The Boy on the Mountaintop

Our subletting Funbagger Drew Magary’s third novel, Point B, was released yesterday. A reader once said Drew’s novels read like a really long answer to a Funbag question. So it is with Point B, which asks the question, “Hey, what if you could teleport anywhere you wanted, simply by using your phone?” The following excerpt provides one of many, many answers.

THE BOY ON THE MOUNTAINTOP

By Katy Wagner, GizPo

9/21/2030

(COOS BAY, OR) — Melanie Greenberg has a plan for what to do if she ever meets the Kirsch family. She’s rehearsed her speech in the mirror for over a year now. Late at night, when she’s mired in the private hell of insomnia, she’ll jot down tweaks to her working script, each word chosen carefully for maximum impact. She’s learned to write legibly in darkness; rarely does she misspell a word or write one word over another despite writing blind. She can feel the pages for indentations from where she’s put pen to paper, so she can locate free white space beneath. And she has sharpened the words down to a blade, so that when she sticks them into a Kirsch, they’ll leave a mark.

Can you tell me what you plan on saying?

“The words ‘you killed my son’ will be in there somewhere.”

You think they killed him.

“I know they did. Emilia Kirsch runs the company. Jason Kirsch invented the technology. Tell me who else would be responsible.”

Do you want to physically harm Emilia and Jason?

“Yes, but I know I can’t. I’ve convinced myself it’s the wrong idea anyway. I want them to live with the hell of being themselves. Emilia and Jason can stay rich. They can stay free. But they’ll always have to live inside their hateful bodies, and I want that to hurt them.”

It wasn’t always easy to get to Coos Bay. You used to have to drive here from Portland, taking the 5 South down to Route 38 and then across to 101, a tattered ribbon of a country highway that would test even a cast-iron stomach. That slim passageway through the wild, coupled with eternally damp weather, was enough to keep Coos Bay relatively isolated in the beginning of the century, especially as shipping jobs began to dry up and drugs took hold over this otherwise anonymous bit of Oregon shoreline.

“We’d have campers and tweakers,” says Greenberg. “But now you get these clusters of surfers and fishermen, all zapping in together at exact times and making a goddamn mess before zapping right back out again. And, of course, we have a few port refugees from here and there.”

But the greater impact that porting has had on Coos Bay hasn’t come from people bypassing the endless roads to come here, but rather its original residents leaving. When the world opened up, the youth of Coos Bay fled in droves. So many kids have dropped out of nearby Marchfield High that the school has been forced to shutter entirely.

One of the kids who dropped out was Melanie’s son, Jeffrey. If you’re conjuring the stereotype in your head of what a high school dropout might look like these days—lazy, disaffected, porting at random, addicted to black market opioids, etc.—Jeffrey’s story will alter that image drastically. He was a straight-A student. He was lead trumpet in the school marching band. He never drank or smoked. A sophomore at Marchfield during the advent of porting, he was already receiving letters from prominent Pac-12 schools with hints of scholarship money in the offing.

“I think, in some ways, porting has been worse for the smart kids,” Melanie tells me. I’m in her house right now. It’s a split-level abode nestled deep in the woods. This is an area that gets little port traffic, although that hasn’t stopped Melanie from keeping dozens of guns handy to fend off aggressive trespassers and would-be squatters. She makes me a fresh pot of coffee but, in a moment of absent-mindedness, forgets to put a filter in the coffeemaker. Hot water and loose grounds spurt all over the kitchen counter.

“Jeffrey wanted to leave Coos Bay, and I don’t blame him. I mean, this place was a meth hole. He was excited to get out and see the world, and I was excited for it, too. I just think you have to be ready, you know? No one was ready for it.”

She held off buying Jeffrey a PortPhone for as long as she could, but after he saved up hundreds from his own personal landscaping business, she couldn’t fend him off any longer.

“I remember where he ported to first,” Melanie says to me as she rinses the soaked coffee grounds out of her pot and puts in a fresh filter. “It was Cancun, which is predictable for a 16-year-old. I made him promise only to go for a couple of minutes. So he zaps out, and I’m waiting, and waiting, and I’ve got half a mind to go to his pin and thrash him in front of all of Mexico. Then he finally came back.”

And what was that like?

“He wouldn’t stop laughing. That ever happen to you? You’re so happy you start laughing, and you don’t know why? It was that. And I saw that look of joy from him and…” she begins to cry, “I’m a mom, you know? When you see your kid happy, you want them to stay that way forever. It’s like when you give a small child candy, and they go crazy for it. It makes you want to give them more. To spoil them. Because it’s so easy. Spoiling them makes them happy. But you know you can’t spoil them always because if you keep giving candy to them, it’ll…” She can’t finish the thought. She presses her hands against the counter and lets out a long exhale.

Jeffrey began porting every weekend, and then every night. Once PortSys began offering unlimited plans, Melanie felt powerless to stop him. He always managed to talk his way out of having the phone confiscated. Sometimes they would port together places, but more often it would be Jeffrey out in the world on his own, Melanie dying a little inside every time he vanished.

“Everything was different overnight, and I needed more time to adjust to that. We all did. We all still do! But PortSys? They never gave a shit. They weren’t careful. They didn’t bother preparing anyone for this kind of world. They charged ahead because they knew no one would ever have the courage to stop them.”

One Sunday in May, Jeffrey told his mom he was going to Los Angeles with fellow bandmate Paul Gallagher. They had an agreement that he would share his pin with her anytime he went somewhere. This day, the destination was the Santa Monica Pier. Melanie watched Jeffrey port out, then ported to Atlanta herself to visit a friend before coming home to wait for him.

But Jeffrey never showed. Melanie called her son. She texted. Still no answer. When she checked her own PortSys account, she realized that Jeffrey had unfriended her that morning, leaving her unable to see his port history. By the time Monday morning arrived, she had turned frantic, porting to Jeffrey’s chosen pin on the beach and wading through hordes of unimaginative tourists to look for her son, a human needle in the haystack. When she called PortSys to try to verify his current location, they refused to disclose it.

“Sometimes,” Melanie says, “You trust your children too much, you know? Jeffrey was such a good kid, I’d have trusted him with any decision he made. But then I would forget he’s still just a kid.”

What Melanie didn’t know was that Jeffrey’s trip to Santa Monica was actually a premeditated ruse. He and Gallagher weren’t going to California at all. Rather, they had spent the better part of a month sketching out a plan to port to the summit of Mount Everest. They studied storm patterns. They borrowed mountaineering gear from a friend (lightweight, to adhere to PortSys’ YOU PLUS TWO guidelines, which allow for teleporting an extra two kilograms on your person in addition to the mass of your naked body) plus bottles of supplemental from a more experienced summiter. They went on long runs in high altitude cities: cities that Jeffrey had truthfully told his mother he was going to visit, while keeping hidden his ulterior motive for the jaunts.

The plan was port to increasingly high altitudes, get acclimated, and then hit the summit. Once on the roof of the world, Jeffrey and Paul would take in the view of the surrounding hemisphere, get a selfie, and then leave in an instant.

It is, of course, not legal to port to the summit of Everest. Since the advent of porting, only the South Slope of the mountain is open to climbing, with the North Slope formally closed by a Chinese government that outlawed porting from the start and has no plans to reverse that policy. Thus, oversight of Everest’s unlicensed port tourism has fallen mostly to overwhelmed Nepalese officials.

The path to the summit was awash in litter and human excrement long before the advent of PortPhones, and porting has only exacerbated the problems at the top of the mountain. As with other national landmarks all over the world, port tourists have overwhelmed and desecrated what were once carefully preserved lands. In a bit of morbid irony, the deadly environs of Everest have help protect it from being completely overrun. Other parks and attractions lack such natural deterrents.

And standard tourist attractions are even more vulnerable, particularly spots highlighted by popular WorldGram travel accounts like @GoHere, which can create nightmare crowding situations the instant it recommends a porting destination. The Eiffel Tower in Paris is patrolled by armed forces at all times because port tourists stampede in at all hours, but the Tower is fortunate enough to be able to afford that security. Prominent amusement parks like Cedar Point in Ohio now must charge by the ride instead of charging gate admission because they can’t build a portwall large enough to secure the grounds. Pebble Beach golf course in California now has PINE agents on carts patrolling the holes 24/7. Other hotspots, such as Monte Alban in Oaxaca and parts north of the aurora oval in Alaska, lack the funding to afford a portwall or beefed-up security, and have thus suffered environmental and ecological decay due to massive increases in foot traffic.

The summit of Everest, despite its hostile climate, has also suffered likewise. Perhaps it hasn’t suffered the same amount of damage as Uluru in Australia, but any damage done to the roof of the world is substantial and permanent. New mountaineering laws have not helped. Anyone caught porting to the summit of Everest is subject to arrest and fines in excess of $500,000. But catching violators and enforcing fines is nearly impossible. While Nepalese officials were glad that porting eased some of traffic to the summit, they have had little control over the inevitable overcrowding that now routinely happens on it, especially when weather conditions prove favorable. How can you control the top of a mountain when anyone can get there by pushing a button and stepping into a wormhole? You can’t keep a police force 33,000 feet up in the sky. You can’t patrol it from the air. Proposals to create a portwall around the summit have proved unworkable.

To prevent being identified at the summit, Jeffrey Greenberg and Paul Gallagher left their passport lanyards behind in a still-unknown location. Jeffrey’s callowness meant that he had vastly overestimated his ability to execute the Everest plan. As they ported from one acclimation point to the next, Jeffrey complained to Gallagher that he felt nauseous and dizzy: unmistakable signs of altitude sickness. An encroaching storm system—not exactly a surprise development around Everest—forced Jeffrey and Gallagher to accelerate their plans and shorten their acclimation intervals so that they could port to the summit and get out before the squall bore down.

That would prove to be a fatal error, because Jeffrey’s lungs were already starved for oxygen. At the peak of Everest, the air only has roughly a third of the oxygen contained in the air at sea level. That thin air, combined with the drop in air pressure, can tax the lungs of even a seasoned climber. And Jeffrey was far from that.

The instant the two boys ported to the South Summit, with an altitude of 28,704 feet, Jeffrey collapsed and began to convulse, the result of a cerebral edema. Gallagher, now terrified, tried to program Jeffrey’s PortPhone to port his friend back to safer ground, but couldn’t get his bandmate’s finger to hold steady on the phone’s scanner prompt. Even if Gallagher had succeeded in this, Jeffrey never would have been able to take the crucial step to complete the porting. He was stuck seizing at the summit, his body desperate to hyperventilate but too weak to do so. His diaphragm cramped into a hard knot. The oxygen supply to his brain got cut off entirely. When Gallagher called American medical startup 1RSPND and begged them to have first responders port to the summit, the company told him that they were over their monthly porting data limit, and that PortSys had throttled their service. Mountaineers that had secured official permits to summit the mountain began to openly grouse at the two boys clogging up the summit, which has a surface area roughly the size of an apartment closet. No one was going to help Jeffrey Greenberg.

It was all over in less than a minute. A nearby team of experienced climbers, who had made the summit the old-fashioned way, rushed to administer CPR to Jeffrey, but by then he had no pulse. With the storm closing in quickly, Paul Gallagher, who would only agree to speak on background for this story, had little choice but to abandon his friend right there, 100 meters below the highest point on Earth.

Jeffrey Greenberg’s body remains on Everest to this day, scattered among the hundreds of other corpses resting on the mountain that cannot be removed, neither by porting nor by law. He is far from alone in being the only young person to meet a gruesome fate by porting somewhere he didn’t belong. There was the case of Taylor Garrison, a college student who accidentally ported into the middle of the Pacific Ocean and drowned. There was the case of Megan Abay, who got stuck in a faulty wormhole that teleported her back and forth from her apartment in Chicago to her parents’ home in Addis Ababa every microsecond, splitting her into two places simultaneously and destroying her mind. There was Leann Egan, who was ported 200 feet above her intended pin in Maui thanks to what PortSys described as a “glitch” in its famously guarded algorithm. She fell to her death.

And then there was the strange case of Anthony Drazic, a seven-year-old who, through yet another system “bug,” ported directly into the body of a full-grown man named Joshua Klim, killing both instantly. Drazic’s body had to be surgically removed from Klim’s abdomen in a gruesome Caesarian section that would take a Serbian coroner thirteen hours to complete. To this day, it remains the only violation of PortSys’s supposedly ironclad law that solid matter cannot port into other solid matter. And then there are, of course, the tens of thousands of runaways and refugees shot and killed by interior patrols lurking in the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, Russia, and every other country looking to crack down on port migration.

These deaths, be they the result of direct failures in PortSys’s algorithm, or the result of PortSys failing to curtail its users’ more reckless impulses, have invariably resulted in solemn statements issued by the company, along with any number of discreetly agreed-upon cash settlements. Melanie Greenberg was offered $28,000 to settle her case against PortSys. When she refused and filed a formal lawsuit, the case was thrown out in Federal court after Congress passed a law that made it illegal to sue “any porting carrier” (curious wording, given that PortSys is the only porting carrier in existence) for accidents resulting from the use of their products.

Calls for PortSys to restrict how users port—into private homes, into war zones, and to dangerous terrain—have been rebuffed by the company in the name of port neutrality. The closest PortSys has come to fixing the problem is establishing two-factor confirmation for any user wishing to port into “conflict zones,” areas marked as dangerous by the company (of course, those designations have often been met with vehement protest by residents of said zones). They promise that the bugs that killed Josh Klim and Leann Egan have been fixed in later software updates. The company’s parental controls, ostensibly introduced to help parents monitor where kids port, remain cumbersome and lightly used.

When Jason Kirsch was confronted with these facts in an email exchange with me, he remained defiant.

“Our terms of service are clear,” he told me. “Our port moderators do not advise people porting to certain areas they have declared as unsafe, but we are not going to close off those areas and restrict the God-given freedoms of those who are experienced and hardy enough to tackle that kind of terrain. I myself have ported to such locations. Have you been to the top of Devil’s Tower? I have. It’s breathtaking. It is incumbent upon users to follow both their better instincts and the laws of anywhere they choose to port.”

“So you’re absolved of all responsibility in these deaths?” I asked him.

“Let me make it clear, Katy: This company saved the world. You know that. I know I speak for my mother when I say it’s a terrible thing any time someone experiences a porting malfunction.”

You mean a porting death.

“No, these are unfortunate malfunctions. In the event of someone harming himself during the porting process, we mourn just as his family mourns.”

I don’t believe that.

“Believe what you want to believe,” Jason Kirsch wrote back. “I have the facts on my side, and what the facts say is that porting solved this planet’s energy crisis, along with its housing crisis and its traffic crisis. People can now evacuate from natural disasters in a snap, and rescue workers can port into those same areas with equal speed. Once we get China on board with porting, we’ll have improved modern civilization by orders of magnitude. To me, it’s insane that some people don’t appreciate this. WE INVENTED TELEPORTATION. How can you not be astounded by that? I’m astounded by it every day! Do you understand how many lives this company has saved? 40,000 automobile related deaths in the United States alone. Every year. All saved. Why is that not the focus of your story?”

(Jason Kirsch is not entirely correct here: While passenger automobile deaths are now nearly extinct, trucking fatalities have increased over 500% since the advent of porting, thanks to decaying highway infrastructure plus huge increases in demand for construction and shipped goods in formerly remote areas.)

Melanie Greenberg has never seen her son’s body. To visit Jeffrey, she would either have to pay an outrageous amount to have it removed from Everest, or she herself would have to port to the summit, something she is terrified to do both from a physical and legal standpoint. For now, Jeffrey’s body remains on display in a permanent, open wake she’ll never be able to attend. She long ago forgave Paul Gallagher for his role in Jeffrey’s death. Instead, she saves the bulk of her ire for PortSys and the Kirsch family. Sometimes, when she wakes up in the morning, she discovers that she’s written hundreds of words in frantic night scribbling. She shows me the notes, which take up an entire filing box.

Are all those notes for the Kirsches?

“Not all of them. I spare more than a few for myself.”

I don’t think you’re alone in having a hard time reckoning with how much freedom to give your children.

“Yeah but my son is dead, so I have hard proof I did a lousy job, don’t I? I caved when I should’ve been stronger. And I let him have this power, because I wanted to have it too.”

This is when I notice a rectangular bulge in Melanie’s pocket. She takes out her old PortPhone6, the screen slightly cracked and the chrome edges nicked and scarred. She knows what I’m about to ask, so she goes ahead and answers in advance.

“It’s for the Kirsches. It’s my only way to get to Emilia and Jason. When they do one of their bullshit listening tours, or when Jason stages one of his insufferable new product launches, that’s when I’m gonna port in and tell them about my son.”

And then?

“And then, I swear to you, I will throw this thing in the fucking ocean.”