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.”