by Phillip Pettit
Riley Jameson jostled for position in the long shadows of the evening rush hour. He pushed forward with a flurry of apologies and conciliatory gestures that did little to compensate for his behavior. Riley managed to clamber onto the number 439 bus just in time to secure the last available seat. Satisfaction washed over him as he pretended not to notice the woman behind him clutching her shopping bags and turning away in disappointment. Another minor victory: Riley was on a roll today.
Next to him was a man sleeping with his bearded face pressed against the window. The sight of the man’s contorted lips and squashed cheek somewhat detracted from the cosmetics ad on the side of the bus: Beautiful You!
The bus had barely moved away from the stop before it was caught in a queue of traffic. Riley slumped back in his seat and sighed. It was going to be a long journey home. He usually took the earlier bus, but today he had been delayed. A sales demonstration had persuaded him to make an impulse purchase.
Riley felt rather surprised at himself. He normally thought twice about buying anything. He had finally succumbed to the gadget-envy that had built up after countless lunch time conversations with his coworkers. The conversations typically left him impressed, confused and a little jealous. This time, he smiled inwardly, I’ll be ahead of the game.
The superlative-laden sales pitch had all the energy and drama you could expect from a storefront salesman, but the visual display had so overawed Riley that he paid no attention to the words, and he felt no compunction in forking over the lofty sum.
Riley had a sudden uneasy feeling: maybe it was too good to be true. Maybe the salesman had cleverly duped him.
To ease his mind he reached into his bag and retrieved a transparent box just small enough to hold in one hand. He turned the box over slowly, watching fine grey dust pour from one side of the box to the other. The demonstrator had called it Morph-Dust, Riley remembered that much at least.
He became aware that a young boy sitting across the aisle had taken an interest in the box. The boy’s mother was sitting next to him, looking absent mindedly out the window.
Riley scoffed at the primitive popup book the boy was holding. Sad cardboard spaceship pointed skyward for the impossible journey. After years of feeling outdone, Riley seized his opportunity for revenge. The spirit of one-upmanship was alive and well on the 439.
Riley brought out a small electronic controller used to set the Morph-Dust into action. It had all been explained during the demonstration and Riley was struggling to remember the instructions that had been fired at him in an incomprehensible barrage.
Riley’s face broke into a smile once he had found a suitable selection. The sides of the box folded down to form a flat platform. After a few moments, some of the dust moved. It was almost imperceptible at first, but grew more and more noticeable as the dust particles reorganized.
“How do they know where to go?” Riley thought to himself, fascinated. He glanced at the boy to make sure he was watching. He was, popup book forgotten and fallen to the floor.
Within a minute the dust was no longer dust at all but an object taking shape. The object had a fuzzy appearance and it was hard to pick out the edges of the shape. Gradually the sleek lines of a model spaceship became visible. The spaceship became noticeably lop-sided as the bus turned a corner, and then quickly corrected itself.
Finally the last dust particles moved into position and Riley sat grinning from ear to ear. He tapped the object with his finger and was gratified to feel it had hardened into position with the toughness of solid metal.
The boy across the aisle was laughing and pointing. Somehow Riley felt a little disappointed in the reaction. The boy tugged at the sleeves of his mother’s shirt struggling to get her attention while she struggled just as vigorously to ignore him. Surrounding passengers were now leaning over to see what all the fuss was about.
“Can I have one of those?” The boy pleaded. Something in his tone suggested it wasn’t just an idle wish that would soon be forgotten. That was more like it. The boy’s mother rolled her eyes and stared accusingly at Riley and his model spaceship.
Riley started to feel uncomfortable with the attention and hit another button on the controller. The spaceship immediately began losing its solid appearance as particles fell away to the platform below. Within seconds the model spaceship was again nothing more than dust.
If Riley had listened to the demonstrator, or taken time to read the instructions he would have known that Morph-Dust wasn’t dust at all, but instead an unimaginable number of nano-scale robots with the ability to self organize. He would also have known that using Morph-Dust inside a moving vehicle was not a good idea.
Riley was not an instructions kind of guy, he was a man who learnt from experience. Experience was about to teach Riley a lesson he would not soon forget.
The sleeping passenger next to Riley chose that moment to shift position. He sleepily scratched his beard and then let his arm drop down and to the side, striking the edge of the Morph-Dust platform and catapulting it into the air.
Morph-Dust rained down over Riley’s horrified face. “You idiot!” he exclaimed, his insult was directed as much at himself as it was toward the bearded passenger.
The boy was laughing and pointing again. “It’s in his beard!” The boy cried hysterically. In what he would later consider as a particularly humiliating moment, Riley retrieved the box and tried to scoop as much Morph-Dust from the now waking man’s beard as possible.
Other passengers were less amused at seeing dust floating around the inside of the bus. Riley weathered a storm of glares, insults and accusations with defiance as the surrounding passengers scrambled away from him and towards the front of the bus.
He was only concerned with collecting his precious dust. His mind was calculating the cost of each speck as he scraped dust from the seats and floor.
A large scuffed boot blocked his progress. The boot was attached to bulky legs belonging to an oversized body under an angry face. Riley stopped. He was one of life’s scavengers, not a fighter.
A booming voice launched a volley of profanities that made Riley feel like he needed a bath. At the front of the bus, the boy’s mother covered his ears.
Riley backed away and resumed his seat, cursing his luck. He eyed his now pitiful collection of Morph-Dust, less than half the size it used to be and now mixed with assorted debris from the bus floor.
His dark thoughts were interrupted by a tingling sensation on his face and arms. Unbeknownst to Riley, as he scratched uncomfortably, the Morph-Dust had landed on his clothes and exposed skin, and it was regrouping. The Morph-Dust moved like microscopic soldiers marching to an agreed rendezvous point over the undulating terrain that was Riley Jameson. The sensation was not unlike the feeling of pins and needles.
Seconds later a small marble size ball formed on his left shoulder and fell to the floor, bouncing several times before embarking on a pin-ball journey to the front of the bus. Riley followed it with his eyes.
Hope rose and shone light on his brooding mind. There were other marbles down there. Perhaps he could retrieve the dust after all. Hope faded as a smiling face looked back at him from ground level. The little thief was collecting the marbles, and having a great time at it.
There was only one thing to be done. Riley stood up and begun walking. Hope was crushed as an angry face rose, threatened and menaced.
Riley resumed his seat. He was trapped at the back of the bus while the mother and boy disembarked at the next stop with his precious dust.
The boy, more perceptive than most, would later spend much time trying to coax the marbles to reform. Despite his best efforts, the marbles refused to be anything else and were soon lost amongst the boy’s other forgotten toys.
Riley decided to stay off the number 439 bus for a while, and the following day drove his old but reliable station wagon to work. He arrived late still feeling the emotional scars left by the events of the previous day.
There was a crowd gathered round one of his colleague’s desks. It was Harrison, one of the office’s most annoying know it alls. “My kids love it.” Harrison exclaimed. “Riley. Come and have a look at this.” Harrison waived him over. “Come on, don’t try and slink away. I’ll bet you’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Sure enough, sitting on Harrison’s desk was a box full of Morph-Dust. Harrison had the good sense to ask everyone to stand back for the demonstration. Riley thought guiltily of the box of sullied Morph-Dust sitting on his kitchen table. He responded with ill temper, “I haven’t got time for useless gadgets.”
Over the months that followed Morph-Dust became a sensation. Sold as the tool for all situations, in truth it was closer to an intriguing gimmick.
Riley couldn’t bring himself to replace the box he kept buried in the bottom drawer of his bedside table. Inside the box, the Morph-Dust remained in the misshapen form of the last object he had instructed, that of a model bus. The bus, with missing roof and rear section would, as somehow seemed fitting, always remain incomplete.
Copyright © 2006 by Phillip Pettit