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.
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.”
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.”
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?”
“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.”