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.
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?”
“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.
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.