By the time Ethan entered the tent, Jill’s whole disposition had changed. She looked ready to fend off Ethan by whatever means necessary. Ethan let go of his excitement with the breath he was holding as he realized that once again this was neither the time nor place for romance. They had cushions spread across the floor for their bed and a couple of blankets to ward off the chill, so Ethan took one blanket, sat down on one side, and pushed some of the pillows into a kind of wall of separation. Clearly, this surprised Jill greatly, but not nearly as much as what Ethan said.
“So, what do you mean you don’t know what side Dominic is on? Isn’t he from your paradise world?”
Jill sat on her half of the cushions, pulled her knees up to her chin and grabbed her blanket as if overwhelmed by a sudden chill. “It is a paradise,” she insisted with only the slightest whine in her voice. “Only presently we are going through some rough times.” She took a deep breath before she began and Ethan sat across from her, the little pillow wall between them.
“After we discovered that there were other earths, everyone got excited about the possibilities. You might say it was all Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus at first. Then, about four hundred years ago, we ran into the Sorvee. The Sorvee are an Assyrian-Akkadian people from a devastated, wasteland world. They wanted to colonize and enslave other worlds, and that really changed our thinking. There were other, earlier entrants into the Worlds that needed watching, but we did not fully realize the threats until the Sorvee opened our eyes. And they are still coming. Presently, for example, there are the Chernobyl, a people ready to break out into the Worlds almost any day, and they are filled with nano-chits. Do you know what I mean by nano-chits?”
“I think so,” Ethan said. He imagined little computers in the bloodstream, but he could not imagine how such a thing might work.
“Well the Chernobyl are slaves to their technology and no longer human. You see, world hopping can be dangerous.”
“What do you mean slaves to their technology?”
“It’s the microscopic silicon chits. The chits are self-aware, and connected like one giant mind. The people no longer have minds of their own and function only as vessels with hands and feet for the chits to use.”
Jill nodded as she lay down and pulled her blanket up tight. “We have seeded organic anti-Chernobyl chits in every world we can reach, but the Chernobyl can still infect by personal contact if you have no internal defense.”
“So they are sort of like zombies. If they scratch you or bite you, you will get infected and they will take over your mind and make you like a zombie.”
“Mmm. Like vampires are able to make other vampires if they get their fangs in you,” Jill agreed. “The Chernobyl are just experimenting with world hopping technology, but it won’t be long before they break through.”
“World hopping does sound like a dangerous occupation,” Ethan said.
“Yes, and there are others that have come along in the last few hundred years, and some of them are as bad as the Sorvee and Chernobyl.” Jill lapsed into a time of silence.
“Your earth.” Ethan prompted, as he lay down beside the woman, careful to stick to his side.
“Yes, well, the people on my earth started taking sides. Many people want to fight back and help so that the people on all of those worlds can live their own lives and develop in their own way and in their own time. Some of us don’t like to see other worlds exploited, much less enslaved.” She sounded passionate about it. Ethan already knew which side she was on, and that was good because he agreed with her. “But others think we should not interfere at all, and the peace at all costs crowd is presently in control back home.” She paused as if to collect her thoughts and this time Ethan held his tongue.
“You have got to understand,” Jill started again. “There have been interstellar incidents, of course. Some real bad ones, but such things only happen very far away from home. For the most part, my people have not known war or fighting, or even had to struggle for a thousand years.”
“Paradise,” Ethan sighed.
Jill nodded. “We have spread active helpers, and by that I mean thousands of volunteers across trillions of earths, men and women dedicated to insuring the safety and security of the various worlds. Even with that, we know we have only scratched the surface of the worlds, but we felt we had to do something. We are struggling at home to try to get the majority to see the light. The response, though, and by that I mean the official response has come down hard on us. You see, the peace at all costs crowd may talk a good talk about avoiding conflicts and about non-interference and in an absolute sense letting nature take its course, but they have not treated us peacefully. Some of my people call them the stop the resistance at all costs crowd.”
“Violence against your own?” Ethan wondered.
“Yes.” Jill said it softly. She sounded ashamed.
“But Ethan, you can’t talk to the Chernobyl. Both sides have to want peace or talking is dangerous, Mister Chamberlain. Sticking your neck out just gives the other guy a chance to cut your throat.”
“Many scalps taken.”
Jill stifled a little laugh before she responded. “Exactly!”
There was a time of silence then as both thought about their situation and wondered what to say. Ethan finally broke the ice when he reached out for her hand. To his surprise, she gave it willingly.
“So you and Dominic. Were you once, um?”
“No, no. Nothing like that.”
There was another moment of silence while Ethan waited for Jill to realize it was her turn.
Ethan almost sat up. “Done,” he said. “Long ago. I don’t know what she was looking for, but it was not me.”
“How do you know about Susan?”
“You’re not the only one with eyes.” Jill surprised him. “I knew when to go buy a coke, and I don’t even like coke.”
“I didn’t think you knew I existed. I never saw you look.”
“You’re not supposed to see a woman look. But I can look, too, you know.”
Ethan did sit up a little to look at her. “How come you never said anything?” he asked. Jill was on her back, but she just withdrew her hand and turned to her side to face away from him. Ethan let himself back down slowly and wondered why he never said anything. “Fraternization with locals against the law?” he asked.
“It is strongly discouraged.”
“So is that why you were so cold to me when we met?” Ethan surmised.
“It was safer that way,” Jill responded quietly, and he heard her settle in to sleep and said no more.