, but it definitely felt like he was, it was as if he was breathing out of two mouths.
He looked up sharply. His mind reeled and settled. He was looking at himself, looking into his own eyes. The body that had fallen across him had been—his.
Except he could now see that both his bodies weren't his at all. They were André's. He could feel, twice over, the heaviness of his muscles and the strength in them, the fabulous comfort of the gauzy clothes, and lots of other amenities besides—including what he could only describe as a humongous, warm, thick piece of meat pressed contentedly against his thigh. He opened his mouths to e xpress—something—amazement—something—But the André who had yelled before called out again. He was watching a monitor, Duncan now realized, which displayed activity in the teleport field.
What he yelled was: “Incoming!”
“No, wait—I haven't finished realigning the calibrators!” another André shouted from the control console near the gate. “Try to stop it coming through!”
“Too late!” the other three Andrés shouted.
A figure burst through the black night of the gateway. All six of them watched breathlessly.
Through it came Eric—sort of.
The figure that came through looked like Eric's body, but hunched over, as if he had received a body blow during transit. As the teenager straightened up, the Duncans and Andrés gasped. He kept straightening up, and up and up. Finally, when he was standing straight, they watched as the boy realized his head was grazing the dingy ceiling of the gateway chamber.
Duncan unconsciously drew his André-bodies closer together. “Oh my god,” he whispered in unison.
Eric looked down at his super-sized, super-lanky body in awe. Then he looked out over the half-dozen André hunk-bodies arrayed before him—and grinned. “Fucking A!” he said.
“No kidding,” said the nearest André, no less awed.
“Here he comes again!” called the one at the monitor.
The gateway crackled, and another hunched-over Eric burst through. He straightened up, and Duncan could see he was even bigger than the last one.
“Shit!” said the André at the console. “It's overloading!”
The consoles all started to sizzle and spark. One last figure seemed trapped in the gateway, trying to emerge. Duncan ran forward, pulling the traveler out and managing to singe all four hands in the process. One last Eric, even taller than the last one by the look of it, emerged into the room, his clothed ripped and ragged as if he had passed through a food processor.
Just then the consoles all shorted out in a massive display of pyrotechnics, then died, in the process blowing the power for the entire complex. The air in the room felt electric and fried, and tasted metallic in the mouth.
Duncan helped the final Eric into a sitting position on the floor and looked around at his newly minted companions in the red emergency light.
“Looks like we're going to be here a while,” he said.