Johari Window

“Travelers are reminded the Johari window will be opening in 25 minutes,” the crisp robotic voice said from somewhere above the long, white corridors.

“Come on!” Susan shouted, running ahead of her brother down the gently curving hallway. “We’ll be late!”

Peter shuffled his feet, dragging the large black suitcase behind him. The hand not pulling his luggage was stuffed deep in a pocket, and he blew a lock of dark brown hair off his forehead. They weren't going to be late. They hadn't been late yet, and they had done this nearly two dozen times already. However, this was their last one. For the next 25 minutes, his universe was the click clack of his suitcase’s wheels and the sound of his footsteps. After that, he didn’t want to think about it. 

He watched his little sister’s short legs pump as she ran, the twin poms on her winter cap bouncing madly. She grew smaller in his vision, until finally she was just a frantic splot of color and motion amidst the uniform white of the terminal. “Does she suspect anything?” he wondered. He hadn't told her. Peter wanted her to enjoy what time she had left.

They had taught him all about the terminals in school, or what passed for it. The first one had been found beyond Neptune’s orbit, in the Kuiper belt. It was large for that region of space, about a quarter the size of Earth’s moon, and shaped like a hollow ring.

Astronomers were unsure how it had escaped detection for so long. Even before the first radiometric analysis was completed, however, they knew it was artificial – in an area known for comet formation and violent collisions, the terminal's surface was featureless, completely free from the expected dents, scratches, and pockmarks.

Shortly after contact, however, mankind achieved what all the icy bodies of the belt could not – the terminal began to change. Not only was it artificial, it was intelligent. In fact, it made concessions to humanity: atmosphere; light; marble floors.

It was at this floor that Peter dejectedly kicked in his trudge to catch up with his sister. She had realized how far behind he was and stood waiting. No, Peter realized, she was jumping on her tip-toes in a gross approximation of waiting, her backpack bouncing in time. He sighed. He tried to walk even slower, but it seemed impossible outside the realm of pantomime. Susan flounced when she saw what he was doing.

At school – where Peter’s favorite subject was history, not that it mattered anymore – they learned that the first human visitors to a terminal were greeted by a familiar sight. In short, the terminals looked as if every airport lounge ever built circa the time of discovery had been distilled to a singular experience: long, white hallways with curved walls; bays of glass that overlooked nothing; ambient lighting recessed into the walls so as to be invisible; and endless, marble flooring shined to a high gloss.

The only thing keeping the terminals from being the quintessence of early 21st century travel by air was the absence of chairs. The first visitors overcame this oddity, however, and explored the looping corridors until they walked through the first Johari window, quite by accident.

Peter had plodded close enough to Susan to see that she was eating something. As he got closer, he realized they were carrots. Genetically modified too, based on the way her lips and fingers were brightly stained. Nothing comestible was allowed in the terminals. He didn’t know where she had gotten them; had someone with a craft smuggled them in at the last terminal? How? It didn't matter. Food of any kind was strictly forbidden, and punishable. It would make their next stop so much worse. He had to get them away from her.

“Susan!” he shouted, but she had taken off running the moment he opened his mouth. Her giggle echoed madly behind her, thinking it was a game. Peter followed at a resigned trot. He had twice the luggage and none of her enthusiasm, but was genuinely worried what would happen if she was caught with contraband. As soon as he would catch sight of her around the curved walls, she'd bolt again. He clenched his fists in frustration. As he always did when he was angry, he thought about the things he had read.

He remembered that the first person to enter a Johari window thought they came out in the same terminal, only on the opposite side. However, they eventually worked out that it was a different terminal, albeit an identical one. Then, experts were consulted. They were immediately consulted again, to be sure, because no one believed the data.

It was finally revealed to the world at large that the second terminal was located in close proximity to Alpha Centauri C. Human beings had been unknowingly striding the gulf between the stars with all the care of a man who had forgotten something in another room.

Another window was found after loping through more lengthy corridors. This one led to a terminal near Sirius B; that one lead to another, and another, and stranger stars still. The terminals were marvels – miracles, even, for no one could explain them – but whoever had built them had built them dumb; each had only one point of departure, and one point of arrival, and could not be moved in space. They were a network, but a permanently fixed one.

The history books called the era following the discovery of the terminals “The Great Expansion of Man”. Peter didn't like anything in the book past that chapter, though. For one, what followed was boring. Everything before had dates and facts and the names of people and countries; everything after was the same somehow, like vanilla pudding, or toast. Mostly it consisted of speeches, and the book kept addressing him, “the student”, directly. He hated that.

It was also hard to believe all the things they told him were true. Not that anyone else in class had problems with it, including the teachers. Peter knew he was smarter than they were, faculty included; they might know more than he did, but he was cleverer. He had realized that if he read carefully, and asked the right questions, he could read the story behind the story.

Like, why did they want him to believe these things? What did it mean was important to them? What were they telling him was important by omitting it? For example, there were no public estimates on how many windows and terminals had been found. “A lot,” the teacher had told Peter, when he kept asking. The teacher didn’t try to answer his question at all when Peter asked who kept track of them, or how far out the network went.

Peter and Susan’s half-hearted game of cat and jittery mouse continued until they ran out of corridors. They finally stood together a few feet away from their destination. Wisps of hair the same shade as Peter's had escaped from under Susan’s ridiculous hat, and were being twined around the fingers of her left hand; her right hand was loosely holding the strap of her red backpack, on which was fixed a pin which said “Human Child”. Peter hated that pin.

There were sensors everywhere, but this was the wall; the wall that held the window. He couldn't try anything here. There was a procedure to follow, and they were being monitored more closely here.

“What do we do now?” she asked. They hadn’t had to do this for any of the other terminals, but this one was different.

 “Don’t you remember?” Peter replied. She had been very sleepy at the time.

“I forgot,” Susan said, and it was clear she forgotten to be excited as well. To Peter, she looked as if she had shrunk to doll size. In fact, neither child came to even quarter height on the expanse of the wall. It was a bleached void, the very image of a tabula rasa. So blank was it that, despite the abundant lighting, neither one of them even cast a shadow on its surface.

Peter sighed. He grabbed the cleaner of his sister's two hands, shook it to get the hair free, and dragged her like his suitcase nearer to the wall.

He pressed his sister’s hand – slightly grubby, and more than a little orange – to the pristine exterior. Peter looked at her. She was silent. “Well?” he asked.

“Well what? It's kinda cold,” she said. Susan gave a small smile as she dragged her fingers across it.

“Your name,” he told her. “I can't say it for you.”

“Oh. Oh! I remember!” She pulled her hand from his, waving him away. Susan adopted a suddenly grown up expression of poise and said, “Susan Penelope Garrett, age 8.” She spoke into the wall like it was a microphone, her mouth held less than an inch away. He thought the surface would fog, like glass, but it didn’t.

There was a chime, and the same crisp, robotic voice that greeted them when they arrived said, “Accepted.”

Peter knew the first travelers didn't need permissions, but times were different now. The terminals made concessions.

The girl gave a shake of her head, hair and poms whipping around. Peter batted them away. Without waiting for his sister to move, he quickly stepped to a different spot. He pressed his palm to the wall and addressed the air. “Peter Andrew Garrett, age 14.”

Chime. “Accepted.” There was a pause. “Cargo declaration?”

This was the tricky bit.

“Two items,” he declared, turning to Susan. “Backpack,” he told her, holding his hand out. The little girl handed it over hesitantly. She looked guilty. With his back to the wall, Peter wheeled his suitcase over, gently kicking open the outside flap. With his free hand, he reached into the pouch on Susan's backpack and grabbed the remaining carrots. He thrust them all in his mouth, and dropped the empty bag in his suitcase.

Furiously chewing, Peter pushed suitcase and backpack to the wall until they touched. He doubted that would fool the terminal, but it was worth a shot. If anything, they would think they were his comestible items. He wished he could wash the orange residue off her hands, but there had been no time.

Instead of a chime, there was the sound of a bubble rising to the surface. He tried to swallow the carrots, but found a lump in his throat. They had learned about that sound in school.

It meant something bad was about to happen.

“What's it doing, Peter?” Susan asked, a pom in each hand, hat pulled down tight.

“Something we brought isn't right,” he said, with a look at her. “What could that be?”

Susan pouted, which she was excellent at.

The bubble rose to the surface again. Peter gulped. If that noise happened twice –

“Unauthorized materials, class,“ and here was a sound like static, or meat frying, “detected. Closing window. Initiating terminal decontamination procedure for: human child. Decontamination in sixty seconds. Fifty nine.” Aside from the countdown, there were no changes; there were no alarms, or flashing lights. The corridors remained long, and white, and tranquil.

“You're going to kill us for CARROTS!?” Peter screamed at the wall, and realized his mistake immediately. His sister didn’t know what decontamination meant, until he had let it slip, like a fool. He looked down at her.

Susan was staring at him. He opened his mouth to explain, but she burst into hard, screaming tears. Peter looked at her a moment longer, then at their luggage. Something didn't add up. Maybe if he could...

He ripped open his suitcase. Inside were his sweaters, socks, and underclothes, all in muted, autumnal shades. He tore all of that out, flinging it onto the ground behind him. Next, he emptied the pouches. When that was done, he shook the entire suitcase and sent it hurtling to the side.

In the distance, he had begun to hear some new sounds. These were not chimes, or bubbles, or static; these were the sounds of something large that moved many parts at once. Boys told stories about what haunted the big, empty terminals in the dark parts of space when no one was around. Who built them, anyway? Who – or what – kept them? Stories like those were forbidden, but they were told and retold anyway.

Peter thought it sounded like metallic slithering.

At this new stimuli, Susan went silent. She gazed at him with fully dilated pupils; she had runners of snot coming from both nostrils, and her lips were pressed together so hard they were white. Some part of Peter's mind realized that she had gone beyond scared, left panic behind, and was now firmly in the realm of terror.

“Thirty, twenty-nine...”

He grabbed his sister's red backpack. The main zip came open easily, and disgorged a torrent of rainbow sweaters and warm, multicolored clothes. Peter undid the two side pockets, but found only trinkets and a makeup mirror. Oh, his baby sister’s makeup mirror.

Peter sank to his knees. It wasn’t the long, stringy shadows he could see snaking down the corridors that had done it; it was that Susan thought she’d need to look pretty where they were going. He felt tears in his own eyes then, hot. He held up his hands. He realized he still had no shadow. Was he an illusion then, and the thing coming for him was real? Or was he real, and it was superreal?

“Sixteen, fifteen...”

Now was as good a time as any to find out. He tossed the backpack to the side.

Clunk.

Peter flew through the air and landed on the backpack. Too heavy for empty. Unexpected weight. Something else inside, rolling around. Where did she get those carrots? Who had carrots on a terminal? He opened the main compartment and saw that the bottom had been cut open and sewn back. How had he missed that? Fueled by adrenaline, he ripped it open and fumbled his way inside.

He found a sphere, which was glowing a faint, pearl white. It was like nothing Peter had ever seen before. There were markings on one side of it, and it was from these markings that the light was being emitted. On the smooth side was a slight protrusion, like a button, with ridges along the edge. He didn't know what it did, if anything.

“Five, four...”

At this point, he figured it didn't matter. He could see the thing the terminal had sent after him and his sister. The stories were wrong. It was worse; it was so much worse.

“Three, two...”

He pushed the button.

“On-”

Three things happened at once: all the lights in the terminal cut out; Susan began screaming for him; and a tiny, flickering spark blossomed in the center of the wall. It quickly grew to an orb, then a scintillating sphere the size of a man. Soon, the entire surface was humming with color in an iridescent blur. The blur darkened by gradients; Peter thought it looked like the models he had seen of a magnetosphere being buffeted by solar winds.

He blinked, and before him the sphere had become a two dimensional figure composed of tessellated fractals; the figure was of a color roughly conforming to that of the sphere that had just stood in its place. He blinked again, and saw the sphere. If he tried, he could see both at once, but it hurt his head.

In other words, it was a Johari window.

The many parted thing – which had been momentarily stayed from its decontamination duties by the device Peter had found – moved forward again. He grabbed his sister with his free hand, and held the device in its direction like a talisman. It radiated light from his hand, but now it pulsed rather than glowed. The speakers gave out a high, keening wail. From somewhere came a rush of wind; he thought the terminal might be venting the atmosphere.

As he backed toward the window, Peter's finger brushed a groove on the button he had activated. From behind him there was a flash. He glanced at the window, trying to keep one eye on the metallic coils of the thing at all times. The window was...changing? Impossible!

Every window looked slightly different, depending on the departure point. However, the window in a given terminal was always the same color, because it was always the same destination. He brushed his finger on the button – no, he realized, it was a knob – and the colors changed again.

From the speakers came a string of words in a language he couldn't understand. Susan covered her ears and screamed. Maybe she had never stopped, and he had gotten distracted. The thing surged forward.

It all clicked. As he stepped backwards, tentacles ending in spines so sharp he couldn’t see the end of them, it clicked.

Someone had figured out a way to steer the terminals. Someone had worked out a device that let you open a window, whether the terminal wanted to let you or not, and point it wherever you liked.

Then: whoever had this device could make the rules, because whoever had this could be anywhere, instantly.

There would be no more concessions to the greed of an empire drunk on half understood technology. And there would be no more concessions made to the terminals, because Peter was fairly certain that they had changed as much as they had been changed. History was different; it wasn’t what it should be. That was clear from his books, if you knew how to read them.

He wondered if anyone in charge had figured that out, about the terminals; if they did, he wondered if they were cooperating out of fear or self-interest.

Finally, there would be no more children woken from their beds in the middle of the night, children forced to pack and then march to a labor camp on a grim, frozen planet. Children who were told they asked too many of the wrong sort of question, who were forced to bring their little sisters along to teach them a lesson.

Peter remembered the man pinning the button to his sister's backpack.

“Know why it says 'Human Child'?” he had whispered in Peter's ear in the dead of night, all while smiling down at the girl. Susan had swayed on her feet, still half-asleep.

“No,” Peter had said.

“Because we've got about 50 billion more of this little sweetheart right here,” the man had told him, “and no one will miss this one.”

He shook his head to clear it of the memory, and flung himself and Susan the rest of the way through the Johari window. On the other side, he quickly pushed the button, closing it. Peter knew the many parted thing couldn’t follow; with them on the other side, it could only visit the terminal’s intended departure point, the prison camp. Maybe it couldn’t even leave the station.

In the new terminal, he held his sister's hand. He clutched the device to his chest. There were other people like him out there! Someone had built this wondrous thing, and more importantly, the terminal hated it. Was the device meant for someone in the camp?

If that was it, he’d deliver it by himself once he was sure Susan was safe. It would be risky, but he could do it if he had to. Maybe he could help them, whoever they were. They undoubtedly knew more, but he was a quick study.

He realized Susan was looking at him, both of her arms wrapped around him. He encircled her with the arm not holding the once again softly glowing orb. Her eyes weren’t as wide, but he felt her heart hammering against his side. Peter held the orb out in front of him, and took a deep breath. “Travelers are reminded the Johari window will be opening when I damn well feel like it,” Peter said, and laughed. His knees were shaky.

Susan's jaw dropped. Despite all they had just seen, and the fact that he held the holy grail of modern science in his outstretched right hand, she was stunned by him using a curse word. Then she laughed. They held each other, laughing until they cried, collapsing on the floor of the empty terminal.

When it was time, Peter pushed the button. They took the next step together.