Guardian Angel-6 Into the Fire, part 3 of 3

The chamber turned out to be a large, ground level room filled with what Ethan expected, instruments of torture of every kind, some of which he could not even imagine how they were used.  “No collar.”  Ethan whispered and pointed at the man holding the branding iron.  That man looked like he had gotten too close to his own fire more than once.  His face and arms were full of boils and scars, or perhaps the man had once been on the wrong side of an unmerciful beating.  Ethan rather hoped that Jill would hush him, but instead she added her own thoughts.

“Probably doesn’t need a collar.”

Ethan understood that the world was full of men and women who did not need much encouragement to be cruel.  He realized, sadly, that was probably true of most, if not all worlds.

Jill got stripped to nothing before she got tied to a table and covered with a sheet.  Her bare flesh remained available to who knew what possibilities.  Ethan got tied with his face to a wide column that supported the ceiling.  His arms had to hug the column so his vision was limited, but he could see Jill.  Ethan sweated.  He felt afraid of what was to come, but Jill seemed so calm about it all, he could hardly panic.

“You were seen appearing out of nowhere.”  The Examiner did not even look at them as he spoke in a flat, everyday voice.  “This can be very simple or not as you choose.”  Ethan decided that the man’s tone of voice suggested he was just doing his job, like this was a daily occurrence.  “I have three simple questions.  Where did you come from?  How many slaves came with you, and where are they hiding?”

“Don’t answer.”  Ethan spoke quickly.

“But we have nothing to hide.”  Jill spoke up with a remarkably calm and steady voice.  “We came from an entirely different world.  Only one man came with us and no one is hiding.”

Ethan turned his head to look.  He could not understand how she could be so relaxed about it all.  He saw the man with the collar point at him, and the man without a collar appeared to grin, wickedly.  That man went to get something that was behind Ethan’s back where he could not see, and Ethan, at least, began to sweat in earnest.

“As you wish.”  The man with the collar spoke in his flat, everyday voice.  Ethan felt his shirt ripped, and a moment later, he felt the sting of the whip.  He let out a little shout.  He could not help it; but then he heard Jill’s voice, still calm, loud and clear, as the ugly man paused to get a good grip on his instrument.

“Ethan.  Think to deaden the nerve endings against the whip so there is no pain.  Think no pain.  And think “Instant healing.”  Think it as hard as you can, Ethan, as if your life depends on it.”

The second stroke came and Ethan let out another sharp shout.

“Ethan!  Think it!”  Jill commanded in a much sharper voice, and Ethan hardly needed the encouragement.  He began to think “deaden the pain” and “instant healing” as hard as he could.  He got surprised to find that as the strokes fell, he felt them less and less.  By the time his back should have been a bloody mess, he felt no pain at all, and he felt no evidence of blood.  His tormentor stopped the whip and looked at the instrument, like he was wondering what was wrong with it.  The man with the collar came close to examine Ethan’s back.  Ethan tried to crane his neck to see with his own eyes, but all he saw was the man rise up, look him in the eye and frown.

“Witchcraft,” the collared man said flatly as he turned away.  “The woman.”  He pointed, and Ethan’s concern doubled as he craned his neck in Jill’s direction.

The other man put down the ineffectual whip and got a different instrument.  It was a hot iron, pulled straight from the red-hot coals of a brazier that stood at Ethan’s back where he could not see.  He felt the heat of it as the man went by, and he shouted.  “No!”  He would kill them if they harmed Jill in any way.  He had to get free to stop them.  He began to tug on the chords that bound him, while his head turned toward Jill and looked on in horror.

“How many remain in the wilderness, and where are they hiding.”  The man with the collar spoke as the iron came close to tease Jill’s face.

Jill responded with calm grace.  “I have told you.  There were only the three of us.”

Ethan imagined in that moment that she must have been the most courageous woman who ever lived, and he tugged on the ropes and became frantic for her sake.

The iron touched Jill’s face, and there was a moment, a slight whimper that escaped from Jill’s lips, but nothing more.  Then torturer backed away, now clearly afraid.  The iron made the cheek red for a second, but then nothing, as if he had never touched the face.

Sorcery,” the torturer said, as the man with the collar bent over to take a closer look.  Ethan saw him bend down to touch Jill’s cheek and he tugged viciously on his chords.  Jill had her eyes closed, but as the man drew near, her eyes opened suddenly and she reached up and grabbed the man’s collar.  Ethan wondered how she managed to free her hand, but just then, his own hands came free, and his concern shifted to disabling the man that was still holding the hot iron.  He grabbed the first thing that he could.  It was the brazier with the hot coals, and he picked it up from the base and tipped it sharply to throw the coals at the man’s face.  The man dropped the iron and raised his arms to fend off the fire, and that gave Ethan a chance to swing the brazier for the man’s head.  The sound of metal and bone crunching rang out, and their tormentor collapsed in a bloody mess.

By the time Ethan turned to Jill, she was up and the examiner was leaning heavily against the wall.  He choked, grabbed at the collar around his neck as that swamp-green collar of his appeared to melt.

“Hurry.”  Jill took Ethan’s hand and barely glanced at the bloody body sprawled at Ethan’s feet.  She tugged him toward the door before Ethan could think too hard about what he had just done; but their flight was short.  The guards, who ran at the first sign of witchcraft, came rushing back into the room with reinforcements.  A little man dressed in rich robes stepped to the front once Jill and Ethan stopped still.  The guards parted respectfully to let him through, and Jill squeezed Ethan’s hand and took a step back in response.

The little man looked at them briefly out of eyes that were both deep and dark.  The stony face sported a moustache that was waxed to points and reached for his ears.  Ethan thought if there was a real sorcerer anywhere, surely this was it.  The man could not have been more than five feet tall, but he projected an aura of self-confidence and cruelty that made his own guards tremble.  Jill, however, did not tremble in the slightest, and that helped keep Ethan calm.

After a cursory look at the couple, the little man looked at the Examiner who slid down the wall to sit on the floor.  He held pieces of his collar in one hand and gasped for his breath.  The poor man’s collar was hardly more than sludge elsewhere.  The man himself looked haggard and drained, like a man who would live, but never very well.

“Too bad about the collar.”  The little man spoke in a wheedling little voice to match his stature.  “They are hard to come by.”  He spun around, to let his robes fly with the wind in a dramatic motion.  “I am Ibin Mohamed Abbass, Lord of the Society of the Mahdi in this dung heap of a place,” he said.   He seemed to read the questions in Ethan’s face.  “Our sacred task is to maintain the purity of the faith and the orderliness in society.  You have shown yourselves to be evil wizards worthy of the severest punishment as proscribed in the Holy Koran.  You appeared out of the regions of Hell, and enchanted the scholar and his household with wild tales of unbelief.  You were heard speaking against enslaving infidels and unbelievers, and speaking of equal rights, tolerance, and other seditious and anti-religious ideas.  You are hereby declared witches of the worst sort and will be burned at the stake immediately.”  They were dragged out.  That was their trial.  They did not even get the option of further torture, which Ethan felt was just as well.

Guardian Angel-6 Into the Fire, part 2 of 3

Jill and Ethan got separated as soon as they arrived.  Ethan found himself tossed into a wooden cage, much smaller than the jail cell in Hill Town and without so much as a cushion to sit on.  He tried the wooden bars as soon as he was alone, but he found them as sturdy as the iron bars of the jail.  “Jill!”  He called, but there was no answer.  “Lars?”  He tried again and there was nothing, until he heard a low moan.

“My head.”  Ethan could hear Lars, but he could not see him since the solid side of the cage blocked his view.

“Are you in one piece?”

“Aye, but I hit my head bending down to get into this little thing.  And I think the guards helped.”  Lars sounded like he was trying to find a comfortable spot, which might not have been possible for the big Swede.

“You are a big man in this world.  You probably scared them.”  Ethan suggested.

Lars laughed.  “If I had thought of that, I would have made faces at them and given them a real scare.”

“I liked your jail better.”  Ethan told the man.

There was a pause before Lars answered.  “I can see that traveling can be a dangerous occupation.”

“Aye.”  Ethan echoed Lars’ word.

After a moment more, Lars had a question.  “What do you think they are going to do with us?”

“I don’t know.  I would say just save your strength and get what rest you can for now.  I am sure we will find out soon enough.”



Ethan had a terrible time stretching out after the cramped quarters of the cage.  Soon enough turned out to be shortly before noon and he was starved, but there was nothing he could do about that.

He looked around in the brief moments the guards gave him, but saw no sign of Lars.  To be sure, he imagined the big Swede could take care of himself and his real concern was for Jill.  He felt afraid that she might have been raped, or worse, and he already started thinking of ways he might get his revenge.

As it turned out, he should not have worried about her.  Up until then, Jill had been pampered: bathed, perfumed, and she generally enjoyed herself with sweets and a little female companionship, even if the local women were all airheads.  It was a deliberate act by the slavers who hoped to raise as much value in the woman as possible; and everyone knew that Jill was of remarkable value.

Instead, Ethan should have been worried about Lars after all, because Lars had already gone up to the auction block and presently he was in a holding cell with three debtors, waiting for his new Master to come and collect his prize.  Those men gave the big blond plenty of room, but Lars still felt very cramped, and after being sold, which he figured out even if he did not understand a word that was spoken, his mood turned terribly sour.  He growled occasionally and the men with him pressed themselves a little further into the back bars of the cage.

Ethan stretched again and looked at the men who came to fetch him.  They gave him plenty of room as if they might be a little afraid of him.  But no, Ethan changed his mind.  They were afraid of something else.

“Move.”  One of them finally became blunt and pointed with his pike, a sharp looking instrument with which Ethan was not about to argue.  “Come.”  The man spoke and Ethan walked.  He understood the man’s words, though he knew the man spoke a mix of Moroccan and Arabic.  He would ask Jill how this was possible when he saw her, and this time he would not let her distract him.  And he had better see her, he said grimly to himself.

Ethan fully expected to be put up on the auction block and natural curiosity drove him to wonder what price he might fetch.  He never found out.  The men with the pikes told him he was being turned over to the Examiner, and they made it clear that by the time the Examiners were finished with him, he would beg for slavery.

Jill, likewise, was ripped from her luxury and dressed quickly in a robe that covered her head to toe and whose veil could not be pulled down since it was sewn into the fabric of the robe.  She was roughly handled, like the piece of meat she was in that culture, and despite her protests, she got dragged across the street.  She considered kicking the guards, but refrained when she found herself again at Ethan’s side.

“Are you all right?”  Ethan whispered.

Jill nodded.  “Fancy meeting you here.”  She whispered back, and her hand pushed against the robe.  Ethan saw and caught it, and he would have held on for dear life, but a guard grunted and slapped the butt end of his pike against their hands to separate them again.  It stung like hell.

They came to a gate in a stone wall and saw two guards standing at attention.  Inside the gate, they found a yard full of chopping blocks and stakes driven deep into the ground.  Ethan did not want to think about it too hard.  They went into the main building.  It looked to Ethan like an old-fashioned office, with shelves of books, which happened to be scrolls, and a big desk and chair where a man sat studying an open scroll.  They stopped before the desk and patiently waited for the man to acknowledge their presence.  Ethan looked close.  The man had a sickly looking green, ever so slightly glowing collar around his neck.  Somehow, Ethan was not surprised.

“These are the ones?”  The man in the collar asked, though he clearly knew they were.  “Bring them to the Chamber.  There are several questions.”

The guards nudged them, and grinned, even if they were afraid of the place, themselves.  Jill and Ethan did not resist.  Resistance at that point would have been futile, and maybe deadly.

Guardian Angel-6 Into the Fire, part 1 of 3

Jill and Ethan went to their room for the night looking forward to spending some time together; but as per his growing habit, Ethan had some questions.

“So, how is it that I was listening to you and Ali Pasha talk this afternoon and I actually understood part of the conversation?” he asked.  “Come to think of it, yesterday I understood your Swedish comment to Lars about not revealing his gun.”

Jill smiled, but her response surprised Ethan.  “Hold me,” she said, and he was happy to do that very thing.  Then she kissed him like she was trying to wipe all the questions from his mind in a single blow.  She nearly succeeded.  He felt the tingling all the way down to his toes.  “I’ve been so alone.”  She added when they parted.

“You were abandoned?”  He spoke tenderly and held her just as tenderly.  He remembered what she said before, but he made it a question.

Jill shifted into a comfortable position deep in his arms before she spoke.  “Not exactly,” she said.  “You know I said we sent thousands of volunteers into the Worlds?  Well, I was one of the ones who planned the routes so there would be no overlap.”

“Yes, I meant to ask how thousands of people could cover trillions of Alternate Universes.”

“The worlds.”


“The worlds.  It is sort of alternate universes, parallel earths shorthand.”  Ethan merely nodded.  He kept forgetting, but he said nothing because Jill seemed to be thinking hard about something.

“The volunteers select a local person and empower them in certain ways so they act as a kind of Guardian for that world.”  She sat up.  “Please understand.  Even if we had millions of volunteers it would not be enough to cover all of the Worlds.”

“No, I get it.”

Jill settled down again.  “Anyway, I helped plan the routes and made a few trips to some more difficult situations and locations.”

“I bet the powers on your Earth would love to get their hands on you.  Your head must be full of secret information about the resistance.”

“It’s not a resistance.”  Jill started to protest.  “But, yes it is, sort of,” she admitted before she continued on her own train of thought.  “Anyway, I came here, to your Earth I mean, during a war. Unfortunately, my mobile transfer unit was irreparably damaged by a bomb in some way.”  She sat up again so she could turn to face him.  “To this day, I don’t understand how that could have happened.  I have gone over it and over it, but it happened, and though I got out alive, I had to salvage what I could from the unit and self-destruct the rest.  The wrist unit contains most of the parts from my original flyer.”

“I see.  So you got stuck on my Earth with no way to go home.  But when did all this happen?”  He thought hard and reviewed recent history, but he could not imagine that she came through somewhere in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Jill hesitated before she spoke.  She laid her head snugly against his chest and refused to look him in the eyes again.  “London, September ninth, nineteen forty.”  Ethan tightened.  He could not help it.  She kindly waited a minute before she spoke again.  “Does it bother you?”

“No.”  He said, and as he thought about it a bit, he slowly relaxed.  “And I know better than to ask how old you are, but there is one question if you don’t mind.  If I am out of line, tell me to shut-up.”   He paused, but since she held her tongue, he asked.   “Any children?”

“Only one.  A son.  But he grew up ages ago.”

“Fair enough.  I am not sure what kind of a step-dad I would be anyway.”  She looked up at him then and he smiled.  “But if you are willing, then as long as I am able, you won’t have to be alone.”  He meant it.  Jill put her head back down and Ethan found out that she was not above a few tears.


In the early hours of the morning, there came a terrible knocking on the front door.  People shouted along with the knocking, and everyone in the house woke up.  Jill bit her lower lip while she dressed, suspicious of something she chose not to share.  Her own clothes were dry by then and Ethan followed her lead, though his white shirt was still damp around the cuffs and collar.

“What’s afloat?”  Lars came sleepily out of his room and met them in the hall.  They all went downstairs together.

One ugly man had a half-dozen guards at his back and he looked like he was trying to control himself.  “I have my orders,” he said and shoved some papers in Ali Pasha’s face.  “Your prisoners are to be added to the list in the slave market.”

Ali Pasha tried equally hard to be polite and control his own voice.  “They are not prisoners.  They are my guests, and you cannot come here in the middle of the night and put a black mark on my hospitality.”

“My orders say prisoners.  The community guards in the wilderness only bowed to your authority because it was your ill-advised expedition, but since returning, they have filed a proper report with the authorities.  The guards captured these people and they are to be turned over immediately.”

Jill translated and Lars guffawed at the last comment and added his own take on the matter.  “They captured no one, especially the guard who fouled himself when he first saw us.”  Ethan said nothing because he followed the conversation perfectly well without the need for Jill’s translation, and he remembered the question he asked earlier, which Jill never answered.  He frowned at her, but she would have to answer later.

“But these people are not slaves.”  Ali Pasha protested.

“You are mistaken!”  The man responded sharply, but took a deep breath before he continued.  “The Mullah has determined that they are escaped slaves, but since it would waste their flesh to get them to tell who their owners are and they would become of use to no one, he has determined that they will be sold again with the proceeds going to the mosque.”  The ugly man waved his men inside.  He was not going to argue further.

Manomar came from the back with three other men.  He had his hand on his sword hilt, ready to draw the weapon on his Master’s word.  Even as the guards came pouring in the door and turned out to be more like twenty, Manomar looked like he would have taken them all on at Ali Pasha’s bidding.

Jill, Ethan and Lars were quickly surrounded.  Jill placed her hand over Lars’ gun, which the big Swede was itching to draw.  “Hold on.”  She spoke in Swedish.  “You may find it more useful later on, but I hope it won’t come to that.”

Ethan had a terrible thought and shouted in his best Englander.  “Manomar, look after the equipment.  Be sure it is not taken or damaged.”  Manomar nodded that he understood.

“Please go good.”  Ali Pasha turned to the three and urged them not to make trouble.  “Most mistaken here.  I be straightening.  Very sorry, but I be straightening.”

“Thank you for your hospitality.”  Ethan said perfectly in the Ali Pasha’s own language.  “I am sure everything will work out.”  Jill took his arm and stayed silent, but she grinned as they were carted off to the back of the slave market where there were cages waiting for them.

Guardian Angel-5 Intermission. part 3 of 3

“There are some blonds here.”  Lars pointed this out to Manomar as they looked down on the muddy streets from the roof.  The roof was flat and set up for sitting out on sunny days, and that day was one Ethan called an Indian summer day.

Ethan could only eavesdrop on the conversation, because Jill and Ali Pasha were engaged in a heated discussion in Ali Pasha’s native tongue.  Curiously, Ethan understood some of what they were saying, but not enough to follow along, so out of frustration he listened to what Manomar had to say.

“Slaves, workers, eunuchs come from all places,” Manomar explained.  “There are all together some five thousand people in this colony, and five times that many more across the river on the islands and the Long Island, but they are mostly on farms.  In many ways, and because of the good portage, New Ark has become the market town.  The port is why the people moved here across the river.  The slave market is here, and also the Examiners.”

Lars shook his big head.  “I do not condone slavery,” he said.  “It is one thing if a man contracts for service, for pay, or works to work off debts.  We understand obligations to King and Country and Community, but slavery is going too far where I come from.”

“I understand.”  Manomar nodded.  “But here, the Examiners have spies everywhere to insure the purity of the faith, to be sure that the name of the Holy Prophet is not abused or overthrown in favor of strange ideas.  If a man’s heritage is found wanting or his faith is suspect, he is not allowed the freedom to rule and corrupt others.  Slavery is only one option, but it is common.”

“Money talks here as everywhere,” Lars blustered.  “You can’t fool me.”

“Indeed it does.”  Manomar agreed with a slight bow of his head, accepting his correction gracefully.  “Thus, there are Christian communities all across the Old World which are allowed some room to live apart.”

“As long as they are not looted,” Lars said, grumpily, before he turned his eyes again to the crowds.  “But the blonds.”  He pointed again.

Manomar shrugged.  “My Master says that the way we are breeding, it will not be long before there are only two people in the world, lighter skinned Lords and the slightly darker skinned slaves, and the blonds will be swallowed up among the slaves.”

“Selective breeding and a poor man’s caste system,” Ethan mumbled, but by then it was time to go down into the house for evening prayers and supper.

The food was wonderful, and so was the conversation except for a couple of innocent comments by Ali Pasha.  “I do not mind eating with womens like many.  I have also breaked bread with Christians many times.”

“Some of my best friends are Christians.”  Ethan quipped.  Jill stepped on his toes and squished them into the tile floor.

“No Renaissance, no Enlightenment, no Industrial Revolution, no technological revolution,” she said.  “Still a late medieval world.  What did you expect?”

“No women’s lib?”

Jill removed her foot and kicked him in the shin, but gently.

“Stop it.”  Ethan turned to her.

“Stop what?”  Jill said, coyly.  Ethan did not answer in words.  He leaned over and kissed her on the lips, determined to taste the sweet honey of those lips again.  They had not kissed since Lars’ log house.  Jill did not resist him.  In fact, she had been asking for it.

Guardian Angel-5 Intermission. part 2 of 3

Morning came with the sound of Lars’ big voice ringing through the tent.  “Come on you two.  The lazy bug got you?  We are moving today, going to the colony on the coast, but you better hurry if you want to eat before the long ride.  Up!”

Ethan woke with Jill’s arm across his wrinkled white shirt and the rest of her snuggled up for warmth.  There had been a chill in the wee hours that remained evident at dawn.  He looked down and saw her smile.  Neither was the least bit uncomfortable just as they were; but Ethan had a thought and pulled back a little.

“I need a toothbrush.”

Jill’s smile broadened as she pulled herself up.  “And a hair brush,” she added as she pulled her long black hair back into a ponytail.  “And a shower, and a change of clothes.”  Ethan just nodded as he got up and put on his suit jacket against the cold.

They got Arabian ponies for the trip.  Lars needed something bigger.  Fortunately, Manomar had a spare stallion, and those two men rode most of the morning side by side, while Jill did her best to keep Ethan in his saddle.

“I’m gonna be sore and bruised worse than riding in the back of Lars’ wagon,” Ethan insisted.  Jill just laughed.

It turned out Manomar’s “Englander” was far better than Ali Pasha’s, and he spent from that time on translating most of his Master’s words for the others.

“I had a son.”  Lars explained to Manomar when they stopped for lunch.  “Two sons, but they both died young.”

“I am sorry,” Manomar responded honestly enough.

“But I have a living daughter.  I would not take all the gold in the world for her, and I am not sure if I will let her marry that Yon Veek, but I am afraid her mother has already decided.”  Lars shook his head, sadly.

Ali Pasha laughed, knowingly, while Manomar spoke.  “That is one headache I will never have to worry about.”

“How do you feel about that?”  Ethan asked before Jill could shush him.

Manomar paused for a moment before answering.  “My feelings do not matter.”

“Everyone’s feelings matter,” Ethan said.  Jill nudged him then so he kept quiet, but he honestly felt that everyone’s feelings mattered and he could not help saying that.

They reached the colony around three that afternoon, having seen only small wild animals en-route, and no sign of people at all.  Lars had imagined they were going to Hoboken, the Dutch outpost on the Jersey side of the Hudson River.  “You know,” he said.  “The place where the trains run.”  But in fact, the colony was called New Ark, an allusion to Noah’s Ark.  It looked like a fort, a strong, sturdy compound of wood which protected the port and a whole parcel of land from the surrounding countryside.

“Once we are having fighting with savages.”  Ali Pasha explained.  “Some are thinking Jihad on the savages would be working well, but some say cost in gold and men is too much for worth.”

Ethan noticed the guards at the gate sported rather large and sharp looking pikes.  Some also had compound bows.  They were ready for a fight if it ever came, but Ethan imagined that after a few bloody noses, the Native Americans rather chose to give the place a wide berth.  The Moors and Arabs were always good on the battlefield.  Tours was not an easy battle for Charles Martel, even in those worlds where he won.

Ali Pasha’s house was two stories and full of fireplaces.  He said he was just using it for several months while the sea captain, the home’s owner, traded down in the islands.  When the captain returned, Ali Pasha’s time would be up and he would pack up his wives and head for home in Malaga, Andalucía.  Meanwhile, he was free to pursue his inquiries, which Ethan finally admitted were like scientific studies.  As Manomar translated Ali Pasha’s theories on why New World deer differed from those of his home, or Englander deer for that matter, Ethan felt prompted to call him a Darwin in the making.

“And we will see how Darwin sits with the Koran in this world,” he cast an aside to Jill.  “Bet they have a very different sort of monkey trial.”

Jill did not argue.  “Islam is a very low tolerance religion compared to Christianity, especially when it comes to change.”  They spoke quietly to themselves.

In all, it was a pleasant day.  Ali Pasha had so many questions, but Jill and Ethan only answered his questions in the most general terms and offered no information on their own.  They also convinced Lars to do the same.  It seemed Jill and Ethan were well practiced at not telling everything they knew.  For Ethan, it was standard practice for public relations work.  It was harder for Lars, but even Lars understood that people had to learn for themselves and in their own time and way.  It was not healthy to be handed things on a silver platter; and in fact, Lars understood that very well.

Ali Pasha was not dissatisfied.  He had more information and new directions for study than he ever imagined gaining in a lifetime.

That afternoon, Jill put on something provocative and paraded around, playing with her veil.  She dressed Ethan up as an Arabian Prince while the scullery washed their clothes.  True, Ethan barely saved his dry clean only suit from the water in time, but the rest needed washing.  Lars, on the other hand said he was good, and Jill and Ethan laughed together, and fell into each other’s arms, laughing.  That laugh stopped suddenly, and they separated quickly, but there was something definitely there, even if neither was ready to talk about it.

Guardian Angel-5 Intermission. part 1 of 3

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.

“I see.”

“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.”

“I see.”

There was another moment of silence while Ethan waited for Jill to realize it was her turn.

“And how are things with Susan?” she asked.

Ethan almost sat up.  “Done,” he said.  “Long ago.  I don’t know what she was looking for, but it was not me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“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.