• Camp NaNoWriMo 2016 – Portals – Week 4

    2 Years ago

    There was immediate reaction to the discovery of the Portal. Nations world-wide started demanding access to it. The Canadian government claimed control of it. The Merones sued to get control of it because it was their child who had “discovered” it. The US demanded that it be turned over to them and actually started moving troops into Seattle and along the Washington state border; almost threatening Canada with invasion if it wasn’t given to them.

    The Squamish were the voice of reason in all of this. Almost immediately after learning of what the Portal was they sent a representative to the United Nations in New York. There, they offered access to the Portal to everyone, as long as everyone worked together to learn whatever secrets it held and shared what they found with everyone.

    There was argument. There were denials. There were threats. But in the end, there was nothing anyone could do. The fact that the Portal existed was known. The fact that it went to someplace else was known. And the fact that the Squamish had control of it was known. Only by agreeing to their terms could it be explored and exploited. So, in the end, everyone had to agree with what they wanted.

    The United Nations soon created the International Portal Research Organization; the IRPO. Anyone wanting access to the Portal had to go through it. And their first order of business was finding people who could actually go through the Portal.

    This turned out to be a bit more difficult than anyone thought.

    Most people couldn’t use the Portal. They stepped through and just wound up on the other side. Only a very small number of people, about one in five thousand we eventually figured out, would step through and arrive in what was now being called “Earth Beta”. So before any kind of research could take place they had to find people, qualified people, who could use it.

    In the meantime the Squamish had moved the Portal inside a warehouse and would eventually build a research facility just to house it. Funded by the UN, of course. They welcomed anyone to try using it, as long as they agreed to the terms of the IPRO agreement.

    By this point thousands of people had descended on Vancouver hoping to go thorough the Portal. Then the world’s militarys started sending their personnel there to try it. People who could pass through were found, but coordinating them was a problem. Some people went through then went off and disappeared once they got to Earth Beta. Others ran off long enough to collect “artifacts”, items left behind by the long-gone inhabitants, then came back home to attempt to sell them. The IPRO intercepted most of those, but enough got through that there started to be a demand for “Portal” items.

    This got the corporations involved. They started by sending “acquisition teams” over, then realized that vast quantities of resources must be available that we could exploit that the original inhabitants could not have. This led to a new wave of people being tested as businesses started sending everyone they could to test if they were part of the Portal “family”.

    Oh yes, the “family” idea started around that time. Someone came up with the idea that being able to pass through the Portal was due to some set of genetic markers. No one had found any reasonable commonality in the DNA of Portal capable persons, but somehow that idea stuck. Unfortunately.

    Still, it did seem to help. Teams started to coalesce and a permanent base was set up on the far side of the Portal. It turned out that there was what had apparently been a hotel a few miles up the road. The base was set up there and, for the first time, humanity started exploring another world.

    A world we quickly discovered was an alternate version of our own.

    —–

    Day 4

    The next morning I awoke and cleaned up then went down to the cafeteria to get breakfast. Then I went looking for Sonja.

    I found her sitting at the table with a couple of other members of the science and administrative teams. I sat down with my plate of what was apparently supposed to be bacon and eggs and waited for an opportunity to talk to her. When she stood up to leave I got up with her and started walking with her to the door.

    “Hey, Sonja. Got a question for you.”

    She stopped. “Sure Perry. What’s up?”

    I hesitated, then continued. “Do we have a psychologist, or anything like that assigned to the team?”

    She shook her head. “No. No one like that.” She suddenly frowned. “You aren’t having any kind of problems, are you?”

    “No, no no!” I quickly assured her. I thought quickly. “I was just thinking that we’re out here, a long ways from home and on a dead world. I was wondering how that might be affecting people.”

    She seemed to relax. “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that. We’re all professionals out here. And we’re *family*.” I winced. “But it’s probably an interesting area for study. I’ll pass it up the line and see if the IPRO is interested.”

    “Thanks.” I said, shrugging. “Just thought it might be something to explore.”

    She nodded. “Good idea. Thanks.”

    I started to walk away when she called after me. “Perry, wait. There is one thing…”

    I hesitated, then stopped and turned to her. “Yes?”

    She winced. “I hate to bring this up, but… what is with you and Peri?”

    “What do you mean?” I asked, feeling cautious for some reason I couldn’t define.

    “Why did you leave us to go hang out with her last night.” It was her turn to hesitate. “You aren’t sleeping with her, are you?” It was an accuasation more than a question.

    “No!” I said. “No, no!” It was my turn to hesitate again as I gathered my thoughts. “We just got off on a bad foot when we met each other. She just wanted to apologize.”

    Sonja nodded, seeming to relax. “Oh, ok. Good. Good. A couple of people were wondering what was up with you and her. They’ll be glad to know you aren’t getting too intimate with the support staff.” She laughed. “Especially since you have a fiancee back home.”

    “Yeah, really.” I said, laughing with her. “By the way, did anyone ever tell Danya that I got my doctorate?”

    She furrowed her brow. “I added it to the last data run back but I haven’t heard anything in return. You do know you could just contact her yourself, don’t you.”

    “Not really. I was pretty much fast-tracked out here.” I pulled a data stick out of my pocket and held it up. “I recorded a message for her. Any way I can get this back home?”

    She nodded, brightening. “Sure! Just give it to me and I’ll give it to the next courier back with delivery instructions.” She took the stick from me with a smile. “I’ll make sure it gets to her.”

    She started to turn away then turned back. “Listen. Just a bit of advice. I know you’re just trying to help but… let the support teams do their jobs and we’ll stick to ours. OK?” She hesitated. “And maybe… don’t spend so much time with Peri? You want to sleep with her, fine.” She laughed. “We all have our little secrets.” She blushed a bit, then continued. “Just don’t come to the doctor complaining about what you caught. But leave it at that, OK?”

    I was taken aback but tried not to show it. “OK, sure fine. I didn’t know I was breaking any rules.”

    She shook her head. “Not rules, just… why waste time with her? She can’t possibly be worth talking to. You like what she has and want to sleep with her? That’s fine. But that’s no reason to ignore your equals the rest of the time.”

    “Yeah, sure.” I said, feeling very uncomfortable.

    She smiled. “OK then.” She held up the data stick. “I’ll add this to the courier pile. See you at the table tonight?” Again, it wasn’t a question.

    “Sure!” I said, nodding. “I’ll be there.”

    “Thanks!” she said, turning away again. “Talk to you then.”

    I stood there for a time. Something just didn’t make sense. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but something was happening. I felt as if I was being asked to take sides in something, and I didn’t even know what was at stake. Eventually I sighed and headed for the third floor.

    Dr. Pravana was already working when I got there, looking over a map of the area and comparing it to a series of aerial photos.

    “Good morning, Dr. Greyson. I’m trying to determine where we should set up the rest of our weather stations. Any preference?”

    I shrugged. “I’d prefer an actual weather station.”

    He laughed at that. “Yes, but we’re limited to what our UN overlords will approve of us.”

    We started looking at the maps, joined a few minutes later by Jesicca. Within an hour we had come up with four more locations that we thought would give us the coverage we needed.

    Dr. Pravana pulled out the four base stations. “We’ll get support to set these up.”

    “I’ll take it down.” I said. Dr. Pravana and Jesicca looked at each other, then back at me. “I worked with Harris yesterday setting up the one here. He knows me.”

    Jesicca nodded. “Oh! OK, that makes sense. See you when you get back.”

    I nodded in return and picked up the map we had noted the locations on and the base stations, then headed downstairs to find the support team.

    They turned out to be on the second floor. I handed off the map and stations and they assured me they would let me know when everything was set up. I left the former conference room they were set up in to find Peri waiting for me.

    “So?” she asked without preamble. “What have you found?”

    “I tried to find if we have anyone checking the psychological state of everyone out here. The answer is no, though apparently it is an ‘interesting idea’.”

    She shrugged. “Did you ask about what was going on?”

    I hesitated, then sighed. “No, I didn’t.” I saw her starting to get angry and held up a hand. “Look, I tried. But when I started talking to Sonja she at first started getting ‘worried’ about me, then…” I paused. “…then she told me to stay away from you.”

    She was instantly angry. “What!”

    “I don’t know!” I said, defensively. “You’re right. Something is wrong here. Something is badly wrong. But I’m not sure what to do because the only person I can really report anything to is hostile to me. She thinks I’m spending too much time helping people who aren’t the science team. I don’t know what to do.”

    She was still angry, but seemed to be thinking hard to herself. Eventually she seemed to relax and spoke again. “So she doesn’t want you to interact with me at all?”

    “She said I could sleep with you if I wanted.” I laughed. “Seems like a weird exception.”

    She laughed as well. “If she tried to block you from sleeping with me then she would have to stop sleeping with lieutenant Greginko.” I gave her a surprised look which caused her to laugh further. “You didn’t know? You really don’t pay attention to what is going on, do you.”

    I was suddenly defensive. “I only got out here a few days ago.”

    She laughed some more, then nodded. “OK, sure.” She paused. “Maybe that’s the difference, you haven’t been out here long enough to be affected by… whatever is going on.”

    “I don’t feel like I’m being affected by anything.”

    She nodded. “That’s good. I hope. Look, don’t worry about trying to contact me anymore. I’ll get up with you.”

    “OK.” I nodded. “What is going on?”

    She shrugged. “That’s what we’re going to find out.”

    The rest of the day was somewhat idle. As the weather stations came on line we hooked up the feeds and tied them into the network. By the end of the day we had a pretty good view of the weather patterns over the Dallas area. Beyond the fact that we would probably have some snow overnight, we didn’t learn much.

    After a while the three of us left the lab and went down to the cafeteria. There, we found most of the science team huddled around a table. Sonya started frantically waving us over so I just grabbed a beer from the cooler and headed over.

    Jacob and Sofia were standing happily at one end of the table in front of a couple of plastic bins. The bins were full of what looked liked water-soaked newspapers and a couple of the other scientists were carefully unfolding several of them as we came up.

    Sofia looked up at me in pride. “We found it!” she said. “We found everything!” She reached over and hugged Jacob, who awkwardly pulled away from her before pulling out another newspaper and handing it to me.

    “Hey, Dr. Greyson. I figured you would like this one.”

    I looked at what he was handing me. It was the Dallas Tribune for April 12, 1957. The headline read “Concordance Navy Begins Clearing of Northwest Passage”.

    I glanced back up. “Concordance?”

    Jacob nodded excitedly. “Yeah. We found a few dozen boxes of newspapers. Either a library cleared out, or a horder, or something. We got about 20 years worth of papers. Sunday editions only, but that was enough to let us get an idea of their history. We haven’t gone through them in detail yet, but we’ve already put together a general outline of their last couple of decades.”

    “Well?” said Jesicca, excited. “What is it!”

    Sofia was flipping through her pad. “We figured we would give a presentation tonight, after dinner.”

    Sonja shook her head. “Let’s share this with us first.” She looked around, then lowered her voice. “Let’s review this ourselves first, OK? We’ll let everyone else know once we’ve gone over the details.”

    Sofia looked up at her and frowned, then shrugged. “OK. You’re the boss.” She sighed and looked through her pad.

    “We think we’ve found the butterfly here.” she said finally. “The papers we found start in 1938 and end in 1962. World War 2 starts here the same way it did back home and the first year or so are the same. But here, somehow, England fell to a German invasion in early 1942.

    “Ouch.” I said. There were general murmurs of agreement.

    General Harris shook his head. “That’s been a favorite of alt-historians for years, but it’s completely implausible. Germany couldn’t have mounted a successful attack against the British Isles.”

    Sofia started looking through her pad but Jacob jumped in. “We don’t have a lot of details yet; we’ve basically just been scanning headlines. When we get more hard historical info we’ll pass it on to everyone.”

    The General nodded slowly, thinking. “Without England it would have been much more difficult for the US to get involved in the war in Europe. That must have stretched the war out much longer.

    “Surprisingly no.” said Jacob. “In fact it ended in 1944.”

    “With multiple nuclear strikes.” said Sofia with an ironic smile.

    “What!?” I said, a bit too loudly. Others around the table had similar reactions. I glanced around and saw Peri staring at me but she looked away as soon as she saw me looking at her.

    General Harris was shaking his head. “But… how?”

    Sofia shrugged. “With all of Europe fallen the US formed much closer ties with the Soviet Union and shared more research with them. They developed the atomic bomb over a year earlier than we did, then used suicide attacks to deliver bombs to Berlin, Rome and Tokyo. And Beijing, for some reason. The war ended almost immediately.”

    “Then what happened?”

    She held up her pad, showing a scanned paper. “With no other major power still intact, the US and the Soviet Union set up a joint coalition to handle the post-war world. They were effectively the world government after that. They called themselves the Concordance. The United Nations never formed and from what we’ve been able to tell there was never even a discussion of one. Without the Cold War the post-war economic boom was even bigger for them than it was for us, but their technology lagged a bit behind. Aviation didn’t develop as fast and it doesn’t look like they ever even started a space program”

    “No satellites, but they seem to have been really interested in the oceans.” said Jacob. “And Antarctica, for some reason.”

    “Did anything you’ve looked at imply what may have triggered a climate event?” I asked. “Forecasts? Predictions? Attempts at control?”

    Sofia shook her head. “No, but were pretty much just looking at headlines and reading anything that looked like it was from the butterfly. There are probably a lot of details we missed.”

    “Can I look?”

    Jacob and Sofia looked at each other but Sonja spoke up. “We haven’t gotten everything digitized yet but when we do we’ll put everything up on the network. Then everyone needs to start going through them to see what they can find.”

    Everyone nodded. “Now then!” said Sonja. “Let’s get something to eat!”

    The meal that evening was apparently supposed to be chicken parmesan. Or something like that. At least I hoped it was chicken. Sonja had brought in a couple of bottles of wine to celebrate the discovery and was sharing them around. I had always been more of a beer guy myself, so I had one glass to be polite then switched back to the beer. Canadian, of course. I wondered if I could get Danya to send me some better stuff from Atlanta.

    The discovery was obviously the main topic of conversation at dinner and several of the team with more experience than me were comparing what we had found here to the situation on Delta 2.

    “Here there were only four atomic strikes.” Jacob was saying. “Over on D2 the Cuban Missile crisis turned hot. They had thousands or more. Anyone who didn’t die in the strikes died from radiation or from the complete collapse of global commerce.” He paused. “I think the first set got off the easiest.”

    Sonja was shaking her head. “Then what happened? There was no Cold War. No reason for the US and the USSR to attack each other. They were in charge! Unless…” she looked at Sofia, “Did they turn on each other?”

    Sofia shook her head. “Not that we saw going through the papers, though we could have missed something. Everything seemed fine. In fact, the US seemed to be drifting towards socialism and the USSR picking up some elements of capitalism. There’s no evidence that the Concordance was falling apart.”

    “So what happened?” I asked.

    Sonja looked at me. “That’s for you and the climate team to find out.”

    The rest of the dinner passed with mostly minor conversation. Afterwards, Sonja stood up and told the room of our findings. The other teams listened politely, but I saw a lot of people looking at their pads and carrying on conversations between themselves. It seemed that outside of the science team no one was really interested as to why this world was different from our own. Eventually she finished describing what we had found. She asked if anyone had questions but it seemed most everyone was ready to head in for the night. Though I think the support team was more upset at missing their TV time. At any rate, once Sonja dismissed us I went back to the cooler, grabbed a couple of beers to take back to my room, and headed for the door.

    Sonja saw me leaving and called after me. “Perry? Got a second?”

    I stopped in the doorway and turned back. “Sure. What’s up.”

    She looked around the room, seeming suddenly uncomfortable. “Um… Can we… talk down in my office for a bit?”

    I was suddenly cautious. “I was heading up to bed. Something wrong?”

    She hesitated. “Oh, no.” she said finally. “We just need to… check on a few things.”

    Alarms were now going off in my head. “We?”

    She grimiced. “Look, it wasn’t me… OK? But… we need to talk to you in my office.”

    I suddenly felt sick but I wasn’t sure what I could say or do, so I nodded. “Sure, whatever.”

    She nodded and gestured towards the door. I nodded and went out into the lobby, then followed her up the stairs and down the hall to the room where she had set up her office. She motioned me through the door and I stepped in, then stopped. Helena was sitting behind the desk. She snapped her pad shut as I came in.

    “Sit down Dr. Grayson.” she said without preamble. “We need to ask you a few things.”

    “Don’t worry, Perry.” Sonja said as she came up behind me. “We just need a few things cleared up.”

    With sudden annoyance, I dropped the beer cans I was carrying onto Sonja’s desk then sat down in the nearest chair. “OK.” I asked, annoyance evident. “What the hell is this about?”

    Helena and Sonja looked at each other then Helena tapped something on her pad. A video image appeared on the wall behind her. It was me.

    “So, everything is pretty much going well here.” I was saying, staring into a camera. “But…” I sighed. “Something is affecting us out here. Something that no one else seems to be noticing.” On the video I sighed and looked away, then back again.

    “Remember when you were in high school? When no one would sit with you because you were a ‘nerd’. Or because you were black? Or whatever? That’s what is happening out here. In spades. Every night in the common areas is like that. No one interacts with each other. Everyone hangs out with their own teams and no one else. No one trusts each other. The science teams think support doesn’t do anything. Support thinks the science teams don’t do any work. The defense teams think we’re all crazy for even being here. Something is wrong.”

    Helena stopped the playback and looked at me. “What is it, Perry? Do you just not want to be here?”

    “You looked at my message to Danya!” I said. “What the hell?”

    Helena shrugged. “All communication between the outworlds and home is routinely monitored.” she said. “Which you would have known if you had paid any attention in training.” She sighed and shook her head. “Dr. Grayson, we can only afford to have people out here who support what we are doing. I need to know what side you’re on.”

    “Side?” I asked, incredulously. “I need to pick a side?” I pointed at the now blank wall. “The thing that was bothering me in that message was is that we’re picking ‘sides’! There’s what? Two dozen of us out here? We need to support each other, not debate over who is doing their job or not.”

    Sonja looked uncomfortable but Helena sighed and sat on the edge of the desk, facing me. “Dr. Grayson.” she said, speaking as if to a small child. “Perry. You’re right. We need to. But no one else out here feels that way from us. Everyone else out here is…” She stopped and sighed. “They’re only out here because to them finding out they were part of the family was like winning the lottery. They suddenly get respect, a job, support, and all they have to do is just come out here and hang out. They don’t work. They don’t *want* to work. They want to do just enough to keep us from shipping them back home, and since there are so few people who have the markers they don’t have to do much. So we’re stuck with them. These are the people who were so lazy they couldn’t find work asking ‘would you like fries with that’ or were so incompetent at everything that they had to join the military to not starve. And now we’re dependent on them!” She had started out calmly, but I could tell she was getting more and more angry as she talked.

    “They got the base set up.” I said in protest. “And Harris got our weather stations set up today. They *are* helping us.”

    “Because they have to!” Her anger was suddenly at the forefront. “It takes a lot to get us to send someone home, but don’t do anything and you will be.” She stopped. “And if you try to sabotage this operation again, you will be too.”

    “What?”

    She sighed angrily and handed my data stick back to me. “We’re not sending that message back. Redo it without your ‘concerns’ and we’ll make sure it gets to your ‘fiancee’.” She emphasized the last word. “Or maybe we’ll just let her know about your new friend Peri.”

    “What the hell is that supposed to mean!” I asked angrily.

    She shrugged. “Beats me. Maybe you shouldn’t have started sleeping with her.”

    “What!” I shook my head. “I’m *not* sleeping with her.”

    She laughed. “From what I hear, she’s pretty much quit interacting with anyone except you. I can do the math.” She paused then smirked. “Don’t worry, your secret is safe with us. Unless you want to send a bad report back again.”

    I tossed the data stick into the air, caught it and stuck it in my pocket. “Got it.” I said with obvious mock politeness. “I’ll be sure to be a good little minion from now on.”

    She gave me an angry look but spoke in an exaggeratedly polite voice of her own. “Good. Glad to know you’re with us. I wouldn’t want to have to let everyone back home to know how uncooperative you are.” She stood up and looked at Sonja. “Let me know if you have any more problems, OK? I need to get back to doing actual work.” She walked out of the room without another word.

    I turned to Sonja in annoyance. “You could have said something!”

    She sighed. “Sorry Perry. Look, I didn’t look at your message. I really didn’t!” She held up her hands in a placating gesture. “But… you must see the problems we’re facing out here.”

    I shook my head. “Tell me.”

    “No one wants to help!” she said, exasperatedly. “We need people to survey this area. To start going further afield and get more remote data. We got some good data today, yes. But we’ve pretty much determined that we’re not going to find anything else around here.” She sighed. “But we can’t get anyone to go do a remote survey.”

    “I didn’t know we were trying to do a remote survey.”

    “Of course we are!” she said. “But we can’t spare any of the science team, the support team doesn’t want to head out on their own and the defense team says that it isn’t safe to leave this area undefended.”

    “Are we in danger?” I asked.

    “We don’t know!” She sighed. “We know that this area has been attacked before and General Harris is afraid to leave the area undefended. We’ve never found an outworld that has people in it but…” She shrugged. “I guess there’s always a first time.”

    “Fine!” I said, raising my hands and shaking my head. “I’ll stick to doing my job from now on.”

    “And you’re good at that!” she said, leaning over and patting me on the shoulder. I looked down at it then back up at her as she continued. “You do your job well.” She paused. “At least I haven’t heard anything bad from Dr. Pravana.” She shrugged, then looked thoughtful. “There is one thing…”

    I was suddenly wary. “Yes?”

    “You… What’s up with you and Peri?”

    I shook my head and sighed. “I told you. We didn’t get along when we first met, things have improved since then and she just wanted to apologize for what she said.”

    “So, you aren’t… involved with her?”

    I was becoming angry again. “What is that supposed to mean?”

    She looked at me for a moment. “Look, Peri doesn’t get along that well with people in general, but she loves finding a man she can take advantage of.” She laughed. “She told you she used to be a prostitute yet?”

    That took me aback for a moment. “She mentioned being in jail.” I said finally.

    Her laugh turned into a snort. “No, that was for the drug dealing.” She laughed again at my look of shock. “You might want to find out some more about your girlfriend before you get too involved with her.”

    I sighed and shook my head. “She’s not my girlfriend. I have a fiancee back home, remember?”

    She shrugged. “I have a husband at home. And a teenage daughter. But neither of them are here, are they.”

    I tilted my head at her. “But Greginko is?”

    She glared at me momentarily, then her smile returned. “You have your secrets, I have mine.” She laughed. “And sometimes us old dogs can learn new tricks.” Her smile increased briefly, then narrowed as she looked back at me.

    “There aren’t a lot of people out here, and we need everyone to pull their weight. Everyone.” She emphasized the last word. “You seem to be getting along with the support people, maybe you can convince them to do their jobs, OK?”

    I sighed. “I’ll see what I can do.”

    She nodded brightly. “Great, great. Thanks.” She stood up. “Oh, just drop off your new recording tomorrow and I’ll send it off to your fiancee.” She winked. “Don’t worry, we all know what happens beyond the Portal stays beyond the Portal.” She winked conspiratorially. “See you in the morning?”

    “Yeah.” I said, standing up. “Sure. See you at breakfast.”

    She nodded. “See you then. In the meantime…” she lowered her voice. “I’m going to go practice my Russian.” She laughed as I headed for the door.

    Later, I was back in my room. I had just finished recording a new, hopefully acceptable message for Danya when there was a knock on the door. I still had my pajama bottoms on so I got up and opened it.

    Peri was standing there, wearing sweatpants and shirt and carrying a pack over her shoulder. She looked me up and down and smirked. “So… are you going to invite me in?”

    I was a bit taken aback but I stepped back and let her into the room, closing the door behind her. “Sorry,” I said, suddenly uncomfortable. “I wasn’t expecting anyone.”

    She shrugged and dropped her pack on a chair. “Hey, they think we’re sleeping together, let’s sleep together.” She snorted at the look of shock on my face. “Or at least, let’s get together in the evening to have an excuse to talk about what we’ve found.”

    I nodded. “Yeah. That makes sense.” I sighed, relaxing. “What have you found?”

    She shook her head. “Some more data points but no conclusions. I’ve talked to most of the defense and support teams and they basically say what we’ve figured out. The support team thinks they do all the work and get no recognition for it. Which may be right; that big announcement Jacob and Sofia had tonight? Notice that they didn’t mention that Aaron and Vanessa were the ones who actually dug through that garbage dump for them.”

    “I figured someone had. I couldn’t exactly see Sofia digging around in a garbage dump.”

    Peri laughed at that. “Yeah, she’d have to put her pad down. I don’t think she was even out there; she found the place from drone footage and pointed it out. Jacob led the team out there but from what I hear he stayed in a temp shelter going through what the support team found.”

    “He wasn’t even directing where they looked?”

    She cocked her head at me. “Some of us do know what we’re doing, you know. You got lucky; most of us spend months in training before they send us out. Unless you’re a ‘scientist’.” She made air quotes as she said that.

    “Hey!” I said, glaring at her.

    She shook her head at me. “Not you. Well, not much anyway.” She sighed. “But I don’t think you really get it either. Most people out here have been in the org for a while. There aren’t a lot of us, so most of us who have been out know each other and know the drill. You? You suddenly show up and are suddenly the best friend of everyone in charge just because you happened to have a skill set needed for the most recent outworld found. So yeah. You have helped us some but who can tell if you’re serious or just being a tourist and checking out how the ‘other half’ lives.”

    My glare hadn’t changed. “Is that what you think?”

    She looked at me for a long moment. “No. I don’t. I think you’re seriously trying to help. But I don’t think you really understand the people you’re trying to help.”

    After my earlier meeting with Helena and Sonja I wasn’t really in the mood to have someone else questioning me. “Why not?” I asked sarcastically. “Do I have to be a prostitute to understand people?”

    “Oh!” she snapped, angrily. “So you finally looked at my file?”

    “No!” I almost shouted back. I took a deep breath, calming myself. “Sonja told me.”

    She was still angry. “What? Trying to discredit me?”

    I thought for a moment. “Yeah. Yeah, I think she was.” I leaned back against the edge of the table and told her about my meeting earlier that evening.

    She stood and listened while I went through what had happened. “So yeah,” I said. “I guess I was in a bit of a bad mood already. Sorry for bringing that up.”

    She shrugged, her expression having returned to her usual slightly annoyed-looking self as I had talked. “My file does say that. It’s probably even true. But she obviously brought it up to try to give you a reason to stay away from me, and then she brought up telling your fiancee about me as a threat. They’re obviously bothered by what you said.”

    “Because I’m not following the IPRO line?”

    “Because Helena’s review depends on how well things are going out here. Because the IPRO wants all the reports going back home to be of how well everyone is working together out here. This is supposed to be a ‘grand adventure’, not a disaster waiting to happen.”

    She sat on the edge of the bed and leaned forward. “We can’t be the only people who have noticed what is going on. It’s just too… obvious. Both in what is going on with the teams out here and in what happened to all the worlds out here.” She grimiced. “It’s obvious to everyone you didn’t pay that much attention in training, what you had of it, but even you should have noticed that the problems on every known outworld were made worse by the inhabitants not working together when their disasters hit. They can’t let people back home know that.”

    I thought for a moment. “Yeah. Here there was fighting to keep refugees away from the warmer regions. Gamma 2 didn’t let anyone, infected or not, from leaving the plague zones which forced people to sneak through, enough to let infected in. On Beta 3 they blamed all scientists instead of letting all of them not in the conspiracy to try to undo what the Army of Logic had done.” I thought a bit longer. “It does fit. Increase the ‘us vs them’ mentality of everyone involved and it fits every world we have the history of.” I nodded at her. “Like you said, that’s obvious.”

    She cocked her head at me with a smirk in return. “Not bad for a prostitute, huh?”

    I flushed. “That isn’t what I said!”

    She laughed at that. “I know, I know…” It was her turn to pause. “It’s obvious. So someone besides the two of us must have noticed. But they don’t talk about it and they get mad at us for bringing it up. So they must be keeping it secret for some reason. What could that be?” She smiled.

    I grimiced at that. She obviously thought she knew something but wanted me to figure out whatever it was on my own. I thought. What would be causing this now? Not that humanity didn’t have a long history of not getting along with each other, but it seemed as if we had finally started making progress in the last decade or so. What was different?

    “The Portals.” I said finally. “Every outworld we have been to has had active Portals.” I laughed. “Obviously. If the Portals weren’t active we wouldn’t be a able to get to them.” I paused. “Wait… are the Portals causing this?”

    It was her turn to shrug. “It’s the only thing that is really different. I mean, they can talk about the ‘butterflys’ all they want and all the Outworlds have diverged from Home in some way at some time in the past, but one difference that should be obvious but that no one ever mentions is that every single Outworld has active Portals, and has had them for some time.”

    I thought. “So… is it our using the Portals that is making us act this way?”

    “We know they affect us as we go through.” she said. “That’s why we don’t have to worry about carrying germs or the like from one Outworld to another. But they’ve also never found any evidence that anyone from the outworlds ever used the Portals. “But they all had them set up on their pedestals and in relatively accessible places. Downtown Dallas here, near that castle in Gamma 3, at that park on Beta… They knew they were important for some reason, enough to set them up in locations where people could see them.”

    It was something I had never thought about. “Wait… no one from the Outworlds ever used the Portals?”

    She shook her head. “They’ve never found any records of it. Actually, despite the fact that they apparently set them up in the middle of their cities, they say they have never even found any mention of them in any recovered documents. They’re there, that’s all anyone knows.”

    “Really?”

    She nodded. “Something else the IPRO manages not to mention. And they have to have noticed it; they aren’t stupid.” She rolled her eyes. “Some of them anyway.”

    I thought. “So, who else knows this?”

    “Everyone should know it.” she said with a shrug. “At least, it isn’t a particular secret. Look at the Portal here; sitting in a park at a street intersection. No plaque or anything. No indication that it is anything other than a sculpture or something. It’s just… there. And because it was sitting there we got here.”

    “Yeah.” I stood silent for a bit, thinking. “Have you ever heard of tribal theory?” I asked her, finally.

    She looked curious.”Maybe? I’ve heard of tribalism but don’t know what it has to do with where we are now.”

    I looked into the distance for a bit, then back to her. “I don’t know much about it myself. I took a couple of anthropology classes because I needed some extracurricular science classes and… because I was kinda interested in someone in Anthropology at the time.”

    She smiled. I shrugged.

    “Anyway, ‘Tribal Theory’ says that when humans first started evolving that we banded together into tribes. We had to defend ourselves against other tribes because resources and the like were limited; we had to put our ‘tribe’ first and everyone else second. Some researchers think this is why we still have trouble getting along with each other; we think we’re still defending our ‘tribe’ against ‘others'”.

    She lowered her head and looked at me. “Surely we’re smarter than that now.”

    I shrugged. “Yeah, you would hope, but think of how much sexism, racism and other -isms we still have.”

    She snorted. “Now you’re just trying to make excuses.”

    “No!” I said, then paused. “Not intentionally anyway.” I shrugged. “Anyway, suppose the Portals are somehow increasing that ‘Tribalism’. That’s basically ‘Us vs Them’. Or at least being out here is. That’s why the teams don’t seem to be working well together.”

    “Or maybe all of you are just assholes.” She laughed, then stopped and thought. “But that does make sense.” She sighed. “But… why?”

    “Who built the Portals?” I asked. “People have asked that question, but it really doesn’t get much attention for some reason. It’s just like they’re… there. No one seems to question it. But none of the Outworlds we know of built them or even seemed to acknowledge them. So… who did? If this is something they did… why?”

    She shook her head. “I have no idea.” She thought for a long moment. “I’ve got a better question. What is happening to us?”

    I was a bit taken aback. “What do you mean?”

    She shrugged. “I’ll admit, when I first met you I pretty much hated you on sight. I had spent four months hauling crates before they let me out here. You? You got out in a couple of weeks. You were the perfect example of what I hated about being out here. Now? You’re the only one I feel like I can talk to. Why?”

    I thought, then sighed. “I admired Dr. Pravana’s work. A lot of my own research was based on his. But I’d rather talk to you than him. What does that mean?”

    “What do you think?”

    I paused. “I think we’re our own tribe now. Which means everyone else sees us as a threat. And we don’t trust them.”

    “What does that mean?” She was surprised at the idea, but didn’t seem to disagree with it.

    “I don’t know.”

    She thought for a bit, then sighed. “It makes sense. The Portals, or something, are increasing distrust between groups. ‘Tribal tendencies’ in your jargon. We don’t know why. And we don’t know what to do about it.” She sighed and looked down. “Well, I don’t think we’re going to solve things tonight, anyway.”

    I nodded. “So what do we do?”

    She shrugged. “I don’t know about you, but I’m going to sleep.” She pulled off her sweatpants and shirt, revealing herself to be wearing nothing beneath them. I felt myself reddening and looked away. I heard her snort laughter then the sound of the sheets as she pulled them down and climbed into the bed.

    “OK,” she said, humor evident in her voice. “I’m covered now.”

    I looked back. She had pulled the sheets up to her chin and was looking at me over them, a smirk on her face.

    I sighed. “I have a fiancee back home!”

    She cocked her head. “And she isn’t here, is she?”

    I just glared at her. She smirked again. “Sorry. I’ll be good.”

    I stood there a bit longer, then sighed and turned off the light. Feeling my way through the dark, I found my way back to the bed and climbed in. Peri stayed on her side of the bed, but it was really only for one person and I couldn’t help bumping into her, making me uncomfortably aware of her nakedness. Mostly I was worried about what would happen if Danya ever found out about this.

    For a long time we lay there in silence. I wasn’t sleeping and I could tell from Peri’s breathing that she wasn’t either. Finally, she spoke.

    “Technically I was a prostitute, I suppose. Though I never thought about it that way.”

    I waved my hand invisibly in the dark. “I wasn’t worried about that. Really.”

    I felt her shift. “Yeah. I guess.” She exhaled. “But I need you to know about me.”

    It was my turn to sigh. “It’s fine. Really.”

    “No!” she said, sharply. I felt her shift; she had sat up in the bed. I knew she was looking in my direction in the darkness, but I closed my own eyes at the thought.

    “Look…” she said, and I heard an earnetness in her voice I had never heard before. “I… need to talk to someone. And I think I can talk to you. Maybe it’s whatever the Portal is doing to us. Maybe it’s just that… I’ve never had someone not want something else from me. But I need to tell you about me.”

    I shoved myself to a seated position as well, leaning back against the wall, and opened my eyes again to stare into the darkness. “Sure. Go ahead.”

    She sighed, then was silent. I was about to think she had changed her mind when she started talking, quietly.

    “I guess my problem started when my brother was born. And my mother died.” She paused. “I learned later, from relatives, that my dad really wanted a son. They had had me and my sister, but he wanted a son. When I was born my mom had… problems. She didn’t want to have any more children. But my dad insisted and she eventually gave in. Then, when he was born, something happened. I never learned what. But she died soon afterwards.”

    “I’m sorry.” I said into the darkness.

    I felt her shift. “It’s OK. I remember her. I remember she always was there for me and Kamala. But I was still a kid. She just… was. Do you know what I mean?”

    I nodded, thinking about my own mother. “Yeah. I guess I do.”

    She shifted again. “Anyway, after she died, my dad really didn’t seem to want me around anymore. I mean, he never did anything directly to me. He was never physical against me or directly insulted me or anything, but I was always the last one to get any of his attention. Kamala and Garigan he was fine with. He just, kinda ignored me.”

    “Must have been rough.”

    “It was bad for me, yeah.” she said. “Mom had always been so close to me that suddenly being cut out… it hurt.” She sighed.

    “Anyway, I started staying away from home as much as I could. I wound up at the library. They don’t really care how long you are there. So I read. A lot.” A note of anger crept into her voice. “I’ve probably studied as much as most of the so-called ‘experts’ out here, but spending years in a library doesn’t count the same as spending a couple of years at a college.”

    It was my turn to shift uncomfortably. “I guess… they take a degree as proof that you know something?”

    I heard her snort. “Yeah. How long were you in college?”

    “Eight years.”

    “And how much practical knowledge did you learn?”

    I hesitated. “I’m…. not sure?” I laughed. “Obviously not enough to figure out what is going on here.”

    It was her turn to laugh. “Maybe you should have spent the time reading whatever you could find instead of whatever your instructors told you to read.” She sighed again.

    “Anyway, after a while I got to where I didn’t even want to go home at night. So I started finding ways not to.” She paused. “Tell me something. When you and Danya were dating, what did you do?”

    I was a bit taken aback by the question, but thought for a moment. “Well, the usual stuff I guess. I’d pick her up and we’d go out and do something. Hiking, or a show, or a movie or something. Then we’d go out for dinner. Then I guess we would hang out for a bit then… head over to her place or mine?”

    “Normal stuff, right?” she said quietly. “You’d buy her dinner, then you’d take her to a show, then you’d buy her drinks or coffee. Maybe you’d bring her flowers or something like that. Then you’d take her to your room.” She paused. “Ever stop to think what all that cost? Suppose you just gave her that much money in cash then took her to your room. What would be different?”

    I sat up at that. “Hey! I wanted to spend time with her; talking to her!”

    “Yeah,” she said. “Sure.” She paused again. “I could have found someone to ‘date’ me. Or, I could find someone who would just give me some money, take me to their hotel room, give me a good fuck, and then let me sleep somewhere that wasn’t home. Why is that really that different?”

    It was my turn to pause. “It isn’t, I guess…” I said finaly.

    “Yeah.” she said. There was another long pause. “Eventually someone noticed me. Jake was his name. He said he could help me find guys to stay with at night. He even sweetened the deal by giving me something to ‘keep me ready’.” She laughed. “I know what a pimp is and I know what coke is. But he helped me stay away from home at night.” She laughed again. “I kept the coke without using it. I’m not that stupid.”

    “So what happened.”

    She shifted again. “I made friends with some of Jake’s other ‘workers’. Gave them the coke he had been giving me. Convinced them they could do better with me than they could with him. They probably could; I at least looked out for them. Even found out where he was getting his stuff from and undercut his prices; I wasn’t interested in what I could get, I just wanted to be able to stay away from home. Then…” she paused again.

    I waited. “Then what?” I asked finally.

    She remained silent for a bit longer. “Someone called someone. I met someone who turned out to be a cop. Arrested me for ‘solicitation’. Arrested me for selling drugs. Though I never actually sold them, just gave them to the women working for me.” She shifted again.

    “They gave me a choice.” she said, a bit more quietly. “Go to jail or join the Army. Both got me away from home, but the latter at least gave me some freedom. Or so I thought. Do you know what happens to female recruits in the Army? At least the involuntary ones?”

    It was my turn to be silent. “I never really thought about it but… nothing good, I suppose.”

    She gave another snort. “I was an ex-prostitute to them. I wasn’t allowed to complain. If I did it would be back to jail for me.”

    I winced invisibly in the darkness. “That sounds… bad.”

    “Yeah.” she said. “I guess it was.” There was silence. “It was the only time I ever wished I had stayed at home.”

    The silence stretched out a bit. Finally I spoke. “So, what happened?”

    “They found the Portal.” she said. “And needed to find people who could use it. They asked for volunteers first, and I did. Surprisingly, I was one of the ‘family’ so I got to come out here.” I felt her shrug. “But that’s the thing. I’m part of the military contigent with a criminal background. If I step the least bit out of line I can be sent back home. Fortunately as long as I do my job no one cares about my attitude. But if I step too far out of line then I’ll find myself back home. And probably in jail.”

    She was silent again. When she spoke, her voice was quiet. “That’s why I need you to help me on this. No one will listen to me, and even asking questions could get me kicked out. But you? I can talk to you. And… at least you don’t think I’m making shit up or going crazy.”

    “I don’t.” I said to the darkness. “Hell, I’d probably go crazy in your place.” I looked into the dark for a bit. “Don’t worry,” I said finally. “I’ve got your back.”

    I heard a sigh. “Thanks.” she said. I felt a pat on my shoulder. “I appreciate that. And… thanks for listening to me.”

    “No problem.” I said, reaching out and finding her in the dark. I patted what I hoped was her shoulder in return. “I’m glad I could be here for you.”

    “Thanks.” she said. I felt her shift again, moving closer. There was another pause. “Danya is a lucky woman.” she said, finally.

    “I think I’m the lucky one.” I said, reaching out again. I found her immediately next to me and awkwardly shifted my arm to put it around her shoulder. She stiffened for a moment and I started to pull it back, then she leaned against me, her head on my shoulder. I dropped my arm back around her and we sat there a long time in silence.

    Eventually she pulled away. “We need to get some sleep. We’ve got a lot of work to do tomorrow.”

    “Sure.” I said, missing the feel of her next to me and not sure if I was disappointed or relieved. “Same time tomorrow?” I tried to say it as a joke.

    “Yeah.” she said. “It’s a date!” She laughed, then sighed. “Thanks for listening to me.”

    “It’s fine.” I told her as I slid back beneath the sheets again. “What else are friends for?”

    “Friends.” she said, almost as if the word was new to her. “Yeah. That sounds good.” There was a final pause. “Goodnight Perry.”

    I smiled in the darkness. “Goodnight, Peri.”

  • Camp NaNoWriMo 2016 – Portals – Week 3

    2 Years Ago

    The video was played dozens of times on hundreds of stations. At first Cable News had tried to keep it exclusive to them but soon gave up as the footage was quickly copied and rebroadcast by station after station and network after network. Within 24 hours news of the Portal and what was on the other side had spread around the world.

    On the footage the transition from Vancouver to what we now know is Central America is abrupt. One moment there are dozens of people and a view of a well-maintained park then the next there is a riot of color, mostly green, as Jackson followed LeBlanc through the Portal.

    For several minutes Jackson expressed shock as LeBlanc, who had been in shock himself several minutes before, tried not to laugh. Eventually she collected herself enough to start filming the area.

    They were in a jungle, that much was obvious. The foliage within a few dozen meters of the Portal was stunted and shrunken, assuring that the area around the Portal was clear. We didn’t realize the significance of that at first, but later we would realize this was normal for an active Portal. In fact, we later would learn that that the maintenance crew at the Vancouver First People’s Center had been having trouble getting the grass to grow around the Portal, but we didn’t even know to ask at the time.

    Once she had recovered Jackson and LeBlanc made their way down the path LeBlanc had found. Jackson pointed out that it was apparently intended as a path as it was paved and had steps on the steeper portions. LeBlanc admitted that he hadn’t noticed that on his previous visit.

    At the base of the path was what looked like a parking lot. LeBlanc had wanted to go on down to the main road but Jackson started filming the area, giving attention to that plaque with the strange pictographs on it.

    After filming it long enough to ensure good coverage she started looking around the area and found several cars overgrown with the foliage. She and LeBlanc spent some time pulling vines and smaller trees away from it, then took a good look at what they had found.

    It was a car, obviously, but the design was nothing that either of them had recognized. More of a tractor towing a passenger carriage. Then she pointed the camera at the interior and spotted the bodies.

    There were two of them, in the back seat. Entangled together, they had obviously been there for some time.

    Jackson found this upsetting and wanted to go back but LeBlanc took some time to examine the bodies first. It was difficult to tell how long they had been lying there but it was obviously years. He also thought it was odd that apparently no animals had disturbed the bodies.

    It was at this point that they realized they hadn’t heard or seen any evidence of any animals. No birds. No insects. Nothing. Just the sound of wind in the trees. This wound up disturbing them more than the bodies and they wound up going back up the hill and back through the Portal. Immediately they were arrested. Jackson was fortunate in that someone from her network approached her as the police arrested her and she was able to hand the camera, with its recordings, to them as she was taken away.

    After several days LeBlanc was released. Jackson wasn’t. She was extradited to the United States where she “committed suicide while in custody”. No one believes that, but that is the official story.

    —–

    Day 3

    The next day I got up and packed on the assumption that we were heading to the Delta side of the Portal. I did leave my bag behind though as I went down to the cafeteria and from there to the Portal. A number of people were still around and ATVs were still pulling trailers through. I looked around and finally saw Helena standing with a few others and reading something off her pad.

    “There you are!” she said as I walked up. “The rest of your team has already gone through. We were wondering if you had gone back home or something.” She laughed.

    “No.” I said, shaking my head. “I didn’t know there was a schedule for us?”

    “Someone missed the briefing last night.” she said, wagging a finger at me. “Maybe show up on time next time? Anyway, they’re on the other side.”

    I looked around. “My stuff is still up in my room.”

    She nodded. “Yeah. Don’t worry about it. We’ll send someone for it. You probably need to get on over there.”

    I shrugged and walked towards the Portal. I waited as another ATV drove through then stepped through myself.

    Instantly my surroundings changed to a snow-covered Dallas and I immediately regretted my choice of wearing a t-shirt and jeans again. I looked around and saw Stanford walking towards me.

    “Hey, Dr. Greyson!” he said as he came up. “We were wondering where you were! Everyone else is over at base camp.”

    “Sorry.” I said, wrapping my arms around myself and shivering. “I missed the memo. Where is it?”

    He waved a hand in a vague direction. “Over there. Don’t worry, I’ll take you.” He looked me over. “Where’s your jacket?”

    “In my room.”

    He shook his head. “Not used to Portal travel, are you?” He turned and yelled to someone at the entrance to a nearby building. “Hey, can someone grab a jacket for Dr. Greyson here?”

    We waited a few minutes until a woman in military fatigues ran up carrying a blue and white jacket with the IRPO logo on it. I gratefully accepted it and put it on. It was a bit tight, but warm. I took a minute to set the temperature and sighed as the electrics kicked in then turned back to Stanford.

    “OK, let’s go.”

    Stanford led me out of the park and down the street. It was cold and snow was piled in drifts along the buildings, but at least the sun was out.

    “At least it isn’t snowing.” Stanford said as we set out.

    “Not surprised.” I said, falling into step beside him. “There actually isn’t that much snow once an Ice Age starts.”

    He stopped and turned to me in surprise. “Really? I figured it would be snowing like… all the time.”

    I shook my head. “Nope. Most of the moisture is locked up in the glaciers and the snow. There isn’t that much in the atmosphere. Humidity is really low. It’s almost like a desert.”

    He nodded slowly. “Yeah, that makes sense, I guess.” He shrugged. “Just seems weird to be this cold and not be snowing.”

    I shrugged. “Back home, yeah. Here, not so much.”

    We were walking down the street. Abandoned cars were parked along both sides of the road, most of them with shattered windows and deflated tires. There were sidewalks on both sides but the snow and ice were deeper there in the shadows of the buildings so we stuck to the street. I noticed that most of the buildings were shops but most had their windows broken out and seemed to have been looted long ago. Every now and then a dropped item or piece of debris could be seen half-buried in the snow.

    “Is everything like this?” I asked, indicating the buildings around us.

    “Yeah.” he said. “Everything was looted. Twice, they say. Once when most people left taking anything of value and later taking anything that would burn. They were just trying to stay warm.”

    “Probably how some of the fires around here started.”

    “Yeah.” He nodded, then paused. “I wonder what happened to everyone in the end. We’ve been making enough noise that if any of them were still around they should know about us.”

    I shrugged. “I guess that’s part of what we’re here to find out.” We walked along a bit in silence.

    “How far away is base camp?” I asked, finally.

    “Just up ahead.” he said, pointing. “There. It was a hotel, apparently. No furniture left but plenty of rooms and space to set up. Plus it’s a couple of blocks from the Portal so you don’t hear its beacon all the time.”

    I nodded, then paused. “Why wasn’t that a problem back at Gamma? At the castle?”

    He shrugged. “Usually they set up base camp pretty far away. The castle was an exception. And believe me, it makes things a whole lot easier for us. I wish they could figure out how to do it elsewhere.”

    “Yeah, Sonja was saying something about the framework around it blocking it.”

    He nodded. “Makes sense, I guess.” He stopped walking suddenly. “Hey, if they knew what the Portals were, do you think any of them made it to Alpha? To home?”

    Now it was my turn to shrug. “From what I was told no one from any of the Outworlds ever used the Portals, even though all of them seemed to recognize them as being important in some way.” I paused. “But if the people on Delta 3 figured out a way to block at least some of theirs, they must have realized that they were being used for something!”

    He nodded again. “Yeah, they knew it was important. Everyone did but us, apparently.” He started walking again. We walked for a while in silence until he abruptly stopped. “Here we are!” We were in front of a six-story building with a sign announcing “Wisteria Hotel” over a revolving door that was surprisingly still intact. “The science team is set up on the third floor, I think. Security is on two while living quarters are up on four.” He waved. “See you around, Doc!”

    He turned and headed back down the street towards the Portal. I waved then pushed through the revolving door into the lobby.

    The interior was brightly lit; someone had the lights working. There were a couple of people doing something behind what was probably the registration desk while a bored-looking woman in fatigues stood up from near the door.

    “Can I help you?” She sounded more bored than concerned.

    “Dr. Greyson?” I said. “Science team?”

    “Oh.” she said. She had the look of someone who wanted to be anywhere other than where she was. “Third floor. Just find the open door. You’ll have to use the stairs; the elevator isn’t working yet.”

    I nodded. “Thanks.” She slumped back into a chair and picked up her pad as I walked to the back of the lobby and up the stairs.

    On the third floor I looked around. One door was wide open and I walked towards it.

    The room may have once been a hotel room but the original furniture was gone. Instead, I found Jesicca and Dr. Pravana engrossed in setting up a bank of computers on a pair of folding tables. Several open and more closed crates showed that they had been working on it for a while. Jesicca looked up as I came in.

    “There you are! Sleeping in?”

    “Didn’t mean to, but apparently I did.” I shrugged and made a pronounced show of yawning. “I didn’t know there was a time we were supposed to show up.”

    She laughed. “It’s the first day on a new Earth! You should be excited!”

    I shrugged again. “It’s my first Outworld, OK? I’m not used to this yet.”

    “You’ll do fine, Dr. Greyson.” said Dr. Pravana. “But we’re glad you’re here. Dr. Kwan and I are setting up our network here. Do you think you could get the weather station set up on the roof?”

    “The what?”

    “The weather station.” He pointed to a particular crate. “It isn’t much, but it’s more than we have here so far. See if you can find a way to set it up on the roof. One of the drones or military can help you if you need it.”

    “OK,” I said. “sure.” I went to the crate and looked inside. It was a standard home weather station, not that much different than the one I had on the balcony of my apartment back in Atlanta.

    “This is it?”

    He shrugged. “It’s what the IPRO has sent us. It’s better than nothing.”

    I nodded and pulled out the base unit, setting it on the table. I then picked up the crate and carried it out of the room.

    I wandered a bit until I found a flight of stairs leading up. This one, unfortunately, only went to the sixth floor. I wandered a bit more before finding another set of stairs that led to a roof exit. I opened the door I came to and went outside.

    After looking around a bit I found a flagpole and was trying to figure out how to attach the unit to it when I heard a voice behind me.

    “They said someone was wandering around lost on the roof. I figured it had to be you.”

    I turned to see Peri standing a few feet away. “You don’t happen to have a screwdriver, do you?”

    She shook her head. “You really don’t know how any of this works, do you?”

    I shrugged. “I keep telling people I’m new here, but they keep acting as if I’m supposed to know everything. Dr. Pravana told me to take this to the roof and set it up, so I came up here.”

    She sighed then pulled out her pad and spoke into it. “Private Avena. Technician with a tool set needed on the roof of the base.” She paused. “One of the science team is up here trying to set up something. They need a tech.” Another pause, then “Thanks.” She closed her pad and turned back to me. “Probably be about ten minutes.”

    “Thanks.” I said.

    “Next time, just call for a tech. They can set it up for you so you can focus on whatever it is you do.”

    “Climate.” I said, somewhat annoyed. “Weather.”

    “Whatever.” she made it obvious she couldn’t care less.

    “What’s your story?” I asked her.

    “What?” She gave me a sharp look.

    “I can tell you really don’t want to be here. Or have much interest in any of us who are. So why are you here?”

    “It isn’t like I had a choice.”

    “There is always a choice.”

    She shook her head. “Not really. But keep believing that if you want to. I could have turned this assignment down but it wouldn’t have ended well for me.”

    I hesitated, then nodded slowly. “I understand, I guess. I kinda got the impression that if I didn’t agree to this I wouldn’t have much of a career ahead of me.”

    “And you have a usable skill. Imagine if you didn’t.”

    I looked at her. “Everyone has a usable skill!”

    She sighed. “Yeah, keep believing that too. Everyone has skills, but ‘usable’ is something that we don’t get to choose.”

    “What? What do you mean?”

    She shook her head. “The fact that you have to ask that means you don’t understand. You can’t understand.” She turned to look behind her. “Hiya Brad, how’s it going?”

    A stocky blond man struggling with an enormous tool chest was walking towards us. He dropped the chest and gave Peri a hug, trying to give her a kiss that she thwarted by turning away from him. He briefly looked offended then turned to me.

    “Bradley Harris, tech services.” he said, picking up his tool chest again. “What do you need?”

    I hesitated, uncertain of what had just transpired, then held up the monitoring unit. “I need this mounted somewhere. It’s a wind, temperature, and rain gauge. I need it mounted somewhere up high.” I pointed to the flagpole. “This would work fine, but I don’t have a way to mount it there.”

    Bradley came over and looked at what I was holding. “Easy enough.” he said finally. “Just need a stand-off and a couple of bolts. We’ll take care of it.” He turned back to Peri. “Hey, you got any plans for tonight?”

    She grimaced, then pointed to me. “Yeah, I having drinks with Perry here.”

    I cocked my head at her as Bradley turned to me. “What? Him?”

    She nodded. “Yeah, you got a problem with that?”

    He shrugged. “No. Whatever.” He turned back to me. “I’ll get this set up. I’ll ping you when it is connected.”

    “Thanks.” I said, looking from him to Peri.

    He leaned closer to me. “And good luck.” He glanced at Peri then back at me.

    “Yeah.” I said, not knowing what I was getting into. “Yeah.”

    He shrugged. “I’ll get it from here. You two can get on with… whatever.” He picked up the unit and started deliberately studying it.

    “Let’s go back inside where it’s warm.” Peri headed for the stairs. I looked from her to Harris to find him staring at me. I shrugged then followed her.

    She was halfway down the stairs when I entered. She glanced up at me but kept moving until she hit the entrance to the third floor where she stopped to wait for me.

    “You’ll be in the cafeteria later tonight.” She said. It wasn’t a question.

    “I guess?” I said. “Look, I don’t know whats going on here but…”

    “I can handle Bradley.” she said interrupting. “Just stop by the cafeteria later.” She turned and walked down the stairs without another word.

    I watched her descend until she was out of sight. Shaking my head I went back into the hallway and down to where Dr. Pravana and Jesicca were working.

    “Set up?” Dr. Pravana asked as I walked in.

    I shrugged. “There’s a flagpole up there that’s a good mounting point but I couldn’t figure out how to attach it myself. There’s one of the technical support crew up there now hooking it up.”

    “I trust he will figure out how to install it without destroying it.” Dr. Pravana said with a sigh.

    “I’m sure it will be fine.”

    Jesicca looked at me. “You should have stayed up there to keep an eye on him.”

    I cocked my head at her. “Why? Is there a problem with the team here?”

    She sighed. “None of them appreciate how important any of this is. They think it’s a game and that we’re wasting their time by asking them to actually do something.”

    I frowned. “They look pretty committed to me.”

    She shrugged. “You’re new, so you haven’t seen them. We’re out here because we need to be. The Outworlds are changing our knowledge of everything, and may change the world forever. We have to bring that about. Them? They’re here because it’s easier to be here than to do whatever they were having to do back home.”

    I started to say something then hesitated. After a pause, I said. “I guess I still expect the best out of everyone.”

    She laughed. “Don’t worry. The Outworlds will burn that out of you pretty quickly. Now, think you could help us get this WiFi network running?”

    With a shrug I started helping them network the computers together. After a while Harris stuck his head in the room and told us that the weather station was set up. A quick check showed that we were receiving data and I set up one of the computers to start collecting the logs. We then spent some time going over the maps that had been produced from the drone flights, picking out locations to set up further weather monitors.

    After several hours I looked up to see Jesicca working on something on her pad while Dr. Pravana was staring out the window. I walked over to see what he was looking at.

    A thin layer of clouds had formed and were reflecting rays of the setting sun in a pair of brilliant sundogs; twin rainbows shining on either side of the sun and above the ruined city.

    “Beautiful, isn’t it.” he said. “Too bad we rarely get to see such things back home.”

    “Yeah.” I said. “Makes it worth it to be out here.”

    “It does.” said Jesicca coming up beside us. “Almost makes it not worth going home.”

    I shook my head. “No, home is still where I want to be.”

    She laughed. “You’re still new out here. You’ll get it.”

    I turned to her curiously. “What does that mean?”

    She shrugged. “You’ll get it. Stay out here long enough and you’ll wonder why home is even important.”

    “I’m not sure about that.”

    Dr. Pravana clapped a hand on my shoulder. “You’ll get used to it, Dr. Greyson. You have a new world to explore. Many new worlds. How can one world matter after this.”

    I was suddenly uncomfortable and glanced at my pad. “It’s late. I guess we need to get down to the lobby in case our bosses have anything they need to tell us before dinner.”

    Jesicca glanced at her own pad. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. We’ve done about all we can today anyway, until we get more data. We’re still speculating in the dark here.”

    I nodded. “Yeah, we don’t have anything yet. Has anyone found anything more about what might have happened?”

    She shrugged. “There’s been a couple of teams out searching for a few days now. Maybe they’ll have something to report tonight at the briefing.”

    “Hopefully.” I said. “Otherwise we don’t have much to go on.”

    Dr. Pravana nodded. “Unfortunately no. I suggest we clean up a bit then head for the lobby.”

    I wasn’t sure where to go at first but eventually found a fatigue-clad man who directed me to my room. It turned out to be something that had probably been a suite based on its size, but the only furnishings were a folding cot and work table that had been set up and my luggage that someone had brought through the Portal for me. Several layers of plastic had been taped over the windows and an electric heater hummed softly in the corner. After making sure everything had been brought over I ditched my borrowed coat and found my way down to the lobby.

    The lobby was empty except for a bored looking soldier behind the reception desk but I heard noises coming from down a short corridor. Following it I found myself in what was obviously the former hotel restaurant. Several folding tables and chairs had been set up and the room was filled with people, some mingling and talking while others were sitting and eating.

    Food was apparently being handed out from a window leading into the kitchen. I wound up with what I think was chicken fettuccine. I think it was still an MRE but at least someone had unwrapped and heated it up for me. I grabbed a beer from the ice bin and looked around. The only members of the science team I saw were Jacob and Sofia. I went over, pulled out a chair and sat down.

    Sofia barely looked up from her pad. I noticed she hadn’t touched her meal either. Jacob had been idly watching something innocuous on a screen on the far side of the room while eating but shifted his attention to me as I sat down.

    “Good evening, Dr. Greyson. Settled in yet?”

    I shrugged. “Getting there. And it’s Perry. I’m not used to ‘Dr. Greyson’ yet.”

    He chuckled. “Don’t worry, you will. So, how’d your first day go?”

    “I got to play network engineer. And I almost got to climb a flagpole.”

    He nodded. “We started digging in a landfill.”

    “It was cold.” said Sofia, not looking up.

    “A landfill?” I asked?

    He nodded. “Yeah, Sofia and I, we’re urban archaeologists. ‘Modern archaeology’ they call it. When studying ancient civilizations we learned the most by looking at what they threw away. We just do the same thing for more modern societies.”

    “Newspapers don’t decay in landfills.” said Sofia, not looking up. “Did you know that?”

    “Yeah, I think I’d heard that.”

    “Anyway,” Jacob continued, “after the cold came everyone here looted anything that wasn’t nailed down, then burned it later to keep warm. Didn’t leave us a lot of records to look at. But we found a landfill and we’re digging into it trying to find newspapers, magazines, books, or anything else that can tell us what the culture here was like.”

    “Or anything really.” Sofia finally looked up. “Even what foods they were eating or what clothing they discarded tells us something.”

    “I guess that makes sense.” I said. “Found anything?”

    She shook her head. “Nothing yet. We found some interesting artifacts and records but nothing we’ve found so far has told us what failed here. But we have found a few things about their culture. It looks like this may be the most recent butterfly we’ve found.”

    “You’ve been out before?”

    “Yes.” she said, reaching out and running her hand along Jacob’s arm. “We were on Gamma 2 and Delta 3 together.”

    Jacob uncomfortably shifted away from her and Sofia went back to her pad. “Yeah.” He said. “This is our third time out.

    “So, how is here compared to where you’ve been?”

    “Cold.” He laughed. “Gamma 2 is a mess. That’s the one they call the zombie uprising back home, even though it had nothing to do with zombies. More like a “rage virus”. Everyone started attacking each other. Everything was torn down, burned up and destroyed.”

    “They think it was like the ‘dancing sickness’ from the middle ages.” Sofia again spoke without looking up from her pad. “Something affecting people’s brain and causing abnormal behavior.”

    Jacob nodded. “Yeah, that’s what we think. But we’ve decided that the dancing sickness came from a fungus and we haven’t found anything on G2 that has that effect. Not that we’ve found in testing.”

    “Hasn’t affected any of our people?”

    He laughed. “Everyone knows better than to try to eat local food on a bio world. We only ate what we brought through.”

    “This stuff?” I pointed at my own plate. “I’d almost want to take my chances.” That brought another laugh and even a smile from Sofia.

    “Oh come on, the food isn’t that bad.” I looked up to see Sonja and Jesicca had arrived. “What deep mystery of the universes are we solving tonight?” Sonja was asking.

    “Why everywhere out here is dead.” Jacob said straightening up. “And which one is the worst.”

    “Delta 2.” said Jesicca as she sat down. “Nuclear war. Can’t top that.”

    “Unless something sucks all the oxygen out of the air like Delta 1. Or turns every bit of food useless like Beta.” said Jacob.

    “Or whatever is still killing anyone going through the Russian portal.” I said.

    Sonja sighed. “Yeah. I keep hoping we’ll learn what that is, somehow.”

    I suddenly felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see Peri glaring at me. “I thought you were buying me a drink.”

    I felt as if everyone was looking at me and turned to her in confusion. “We don’t buy anything here.”

    She gave me a withering glance. “Get me a beer.” She walked towards a table in back.

    I turned back to see everyone else looking at me. I spread my hands and shrugged.

    “I wouldn’t keep Peri waiting.” said Sonja, supressing a grin. “Better get her one.”

    “I have no idea what I’m getting into.” I said, standing up.

    There was some laughter. “Yeah, with Peri I’m sure you don’t.” said Jacob. There was more laughter.

    I shrugged. “I’ll catch up with y’all later.”

    Jacob laughed. “Yeah, good luck.”

    I got up and went back to the counter. Dropping off my mostly-empty plate and empty beer can, I fished two more out of the ice bin and carried them over to where Peri was sitting. I popped the top on one and set it in front of her then pulled out a chair and sat down.

    Peri shoved the open beer back to me then picked up my unopened one. She popped it open herself and took a drink. “Thanks.” she said.

    I shrugged and took a drink from the other beer. “No problem.” I paused for a moment. “So, what’s this all about?”

    She snorted. “What? Don’t want to have a drink with me?”

    I shook my head. “Didn’t say that. Actually, I’m more wondering why you wanted to have a drink with me?”

    She hesitated. “Because I wanted to apologize.” She looked at me. “We kinda got off on a bad start, but you’ve been pretty helpful with me and everyone else. So I guess I misjudged you. That’s all.”

    I shrugged. “You’re welcome?”

    She grunted and went back to her food. I sipped my beer and watched her for a moment.

    “There’s something more, isn’t it?”

    She continued eating for a bit, then put down her fork and looked at me. “Look around the room. Tell me what you see.”

    I did. Dr. Pravana had joined the science team after I had left and they were deep in discussion about something. The military detachment was silently eating near the door while the support team was gathering around the projector and arguing over what to watch. I noticed Harris looking at us until he saw me then he turned back to the rest of his group.

    “We don’t mingle much.” I said.

    She snorted. “That’s an understatement. It’s every clique ever.”

    I nodded, remembering my thought from the night before. “Like high school.”

    “Or basic. Or prison. Or anywhere else there are groups of people.”

    I looked at her in surprise. “You’ve been in prison?”

    She seemed surprised. “What? You haven’t read my personnel file yet?”

    “Why? Why should I?”

    “Everyone else has.” She paused. “You mentioned high school. We’ll go with that. Look at what we have here.” She gestured around the room. “We’ve got the nerds,” indicating the science team, “the jocks”, she pointed to the military detachment, “and the underachievers.” indicating the support team. “Then there’s the two of us, the ‘special’ students, sitting by ourselves.”

    I grimaced at that. “What are you getting at?”

    “I mean that for what is supposed to be a ‘great exploration’, we aren’t working together very well.” She waved a hand at me. “You helped us carry a shit-ton of stuff through the portal yesterday. And you tried to mount that equipment today on your own?”

    I nodded. “Yeah. What about it?”

    “Did anyone else from the science team help?”

    I shook my head slowly. “No. No they didn’t.” I paused. “And Jesicca and Dr. Pravana both seemed surprised that I didn’t stay to make sure Harris did what he was supposed to.”

    She nodded. “Yeah. No one wants to help each other. And no one trusts each other to do their jobs either. Every group thinks the other groups aren’t doing their share. Your science team doesn’t trust support to do its job. Support doesn’t think we do anything to help around here. And we get annoyed that the science and administrative teams sit around while the rest of us do what we have to do to keep us all alive out here.”

    I was annoyed by that. “I’ve been trying to help!”

    She nodded. “Yeah. You have. That’s why I’m talking to you.”

    I sighed. “OK, so what are you getting at.”

    She hesitated and looked around then leaned across the table towards me. “I think something out here is affecting us. I think something is turning us against each other.”

    I let out a short laugh. “What?”

    She looked hurt for a moment but quickly recovered. “Look!” she said, more urgently. “Just look. Does the way people are behaving make sense? Why are we turning against each other so fast. Why are we so quick to be suspicous of each other and so slow to help each other. Cliques have always existed; trust me, I know. But something abnormal is happening out here. I know people. It’s one thing I *do* know. And this doesn’t seem normal.”

    I started to dismiss her concerns and go back to where the science team was sitting, but I hesitated. I thought about the reactions I had gotten the day before when I went to help haul supplies through the Portal. And I thought about watching the sunset with Dr. Pravana and Jesicca that afternoon.

    After a long pause, I spoke. “This afternoon… Jesicca was talking about how she liked being out here and not wanting to go back home. Dr. Pravana agreed with her.”

    She nodded slowly. “They aren’t the only ones. I’ve heard quite a few people mention similar things just since we got here. You remember Harris this afternoon? He even asked me if I wanted to stay out here with him. Run off somewhere and find a place to stay.”

    “Really?”

    “Yeah.” She sighed. “I slept with him once and he seems to think it was way more important than it was.” I gave her a surprised look but she continued.

    “Anyway, it seems to be getting worse the further out we get. Back on Beta almost no one talks about staying, not that you could stay there long term anyway. You start hearing it some on the Gammas, but out on the Deltas you hear it a lot. The only weird thing this time is how fast it has started happening here.”

    “You’ve seen this before?”

    She glared at me. “I’ve been out here a long time. Not all of us get immediately sent out to a research assignment. Some of us don’t have skills; not as far as our leaders are concerned anyway. I was one of the first ones to get assigned to the IPRO. I’ve been in the program for over 18 months and I’ve spent most of that time hauling supplies from one Portal to another.” She sighed. “I spent six months driving crawlers. It’s only been a month or so that I’ve had a more-or-less ‘permanent’ assignment.”

    “Must have been rough.”

    She shrugged. “Could have been worse. It *is* better than daily drills back home.” She laughed. “Maybe your scientist friends do have the right idea.”

    I sat for a while in silence, sipping my beer. Looking around the room, I again noted the stark separation between the teams. Even high-school had never been like this.

    I finally turned back to Peri. “So what do you want me to do?”

    “You tell me, I’m just the grunt around here. Do your science thing.” She drained her beer, dropping the can onto her tray then shoving it towards me. “I’ve got a shift. Dump this for me, will you?” She stood up and started walking towards the door. “See you around, P.” she said over her shoulder.

    I looked after her for a moment then looked around. No one seemed to be paying attention to us except for Harris, who was looking at me with a smirk. I shrugged and picked up the tray, carrying it back up to the counter and dropping it off, then turned back to look at the room.

    Everyone was still huddled in their own groups. A large part of the military team had left but most everyone else was either deep in conversation or was staring at the movie projected on the wall. I thought about going back to the science team or even joining the group at the projector but decided against both. I wanted to think about a few things. I picked up another beer, picked up a second for later, and headed up to my room.

  • Camp NaNoWriMo 2016 – Portals – Week 2

    Interlude – 12 years earlier

    Everyone knows about how the first portal was found, but it occurs to me that you, reading this, may not. Well, not about ours anyway. I know this is supposed to be my story but since I don’t know where you may be reading this, I probably should give some background as well.

    When we first found the first Portal we didn’t even know what it was. Some kayakers on the Columbia river were the first to see it, exposed by some recent erosion caused by the same rains that brought them to the surging rapids in the first place. They apparently crawled all over the ring without anything happening. Anyway, they wound up posting pictures and video of the ring on-line. Others started stopping along the river to take selfies with it as well.

    Eventually someone in authority noticed and sent someone out to look at it. It was on the Canadian side of the river and after a few months a team from Montreal showed up. They didn’t notice anything about it beyond the fact that it was obviously man-made and obviously quite old. With nothing else obvious they contacted the Squamish, the First People’s tribe from the area.

    The Squamish didn’t immediately recognize anything about it either. It was obviously artificial and obviously pre-dated the European arrival in the Americas, but it was nothing they recognized. They took custody of it and the pedestal it had apparently stood on and immediately put it into storage.

    No one saw it for another nine years. During all that time it sat in warehouse somewhere.

    Eventually some work was done on the First People’s Cultural Center in Vancouver and a park was built in front of it. Along with the more traditional totems and the like someone also set up the Portal. Since no one knew what it really was at that point they had labeled it a “medicine circle”, but they had it back up on its pedestal. Someone had already realized that even though the portal was an oval, not a circle, it needed to sit on the pedestal at about a 30 degree angle. In that position it was incredibly stable, so much so that it took effort to move it off of the pedestal once it was in place. While they probably thought this odd, no one apparently paid enough attention to it to make any notice of it.

    So the portal sat there, unrecognized, for over a year. Photographed by tourists and used as a playground for children.

    The Portal was alive. And waiting. We just didn’t know it yet.

    —–

    Day 2

    I woke up to the beeping of my pad and was momentarily confused by not finding Danya next to me. Then I remembered where I was and sighed.

    The silence was oppressive. Earth Gamma 3 had no life anywhere on it. None. Well, maybe some deep in the oceans but we hadn’t checked there yet. Here, somewhere around one hundred years ago, everything organic had been broken down into its component molecules. The result was a grayish dust that still coated everything over a century later. The science teams here had determined that even coal seams and the like had been converted, but no one knew why. Or how.

    There had been some concern that someone would bring back whatever had caused this to home, but somehow the portals kept us from bringing anything dangerous through. Which also meant that they couldn’t bring back samples for scientists at home to study. So we had to bring the scientists out instead. And when only one out of around every 5,000 people could actually step through a portal the choices of the IPRO were limited.

    That was why I had been so quickly fast-tracked through training and sent out here. I was a climatologist and they had found a world with a climatic disaster. Of course they wanted me out here.

    I could theoretically have said no. Theoretically. I would never have found a job anywhere else if I did. But I could have said no.

    With a groan I got out of the flimsy cot I had been sleeping on. There was an open window in the room, covered only with a dust filter, but the silence this early in the morning was near absolute. You don’t realize how much of the sound you hear every day comes from something living. Bird songs. Insects. Even the wind in the trees. Here there were none of those things and only a few dozen people. It was quiet. As I listened, I heard the whine and rhythmic ‘thwip-thwip-thwip’ of a quad from somewhere. Nothing else. It was unexpectedly unsettling.

    I took a longer shower than I should, but at least they had plenty of hot water here and my back was still sore from several days of carrying crates through the portal. I then got dressed. The IPRO had issued me a couple of jumpsuits; ugly blue and grey things with my name and the IPRO logo on the breast. But what little I had seen of the site from yesterday told me that pretty much no one was wearing them. I pulled on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt then went down looking for the cafeteria.

    The “cafeteria” turned out to be a large room that someone had wired into the grid and stuck a couple of microwaves and refrigerators in. When I got there a bored looking man in fatigues handed me a packaged MRE.

    “This is it?” I asked, dubiously.

    He shrugged. “Want to go back to Alpha and see how many crates of eggs you want to carry though to here? Be sure to convince one of the quad pilots they need to carry the weight while you’re at it.”

    I held up my hand. “OK, OK. I get it. Thanks.”

    I struggled with the MRE, finally getting its contents out and onto a plate and into a microwave. I then found a machine producing something that resembled coffee. At least, nothing worse than I had endured as grad student. I took it and my warmed-up plate of something that was apparently supposed to be bacon and eggs and looked around.

    There were about a dozen others in the room by this point but the only one I recognized was the woman from the other quad the day before. I hesitated, then walked over to her table.

    “Mind if I sit here?” I asked.

    She looked up at me with a vaguely annoyed expression then shrugged. I pulled a chair back and sat down.

    “Percival Greyson.” I said, extending my hand. “Call me Perry. Sounds like we’ll be working together.”

    She looked at me for a moment before extending her own hand. “Perimalla Avena. You can call me Peri too.” She snorted. “Guess they’ll be getting us confused all the time.”

    I laughed. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

    She shrugged. “Of course you didn’t.”

    She turned back to her own food. I shrugged then started eating my own. It was better than it looked. Or maybe I was just hungrier than I had thought.

    “Why are you here?” she asked me, abruptly.

    I looked up in mid-bite. “What?”

    “What did they do to convince you to come out here?”

    I hesitated for a moment. “Well, when I found out I could go through the main Portal what else could I do? And it sounds like they need me to figure out what happened somewhere.” I paused. “Did you know the next Portal leads to an Earth that is in an Ice Age?”

    She looked at me with an expression that somehow conveyed both pity and condescension. “No I didn’t, and knowing that I still don’t care.” She leaned forward. “They’re using us. Maybe they’re using you for your brains instead of your body, but they’re still using you. They don’t care about us. They just want to make sure that whatever happened to everywhere else doesn’t happen to them. And they’ll take everything you have to make that happen!”

    She shoved her plate away and stood up. “See you at the briefing.” She had been getting louder as she had spoken and several of the others in the room were looking in our direction. She walked away without looking back. I looked around and shrugged, then finished my breakfast in silence before heading back to my quarters.

    About an hour later I found my way to the briefing room. This turned out to be a larger room with several rows of stone seats. The local team had somehow decided that this was a ‘council chamber’ of some kind, but with no surviving records of any kind I assumed they were just guessing.

    Sonja and Gerrold were sitting up front behind a folding table. Helena was also there, hovering over several other people who were sitting uncomfortably on the stone seats. I recognized Peri, but another man caught my attention.

    I went up to him “I’m sorry, but… Dr. Pravana?”

    He turned to look at me with a smile. “I didn’t expect to be recognized, even in our extended family.” He was a middle-aged man with greying hair and goatee who spoke with a slight Farsi accent. “Yes, that is me. And who do I have the pleasure?”

    “Percival Greyson!” I said, extending my hand. “Call me Perry. I studied your work on ocean current drift. A large piece of my graduate work was based on it, extending your computer models. It’s… it’s an honor to meet you sir!”

    He smiled, waving his hands. “Oh please. I appreciate your thoughts but I’m a scientist. I just tell others what I have discovered about the world. But I am glad I was able to inspire you.” He nodded modestly. “I hope my models were useful?

    I nodded, excitedly. “My doctoral thesis was based on them. I owe my PHd to you!”

    He shook his head. “I am only glad I was able to help others.” He waved towards an Asian woman who had stood up with him. “Have you met Jesi?”

    “No, I haven’t. Just got in late yesterday.” I turned to her. “Perry Grayson.”

    She smiled in greeting. “Good to meet you Perry.” she said. “Dr. Jesicca Kwan, University of Seoul. Geoengineering.” She tilted her head at me. “So what’s your speciality?”

    “Climatology.” I said. “Well, almost.” I paused, suddenly somewhat embarrassed. “Actually, I’ve finished my dissertation and orals but haven’t actually gotten my degree yet.”

    “Yes you have.” I turned. Sonja was looking at me from the table, apparently having heard our conversation. “The IPRO got in touch with Tech after you reported for training. They awarded you your PHd. I would have thought someone would have told you. Congratulations, Doctor!”

    I was stunned. “I wish they had told me.” I paused. “But yeah, it’s been a couple of really busy weeks. Does Danya know?”

    “Danya?”

    “My girlfriend. Fiancée.” I shook my head. “Did someone tell her? I haven’t had much time to talk to her since… well… since I came out here.”

    Sonja shrugged. “I don’t know. Your PHd is in your file but it doesn’t say anything about her.”

    “Congratulations, Percival!” Dr. Pravana took my hand and shook it.

    “Indeed, Perry.” Jesicca gave me a quick hug then pulled away. “Congratulations!”

    I shook my head. “Wow! I mean… wow. I didn’t know.”

    “Welcome to the Outworlds.” said Helena, coming up beside us. “You’ll get used to it. And congratulations.”

    “Thanks.” I said. I paused. “Can someone let Danya know?”

    Helena shrugged. “Sure. I’ll contact Gamma prime and have them pass it on. Someone should get the info to her.” She looked around. “Looks like everyone is here. Ready to go?”

    Sonja nodded. “Sounds good. Let’s get started.”

    Helena shoved a handful of papers towards me as Sonja did something to her pad and a projector started up. I sat down next to Dr. Pravana and started looking though the papers but the lights abruptly went out. I sighed and looked up at the wall behind Sonja and Gerrold.

    An image of the snowed-in area around the Delta 4 gate was projected on the wall. “I think all of you have seen this.” said Sonja, turning to look at the image then back to us. “This is Dallas, Texas on Delta 4. In June. From what little we’ve been able to tell so far it’s been that way since sometime in the 1950s.

    She flipped to another slide. This was an aerial view of a snowed-in city, static at first then starting into motion. It appeared to be drone video, shot sometime when the sun was shining. From the snow and the few buildings I recognized it was another view of Delta 4’s Dallas.

    “This was from a couple of days ago.” she continued. “This was our first real survey of the area. Delta 4 is of course the most recent portal we’ve found, the fourth in the Delta layer.”

    “So… Delta 4.” I recognized Peri’s voice, boredom obvious.

    Sonja winced. “Yes. Delta 4. We only located this portal about two weeks ago. We think the metal framework around it was somehow keeping us from detecting it from more than a short distance away. We wouldn’t have found it at all if one of our survey flights hadn’t seen the castle here and decided to stop to see what it was. No one has really thought that our sensing of portal beacons could be blocked somehow. That *is* something we can test back home. The IPRO have people looking into that now.”

    She paused, then continued. “Obviously we don’t know for certain what happened to Delta 4 but the obvious answer is some sort of catastrophic climate disaster. That’s why we brought in this team.” She waved towards me, Pravana and Jesicca. “From what few records we have recovered so far it seems that most of the population was attempting to migrate to the equatorial regions. We don’t know how that went. There are no radio transmissions that we can detect and the quads we have carried through don’t have enough range to investigate. A couple of crawlers are on their way from the Gamma 3 portal with some heavier aircraft and a couple of launch stacks. Once they get here we’ll put a satellite up and see what we can find.”

    She sighed. “We keep hoping to find an Outworld that is still alive but it doesn’t look like this one is it.” She turned to look at Gerrold. “General Harris, would you like to go over the initial survey?”

    He stood up. “Thank you Doctor Palmer.” He picked up a remote and walked to stand in front of the projected image, rewinding the video to near its start.

    “We obviously haven’t done too much exploring beyond the gate area yet, pending the arrival of the crawlers, but we have secured the immediate perimeter, set up a base camp location and have done some scouting of the area.”

    He started the video again and gestured towards it. “This is some drone footage we’ve taken over the last few days. As you can see, the city appears to be completely abandoned. Most of the damage you see seems to be what we would expect from 75 years or more of neglect and decay. There are a few exceptions.” He sped the footage forward a bit then paused. “This is an obvious fire area. This one is fairly old but we’ve seen some areas that are much more recent; more than we think you would expect.”

    “Is anyone still in the city?” Jesicca asked.

    “Not that we can tell. Not anymore, anyway. But some people apparently tried to stay. The area has been pretty thoroughly looted; anything even remotely useful has been taken from what we have found. Then there is this.” He forwarded the video again, stopping at a ruined set of buildings.

    “There was an explosion here.” He tapped the image. “Several actually; here, here and here.” He pointed out locations. “It looks like these buildings were deliberately dropped to seal off this area, leaving the only entrance here.” He pointed again.

    “That entire area looks pretty much ruined to me.” I said. “Why seal it off?”

    He waved at the screen again. “It wasn’t, not at the time anyway.” he said. “He pointed to another part of the ruins. “These areas were deliberate implosions; specifically placed ground charges. This and this,” he indicated again, “are aerial bombardment hits. They were attacked.”

    “By who? And why?” That was Jesicca again.

    “We don’t know.” he admitted. “We haven’t gone over there ourselves to check for certain. We have looked through some of the buildings around the Portal and found a few records; newspapers, books and the like. Apparently when the ice came there was a mass emmigration toward the tropics. Most of the tropical nations didn’t like this of course, so they closed their borders. The fighting started soon after.”

    “So they attacked here?” Peri spoke up unexpectedly. “Why? If they wanted to keep people away from the equator why attack someone who apparently had decided to stay behind?”

    Gerrold shook his head. “Nothing for certain but the speculation is that some groups decided to stay here instead of evacuate. Or maybe they didn’t have a choice. Either way, as resources became scarce there was probably fighting. Hopefully once we do a more detailed survey we’ll be able to answer that.”

    “No mention of what happened here?” I asked. “How they wound up in an ice age in the first place?”

    He shook his head again. “Again, no idea. Something triggered what we assume was an ice age but we don’t know if it was something that they caused or if it just naturally happened. Once we get a full team over there we hope to have a better idea.”

    “What was the point of divergence?”

    “The what?” He looked confused for a second. “Oh! The butterfly!” He laughed. “Is that what they’re officially calling it in training now?” There was some laughter. “Whatever. The truth is we don’t know. We have found a few records remaining indicating that after World War II instead of entering the Cold War the US and the Soviet Union started working together and formed something called the American-Soviet Concordance. Nothing we have found tells us how well that worked out. It doesn’t seem as if the UN was ever formed. And the Dallas Cowboys were a soccer team. At least, the Dallas stadium has a soccer field in it anyway. Beyond that, we haven’t discovered much.”

    “Soccer?” I said. “That’s the most unbelievable thing I’ve heard so far.” A few people chucked.

    Gerrold laughed as well, then continued. “Yes, I’m aware we don’t have a lot of information. But that’s why all of you are here. You are our detail teams. You are going to help us survey this outworld and determine what happened to it and the people who lived here.”

    He gestured towards me, Jesicca and Dr. Pravana again. “This is our primary science team. Dr. Grayson and Dr. Pravana are both experts in climate and Dr. Kwan is an expert in geoengineering systems. Hopefully they can determine why this outworld has wound up in an ice age.”

    He indicated several people on the other side of the room. “Dr. Graham is lead sociologist here. She and her team will determine what Delta 4’s society was like and how they reacted to the disaster that came upon them. Assisting her are Jacob Starling and Sofia Paulos.”

    I looked over. “Doctor Graham was a short, heavyset, dark-haired woman with what looked like a perpetual scowl on her face. Starling was a surprisingly elderly-looking man who was looking around with keen interest while Sofia Paulos was a young-looking woman who barely looked up from her pad to acknowledge the rest of the room.

    “Finally,” Gerrold continued, “the defence team will respond to any threat, on the unlikely event that a threat materializes.” He indicated the back of the room. “Lieutenant Sergi Greginko will be the officer in charge, with Perimalla Avena and Angela Merez assisting him.”

    I turned to look towards them. Sergi was actually in a Russian army uniform instead of the IPRO fatigues that the others were wearing. Peri cocked an eyebrow in my direction while rolling her eyes and Angela half stood up and waved in our general direction.

    Gerrold nodded. “Dr. Palmer and I are the nominal heads of the team but it is up to all of you to find what is out there.” He smiled. “We’re all family out here anyway.” I winced as he continued. “I really don’t expect to have to give you too much direction. But if you need anything, contact me or Dr. Palmer.”

    I looked around. A couple of us were still paying attention but most of the people in the room were either engaged in quiet conversations with each other or were engrossed in something on their pads.

    Helena waved. “I’m Helena Jackson; all of you have met me but I’m in charge of the Gamma 3 side of things here. If you need any kind of support from me or from IPRO let me know.” She laughed. “Except for the crappy food. Sorry, I can’t help that.”

    Gerrold waved her off. “That’s pretty much all we know but we’ve only reached Delta 4 a couple of weeks ago so there hasn’t been time for us to find much anything else.” He laughed while everyone else looked blankly at him.

    “So,” he said, finally. “Let’s go take a look at Delta 4.”

    —–

    2 years earlier

    The disappearance of Cynthia Merone captured national attention, even before we knew what had happened to her. She had been at the Visitor’s Center in Vancouver with her family when she went missing. The other kids who had been playing there said she just disappeared but no one could explain where she went.

    If Cynthia had been Squamish herself, or Canadian, or from almost anywhere else for that matter, no one may still have paid any attention. But the Merones were from the States and soon the cable news networks lit up with how another young blond girl had gone missing in a tourist area and how Americans obviously couldn’t consider themselves safe in any foreign society. Partially to appease them the Canadian government sent an RCMP team in to see if they could determine what happened to her.

    Everyone who had been there could only say that Cynthia had last been seen around the medicine circle so a team, trailed by a couple of reporters and cameras, went to examine the area on the remote chance they cold find something. They didn’t find any actual forensic evidence but the other members of the team were stunned when Darrin LeBlanc, one of their technicians, stepped through the circle while examining it and vanished before their eyes.

    If there had not already been media attention on the site. If there had not already been a dozen or more news outlets in the area, if no one had been paying attention to the location, then the world may not have known what was happening for months, if not years. Instead, there were three news outlets reporting live when LeBlanc disappeared through the Portal. The disappearance was actually accidentally caught on camera when an interview with one of the RCMP officials was using the Portal as a backdrop when he stepped through.

    There were even more cameras, reporters, investigators and gawkers at the site when LeBlanc staggered back out of the portal ten minutes later. His colleagues and the reporters rushed towards him but he only took a few steps before staggering and slumping to the ground in shock. “C’est un porte!” he kept repeating. “C’est un porte!”

    He was trying to tell us that that the “medicine circle” was a door, but he was speaking in his native French and the US based networks misheard him as saying “It’s a Portal!” The name stuck.

    Various authorities would probably have preferred that they could have talked to him in private, but the reporters were already there and it would have been difficult to keep him quiet or cover up what had just happened. The story was being broadcast around the world before anyone in authority found out what was happening. And thus what may turn out to be the most important discovery in human history was public knowledge before anyone realized it had been made.

    After a few minutes LeBlanc had calmed down enough to tell his story. He had stepped through the Portal and suddenly found himself somewhere else. There was no visitor center. In fact, there was no center. Instead, he was on a small hill covered in dense vegetation. “Like a jungle.” he called it. The Portal was still there, but nothing else he recognized.

    LeBlanc of course had no idea what had happened to him or if he could even get back to where he came from. Instead of diving directly back through the Portal he wandered off looking for anything he recognized. From the plant life around him and the much warmer temperature he knew he wasn’t in Vancouver. He just didn’t know where he was or how he got there.

    He wandered down the hill, forcing his way through the foliage until he came to what was obviously a road, now badly cracked and overgrown. There was what looked like a parking lot, empty, and a plaque in some strange language made of complex pictographs.

    Realizing that he was nowhere near Vancouver, no matter where he was, he fought his way back up the hill and tried stepping through the circle again. To his relief, he found himself back in Vancouver.

    After hearing his story everyone around started trying to step through the circle. Most just landed on the other side but Carrie Jackson, a sound technician with one of the cable news companies, disappeared.

    She reappeared a few seconds later and demanded a camera. She and LeBlanc then stepped through the portal together. They were gone for about a half-hour before reappearing.

    By this point the authorities had arrived and Canadian military forces were securing the site. Jackson and LeBlanc were taken into custody, but somehow she managed to hand the camera she was carrying to one of the reporters from her network before being taken away.

    The footage of what they found was broadcast less than ten minutes later.

    —–

    Day 2

    The area around the portal was a mass of activity when we arrived. The quads I had been hearing that morning had been bringing in supplies from the prime portal and about a dozen people in fatigues and a few others in IPRO jumpsuits were carrying them through the portal then returning seconds later to pick up something else. There were a few others like me in plain clothes standing to one side and I walked over to join them.

    “Quite an operation.” I said in greeting.

    The small group looked at me then one of them, a stocky man with close-cropped blonde hair, extended a hand. “You must be the new scientist they were sending out. Greyson, right? I’m Dale Carter. Geophysics.”

    He gestured towards the rest of the group. Next to him was a heavy-set black woman. “This is Belinda, she’s our biochemist.” He gestured past her to an older black man. “And Dr. Mgawae is our astronomer.”

    “Astronomer?” I asked, extending my hand. “I thought except for us everything was the same out here?”

    He shrugged and proffered a perfunctory handshake. “Yes, the general physical universe seems to be unaffected. But our superiors at Portal Research”, he rolled his eyes, “seem to think that maybe solar radiation could have caused this.” He waved his hands around us. “Solar radiation doesn’t do this, but ‘they’ think I need to be here.” He sighed. “I could be doing so much work at home.”

    There was a laugh from Belinda. “Belinda Karon. Good to meet you.” She gestured towards Mgawae. “Don’t mind him, he doesn’t appreciate being out here.”

    Mgawae audibly sighed and shook his head. “There is no reason for me to be here. Things on Earth may have changed but there is absolutely no change on any of the outworlds that we have observed. Beyond the changes on Earth, of course. I could be doing far more important research back home where I have proper facilities”, he gestured around him, “than I can here. This is a waste of my time.”

    “Why are you here then?” I asked. Dale winced and Belinda turned away. I immediately realized I had asked the wrong question.

    “Because I had no choice!” he stepped towards me, his voice rising in anger. “Your government made it clear that they wanted to control the portals and what is found out here, so the rest of the world had to make sure that we had as much representation as possible. So they tested me and told me that I could either work with the IPRO or they wouldn’t fund my research anymore.” He sniffed. “So I’m wasting my time out here instead of doing anything actually important!”

    He took a few steps away and leaned back against the castle wall. I looked around to see that Jesicca and Dr. Pravana had come up behind me. Dr. Pravana acted as if nothing had happened while Jesicca silently mouthed “sorry” towards me.

    I turned to Belinda. “Biochemistry? My fiancée is a biochemist.”

    She brightened. “Really? Where is she stationed?”

    I hesitated. “She’s still in Atlanta. She didn’t go through the Portal. Isn’t… ” I paused, “…part of the family.”

    Belinda’s face fell. “Oh, I’m sorry.” She hesitated. “I’m sure you’ll get back home to see her soon.”

    Dr. Mgawae let out a snort. Belinda glanced in his direction then turned back to me. “So… When did you come out?”

    “Here?” I asked. “Yesterday. Overall?” I thought. “Three weeks?

    Belinda laughed. “They must be running short of volunteers. Usually you get to move boxes for a few months.” She gestured towards the people working around the portal. “Better them than us.”

    I turned back to look at the activity around the portal. A dozen or so people in IPRO jumpsuits and another dozen or so in military fatigues were carrying boxes through the portal, staying for a short time, then returning. Every now and then an ATV would go through with something heavier in the back.

    “Should we be helping them?” I asked.

    Jesicca shrugged. “Looks like they’ve got it.” She paused and looked at me, lowering her voice. “Look… I know you’re relatively new but… there are patterns to who has the markers and who doesn’t. Free spirits, rebels, people who… don’t fit it; the IPRO has found that people with the markers are more likely to be… ‘non-conformist’ than people who don’t. People like us,” she gestured around, “are a lot less likely to be able to get out here. So the IPRO grabs us and brings us out here whenever they can. For every scientist, engineer or even administrator there are a dozen baristas, ‘artists’ and fast food workers. Their only real contribution is being able to carry stuff through portals or whatever. Let them do their job and we’ll do ours.”

    I winced. “Seriously?”

    Dale laughed. “Hey, like she said, better them than us.”

    I looked at him. “We can carry stuff too, you know. I spent a couple of days doing it.”

    He looked at me pityingly. “And you want to carry more?” He shrugged. “Like Jesicca they’re contributing the only way they really can. Why are you worried about it?”

    I shrugged. “I don’t know. It just seems… unfair.”

    He shrugged in return. “Unfair? The distribution of people with markers seems to favor those who don’t have any skillls. You call that ‘unfair’?”

    I shook my head. “I don’t know. I just feel I should be doing something.”

    He laughed. “Go ahead then. I’ll stay here and have another coffee.”

    I stood for several seconds then walked towards the Portal. An ATV had pulled up dragging a trailer with what looked like the blades for a quad on it and I walked towards it. Peri happened to be walking towards it at the same time and she stopped as she saw me.

    “What? Wanting to make sure I got your quad over?”

    I ignored the question and lifted one end of a blade. “You going to get this or not?”

    She cocked her head. “You know where to put this?”

    I shrugged. “You take the front end. I’ll just follow you.”

    The next few hours were a blur. I picked up crates or other bits heading for Delta 4 and carried them through the Portal. On the other side there was always someone who would point to where it needed to go. I would drop whatever I was carrying where they told me then go back through the Portal to pick up something else.

    After a couple of hours the pile of things on the Gamma side had diminished and the pile on the Delta side had grown. I had just come back through when one of the other workers stopped me.

    “We can probably take it from here.” He said. “Thanks for the help.”

    “No problem.” I told him, stretching out my back. “You have it?”

    “Yeah, sure.” He said. “Your people have all headed back inside; you probably need to catch up with them.”

    “OK.” I said. “See you later.”

    “Yeah, yeah… whatever.” He picked up another crate and headed towards the Portal. I turned and headed back to the castle.

    I heard noise from the cafeteria but I was covered in dust from outside and cold from the time I had spent on Delta 4. I decided to go get another shower before heading down.

    A half hour later I was in a clean shirt and jeans and was back down in the cafeteria. The meal seemed to be pretty much over but there was a pile of packaged meals on the counter. I hunted through them until I found a mac-and-cheese-and-bacon and tossed it into the microwave. I found a lone beer floating in a half-melted tub of ice, picked up the heated meal and looked around.

    It was like being back in a high-school cafeteria. The military contingent were sitting at a couple of tables near the back, concentrating on their food and not much else. The workers, or drones as I had learned they were called, were still wearing their dusty jumpsuits and were in a large boisterous crowd near the entrance while most of the science team was huddled around a single table in the corner. Someone had set up a projector and most everyone else was sitting in front of it, watching some sitcom that had probably aired a couple of weeks earlier.

    I saw Peri and started to go say hi but she seemed engrossed in her meal and the guy sitting next to her. I had never been the TV type so I wandered over to where the science team was sitting. Jesicca was talking as I came up and sat down.

    “It can’t be a grey goo scenario.” she was saying. “The only way it could have gotten this far is if they failed to give it a kill switch, and if it didn’t have one then we wouldn’t be here.”

    Dale shrugged. “Maybe it burned itself out. Got every bit of organic material then killed itself.”

    Helena looked worried. “Then… it could be out there, somewhere, still?”

    Jesicca shook her head. “It’s not a grey goo.”

    “Then what is it?”

    “I don’t know. That’s what you’re here to find out.” She empahsised the word with obvious frustration. “But it isn’t a grey goo.” She turned to me. “Hey, Perry. Finished with your workout?”

    I was looking dubiously at the unnaturally colored orange pasta on my plate. “What? Oh.” I shrugged. “Didn’t want to just stand around doing nothing.”

    “We weren’t doing ‘nothing’.” Dale said, somewhat defensively. “We were *thinking*! That’s what they pay us for!”

    “You get paid?” That was Belinda. “Where do I get that?”

    Dale laughed. “It’s back home, getting direct deposited and collecting interest. While we stay out here and let that dangerous assignment money pile up.”

    “Dangerous assignment?” I asked? “Are we in danger?”

    Dale snorted. “You’re on a version of Earth where everything organic has been broken down into it’s component atoms and we don’t know what caused it or why. What could possibly be dangerous?”

    Sonja shrugged. “Could be worse. Eat some fruit from Beta for lunch. Or take a walk outside on Delta 2 without a radiation suit.”

    “Or just go through the Russian portal back home.” said Belinda dryly.

    “Yeah, yeah, I know.” I said, waving my hand in the air. “But we know about that. But is there any real active threat?” I paused. “Beyond the food here, that is.” I shoved the “mac-and-cheese-and-bacon” away from me. There was a general chuckle.

    “Always the food.” said Sonja.

    “It is a concern though.” said Jesicca again. “We’ve found 8 Outworlds, plus home.” So of the 9 only one, ours, still has human life. Why?”

    “There may be people left on Delta 4.” Sonja said. “That’s still a chance, right?”

    I shrugged. “Then why no radio communications there?”

    “Not wanting to give their location away?” suggested Jacob. “If a war for resources started like we’ve guessed then any remaining enclaves may be maintaining radio silence. Broadcasting anything would just be saying ‘We have resources you can take over here’.”

    Sofia, sitting a bit away from the table, looked up from her pad. “If the event happened as long ago as we think then the survivors must have started working together by now. It’s been several generations; if they haven’t learned to work together by now then it won’t happen.”

    Jacob looked over and shrugged. “We made it a few thousand years without getting our act together. Only reason we’re working together now is that everyone is afraid someone else will find something valuable or overpowering out here and they want to make sure anyone else doesn’t get exclusive rights to it.”

    Dale snorted again. “Yeah, and as soon as we do find something I guarantee that all of this ‘cooperation’ will go out the window and all these military ‘assistants’ we have here will be grabbing it and taking it back to their respective governments. At least, whoever wins the shooting will.”

    “No!” Helena seemed almost offended. “The IPRO is a true cooperative venture. For the first time…”

    “The US got screwed over before it could screw over everyone else.” Dale interrupted. “If Cable News hadn’t aired the initial footage and if the Squamish hadn’t immediately reported everything they knew to everyone who would listen and then immediately contacted the UN then the US would have invaded Canada and seized it for themselves. They’d find someone to blame to give them their excuse. And half the people would have bought it.”

    Helena was shaking her head. “That would never have happened!”

    Jesicca shrugged. “You’re seeing it from the inside. Enough of us have seen our countries invaded or ‘assisted’ by yours that we’re maybe just a bit more cynical than you.”

    Helena looked at me. “Perry, help me out here. You know that wouldn’t have happened!”

    I shifted uncomfortably. “Yeah. Probably. Maybe.” I shrugged. “I like to think we’ve been doing better lately.”

    “Better.” Dale laughed. “Yeah, I guess that’s one way of putting it.”

    Sonja held up her hands. “Let’s leave the politics back home, OK? Things worked out, and we’re out here, right? We’re scientists. And we’re family!” I winced. “Let’s focus on solving the mystery we’ve got here, not on what might have happened.”

    “Because it might be what have happened.” Sofia had put her pad down and was looking at the rest of us. “Delta 2 was an obvious nuclear war. Delta 1 went through a long period of war too before the impact took out everyone. Hell, for all we know Beta was a bioweapon of some kind. There’s plenty of evidence that people out here were more than willing to attack each other to get something that one wanted and the other had.”

    “People are the same everywhere.” I said.

    “Exactly.” said Dale. “Don’t assume we’re better than the people out here.”

    “We’re alive.” said Sonja. “We can learn.”

    “Let’s hope so.” said Dale.

    There was a silence for long moments. Finally Helena spoke.

    “Base camp on the other side should be set up by morning. Maybe we should all get some early sleep; I know we’ll have a lot to look at tomorrow.”

    “Yeah, sure.” Dale stood up. “Later everyone.” He left.

    Everyone else seemed to think this was a good idea and made their good-nights as well, standing up and leaving by ones and twos. I finished my now cold dinner, picked up my now warm beer and looked around.

    Most everyone else had left too; there were only a few others still in the room. I saw Peri sitting at a back table, staring at the now-frozen image from the projector on the wall. Acting on impulse I walked over and sat down at the table as well.

    She didn’t acknowledge me at first but finally spoke. “Thanks for the help this afternoon.”

    “No problem.” I said, shrugging. “Better than just standing around.”

    “Yeah.” she said. “Most of your people don’t see it that way though.” She turned and looked at me. “You wanting to fuck?”

    “What!” I said, taken aback.

    She shrugged. “Guy comes up to the last woman sitting alone in a bar at closing time, usually he’s wanting one thing. So. You want to fuck me? Or want me to fuck you?”

    I shook my head, suddenly embarrassed. “No I… I’ve got a fiancée back home. I’m not…”

    She shrugged again and stood up. “Your loss. See you on the other side tomorrow.” She left without looking back.

    I looked after her for a moment then shook my head, sighing. I drained the last of my beer and went back to my room.

  • Camp NaNoWriMo 2016 – Portals – Week 1

    Day 1

    The quad landed in the courtyard of what I would have guessed was an old British castle back home, but here it was somewhere in what would have been upstate New York. As the engines whined down I could hear the other quad coming in behind us as well as some music blaring from somewhere in the castle. I guess the weird silence here got to everyone.

    I adjusted my dust mask as the pilot popped the canopy. She was a skinny black woman who had spent the entire trip with a pair of earbuds plugged into her ears, nodding along with something playing on an archaic iPod. I had talked to her long enough to learn that her name was Dierdra but that was about it, After that I had done nothing but stare out at the dust-covered landscape as we flew the several hours north towards the site, over surprisingly intact cities sitting alone and uninhabited amidst empty stretches of blowing dust. Still nodding to the music, she pointed towards an entrance to one side of the courtyard where several people were exiting and walking towards us.

    “Thanks for the lift!” I said. I’m not sure she heard me. She was already engaged with dragging a charging cable over from the solar array back to the quad. I grabbed my pack from behind the seat, wincing as I did. My muscles had cramped up during the several hours in the quad after all the work I had done earlier that day. I let out a groan then hopped out and started walking towards the welcoming committee.

    “You must be Dr. Grayson!” said the woman leading the group, extending her hand. “I’m Helena Jackson, CEO here. Welcome to Gamma 3!”

    “Percival Grayson!” I said, shaking the pro-offered hand. “Call me Perry.”

    “Sure thing, Perry!” She smiled. “We’re all cousins here anyway.” She laughed, then turned towards the two people with her. “This is Gerrold, he’s our DOD rep, and this is Sonja, she’s the head of the science team.”

    “Good to meet you,” said Gerrold, extending his hand as well. He was a tall, heavy-set black man. He was older, probably close to 70. I figured he was here just because he had the markers to get through the portal. “Always glad to see another member of the family.” He chuckled.

    I winced. I had been hearing variations of that joke for days now and it was quickly getting old. Not to some people, apparently.

    “Sonja Palmer,” said the woman. She cocked her head and looked at me. “You’re the meteorologist, right?”

    I sighed and shook my head. “Climatologist.” I corrected her. “Meteorologists are those guys doing the weather on TV.”

    She shrugged. “Well, at least you’re trained in something. Beats most of the people we get.” She looked past me. “Peri! How are you doing? It’s been a while.”

    I turned to look behind me. The other quad had landed and its passenger had joined us. I had seen her earlier when we were dragging dozens of plastic bins through the portal and stacking them for someone else to load onto the quads. I had tried to talk to her then but beyond a grunt hadn’t gotten a response. She was a short, stocky woman with her hair shaved on one side and long on the other. Tattoos covered one side of her neck and both arms, and she glared at me as she came up.

    “Hey Jackson.” she said in greeting. She tossed her head in my direction. “Looks like I’m stuck with golden-boy here.”

    I gave her a surprised look as Helena stepped forward. “Hey, Peri. Calm down.” She smiled. “We’re all family here, right?”

    Peri shrugged. “Yeah. Right.” She readjusted a pack on her back. “I’m in the usual guest room?” Without waiting for a response she turned and started trudging towards the castle entrance.

    Helena turned towards me with a pained smile. “Sorry. Peri’s… nice when you get to know her. She just… spent a while before getting to come out here.”

    Gerrold frowned and shook his head. “She should still be humping supplies back at Alpha.

    Helena winced. “Oh come on. Peri’s one of us.”

    “From her DNA? Yes.” he said. “Otherwise? No.” He turned back towards the castle, then looked back. “Welcome, Perry. We’ll go over everything in a couple of hours. In the meantime, take a rest. I know they work everyone when they first come through.” He nodded again and headed back to the entrance.

    I watched as he caught up with Peri and the two of them went through the entrance. “OK.” I said, finally. “What did I step in?”

    Helena and Sonja looked at each other then Helena turned to me. “Peri… Well… She’s been a part of the project for a long time and hasn’t had an opportunity to get out very far. She… takes a while to warm up to people. You’ll see.” She extended her hand again. “Good to meet you. I’ll see you at the briefing in the morning. We don’t want to wear you out right away, and I know you’re tired. I know what they expect from you when you first come through.” She laughed. “Why do you think I’ve stayed way out here this long? Anyway, good to meet you! I’ll see you in the morning.” She waved then turned back towards the entrance, hurrying to catch up with Gerrold and Peri. I stood there awkwardly, looking after her, then back at Sonja.

    She was looking after them as well, then turned to see me watching her. “Yeah…” she said, sighing. “Peri’s a special snowflake.”

    I raised my hands. “OK, what’s going on?

    She looked at me. “How new are you?”

    I cocked my head. “What do you mean?”

    “When did you first come through?”

    “This morning?” I said. Then, after a moment, “About three weeks.” I shook my head. “I still haven’t gotten my head around this.”

    She nodded, slowly. “Worked you quite a bit this morning?”

    I smiled and nodded, stretching my back with an exaggerated groan. “Yeah, spent half the day carrying crates through the local portal. Beta, is it? And the past couple of days dragging stuff through Alpha.” I shook my head. “I know there’s no other way, but… yeah, it was tiring.”

    She nodded. “You spent a few days. Peri spent six months doing nothing but hauling supplies through the Alpha portal. Then from there through the Betas to the various Gammas for another few months. You had a skill we needed, so you jumped to the top of the explorer queue. She hauled for almost a year before the powers that be let her go further out and she… kinda resents that.”

    I shook my head. “What’s so important about me?”

    She shrugged. “We needed a climatologist on Delta 4 and you showed up just in time. Don’t worry, she’ll get over it.” She looked around. “Want the grand tour?”

    I smiled and adjusted my pack. “Sure. Let’s go.”

    Sonja started walking towards the central keep of the castle. “So,” she asked. “What do you want to see first?”

    “You have a shower here?”

    She laughed. “Yeah, but that would probably end the tour. You won’t want to go back out in this dust once you’ve gotten clean.”

    I nodded. “Yeah, I can see that.” I slapped my jacket, sending plumes of greyish dust flying everywhere. “What’s the deal with this stuff anyway?”

    She shook her head. “We don’t know. We still don’t know. That’s one of the things my team is here to research. Something destroyed everything organic on this Earth. Broke everything down to this dust. There is literally nothing left.”

    I gestured around me. “This castle is here.”

    She nodded. “Yeah, steel, glass and stone buildings are still around. Though a lot of them are damaged; there was apparently a war of some kind near the end. But there are no records. Everything was apparently on paper; we’ve seen printing presses anyway. Or what’s left of them. They never got around to computers. Whatever happened seems to have been sometime in their 1920s. We keep hoping we’ll find where they transcribed something, anything, to metal or stone or something, but we haven’t found it yet.”

    “Did they have things like that?”

    She laughed. “Of course! They have road signs, neon lights in front of buildings, things engraved in glass… all kinds of data. They wrote English. Here anyway. But they never bothered to write down what was happening to them on something that survived.”

    I shook my head again. “Yeah, they mentioned that in what little training they ran me through. Everywhere is like that, isn’t it? Every place we’ve found is dead?”

    She nodded. “Yeah. Plague. War. Environmental collapse. Or an Ice Age; that’s the one they want you to look at. Something bad has happened everywhere.”

    “Ice age?” I asked. “No one mentioned that to me. Where is that one?”

    She looked a bit embarrassed. “Oops. Didn’t think about the fact that you may not have been briefed yet. That’s Delta 4. The portal here.”

    “An Ice Age?” I asked.

    She nodded. “Want to see it?”

    I grinned. “Sure!”

    She led me around the side of the main building. Behind it was an even larger courtyard, but this one was full of flimsy metal buildings of obvious recent construction and the center was taken up by a less-recent walled-in area. A heavy iron door stood open in one side and, looking through it, I could see that there was a mesh of metal overhead.

    “They were worried about something.” I said.

    She nodded. “Yeah, we figured that too.”

    A heavyset, pale-skinned man in fatigues sat in a folding chair beside the gate. He was engrossed in something on his pad but as we approached he snapped it shut and stood up. “Hey Sonja. What’s up?”

    “Hi Brad.” She gestured towards me. “This is Perry, he’s our new scientist. I’m showing him the portal.”

    “Cool!” he said, turning to me and holding out his hand. “Lt. Bradley Stanford. Good to meet you. You know, I was going to be a scientist.”

    “What kind? And why didn’t you?”

    He laughed. “I don’t know. You know. SCIENCE!” He shouted the word. “Then I fell through the Vancouver portal, got drafted and wound up here. Same thing happened to you, huh?”

    I nodded. The dust mask covered most of his face but he seemed to be barely 18. Maybe younger; I wasn’t sure how young they would take someone who had the right markers for the portals. “Yeah, my fiancee thought it would be fun to try the portal jump.” I sighed. “Wonder if she still thinks it was a good idea now?”

    “She didn’t go through?”

    I shook my head. “Nope. Just me.”

    He looked at me. “And you just left her?”

    “No!” I said, a bit louder than I intended. I paused before speaking again. “She kinda thinks it’s her fault. My being here. She’s back home in Atlanta. She knows I’ll see her in a couple of days.”

    He nodded. “Yeah, yeah. I understand.” He turned back to Sonja. “Are you going through?”

    She shrugged. “Anyone over there?”

    “Shayna and her team went through a couple of hours ago. Took a bunch of supplies and an pair of ATVs with them. Think they’re setting up the remote base.”

    “Yeah, they’re getting set up for the science team.” She gestured towards me. “We aren’t really dressed but I figured I would show Perry here where he’ll be working.”

    He waved towards the entrance. “See you in a few then.”

    He re-opened his pad as Sonja led me into the enclosed area. It was a bit claustrophobic, with the surrounding walls and the Portal ahead, sitting at the usual 30 degree angle on its pedestal.

    “Ready to go through?” she asked. “I’ll warn you, it’s pretty cold over there.”

    I zipped up my jacket. “We going to be long?”

    She shrugged. “That’s up to you.”

    I shrugged in return. “Then let’s see what’s there.”

    She nodded and walked onto the pedestal. Without a pause she stepped through and vanished. I walked onto the pedestal, took a deep breath, and stepped after her.

    The first thing I noticed was the cold. It wasn’t intolerably so; around ten below I guessed. If I had my skiing gear on I wouldn’t have noticed. But with the light jacket I had on it was distinctly uncomfortable. Sonja stood a few meters ahead, arms wrapped around herself.

    “What do you think?” she asked.

    “Cold.” I said. I looked around. We were in a small park with the portal in the center. They had apparently put it on display without realizing what it was, much like the Squamish had back home. Outside of the small park was a densely packed city.

    Snow was everywhere. The area immediately around the portal was clear and everything nearby had been trampled down to slowly refreezing slush, but much further away the snow was quite deep and deep drifts several meters deep lay along the sides of the buildings.

    Clumps of skyscrapers surrounded us, widely varying in design and a mixture of glass, steel and concrete. Most of the glass was broken and a few of them had collapsed. One area appeared to have suffered a fire in the somewhat recent past. A few cars seemed to be parked along the roadway and from what I could see of them they looked as if they were from the 1950s.

    “Where are we?” I asked, looking around.

    “Dallas, Texas.” she said. “And that’s not just the geographical location; that’s what they called it here too.”

    I shook my head. “And it’s this cold? What time of year is it here?”

    She laughed. “Someone didn’t pay attention in class. Time is consistent through all the portals. It’s June here, just like back home.”

    “June…” I said. “With a meter or more of snow on the ground. In Dallas.” I shook my head again. “What caused this?”

    She looked at me with a smile. “That’s what you’re here to find out. Ready to go back.”

    I nodded. “Yeah. Now I don’t just need a shower, I need a warm one.”

  • Wrong Exit – Part 3

    I’ve suddenly got more progress in this, and it happened a lot faster than I expected. And I think I know what Caleb found.

    I was back at work this morning. A couple of people asked if I was feeling OK and I blamed my absence yesterday on some bad south Georgia bar-b-que. I picked up my deliveries and set out. Things got weird on my very first stop.

    I had expected to be making my first delivery; a stack of schedule two stuff to a couple of independent pharmacies up near Chattanooga. I should have noticed something as soon as I got of the Interstate, the landscape had suddenly gotten a lot flatter, but it wasn’t until a few minutes later until I hit buildings that I realized where I was. There was a BP station to my right, a couple of other gas stations and fast food places, and a strip mall with a large sign advertising “Boot Scooters”.

    I was back where I had been two days before.

    I drove up to Boot Scooters and got out. As usual there were no other cars or people around. I got out and went inside.

    The interior was the same as before. TVs displaying static, empty tables and the smell of something grilling in the back. I got curious and stuck my head into the kitchen. There was food cooking on the stove tops and the grills but no one around. I wondered why none of it had burned. I stood watching for a while, but nothing seemed to happen. There were burgers sitting on the grill, but they didn’t seem to be getting any more cooked. That bothered me. Was time not passing here or something?

    I eventually wandered back to the front of the restaurant. There was still no one here. I found myself standing by the hostess stand again, wondering what to do next.

    Then I remembered my attempt to call the day before. I pulled out my cell phone and tried to dial, only to see “no signal”. I sighed and put it away. Then I looked at the phone on the stand. With a shrug, I picked it up and dialed the number from the front of the take-out menu sitting there.

    The phone rang a couple of times then a voice answered. “Boot Scooters!”

    I was startled into silence for a few second. “Hello?” the voice on the other end. It was a woman, and I could hear music and multiple conversations in the background.

    “Oh!” I said. “Um… Are y’all open?”

    “Sure thing!” she said. “Every day at 10!”

    “Um… ” I stuttered, trying to think of something to say. “Um… are you still serving breakfast?”

    “All day!” she told me. “Come on in!”

    “OK.” I said. “I’m just up the highway. I’ll be there in a bit.”

    “See you soon!” she said. There was a click.

    I looked around. The restaurant was still empty but I recognized the music playing as that I had heard on the phone. So I *had* called this restaurant. But.. where was everyone.

    Still thinking, I went back to my car. Getting in, I was fastening my seat belt when I glanced at the center console. The menu I had picked up the other day was still there.

    I stopped. Was that it? Did having something from one of these alternate exits help you get back to them? Was that what Caleb meant when he said he knew how to get back?

    At least this was something I could test. I started the car and drove back to the Interstate. I was back in the north Georgia mountains. Nodding, I kept driving north until I came to the next exit.

    This one was empty. A mile or so down the road there was a BP station with no cars and a restaurant called Boot Scooters with an empty parking lot.

    I got out again, this time carrying the takeout menu I had with me. As expected there was no one inside. I looked at the menu in my hand. Should I leave it? It seemed to guarantee that I could get back here, but was that something I really wanted?

    After a few moments of hesitation I put the menu back on the hostess station. Turning, I walked back outside and stopped.

    There was a woman there looking at me. Not moving or saying anything, just looking at me.

    I was startled to see anyone and took a few moments to gather myself. “Um… Hello?” I said, finally.

    “You’re not one of us, are you?” she said, expressionless.

    I was still startled at seeing anyone. “What?” I got out finally.

    She didn’t move. “You’re not a Traveller.” She paused and her brow crinkled slightly, the first sign of an expression. “How did you get here?”

    “I had a menu.” I said, pointing at the restaurant behind me. “From there. It… brought me here somehow?”

    There was an almost imperceptible nod. “Yes. We belong to the places we’ve been. And we only see others that belong to those places.” She paused, her head tilting slightly. “You’ve been here before?”

    I was starting to feel uncomfortable, but nodded. “Yeah, I’ve been here a couple of times.”

    Her eyes widened slightly. “But… you can leave?”

    I hesitated. “Um… yeah. I was about to leave when I saw you.” I winced, feeling that I had said something I shouldn’t.

    She showed the first actual expression I had seen. “Can you…” her breathing quickened. “Can you take me with me?” Her inflection barely changed, but the desperation came through clearly.

    “How long…” I paused. “How long have you been here?”

    “I don’t know!” Her lack of emotion was starting to break down. Tears appeared in her eyes. “I’ve… I’ve stopped counting. Sometimes I see other Travellers, but they never stay. Not long. And the Transients can’t see me. I try talking to them, but they can’t see or hear me!”

    Her emotionless facade suddenly crumbled and she burst into tears. “It’s been so long since I’ve talked to anyone! So long since I’ve seen someone! Please… take me with you! I need to go home!” She paused, trying to compose herself. “I need to go home!” she said again, quietly.

    I hesitated. Company policy explicitly prohibited us from picking up riders, but I wasn’t sure the company even existed where I was. And I could feel the desperation she was feeling.

    “OK…” I said finally. “Sure.”

    “Thank you!” she said, lack of expression starting to return to her voice. “Thank you.” She turned and walked to my lone car in the parking lot, standing by the passenger door.

    I walked over, opened the car and got in. After a long pause in which she looked around, she got into the passenger seat.

    I started the car and the alert started pinging. “You need to fasten your seat belt.” I said, pointing.

    “What?” she asked.

    I was taken aback. “Your seat belt.” I pointed. “How long have you been here?”

    She looked at where I was pointing in confusion. “What? I… I don’t know.” Her expression clamped down again. “Please, take me home.” She was staring straight ahead.

    With a sigh, I reached across her and grabbed the belt. She gasped slightly as I pulled it across her and fastened it. I looked and she was staring at me, eyes widened.

    “Sorry.” she said finally. .”I’m… not used to those.”

    I looked at her curiously. “You don’t know about seat belts?”

    She looked away. “Please,” she said finally. “Take me home.”

    I started the car and pulled out of the parking lot. She stared out the window as I headed back towards the Interstate. We drove in silence the mile or so back to the intersection and I took the northbound ramp back towards the highway.

    Once I had safely merged into traffic, I spoke again. “So, where do you…” I turned to face her and stopped.

    The passenger seat was empty, the seat belt pulled over and latched across nothing.

    I slammed on brakes, prompting the car behind me to sit on their horn for several seconds, then pulled off to the emergency strip. I stopped and looked around. The woman, whoever she was, was nowhere to be found. I could still see the exit behind me but saw nothing between here and there that would take me where she had gone.

    I sat there for several long minutes. Should I turn around and go back to the same exit again? Would it even take me back to where I had been? Eventually, with a sigh, I pulled back onto the road and continued my delivery route.

    Nothing else out of the ordinary happened and after finishing my deliveries I headed back to Atlanta and turned in my manifest. I thought about calling Sara, but I wasn’t sure what I would tell her. In the end I just drove home.

    I’ve been thinking about what I saw since then. Apparently the way to get back to these other… places?… is to have something from that place with you. That long-ago warning about eating something from those strange exits came back to me. What would have happened if I had eaten something from that restaurant. Would that be enough to bring me back?

    On the other hand, if I didn’t eat or drink anything, could I pick up something from these other places and leave them at home until I wanted to get back to where ever they had come from? It made sense. That had to be Caleb’s secret.

    I shook my head. Part of me wanted to have nothing to do with those strange exits anymore. Another part of me wanted to go further and explore more.

    Then I thought about the woman who I had met and who disappeared. How long had she been trapped in that other world? From the little she said it had been a while. And she seemed confused by the seat belt. On the other hand, she seemed to know other people who were visiting that world. “Travellers”, she called them.

    I sighed. I need to find someone who can help me with this. But who can I talk to? Sara at least doesn’t think I’m crazy, but she doesn’t know any more than I do. Where do I go from here?

  • Wrong Exit – Part 2

    I hadn’t thought much about that weird exit I took a few weeks ago, but I just found another one and maybe found out a bit more.

    I was down in south Georgia this time, heading east from Macon towards Savannah on 65. I was getting kind of tired and needing a break and was getting low on gas anyway, so I pulled off at the next exit I came to. Now, this part of the state is kinda sparse so when I didn’t see anything at first I didn’t think anything of it. I drove down the road for a while and came to a couple of gas stations, fast food places and a strip mall. I pulled into the BP station I came to and up to the pump.

    I stuck the nozzle in the tank, swiped my card, and waited, only to see “Card not read. Try again or see attendant.” I tried again and was told to see the attendant again. I sighed, turned towards the building, and stopped.

    There was no one in the parking lot but me. Looking around, I saw no one and no other cars anywhere. And I knew it was happening again.

    I knew I wouldn’t find anything but I went inside anyway. I was right. The attendant I was told to see wasn’t here, nor was there any other customers. The shelves were stocked and what looked like fresh pastries were in the display case but no one was around.

    I returned to my car and drove down to the strip mall. There was a sports bar at one end and I went inside.

    Again, there was no one there. The tables were empty and the hostess station was unmanned. There were televisions lining the walls, but all of them were showing static. I had come over here hoping they had something on one of their TVs, but wasn’t actually surprised.

    There was a takeout menu on the hostess stand and I picked it up, idly looking at it. Burgers and bar food; pretty much standard sports bar fare.

    I looked up and around again and happened to glance through the window in the door. Someone was walking down the street in front of the restaurant.

    I burst out through the door. “Hey!” I yelled. “Hey!”

    I stopped. The person I had seen outside was gone. I looked around in confusion then shrugged. I don’t know why I expected something different. I went back to my car.

    When I got there I realized that I was still carrying the menu I had picked up from the hostess stand. I tossed it into the console then drove back to the interstate. The next exit waudl s “normal”, so I filled up, grabbed a coffee and continued on my way.

    I got back to the office late that evening. I turned in my paperwork and was back in my car and about to go home when I saw the menu again. I picked it up and looked at it. “Boot Scooters” was the name of the place I had stopped. There was a phone number on the menu and, with sudden curiosity, I pulled out my phone and dialed it.

    After several rings someone answered. “Hello?” It was a woman’s voice.

    “Yeah,” I said. “Is this Boot Scooters?”

    “What?” said the woman.

    “Boot Scooters? The bar? I was there earlier today?”

    “Sorry.” she said. “You have the wrong number.” She hung up.

    I checked my phone. The number I had dialed was the one from the menu. I didn’t know what else I could do so I just drove home.

    The next morning I texted the office and told them I had eaten something that disagreed with me and couldn’t make it in that day. Then I drove to the north Atlanta office and waited for Sara to show up.

    When she did, I hopped out of my car and moved to intercept her. “Hi Sara.”

    She stopped, looking at me at first with confusion, then with wariness. “Oh! Hi Dale. What’s up? I didn’t know you were out of the northern office now.”

    I shook my head. “I’m not. I need to talk to you.”

    She took a step back. “About what?” She was obviously a bit worried.

    “That weird exit I took. I found another one. You seem to know something about them and I want to know what is going on.”

    She stared at me for a moment, thinking, then sighed. “OK. I’ll tell you what I know. Look, let me go pick up my deliveries. I’ll meet you at the Starbucks down at the corner on 400. OK?”

    I nodded. “Sure.” She headed on into the building. I drove off to get coffee.”

    She showed up about 20 minutes later. Even though it was a bit chilly I was sitting at a table outside. She came up and I handed her a coffee. “I don’t know how you like it. Cream and sugar OK?”

    She made a face. “Normally no sugar, but I’ll live.” She sat down and took a sip of her coffee, making another face as she did. “So, how much do you know?”

    I shrugged. “Not much.” I told her about the two instances, the first up near Dalton and the one yesterday past Macon. She listened, nodding occasionally.

    When I finished she stared into the distance for a bit. “I’ve never seen one of them myself.” she said finally, still looking into the distance. “At least I don’t think so. With the stuff I carry…” she nodded towards her car in the parking lot “…I’m really not supposed to make any non-essential stops until all my deliveries are done. Technically I shouldn’t be here.” She looked back to me and smiled briefly. “I suppose I may have passed one and not realized it. But I’ve heard about them.”

    “How?”

    She looked away again and hesitated a bit before responding. “Did you ever know Caleb?”

    “Caleb?” I thought. “Yeah, he was one of our drivers, wasn’t he? Haven’t seen him in about six months. Transferred out, I thought. He saw them?”

    She nodded slowly. “Yeah. He told me about them. And it’s been seven months. And he didn’t transfer.”

    I felt the tension in the air. “What happened?”

    She shrugged and paused again, still not looking at me. “He just didn’t show up one day. Didn’t come in to work. I tried calling him and he didn’t answer. The next day he still didn’t show up so I went by his apartment. It was normal. All of his stuff was there. It looked like he had just stepped out. His car was gone, and his keys and wallet and all weren’t there. It was like he just went out and never came back.”

    “Where could he have gone?” I asked, but a faint chill was starting down my spine.

    She shook her head. “I talked to dispatch and they said he actually never checked in the day before. That isn’t that odd; you know how sometimes you get in late and the office is closed so you just check in the next morning? They just assumed that was what happened. They did check his delivery list, later, and he did make his scheduled deliveries. He just never made it home.”

    “Did anyone ever figure out what happened?”

    “No. I know there was a search. I talked to the company and the police about it; they did ask a lot of questions. But in the end no one knew what happened. The company never said what happened to him and when most people assumed he had just gone somewhere else they did nothing to discourage that line of thought. Wouldn’t want to worry the other drivers, you know.”

    We sat in silence for a moment.

    “You were friends?” I asked. She nodded.

    “More than friends?” She hesitated, then nodded again.

    I hesitated. I didn’t want to push things but I had to know more. “So what do you know?” I asked, finally.

    She sighed and looked at me. “I knew Caleb for a while. He was the one who helped me get the job here in fact. Anyway, about a year or so ago he told me about taking an exit that shouldn’t be there. Basically the same thing you told me. He got fascinated with those exits. He started looking for them.”

    “What happened?”

    She shook her head. “I don’t know. He offered to take me to show me one once, but I turned him down. But he kept telling me everytime he found one. About how everything seemed normal but no one was there. Then one day he told me that he had started doing his ‘shopping’ there.”

    “Shopping?” I asked?

    “Yeah. Since no one was there he figured he could do whatever he wanted. Started loading up his car with food, beer, electronics, whatever he happend to find. Used it for himself or sold it on Craigslist or something. The only problem he ever had was that every battery he ever found was dead. Completely. Couldn’t even be recharged.” She laughed. “At one time he had like 20 iPads he couldn’t do anything with.”

    She paused. “He even…” She sighed. “Once day he even showed up with… an engagement ring that he tried to give me. I… couldn’t take it. I… I wanted to, but something just… felt wrong.”

    She looked down. “That was… that was right before he disappeared. Maybe, if I had taken it…”

    We sat there for several minutes. She stared down at the ground and I shifted uncomfortably; feeling as if I had intruded on something I shouldn’t have.

    Finally she spoke again. “He said he had figured out how to find those exits whenever he wanted to. He could go there at will. But the last night I saw him, the night before he disappeared, he said that it was getting harder for him to find the correct exits. That he was having to use the same trick to find the exit back home. And then he said that he thought he could find whatever exit he wanted.”

    “What does that mean?”

    She looked straight at me. “I think he meant that there was an exit where I said ‘Yes’. Even though there was never anyone at the exits. At least no one he told me about.”

    “I saw someone.” I said. “At least, I think I did.”

    She nodded. “I think he had been seeing people too. A few things he said. I think that may be why he disappeared.”

    “You think he went somewhere deliberately?”

    She nodded again, slowly. “I think he was looking for me.”

    There was an awkward silence, then we talked about mundanities for a while. Finally she said she needed to get on her route and left. I sat there a bit longer even though my coffee was long gone, then left as well.

    I got back home a while ago and have just finshed writing this up. So… what should I do? There is apparently a way to find these exits. Should I try to find it, or should I leave this alone. What should I do here?

  • One Thing Left to Do

    The pounding on the hatch had stopped. I hoped that the rest of the crew had given up, or that whatever was happening to them had completed and they were no longer interested in getting in. Then a bright spot appeared above the door. Apparently there was another cutter on board somewhere and they were now cutting through the door I had welded shut.

    “What are we going to do!”, Anna shouted again. She had been repeating the same question over and over for the past hour. I was getting tired of hearing it. I turned away from the door to look at her.

    The infection, or whatever it was, was spreading. Her left arm where she had been bitten was now unrecognizable as a human’s. Longer, thinner and with green scales covering it. Claws on her fingertips. I noticed the the greenish coloration of her face, the first scales starting to appear on her neck. Her eyes had turned yellow and a bulge had appeared at the base of her spine. I didn’t know how long she would last.

    I looked down at my own hand. It too was scaly, the tips of my fingers protruding claws. And I could now hear it in the back of my mind. Whispering. “Relax, it was saying. “Let it happen. Everything will be fine. No more pain. No more confusion. No more worry. Just relax. I shook it off.

    “We need to blow the drive.” I said.

    “What!” she turned to me, her yellow eyes opening wider than they should have been able to. “Blow the drive?”

    I nodded. “They’ll get in here eventually. Restart the engines. Go… somewhere. Spread whatever this is. We have to end it. Now. Before we… can’t anymore. Or don’t want to anymore.”

    She stared at me for a long time. “I don’t think I can.”

    I stared back. “It will take both of us to turn off the overrides. Will you do it?”

    There was another long pause, but finallly she nodded. “OK.” She was obviously upset, tears running down her face. “I just… never thought it would be like this…”

    I nodded again. “Neither did I. Can you handle the main console?”

    Instead of answering she unfastened her harness and kicked off towards the fusion drive. She stopped in front of the emergecy console and looked at me.

    I turned back to my own console. “Interlocks cleared Proceed with override.”

    She turned to the console then stopped. She turned towards me. “Do we really want to do this? I mean… is it really going to hurt us? It says we will be happy… that it will take care of us. Should we really turn that down?” She turned to face me and her eyes widened.

    I had picked up one of the grapnel guns. Normally we would use these to attach ourselves to an asteroid while we were mining it, but the piton it fired was clearly dangerous. I fired, and the spike plunged through her chest. She stared at me in horror before her eyes faded. The body drifted backwards, away from the main fusion reactor.

    I unfastened my harness and kicked free. I kicked again, this time towards the main drive. I reached the console, pushing Anna’s body aside.

    Don’t!” the voice whispered. “You can be free! You can be safe!

    “Safe for who?” I asked myself.

    I looked at the controls and reached for the safety lock. Then I stopped. “Why am I doing this?” I thought. “Everything is fine.

    I shook my head to clear it but again my hand moved away from the override of it’s own volition. Yelling, I lunged at the controls. The alerts in the room went off as the thorium cores that triggered the fusion reaction were ejected into space.

    “Fix that!” I thought. My thoughts were getting more jumbled by the minute. At least we weren’t going anywhere.

    I looked back at the door. Whoever was cutting through had almost finished. I knew I didn’t have much time, and I knew I didn’t want to end this way. But the core couldn’t be restarted and there was only one thing left to do…

    “Fuck you!” I said to no one. I reloaded the grapnel gun, raised it to the base of my jaw, and pulled the trigger.

  • Wrong Exit – Part 1

    I had something weird happen the other week and it has been bothering me. I talked to a few friends and colleagues and one of them mentioned that the people here were good at analyzing things like this and suggested I post here. So, here I am.

    I’m a driver for a courier company; basically door-to-door delivery for small packages and the like that people don’t want to trust to the big shipping companies. In my case I mostly work with a medical supply outfit. I carry things like perscription drugs and supplies to small, independant pharmacies and doctors across Georgia. No schedule 1 stuff, but still things that need to get to where they’re going and that our suppliers really don’t want going through the regular mail. So I’m spending a lot of time heading out to smaller towns.

    A couple of weeks ago I was heading up I-75 towards Dalton when I was feeling a bit tired and distracted and decided I needed a coffee stop. (And a restroom stop for that matter.) I knew there was a Quik-Trip just past the Dalton exit, so when it came up I pulled off.

    In retrospect I should have known something was wrong immediately but I overlooked it at the time. When I got to the top of the exit ramp there was a road heading off to the left and right but no sign of the Quik-Trip I was expecting. Nothing else either, just a road through north Georgia pine forests. I decided I was just mis-remembering the stop. After all, I drive around a lot and a lot of exits look like lots of other exits. So I turned right and headed down the road a ways.

    About a mile down I saw what I was expecting. A cluster of buildings common all along the interstate. The Quik-Trip and another few gas stations, a couple of fast food places, a car dealership and a lonely strip mall. I pulled into the parking lot of the Quik-Trip and got out.

    The first thing I noticed was that I was the only car in the parking lot. That happens sometimes but rarely enough that I noticed. I shrugged and went inside.

    I walked in and headed for where I knew the restrooms would be. (I had had a lot of coffee already that day, OK?) That taken care of, I returned to the main part of the store and headed for the coffee machines, then stopped.

    There was no one in the store. No customers, which might be expected, but there didn’t seem to be anyone working there either. Not at the main counter or at the food counter in the back.

    “Hello?” I called. When there was no response I continued. “Hello? Anyone here?” Still no response.

    Now this was getting really odd. I walked back to the kitchen counter and leaned over. “Hello?”

    There was no response. I supposed whoever was there was in the back or something, but it was odd to see both counters completely unmanned. Combined with the empty parking lot I was suddenly uncomfortable. Was the store closed? I looked around. The coffee and other machines were on. The lights were on. The stoves behind the kitchen counter seemed to be active. There was just no one here.

    “Anyone here?” I called again. Still no response.

    I debated getting a coffee and just leaving some cash on the counter but something didn’t feel right. I left and drove to the McDonalds next door.

    As soon as I parked I knew something was wrong. This parking lot was empty too.

    I got out of the car and looked around. There were no cars anywhere, beyond that one car dealership. The gas stations, strip mall and food places were all empty. I walked into the McDonalds long enough to confirm that there was no one inside. There were burgers and fries sitting under the heat lamps behind the counter but no workers anywhere. I went back to my car and headed back to the interstate.

    About a mile further north I came to another exit and took it and immediately saw the Quik-Trip I was expecting. The parking lot was fairly full and a number of cars were at the pumps as I got out and went inside. There I saw the customers and staff I was expecting so I got my coffee and went to the counter. As I was paying, I asked about the store at the exit south of them.

    “Dalton?” he asked. “I don’t think we have a store at the exit there.”

    “Not Dalton.” I said. “The exit between Dalton and here. What’s going on there?”

    The clerk shook his head. “There isn’t an exit between here and Dalton. What are you talking about?”

    I started to say something then shook my head. “Sorry, guess I needed the coffee more than I thought.” I paid and headed back to my car. I got in, stuck my coffee in the console and turned back to grab my seat belt when someone stepped up next to my car.

    “You said you saw another exit?” I looked. It was an older man, wearing a “Reliable Plumbing” uniform. “South of here?”

    I considered for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah, I thought it was this exit, but nothing was there. I drove down the road a bit and found a couple of places but no one was in any of them. It kinda freaked me out and I left.”

    He grabbed my arm. “You didn’t take anything, did you?”

    Annoyed, I pulled my arm away. “Hey!”

    He shook his head and leaned in towards me. “Did you take anything!” He seemed almost angry, but there was an edge of concern in his voice.

    “No.” I said, a bit taken aback. “I used the bathroom at the Quik-Trip there but didn’t take anything.”

    “Not even a paper towel? You didn’t drink or eat anything.”

    I shook my head. “I washed my hands. Was that OK? What is going on?”

    He held up a hand. “Nothing. Look… just some advice. You get off on an exit where you expect something only to find nothing? Just get back on the interstate and keep driving.”

    “What?” I was starting to get annoyed. “Not everything is right by the exit.”

    He stepped forward and leaned in. “If there’s nothing there, keep driving! And if you wind up somewhere with no one around? Leave immediately. And whatever you do, don’t take anything from there with you!”

    Now I was definitely annoyed and stepped back out of the car. “What? What the hell are you talking about?”

    He just looked at me. “Trust me on this. Avoid places like that.”

    “Why? What is going on? What are you talking about?”

    He started backing away towards the building. “I’m just giving you some advice. Ignore it if you want. Just stay away from places like that.” He turned and headed towards a pickup parked nearby. I thought about questioning him further, but thought better of it. I got back into my car and left.

    I spent the next few hours making deliveries then got back onto the interstate heading towards Atlanta. As I passed the exit before Dalton I thought about the weird conversation outside the Quik-Trip and looked for the next exit, wanting to go check out that mysteriously unpopulated stop again, but I didn’t see it. The next exit was Dalton. This actually bothered me more than anything else that had happened that day and I spent the next hour wondering what it was I had seen.

    Back at the office I turned in my delivery manifest, filled out the day’s forms and started back to my car. I ran into Sara in the parking lot. Sara had worked for the company a lot longer than I had. She did the nuclear deliveries; the nuclear material used for MRI machines and things like that. I didn’t have enough time with the company for that but it was one of the upper tiers for our couriers, along with the folks carrying the schedule one stuff. More responsiblity, but the pay was better too.

    “So, how did your day go?” she asked.

    I hesitated for a moment then told her about the weird exit and the guy in the parking lot.

    She stopped abruptly and turned white. “You took the exit?”

    “Yeah.” I told her. “Look. What the hell is going on here?”

    She shook her head and backed away from me. “Look. If you see those, don’t go there.”

    “Why?” I asked. “Look, I’ve been getting the runaround all day. What is this all about?”

    She was visibly shaken and turned towards her own car. “Look, if you see something like that again, just… stay away. Seriously. Stay away.” She hurriedly got into her own car and sped out of the parking lot. I looked after her for a moment then got into my own car and left.

    Since then I haven’t seen or taken any more unexpected exits but no one I have talked to claims to know anything about what happend. Then someone suggested that I post this here in hopes that someone else has some idea as to what is going on. So… has anyone here encountered something like this? What is going on? And why does everyone who seems to know anything about it seem to want to avoid me? I’ve tried to talk to Sara a couple of other times but she is going out of her way to avoid me, even starting to do her pickups from another office.

    What is this all about?

  • Loophole

    I had just come in from the garage carrying the grocery bag when I saw him.

    “Sorry Doctor.” he said, pointing what looked like a gun made out of glass at me. “I can’t let this happen.” He squeezed the grip.

    Nothing happened.

    I sighed and stepped around him into the kitchen, putting the bag on the counter. He looked at the gun then pointed and squeezed it at me again. More nothing happened. He yelled in frustration and threw the gun at me. He missed and the gun bounced off the side of the refrigerator.

    “Watch it!” I said, getting annoyed. “You could break something.”

    He yelled again and charged at me but tripped over the leg of a chair. He hit the ground hard and lay there unmoving. I sighed again and started putting the groceries away.

    Some minutes later I had finished and was looking in the back of the refrigerator to see if I had any beer left when I heard him groan. I looked over to see him push himself up into a sitting position. He looked around and saw me then staggered to his feet.

    “How?” he asked finally. “What did you do?”

    “Nothing.” I said, popping the tab on the beer. “No need to. I figured that out a while back.”

    He paused. “What do you mean?”

    I leaned back against the counter. “Who do you think I am?” I asked him.

    That seemed to startle him. “You’re Henry Armstrong, right? The physicist?”

    I shook my head. “People keep telling me that, but physics isn’t my thing.” I took a drink. “Neither is time travel.” I added.

    He took a couple of steps towards me. “So you are him!”

    I shrugged. “So you people keep telling me. But I’m not a physicist. I’m the assistant manager at the Food World.”

    He paused again. “You people? What are you talking about?”

    I took another drink. “You think you’re the first person to have this idea? A lot of people seem to think I invented time travel. Or will invent it. Or something. And apparently I will at some point because it apparently makes a lot of people angry enough to use time travel to come back to try to kill me before I invent it. A couple of you show up every week these days.”

    His eyes narrowed, looking first at me then at the gun sitting on the counter. “Oh, so someone brought you a nullifier? That’s what it is.”

    He moved to start towards me but I held up a hand. “Nothing that complicated. It’s actually quite simple when you hear the explanation. And believe me, I’ve heard it dozens of times. Now then, why are you trying to kill me?”

    He was getting angry again. “You invented time travel! Do you…”

    I cut him off. “OK, let’s say I will. Now, how did you get here to try to kill me?”

    “I time travelled back from…”

    I cut him off again. I had had this conversation many times. “OK, now put it together. I invent time travel. You use time travel to kill me before I invent it. So time travel doesn’t exist. So you can’t come back to kill me. So I invent time travel. You can’t kill me because the means you use to kill me require that you not kill me. Get it?”

    He shook his head. “Some people have made changes.”

    I shrugged. “Not many, and never for anything important. Or so I’ve been told. People like you have been showing up my entire life. All of you keep trying to kill me and none of you succeed. Nothing ever works. It’s kinda annoying, really.”

    He looked from me to the gun again. “So… you can’t be killed?”

    “Apparently.” I said.

    He thought a bit. “Wait…” he said finally. “You said you were just a grocery store manager?”

    “Assistant manager.” I corrected him. “Why not? Apparently I’m going to invent time travel some day whether I want to or not, so I haven’t been particularly motivated.”

    “But you’ve been studying? Working on it?”

    “Nope. Again, why bother? Apparently I can’t not invent it. It will happen at the proper time.”

    He shook his head. “So… you aren’t in control of your own life then?”

    I finished the beer and nodded. “Yeah. That’s the downside. Just like you can’t kill me, I apparently can’t do anything differently either. So why try? I…”

    We were interrupted by a popping sound and a brief flash. Another person appeared in the room, wearing a jumpsuit and holding a ball-like object in his hand.

    Another sigh. “Hi.” I said. “Welcome to…” There was a bright flare from the ball.

    Henry Armstrong’s head exploded outwards, splattering the kitchen with gore. The beer can fell to the floor as the body wobbled, then fell itself. Taylor Harris, the first time traveller, looked at it in surprise then turned to the newcomer.

    “You know, he had just convinced me that he couldn’t be killed.” he said. “Guess I was wrong.”

    “He couldn’t.” said the newcomer, checking something on the ball. “Not by you anyway.”

    Taylor looked at him. “What do you mean?”

    The newcomer shrugged. “The universe will prevent a paradox at all cost. We figured that out as soon as time travel was proven to exist. But there are exceptions.”

    Taylor nodded. “Yeah, some people have changed things. But nothing important.”

    The newcomer smiled. “Actually, it’s easy to change things. As long as the result is the same you can change the details all you like. That’s the loophole. In order for there to be a paradox someone has to realize there is one.”

    “OK, yeah, but…” Taylor pointed at Armstrong’s body. “How did you kill the creator of time travel then? Wait… If you killed the creator of time travel, how are we still here?”

    “Him?” The newcomer gestured at Armstrong. “That guy never did anything. He thought he was destined for something and just coasted along, expecting it to happen without any effort. He doesn’t invent time travel.”

    “Then who does?”

    “I do.”

    Taylor hesitated for a moment then his eyes widened in realization and he grabbed for the gun still on the counter. The ball flared.

    The newcomer knelt over Taylor’s body and placed the gun in its hand. He then searched briefly before finding the recall unit on his arm. He pushed the button and stepped back, watching until the body vanished a few seconds later with a pop and a flash of light. He then removed his own recall unit from his own wrist and wrapped it around the arm of Armstrong’s body. Another pop and flash and the newcomer was alone in the kitchen.

    He sighed and looked around. He would have to clean up the mess, but that could wait. He opened the refrigerator and found another beer then found and dialed the phone. He waited.

    “Hello, University? Yes, this is Henry Armstrong. I’ve decided I need to go back and get my degree and am wanting to know your enrollment procedures.” He paused, listening.

    “Well, I’ve always been interested in physics…”

  • The PaleoGamer Plays: The Longest Journey – Part 12

    April returns to Marcuria to clean up some loose ends; demonstrating to Captain Nebevay that she has restored the wind, finding navigator Tun Liac for the ship and getting herself fired from working for the map merchant. Then she has a conversation with Vestrum Tobias where he tells her she may be the next Guardian. Oh, and by the way, an army is about to invade. Good thing we’re leaving for Ailias. Too bad April is seasick. The latest episode of The Longest Journey.