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Book excerpt

Chapter One

Janet Thompson stepped through the doorport and gasped. This isn't San Diego! What went wrong? she wondered, jostled by a passerby, overwhelmed by the noise, offended by the stench, chilled by the cold, and half-blinded by the light.

Blinking, she turned to read the sign above the doorport that she'd just come through.

"Downtown Sacramento Transit Plaza," it said on the lintel.

But I just came from Denver! Janet thought. She pulled her collar tight against the cold and looked around, wondering where she was. The cold was a wet, soggy rag, so unlike the crisp, dry cold of Denver. The classical cathedral dominating the square looked oddly familiar, but the steep pyramid piercing the sky behind it was the landmark she needed. The Transamerica Pyramid, San Francisco.

I step into a doorport in Denver headed for San Diego, and I end up in San Francisco, stepping out of a doorport that says I came from Sacramento.

The system's gone haywire, Janet thought, pulling her comcard from her purse. With a few thumbpresses, she dialed central California dispatch, the back line to the supervisor, her old friend Charlie Goodrich.

She looked around as her call went through. Doorports lined the square, people popping in and out of them every few seconds, the ports shimmering as they bent the fabric of space-time to bring two points together. The mid-morning doorport traffic heavy, all the people looked as if they belonged, none of them disoriented, as she was sure she looked. The usual knot of protesters stood down the street, waving signs predicting the apocalypse. Supercilious sacrilege! she thought, disliking their inflexible intolerance.

"Charlie here," the voice said. "Janet, wonderful to hear from you."

Janet held up her comcard so he could see her. "Hey, Charlie, how are you, old friend?"

Charlie was in his fifties, a bit overweight, balding and red-faced, a competent troubleshooter and Janet's typical go-to when anomalies like this cropped up. "What can I do for you, young lady?"

"I got a bad one, Charlie," Janet said, the wind whipping her hair into her face. At least it blows away the urine smell, she thought. "I was in Denver, stepped into a port for San Diego, found myself here, stepping out of a port from Sacramento."

"Uh-oh," Charlie said. "Let me get a trace on that one. That the doorport behind you?"

"Yeah, sure is." She'd made sure he could see it over her shoulder.

"Quite a snafu, that one. I hope Old Man Douglas doesn't get word about this. He'll give birth to extraterrestrials." Charlie looked at something off screen, his hands moving across his tactile interface, the tactiface beeping at his every touch. "Say, you weren't playing with that prototype you and the boys are developing at Corporate, were you?"

"The recalibrator? I wouldn't dare; Old Man Jackson would excoriate me for using untested equipment. You know how careful he gets about R&D."

"You mean, 'anal.'" Charlie smirked.

Janet smiled. "Exactly what I meant." Charlie always knew what she meant. They'd worked together for ten years on system maintenance and troubleshooting on the west coast before her promotion last year to VP of R&D.

"Nothin's comin' up, Janet," Charlie said. "All systems read normal; those two doorports both pass a self-check. I'll do a reset for both and then recheck. It'll inconvenience our customers for about thirty seconds, so if you hear complaints, that'll be me. But you know what I'm not finding …"

"The record of my going through, right?"

"Right," Charlie replied, frowning.

All ports were tracked and billed accordingly. A port from LA to SF was $35 one way. Wave your comcard at the sensor, wait for the green, step on through, pay your bill each month.

Great. No record. "Look, Charlie, I'm freezing, where's the nearest doorport to San Diego? The rest can wait."

"Yeah, let's get you going." He waved at his tactiface. "Forty feet west of you."

"Left, right, up, down. I don't know west or east," she protested.

"Sorry, to your right."

Janet spotted it, headed that way. "Thanks, Charlie. I owe you one."

"Pleasure to be of service. Say 'hi' to the family."

"Likewise on your end. Bye." She thumbed off the call, and his face was replaced with an alert. One new voicemail, three new emails, four new vidmails. Probably all of them wondering where I am, Janet thought, sighing and stepping to the right doorport.

She waved her comcard across the sensor, the light turned green, the doorport shimmered, and she stepped on through to San Diego—four doorports down from where she should have emerged fifteen minutes ago.

With a sigh, she headed through the Transit Center toward the local doorports, dodging a protestor and wondering what had gone wrong.

Alterlude #1

Officer Anthony Stewart checked that he had everything ready, scooped up his three-year-old, shouldered the day bag, and kissed his wife goodbye. "I'm so lucky to have you," he told her. "C'mon, Suzy," he said to his four-year-old and headed for the garage.

"I'll pick up the kids at three," Sharon said as he stepped into the garage. "As usual."

"Thanks, Honey," Anthony said, the door closing between them. His hands full of child, bag, lunch, and briefcase, he managed to extract his comcard from his pocket and swipe it across the doorport sensor.

Space-Time Harmonic Aperture, it said across the lintel.

Fancy name for a doorport, Anthony thought. The light turned green, the surface shimmered, and he stepped from his garage into the nippy Denver morning. Making a beeline across the neighborhood square for the childcare doorport, Anthony saw that a line had already formed.

"Daddy, slow down," Suzy complained, hanging onto his hand.

In his arm, his son Dustin giggled.

"Sorry, Honey," Anthony said, his breath fogging up in front of him. "You both warm enough?" he asked, heading for the back of the line, looking around the square. Several doorports had lines in front of them. Rush hour. The bank of five doorports labeled "downtown Denver" was fifteen people deep. Anthony sighed, knowing he'd be there after dropping off the kids at daycare.

A woman with a child in her arms slid into the line just before he did. The child grinned over his mother's shoulder and stuck his tongue out at him.

Anthony flipped back his lapel to expose his badge. "All right, you're under arrest."

The boy burst into tears, and his mother spun as though to rebuke him. Suzy giggled, and Anthony told the woman, "You're up," pointing to the open doorport in front of her.

The mother scowled at him, waved her comcard across the sensor and disappeared through the doorport.

He swiped his comcard, the light turned green, the doorport shimmered, and he followed.

The mother with the bawling child entered the daycare center ahead of him, throwing dismayed glances over her shoulder.

Sheepishly, he entered behind her and set down his wriggling three-year-old son. "Sorry about that," he said, his kids dashing off to play with their friends. "He stuck his tongue out at me." Anthony stuck the day bag into his daughter's cubby.

"Oh," the mother said, trying not to smile. She handed him the sign-in wand. "Jackie," she said, offering her hand.

"Anthony," he said, shaking it and turning. "Bye, Kids." He waved.

"Bye, Daddy," five kids replied, maybe one of them his.

He held the door for Jackie, and they headed up the walk for the doorports.

"County Sheriff?"

"Yeah," he said, knowing the badge visible under his lapel.

"D.A.," she said.

"Oh? Deputy or big cheese?"

Jackie smiled bashfully. "Assistant."

"So I bag 'em and tag 'em, and you—"

"Lock 'em up and throw away the key," she finished.

They both laughed and took their turns at the doorport.

Back at the neighborhood transit point, Anthony saw that the line to downtown was much shorter. After a couple minutes of talking shop, they'd stepped through the doorport into Civic Center Park. Across the street, behind yellow-striped sawhorses, a cadre of protestors chanted in unison and waved signs. "Doorports will be the death of us all," one sign said. A cloud of steam rose above them, the protestors were so numerous. While Jackie headed to the courthouse, Anthony turned toward the County Jail, the Sheriff substation attached to the backside.

At his desk, Anthony sorted through the missing-persons reports filed overnight in the county. He scratched his head at the number, which had increased recently for no apparent reason. As the open squadroom came to life for the day, Anthony browsed through files on his tactiface.

"Hey, Stewart, did you find that 84-year-old who lost herself in her own closet?"

Anthony didn't even look. He just held up a single finger. A cackle of laughter followed. He didn't care; he liked what he did. No one else wanted missing persons, considered a promotional backwater at the department. Of course, having a hysterical wife call about a husband who'd been missing only four hours and was just checking out of a motel with someone who wasn't his wife, or an old man looking for "Bessie" who later turned out to be a forgetful basset hound so old she didn't know how to get home anymore, wasn't exactly detective work.

Some of it included matching a John Doe at the morgue with a missing persons report. A new body had come in, and some of the circumstances triggered his memory. Sorting through reports, he matched one to the John Doe. Per protocol, he personally had to port to the morgue and match it to the specs given him by the worried family member. Anthony pulled the profile onto his Sheriff's comcard.

Near the john was the doorport to the morgue.

Anthony swiped his card and stepped through the shimmering port.

"Stewart, got a match already?" Ruth the receptionist asked.

"I think so," Anthony said, following her back to the meat locker.

"Column five, door three," she said, gesturing him into the refrigerated area. Shiny aluminum panels mirrored their progress down the banks of drawers toward the one he wanted.

He slipped his comcard into the tactiface nearby, then pulled open the third drawer down.

An elderly male stared up at him with a bewildered expression, a mole on his left cheek.

On the tactiface, a drawn, bewildered face with a mole on the left check looked at Anthony.

"Biometric," he said.

"Analyzing," the tactiface replied, then the screen began to flash. "Match."

"Let's get you back to your family, old guy," Anthony said to the body, then covered him back up and slid the drawer back in. He shook off shivers outside the meat locker. "Thanks, Ruth."

"Glad you found him, Stewart."

Back at his desk, his tactiface began to flash, indicating he had an incoming call. He tapped the screen to answer. "Missing persons, Stewart here," he said.

The face on the screen was that of a young man. "Hi, I'm calling from St. Louis, and I can't get a hold of my father in Denver today. We talk every day."

Anthony nodded, smiling. A person wasn't considered missing until forty-eight hours had passed. "All right, Sir, I'll need to get some basic information." He shrank the face to a corner of the screen and began putting in the information the young man was giving him.

Within seconds he had a match. Anthony verified all the major demographic details, then said, "Sir, my apologies but my records indicate your father died—"

"Last week, that's right. I did it again," the young man said. "I'm sorry, I keep forgetting, it was so sudden, I must have dreamt about talking with him yesterday. Look, I didn't mean to waste your time."

"Sorry about your loss, Sir, and it wasn't a bother at all."

"I can't believe I did that, forgetting my own father died. My therapist says sometimes people do. You ever get calls like this before?"

"It's happened," Anthony said, thinking they'd been all too frequent recently. His tactiface flashed, indicating another call. "I've got to go, Sir." The caller hung up after another apology and Anthony picked up the next call.

The daycare.

Oh, great, he thought.

"Hi, Mr. Stewart, just wanted to remind you that the kids need to be picked up at three. I'm calling because of what happened yesterday."

Oh, yeah, Anthony thought, I was supposed to pick them up but thought for some reason that my wife was going to. Been forgetting a lot lately. "Thanks for reminding me," Anthony said. His therapist had told him to expect some of that around the anniversary. "I appreciate the reminder. So much to juggle, doing this all on my own."

Anthony hung up, saw it was already noon. Seems like hours had passed without his having noticed. Looking up, he saw Captain Jameson approaching, the precinct Chaplain in tow. Father McClanahan had been to the house a number of times in the past year, but not recently.

"Captain Jameson, Father McClanahan," Anthony said.

"Stewart," the Captain said, his hand on Anthony's shoulder. "Why don't you join the Father and me in my office in about five minutes?"

"Certainly, Sir." Anthony nodded to them and returned his attention to his reports. He could feel the looks of his coworkers, and he knew they could see he was suffering. It used to be they'd rib him about finding someone who'd lost themselves in their own closet. They hadn't done that for the last year. He thought it ironic he'd miss something he used to find so annoying.

He knew his work wasn't as thorough, and the Captain was probably going to suggest he take some time off. The tactiface told him how many reports he still needed to sort through. How can I take any time off? he wondered.

With a sigh, he headed for the Captain's office.

Doughboy And Other Strange Tales

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