Twelve prisoners in gray coveralls sat glumly in the first-class waiting lounge of the Transport Terminal, surrounded by luxury and security robots. Tall bony men and big-framed women with puzzled anger in their eyes, waiting like cattle in a market, all strangers to Jude, who drew apart from them, trying to adjust to the sudden unfamiliarity of her surroundings.
The airbus that had delivered them from the Wards to the terminal typically lacked windows. A fancy chrome clock high on the lounge wall told her it was 6:20 A.M. on the Terran side of the corridor, and 7:20 P.M. on the Arkoi side. She knew the corridor was somewhere along the equator, but could not see outside. The first-class lounge was buried deep inside the gaudy package of steel and glass that housed the one precious point of connection between the parallel worlds. Jude longed for a glimpse of sky, of the true light of day.
She stood by a transparent wall overlooking the vast main floor of the terminal. First class was cool and hushed behind its protective glass. Beyond, among the arching girders, a sour haze of grease and smoke drifted through garlands of plastic vines hung with grapes and limp paper flowers. A huge video sign flashed ESCAPE TO ARKOI – GO TERRATRANSIT!
When Jude had entered prison, construction of the big terminal had just begun. She and her colleagues in the underground had protested at the groundbreaking, calling the new building a boondoggle for the state building contractors. Who, they asked, but a handful of adventurers and mad scientists will want to vacation in an alien world?
Boy, were we out of touch….
The floor below was jammed. Without regard for order or efficiency, the tourist-class crowd milled and pushed, arms waving, mouths open wide. The glass wall vibrated gently beneath Jude’s hand, and she knew the noise down there was deafening.
Watching, she recalled her only childhood crime. She had come late to being a lawbreaker. Her crèche had acquired an ant terrarium when she was five years old. For reasons she understood only later, she had found it intolerable to stare in at the thousands of mindless busy creatures running about trapped in their claustrophobic corridors. Late one night, she lugged it with enormous effort into the nursery recreation hall, and emptied it into the sand pile. Just like those spilled ants, she thought now, looking down at the mob of tourists. Rushing in circles, swarming over each other in foggy desperation, dreaming of escape.
Escape. Now that word had the ring of a commercial, and she found the irony unbearable. For her, escape would be temporary at best. She was not putting much stock in Ramos’ promises, even if she did come back alive. And sane. She moved away from the window wall and sat. The unaccustomed plush softness of the couch was an invitation to relax, but she could not. Her new coverall scratched, the stolid security robots lurked about the walls, the camera case she carried seemed much heavier than the same one had six years ago, and she was being packed off to an alien world where people went mad in the mountains. An alien world.
Jude shook her head in wonder.
Her hand strayed to the hard plastic of the camera case. It was good-quality. She found comfort in its hardness and in the thought of the fine machinery nestled inside. The supply officer had nearly refused her the outdated models she had selected: Ramos had ordered the best, Ramos would have his head, Ramos this, Ramos that. But these are the cameras I’m used to, she had replied. When he pouted, she had tried to make him understand. My hands know them.
Suddenly there were buzzers sounding, soft but insistent. The robots sprang to work, hustling the prisoners roughly up the loading ramp. Waiting in line along the glass wall, Jude noticed a freshly erected partition at one end of the tourist floor. From her elevated vantage, she could see over it to where workers bustled around with huge crates of vegetables on forklifts. She recalled Ward gossip about food riots at the Transport Terminal and felt a murmur of indignation. There would be no more riots now that this innocent-looking barrier concealed from the tourists’ eyes the luxuriant masses of fresh vegetables that streamed from the fields of Arkoi, straight into the kitchens of the rich.
A security robot barked her into motion. At the top of the ramp, she entered a small white room set about with couches. The carpet was thick and soft. The robots lined up in phalanx formation on the ramp until the door slid shut, sealing the prisoners inside.
In the cramped white room, the other prisoners regarded each other dully, without hope or fear, anticipating only a more oblique form of execution than the Wards provided. Jude had learned that fear as a consistent state ceases to be frightening, and one either commits brave outrageous acts or lies passive in fear’s hand. She had also learned that the Wards were not the place for brave, outrageous acts.
An electronic purr broke the silence.
“Citizens, please take your seats. Transport will begin in ten seconds.”
A warning bell sounded, then the coughing hum of giant engines. The prisoners jostled for seats.
“Transport in five seconds.” A muffled buzzer rang. Jude instinctively shut her eyes, though transport was supposed to be painless and instantaneous.
Four… three… where are we going?… two… one…
In the white room, the lights dimmed. Jude looked up and in the pit of her stomach felt a sickening kick. Then silence, absolute. An instant of hanging, out of time, out of space… the smell of… flowers? Dizziness. Wrenching vertigo. A deep humming in the ears, and then, in front of them, the wall disappeared.
Light flooded the room, blinding them with warmth and color. Jude stumbled out of her chair to squint out at a sky of perfect story-book blue, ablaze with cotton-candy clouds and a sun brighter than she had ever seen. A path in a green lawn stretched invitingly away down a gentle hill to vanish behind a leafy hedge. Faint music floated in the air, tuneless and sweet, weaving sensual melodies with scents of unseen blossoms and wet grass.
Jude stood dazed at the opening as the other prisoners exclaimed, jostled, pushed by her, and spilled out onto the lawn. She felt unbalanced, simultaneously elated and troubled. She looked, tried to see more clearly. Her back prickled and she thought of a dog’s hackles rising.
But I see nothing to be afraid of… ahh!
She caught her breath as a jarring flash of déjà vu enveloped her and vanished, will-o’-the-wisp, as she grasped to understand it.
What is it, this undeniable sense of coming… home?
Then there were human voices bawling orders and the spell was broken. Jude steadied herself with a hand against the rough stone that framed the opening. The music and the sweetness were gone. She sniffed, already nostalgic, and smelled only hot, dry air and the arid tang of pine. A quite ordinary gravel path ran away through trim hedges. The heat was like lead weights on her shoulders. Nothing stirred but the red-faced guards striding toward her. No birds. Not even an insect humming in the bushes.
There should be birds, at least. A vacation paradise should have a few around for local color.
Jude stumbled dazedly as someone grabbed her arm. Birds seemed only reasonable. In fact…
She searched the sky. Surely, in the midst of her confusion by the door, she had heard a bird, faintly, like the music, a high wild bird cry in the distance?
The guards lined them up in pairs and marched them down the path through a stone gateway covered with vines. A tendril brushed Jude’s cheek, and she started, flinched against her partner, then recovered with an embarrassed apology. They filed through the gate into a dusty monorail station packed with arriving tourists. The bolder ones ceased their milling and shouting to stare as the guards shouldered their charges through the crowd. Jude heard the words “penal expedition” whispered up and down the platform. She pulled her concentration inside herself until her back hunched, and waited, sweating in the hot sun, to board the monorail. Motion drew her attention to a line of taxicars collecting passengers. Excitement flickered briefly.
Will there be Native drivers?
But only bored Terran faces met her gaze as she struggled onto the train.