How To Recover A Relative Lost During Transmatter Shipping, in Five Easy Steps
By Carrie Cuinn
Illustration by Dywiann Xyara
Interviewer’s note: Amrita Chakrabarty agreed to this meeting only after several concessions were agreed to. First, that we wouldn’t discuss the contentious court battle she and her family had only recently settled; second, that we wouldn’t discuss the theoretical science in more than a passing way, as it applied to the events themselves; and third, that I didn’t ask about her relationship with her younger brother, Shikhar, beyond what she was willing to disclose on her own. The reader, no doubt already familiar with the hundreds of other articles on what’s now called “The Chakrabarty Wormhole Map,” can piece together for themselves why that might be the case.
Q: Let’s go back to the very beginning. What was your first hint that your brother and his friends had done something monumental?
AC: Nothing feels monumental until after it’s over and you realize what’s happened. This thing, which is so huge and impossible to escape now, was annoying to begin with. Frustrating, and then scary, but looking back, I can see why it’s been painted as something of an adventure. That sounds fun, right? A grand escapade.
The title of your book, which comes from the first set of instructions you wrote, makes it sound simple.
Yeah, that was a marketing thing. It wasn’t simple at all. To start with, I didn’t find out what they’d been doing until Shikhar missed two days of work. I’d left messages ranging from assumptions that he’d overslept to concerned inquiries to threatening his job. Dave and Juan caught me pacing the break room, decided to come clean, and admitted they’d lost him in the transmatter shipping array. Well, not in the array itself, that’s just a piece of machinery, but in the atmosphere, probably. We call the whole system of disassembling, transmitting, and reassembling inanimate matter for shipping purposes “the array” because that’s simpler for some of our employees to understand. Dave, Juan, and Shikhar were the bottom of the barrel: low-wage shipping clerks who keep the deliverables moving on the weekend when the rest of the staff had gone home.
Except Shikhar is my brother, and he’s a genius when he’s not being an idiot. I pulled the shipment up on my screen.
“It was his idea,” Dave told me, after being silent the whole time Juan related their story. I thought he meant putting my brother through a process not meant for organic material, until I read the name of the items supposedly shipped.
“Shake Your Booty; Indian Spice Shaker?” I asked. “That’s offensive, even for you three.”
“It was his idea,” Dave repeated. “Shikhar sounds like ‘shaker’ and Chakrabarty—”
“I get it,” I said. “I went through elementary school, too.”
Why did he set the delivery for Dublin X27?
I asked them that, too. “He wanted a beer,” Juan replied with a shrug. “I’d have gone to Belgium.”
“Belgium makes those Bochs, right?” Dave asked.
Juan nodded, grinning. “Oh yeah, did you have the apricot—”
“Belgium is a country. You can’t just go to Belgium. You’d have to fly to Brussels, Old Antwerp, or Ghent-On-High. And shut up about the beer because it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you disabled the failsafes and let Shikhar climb into a machine that is absolutely, definitely, not for human use.”
You were angry?
Of course I was. Looking back on it, I know I’ve talked about it like I wasn’t emotionally invested, because my feelings about it were too big to tackle all at once, but, yes. Definitely.
You’ve also implied that the others involved were less ’emotionally invested’, to use your words, and more ‘financially invested’.
Yeah, well. I think I more than implied it. That Times interview was basically three pages of me ranting about money and theft of proprietary ideas. At the time, though… I have to admit that in my office, I felt that those guys were in it with me. We’d all lost my brother, we’d all be somewhat responsible. The weight of it pressed down on me, and I could see it was affecting them, too.
Tell me what happened next.
Their smiles faded. Dave looked down at his feet, slowly rubbing one worn work boot against the other.
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
“Yeah, sorry,” Juan said. We sat there for a little while, all of us looking down, away from each other. Eventually
Juan sniffled, and I glanced at him.
His cheeks were wet. Dave’s were, too.
“Guys.” I sighed. “It’s okay. I know how my brother is. You couldn’t have stopped him, once an idea was in his head. As long as you tried, that’s… all that matters.”
Dave’s face moved, his muscles pushing in on themselves as his eyebrows slowly came together and his lips pulled downward in a frown. For a guy who was confused as often as Dave appeared to be, it sure took a long time for his expression to realize it.
“Why would we stop him?” he asked.
“What do you mean, why? So he didn’t kill himself in that damn array, that’s why!”
Juan sat forward, turning his head to stare at me out of one eye. “It worked every other time,” he said.
I didn’t know what to do with that, and said so. Over the next several minutes, I was treated to a jumbled mix of anecdote, dirty joke, and visual presentation, once Dave figured out how to turn his phone on. Back then, he wasn’t a tech kind of guy, and his kids had bought him a new Sanriko Gel. You remember? They had the first gen gecko foot transfer pads. He stuck it to the wall screen and we watched my brother swearing that his idea would work, the limits on matter transmission were arbitrary at best and conspiratorial, at worst. His eyes were bright and he grinned widely, a look I’d seen a thousand times before. A look that said, “I’m right. I know it.” And he was.
What did he show you?
Pictures of Shikhar and Dave in Paris; Shikhar and Juan in Mexico City; Shikhar riding a llama in Peru. Shikhar playing a tiny guitar in a cave, surrounded by candles and vintage photos and women in bright skirts, twirling. Juan said it was Spain and I believed him, because why not? My brother had stepped into nothingness and certain death, and come out the other side. An intercontinental tourist without any airline miles.
“Then, what happened?” I asked them. “Why was this time different?”
The guys quieted at that.
“I don’t know,” Juan said. “He programmed the machine himself, like he always did. He was going to pop over for a quick drink and right back. He’d been to Dublin before, so he knew what he was doing. He just didn’t, you know…”
“Make it back.”
“Yeah.” Juan bit his lip for a moment. “I wish I knew how to fix this.”
I pressed my hand to my forehead, pushing against the ache I could feel forming behind my eyes. Taking a deep breath, I told them “Okay. He went into it and came back out before. It didn’t kill him. Maybe the machine just lost him. Maybe it’s not permanent. We can find him again. What would you do if you’d lost a regular package? One that didn’t have a person in it?”
“Inform the manager,” Dave said, obviously relieved. “Package loss is an unfortunate, irregular, occurrence, but all packages can be tracked via their unique assigned number.”
He was quoting from the manual?
Exactly. I think it made him feel more comfortable. When a package gets misdirected, we can find its end destination and contact the recipient for a return. I pulled open the log from the night my brother disappeared. Though the outgoing address was Dublin X27, that’s only what gets created when the shipping order is entered into our system. It’s not necessarily where a package actually gets sent.
“There’s no delivery address on the array’s internal log,” I said. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“He set it up that way,” Juan said, “so you wouldn’t think we were shipping freight under the table.”
“We wouldn’t do that.” Dave added. “We don’t steal.”
“We borrowed.” Juan said. “It was only energy, and that’s free. The array is already paid for, so there’s no rent there. And we never disrupted a scheduled shipment.”
“But you did go to Fiji while clocked in for a shift you didn’t actually work.”
“It doesn’t matter. Help me figure out how to fix this and I will be so grateful, I might not fire you.” I raised my hand to silence their loud protestations. “Unfair is losing a person who happens to be my mother’s other child. Unfair is not mentioning that he’d figured out a way to break himself into tiny pieces, a process that no one else has ever survived, and was shooting himself and you to parts unknown every time you three got bored on a Saturday night.” I was yelling by the end, half raised out of my seat. I forced myself to sit down, and breathe.
Breathing was harder than I’d expected, without my brother there.
When did everything change?
It was a snarky comment, can you believe it? What I’ll always remember is instead of understanding what I was going through at that moment, the best news I’d ever heard in my life was delivered as a grumpy old man throwing my words back at me.
“It’s not exactly ‘parts unknown’,” Dave said after a moment. “We can always find out where a package went.”
“How?” I was wiping away tears by then. “It’s not in the log.”
“We ask Jamie Mitchell.”
I vaguely remembered the name. “He works for the substation?”
“Yeah, he’s the Dublin guy. He’ll have the incoming notification.” Juan said smiling again. “We called Sunday but he wasn’t on shift, and we didn’t leave a message. It’s kind of a secret. Only one or two guys at each station know.”
“Wait.” I was doing the math. “Thousands of people know about this?” I could hear my voice getting squeaky again.
“No, no, only at the stations we’ve been to—” Juan replied.
“Or were planning to go to—” Dave added.
“So, a couple of hundred,” Juan finished.
“Place call,” I said aloud, activating the voice system. “Dublin Express Shippers, Location 27.” The wall screen cut to black, ending Dave’s slideshow, and a moment later, replaced it with an oversize version of a man’s face.
“Dublin Ex’s, how may I help you?” he asked.
“Dublin, this is Amrita Chakrabarty, manager over at United Matter Delivery Services. I need to speak to one of your operators, Jamie Mitchell.”
The man grinned. “What’d he do now?”
“Mr. Mitchell hasn’t done anything wrong,” I said in my best customer service voice. “I just need a little information about a… package that doesn’t seem to have arrived in your facility.”
“Oh. All right. But if he’s fouled something up again, you tell me. He’s our bad-luck charm for sure, that one. One second.” He reached up and tapped his screen, pausing the feed. When it jumped forward again a thin, dark-haired man with blue eyes and a smattering of rosacea lines across his cheeks stood in his place.
“Uh, ‘ello, miss, I— Oh, Dave, Juan. Didn’t see ya there. How’s tricks, boys?”
“Mr. Mitchell,” I said, “we’re looking for Shikhar.”
“I ain’t, uh, heard from him,” Jamie said.
“She knows,” Juan told him, and Jamie sighed and grinned.
“In that case, I ain’t seen him lately, either.”
“He scheduled a shipment to you on Saturday.” I tossed the data up on the screen, watched him scowl as he read it. “He didn’t make his return trip. Is he still there?”
“No, really, I ain’t seen Shikhar in weeks.” He ran his hand through his hair. “I think this came in when we were having some trouble here, around 11:30 PM your time yeah?”
“11:47 to be exact.”
“Well then he’d a got routed. Our array was down, and I’ve already been marked up for what caused that so I’m not going into it now, but we weren’t receiving at all.”
“He didn’t appear when your machine came back online? That’s what usually happens, right? A normal package would be held as data until the array could reassemble it.” I thought about my brother’s atoms, all disconnected from each other, waiting for a computer to delicately stitch him together again, and lost the little hope I’d had left.
“It’s been too long, hasn’t it? He’d have scattered by now.”
“Oh that ain’t how it works,” Jamie said. “That’s just the corporate line so no one can steal their technology. Shikhar told me all the secrets.”
“He did say that,” Juan agreed. “Like, you ever wonder why no one else has marketed a similar product? It’s not patents that keep the copy shops in Africa from churning out a billion iMitters a day.”
“If we had machines that could reconstitute matter out of thin air, why not use them to replicate things we already have, or create food out of nothingness to feed the poor?” Jamie added. “Blew my mind when he explained it, I’ll tell you, but it makes sense.”
“If that’s true, then how do the arrays work?”
“Wormholes,” all three men said at the same time.
I thought they were joking.
“Nah,” Jamie said. “All serious, them’s tiny holes in space. Certain ones are open at certain times and the computers know. Whatever time you need to send something one of those is open, and the machines push you through.”
“And if the end destination isn’t available at the right time?”
“The holes are all connected, you just have to know which one to hit to end up where you want to go. Once you’re in, you’ll bounce through the next one and the next, looking for the right spot to land.” Dave looked sheepish. “I admit, I thought it’d be like a waterslide, but you don’t even notice. It’s instantenuous.”
“Instantaneous.” I corrected him, but you know? I’ve used “instantenuous” a few times since.
It’s in your book, when you describe the way it felt to consider the concept of transmatter shipping.
Right. Like everything else about this, it was a useful mistake. I asked Mitchell which station would Shikhar have bounced to next if he couldn’t “land” at theirs.
He shrugged. “Couldn’t tell ya without his map.” In the background, someone began yelling. “Ah yeah that’s for me. Gotta put out a fire. Later, boys. And uh, ma’am.” He waved the screen off.
You first heard about the Chakrabarty Wormhole Map from an operator in Dublin?
I wish everyone would stop calling it that.
But your brother’s friends hadn’t mentioned it until then?
Coworkers, not friends. Not really. And like I’ve said all along, they didn’t know or care about it, and certainly had no right or claim to it once it became monetarily valuable. I asked them, point blank:
“You two know anything about a map?”
Dave shrugged, but Juan looked thoughtful. “I knew he had something like one, but I never saw it. At first I thought it was lucky guesses but after a while he’d come in with the night’s jump written on his hand.”
“Then the next step is checking his map to figure out where he ended up.” They agreed to help me look, but a search of Shikhar’s locker only turned up a half-eaten sandwich and a library book long overdue. While “Pati, Chakrabarty, Agrawal” sounded like they could be relatives, they weren’t going to be much help to me at that moment. I decided I could return Solving Closed Timelike Curves: a New Look at Mixed States once I’d figured out if my brother would be around to pay the fine.
It didn’t help you at the time?
I didn’t read it until a couple of months later. By then the authors were all tenured professors, and a couple of them used the name recognition to get funding for their own study. Agrawal sent a fruit basket when they got the grant.
What did you do next?
There was nothing in the break room or bathroom or the spot behind the shelved shipping canes where I used to catch him napping, either. I couldn’t fit both of them in my Arch2o so I sent Juan back to work and let Dave ride with me to the apartment that I shared with my brother. Opening the door to Shikhar’s bedroom, I waved on the light so Dave could see why I needed his help.
He whistled. I remember that.
Everything was out of place. Books left open, strewn across the top of my brother’s desk, dresser. Clothes draped across his chair, the floor, anywhere but the empty hangers in his open closet. The room smelled of chemicals and uncirculated air. It wasn’t dirty; everything looked clean enough, and I knew my mother had knocked a good sense of personal hygiene into his head at a young age. But there was stuff, a great deal of it, disorganized and cluttered. I knew somewhere in the mess was the key to getting my brother back.
How did you know?
There wasn’t anywhere else it could be. I needed to believe it was there.
Dave surprised me by suggesting we’d have an easier time if we organized instead of searched. “We start at opposite ends and put everything away. That way we know what’s been searched and what hasn’t, and we’re not working over the same area twice.”
“That’s really a good idea, Dave,” I admitted.
“I have to do it whenever I lose something in my place,” he told me. “My apartment is spotless, I’ll tell you that.” We both smiled, and got to work.
You keep talking about Dave as if he was a friend.
I didn’t hate him. I still don’t. I don’t hate anyone, anymore.
Where did you find the map?
We almost didn’t. Three hours later, Shikhar’s room was neatly organized. His clothes were hung up, his books were shelved, and the collected mementos of his travels were carefully laid out on his desk.
“It’s not here,” I sighed. “Not in the cloud,” I’d accessed his server, “not hidden under the bed,” I’d looked there, too, “not anywhere. This map doesn’t exist.”
“I’m sorry. I know you were very fond of him.”
“How would you know? I can’t say I was kind to him at work.”
“Oh that was work,” Dave said. “Shikhar always said how you two had to keep things professional, but he was always going on about how you took care of him. He would never let anyone say an unkind thing about you.”
I sat down on his now-made bed and thought about my brother, always slacking off, always taking risks, always being a little boy that needed someone to rescue him. “I thought he hated me making rules all of the time.”
“Kids rebel,” Dave said. “I’ve raised a couple of them. I know. Doesn’t mean they don’t know who loves them.” I nodded, grateful.
He left the room, and after a moment I followed, waving the lights off. Before I could shut the door I noticed a faint light, looked up, and swore loudly.
“Are you okay?” Dave peeked his head back into the room. I pointed up. Above us, scrawled across the ceiling with a glow pen, was my brother’s map of the world. Circles with times written in them, thousands of intercontinental lines connecting one to another, a pale yellow equation in the vague shape of continents.
“That is a beautiful thing,” Dave said.
“That’s his way home,” which to me, was the same thing. “Look, there’s Dublin. And see where the lines radiate out from it? If we follow the one for 4:40 AM, accounting for the time difference, see where it goes?”
When I called up the Kievskaya substation, Shikhar waved from the background while a bearded man with bright eyes and a serious expression explained that he wouldn’t ship my brother back until someone transferred the shipping fee into his account.
“We took into account handling fees,” Vlad told me. “He is very bad at poker, this one. Also he eats.” Shikhar shrugged.
“I didn’t think it would take you this long to find me,” he said. “You didn’t tell Mom, did you?”
“It hadn’t occurred to me,” I lied. “Vlad, I’ve transferred the amount due. Thank you for not letting him starve.”
“Wouldn’t occur to me,” Vlad said with a smile.
“You’ve got to send him back at exactly 6:34 AM, your time,” I said, (ignoring Shikhar suddenly yelling, “You were in my room! Amrita!”) and added, “Feel free to shake the box a few times before you put it into the array.”
“We don’t use a box,” Shikhar said.
“How would I know? You didn’t leave me instructions.”
“Instructions are your job,” he replied, sticking his tongue out at me. “You’re administration, I’m genius ideas and food tasting. That’s the rules.”
Satisfied that his brain hadn’t been scrambled by the experience — he was the same annoying, wonderful, brilliant little brother I’d always loved — I sent Juan and Dave home for the day and settled into my office to wait. Instructions? I thought. Well, if we’re not careful, someone could get lost for good doing this.
“Command,” I said aloud. “New document. Title: How To Recover A Relative Lost During Transmatter Shipping, in Five Easy Steps. Begin record.”
And from there we get the opening lines of the document that changed the world.
“Step one: check the logs to determine that the traveler’s destination matches the ticket…” I meant it to sound helpful. If you give people a clear guide, a way out of their problems, then they can focus on doing the steps instead of being overwhelmed by the fear and hurt that comes with losing something — or someone — important. Do you know what’s that like? Losing someone who’s always been there. A part of your family. Someone you love steps into a device and disappears. I thought, if there was a structure in place you’d feel safer, knowing that you weren’t going through your loss alone.
To date, no one has ever been lost traveling via your system.
No. Not one. The only person who’s ever needed those instructions was me.
At that point, Ms. Chakrabarty was called away to a meeting. I never had a chance to follow up and ask which time she meant: the moment she thought she’d lost her only brother forever, or later, when she actually did.