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Every Action

By Stephen Graham Jones

Marcus had to explain the device to the buyers by what it wasn't. Because there really wasn't a name.

It wasn't a teleporter, no. Not exactly. Not even inexactly. A teleporter takes an object from this pod or pad and disintegrates it at the atomic level, reconstitutes it on another pod or pad. Meaning nothing's really 'teleported,' of course. It's just copied, at a distance.

And nobody's got that technology, anyway.

Marcus's device wasn't interdimensional, either. He didn't think. Not just because he didn't subscribe to the theory of alternate or parallel dimensions, but because even if they existed, wouldn't the energy needed to move between them be massive? Without that kind of safeguard in place, then the dimensions would have all collapsed into one long ago, in the instant of their formation, probably.

Marcus's device ran off a household circuit. In his garage.

He'd been cobbling it together after-hours for three years now. Just tinkering. Trying it this way, then that way. Seeing what would happen if he connected this to that. Building it had been less like constructing something, more like daring all these pieces not to work together.

They had anyway.

"Wormhole?" Ted from Dynamix asked, holding his hand up timidly.

"He's not trying to break the world," Alison from Rand Systems said with a dismissive chuckle. "Are you, Mr. Rettinger?"

I'm not saying wormholes are impossible," Marcus said, clearing off his workbench. "They're probably not. That's... what do they say? 'Above my pay grade.'"

"Theoretical," Jim from Marcus couldn't-remember-where gently corrected, and the paternal way he caught Marcus' eyes served as reminder to Marcus, that he didn't want to alienate anyone, here.

The negotiations were already starting, then. Now Jim was on Marcus's side. Now Marcus was indebted to Jim. Soon enough Jim would be calling that marker in.

"It was just a regular object printer at first," Marcus said, peeling the tarp off with a showroom flourish he'd been practicing all week.

"And you're—a network administrator?" Ted asked.

"Einstein was a postal clerk," Marcus said, not looking at any of them. "But I'm always taking things apart and putting them together again, better. Used to it was those crystal radio kits you'd get in the mail, and then it was motherboards and—

"But this actually works?" Alison said.

"You all brought a design?" Marcus said.

Grinning (Alison) and shrugging (Ted) so it was obvious they were just playing along, the buyers held their thumb drives out before them. Marcus took Jim's last. Jim passed it across like the smallest, most solemn baton. Like he, too, was daring this not to work.

He was probably from the government. That's why Marcus couldn't remember his company or corporation or industry: he wasn't supposed to. It was some name designed to erase itself from memory.

Could the government commandeer the device? In the name of national security?

There were so many variables in the real world.

"Nothing over thirty pounds, right?" Marcus said, rolling the drives in his hand like dice.

"I do have another meeting at two," Ted said, cocking his watch up like he was looking at it.

"Done by lunch," Marcus said, flicking the power switch on.

The device hummed in its wooden cradle.

That had been key, after everything else: the bed of scrap lumber Marcus had jigsawed together with cheap dowels and a #2 rasp. It wasn't about conductivity or resistance, he didn't think—there wasn't anything to ground, really—but about room to vibrate.

The device wasn't going to shake itself apart, or it hadn't so far, but there was definitely a quick shudder right before it kicked out the object. Marcus didn't have the equipment to document the shudder, but he was pretty sure it wasn't just a random vibration, wasn't a textbook curve, quite. It was something on the order of a truly exponential number of vibrations, all somehow occupying the same space. Like the device was a butterfly, trying to shake free of its cocoon.

At least that's how he liked to think of it.

No screw or fitting was ever loose after a print, though.

It didn't make sense, but neither did the rest of it.

If this worked out, Marcus was going to give his two weeks' notice, definitely. And then never troubleshoot anybody's system or connection ever again.

Marcus dealt up one of the flash drives, didn't bother studying the company logo, just plugged it in.

The schematics came up on the terminal he'd liberated from work.

"Ah, circuits," Marcus said.

"That's okay, right?" Ted said. "You said anything."

"No, no," Marcus said, "this is a test."

And he pushed the green button.

"How long does it take?" Alison asked, just as the device shuddered.

Jim, Marcus noticed, was covering his hand with his mouth. As if he suspected dangerous gases, or an explosion.

"Should be ready now," Marcus said, and lifted the opaque plastic sheet from the small bay.

There, just like Ted's engineers had ordered, was a sleek optical drive with a burnished aluminum body, not a burr or a scratch on any edge.

On cue, Ted produced a shiny disc from his chest pocket, waggled it as if for permission.

"Of course," Marcus said, and, leaning in for the drive, he thought he caught a whiff of… livestock?

It was some by-product of the printing process. Plastics annealing, metals re-organizing their molecular structure, he wasn't sure. And it was just a smell. A small price to pay for magic.

"Do you mind?" Ted said, hauling up his own laptop, instead of the battered and bruised unit Marcus kept in the garage, its innards exposed.

"Of course," Marcus said, ceding the workbench but then remembering he was the host here, the one who needed to sweep all the tools over to one side, push them up against the vice.

The drive spun like a top. On-screen the diagnostic Ted's programmers had written reeled up screen after screen of data.

"Even the lens for the laser," Jim said.

"Me next," Alison said.

What she ordered up was from the middle ages: a small brick of gold.

Instead of biting it, she pushed one of Marcus's chisels into it, then again, at a sharper angle. The indentions were deep, easy. The gold was like butter.

"We'll have to weigh it to be sure," she said, impressed

"Here," Marcus said, and unstuck a kitchen magnet from the side of his vice. First he demonstrated how it stuck to the vice, and to a stray hammer. Then he held it to the gold, let it go. It fell immediately into Alison's palm.

"Gold isn't magnetic," he explained.

The world market just changed a little," Jim said, such that Marcus couldn't tell if this was a good change or a bad change.

Alison hefted the gold, reappraised the device.

"We keep the products?" she said.

"The gold is yours," Marcus said, then, to Ted, "And the drive as well. I'm sure you'll want to take it apart."

"I'm sure we will," Ted said.

"Ready?" Marcus said to Jim, and when Jim nodded once, Marcus pushed the green button for the third time.

"Does it always tremble like that?" Jim said.

But 'tremble' was the wrong word. It was more of a whirr, Marcus could tell now, looking at it through his buyers' eyes. Like a drill slightly out of balance.

"Why?" Marcus said back to Jim, "you order up something carbonated?"

Alison grinned, reached for the plastic flap herself, as if to remove the possibility of sleight-of-hand, and Marcus stepped back, let her.

In the bay was a shiny red apple, its stem cocked over at a jaunty angle.

"Organic matter," Ted said reverently.

Marcus plucked the apple up, rolled it for bruises, then lobbed it to Jim. Jim caught it, inspected it.

"Here," Marcus said, when Jim evidently wasn't going to, and he took the apple, bit deep into its side, handed it back.

"It's got seeds," Jim said, studying them. "If you plant them—?"

"It only started working last month," Marcus said. "I've mostly been using it to round out my action figure collection."

"Are you accepting offers now?" Ted asked.

"Because—" Alison added, her voice stepping between Marcus and Ted even if she hadn't.

"What kind of heads does it run?" Ted said, leaning over as if to peer inside.

"Nozzles," Marcus said. "There's never any overspray, either."

"And what kind of cartridges?" Jim said, still studying the apple. "Where does the raw material come from?"

Marcus looked up to the three buyers.

"That's what makes this... unique," he said, studying the dusty, unused intake with them. "It's why you're all here, right?"

"Materials out with no materials in," Jim said, setting his apple down as if to signal they were about to begin the real deliberations. "That has been the dream for some time now, yes."

"You also got perpetual motion cracked?" Ted said, grinning.

Marcus leaned back on the workbench, gathered his words. "I originally designed it to, you know, capture moisture from the air. Just to see if I could make something in ice. I imagined it like an invisible scoop, just collecting the available water molecules and condensing them into drops, and more drops, funneling them down through the intake, there, into this pan that's got to still be inside it, I think."

"You think?" Ted said.

"Once it started working," Marcus said, "you know. I didn't want to mess it up."

"So you don't know how it works?" Alison said.

"Regardless," Jim said, and picked the apple back up, held it bite-side out to Ted and Alison. It was properly browning at its thinnest edges.

"It made the little ice shapes I told it to," Marcus said. "If I could get the design in right, it would kick it out in ice. It was kind of fun. I've still got the first one inside, in the freezer. But then the breaker for the humidifier flipped and I didn't notice, and the exact same shapes kept on coming out. And then I forgot to specify 'ice' in a design, and it made the actual object."

"What was it?" Ted asked.

"A diamond," Marcus said, holding his hand up to approximate the size. "It ruined my bathroom mirror."

"It didn't use the water," Alison said. "It never was using the water."

"Then what was it using?" Jim asked, taking a timid bite from the apple now, on the opposite side from Marcus's bite.

"Dark matter?" Ted said.

"Talk about making a singularity... " Alison said.

"I call it the Great Cartridge in the Sky," Marcus said, and nobody laughed, though Ted did look up momentarily. But then he brought his face back down, sheepishly.

"Does it know where it's getting the raw material?" Jim asked.

"When it was—when it was making ice, it was supposed to be drawing moisture in from the air, like I said. Through that intake. It was supposed to take two or three weeks to get enough for an ice cube. Passive, not active."

"So it has collectors of some sort," Alison said, peering around the device, touching the pad of her finger to the dust lining the intake chute.

Marcus nodded, as if this was a painful admission. "When it started making... when it started printing real stuff, not ice, it should have kicked my error message up. And the error-routine is solid. I just pasted it across from something else. But the conditional that leads into it—I don't know. I must have set the wrong parameters. Left them too loose. The code found a workaround, somehow. Instead of saying wait, there's no water, it reached deeper, found what it needed."

Jim studied the device.

"So it's the programming, then," he said. "Not the hardware."

"It's the programming first," Alison said. "But it's expressing through the hardware. Such as it is."

"The code is included in the price, of course," Ted said, making it into not a question.

"It works," Marcus said. "It's just an on-the-fly function called 'Scoop.' As in, scoop some water in now, please. But I must not have put a kill-switch on the recursion. It kept looping wider and wider. Until it found what it needed."

"It's perfect," Ted said.

"But it has to be coming from somewhere," Jim insisted. "Conservation of mass, right?"

"Newton's third law, at least," Alison said.

Ted didn't say anything.

Marcus studied the device with his buyers.

"It doesn't matter what you ask it for," he said. "Metal, plastic, mineral, organic—"

"Radioactive?" Ted asked.

Marcus just stared at the empty bay behind the plastic flap.

"So it found its own material somehow," Jim was saying, like thinking out loud. "Where would a machine look?"

"Have you asked it to build itself?" Alison said, picking the apple up herself, biting into it for some sort of emphasis or finality Marcus couldn't quite track.

"You can leave here with it today... " Marcus heard himself saying, not really in parody. His heart sank a little.

They were supposed to have been excited, not doubtful.

It was all supposed to start here.

"If you can make diamonds and gold," Jim said. "Why are you selling it? Don't you already have a closet full?"

Marcus made no eye contact.

"This is the self-copy," Alison said. "The child. You've got the original in your house."

"The parent," Ted said. "But each one would be smaller and smaller, wouldn't it?"

"Why sell the golden goose?" Jim said.

The way Alison and Ted quieted, it meant this was their question too: Why?

Marcus breathed in, breathed back out.

"It's so everybody can—can know," he said, almost too quietly, and looked up.

They were all watching him.

"That a network administrator changed the world," Ted said, as if apologetic for having to say it out loud for Marcus.

"Saved the world," Jim corrected.

"Maybe it's a time machine," Alison said. "It's like, stealing from the future."

"Or the heart of a star millions of light years away," Jim said, playing along but still staring at Marcus.

"Or dark matter," Ted said again, trying to insist. "That's like the stem cells of mass, right? Shape it into anything?"

"That doesn't even start to make sense," Alison said.

"And this does?" Ted said, about the device.

"I—I don't know," Marcus said, swallowing hard, the sound loud in his head. "Look, though, I downloaded the genome—I'm pretty sure it can make an earthworm... "

"A living earthworm?" Jim said, his brow furrowing with consternation.

"Even a dead one would be something," Alison said.

"You mean you don't know if it'll work?" Ted said.

"It'll work," Marcus said, tabbing over to the terminal window he'd had ready all along, to close the deal.

"Can you imagine how much raw material it would have to scoop up to make a living being?" Alison said, thrilled, and the only person who didn't have to imagine that, he had been dead six hundred years already.

He was standing in a hazy barn in what was going to have been called Wales, had this countryside lasted. Had this island lasted. He was standing in a barn that already had half of the roof and the loft somehow 'bitten' away.

All around him his sheep were bleating.

"No, no," he told them, but he was wrong: when a green button was pushed six hundred years ahead of him, the air shuddered in a way he felt in his chest. And then a large metal scoop broke through the air. It took a slow, deep bite, not just of his barn, but of the hindquarters of three of his sheep.

The sheep screamed, and pulled themselves forward with their front legs, their insides trailing out, into the future.

Stephen Graham Jones is the author of sixteen novels, six collections, and two or three hundred stories. His most recent novel is Mongrels, from William Morrow. Stephen lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Every Action ©2016 by Stephen Graham Jones. First Publication: Words June 2016, ed. Joshua Viola (Hex Publishers).

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