• NaNoWriMo 2016 – Wrong Exit – Week 4

    “OK,” I said as I approached the intersection. “Where are we going?”

    “Anywhere,” said Scott from behind me. “Just head north.”

    I shrugged. “OK,” I said as I pulled into the right lane and onto the on-ramp. “What is it you want me to do?”

    There was a long pause. Finally, Diane spoke.

    “I want you to get me pregnant!”

    I whipped my head around to look at her, causing the Jeep to swerve into the adjacent lane and provoking a blare of horns. I immediately swung back and swerved back into my lane.

    “What?” I asked when I was back in control.

    Diane had looked away. “We… we’ve been trying to get pregnant,” said Scott. “Well.. I’ve been trying to get her pregnant. She and Donna had agreed at some point that when one of them got pregnant the others would as well. Well… Donna is pregnant and we’ve been trying but… it isn’t happening.”

    I felt uncomfortable. “So what is it you expect me to be able to do?”

    “I want to be first!” said Diane suddenly. “You say you changed your car and everyone thinks you’ve always had it. You can change it so I was pregnant before she was!”

    I grimaced. “Wait, when did I wind up back in the 1950’s? Is this really what you want?”

    I heard a sigh. “Please Dale, don’t be judgmental. We had all talked about this before we graduated even.”

    “We?” I asked. “Was Lisa in on this?”

    There was an awkward silence. “Who’s Lisa?” asked Sara, finally.

    “A friend of mine.” I said.

    “More than a friend?” I heard the echo in her voice.

    I sighed. “Yeah, she was. But not any more.”

    “That had nothing to do with this!” Diane said angrily. “And that was your fault anyway! You’re the one who decided you didn’t want anything to do with anyone!”

    I gritted my teeth. “Let’s not go back into this now, OK?”

    “Fine!” said Diane, angrily. She paused. “You’re going to have to deal with this at some point you know.”

    “I know!” I said, almost shouting. I turned to look at her. Sara was pointedly staring out the window, probably wondering what she had stepped into. I took a deep breath and looked back at the road. “OK. What is it you think I can do?”

    “You changed what car you were driving,” said Scott, apparently eager to change the subject. “And everyone remembers it the way you say you changed it to. So, what else can you change?”

    I honestly didn’t know how to answer that question. I wasn’t even sure what I had done. “I don’t know,” I said finally.

    Scott sighed. “All this started almost a year ago. Can you… change things so that Diane is pregnant. About seven months. That puts her ahead of Donna. Do that, and we’ll believe you.”

    I gave a short laugh. “If you remember it! You don’t remember my old car!” I paused. “Hell, I barely remember I owned the thing.”

    Scott sighed. “Can you try?”

    I sighed in return. “OK, I’ll see what I can do.” For a long time we drove in darkness, no one saying anything. I started thinking about Diane and about when I saw Donna, six months pregnant. It made me a bit uncomfortable; I had dated Donna for a while after all, but I kept picturing Diane looking the same way. It was the only thing I could think to do.

    We were heading north towards Chattanooga. After a bit Diane suddenly spoke up. “I should have taken a bathroom break before we left the Vortex, can we stop at the next exit?”

    “Sure!” I said. Almost as if it had appeared upon request, an exit sign suddenly loomed in my headlights. I took it and found myself in a Georgia pine forest, the empty road extending to the left and right. And I knew where I was.

    “I know just the place to stop,” I said with a smile. I turned to the left and headed down the road.

    A mile later I saw what I knew had to be there. A couple of fast food places, a BP station, and just down the road a strip mall with a crowded parking lot in front of a sign that said “Boot Scooters”.

    I pulled into the parking lot and got out. The others got out as well. Scott was looking at the sign.

    “Isn’t… isn’t this near Macon?”

    “Yup.” I said, feeling strangely pleased with myself. “We’re down there now.”

    “Ugh,” said Diane, struggling to get out of her side of the Jeep. “Scott, can you help me?” She staggered out, one hand under her protruding belly.

    “I’m OK,” she said, staggering a bit before gaining her balance. “I’m….” There was a long pause. Her eyes widened. “Oh my God! I’m… I’m pregnant!”

    “Congratulations!” I said, trying to repress a smile.

    “I’m… Oh my God!” She kept repeating herself.

    Sara turned to me, her eyes wide in shock. “Did you… Did you do that!”

    “Yes… I think,” I said uncertainly. “Somehow?”

    Scott was staring at me. “You can do this? Did this?”

    “Yeah, I guess.” I looked at him. “If you didn’t believe me, why are you here? What would you have done?”

    He looked away uncomfortably then looked at Diane. She shook her head.

    “You deal with it. I wasn’t kidding when I said I needed a bathroom break. I’ll see you inside.” She headed towards the entrance, staggering occasionally from her unfamiliar balance.

    Sara looked from me to Scott. “I’ll go with her, make sure she’s OK.” She nodded and followed after Diane.

    Scott watched until they were both inside then turned back to me. He was trying to keep his expression neutral but I could see he was embarassed about something.

    “What is it?” I asked.

    He sighed and looked down. “We… me and Diane and Jeff and Donna.” He paused. “And Lisa.” He sighed. “We were worried about you. You disappear then show up with this fantastical story. What were we supposed to think. You half lost it when you and Lisa broke up, then this? We thought…” He trailed off.

    I was becoming angry. “You thought I was crazy or something? You were just humoring me?”

    He kept looking at the ground but nodded slowly. “Yeah. We… we were talking about an intervention. Jeff and Donna are at our place. And Lisa.” He looked up at me. “But this…” He waved towards the restaurant. “Us being here… Diane…” He shook his head again. “It’s weird, I know we’ve been expecting for months, but I also know that we weren’t until tonight.”

    He looked at me for a long moment. “I’m glad it happened. I’m glad to know you weren’t crazy or lying or something. And…” he paused briefly. “And to be honest I’m kind of scared. What *can* you do?”

    I was trying to hold it together but inwardly I was seething. “Have I *ever* lied to any of you!” I shouted. “Even Lisa? And she’s the last person who gets to accuse me of lying!”

    Scott winced but looked back at me. “Have you ever even stopped to think about what you sounded like!” His voice was rising too. “You show up, start telling stories about places with no one in them then start saying you’re meeting people from other realities!” Now he was shouting too. “What did you expect us to think?””

    “I just gave you a son!” I shouted back. “What more do you want from me?”

    “A son?” He seemed taken aback. “It’s a boy?”

    “Yeah,” I said. “That’s what I was thinking of so I’m sure that’s what it is.” I paused. “So, do you believe me now?”

    He shook his head. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I’m sorry.”

    “I’m sorry too,” came a voice behind me. “But can we take this somewhere besides a public parking lot?” I turned to see Trenton standing there.

    “Oh,” I said, somehow not surprised. I half turned back. “Scott, this is Trenton. I’ve told you about him. Trenton? Scott. I’ve mentioned him to you too.”

    Trenton shook his head, still glaring at me. “Yeah, hi.” He waved at Scott. “Let’s go inside. And I don’t know anyone here, so be careful what you say.”

    I started to object but Dale glared at me again. Scott shrugged and started walking towards the entrance. Trenton followed and I, after a pause, followed.

    We got into the restaurant, which looked exactly like I remembered except for the fact that there were people in it now, and got a large booth. We had just sat down when Diane and Sara emerged from the restrooms and Scott waved them over.

    As they sat down Sara recognized him. “Trenton?”

    He nodded. “Hi Sara. Haven’t seen you in a while.”

    She glared at him. “Where’s Caleb?”

    He shrugged. “Haven’t seen him in a while.” He pointed at the far side of the booth. “Sit down.”

    As she was sitting he turned to me. “What the hell are you doing?”

    I looked at him in surprise, spreading my hands. “What?”

    He sighed. “I tell you to be careful. I tell you people are after you. And what do you do?” He waved at the rest of the table. “You invite all your friends along on a ride along the Road between realities. And get one of them pregnant. Nice job, idiot!”

    I felt myself becoming angry again. “What? I told my friends. What did you expect me to do?”

    “To keep your mouth shut?” He shook his head, then motioned towards Sara. “And I figured you had Lisa with her, not… her.” He shook his head then turned to her. “Where’s Caleb? With someone else. Guess you weren’t so much a ‘must be with’ as a ‘settle for’.”

    “What?” Sara almost shouted. I echoed her. “Hey, what the hell?”

    He looked at me. “What? You haven’t shifted to where she wants to sleep with you? I expected you would have figured it out by now.”

    “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Sara looked from him to me.

    He smirked. “I didn’t expect you to be here. I figured Dale here was getting kinda horny and since the woman he really wants to be with cheated on him I assumed he had moved himself to where you wanted to be with him.”

    Sara looked at me in shock. I shook my head.

    “No!” I shouted, causing a few adjacent tables to look at us. “I wanted someone to talk to. Someone who knew what was going on. I didn’t… I wasn’t looking for that!”

    He smiled and shrugged. “Yeah, right.”

    I was about to replay when a waiter showed up, probably attracted by the noise. We all ordered something to drink and Diane insisted she needed an appetizer. Order in, the waiter left and I turned back to Trenton, but Sara interrupted me.

    “You brought me here!” she said, anger clearly showing in her face. “Just so you could sleep with me?”

    “No!” I said, again louder than I intended. “I didn’t think of you that way. I was just thinking about you as I was heading back to town because you were the only other person I had talked to about this!”

    That seemed to hurt her more. “Oh? So there’s something wrong with me?”

    “No!” I shouted, then looked around. “No. It’s just that… you were with Caleb… I don’t know…” I trailed off, shaking my head.

    Trenton laughed then looked at Sara. “Nah, he wasn’t after you. Not yet anyway. If he was, you wouldn’t even question him.” He laughed. “Trust me. Ask Jessica.”

    I turned back to him. “OK, fine. Let’s drop these distractions then. What the hell are you doing here? I can’t believe you just randomly showed up.”

    He immediately turned serious, shaking his head. “No. I was following you.” He shrugged. “You’ve apparently obviously realized that you can do whatever you can imagine. So I wanted to see what you would do.” He shook his head. “You could have patched things up with your girlfriend. Instead, you get your best friend’s wife pregnant and drag your co-worker along. I can’t tell if you just haven’t figured this out yet or if you’re just an idiot.”

    By this point everyone was staring at me. I shifted uncomfortably then looked back at him. “OK then. I guess I’ve proved that I can change things.” I glanced at Diane. “So what am I missing?”

    He sighed. “I told you,” he said, talking slowly and enunciating carefully as if speaking to a child. “You and I and Caleb aren’t the only people who know how to do this sort of thing. If you do too much, it attracts the attention of others. And *they* aren’t always as willing to work with newcomers as I am.”

    “Yeah, you said,” I said looking at him in annoyance. “The Men in Black or something will come after me.”

    “You aren’t taking this seriously enough,” he replied. “But call them that if you like. There are people who work for governments, or corporations, or any kind of group with an agenda, that would love to have someone like you helping them make sure things work out the way they want. And they won’t just be after you. They’ll go after your friends.” He gestured around the table. “Or that ex-girlfriend of yours. What would you do if she was threatened?”

    “Wait…” Scott interrupted. “There are other people who can do this? A lot of people?”

    Trenton shrugged. “Yeah. A few thousand at least. Most of them don’t quite realize what they can do. Some of them get stuck in the Between like Dale here and Caleb discovered and never got back out. Some wander so far off that they leave our timestream completely and wind up in another. That’s what happened to your friend Nichole; she’s from somewhere a *long* ways off.”

    “I can do that too?” I asked in surprise. “Change something that big.”

    He sighed, leaned back and stared at the ceiling for a long moment, then looked back at me for a long moment.

    “OK,” he said with a sigh. “OK. I give you everything. I tell you the whole deal. And you promise to keep your mouth shut and keep your changes low-key? I don’t want you attracting too much attention because that leads them to you and to us at the Vortex. OK?”

    “Us?” I said.

    He nodded. “Yeah.” He looked around the table then to Scott and Diane. “And if you two want to keep your friend safe, you will keep this quiet as well.” He turned to Sara. “And the same for you if you are still worried about Caleb.”

    “You know where he is?” she asked. “Is he OK?”

    Trenton waved a hand. “Yeah, he’s fine.” He smiled. “Better than you could imagine.”

    He turned serious again. “I’m not kidding. Keep it to yourself.” He looked around the table. The four of us looked at each other, then nodded.

    “May as well,” said Scott. “I suppose you could just make us forget that any of this had happened if we didn’t.”

    He grimaced. “Yeah, well, it isn’t that easy. Not now.” He looked at me. “You ready for this.”

    I felt an unexpected smile on my face. “Hit me.”

    He hesitated, then nodded. “OK. Here it is.”

    He took a long drink from his beer, took a deep breath, then leaned forward.

    “OK, I’m not a teacher. I’m not a guru. I’m just a guy who discovered that he could do something most people couldn’t. Fortunately, I also figured out that if I could do it others could as well and so started looking out for them, both the ones like me who were keeping it low-key and the ones who were actually trying to change the world.” He shook his head. “Those are scary.”

    “In what way?” asked Scott asked suddenly.

    Trenton glanced over at him, annoyed at being interrupted. “How about the last election season for one. Wonder how that year-long mess came about? That’s what happens when a bunch of people like us are trying to change things on a big scale.”

    Scott started to say something else, then stopped when Trenton held up a hand. “We’ll get there. Trust me.” He turned back to me.

    “Anyway, I did find some other people who could do the same things as me. Actually, I went looking for them and so I found them. I wasn’t the first one. We call ourselves ‘Travellers’ since we can travel places. There are probably still others out there that we don’t know about. I’d say about one in five thousand people actually have the ability to do this and only about one in five thousand of them ever do anything with it.”

    “So it’s something genetic?” I asked.

    He shrugged. “Can’t tell and we obviously haven’t gone talking to too many scientists about it. Some of us have been able to train others to do this, but not always. Can’t tell if the successes are just luck or because those people had the ability anyway and just needed training.”

    He sighed. “Of course, we’ve never before run into someone who finds an Exit and immediately starts broadcasting it all over the Internet.” He glared at me for a minute. “Think before you do anything like that again, OK?”

    He took another drink, then continued. “Now, we don’t create things. Not really. What we do is go to the place where what we want exists. When you first start it’s easiest to get there by taking a physical highway exit; your mind seems to easily interpret that as ‘I’m getting off at the exit that leads to the place where what I want exists’.”

    I nodded slowly, understanding coming. “When I found that first Exit, I desperately needed a coffee and a bathroom. So I found one.”

    He nodded with a smile. “Yeah, that was a basic change. But you for some reason didn’t quite make the full transition and wound up in the Between. Basically a frozen moment in time. No one was there to see it so time wasn’t passing.”

    “Some kind of Schrodinger effect?” asked Scott.

    Trenton shook his head. “I don’t know what that is, but it it makes sense to you, fine.”

    “So how did… this happen?” Diane was still rubbing her belly as if she couldn’t believe it.

    He shrugged. “I assume you mean besides unprotected sex?” She flushed and he laughed. “Easy, Dale here just pulled off at an Exit where you were pregnant. That’s really all there is to it.”

    She frowned. “So… there’s another ‘me’ out there who is disappointed that she isn’t pregnant?”

    “Not exactly.” He finished off his beer and waved the waitress over as he thought. She brought more drinks for us and by the time she left he had decided how to proceed.

    “This is always the tricky part to explain and I’ve never come up with a good description. Basically think of a street. Or an Interstate. There are lots of lanes and they all go to the same place. But you can be in the left lane or the right lane. The same road, but a different part of it, OK?”

    “I… guess?” I said. I wasn’t sure where he was going.

    “OK,” he said, continuing. “Think of her not being pregnant as the left lane and her being pregnant as the right lane. All you did was change lanes. It’s the same road, the same ‘time-line’ if you want to call it, just a small detail has changed. And you’ll find that everyone else will not realize that anything has changed. When you go to work tomorrow all your co-workers will think you have been pregnant for months.”

    “But we know!” said Sara suddenly. “Why won’t anyone else?”

    He pointed at me. “You know because you were with him when he made the change. You were part of it. Now people like us,” he pointed to himself and again at me, “will notice a lot more. If something major changes we’ll wake up, look at the paper and go ‘wait, that’s wrong’.” He stopped and glared at me. “And *that* is why you have to be careful. I doubt anyone is keeping track of what kind of car you drive or if your friend is pregnant, but change something that makes the news and someone will start looking into it.”

    He hesitated, then looked at Scott and Diane. “Of course, if one of your co-workers, or someone you know, happens to have the ability as well, then they *will* remember you as not being pregnant and will quickly figure out what is going on and who had to be the one who changed things. So be careful.”

    I had been letting what he had said sink in and spoke up suddenly. “OK, what about Nichole then. I think I would have remembered this part of the country being called Hispaniola.”

    He nodded. “Yeah, that’s the last thing. Remember how I was talking about changing lanes? That’s what happens when you get off of one road and onto another. Change things too far and you’re in a completely new reality. To everyone in your old reality you simply disappear and in the new one no one will know who you are. It isn’t like staying home where people will just remember things the way you created them.”

    “What’s out there?” I asked, suddenly intrigued.

    He shrugged. “Whatever you can imagine. Be careful though. You don’t want to go somewhere where you can’t survive and you don’t want to go so far you can’t find your way home.”

    “So I can get anything or go anywhere I want, just by thinking about it and taking an Exit?” I asked.

    He nodded. “Yeah, and after a while even the Exit won’t be needed. Just drive down the Road.”

    “The Road?” I asked.

    “Yep.” He stood up. “That’s what we call it.” He gestured at the table. “I figure you owe me for the beers. I’ll let all of you talk it out. See you back at the Vortex.” He gave a final nod and walked out the door.

    The rest of us sat looking at each other for a long while. Sara was the first one to speak.

    “So… if Caleb could do the same things that you and this Trenton says he can do, what happened to Caleb?” She looked at me questioningly. “Why didn’t he come back for me?”

    I shook my head. “I don’t know.”

    “Maybe he wound up in one of those places where things are completely different,” suggested Scott. “And he couldn’t find his way back home?”

    She shook her head. “Trenton sounded like he knew something about him. I don’t think he’s lost.”

    “Then what?” I asked. She didn’t reply, but I could see she was upset and thinking about something.

    “Maybe you should undo… this.” Diane said suddenly. “I… I don’t want to get you into trouble.”

    “No!” said Scott, turning to her. “No, we can’t!”

    “But what if he’s right?” She was looking directly at him. “What if someone knows! What will happen then?”

    Scott shook his head. “You heard what he said. One out of five thousand out of five thousand. How many people with this ability can there possibly be in Atlanta?”

    “At least three,” she said. “Dale, Caleb, and Trenton. And Dale and Caleb even worked for the same company.”

    “We drive a lot too,” I said, still trying to digest what I had learned. “It sound as if that makes it a lot more likely to occur.”

    Scott kept shaking his head. “We can’t take that chance!”

    Diane looked at him. “*We* aren’t taking it. Dale is!” She turned to face me. “What do you want to do?”

    I sighed. “From what he said it sounded like anyone who knows you who has this ability will already be remembering you as both pregnant and non-pregnant. Undoing it now may make it worse.”

    “Exactly!” Said Scott. “He leaned forward, placing a hand on her belly. “Please, baby! Let’s go through with this.”

    She sighed and looked down, then nodded. He leaned back with a smile.

    “Now,” he said, rubbing his hands together, “what else can we do?”

    “I’m doing as little as possible!” I said. “Trenton here zeroed in on me almost immediately after I posted something. And someone wiped my phone, remember? Someone is already looking at or around me. I think I need to keep a low profile for a while and I can’t do that if I start making changes for everyone.”

    Scott looked hurt. “Come on now!” he said. “Just a few changes! Think of how much better you can make thing! For you as well as us!”

    “Earlier today you thought I was crazy. Now you want to take advantage of me?” I shook my head. “Let’s let things be for a week or so, see if anything shakes out, and *then* start talking about more changes. OK?”

    He seemed to be angry but took a deep breath. “OK, OK. You’re right, I guess.” He sighed. “And you’ve already done something for us.” He looked at Diane again. “But do think about what you can do with this, OK?”

    I nodded slowly. “OK, yeah. Sure.”

    “Caleb found someone else, didn’t he.” Sara spoke up suddenly.

    “What?” I asked at the sudden topic change.

    “He found someone else. Or caused someone else to find him.” She shook her head. “I should have said ‘Yes’ to him.” She leaned forward, tears appearing in her eyes.

    “Why didn’t you?” asked Diane. “Was it because of how he got the ring?”

    She nodded. “Yeah. It felt too much like he had stolen it. I just… I just couldn’t take it.”

    Diane tilted her head. “Couldn’t you have said yes anyway, but not taken the ring? Wouldn’t that have worked?”

    “I don’t know!” Sara wailed. “I just… I just couldn’t.” She lowered her head to her hands. “I was so stupid.”

    I was looking at her started thinking about her and Caleb. I barely knew Caleb, only ran across him at the office once or twice, but I had worked with Sara for a while. As I thought, I realized that I had never actually seen the two of them together.

    Diane was still talking. “How long had you known Caleb?”

    “About two years?” said Sara. “He helped me get the job there.”

    “So… you started dating almost immediately?”

    “Yeah.” She seemed confused. “Yeah, I guess so.”

    “I don’t remember seeing you two together that much.” I said. “That’s why I was so surprised when you first told me about you two.”

    She shrugged and shook her head. “We… he… thought it would cause problems at the company if everyone knew we were dating.”

    “Why?” I asked. “It isn’t against any policy that I know of.”

    She shook her head, then paused. “It wasn’t, but I thought, it just seemed…” Her brow furrowed as she tried to remember. “It made sense at the time.” She lowered her head.

    I looked over at Diane and tilted my head towards Sara, an eyebrow raised. She nodded slowly. She had already figured out what I was just starting to realize.

    (And this sequence was a lot better before the machine crashed and I lost it, damn it!)

    “You and Caleb did a lot together?” I asked. She nodded, head still lowered.

    “And went to the Vortex a lot?”

    She nodded again. “Yeah, it was his favorite place.”

    I glanced back at Diane who was now watching us both closely. Scott looked between us, apparently realizing from the change in tone that we were on to something but hadn’t caught up yet.

    “You told us about the two times you met Trenton down there. Anything happen any other time?”

    She shook her head. “No… nothing. I…” She stopped and looked up, confused. “I… don’t really remember many other things there.”

    “Do you remember what you ordered?” Diane asked. “Or what other places you went? What else you did?” Scott had looked at her as she spoke and I suddenly saw his eyes widen as he realized what we were saying. His head snapped around towards Sara.

    I could see the confusion on her face. “I don’t… We… I can’t…” Her head snapped up, eyes wide. “I *didn’t*! That bastard! That god-dammed fucking bastard! I’ll rip his face off! What a shit!”

    She had been shouting and the restaurant was looking at us. She took a deep breath and turned to me, face red and still shaking. “You! You knew this, didn’t you! You knew what he did!”

    “No!” I said, raising my hands. “Hell, I didn’t know what any of this was until recently. But something didn’t sound right, and I really *didn’t* remember ever seeing you two together. Then, when Trenton mentioned how we could remember things the way they were before…” I trailed off, holding up my hands.

    Diane nodded, reaching a hand out for Sara. “As soon as Dale said he had never seen you two together I knew what must have happened. Dale’s too good at details to miss something like that.”

    Sara was shaking her head, now crying openly. “I can’t believe… I can’t believe he did that to me!” She grimaced. “I think I’m going to be sick.”

    Diane took Sara’s hands in hers as she cried silently. The waitress came to see what was going on but Scott waved her away, and the two of us looked awkwardly at each other.

    After several minutes Sara gave out a heavy sigh and sat up. She blew her nose loudly on a napkin, wiped her eyes, and turned to me.

    “Thank you,” she said, quietly.

    “Um… you’re welcome?” I said, somewhat surprised. “…Why?”

    “Because I remember now,” she said. “I remember what happened. And you, all of you,” she turned to Diane and Scott and nodded at them, “helped me to remember.”

    “What happened?” asked Diane, gently. “If you feel like talking about it.”

    Sara frowned for a moment, closed her eyes, then sighed. “Yeah, it’s fine. It’ll help with all this.” She waved her hands in the air.

    She took a deep breath then continued. “I wasn’t dating Caleb when this started. I just happened to be at the office one day when he came in and had to tell me about the strange exit he found. Sort of like you did the other day.” She gestured towards me.

    “Anyway, I didn’t think much about it then. A few days later he shows up with this backpack full of stuff and wants to show it to me. He says we should go down to that Mexican place just down the road from the office.”

    “El Toreodors,” I said.

    She nodded. “Yeah, there.” She let out a snorting laugh. “I thought of it as an after work beer with a co-worker. He apparently thought it was a date.”

    “Wait…” interrupted Scott. “I thought you said he helped you get the job.”

    “Seriously?” she said. There was a pause as confusion crossed her face. “Yeah, I did say that, didn’t I?” She shook her head then looked back at me. “You have no idea how badly this has messed me up. It’s like I remember two completely different things, as if they both happened. It’s just that one happened first, if that makes sense.”

    I nodded slowly. “Yeah, I get it. I think.”

    She took another deep breath then continued. “He showed me a bunch of crap he had brought back. It looked like he had raided a K-Mart or something. Tried to give me some of it.” She laughed.

    “Anyway, a few day’s later he asks me out again. Says he’s figured out what he had found and wanted to explain it to me. I agreed and met him downtown at the Vortex. That’s when I first met Trenton and he basically said the same thing he just did to you.”

    “Really?” asked Scott. “You could have mentioned that earlier!”

    “I didn’t *know* it earlier!” Sara almost wailed. “I didn’t remember until… whatever you did.”

    “So what happened?” asked Diane, after glancing sharply at Scott.

    Sara winced. “After that dinner we got ready to leave. Caleb invited me up to his place and I turned him down. He got really angry, you know how guys get sometimes.” Diane nodded. “Anyway, he started off with how I was turning him down after he introduced me to this great new world. Then he said he could have me any time he wanted. That got me worried, so I just left and went back to my car. I had my gun in my purse so I wasn’t too concerned, but I wanted to get away from him.”

    “You carry a gun?” Scott seemed surprised by that.

    “Yeah,” she said, seeming surprised by the question. “We all do. I’m sure Dale has one too.”

    “Dale?” he turned to stare at me.

    I shrugged. “I drive around with a car full of drugs. I have to be ready on the off chance someone decides they want them for themselves.”

    He gave me a disturbed look. “Really?”

    I nodded. “Scott, we live in Georgia. In Atlanta. Two-thirds of the people you meet probably have a gun in their car.”

    He shook his head. “Yeah, I guess. I just never realized you had one.”

    “You never went shooting with me and Lisa?”

    That seemed to shock him. “Lisa carries a gun too?”

    I nodded. “Yeah, she’s actually a lot better at it than I am.”

    “Guys?” said Diane, looking between us. “Can we get back to this?”

    “Sorry.” I said, glancing over at Sara. “Go ahead.”

    She took a deep breath. “OK. Anyway, I got in my car and left. I was driving home, thinking about how maybe I should switch offices, when I suddenly decided I was in love with Caleb.”

    “Just like that?” asked Diane.

    She nodded. “Yeah, just like that.” Tears appeared in her eyes again. “It made total sense at the time. I didn’t even question it until, well, now.”

    “So what happened.”

    She lowered her head again. “I drove to his place and spent the night with him. I didn’t even question it. Not until now anyway. We… I spent the next couple of weeks with him.”

    “Then what happened?”

    She shrugged. “One day when I got home from work he wasn’t there.” She shook her head. “When I went back to his place he wasn’t there. I couldn’t get in touch with him. After a day or so I just went back home. That’s when… that’s when I came to the conclusion that he had left me because I had turned him down when he asked me to marry him. He didn’t. He just disappeared.” She shook her head and started crying again. “He did this to me! Why!”

    Diane and Scott both looked at me. I felt sick to my stomach. I could have done the same thing. Hell, I had thought about it. “Yeah,” I said finally. “I realized I could do that. When Trenton said something earlier about wondering why Sara was here and not Lisa… I realized I could get Lisa back. But it didn’t seem right. I just… couldn’t.”

    “So why did you bring me into this!” Sara looked up at me, almost spitting the words out.

    “What?” I was taken aback. “You called me! I didn’t do anything!”

    “Oh, so I just happened to call a co-worker I’ve barely interacted with just as he’s running into some major shit?”

    “No!” I said. “I wasn’t trying to… I didn’t…” I stopped. “Look, if I was trying to act like Caleb I wouldn’t take you out with my friends and tell you exactly what I was doing. That would kinda defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it?”

    “Unless that’s your plan? To make yourself look innocent?”

    Scott laughed cynically. “Trust me, Dale doesn’t think that far ahead.”

    “Hey!” I said.

    He shrugged. “Just telling it like it is. You can set up a gaming campaign in more detail than I could ever have the patience for, but when it comes to yourself you couldn’t make a decent decision if your life depended on it.”

    “What the hell is that supposed to mean!” I said, getting angry.

    “You know what, and who, I’m talking about,” he said. “Remember why we met with you tonight.”

    I glared at him. “You wanted me to get your wife pregnant. Since you couldn’t apparently.”

    I saw him flush in anger at that. He started to stand up, then thought better of it. He drew a deep breath then let it out in a long sigh.

    “OK,” He said. I could see he was still angry but he was trying to calm down. “You’re right. That was uncalled for.” He looked over at Sara, who was now looking from one to the other of us wide-eyed. “Trust me, Dale wouldn’t have deliberately done something like that. If anything,” he glanced at me, “if anything he was probably thinking about all of this and who knew about it and probably thought of talking to you. That may have been enough to trigger you calling him.”

    “What? You’re saying he can do this by accident? You think what Caleb did to me was an *accident*!”

    “No, no!” he said. “OK, Caleb no. Yes. No. Wait…” He paused, trying to straighten out his thoughts. “It sounds like Caleb was deliberate. I think Dale didn’t do anything. At least nothing deliberate.”

    She held his gaze for a moment, then let out her breath. “OK, OK. I guess you’re right. It wouldn’t make sense to do to me what you just helped me realize someone else had done to me. That’s really bad timing. And I’m a bit upset and on the edge right now.”

    “Yeah,” I said, trying to get my own self back under control. “We’re all getting on edge.” I looked up at Scott. “Sorry.”

    “Yeah,” he said in return. “It happens.” He looked over at Diane. “Your chance to get in an insult or two while we’re at it.”

    She shook her head uncomfortably. “I’ll pass. I think we’ve had enough emotions for one evening.” She patted her stomach. “I probably shouldn’t get too excited anyway.”

    Scott looked surprised for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah, you’re probably right.” He looked around. “Maybe we should get out of here.”

    We waved the waitress back over. She looked at us with a carefully neutral expression as we paid our bills and I noted a few other curious looks as we left the restaurant. We got back into the car and I pulled back out onto the highway.

    We drove in silence for a while. “Where should we go now?” I finally asked.

    “Well, everyone’s car is still at the Vortex,” said Scott from the back seat. “And Jeff, Donna, and Lisa are still at our apartment. Assuming they’re still waiting on us.”

    “And I kinda guess I need to get home,” said Sara. “Though I’m not sure I really want to be alone right now.” She looked over at me. “Not that kind of ‘not being alone’.”

    “Hey!” I said. “I’m not doing anything.”

    “Good.”

    “We’ve got a sofa,” said Scott. “You’re free to crash on it if you just want a place for tonight.”

    “Thanks,” she said. “I’ll think about it.”

    We drove a bit further. I had been thinking about where I needed to go when I saw an exit sign ahead. An idea occurred to me.

    “Hang on,” I said to no one in particular. “I’m going to try something.”

    I heard an intake of breath from Sara and an “Oh God!” from the back seat, but I was concentrating on my thoughts. I knew exactly where I wanted to be and what I wanted to be there. I held that thought as I took the exit, looped around the curve and pulled to a stop at the red light at the end of the ramp.

    “What?” Sara asked. “Where are we?”

    “14th street,” said Diane from behind me. “How did we get here?”

    “I told you I had an idea,” I said, turning right at the light and heading for the Station. “Looks like it worked.”

    “You can just go anywhere!” Sara said a bit too loudly. “That’s… how?”

    “I don’t know, exactly,” I said as I pulled off the main road and into the entrance. “I just decided this was where I wanted to be, took the exit and… here we are.” I swung into the parking garage and headed back towards the elevator entrance to Diane and Scott’s apartment.

    “Wait!” said Scott suddenly from the back seat. “Our cars are still at the Vortex!”

    “Are they?” I said with a smile. I saw the parking space I knew would be there just beside the elevator, pulled into it, and killed the engine.

    “Yes, we…” he stopped. Sara gasped and I heard Diane let out a short laugh. I was parked between their cars; Sara’s on the right and Diane and Scott’s on the left.

    “Now you’re starting to scare me,” said Scott in a quiet, even voice. “You don’t need to show off.”

    My smile faded. “I just wanted to see if I could do it.”

    “Don’t!” he said. “That’s…” he trailed off.

    “I caused your wife to become seven months pregnant,” I said. I had expected a different reaction. “Moving your car should seem trivial compared to that.”

    “Is there a limit to what you can do?” Sara asked, staring at me.

    “I don’t know.” I said. “I’m almost afraid to try.”

    “Remember what Trenton said,” said Scott as he got out of the car. “You don’t want to do anything big enough to attract attention from anyone.”

    “Yeah, I remember,” I said as I got out. “But literally no one would have noticed a car moving from one parking lot to another.”

    “How about a car going from Macon to Atlanta in five minutes. Does your company have GPS trackers on you or something?”

    “No,” I said. As soon as I did though I remembered the box Trenton had pulled from under my old car. I immediately knelt down and looked under the Jeep. I didn’t see anything suspicious, but if it was hidden I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell it apart from a normal part of the Jeep.

    “What?” asked Diane, getting out with the aid of Scott.

    “Nothing,” I said. “Just suddenly getting paranoid.” With that in mind, I pulled my bag out of the back, then opened the glove box and pulled out the Glock, still in its case. Scott was walking to the elevator with Diane and didn’t notice, but Sara saw me and nodded slightly.

    We caught up with them at the elevator. “What are we going to tell the others?” I asked.

    “The truth?” suggested Diane.

    I shook my head. “Keep low, remember? The three of you already know what is going on. We don’t need two more.”

    “Three,” said Scott.

    “Oh yeah, Lisa,” I said. “Why did you have to bring her into this?”

    “Because we were worried about you,” he replied. “We didn’t know any of this was actually real then. We thought… maybe if you could talk to her and get some closure out of it.”

    “Closure?” I said, incredulously. “Closure? You thought *that* was what all this was about?”

    He sighed and looked to Diane, then back to me. “After you left last time we, all of us, talked about it. We thought your talking about ‘alternate worlds’ was just you rationalizing some world where Lisa and you were still together. You know, instead of talking to her.”

    “You know,” I said, turning around and walking back towards the car. “I don’t have to listen to this.” I opened the door, stopped, and turned back to see the three of them still looking at me. “And I can do that ‘alternate worlds’ stuff and if I had wanted to create a world where she and I were still together I would be in one. But I’m not Caleb.” I aimed that last comment at Sara. I opened the door and got in. “Tell them… tell them whatever the hell you want.” Scott yelled something and started towards the car, but I backed out and peeled out of the garage and away.

  • NaNoWriMo 2016 – Wrong Exit – Week 3

    As I drove, I kept thinking about what Trenton had said. Could I really influence things? How could I test that?

    He had mentioned Lisa, but I really didn’t want to think about her; too many painful memories there. I started thinking about Sara instead; she was the only other woman I had had any kind of interaction with over the past few months. I started thinking about her then thought against it. I wasn’t sure what I would do if that somehow worked.

    Instead, I thought about my car. Trenton had given me a hard time for driving a Corolla so I decided to see what I could do instead.

    I couldn’t decide what I wanted though. I’d had this car for years, since I had been in college. I had always planned to replace it once I graduated but… well, that never happened. I wasn’t sure what kind of car I would want instead.

    Something like a Jeep would be nice. Plenty of space in the back for my deliveries and a bit less dull than my Corolla.

    I laughed. Hell, how about a Jeep like one of those from the *Jurassic Park* movie. People had them; I’d seen them in the DragonCon parade. And I had my *Jurassic World* costume I had worn to the office Halloween party last year. If I had the jeep I could take it to the Con myself next year. Maybe I could even get a big stuffed dinosaur of some kind to put in back.

    The idea made me smile. I started thinking about how it would go. Me in the jeep, in my costume. People wanting pictures of me and the dinosaur. Yeah, that would work. I kept thinking along those lines as I drove home, my thoughts turning increasingly to how people might react and the attention I would get.

    I had actually forgotten what started my imagination running by the time I got back to the parking lot of my apartment. I got out, grabbed my bag and slammed the door behind me. It made an unfamiliar “chunk” noise.

    Startled, I turned and looked at the car. It was a Jeep, painted grey and red with a *Jurassic Park* decal on the door. I looked inside and saw an enormous stuffed triceratops in the back. Almost without thinking, I opened the back, pulled out the dinosaur, and slammed the hatch down. I had taken a couple of steps towards my apartment when I suddenly stopped and turned around again.

    The Jeep was still there. I walked around it. My “Cthulhu for President” bumper sticker was still on the back and, glancing through the rear window, I could see my grocery bags lying in the back. It was definitely my car.

    I walked slowly back to my apartment. What Trenton had told me was apparently real. I could, somehow, change the reality I was in. How this had happened, I didn’t know. But it was real.

    I got into my apartment, dropped my bag, and immediately pulled out my phone and called Scott. He picked up after a couple of rings.

    “Hey Dale,” he said, sounding somewhat annoyed. “Do you know what time it is?”

    I glanced at the clock and felt myself flush. “Oops, sorry. No I didn’t.”

    He sighed. “Can this wait until tomorrow?”

    “Sure,” I said at first. “No, wait, I have to know. What kind of car do I drive?”

    “What?” He sounded both tired and irritated.

    “This is important!” I said, louder than I should have. “What kind of car do I drive?!”

    He sighed. “That stupid *Jurassic Park* thing you bought back in college. The thing Lisa got so mad at you for wasting money on. Remember?”

    “Lisa… what?” I stopped and thought for a moment. “OK, thanks. Sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you up.”

    He sighed. “Whatever. Look, there better have been a good reason for this.” He yawned. “But… tell me later, OK?”

    “Sure!” I said. “Sure. Goodnight.”

    “Night,” he said, both tired and annoyed. He clicked off.

    I went to the kitchen, grabbed a beer from the refrigerator, and opened it. I then grabbed a second, took it and the opener, and headed for the living room.

    I turned on the TV and found Conan, but didn’t really watch it. Instead, my mind was racing.

    I had done it. I had somehow altered reality. I had decided I had something and it appeared. And everyone around me seemed to accept this as “normal”. I wondered, what could I get away with? What could I find?

    I suddenly realized that Caleb had never gotten this far. Otherwise he would have “found” the place where Sara still loved her. Or, maybe he did. Maybe that’s why he never came back.

    I realized that there was a lot I didn’t understand about was going on. Obviously everyplace didn’t change, else Caleb would still be here. I wondered. Was there someplace where I had disappeared? Did I even know where that was?

    I suddenly felt sick. What could I do? What could I get away with? I realized then what Trenton had been warning me about. If I could alter reality in this way, then obviously a *lot* of people would be interested in what I could do.

    But would they even realize I had done it? Scott hadn’t realized anything had changed with my car. Would whoever Trenton was worried about see what I did? Or would they think I just disappeared? There was obviously a lot more to this than I understood.

    But understand or not, there were things I could do. I went on-line and deleted everything I had ever posted about this. Hopefully that would give me some distance.

    Everything but that one video. I replaced the video itself with a random few minutes of driving footage from my dash-cam, but added a comment below it. “I get it now. Call me.” I then headed off to bed.

    The next morning I got a kick out of seeing the Jeep in the parking lot and driving it up to the office. I was a bit disconcerted at how much gas it was using and thought about what I could do about it as I hit the road again.

    Most of the day was uneventful. I was still ecstatic at having the Jeep but every time my mind started to wander I pulled it back. I had proven that I could alter reality just by thinking about it. I was almost afraid of what I could do.

    I was looking for a place to grab lunch when my phone rang. It was Scott.

    “Why the hell did you call me so late last night?” he asked without preamble.

    I hesitated. “You… you probably will think I’m crazy.”

    “I know that,” he replied, “but try me anyway.”

    “That Jeep I drive? I didn’t. I mean, I didn’t have it until last night, right before I called you.”

    I heard him sigh. “What? What are you talking about?”

    “I created it.”

    He sighed again. “Dale, you aren’t making any sense. Well, less sense than normal.”

    “Look,” I said. “I didn’t have that Jeep until last night. Really.

    “What?” he asked. There was a long pause. “Did you… did you find it ‘over there’?”

    I nodded. “Not exactly.” I told him about meeting Trenton at the Vortex the night before, about finding the tracker under my car, then about my car changing into the Jeep as I drove.

    He was silent for a long time. “You aren’t lying to me, are you?”

    “No!” I shook my head. “I just… It *happened*! I can’t explain it, but it… happened!”

    There was another long silence. “OK,” he said finally. There was another long silence. “You wouldn’t…” He hesitated. “You wouldn’t want to demonstrate that, would you?”

    It was my turn to hesitate. What was he asking. “Sure?” I said finally.

    “Can you meet me and Diane downtown tonight? We’ll do dinner.”

    “Um… sure? Where?”

    “Since you just mentioned it, how about the Vortex? I don’t think we’ve been there since we graduated.”

    I paused, thinking about Jenny. “Yeah, that’ll work.” I paused. “The burger I had last night was good.”

    I heard a sigh but couldn’t tell what it was. It sounded more like apprehension than tiredness. “OK, great. See you about 7.”

    “Sure,” I said. “See you then.”

    “Thanks,” he said. I could hear something in his voice, but I still couldn’t tell what it was. “See you then.” He hung up.

    I continued driving for a while. I could tell that Scott wanted something, but I wasn’t sure what it was. And I wasn’t looking forward to going to the Vortex and maybe running into Trenton again. Or maybe Jenny either.

    I kept thinking as I drove along, daydreaming almost, then I suddenly caught myself. If I could change things just by thinking about them I better be careful what I thought about. I needed to be careful.

    If I could do it again. I thought about the Jeep I was driving. While I really liked having a Jurassic Park Jeep, I realized I probably wouldn’t leave the decals on it all the time; I’d just have them and have someone put them on for me (or put them on myself) when convention season rolled around.

    After a while I noticed that the decal on the hood was gone and somehow knew that the side decals were gone as well. I knew they were in the storage closet in my apartment, and knew a place that would put them back on for me come convention season. I smiled. I could do this.

    I felt myself flush. What kind of power did I have? What could I do? I thought about Lisa then immediately pushed it back down. No. I didn’t want to think about her.

    Then I found myself thinking about Sara. I knew I shouldn’t, but I remembered what she had said about her and Caleb. She had confided in me. She probably hadn’t confided in too many others.

    Then I thought about how Scott had invited me to bring Sara along to the game Friday night. Would she? I wasn’t sure. I kept thinking about her and suddenly my phone rang. I answered.

    It was Sara.

    “Hi Dale!” she said. “How’s it going?”

    “Fine,” I said, suddenly cautious. “Down near Columbus at the moment.”

    She laughed. “I’m in Augusta. I was just wondering…” she paused. “I was just wondering if you had found out anything more. You know, about those… places?”

    I hesitated. “Yeah, I have. In fact, I’m meeting with someone to talk about it tonight.” I paused. “Listen, we’re meeting at the Vortex downtown, why don’t you join us?”

    It was her turn to hesitate. “Do they know who I am?”

    “Sure,” I said. “I’ve told them what was going on.”

    “You mentioned me and Caleb!” I could hear the surprise and anger in her voice.

    I grimaced for a second. “Um… yeah. I didn’t know it was a secret.”

    “Dale!” she almost shouted my name. “I trusted you!”

    “I trusted you too!” I said, feeling annoyed.

    “And I didn’t tell anyone what you told me!” she countered. “But you apparently thought my personal life was worth sharing!”

    “Don’t be mad,” I started saying to myself. “Don’t be mad.”

    I took a deep breath. “Look, I’m… sorry. I didn’t mean to share something you thought was private. I’m sorry. I was just trying to figure out what was going on with me, and you had more information than I did. I was just trying to figure things out.”

    There was a long pause, then I heard a sigh. “OK. OK, fine.” She sighed again. “Just don’t tell anyone else, OK? I don’t need a bunch of questions from the FBI again.”

    The pit in my stomach reappeared. “FBI? You didn’t mention them before.”

    “I didn’t?” She almost sounded sarcastic. “When Caleb vanished I had told what I knew about Caleb’s disappearance. The cops and the company didn’t seem that interested, but a couple of weeks later these two guys –well, a guy and a woman– showed up at my apartment and started asking about Caleb’s disappearance. I couldn’t tell them any more than I told anyone else. They said they were looking into a pattern of people disappearing; I guess that’s why I was so upset that you had said something to anyone else.”

    I sighed, but the pit didn’t disappear. “OK,” I said, trying to sound normal. “I guess I understand.”

    “Yeah, sorry,” she said. “I guess it isn’t a secret, but it’s still kinda touchy to me.”

    “I’m sorry too,” I said. “I won’t do it again.”

    “I know you won’t.” She sounded more trusting than I would have been. “What were you saying about meeting tonight?”

    “I’m going to be meeting with the people I’ve talked to about this downtown at the Vortex tonight. There have been some… developments that I want to talk to them about.” I paused. “You may be interested in some of it too.”

    “OK,” she said almost immediately. “Sure! When?”

    I shrugged, though she couldn’t see it. “I was planning to just stop there when I got into town and turn in my manifest tomorrow. So… 5 or 6?”

    There was a pause as she thought. “I’ll probably be there just after 6. That OK?”

    I nodded to myself. “Sure! See you then.”

    I heard a laugh. “Thanks.” There was another pause then, “It will be good to be able to talk to someone about this.”

    “I agree with you there. Believe me, I agree.”

    A couple of hours later I was back in the Vortex parking lot. I was a bit earlier than I had planned but went on inside. I got a booth so the four of us could talk and sat where I could see the door. I was focused enough on it that I was surprised when someone called my name.

    “Dale! Back already?” Jenny came over and gave me an unexpected quick hug.

    I shrugged. “Hey, I couldn’t resist the service.” I gave a half-smile.

    She laughed. “Well, you aren’t in my area tonight, but I’ll make sure Shelly takes care of you.” She waved at the table. “Expecting someone else?”

    I nodded. “Yeah, having dinner with some friends.”

    She smiled. “Great! I’ll come by and say hi later.” She hurried off.

    A few minutes later a dark-haired woman brought a beer and sat it in front of me. I looked curiously. “Um… I haven’t ordered yet.”

    “I know love,” said the waitress. She waved towards the bar. “Jenny said this was your beer. I’m Shelly; I’ll be taking care of y’all. And don’t worry, we take care of Jenny’s friends here.”

    “Um… thanks?” I said, uncertainly.

    She patted me on the shoulder. “Hey, if Jenny vouches for you you’re one of the good guys.” She winked. “Check back with you when your friends are here, OK?”

    I nodded an picked up my beer as she left. It was the same as the one I had been drinking last night. I guess Jenny remembered her customers. Or, at least those that were friends of Trenton.

    I hadn’t been there too long when Scott and Diane showed up. Diane looked nervous but Scott was confidently walking towards my table with her following slowly behind.

    “Heya Dale!” he said, sliding into the booth across from me. Diane came up and paused before sliding in beside him. I wasn’t sure if she was upset or embarrassed.

    “Thanks for meeting us,” he said, glancing over at Diane. “Have you ordered yet?”

    “Just this,” I said, holding up the beer. “And I guess I should be thanking you for listening to this mess.”

    He shrugged. “Well… If what you are saying is true, maybe you can help us.” Diane grimaced at that, but before he could say more or I could ask anything Shelly came up.

    “Howdy folks!” she said, dropping menus in front of us. “What’r y’all drinking?”

    Scott ordered the same beer I was drinking while Diane asked for a wine. Shelly then asked if we wanted to order yet.

    “Um… not yet,” I said. “We’re waiting on one more.”

    “Oh?” asked Scott with a grin. “Someone you haven’t told us about yet?”

    I sighed and shook my head. “It’s Sara. I was talking to her today and since she knows something about this as well I figured I would invite her.”

    He hesitated and looked at Diane. She looked unhappy. “I really wanted to just talk about this to you.” She sounded unhappy as well.

    I flushed. “Sorry, I didn’t know that this was a private thing. I thought we were just going to talk about what I found.”

    She was becoming angry. “I told you I didn’t want to talk to him about this!” she said, turning to Scott angrily. “This isn’t any of his business!”

    I felt myself leaning back into my seat. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to…”

    “It’s OK!” said Scott sharply. He turned to Diane. “Look, I thought we decided that…” He trailed off as she looked away.

    “I’ll… go get those drinks,” said Shelly uncomfortably. She headed for the bar.

    We all sat there uncomfortably for a few seconds. Finally, Scott sighed and turned back to me. “OK, why don’t you tell me what you’ve found.”

    Thankful for the change of topic, I told him about what had happened since the game. Nichole showing up again, what she had told me about her past, and about my meeting with Trenton the night before. I was just starting to talk about how I had caused my car to change into a Jeep when Sara walked up to the table.

    “Hi Dale!” she said, bending down to give me a hug. I awkwardly hugged her back then slid over to give her room. She sat down and looked across the table. “Hi, I’m Sara,” she said, extending her hand to Diane. “I’m a friend of Dale’s.”

    Diane and Scott introduced themselves. “Yeah, we’ve been friends of Dale’s since college.” Scott glared at me. “Not that he seems to remember that.” I leaned back as he continued. “He’s been telling us about the strange things that have been happening to him and said that you know something about them as well? Or knew someone who did?”

    Sara looked sharply at me but turned back with a nod. “Yeah, a… friend of mine apparently encountered the same thing, but he…” She paused and looked at the ceiling for a moment. She sighed and looked back at Scott again. “He disappeared. Now I’m worried that the same thing might happen to Dale here.” She reached over and rubbed my arm, causing me to look at her in surprise.

    “Don’t worry,” said Scott. “We’re going to help him stick around.” He paused. “OK, Dale’s told us what you told him, but can you tell us again? In case he got something wrong?”

    “Because that’s never happened, right?” Sara laughed and looked at me as I flushed, then leaned over and kissed my cheek.” You’re so cute when you’re embarrassed.

    That caused me to flush brighter red; Sara was suddenly being a lot friendlier to me than I had expected. Fortunately Shelly returned at that point with their drinks. She put them down then looked at Sara.

    “Sara, right?” she asked, questioningly.

    Sara flushed slightly, as if in embarrassment. “Um… yeah. Shelly, isn’t it?”

    “You know each other?” I asked.

    Sara nodded. “Yeah, I used to… we came down here a couple of times.”

    Shelly nodded. “Good to see you again! How’s Caleb?”

    Sara turned bright red. “Um… Caleb and I…. We aren’t together anymore. I haven’t seen him in a while.”

    “Oh, I”m sorry dear!” said Shelly in what seemed like genuine remorse. “I wondered what had happened to y’all.”

    I turned to Sara. “You and Caleb used to come here a lot?”

    She shook her head slowly. “No. Just… a few times.”

    I hesitated. “Were you… down here to meet Trenton?”

    She turned to me in surprise. “You know Trenton!”

    “Not until last night,” I said. I paused. “Look, let’s get our order in then we’ll talk about what’s going on.”

    We gave our orders, argued over an appetizer before passing and I got another beer. When Shelly had left I turned back to Sara.

    “So… You and Caleb used to meet Trenton here?”

    She nodded, seeming somewhat uncomfortable. “Yeah, once or twice. I didn’t think too much about it. Caleb wanted me to meet him down here on my way in one night and when I got here he was talking to him. Trenton was friendly enough, but I kinda felt uncomfortable around him for some reason. Then…” She paused.

    I waited as she looked away. Scott and Diane were both looking at us; Scott with interest while Diane seemed more uncomfortable. Finally Sara spoke again.

    “The other time I saw him was the night when Caleb gave me… tried to give me that ring.” She glanced over at Scott and Diane then turned back to me. “Trenton and that waitress were both here and telling me how lucky we both were. I didn’t want to turn him down in front of them and I kinda felt like he had asked me to come down here just so they would be there.” She sighed. “I told him later I couldn’t go through with it. Not knowing where the ring came from.”

    Something was nagging at me. “He never tried to… convince you to change your mind?”

    She shrugged. “I suppose. He talked about it a few more times. Then he seemed to drop it.”

    “Those strange exits,” I continued. “You said he never saw anyone at them? Just the empty places?”

    She nodded, looking at me curiously. “Yeah, like I told you. Except maybe at the end. A few things he said made me think something was going on.”

    “Maybe he didn’t know…” I said, more to myself than anything else.

    “Know what?” asked Scott.

    I waved my hand. “Never mind, just thinking.” He looked at me but said nothing.

    Shelly returned carrying my and Sara’s drink and a plate of wings. She dropped them off and turned to leave.

    “Wait!” I said, pointing at the wings. “We didn’t order these!”

    She turned her head back. “Don’t worry sweetie, we take care of Trenton’s friends around here.” She nodded towards the bar where Jenny waved at us then continued on her way.

    Everyone at the table was looking at me. “They never gave me and Caleb wings when we were here,” said Sara, almost petulantly. The rest of us laughed.

    Sara looked hurt. “So how well do you know Trenton?”

    “Not very,” I admitted. I told her about Nichole, the call from Trenton and meeting him there the night before. I was about to talk about the Jeep when our food arrived.

    We talked about mundane things while eating. Sara talked about the deliveries she made while Scott talked about his work at the engineering firm and Diane hers down at the hospital. Everyone seemed to relax, especially Diane. After the meal was over and Shelly had brought us another round of drinks I got back to my story.

    When I finished everyone looked at each other for a moment. “That’s… that’s a bit hard to believe,” said Scott.

    Sara was nodding. “You’ve had that Jeep as long as I’ve known you,” she said. “I thought it was odd when you brought it in with those movie stickers on it, but everyone kind of accepted it.”

    I sighed. “Y’all think I’m crazy, don’t you?”

    Scott shook his head again. “Look, Dale. You’ve always been… creative, shall we say. You’re the best game-master we ever had, and I still think you need to start trying to publish those.” He looked at Diane, who nodded, then back at me. “But look at this from our point of view. You disappear for a year-and-a-half, suddenly show up with some wild story, then keep calling back with even more wild tales.” He shook his head. “Even you have to agree that what you’re telling us sounds… hard to believe.”

    I pointed at Sara, frustrated. “She’s seen the same things! Well, some of them! I’m not lying and I’m not crazy!”

    Sara winced. “Yeah, yeah. Caleb said some of the same things you have. And he had a bunch of stuff he was getting from somewhere. But, creating a new car out of thin air? Meeting someone from some world where the, what, Orangutans invaded the US? None of that makes sense!”

    I sighed. “Well, what about Trenton? He seems to think something is going on. Enough that he got us appetizers or… something.” I stopped, realizing how weird that sounded when I said it out loud.

    Everyone looked at each other. “Look,” said Diane, joining in the discussion for the first time. “We want to believe you. I,” she pointed to herself, “want to believe you. But… how?”

    I wasn’t sure if I was angry or upset. “What do you want me to do!” I said, louder than I had planned. Even in the noisy restaurant people looked up.

    Scott and Diane looked at each other then back at me. “We… had an idea,” said Scott. Diane was suddenly looking uncomfortable again. “But… not here. Let’s go outside and we’ll talk.”

    “OK…” I said, my turn to be uncomfortable. I waved for Shelly.

    A few minutes later we were outside. Scott and Diane were talking quietly to one another as Sara came up to me.

    “Look Dale,” she said, looking embarrassed. “I was… I was kind of hoping to be able to talk to you about things but…” she looked over at Scott and Diane, “I kinda feel like I’m an extra person here.”

    “Nonsense!” I said, a bit too loudly. “I’m glad you’re here!” She seemed a bit taken aback and I took a deep breath and paused before continuing.

    “I need you here,” I said more quietly. She looked surprised and started to say something but I waved her back. “Look, listen… Whatever is happening here is weird. Yeah, I get that. But you’re the only other person who even has any idea of what is going on. You’ve seen it before. Caleb and I can’t both be crazy in exactly the same way but you’re the only person who has seen us both. I need that.”

    She still looked uncomfortable. “Trenton knows you both,” she said finally. “And Shelly.”

    I shrugged. “But I don’t know them. Not really. Hell, I never met Shelly before tonight. That’s another piece of this I don’t understand. And you’ve met both of them too.”

    She looked away for a moment then sighed. “Yeah, I guess.” There was a long pause. “Part of me thinks I should really get out of here but another part…” Another long pause. “The other part of me wants to see where this is going.” She looked at me with a faint smile. “OK, I”m in.”

    “Thanks,” I said, unexpectedly relieved. I looked over to see Scott and Diane looking at us. They both walked over then looked at each other.

    “Look…” said Diane. “If what you have been telling us is true then… maybe there is something you can help us with.”

    “Sure!” I said, looking from one to the other. “What do you need.”

    Now it was Scott’s turn to look uncomfortable. “Let’s… head out.”

    I shrugged. “OK, where to?” I pulled out my keys.

    Scott hesitated. “Let’s… all go in your car.”

    “OK…” I said. “Why?”

    He sighed, then started speaking a bit too fast. “Because I think whatever it is you do requires you to be travelling. Probably on the Interstate. I don’t know why. But I think the travelling part is important. That’s what Nichole said you were, right? A ‘Traveller’?”

    I nodded. “Yeah, I can see that. I can show you what has been happening.” I started towards the Jeep, Scott with me and Diane and Sara following along behind.

    Scott and Diane got into the back seat while Sara, after a brief hesitation, got into the front passenger seat beside me. I started the car and pulled out. We were soon on 10th street heading for the Interstate.

  • NaNoWriMo 2016 – Wrong Exit – Week 2

    The next day was normal. The first few times I pulled onto or off of the Interstate I half-expected to have Nichole reappear, but she didn’t. Nothing at all happened until I was on my way back home from the office when my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number but reflexively punched answer anyway.

    “Hi, it’s Dale.”

    “Where are you?” It was an obviously synthesized voice; grating and mechanical.

    “What?” I asked. “Who is this.”

    There was a pause. “Did you not get my message?”

    “What message? Who is this.”

    There was another pause. “We left you a message Sunday.”

    I paused. “I saw that. I thought it was from someone else.”

    Again, a pause. “Are you in Atlanta?”

    I grimaced. “I’m heading back. And I have to stop at my office in Kennesaw.”

    There was a pause again. “Do you know where the Vortex is?”

    I nodded. “Yes. Downtown. And why don’t you just talk to me instead of taking the time to type your answer into whatever voice synthesizer you’re using. It’s annoying.”

    There was a longer pause than usual, then a man’s voice. “OK, fine. Can you be there at 8?”

    I glanced at the clock. “8pm? I suppose.”

    “Be there.” The line clicked off. I drove alone in silence for a while. How badly did I want to know more?

    Badly enough, apparently. I dropped off my records for the day then immediately drove into town. I was at the Vortex, on my second beer, and halfway through one of their burgers when someone walked up to the stand up I was eating at.

    “So you’re Dale,” he said, looking me up and down.

    He looked more at home here than me. Jeans, blazer over black t-shirt, the perfect example of the current in-scene. He walked up and sat down on a chair at the high-top I was eating at without introduction or invitation.

    “You’re really caused problems, do you know that?” He said without preamble.

    I lowered my burger and took a drink of my beer. “And you are?” I asked, trying to sound more confident than I was.

    He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter, but Trenton’s the name.” He sighed, looking at me. “You have no idea what you’ve stepped into, do you?”

    “No I don’t.” I said, more annoyed than I should have been. “What the hell is going on?”

    “Mind if I sit here?”

    I shrugged, more annoyed than I should have been. “Does it matter?”

    He looked away and said something under his breath, then looked back at me. “OK, fine. You want to be an asshole, be an asshole. But when they come and throw your ass in jail, don’t blame me.”

    I held up my hands. “Hey, I don’t have any idea as to who you are or what is going on!” I said. OK, maybe I was on more than my second beer. I’d been stressed lately, OK? “All I know is that I came across something weird, every time I try to talk about everyone thinks I’m crazy or starts pulling some kind of cloak-and-dagger stuff about how I need to ‘be quiet’ and ‘listen’. Maybe you tell me why I should be acting differently and maybe I’ll do something?”

    He simply glared at me.”Or, maybe you get carjacked and shot because you’re carrying a carload of allergy medicine.”

    I glared back. I had tossed my gun in my bag before coming it, but it wasn’t something I could easily pull out. I started wondering if “Trenton” here had something under his blazer. I was feeling really out of my league.

    He held my stare for a few seconds then called a waitress over. She apparently recognized him and gave him an enthusiastic hug.

    “Trenton! Where have you been!”

    He smiled and gave her a quick kiss. “You know me Jenny, always travelling somewhere.” He laughed, then pointed at me. “This is Dale, he’s a friend of mine Give me whatever he’s drinking and add another for him.”

    “Sure!” She turned to me and smiled brightly. “You should’ve told me you knew Trenton! Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you!” She hurried off.

    I looked at him.”Trying to impress me?”

    He sighed. “Is something going to finally get through to you? This is what you could have. Are you trying to throw it away?”

    I took a deep breath myself. “OK. Why don’t you start by telling me what what the hell all this is about. I found a weird exit where things were weird. Then someone tells me that I went to another universe or something, but they keep disappearing and reappearing and somehow think the Ottoman Empire invaded the Pacific Northwest in the 1980’s. I think. And *then* someone starts threatening me for talking about it. So why don’t you tell me what the fuck is going and and maybe I’ll start playing along with whatever paranoia I’m supposed to be participating in!” I had been getting louder as I went along and had stood up. I saw that a couple of nearby tables were looking at me. Embarrassed, I sat back down and drained the rest of my beer.

    Trenton was silent until Jenny came by and gave both of us another beer. She looked questioningly at the burger I had abandoned and I waved it away. She took it and left.

    Trenton was looking at me, brow furrowed. “You really have no idea?”

    “No!” I said, more loudly than I had intended. “What the hell is going on!”

    He took a drink of his beer, made a face, then stared at me for a long moment. I was about to say something when he finally spoke.

    “You really don’t know what this is about, do you?”

    I shook my head and raised my hands in exasperation. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell everyone!”

    He waved a hand at me. “OK, OK.” He paused. “Just… tell me what you’ve found. Start at the beginning.

    I glared at him. “Don’t you know that already!”

    He glared back. “Humor me, OK?”

    I sighed. “Fine.” I launched into a recap of what I had encountered, starting with that weird exit near Dalton and ending with my last conversation with Nichole.

    “That’s it,” I said. “I have no idea what I have stumbled into. You seem to know something. Can you *please* tell me what I have gotten myself involved with?”

    He sat quietly for several seconds. “OK,” he said, finally. “I don’t know how you managed to…” He paused again. “OK.”

    He leaned forward, confronting me. “This is private, OK? You need to keep this to yourself. It’s dangerous to you and it’s dangerous to a lot of other people. Can you keep it quiet? That means no more YouTube videos, no more Reddit posts, OK?”

    I hesitated, then nodded. “OK.”

    “Fine,” he said. He leaned back. “How much physics do you know.”

    “Enough?” I said. “I went to Tech.”

    He cocked his head at me. “And you failed out.”

    “How did you…” I started. He waved me off.

    “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Do you know what the ‘many worlds’ hypothesis is?”

    I shrugged. “Yeah, pretty much. Something to do with Quantum Mechanics, right? Every possible outcome of anything exists somewhere?”

    He nodded. “Close enough. Look, those ‘somewhere’ worlds predicted by quantum mechanics? They’re out there. And some people can get to them. Including you.”

    “Me?” I wasn’t surprised, but it was still an unexpected revelation. “How am I special?”

    He shrugged. “That’s a real question. Most of us? We learned from someone else. You? You apparently learned it on your own, somehow. Then you suddenly try to tell everyone about it.”

    “I didn’t know what was going on!” I said in frustration. “Hell, I still don’t!”

    He sighed. “Look… anything you can imagine exists, somewhere. Quantum Mechanics says everything is possible.”

    “So you just said…”

    “And some people, like you, are able to travel to those other possibilities. We’re… Travellers. We travel to those places.”

    I shook my head. “You just said that too. You act like I’m supposed to be impressed, or surprised or something.” I was getting inexplicably annoyed. “I just want to know what is going on!”

    He glared at me in return. “I *am* telling you what is going on, you idiot. What are you expecting? Someone to jump out an yell ‘Surprise! You’re on Candid Camera!’?” He sighed. “Look, I’m trying to keep you out of trouble here. Yeah, I’m trying to keep trouble away from the rest of us too; I’m not doing this just to be ‘nice’. But if someone here can figure out how to Travel on their own, and if you keep bringing attention to it, then we may have a much bigger problem than just you soon. So are you going to pay attention or not?”

    I leaned back. “Then just tell me what is going on. Not the ‘going to another world’ thing; believe it or not I’ve kinda accepted that that is happening to me. I want to know who *you* are, why you’re so interested in me, who this ‘they’ are that will be after me if I don’t stop talking about this, and why I should even care. And who the hell is Nichole?” I had been getting louder as I spoke. Fortunately the Vortex was loud enough that no one really paid attention to me.

    Trenton stared at me for a long moment. “OK,” he said finally. “OK. What is it you need to know?”

    I sighed and thought about it for a moment, then leaned forward. “Let’s start with why this is important. I’ve been to a couple of places where no one is around. I suppose I could steal a bunch of stuff and bring it home to sell, though I’ve also be led to believe that most of it either won’t work or will just take whoever winds up with it back to where it came from. *That’s* what I mean by ‘what is this all about'”.

    He acted as if I was asking quietly about the weather. “OK,” he said calmly. “I’ll spell it out for you.”

    “You’ve been going to other places, yes. Sort of. You’ve been on the edges, like you’re on the edge of the pool about to dive in. You can see the pool, you’re there, but you aren’t wet yet.

    “In this case, you’re just outside of another world. You can see it, but you aren’t part of it yet. So things are there but not people or animals or anything else. You’ll have to complete the transition in order to actually *be* there.”

    “What does that involve?” I asked.

    He shrugged. “I’m not sure. I’ve not been on the edge myself.” He smiled. “I’m too ready to just jump into things.” He waived the waitress over again. “Hey Jenny, when are you off tonight?”

    She sighed. “Not til one or two. I’m closing.”

    He smiled. “I’ll wait.”

    She smiled in return. “Just let me know what you need until then.” Her smile changed. “And then later.” With a final tilt of her head she left.

    I was a bit taken aback. “You know her well?”

    He shrugged. “Not really. I’m just in a place where she’s agreeable.”

    I frowned. “I thought you were here to see me? That just happen to be the same place?”

    He shook his head. “That’s one of the things you haven’t gotten yet. I wanted to find a place where that I could meet you then meet someone else later.”

    “Wait…” I said. “So… I’ve gone somewhere else?”

    “Not really, no. The world as you know it is the same, but the world you know has a lot more parts you don’t know.” He shrugged. “Who says that there isn’t a place with both you and Jenny.”

    I frowned. “You can *do* that?”

    He nodded. “So can you. *That’s* why we need you to be careful.”

    I was still dubious. “Why?”

    He sighed and leaned forward. “Because the same way I got both you and Jenny here tonight, you can get me and any number of other people together. And that makes us valuable to some people.”

    My eyes narrowed. “Like who?”

    He scoffed. “Who do you think? Government, big business, the Illuminati… don’t look at me like that, they’re out there somewhere. Everything is. You can find anything you want. Which means you can find anything anyone else wants as well.”

    “Anything?” I asked.

    “An-y-thing,” he said, emphasizing each syllable. “Are you getting it yet?”

    An idea of what he meant was starting to set in. “So… who knows about this?”

    He laughed. “Everyone?” He shook his head. “No, not everyone. But trust me, the people in charge do. *That’s* why you need to be careful what you say or who you tell. Someone will show up, maybe not even someone from here, and they’ll be asking you to do some very unpleasant things for them.”

    “Like what?”

    He sighed again. “An-y-thing,” he said again. “Look, suppose someone asked you to go to a place where you could find a nuclear device just sitting beside the road. You could find one if you wanted, you know.”

    “Why would I do that?” I asked.

    He looked at me. “You have friends? Family? People important to you? They can’t Travel to get away. What happens when one of them are threatened?”

    “Wait a minute,” I said. “If I can go anywhere, couldn’t I go someplace where they were safe?”

    He nodded. “You could find a version of them that are safe. But the original version of them would still be threatened.”

    “Wait, there’s a ‘real version’ now?”

    “Sure!” He waved Jenny over again and ordered us both another round of beers. When they were delivered he took a drink of his and continued.

    “You said something about having things from other places help you get there? Well, consider that *you* are from a specific place. The fact that you are you means there will always be someplace that it is the easiest to get back to. That’s home. That’s ‘real’ to you. Maybe you can just ignore the people who are real to you. I can’t.”

    I nodded. “OK, OK… I got it.”

    He looked at me for a moment then leaned back. “Good. Some people don’t make the distinction. They think where ever they are is good enough and are willing to give up their origin for someplace transient.” He continued looking at me. “Are you?”

    “No!” I felt confident in saying that.

    He tilted his head. “So when you travel to a place where Lisa is still in love with you, you’re willing to turn away from it for here?”

    I flushed angrily. “How do you know about…”

    He waved me off before I could finish. ‘Look, I and some of my ‘colleagues’ did as much research on you as we could as soon as you uploaded that video to the cloud. We talked to Lisa. Well, *a* Lisa.” He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. We know how you feel about her.”

    Now I was angry. I stood up. “*That* was none of your business!” I picked up my bag. “I’ve had enough of this. I’m leaving.”

    I took a step away, then heard him behind me. “Don’t you want to know about the place where she still wants you back?”

    I stopped and turned back to him. “You leave her out of this!”

    He shrugged. “I will. But will anyone else in this instance?”

    “Like who?”

    “Everyone?” He shrugged. “You’re not really good at keeping quiet, are you?”

    “What is that supposed to mean?”

    He laughed. “You have something happen to you and what was the first thing you did? Post it on Reddit. And YouTube. And upload it to cloud storage which *everyone* monitors.” He shook his head. “You’re lucky you haven’t had someone pay a visit to you yet.”

    I was about to get annoyed, then felt a knot form in my stomach. Trenton noticed my change in expression. “What?”

    I shook my head. “Nothing, nothing… Probably.” I sighed, then told him about my phone being wiped.

    His brow furrowed. “That wasn’t me, or anyone I know. So someone else has noticed you too.” He paused. “Anything else strange happen? Any other incidents?”

    Another shake of my head. “No, nothing. That’s what makes it so weird.”

    He thought for a moment, then stood up. “Hey, Jenny! We’re heading out to the parking lot for a cig break. Watch our table for us, will you?”

    “Sure thing!” she said, walking over. “You want me to pour y’all another while you’re out?”

    “Sounds great!” He gave her a kiss on the cheek then waved to me. “Let’s go.”

    I was confused. “I don’t smoke.”

    “Neither do I. Let’s *go*!” He started towards the door then looked back at me expectantly. I sighed, stood up, and followed him.

    Once outside he looked at me. “Where’s your car?”

    Annoyed, I pointed to it. “Why are you so interested in my car all of a sudden?”

    “Trust me,” he said, somewhat condescendingly. He walked over to the car. “A Corolla? Really?”

    I was getting annoyed again. “Hey, I drive a lot. It’s reliable and paid for.”

    He shrugged. “You can get you a better one the next time you head out. Just saying…” He started slowly walking around the car, occasionally stopping to look under it.

    ‘What are you expecting to find?” I asked, following behind him.

    He had just ducked down again. “This!” he said triumphantly. He reached up under the car, grabbed something, and pulled it out. It was a small, grey box with a stubby antenna extending from it.

    “What is that?” I said, surprised.

    “It’s a tracking unit. Sends out your GPS location every so often. Your company doesn’t track you, does it?”

    I shook my head. “Not that I know of. Who… who put that there?”

    “Probably whoever wiped your phone,” he said. He shrugged, then knelt down again and placed the unit under the car next to me. “That’ll confuse them for a while. Let’s go get that next beer.” He turned and walked back into the restaurant. After a brief moment, I followed.

    Back at our table I sat down and took a drink of my new beer. I had been thinking on the way back in and looked at him.

    “You came in after me; how do I know you didn’t put that there yourself?”

    It was his turn to shake his head. “I didn’t know where your car was, remember? And you’re either going to believe me or not. I’m not asking anything of you except to keep quiet about what you’ve found. You get caught, most of the problems will be yours. The rest of us will just have to avoid this area for a while. Got it?”

    I thought for a moment. “OK, then who did put that thing there?”

    Another shrug. “Who knows? Whoever wiped your phone, I assume.” He leaned forward. “Look, you’re in this whether you want to be or not. I’d advise not saying anything more about this. Ignore everything if you want. I don’t care.” He stood up. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have someone else I need to talk to.” He walked over to where Jenny was serving another table, kissed her cheek, pointed at me then then headed towards the bar.

    I sat there confused for a few minutes, slowly drinking my beer. I was contemplating leaving when Jenny came up to me.

    “Y’all need anything else?”

    I shook my head. “No, I’m good.” I started reaching for my wallet.

    Jenny waved me off. “Oh don’t worry, Trenton took care of you.”

    I hesitated, then shrugged and put it back away. “Tell him thanks.”

    “Sure!” She turned to look at Trenton now sitting at the bar and engaged in an animated conversation with the bartender. She was about to leave when I stopped her. “Wait… How long have you known Trenton?”

    She paused. A momentary puzzled look crossed her face, then she smiled. “Oh, we’ve know each other for a while.”

    I frowned slightly. “He come here a lot?”

    That puzzled look returned for another moment then disappeared. “Oh yeah, he comes in all the time.” She winked at me. “You need to come in more often too.”

    That made me inexplicably uncomfortable but I tried not to show it. “Sure, I’ll try.”

    She smiled and nodded. “Great! See you!” She turned and headed for the bar. After a final drink of my beer, I got up and left.

    I got back to my car, sat down, and thought for a moment. What was it I had gotten myself into? Did I really have this ability that ‘Trenton’ said I did? I thought about Jenny and somehow felt uncomfortable. If I did, did I want to use it?

    I looked at the car next to me. The one that Trenton had placed the tracking device on, if that was what it was, was gone. He had said that he hadn’t put it there. If he was telling the truth, then who had put it there. And did I want to find out? With a sigh, I started the car and headed for home.

  • NaNoWriMo 2016 – Wrong Exit – Week 1

    I was still thinking about what to do the next morning as I picked up my deliveries and set out. I was heading out 20 east when I thought of someone. I pulled out my cell phone and dialed it, flipping it onto the car Bluetooth. The phone barely rang once before I got an answer.

    “McPhearson Engineering. This is Scott!”

    “Hey Scott,” I said. “It’s Dale. How’s it going?”

    “Dale! Been a while man, haven’t seen you much since you moved to the north side. How’s it going?”

    “Pretty good, pretty good. And I can’t complain about the commute anymore.”

    He laughed. “Isn’t your whole job commuting?”

    It was my turn to laugh. “No, no, I do my driving *outside* of town.” I paused, wondering how to tell him what I had found. “So…” I said, stalling, “How’s Diane doing?”

    “Fine,” he said, “everything is great.” It was his turn to pause. “Say, we’re doing a game night tonight at our place, Jeff and Elizabeth will be there, why don’t you come down and join us? We can all catch up on everyone.”

    I hesitated. “Sure,” I said finally. “Assuming I get back to town on time.”

    “Don’t worry about that,” he said. “We never get started on time anyway.” We chatted a bit more before he had to get back to work and hung up.

    I drove in silence for a bit. I’d known Scott since college, though I hadn’t hung around with the old group much after that. I guess it was because I felt I didn’t fit in with them anymore since they had graduated and I hadn’t. Still, it would be nice to see the old gang again, even if I couldn’t get any info on what I had found. I shrugged. I wasn’t sure if they would believe me anyway.

    The day proved relatively uneventful and I got back home early enough to change and grab a couple of six-packs before heading downtown. I had been joking earlier, but the traffic into Atlanta on a Friday night proved to be the worst I had encountered that day. I eventually made it to The Station and found my way up to Scott and Diane’s condo.

    Diane met me at the door. “Dale!” She gave me a quick hug before inviting me inside. “I thought Scott was joking when he said you called him this morning. How have you been?”

    “Fine, fine,” I said, oddly uncomfortable. I held up the beer I was carrying. “Where should I put this?”

    “Kitchen,” she said, pointing. “Scott’s in there too, trying to do something.” She led me down a short hall and into the kitchen. Scott was indeed there, waving a cloud of smoke away from the oven. I heard Diane sigh behind me and turned to see her throw up her hands and head back into the hall.

    “So, do you need the fire department or just a beer?”

    Scott looked up and laughed, closing the oven door. “Beer is fine.” He took one of the six-packs from me and, after taking one for himself, stuck it in the refrigerator. I handed him the other pack after taking one as well and he stuck it beside the first before closing the door.

    “Crisis averted!” he said, popping the tab. “How’s it going, Dale?”

    “Um… fine?” I said. “What about…” I trailed off and pointed at the oven.

    He waved dismissively at it. “It’s off. It’ll go out. I’ll clean it in the morning.” He shrugged. “That’s what I get for trying to make buffalo wings.”

    “Didn’t you screw up the dorm microwave once the same way?”

    He looked offended. “That was because I forgot to take the foil off the top. That was different.”

    I shrugged. “Had the same effect.”

    He waved dismissively. “Oh well, we’re getting pizza anyway. Come on, let’s see what everyone else is up to.”

    He led me to the living room where Diane was watching Jeff and Lisa playing some fighting game on the PlayStation. Donna was winning, based on the amount of profanity coming from Jeff. It was one of his greatest skills.

    “Hi Dale,” said Donna without looking away from the TV. Jeff glanced back towards me, which was enough of a distraction for Donna’s fighter to unleash a series of uppercuts on his champion. The fighter collapsed and Jeff groaned, dropped the controller and stood up and stretched.

    “Never fight this woman,” he said, pointing at Donna. “Never.” He walked around the sofa and slapped me on the shoulder. “Haven’t seen you in what, a year or more? How you been, man?”

    I shrugged, starting to feel uncomfortable. “Jessica’s going away party back in the summer, I think? The one at the pool?”

    Donna had stood up as well and had cocked her head at me, giving me a look I remembered all too well. “That was *last* summer,” she said, shaking her head. “So a year-and-a-half ago.”

    I started to respond then took another look at her and felt myself twitch in shock. “You’re pregnant?” I blurted out without thinking.

    Several of the others laughed and I felt myself redden with embarrassment. “Yes,” she said, patting her stomach. “Six months.”

    “Oh…” I was still recovering from my surprise. “I didn’t know.” I turned back to Jeff. “Congrats man, I didn’t know.”

    “Thanks,” he said with a shrug, taking my pro-offered hand, “but she’s doing the hard part.” He turned back to Donna and smiled.

    “Congratulations to you too.” I walked over and awkwardly hugged her across the sofa. She smiled.

    “If you talked to people anymore you would know what was going on,” she said, shaking her head at me. “Or even looked at Facebook from time to time.”

    I shrugged, feeling uncomfortable again. “Yeah, sorry. I’ve just been kinda busy of late.”

    “Hey, no problems man!” Scott clapped me on the shoulder again. “You’re here now and we can catch up. Pizza should show up soon and we’ve got one of the new Legacy games we’re wanting to try.”

    “But if you play, you’ve got to come back for the next sessions, OK?” Diane was looking at me.

    I smiled back. It did feel good to be hanging out with everyone again. “Sure. I can do that.”

    “Great!”

    At that point the doorbell rang. “Pizza’s here!” said Scott, heading towards the door.

    A few minutes later we were all crowded in the kitchen around a couple of pizza boxes while Scott was handing out more beer from the refrigerator. I saw Diane glance into the oven, roll her eyes, then quickly shut it again.

    Jeff had seen her too. “Hey Scott, where are those wings you were making.”

    Scott shook his head. “Just eat your pizza.” He turned to me to change the subject. “So what’s up, Dale. What prompted you to suddenly start communicating again?”

    I hesitated. That morning calling Scott up had seemed like a good idea, but I had expected to talk to him and maybe Diane. I hadn’t expected to see Jeff or especially Donna. Now I wasn’t sure what to say. I felt uncomfortable. It *had* been a long time since I had seen everyone and I suddenly didn’t want to spoil the evening by making them think I was crazy or something.

    Not that they didn’t have reason to think that of me already.

    “Um… nothing really.” I said, finally. “Was just on a long route, thought about how I hadn’t talked to any of you in a while and suddenly decided to call and see what was going on.”

    Scott looked at me dubiously but his tone of voice was normal. “Hey, glad you did. We had wondered what happened to you.”

    “Yeah,” I said, shrugging, “I guess I did fall off the face of the Earth for a while.” I paused, thinking about how that may have been more accurate than I had intended.

    “Yeah, you kinda did,” said Donna. She hesitated a moment, looked away, then looked back. “Have you, um…, talked to Lisa lately?”

    I stared at her for a moment, then looked away. “No. No I haven’t.” I paused. “I… no.”

    There was an awkward silence. “She asked about you the last time we talked,” said Donna finally.

    I winced. “How is she?”

    She shrugged a shoulder. “Fine. Seems to like being up in Charlotte.” She paused again. “She’s engaged now, you know.”

    I winced again, a cold knot forming in my stomach. “Oh? I…” I hesitated. “Good. I’m happy for her.”

    Now Jeff was staring at me. “Yeah. She seemed happy when we talked to her.”

    I nodded, forcing a smile. “Good. Good.”

    “She said she tried to call you.” Donna was staring straight at me.

    I sighed. I really hadn’t wanted the conversation to go this way. Avoiding it was the main reason I hadn’t talked to my friends from college, my former roommate, my now-pregnant ex now married to my roommate, for over a year. I suddenly wished I hadn’t called Scott that morning.

    “Look,” I said. “Sorry. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought you into this. I’ll… I’ll be OK.” I drained my beer and tossed it into the trash. “Look… Maybe I should just go.”

    “What?” Scott stared at me in surprise. “Dale, what’s going on? You disappear on us for over a year, call out of nowhere, say you shouldn’t involve us in ‘this’, then suddenly leave? What the hell is going on.”

    “I can’t do this.” I said. I opened the refrigerator and grabbed one of the six-packs. “Keep that one.” I said, pointing. “Thanks for the pizza.” I turned and started walking towards the door.

    “Dale, wait!” Lisa ran up, getting between me and the door. “Dale… what’s going on?”

    “This was a mistake,” I said. I felt myself becoming emotional and closed my eyes and took a deep breath to steady myself. “Look… I’ll… just deal with it.”

    “We *are* your friends.” Scott said, coming up and standing next to Donna. “You’re the one who suddenly decided not to talk to anyone. When you called I thought it was something about Lisa but I guess it isn’t. Look, I know what happened with the two of you and we don’t really blame either of you. But that’s between you two. Don’t take it out on us.”

    I sighed and turned back to Donna. “I just figured that since she was your roommate…”

    She made a face. “What, that I would automatically side with her? Remember, I lived with her. And dated you before I met Jeff.” She turned to smile at him then back to me. “And he was *your* roommate. We all know both of you too well to take sides.”

    Jeff grimaced. “Actually, we think you’re both idiots, but we won’t go there.”

    I sighed, feeling a strange mixture of embarrassment and relief, and looked down. “I just figured…”

    Jeff let out a snort. “Yeah, that was always your problem. You just assume things and run away.” I flushed with sudden annoyance and looked up to glare at him. He held his hands out in a placating gesture. “Hey, you’re the one who cut yourself off from us for over a year. Don’t get mad at me.”

    I continued staring for several long seconds before taking a deep breath and letting out a long sigh. “OK,” I said. “OK. Fair enough. You aren’t wrong. It’s just… more complicated than that.”

    “It always is,” said Diane. “Just next time, say something first, OK?”

    “Yeah, fine.” I said, embarrassment setting back in again. There was a long pause before I walked back into the kitchen and put the six-pack back down and pulled another beer out.

    “I guess I can stay a while longer. If you can keep putting up with me.”

    Diane glared at me. “Will you shut up with that?” She shook her head. “That was always what was hardest to put up with from you.”

    “Sorry.” She just glared at me again.

    Scott stepped forward. “OK, so you weren’t wanting to talk about Lisa or whatever happened last year. That’s fine. But… why *did* you call me this morning?”

    I shrugged. “I just thought…”

    He shook his head. “No you didn’t. What’s going on?”

    I sighed again and shook my own head. “All of you will think I’m crazy.”

    Donna laughed. “Well, we already know that.” The others joined in the laugh and even I had to smile.

    “OK,” I said. “Here’s what’s happened.” I took a drink of my beer then launched into a description of what had happened. The first exit up by Dalton, the one past Macon and my conversation with Sara, and finally the woman I had met yesterday. I had expected derision or jokes, but as I continued I could see my audience becoming more interested.

    “I know it sounds insane.” I said as I finished. “But it happened. And I didn’t know who else I could talk to about it that wouldn’t think I was crazy or making stuff up.” I sighed. “Just thinking about it is driving me crazy. I had to talk to someone.”

    Jeff nodded. “Hey, I’d play that campaign. You always were the best at coming up with scenarios.”

    I looked at him. “I’m not making this up!”

    He held out his hands in a placating gesture. “No, I didn’t mean that. It just sounds like something from those games you used to run.”

    I sighed. “Yeah, I know. That’s what makes it so insane.”

    “Do you have a dashcam?” Scott asked suddenly.

    “What? No.” I shook my head. “Why?”

    “Get one.” he said. “If this is happening,” he held up a hand to forestall any objection from me. “If this is happening then you need some sort of evidence or proof. It sounds like physically bringing something back with you may be a bad idea, but I’d guess that a recording on something from ‘here’, for lack of a better term, would work. You can remember what happened over there anyway.”

    “Over there?”

    He shrugged. “Dunno what else to call it for now.”

    I shook my head. “This stuff happened.” I paused. “Y’all don’t think I’m crazy.”

    It was Donna’s turn to shake her head. “We all know you. You tend to over-react to things and think everything is a disaster even when it isn’t.” She paused when I glared at her. “Sorry, but you do. Anyway, despite that you’ve never been one to make things up. or lie about things. If you say this is something that happened to you then it happened. We believe you.” She looked around and the others nodded agreement.

    I was suddenly almost overcome with emotion and relief. “Thanks,” I said, blinking my eyes. “I thought… I thought you would have thought I had completely lost my mind.”

    Jeff laughed. “Oh, we know that. But that has nothing to do with whatever you’ve found.”

    Donna had been sitting quietly and finally spoke. “The thing that gets me is that other people seem to know about this. That guy near Dalton, the plumber you said it was? He seemed to know where you had been. And your co-worker, Caleb did too.” She looked at the others. “This should be all over the Internet. Why haven’t we heard of this.”

    I shook my head. “Yeah, that’s been bothering me too. I posted a couple of things on Reddit but no one seemed to pay any attention to them. And I’ve checked Google and found a bunch of stuff, but nothing there seems to completely match up.” I laughed. “There’s a ridiculous amount of weird crap on the Internet, but the weird crap doesn’t seem to match up to the real weird crap I’ve been running into.” That got a couple of laughs.

    Scott had still been thinking. “Do you have that menu anymore?”

    I shook my head. “Left it.”

    “Do you remember the name? Or the number?”

    “‘Boot Scooters’ was the name. I can’t remember the number.”

    Diane left for the living room then came back carrying her iPad, already typing on it. She scanned it for a few seconds.

    “Looks like there is a sports bar called ‘Boot Scooters’ in Pineville. That’s about 20 miles east of Macon.”

    I nodded. “Sounds about right.”

    She looked up. “And you don’t remember the number?”

    Scott looked at me. “You said you tried to call them. Is it still in your phone?”

    I pulled my phone out and looked at it. “Yeah, yes it is.” I scrolled down and rattled the number off.

    Diane tapped on her iPad again. “Yeah, that’s a Pineville number, but it’s apparently a private residence; there’s no other info.”

    Scott started pacing around the kitchen. “So the place you went to isn’t an exact duplicate of our world. It’s close, but not exact.”

    I shook my head. “What does that mean?”

    He shrugged. “It looked like a normal exit to you, even though it apparently replaced an existing exit. You say you found it twice; once up 75 and once near Macon?”

    I nodded. “Yeah. But the Dalton one I found wasn’t where a real exit would be.”

    “Not here,” he said.

    “What does that mean?”

    He looked around then stopped his pacing and leaned back against the table. “My best guess is that you’re somehow winding up in an alternate universe.”

    “What?”

    He waved his hands. “I’ve got no better term for it. Let’s assume everything you’ve said is correct.” I started to say something but he waved me off. “I’m sure you’re telling us what you think happened, but you may have been pranked in some way.” He shrugged. “If you show up on TV in the next month or so we’ll all have a good laugh, I assume. Anyway, outside of that the only think I can think of is an alternate universe.”

    I laughed. “What? Like that TV show ‘Sliders’ or something?”

    He nodded. “Yeah. But why you? And, given that a random guy at a Quik-Trip apparently knew something about this, why isn’t this general knowledge?”

    I shook my head. “That’s been bothering me too. If that guy and Caleb knew about this then others should know too. So why isn’t it on the news?”

    Diane laughed. “You didn’t expect us to believe you. Why would anyone else?”

    “Someone would have said something.”

    She nodded. “Yeah, and who would have believed them?”

    “Y’all believe me, don’t you?”

    Scott nodded slowly. “Yeah, but we know you and know you don’t make up things like this. Others may have told people they trusted but it never went beyond them. Or…” He paused. “What happened to Caleb?”

    “I don’t know. I never knew him that well.”

    He nodded again. “Yeah, he told his fiancee… Sara was it, about what he found and she didn’t seem to share his interest. So he quit talking to her. Maybe the same thing happens to everyone else. Maybe they all eventually leave and never come back.” He paused. “There *are* any number of missing persons every year. Maybe this accounts for some of them.”

    I shook my head. “I don’t know.”

    He shook his head in return. “I don’t either.” He sighed, then laughed. “I’m almost jealous. I’d love to have something weird like that happen to me.”

    “Me too!” said Donna. “Take me with you next time!”

    I laughed. “I’d love to, but you’re the one who left me for my roommate.” I spoke without thinking and winced almost immediately.

    There was a brief awkward silence then she went over and hugged Jeff. “Hey, I’m glad you introduced me to him.” She gave him a quick kiss.

    The awkward silence returned. Finally, I spoke again. “So… have you heard from Lisa lately.”

    Jeff and Donna looked at each other. “She calls sometimes,” said Donna, finally. She paused. “She asks about you.”

    I closed my eyes briefly, then opened them. “So… what do you say?”

    “That we don’t know.” she shrugged. “You did kinda disappear, you know.”

    I looked away in embarrassment again. “Yeah, yeah, I know.” I sighed. “Next time she calls, tell her… tell her I’m sorry, but I’m glad she’s happy.”

    Jeff and Donna looked at each other then Donna nodded. “Sure. I’ll let her know.”

    I nodded in return. “Yeah. Thanks.”

    Scott looked around, sensing the mood change in the room. “OK, then. We’ve got a game to play! Who’s ready?”

    We spend the next few hours playing three rounds of Legacy. Scott and Diane played as the Exorcist, Jeff and Donna as the Inquisitioner while I wound up being the Priest. We did well, but London fell to the hordes before we were able to stabilize the rest of the world.

    “That’ll be bad next time.” said Scott as we started putting things away. He looked up at me. “Try again in two weeks?”

    I nodded. “Sure. It’ll be fun.”

    “Bring Sara next time.” said Donna, coming back in from the kitchen.

    I shook my head and laughed. “I’m not involved with Sara.”

    Scott laughed as well. “Dale, you’re never involved with anyone. Until you are. Invite her. The worst that can happen is she says ‘no’.”

    I shrugged. “Yeah, yeah, I know. We’ll see.”

    He shook his head. “You’ll be here by yourself.”

    I flushed again. “I’ll invite her.”

    He nodded. “Sure you will.”

    Soon afterwards everyone started saying their goodbyes. I was the first to leave, suddenly feeling uncomfortable again. A few minutes later, I was back in my car and heading north on 75 for home. They were doing some construction and traffic was slow, so I had fired up an audio book on my phone and was listening to it as I inched northward.

    “When will we be there?” came a voice from my right.

    I jumped, hard enough that I would have hit my head on the roof if I hadn’t been wearing my seat belt and only the fact that traffic was basically standing still kept me from having an accident. I looked over at the passenger seat.

    The woman I had picked up yesterday in that other place was sitting there, looking at me. “When will we be there?” she repeated, expressionless.

    I took a few seconds to catch my breath, then swallowed hard. “Where…” I finally got out, “where did you go?”

    Her expression changed slightly. “Here?” She tilted her head. “I’ve been here.”

    I shook my head. “That was yesterday! You were there then you… weren’t!”

    Her face remained unchanged. “I’ve been here.” She paused. “You have been very quiet.” She looked around again. “It has been a long trip. When will we be there?”

    I shook my head again and took a few seconds to find my phone and stop the playback. I paused, then tapped the camera icon, starting it. I dropped it on the console in front of the shifter propped up against the dash where I thought the camera would get both of us.

    “OK.” I said, pulling forward a few feet then turning back to her. “You vanished yesterday, as soon as I got back on the Interstate. I didn’t know where you had gone.”

    She shook her head slightly. “I’ve been here.”

    I sighed. “OK. OK. Look, I don’t know what the rules are. I don’t know what is happening or why. Can you tell me anything?”

    She looked at me with faint curiosity and concern. “You are not a Traveller?”

    I shook my head. “I don’t even know what that means!”

    She continued to look at me. “But… you were on the Road.” Somehow I heard the capital letter.

    “The Road?”

    She nodded slowly. “The Road between the places. The way we Travel.” I heard that capital too. “How did you get there if you are not a Traveller?”

    I shook my head. “I don’t know. I just… found myself there.”

    She nodded slowly. “Yes. Yes. That is how it starts, isn’t it?”

    “What starts?”

    “The Travelling.” She tilted her head. “Who were you looking for?”

    “I was looking for a bathroom.” I laughed. “I found one, I guess.”

    She paused before answering. “I was looking for someone. They told me I might be able to meet him.” She paused again. “I never did.” A tinge of sadness crept into her voice. “I think he was too far away.”

    Traffic moved a bit and I pulled forward and was able to get over to the next lane, which looked like it was moving a bit faster. The delay gave me time to think a bit more. “Who were you looking for.” I asked once I got back into the lane.

    “My husband,” she said quietly. She didn’t say anything for a while and I actually glanced over to see if she had disappeared again. We had reached the construction zone and a roller was smoothing down some recently poured asphalt. A number of workers were standing around watching the machine and she was watching them.

    “So different,” she said. “Everywhere is so different.”

    Traffic started picking up and I accelerated with it. Once clear of the zone I shifted back to the left where I would be less distracted and glanced back over at her.

    “I’m Dale, by the way.” I said, holding my free hand out towards her.

    She looked at my hand for a moment, then gently squeezed it. “Nichole. I’m Nichole Masters”.

    “Good to meet you Nichole,” I said. I suddenly feeling awkward. “You said you were looking for your husband?”

    She nodded silently. “He was in the war. He didn’t come home. They said that he hadn’t been killed, that he just went out on patrol one day and never came back. He and his jeep just vanished.”

    I nodded. “That must have been rough.”

    She sat silent again. “I just want to go home.”

    “Sure,” I said, swinging towards the exit lane. “Where is that?”

    “Arman Lane. South of the bridge.”

    I furrowed my brow. “Arman Lane? Where’s that?”

    “South of the bridge.” Her voice raised slightly. “About a mile from the coast.”

    “The coast?” I turned to stare at her for several seconds before looking back to the road again. “There’s no coast near here.”

    “No?” I heard rare emotion in her voice. “Where… where are we? Where are you taking me?”

    I hesitated. I hadn’t even thought of that. “I guess… I don’t know.” I paused. “Where *are* you from?”

    “Saint Francisca. In California.”

    “California? San Francisco?”

    “What is that?” she asked.

    I was looking at the road as I negotiated the loop on the exit. “San Francisco. That’s all I’ve ever heard it called. Do people actually call it…” I completed the turn and glanced in her direction again.

    The passenger seat was empty.

    I felt a knot in my stomach as I gripped the wheel tightly, staring straight ahead at the road ahead of me except for occasional glances over towards the passenger seat. I somewhat expected to see Nichole sitting there again, but was unsurprised when she didn’t.

    Some minutes later I was home. Grabbing my bag, I reached for the phone then remembered I had put it against the dash. I picked it up and looked. The camera was still recording. I stopped the recording and immediately started a playback and was inexplicably relieved to see an image of me and Nichole. Well, my right side and arm and her left arm and shoulder. But at least it showed someone had really been there in my car.

    “I’m *not* going crazy!” I shouted, a bit more loudly than I had planned.

    “Yes you are!” came a shout from somewhere else in the complex. I winced in embarrassment and headed for my apartment.

    Once inside I immediately plugged my phone into my computer and pulled up the file. I replayed the entire thing then, when it ended, replayed it again.

    Our conversation was a bit difficult to make out because of the engine noise, especially after we got up to speed again, but everything was as I remembered it. I watched towards the end when I was taking the exit. I could see myself turning the wheel as I took the loop and from the angle of her shoulder Nichole was looking out the window. Then, in the space of a single frame, she vanished.

    I only had the video editor that had come with the machine but I pulled up the video in it. In one frame her arm, shoulder and a bit of her hair were visible. In the next they were gone. There was nothing to indicate she had ever been there.

    I shook my head, then immediately made several copies of the file, even putting one up on online storage and another on a USB stick to take down to Scott. I thought about calling him to tell him what had happened, but realized it was late. I decided to call him in the morning.

    I did take some time to look up “Saint Francisca” on-line. There didn’t seem to be city with that name in California and none of any importance anywhere else. I also did a search for “Nichole Masters” but came up empty. I got a few hits but none of them seemed to be the person I had met.

    Finally, after helping myself to the last beer from the six-pack, I went on to bed. I lay there a long while before I went to sleep; I had too much on my mind to process. If anyone had told me what I was experiencing I would have said they were crazy. Or at least were talking about something not real. But it *was* happening. And I had the video proof.

    At least the old gang believed me. Or at least they seemed to. I sighed in the darkness. I had cut myself off from them. After I had dropped out while they stayed in I had felt a bit disconnected from them. Then, after Lisa and I had… well, I didn’t want to think about it. I just assumed they would assume it was another failure of mine. And, if I was honest with myself, I avoided them because they reminded me of what could have been.

    Then I thought about Lisa for a long time. I finally fell asleep.

    The next morning I slept late. When I did get up I cleaned up then headed out. After a stop at a Caribou for coffee I went down to Best Buy to look at dash-cams. I could have gotten one from Amazon cheaper, but I didn’t want to wait for it to show up. I got one that not only covered the road ahead but had a rear camera to record what happened inside the car as well. I then spent enough time to hook it up and make sure it was working before pulling out onto the road again.

    After confirming for the third time that the camera was working I pulled my phone out to call Scott. I couldn’t get the Bluetooth to connect, so I had to wait until I got to the next red light to look at it.

    My phone was dead. I couldn’t do anything with it. With a curse, I turned around and headed for the AT&T store.

    Once there, I talked to one of the clerks and showed him the phone. He looked at it for a bit, then went into the back. A few minutes later he returned with another worker, this one apparently a manager of some kind.

    “Mr. Carter?” he asked, holding out a hand. “I’m Thomas Simpson.” He looked at me a bit askance. “Why don’t we see if I can help you over here?” He gestured towards the counter in back.

    I could already tell that something was wrong. “Is there a problem?”

    He sighed and looked around. “No, no… but let’s talk back here, please?”

    I looked around. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I needed my phone. With a shrug I followed him to the rear counter.

    There he dismissed the clerk I had been working with. “Mr. Carter, I’m sorry, but… may I see some ID?”

    I was confused but pulled out my driver’s license and handed it to him. He looked from it to me several times, then handed it back and looked at something on the iPad he was carrying.

    “OK, Mr. Carter, did you find your phone again?”

    “Find my… what?” Now I was completely confused.

    It was his turn to look confused as well. He held up the iPad towards me. “You called support several hours ago and said that your phone had been stolen. You asked us to lock it and remotely wipe it.” He pointed at the phone I was holding. “Is that it?”

    “What?” I asked. “No! I didn’t call you. My phone was fine! Who… what?”

    He looked at me oddly. “Did you not call us?”

    “If my phone was stolen then how could I have called you?” I asked.

    “Another phone?” he said, stating the obvious. He looked at his notes again. “Whoever called had your passphrase and PIN; everything they needed to access your account.” He thought for a moment. “Would someone else have had your information? A roommate maybe, or your wife or girlfriend. Or ex-wife or girlfriend?”

    “No, no.” I said, shaking my head. “Not for a while.”

    “Could someone have done it anyway?”

    I continued to shake my head. “No. I don’t think so.”

    Simpson rubbed his eyes. “OK. We can unlock your phone again, but it’s been wiped. The data on it is gone.”

    I immediately thought about the recording. The knot in my stomach had come back as well.”

    “That’s ok,” I said, trying to sound unconcerned. “I can recover it.”

    He looked at me curiously. “Are you sure?”

    I nodded. “Yeah, yeah. I’m OK.”

    He talked a bit more, trying to get me to upgrade to a newer phone or to sign up for their backup service, but I was in a hurry to get back home. I was suddenly paranoid. Had someone wiped my phone just to get rid of the recording? The timing seemed just too coincidental.

    Thirty minutes later I was back in my apartment. Nothing seemed disturbed and I quickly checked my computer to see if the copies of the recording I had made were still there. They were. I relaxed a bit. Then I looked up Scott’s number and called him.

    “Heya Dale!” he said on answering. “After a year-and-a-half you’re sure talkative again.”

    “Yeah,” I said. “Hadn’t planned on calling you back up right away, but something came up.” I told him about Nichole appearing in my car the night before, then disappearing again.

    “I got a recording of the whole thing.” I finished. “Well, most of it. I made y’all a copy.”

    “What!” He sounded excited. “You had a recording and didn’t call me first thing?”

    “I didn’t know if you still slept late on weekends, so I went and got a dashcam like you suggested. Oh, then something screwy happened with my phone.”

    “Did you drop it in the toilet again?” He laughed.

    “That was just that once,” I said, aggravated. “Someone wiped it.”

    “Huh?”

    I then told him about my trip to the phone store that morning. “One of y’all didn’t decide to have some fun at my expense after last night, did you?”

    “No,” he said. “None of us would have done that.”

    I sighed. “Someone knew enough about me to get into my account. That’s what worries me.”

    “And it happened just after you made contact again with this strange woman.” There was silence for a moments. Finally, he let out a laugh and spoke again.

    “This all sounds like something from that occult conspiracy game you used to run back at Tech. But you wouldn’t have made the connection that obvious though.”

    I nodded. I *had* thought of that myself, but decided I was just being too paranoid.

    “I doubt there’s a vast government watchdog agency out looking for people who randomly take Interstate exits that lead to other universes or something.” I paused. “And that’s probably the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever said.”

    Scott laughed again. “Glad you hear you sounding like yourself again. And that’s only about the third of fourth most ridiculous thing you’ve ever said.”

    I laughed in return. “OK, OK, fine. Now, how do I get this file out to you?”

    There was a brief pause. “Diane’s got her shift at the pharmacy today so she won’t get home until about 8. I was out doing some running around. You remember where the Toro La Paz is?”

    “Down near Buckhead?”

    “Yeah, that one. I’m over at the mall. Meet you there in about an hour?”

    “Sure.”

    It took me about 45 minutes to get there. Scott was already at a table with a beer when I came in. He had his tablet out but saw me and waved me over.

    “Didn’t think to ask when I was over last night.” I said, sliding into a chair. “Where’s Diane working?”

    “Down at Grady. Just handles the in-house stuff.”

    I shrugged. “Just wondered if she was at one of our clients, but Grady handles their own stuff.”

    “You still with ExoMed then?”

    I nodded. “Yeah, they aren’t that bad to work for. What I do is easy enough and it doesn’t pay too badly.”

    “Glad to hear it’s working out for you.” I thought he was going to say something else but he apparently thought better of it. “So, where’s this file you have.”

    I took the USB from my pocket and handed it over to him. He busied himself with pulling a tablet from his backpack as the waitress came over to take my order. A few minutes later I had my beer and he shifted over to the next chair so we could both see what was on the screen.

    He watched the entire thing, at one time pausing long enough to plug in some earbuds so he could hear in the noisy bar. When it was over he replayed the segment where Nichole had vanished again, then paused the playback.

    “That’s… interesting,” he said, nodding slowly. “I almost wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself.”

    I flushed. “You didn’t believe me last night?”

    It was his turn to redden. “I didn’t say that! But…” he paused. “But you have to admit it’s a pretty weird story.”

    I leaned back. “So you thought I was lying!” I stood up, grabbing my bag. “Sorry I bothered all of you again.” I started stalking towards the hostess stand to pay.

    “Dale, wait! Wait!” I heard Scott’s chair scrape back as he got up and hurried to get in front of me, holding up his hands in a placating gesture.

    “Dale… please. Stop this.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “You know what your problem has always been? You over react to everything. Which is great when something good happens, because you’re a great friend to be around then; you’re so enthusiastic that it’s contagious. But when something bad happens? You stalk off and take the air out of the room with you.” He sighed. “No, you aren’t lying. Now, let’s talk about this.”

    I looked around at the Saturday afternoon crowd. Half the ones who weren’t engrossed in the various games on the screens were staring at us. I reddened again and felt my eyes sting. I lowered my head and took a deep breath.

    “OK.” I said, turning back towards the table.”OK.” I went back to my chair and sat down, Scott following me.

    Our waitress had come hurrying over. “Is everything all right?”

    “Can I have another beer, please?” I said, not looking directly at her. She glanced at my still half-full glass then back to me.

    “It’s fine.” said Scott, returning to his own seat. “Just… another beer.”

    She looked from one to the other of us then nodded. “Sure. I’ll get it.” She glanced at me again then went off to the bar.

    I sat there for a while. The waitress returned with a second beer and Scott ordered something. I picked up the first beer and took several deep gulps, then put it down again.

    Again the waitress returned, this time with a queso bowl. Scott shoved the bowl and basket of chips towards me. “Did you eat anything today?”

    I picked up the beer again and took another drink. “This.” I said.

    He sighed. “Eat something.”

    I exhaled and poked a chip in the melted cheese. It was actually pretty good. I ate a few more then finished the first glass of beer. I sat it down, picked up the other, then looked at him for the first time since sitting back down.

    “Is that what you really think about me?” I asked.

    He lowered his head to look at me over the top of his glasses. “You know I’m not wrong.”

    I leaned my head back and looked at the ceiling. I remember oddly noting that it was covered in licence plates, as if that was suddenly very important. I felt my eyes stinging again and closed them.

    I don’t know how long I sat like that, several minutes probably, but eventually I leaned forward again.

    “No. No you’re not. I guess.”

    He nods. “Yeah. Now, look at if from our point of view. We’re friends for years, then you and Lisa have your little fight, you suddenly get mad at the rest of us for some reason, and then stalk off and refuse to talk to any of us. You unfriend everyone on Facebook and Snapchat, won’t answer your phone and apparently just disappear into your apartment.”

    I started to say something but he held up his hand. “Then, after almost a year-and-a-half, you contact me out of nowhere, almost storm off again and then tell us some story about taking non-existent exits to strange places. With no evidence except what someone none of us have ever met may have said. *Now* do you see why we may have been a bit skeptical.”

    I knew I was flushing red again and I took several deep breaths; I didn’t want to completely lose it further in public like this. I stared at my beer for a few long seconds before picking it up and taking a long drink.

    “So what did y’all think?” I asked, finally.

    “We weren’t sure,” he said bluntly. “After you left we talked a while. We didn’t think you were lying, really. But we weren’t sure if…” He paused and looked at his own beer then back at me. “We weren’t sure if you had really had something happen to you or of you just… thought something had happened to you.”

    I was almost beyond feeling anything more at this point. “Oh. So I’m crazy now, is that it?”

    He winced at that but returned my gaze. “Again, think of how it seemed to us.” He pointed at my two empty beer glasses. “How much do you drink these days?”

    “Too much,” I said, trying to make it sound like a joke. I picked up one of the glasses and held it up for the waitress to see. She nodded and went to the bar while I returned my gaze to Scott.

    He shook his head, sighing. “That was what Donna thought.” He hesitated. “Are you… still taking your meds?”

    I was surprised at that. “Who told you about that!”

    He shrugged. “Donna. I guess Lisa told her.”

    Now I was angry. “She would,” I said, bitterly.

    He sighed and shook his head. “She *was* worried about you, you know.”

    “Yeah, right.” I was trying to hold it back but the bitterness was spreading. “She sure had a strange way of showing it!”

    Scott sat for a moment then sighed. “Look, that’s in the past and we’re not going to resolve anything on it now. So let’s talk about this.” He pulled the stick from the side of his pad and held it up. “What do you make of this.”

    “So you believe me now?” I was back on the defensive again.

    He immediately nodded. “Yes, I believe you now. And when I show this to the others they will as well.” He paused and smirked. “I doubt you’ve suddenly become an expert on video editing in the past year or so.”

    I laughed. “Hardly.”

    He nodded. “So…” He handed the USB back to me. “So what do we have?”

    I was grateful for the change in topic. The waitress showed up and handed me my new beer and took Scott’s one and my two empties away. Scott hesitated, then ordered a second one for himself.

    “I don’t know,” I said after she left. “The only thing I think I’ve figured out is that having something from the other place helps you get back there.” I thought for a moment, then waited as Scott’s beer arrived. “And it occurs to me that both times Nichole disappeared was when I took the exit on or off the Interstate.”

    He tilted his head, thinking. “When did she appear? Did you notice?”

    I shook my head. “It was dark and I really wasn’t expecting someone else in the car. I had just hit the traffic backup from the Northside construction.”

    He thought. “You get on at 14th?” I nodded.

    “So you would have hit traffic immediately at that time,” he continued. “So she probably showed up just as you cleared the ramp.”

    I thought back to the night before. “Yeah, I guess that was about it.”

    He nodded, thinking. “So whatever it is is tied to… ‘transitions’ let’s call it, seem to occur on exits. I guess you could think of an exit as a transition; maybe that has something to do with it.”

    I looked askance at him. “Kinda metaphorical, isn’t it?”

    He shrugged. “You have a better idea? Or maybe I took too many philosophy classes at Tech.”

    “You studied philosophy?”

    “Had to get my humanities in somehow. And Diane was in the class.” He smiled.

    I laughed. “OK, I get it.”

    “Still,” he raised his hands, “that’s as good of an idea as we have. Now, how do we get you back there.”

    I leaned back. “What makes you think I want to go back there?”

    He laughed. “Don’t you want to see Nichole again?”

    I glared at him and he laughed harder. “Hey, you opened up to her pretty fast on that tape. Were you planning on taking her back to your place?”

    I waved him away. “No.” I thought. “Actually, I hadn’t really thought about where I was taking her. I guess I was kinda in shock at the time.”

    “I can understand that.” He paused again in thought. “So you think the trick to getting back to this other place is to have something from there?”

    I nodded. “Yeah. When I had that flyer it immediately took me back there. I kept going back there until I got rid of it.”

    He had his iPad out and was typing something on it. “That’s the only thing you took from the other place?”

    “Yeah,” I said, then paused. “Except for Nichole.”

    He looked up and thought for a bit. “Except she disappeared when you left, then reappeared here.”

    “Then disappeared again.” I said. “So what does all that mean?”

    He shook his head. “I have no idea.” He pointed to the now-congealing queso. “You going to eat any more of that?”

    We ate what was left of the chips and queso and talked about generalities for a while. It turned out that we had all been playing Inquisitor Online but had never run into any of them. He gave me his and Diane’s avatars and promised that he would look me up the next time they were on-line. I learned that none of them had watched *Phase* and spent some time describing the show and it’s setting to him.

    Finally, with me in a much better mood, we left. It was getting dark and a bit chilly, so I started to hurry to my car when Scott stopped me.

    “Dale? One other thing.”

    I turned around, brow furrowing. “Yeah? What?”

    He hesitated, then sighed. “Dale… Me, Diane, Jeff, Donna… we’re your friends. You’re the only one who doesn’t seem to realize that. We had a lot of good years together. You need help? Talk to us.” He paused. “Just don’t cut us completely out of your life, OK?”

    I felt a stinging in my eyes again, but this time it was almost from relief. I nodded slowly. “Thanks man.” I stepped forward and gave him a hug.

    He hugged back for a few seconds, then pushed away. “Hey man, I married. Let’s not make this awkward.” We both laughed.

    “I’ll show the video to the others, and maybe one or two other people I know. That OK?”

    I nodded. “Sure. Maybe they’ll know what to make of it.”

    He nodded in return. “Yeah. After I’ve talked to Jeff and Donna we’ll get back together and figure out what to do next. Deal?”

    “Deal.”

    I waved and started back towards my car when he called out again. “Wait! One more one more thing…”

    I sighed and turned back. “Yes?”

    “Call Lisa.”

    I froze, my mood suddenly plummeting again. “OK,” I said finally. “Sure.”

    “Trust me. You’ll feel better. ‘Closure’, and all that.”

    “Fine,” I said, turning back to my car. “I’ll call her.”

    “Really?”

    I had the door open but paused. “Yeah,” I said finally. “Really.”

    He waved and headed towards his own car. I sat there in the dark for a long moment before hitting the starter and pulling out of the parking lot a bit more briskly than I had planned.

    He was right. I knew he was right. It just wasn’t a conversation I was looking forward to having.

    I didn’t call Lisa. Not that night anyway.

    It was still relatively early when I got home. I didn’t feel like going out anywhere, so I found something frozen to eat, grabbed another beer and went on-line.

    I started by searching for anything about anyone saying they had taken an exit that went somewhere other than where they expected. Surprisingly, I found a good number but none of the ones I looked at seemed to match what I had encountered.

    I was about to give up when I stumbled across a recounting on the Reddit ‘no sleep’ forum. The poster told how they had been driving late at night, took an exit needing to find coffee, and found a place with no one in it. Businesses open, food and drink apparently being prepared, but no employees or guests. It definitely sounded familiar.

    This person, who went by ‘darkwood88’, said they got some coffee and a couple of candy bars, left some cash on the counter to pay for what they took, and left. They ended by saying that since then ever time they got on the highway the first exit they came to was always that same exit and that they had learned to always pass it by.

    The post got a few upvotes and a handful of responses saying that it was a ‘cool story’ but ‘not really that creepy’. I laughed at that.

    I looked around but couldn’t find anything more from ‘darkwood88’. I finally sent them a message saying I liked their story and wanted to know more about it.

    I then took the video I had recorded, removed the part after Nichole had vanished, and uploaded it to YouTube. I said in the description that this woman had appeared in my car somehow then disappeared and asked if anyone had experienced anything like that. I doubted I would get much response but wanted some record to be out there.

    After that I fired up a game and spent a couple of hours hacking my way through a dungeon beneath Pellucidar. When my party emerged into the light again I decided it was time to call it a night.

    I shut everything down and got ready for sleep. I was about to hit the light when I saw my cell phone and remembered my promise to call Lisa. I picked up the phone and checked the time. Almost midnight. Too late to call anyone.

    I was about to put the phone back down when I saw the email icon. I idly tapped it and the first entry was “Comment on your YouTube video”

    Apparently someone had responded to my video. I tapped to see what they had to say.

    The message was from ‘Anne Onymous” and read: “Take it down, you idiot! What are you doing?”

    For a moment I wasn’t sure how to react. I had expected disbelief or maybe a joke response or two, but didn’t know what to make of it. I opened the video and replied to the comment. “I wasn’t expecting the Men in Black to show up so soon.”

    To my surprise, the reply came almost instantly. “Not yet, but they will be here if you don’t take that down.”

    The pit in my stomach opened again. “Who is this?” I typed.

    “Take. It. Down.” was the reply.

    I hesitated. What had I gotten myself involved with? I decided to play along to see what I could find out for now and switched the video to “Private”.

    “Better?” I typed.

    “Best if you dropped it completely,” was the reply.

    “Who *are* you?” I asked.

    “A fellow Traveller,” they said.

    “A what?”

    There was a long delay. “Take this down,” they said, finally. “We will find you. Or leave it up and they will. Your choice.”

    “They?” I asked. “What the hell is this?”

    There was no response. I stared at the screen for almost 30 minutes waiting for something else to appear, but I finally decided that the person on the other end had said all they were going to say.

    I thought a bit longer then hit “delete” on the video.

    I turned out the lights and lay back in the bed. What had I gotten myself into?

    Someone else had found the same thing I had. ‘darkwood88’ had, and ‘Anne Onymous’ apparently knew something.

    What was a ‘Traveller’? Well, besides an old science fiction RPG. Nichole had used the term and they had referred to themselves as one.

    Then, there was the fact that they implied that someone else was interested in whatever was going on and that whoever this other party was did not have the same goals as these ‘Travellers’.

    What had I gotten myself into? I thought about just trying to forget the whole thing, but wasn’t sure if I could. What would happen if I found another of these exits? Or if Nichole appeared in my car again?

    Did I even really want to forget it? I laughed in the darkness.

    “Guess I get to be a Traveller.”

    The next morning I didn’t feel quite as excited about being a Traveller. There were apparently two parties involved; the Travellers and someone else. The Men in Black, obviously. Or probably. Other people knew about this and all of them apparently wanted to keep this secret. I probably hadn’t done myself any favors by asking the questions I had. I decided to be more careful.

    I also decided I needed to try to be a bit more prepared. I drove down to the REI and picked up some camping gear, a stove, tent and sleeping bag, and several packs of hikers meals. If something happened and I found myself on what I was now calling ‘the Other Side’ I would at least have food and shelter from ‘here’ so I wouldn’t have to immediately start depending on what I found there.

    Then I headed down to the gun range.

    I had a Glock 19 that spent most of its time in my car glove box. I carry drugs around for a living and, while I didn’t carry the Schedule one stuff and had never had any hint of a problem, there was always a chance that someone may figure out what I had and want it. So I had the gun.

    I took the gun, still in its case, into the building and went to the counter. The guy behind the counter had been polishing an AR 15 but carefully put it down as I came up.

    “What can I do for you?” he asked.

    “Just need to use the range for a while,” I said, holding up the case. “Been a while and I’m probably out of practice.”

    He nodded. “Good idea, the way the world is these days. Let’s see what you got.” I handed the case over to him. He opened it and immediately made a sound of annoyance.

    “When was the last time you used this?” He asked, giving me an annoyed look.

    I shrugged, suddenly feeling embarrassed. “Um… It’s been a while.”

    He took the gun from its case and held it up. “Was that the last time you cleaned it?”

    I reddened further. “…Probably?”

    He sighed and shook his head. “You try defending yourself with this thing and you’re probably in more danger from it than from whoever is breaking in. You got a cleaning kit?”

    “Not with me.” I was regretting coming in.

    He said something under his breath then came around the counter, still carrying the gun and case. “Come here.” He lead me to a work bench at one end of the store where a set of cleaning kits and rags were sitting.

    “I’m not letting you shoot this thing in my range,” he said, handing it back to me. “You get it in decent shape and then we’ll talk.” He turned and walked back to the counter, shaking his head as he did.

    I took a deep breath and held it for a moment before letting it go. He wasn’t wrong, I knew that. It was just embarassing to get caught out like that. I sat down on the bench and started stripping the gun.

    It didn’t take me that long, a Glock really isn’t that hard to maintain, but I put in more effort than I really needed; I didn’t want to get another lecture. When I was done I took it back up to the counter.

    He looked it over critically. “OK, I guess you do know what you’re doing. Just don’t let it get like that again.

    I got a couple of boxes of ammo and picked up a pair of ear and eye protectors and headed down to the range.

    I fired off one of the boxes. I didn’t do too bad, I was at least hitting my target but no one was going to accuse me of being a marksman. When I was done I took the targets back up to the counter to pay.

    The guy behind the counter looked at the targets. “Well, maybe they’ll be afraid enough when you pull it out that they’ll run away anyway.”

    I shrugged. “Hopefully I’ll never have to find out.”

    He shook his head at me. “I hope you won’t… but you will.”

    I left and stuck the gun, back in its case, back in the glove box and shoved the extra ammo box in beside it. I then glanced at my phone for the first time in a couple of hours.

    There was a missed call showing. It was from Lisa.

    I cursed. I knew that everyone was thinking they were helping, but I really didn’t need them getting involved in what had happened with me and Lisa. It was long done and I had long since burned that bridge behind me. And no matter how green the grass looked on the other side now, there was no way to get back.

    I saw there was a message as well. I started to play it, but decided I didn’t want to hear what she had to say at the moment. I would check it later.

    I headed out again, stopping at the store on the way home. A few frozen pizzas and a couple of six-packs later, I was back at home.

    Monday morning I made my pickup and was out on the road. I was down 85 towards Columbus that day and half-expected things to get weird, but everything stayed normal. I wasn’t sure if I was glad or disappointed.

    It was getting later than I had planned and I wasn’t looking forward to hitting Atlanta at rush hour, especially from the south side, so I decided to stop for something to eat then continue on it. I saw a Chili’s sign (don’t judge me) and thought a burger would be good.

    I had just cleared the exit when I heard a familiar voice to my right.

    “Is this where we’re going?”

    I looked to the passenger seat to see Nichole sitting there. By this point it just seemed normal.

    “I’m stopping for something to eat,” I said. “You hungry?”

    She hesitated, then nodded slowly. “Yes. Yes, I think I am.”

    I found the Chili’s and pulled into the parking lot, relieved to see it full of cars. We went in and almost immediately got a table. I sat down and ordered a beer. Nichole seemed fascinated by the menu.

    “Do you have Breithtnligh?” she asked the waitress.

    “What?”

    “Breightenligh? The German wine?”

    “German wine?” The waitress tried to suppress a laugh. “Not familiar with any of those.”

    “Is that a white or a red?” I asked. That was actually about all I knew about wine, but at least it was something.

    She furrowed her brow. “Red?”

    “Just bring her a red.” I told the waitress. She nodded, noted something on her pad, asked if we wanted appitizers, then wandered off.

    I looked at Nichole, who was now engrossed in her menu. She was attractive, with dark hair and pale skin. Slender, almost too slender, as if she hadn’t been eating enough. She was dressed in what I would have called “retro-chic”, except I suspect it was contemporous for her.

    She also seemed to be somewhere in her thirties and wore a wedding ring. I tried to not let my imagination go to far, but… this was effectively my first date in over a year. It was hard not to think of it otherwise.

    “So…” I said, trying to make conversation. “What is it you do? Did. Back home.”

    She seemed to concentrate for a while. “I worked with a doctor. Assisting him. Working with the patients.”

    “A nurse?”

    She shook her head slightly. “Not exactly. I was like a doctor, but not. More than a nurse. An assistant.”

    I nodded. “OK, I understand that.” I paused. “You said your husband went to a war? Iraq?”

    “Iraq?” she looked at me curiously. “No… I… don’t know where that is. He went to Washington. After the invasion.”

    “Invasion?” It was my turn to be confused. “What invasion?”

    “The Ottomans,” she said, giving me a look that indicated it should have been obvious. “After they invaded the northwest from Alaska.”

    It took me a few seconds to process that. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I looked at her again. She was still looking at me curiously but I looked at her clothing. “Retro-chic” might describe it, but it still looked slightly wrong. And there was something about the way she talked.

    I looked around. I was in a restaurant and didn’t want to make a scene. But… what did that mean? I’ll also admit that I didn’t want to say something that might turn her against me. I was trying a bit too hard to get her to like me.

    Fortunately I was saved by the return of the waitress with our drinks. I ordered a burger and she, after looking at the menu in confusion for a bit, ordered chicken. The waitress collected the menus and left. I took a long drink from my beer as she took a cautious sip from her wine then took a longer swallow.

    “So… Washington.” I said.

    She nodded. “Nathaniel was in the medical corps. We had met in med school.” She smiled and I nodded politely. “When the invasion started we were exempt since we were both professionals, but he felt he had to do something. He volunteered.”

    She looked down. “I argued with him. Said he was being stupid. But he insisted he had to go.” She paused. “I wonder if I had been more supportive of him then he… he might not have found the Road.”

    I twitched slightly at the way she said that. “The Road?” I said, with a bit more intensity than I had intended.

    She looked at me curiously. “Yes, the Road.” Her eyes narrowed. “If you were not on the Road, how did you find me?”

    I took a deep breath and held it. Did I want information, or did I want to keep her opinion of me? And was I an idiot for worrying about the latter?

    I released the breath, took another long drink from my beer, then continued. “I… don’t know what the ‘Road’ is,” I confessed. “I’ve…” I looked around then back to her. “I’ve just been finding myself in… strange places. You were in one of them.” I paused, wondering how much I should reveal to her.

    “Since then you’ve… been appearing to me and disappearing. I don’t know what it means.” For some reason I felt my eyes stinging from that revelation. I blinked several times, then continued. “I wanted to talk to you again, but… I don’t know what any of this is.”

    I don’t know how I expected her to react, but she looked at me for several long seconds. Any response she was about to give was interrupted by the waitress returning with our food. She asked if I wanted another beer, asked how Nichole’s wine was, then left.

    We ate in silence for a while. I had just drained my beer and swapped it for the one the waitress brought me when she put down her utensils and looked up.

    “Is this your first trip?”

    I hesitated as I finished chewing. “I… guess?” I confessed. I shook my head then leaned forward, talking rapidly. “Look, I… don’t know what is going on. All kinds of weird things are happening, and I think it all has to do with me taking an exit that didn’t exist.”

    I paused, wondering how much I should say. I finally decided that I just had to say what was going on. Anything else would just complicate things further.

    “Look…” I said, pushing my half-eaten plate away. “I don’t know what is going on. I kept finding myself in places with no one else. Then I ran into you, and now you keep showing up in my car. And other people seem to know what is happening to me, but they won’t talk to me and keep telling me to not say anything.”

    I looked around, helplessly. I had been getting louder as I talked and several others in the restaurant were looking at me. I took a deep breath and continued in a lower voice.

    “I really don’t know what is going on. I really don’t know what is happening to me.” I reached across the table and took her hand. “Please, help me!”

    She jerked her hand away from mine and I felt myself flush red. But she made no other reaction and sat there for a long time, thinking. Finally she spoke.

    “I don’t know much,” she said. “There are people who can travel on what they call ‘The Road’, but most people can’t. And even people who can usually don’t know they can. But they can take other people with them.” She paused and looked down. “That’s what happened to me,” she said, quietly.

    I took a deep breath. “OK,” I said. “OK. But… what can you tell me?”

    She was quiet for a moment. “Will you help me?”

    I nodded. “Of course, if I can.”

    She looked straight at me. “And what do you want from me?”

    I sighed and waved my hands. “I just want to know what is going on!” I said, a bit too loudly. Several people looked at me and I leaned forward again.

    “Sorry. Look, I’m not going to ask anything else of you.” I had an idea of what she was talking about and didn’t want to think about it. “Just… tell me what you can.”

    “You will help me find Nathaniel?” She was staring at me intently.

    I nodded. “Yes. If I can.”

    She hesitated, then nodded. “OK then.” She took another drink of her wine. I flagged the waitress over and got another drink for both of us. When it arrived Nichole took another drink and started talking.

    “I don’t know what it is,” she said. “Whatever it is it isn’t something I can do myself, so I have to depend on what others have told me. And some of them…” She paused and I saw moisture around her eyes. She took a deep breath, then continued.

    “They call it ‘The Road’. I’ve never heard it called anything else. They call it that because you have to be moving in order to be on it. But, once you’re on it, you can get anywhere you want. You just have to go far enough.”

    I was puzzled. “But.. can’t you get anywhere if you travel long enough?”

    “Not anywhere,” she said, sounding exasperated. “*Anywhere.* Anything you can think of. Anything you can conceive. Anything you desire. You can find it. All you have to do is travel far enough and want it enough. That’s it.” She paused and looked downward. “For some people, anyway.”

    “Alternate worlds? Alternate timelines?”

    She nodded. “I’ve heard it called that. Other realities. Other Earths. Or other things that aren’t Earth.” She shuddered.

    I sat there for a long time, stunned. Was this true? Was this something that *I* could do? I felt a smile crawl onto my face as I thought about the possible places I could go if this was true.

    My thoughts were interrupted by the waitress asking if we were done. I waved away my half-finished meal and the waitress took it with Nichole’s empty plate. I looked up to see her staring at me.

    “Sorry,” I said. “I just… I don’t know about this.” I stopped and thought. “But if I can somehow go to these ‘other worlds’, why isn’t anyone there? Why is everyone frozen?”

    “You’re on the edge of the world,” she said. “Not in it, but not out of it either. Just one step away. It’s like… purgatory.” She closed her eyes and I saw tears forming. “I was… I was left there.”

    I suddenly felt sick. “What happened?” I asked.

    She shook her head and I saw her tremble slightly. Then she took a deep breath.

    “I met someone. Someone like you, who can travel to these other places. He told me he could help me find Nathaniel. He said he would take me there.”

    She shuddered. “He took me to one of those in-between places. Where time doesn’t pass and no one exists. He then…” She stopped.

    I shuddered myself. “It’s… OK,” I said, even as I knew it wasn’t.

    She shook her head. “He didn’t do anything. Not like that anyway. When he saw I wasn’t going to let him he pushed me from the car, said he would come back for me when I was ‘more agreeable’.” She paused again, a distant look in her eyes. “I never saw him again.”

    I sat for a moment. “How… how long were you there?”

    Another shake of her head. “I don’t know. Like you know, time doesn’t pass there. It seems like forever, but I don’t know. I wandered around a lot. Just walking. There’s no one and nothing there, so I was safe. I ate at empty restaurants, slept in unoccupied houses and hotels. None of the cars worked, so I had to walk. I just kept hoping I would find someone.”

    My mind was racing with what I was hearing. I had so many questions, but I didn’t know which ones to ask first. “So you never met anyone before me?”

    “Oh, no,” she said. “I met others. A few. Sometimes. But none of them wanted to help me.”

    I frowned. “Why not?”

    “They said…” she paused. “They said they didn’t want to get trapped with me, that I had been there so long that I was ‘part of’ that place.”

    That caused the pit in my stomach to return. “Trapped with you?”

    Her eyes widened and I saw tears form. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want you to be trapped. But it had been so long since I had talked to anyone. So long…” She looked down at the table again.

    I took a deep breath, then reached over and took her hand. “Hey… It’s OK.” I laughed “So far anyway.”

    She held it for a moment then quickly pulled her hand away. I tried not to show hurt. She continued to sit silently for a moment

    “I’m glad you helped me,” she said finally. “I… I just couldn’t be alone anymore.”

    I thought of my last few months. “Yeah, I can understand that. Sort of.”

    She nodded, still not looking up at me. Finally, she spoke. “Do you think you can get me home?”

    I leaned back and raised my hands. “I’m not sure. All of this is new to me.”

    She nodded, then looked up again. “Can you try?”

    I nodded in return. “I’ll do what I can.”

    I waved the waitress over and paid our bill. Then, after a quick bathroom break we went back to the car. As we got in I asked her. “Where is your home. How do I get there.”

    “Saint Francisca,” she said. “California.”

    “You do know you’re in Atlanta, right?”

    “Atlanta?” She looked confused.

    “Atlanta, Georgia.”

    She shook her head. “Where is that?”

    It was my turn to look confused. “Southeastern United States? North America?”

    “Hispaniola?” She tilted her head. “I must have walked much further than I had thought.” She looked at me closely. “You do not look like a Hispaniola.”

    “I’m not,” I said. I didn’t know what to think, so I started the car and pulled out of the lot, heading back for the main road.

    “These different places you say people like me can go,” I said, “how different are they?”

    “They say you can go anywhere,” she said. She thought for a moment. “One woman I met said she didn’t know if she went to a place she thought of, or if she created the place by thinking of it. The result was the same.”

    “There’s no Hispaniola here,” I said. “Well, an island in the Caribbean, but that’s it. And we have a San Francisco, but not a Saint Francisca. I don’t even know how to begin to get you home.”

    There was no response. I had been pulling onto the highway as I had been talking and, when I looked over, the passenger seat was empty. I slumped in my seat, sighed, and shook my head. I wasn’t even surprised anymore.

    I took another deep breath, poked my phone enough to fire up another podcast to distract me, and headed back home.

  • NaNoWriMo 2016 – Wrong Exit – Week 0

    So I guess I should leave a note or something behind before I leave. I know a lot of people will wonder what happened to me, and this is the best I can do by way of explanation.

    Some of you may want to follow me. I understand, I guess. It isn’t necessarily easy out here, but I can understand why you may be attracted. All I can say is just drive around a lot. It seems to help if you’re a bit tired and unfocused when driving, which isn’t necessarily the best thing, but driving enough that every stretch of road starts looking like every other stretch and one exit looks like every other one seems to be the key.

    Or maybe just blind luck. I’m not sure anymore.

    Anyway, here’s my story.

    I was 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 prescription drugs and supplies to small, independent 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 spend a lot of time drivng around to smaller towns.

    One day 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, 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 responsibility, 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 run-around 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.

    I tried to talk to Sara a couple of other times but she seemed to be going out of her way to avoid me, even starting to do her pickups from another office. At the time I shrugged and forgot about it.

    Then it happened again.

    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 drove 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 was “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 every time 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 happened 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.

    When I got back home I started making what would eventually become this record. I didn’t know what else to do. I thought about posting things on Reddit just to see if someone there had any ideas but I wondered if everyone would think I was crazy.

    I was back at work the next morning. A couple of people asked if I was feeling OK and I blamed my absence the day before 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 tell 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 any more. Another part of me wanted to go further and see what I could find.

    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 needed to find someone who could help me with this. But who could I talk to? Sara at least didn’t think I’m crazy, but she didn’t know any more than I do. Where could I go next?

    Part 1 –>

  • 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?