Tuesday Fiction: “The Portal Plague” by Dinesh Rao
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Dinesh Rao. Dinesh, originally from India, trained as an ecologist and specializes in the behaviour of spiders. His earlier published works include a series of science and travel articles for a newspaper in Bangalore, India. He has also published a short story in the Indian Journal of Science Fiction Studies. His blog is at http://pointsofdeparture.wordpress.com. He now lives in a small coffee town in Mexico with his wife and daughter.
This is the story’s first publication.
The Portal Plague
Ganesh had chanced on the job advertisement in the back pages of a science magazine. The requirements read like the universe had sent him a personal message. Experience in mapping. Check. That time surveying stream boundaries in Southern India. Experience in navigation. Check. Two years studying the migratory habits of dragonflies in Spain. Experience in robotics. A one-year side project working on applying bee navigation techniques to develop autonomous flying machines in Australia. Fluency in English and knowledge of Spanish. Among others. He’d applied for the job and in a couple of months his life was about to change again.
Ganesh looked around the room, took a deep breath and allowed the familiar sensation of impending departure to wash over him. It had been a great time, but two years in the same job was already the longest he’d spent in any particular place, other than his childhood in India. He finished packing his bag in half an hour, felt its heft and waited for the taxi.
On the ride to the airport, he started reading a paperback novel but failed, his mind was too full of the future. A new project, a new country, and most of all, a new problem: the Portal Plague.
There was no one to receive him at the airport in Mexico City, and the hubbub prickled his ears. It had been a long time since he’d last used his Spanish, but the blur of words swirling around him were gradually coming into focus. A kindly stranger helped him get to the overnight bus to Xalapa. As the city receded, his previous life did as well, and he settled into the new one. The first days were the best, when everything was shiny and interesting, and the game was to find connections; similar and dissimilar things. Windows and mirrors.
The Portal Plague of Xalapa started a few years ago. No one knew exactly when or how. At first the portals were all over the news, tons of researchers studying them, daily newspaper accounts, dramatic stories. But the reports had tapered off. When the news of people dying started to spread, the government cut off access to the portals, all foreign visitors to Xalapa were screened, and prestigious projects and contracts were given only to Mexican researchers and Mexican institutions. The world protested, but there was little they could do. The bulk of the projects went to a team from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City, but there were a few teams here and there around Xalapa. Everybody wanted in on the action, even though they had no idea what they were up against. A few research organizations found a loophole and advertised for seemingly innocuous research assistants and post-docs, in order to get at least some experts on the problem, but it was slow going. Meanwhile, while the politicians and the scientists squabbled, daily life in Xalapa turned into a nightmare.
The portals were invisible and borderless flattened orbs. They appeared and disappeared in highly unpredictable ways. Some were small, the size of coins, and others were large enough to swallow buses. The portals could be in the middle of roads, in cafes and on walls. So far the only way to detect a portal’s presence was a faint sulphurous smell in the air, but it was usually too late because by the time you noticed it you were already through. Normal city life had become impossible. One might be heading to an appointment at the bank and end up on the outskirts of the city in a coffee plantation. People stepping out of their houses ended up plastered in the middle of a traffic jam. There was no way to know when or where the next portal would turn up. The death rate started climbing. The government decided to tackle this by training an ad hoc army with sniffer dogs to detect the telltale portal stink. The army wandered the city looking for portals, and once one was detected they would stand in front of it waving a red rag. The portaleros, as they were called, were given red t-shirts, a convenient way for the government to advertise its party colours ahead of next year’s election. It was very much a local low tech way of dealing with the crisis, and the politicians knew that the mere appearance of doing something would be enough to keep the people from rebelling. When the portal appearances finally stabilized, the smaller ones became less frequent and, on any given day, there would be as few as twenty portals scattered all around Xalapa. Life went on, but Xalapa still felt like a city under siege.
Ganesh met his new boss at the cafeteria in front of the Institute. He was trying to get a cup of coffee before the meeting, but was unable to convey to the lady at the counter just how much milk he wanted in the coffee. Finally he gave up and asked for an express and milk on the side. He turned around and there she was. He recognized her from her photo on the Institute’s website. Not trusting his Spanish anymore, Ganesh introduced himself to Dr Araceli Mendoza in English. Dr Araceli was a slim, silver haired woman who spoke in rapid fire sentences. Her accent disconcerted Ganesh at first, but her manner put him at ease instantly. They may have been worlds apart, but he already knew that he would get along fine with his new boss. They small-talked their way through the coffee, and then Araceli led him to her office, perched high on the seventh floor of the building. The cloud forests surrounded the Institute, and from her window one could see all the way to the neighbouring volcano, its gleaming white tip shimmering in the clear morning air. Araceli saw him gawking and said,
-That’s the Pico de Orizaba.
Ganesh started out of his involuntary reverie.
The next hour passed in a blur of introductions — the PhD students, Raul the lanky lad from a small neighbouring town called Coatepec, exotically attired Sophia from Tlaxcala — and finally ended at the desk assigned to him. No view of the volcano for him, but it was good to have a place to put his stuff. Araceli dropped in to hand him a bunch of scientific articles, and Ganesh was left with a curious sense of dislocation. The new life was beginning, but he felt like he was still travelling, rather than having arrived.
Life soon settled into a routine. A few minutes’ walk everyday from his room in the city centre, a morning coffee at an old fashioned cafe, the bus to the Institute, climbing up the hill to the building, and catching up on his reading. Xalapa quickly started to feel like home, from the familiar sense of crowdedness to the blending in; people kept assuming he was a local and asking him for directions and such. The occasional seminars, and lab discussions, and evening explorations of the city. He started noticing the portaleros, and recognizing the smell of the portals. Every morning, he checked the newspaper, skimming over the headlines, but focussing on the daily portal report. Previous studies, done in part by Araceli’s group, had established that now the Portals were persistent for an average of 13.5 hours, and this allowed the newspaper to collate information about the latest sighting. And since citizens were keen on informing the newspaper about new ones, it was getting easier to spot and track a portal. Ganesh knew that he could just as well use their specialized software for tracking portals, but there was a sense of shared endeavour in reading the reports in the newspaper. Some portal news was always present on the front pages, usually dramatic stories, like a maid who stepped out to buy maize flour and ended up on the balcony of the Governor’s Palace downtown, or the cyclist who almost drowned when he inadvertently emerged in the lakes around the University.
Ganesh’s first encounter with the portals was almost an anticlimax. One morning, on the way to the bus, he smelled the sulphurous stink, but failed to react in time to avoid the telltale orb of blurry air. A click, a snap and a whirr later he was standing on the road in front of the Institute. He took one step, caught his breath, stilled his crazily beating heart with a long deep breath, and looked behind him, and there it was. The telltale smell and the blurry air. He pulled out a page from his notebook and wrote in big letters, PORTAL AQUI! CUIDADO!, and affixed the warning on a tree next to the portal. The whole group later visited it to take some measurements, and this portal was assigned a code bearing his initials. Ganesh found this gesture gratifying. At the end of the day, he took a chance. He decided to save himself the bus ride back home by travelling via portal. Telling no one, because that would be crazy, he waited till there were no people around, and stepped into the blurry orb. The same suddenness enveloped him, and when he focussed his eyes again, he was standing on the side of the road in the tunnel under the Parque Juarez, about to be hit by a scooter. Indian instincts, long honed in the art of avoiding insane traffic, saved him. He leapt out of the way, reaching the side of the tunnel just in time, but not fast enough to avoid the scooter’s mirror, which dinged his elbow hard.
The next day, Ganesh excitedly recounted his experience to Araceli, and got an earful in return.
-What! Are you crazy? How could you do such a thing? You could have been killed! Maybe I didn’t warn you enough, but I never imagined you would take such a risk.
Ganesh stood dumbfounded.
-Read this article, maybe then you’ll understand what we’re facing here.
She rummaged through her desk and produced an article written by the UNAM team, collating the fates of the hundreds of people who had been through the portals. Thirty-five per cent ended in death or accident. Ganesh felt a flush spreading across his face, and a much delayed adrenaline rush.
-I won’t do it again. I don’t know what I was thinking.
-Yeah, it’s my fault, I didn’t warn you enough. I will assign one of my lab people to watch over you.
-No that won’t be necessary, I think I get it now.
Araceli looked unconvinced. An awkward pause followed, her angry words still ringing in his ear.
Suddenly she said,
-But you know, that’s really interesting. We had assumed that the portals connected one region of Xalapa to another, and that they were two-way. You’ve shown very dramatically that they are not. Which changes everything. In fact you just about managed to ruin an ongoing project, but in a good way. Now we have some tangible evidence that the portals function very differently. Let me… give me a minute…
She turned to her computer and launched the portal-modelling software, and started fiddling with the parameters. Ganesh stood there for a while, but Araceli paid him no attention. Ganesh watched her manipulate the program, she fluently swooped and soared between the panels and the sub-panels, clicking and clacking, flitting around the options so fast that it was almost impossible to follow. Finally she leaned back in her chair, took a short breath and pressed RUN. The computer wheezed.
She turned to him and said,
-This will take a while, but the problem now is much more complicated. The mapping will have to be reconsidered entirely. I think our next step is to finish the probes as soon as possible. How’s it coming along?
Ganesh had started reprogramming the probe software based on the insect flight work he’d done earlier.
-So far so good. I don’t know if the tracking will work when the probe is within the portal though.
-Only one way to know. Tell me when it’s done, we’ll organize a pilot study.
A few weeks passed, the incessant dripping rain – the famous chipi chipi – eased slightly, and it was time to test the probe. Araceli, Ganesh, and the rest of the lab went to a known stable portal and, with the help of the portalero, set up their equipment. The portal hovered just outside a famous local baker’s shop, whose owner was annoyed that he could smell the portal stink over the aroma of fresh bread. They knew where the probe would end up, just a couple of blocks away. Araceli and Ganesh stayed at the entry point, while Raul and Sophia headed off to the purported exit point. Araceli busied herself with the laptop, checking and rechecking the parameters, and finally seemed to be satisfied with the preparations.
-I hope it works.
-It should. I can’t think of what might go wrong, at least from our side. We need to get this project going very soon.
Ganesh knew that Araceli was under a lot of pressure to produce some results. The funding agency demanded monthly reports and, to add to the stress, the UNAM team kept firing out papers in rapid succession. He said,
-The UNAM team had another paper out yesterday.
-Yes, I saw the title, but haven’t read it yet. I’m sure it’s another cookie cutter article, rehashing the same stuff. They must have a paper writing machine stashed away somewhere.
-How come I never see them around here? They must be here somewhere.
-They do quick visits, mostly, and besides most of their work is theoretical stuff, so why leave the comfort of the lab?
* * *
The walkie-talkie crackled. They heard Sophia’s voice, over the sing-song cry of a tamale vendor,
-We’re at the exit portal, we got two portaleros to chase away people, and we’re ready.
-Alright then, keep in touch.
* * *
Ganesh turned on the probe. It hovered just in front of his face. He directed its movement with a hacked radio-controller, and Araceli confirmed with her laptop that the probe was indeed being tracked.
Ganesh slowly walked behind the hovering probe to the edge of the portal, and with a final glance backward pushed it into the blurry air. The portal made a tiny popping noise, and the probe disappeared. Immediately, even before Ganesh could turn to Araceli, Sophia buzzed them excitedly,
-GOT IT! IT WORKS!
Araceli looked up from the laptop, and said,
-OK, that’s really good. Let’s wrap up and meet at the cafe.
* * *
Sophia later recounted how the probe hadn’t flown through but rather crashed through. Falling down, as if it had run out of batteries. They would review the data later, but it seemed like the batteries were almost instantly drained when the probe passed through the portal. Araceli was very pleased; they had a tangible result, and now it was simply a matter of scaling up. They started downloading the probe’s data feed, and it was then they noticed the irregularities. The internal clock showed that the probe had been active for five hours. The GPS tracker showed hundreds of data points. The housing of the probe was showing wear and tear even though it was brand new.
The team discussed the pilot study all morning, and it was apparent that even the single probe had generated a wealth of hypotheses. They argued over the irregularities, but it was too soon to say anything. However, Araceli was now more convinced than ever that the portals were some sort of terrestrial wormhole.
-And the inside bigger than the outside?
-Yes, we really have to get a camera on the probe. And start the mapping. And fast. We really need to get some data out before the government decides that the UNAM team needs the money more.
Araceli and Raul stayed back in the lab, and Ganesh and Sophia headed back home. Sophia lived quite close to where Ganesh was staying, and she offered him a ride in her old VW Beetle. Sophia was a bit of an amateur linguist, she learnt languages with ease. She spoke some English, and jumped at the chance at practicing. They stopped at a cafe.
-How long have you been away from home?
-Oh, around ten, fifteen years or so… Ever since my parents passed away, I’ve found fewer and fewer reasons to go back.
-No family back home?
-Well, I have a brother, but we haven’t spoken in a while. I haven’t even been to India in years.
-That is very sad. You must be always leaving, never staying.
-I suppose it is. But I quite enjoy being a modern nomad, I don’t think I can put down roots anywhere.
-What about Xalapa?
-I really like it here, but then I’ve also really liked the other places I’ve been. But what about you? I know you’re from a different city, what was it…?
-Tlaxcala. It’s to the west, but very close. Maybe we can go there one day, it would be fun to show you around. We normally get tourists from rich countries here, and they always say the same things: the traffic is crazy, everything in disorganized. But you see things differently, no?
-This is very easy after India. It’s comfortable here: not so organized, not so chaotic.
They chatted into the night, sharing stories and histories, tracing their trajectories through time and space and probabilities. Ganesh relaxed and opened up, as if the recital of experiences made him more assured. All his life he’d felt that his varied history was leading up to something, and he wondered again if this was what he was meant to do.
While saying goodbye, Ganesh discovered that it was much later than he’d realized, and the time spent with Sophia had felt just like a few minutes. Always a good sign, he thought, as they parted reluctantly.
The weeks passed by in a blur. Those days of leaving the lab at 4pm to wander through the city and take in the sights were over. Ever since the pilot study, Ganesh and the others had been putting probes in portals, retrieving them, downloading the data and mapping the portals’ locations and the interior distance of the transits. While it sounded simple in theory, they had no idea where the portals would send the probes to, and so they mostly worked on the reported ones. They scanned the portal report in the local newspaper and assembled a list of portals that they could use. They chose the easiest ones, since they had no way of accessing the portals that were hovering above the lake or high up next to the seventh floor of a building. Meanwhile the death toll increased, despite an increase in the number of portaleros. Election fever was heating up, and the governor was getting very nervous that his management of the portals would affect his party’s chances in the elections. More and more money was suddenly poured into the problem. Some of it did trickle down to Araceli’s group, but not enough to change the scale of the investigation.
And then everything changed. The portals changed. And people started disappearing frequently. Probes started disappearing. The pressure on the government grew intense, and Xalapa’s governor started haemorrhaging money, but mostly to fund advertising campaigns to show that he was doing something about the problem. There was talk that the military would get involved, but nobody expected any good to come out of that. The disappearances were very worrying, and the situation took a sharp turn for the worse when a prominent politician disappeared. The politician’s family started raising hell, and suddenly the Portal Plague was back on the front pages of the newspapers. Many countries offered their support and aid, but were always refused, the government saying that this was an internal matter.
Araceli’s lab now looked like a military command post; maps were strewn all around, one entire side was scattered with cameras and probe parts. The walkie talkie crackled from time to time, and people were always walking in and out. Araceli called an emergency lab meeting and everybody assembled around a table.
-I have some news. One of the portals is stable. I mean really stable. It hasn’t changed since we started tracking them. It’s the only one that we know that hasn’t disappeared, so we’re going to focus our attention on it. I also have bad news. Well, bad for us. The rumours are that the UNAM team is very close to making a breakthrough, so it’s now a sprint. No more leisurely make-hypothesis-and-test-it kind of science.
-What kind of breakthrough?
-I’m not entirely sure. They’ve been very hush-hush from the beginning, but their last paper made me think that they are trying to predict where the next portal will appear.
They all laughed at that. Everybody had seen the giant portal map that was updated daily; trying to predict the portals was like trying to predict where raindrops would fall.
-I’ve decided to enter the stable portal. I’ve done all the analyses I can think of, and it seems that the probes entering the stable portal always end up in the corner of the street Callejon del Diamante. The time taken to traverse is negligible. It’s a very quick mission, we go in, measure all we can and come out. Raul and Sophia, you two can monitor me from the outside.
Ganesh was instantly alarmed,
-But what if the portal changes again?
-That’s why we have to do this now, as soon as possible. Of course there is a risk that the portal would send us elsewhere, but the probabilities are on our side. Ganesh, you must also help Raul and Sophia monitor us.
Both Raul and Sophia insisted on going in with Araceli, and finally they decided that only Ganesh would stay back. The meeting broke up in a flurry of activity. They started gathering all their equipment in preparation for the transit.
Ganesh helped them get ready and they decided to meet early next morning, at dawn, to minimize any interference from casual onlookers.
Early next morning, Ganesh got a sudden glimpse of the suntipped Pico de Orizaba as he rounded a corner on the way to the Plaza Xallitic. He hadn’t seen the volcano since his first day; the horizon had always been cloudy. Seeing it reminded him that he was here, in Xalapa, in Mexico. He felt a twinge at the thought of being in such a dramatic landscape, and it simultaneously reminded him that he was so far from India. It had been years since he had any normal connection with his hometown, but even his many years of scientific nomadism couldn’t take away the feeling that no matter how far or how comfortable he was in a foreign country, it would never be home. After so many years outside, even home was no longer home: his city had grown in the meantime, and every trip back felt like visiting an old friend who had had plastic surgery done.
Lost in thought, Ganesh arrived at the rendezvous spot in the small fog-encrusted plaza. Araceli was already there, tapping away at her laptop. Sophia and Raul arrived soon after. They exchanged pleasantries shivering with the morning chill. Or nervousness, thought Ganesh.
Araceli took a look around, checked her laptop one last time before handing it to Ganesh, picked up her bag, and said,
-Alright, everything ready? OK – let’s go. Ganesh, we’ll meet you at the Callejon del Diamante.
They stepped up to the portal and one by one entered the blurry orb. Ganesh watched them disappear, and the tracking program came to life. He watched the three dots on the screen, moving this way and that, and then settling down. He knew that they would have already arrived at the exit. He packed up the bag, and started walking towards the Callejon at a brisk pace.
Xalapa was coming alive with activity. Joggers brushed past him, the gas truck went by playing its distinctive jingle. The portaleros had already taken their positions, their red shirts dotting the roads. Ganesh arrived at the exit point, expecting to see a portalero, but there was nobody there. He looked around, thinking he had mistaken the location, and saw that the portalero in question was just arriving at his spot. But the team was not there. Ganesh looked around anxiously, his heart beating faster with every passing minute. He pulled out the laptop and checked the tracker, but it was of little use: the dots had disappeared.
Not knowing what to do, he waited the whole morning at the Callejon del Diamante, stared at by curious onlookers and the knickknack sellers who were setting up their stalls. And then, after a few hours, it was clear that something had gone wrong. Ganesh tried calling them on the cellphone, and the walkie-talkie, thinking maybe they’d ended up at a different exit point, but he got no answer. The team was trapped inside. Sophia was trapped inside.
Ganesh made his way back to the Institute. He greeted his acquaintances mechanically. The lab looked large and empty, still strewn with maps and equipment. He turned on the main computer, and waited for the portal-modelling program to load. To his relief, he saw that the stable portal was still stable, which meant there was a chance that Araceli and the others could be reached. He re-ran the analysis of the probes that had been introduced into the stable portal. All of them made it out through the expected exit. Something must have changed. Some new factor, some parameter. If only there was a pattern. Ganesh knew, even if he did not want to admit it yet, that he would have to go in himself, but he wanted to be sure that there was no other option. He printed out the locations of the latest portals, he ran an animation of all the portals, trying to see a pattern in their appearances; he tried locating the tracking device; and, finally, when the sun was already low and the famous Xalapa fog was enveloping everything in its gloom, he pushed back his chair and closed his eyes in exhaustion. This was getting nowhere.
In the next couple of days, Ganesh tried everything he could think of. He re-read all the papers he could find. He even contacted the UNAM team, only to be met with complete indifference. He ran and reran the data from the probes, and puzzled over the data points of the trackers. He had to tell the director of the Institute what had happened, and fielded anxious calls from the relatives and friends of Araceli, Raul and Sophia. He pushed a probe into the stable portal, and it ended up as expected in the Callejon del Diamante. Ganesh realized that the stable portal had a stable entry but not a stable exit point. So he reran all the analysis focussing on exit points, and printed out a huge map.
The days seemed to fly by, but Ganesh felt like he was running flat out on a treadmill. One night, on his way back, he stopped at a cafe, and scanned the local newspaper. He finished skimming the latest portal news, and by chance turned to the cultural section, where there was an article on rangoli, of all things. Seeing the familiar drawing flooded his mind with childhood memories of helping the maid draw the auspicious intricate chalk mandalas on the floor in front of his house. He stared at the illustration for a while, finished his coffee, and headed home. He was about to turn the key in his lock, when the answer flashed in his mind, almost without conscious effort. The portals were not discrete, they were all connected, like rangoli. And he had the data to prove it.
Ganesh adjusted his backpack, crammed with supplies. He’d done all he could to tell people what he’d found out, left enough detailed instructions that anyone could follow. He knew that once the pattern was found, it would only be a matter of time before the portals would be thoroughly studied and modified for human use. The human race was on the brink of a completely new transportation system.
The rangoli scheme he’d come up with had solved the problem. When Ganesh played all the portals’ appearances and disappearances as an animation over time and space, it was apparent that the portals swirled in time, and the connections were plain to the eye. It took a little more time to figure out a general scheme to predict where a person entering the portal would exit, and a little longer to plug in the special equations for the stable portal. In the end, Ganesh had a fairly good idea on how to catch up with the missing team. They must be stuck somewhere in between portals, or stuck in a loop of entering and exiting. But he knew now that he had to enter the stable portal, not early in the morning like last time, but at four in the afternoon, and there was a chance their trajectories could be synchronized.
He arrived at the portal, stood in the shelter of a doorway and readied himself for the entry. He had a probe in his backpack, a small computer, and a camera in his hand. This time it would be well documented. At 4pm exactly, he stepped into the stable portal. Everything blurred for a moment, and instead of popping out on the other side, he experienced a series of fast changing landscapes. Sunlight, daylight, night and cities and villages sped past him almost too fast to be seen. He flashed by towering black buildings that gleamed, and wide unbroken forests, a sandy beach and hills, and finally after a series of heart lurching moments popped out into a small square. He had made it through – to somewhere.
Ganesh looked around. Everything looked awfully familiar, but he couldn’t place the memory. It must be a part of Xalapa he had never been in before, but everything looked different, as if it was a different state or even country. There was a market in front of him, and he walked up to one of the corn sellers and asked her what the name of the place was. She looked up, a blank expression on her face and spoke something. He failed to understand her.
Ganesh’s Spanish was not great, but he knew he had made immense strides in the last few months. Bewildered, he asked again, but the lady spoke gibberish to him. Finally he realized,
Ah, she doesn’t speak Spanish.
Which was very weird.
He turned away, and approached a guy sitting behind towering piles of multi-coloured beans. Waiting a moment to get his attention, he spoke as clearly as he could.
-Excuse me, could you tell me how to get to Parque Juarez?
referring to the city centre, thinking that once he made it to downtown, he could find his bearings easier.
The man turned to him, and spoke a few words, and it was clear that he had no idea what Ganesh was saying. Again, the man spoke in a fast sing-song voice filled with TZs, TNs and TLs.
This was not working. Ganesh decided to wander around, camera in hand, recording everything. He turned a corner and lo, in the distance the Pico de Orizaba stood, all lit up by the evening sun. But something was wrong: the tip of the mountain was gone. The perfect peak of the volcano had been replaced by a flat top. He struggled to understand, he felt tired with the mental calculations. But even before he finished the thought he realized where he was. He was right in the centre, right where Parque Juarez should have been. Except, the city looked nothing like Xalapa. Instead of a paved leafy park dotted with Haya trees, he was in a plaza that ended in a small stepped pyramid. The square was packed with temporary stalls, hundreds of people thronged around. They were all dressed in bright colours, some wearing feathered headdresses. A loudspeaker filled the air with music, but it was a kind of pop music dominated by whistles and bells. He could not understand a single word. He wandered around the square, bumping against the people, attracting stares everywhere. His Indian skin no longer provided him with camouflage, he now stood out among the paler skinned people.
On top of the small pyramid, a ceremony seemed to be in progress, and people climbed up the steps snakelike, swaying side to side. A big cauldron of fire burned at the top, and the people went right up to it. He joined the line, fending off queries, miming his lack of knowledge of the language. Right at the top, just before the line of people went into the small temple, he was stopped by two burly men, clad only in loin cloths, their oiled muscles gleaming. He understood that he was barred from entry. Ganesh turned away in good grace. He’d often seen foreigners denied entry into temples, back in India; this was no different. But being at the top of the pyramid gave him a great vantage point to survey the city and video everything he could.
The familiar narrow lanes were still there, but the houses had changed. Xalapa’s trademark tiled roofs were gone, and the colours were curiously uniform. Most houses were painted in a few main colours, and the cityscape was oddly harmonious. The ceremony went on behind him, and loudspeakers carried the hymns out into the plaza, and people milled around, trying to get in, trying to get out. The thick fruity aroma of copal filled the air, and hawkers and knickknack sellers kept bumping into him. Ganesh decided to head down. He went around the temple, past the cages of Xoloitzcuintle dogs, and headed down the pyramid on the other side, taking care with each step, so as to not topple down into the line of people. A few of the people were dressed in a sort of western fashion, but the majority wore brightly coloured robes and shawls. Ganesh reached the bottom of the pyramid, and wandered slowly through the city.
The streets were narrow, and small alleys led off from time to time, with corners often etched with the name of the street and a representation of some god or other. Ganesh noticed shops in unexpected locations, and people sat on stools in front of snack sellers. He rounded a corner and there, in a cafe of sorts, spotted Araceli, Raul and Sophia, sipping some hot chocolate, their bags piled around them, trying not to attract attention. He went up to them, a big grin forming on his face. Sophia spotted him first, and rattled the table as she got up and hugged him. A flurry of greetings later, Ganesh heard their story. They’d shunted from portal to portal before ending up here.
-But is this Xalapa?
-Yes, it’s Xalapa, alright, but it feels like Xalapa in a Mexico where the Spaniards never arrived. They’re mostly speaking Nahuatl, and some Totonac, but it looks like Nahuatl is the dominant one. Look at the signs.
Ganesh looked at the names of the stores. They were written in Roman script, and below the big names, there was something else, written in the same script.
-They are using both languages.
-You can speak Nahuatl?
Araceli shook her head,
-Sophia does. Apparently it’s a very weird form of Nahuatl that she speaks, and everybody is very amused with her accent, but we have been managing to communicate. Somewhat.
Raul and Sophia were furiously arguing about something, but the Spanish was too fast to follow.
-They are debating how to get back to our Xalapa. Again. But tell me, Ganesh, how in the world did you find us?
Ganesh briefly recounted his investigations, and his findings. He pulled out the laptop, and showed them the portal patterns. Araceli looked impressed.
Raul suddenly exploded,
-We need to go back. Somehow. This is a crazy haunted place. I’m not even sure we’re alive.
An awkward silence, and the team retreated a bit from the stares of the people around them.
-OK, we must be going.
She pulled out her purse and looked closely at a few oval coins, consulted with Sophia, who haltingly asked a passing waiter how much to pay. She clinked the coins into a bowl made of a gourd. Ganesh picked up one of the coins; they were heavy, and decorated with Aztec motifs.
-We sold some stuff at a shop earlier. Mexican pesos are no good here.
They packed their bags and headed out to the plaza. They found a quiet spot under a fantastic sculpture of Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain, and took stock of the situation. Raul said,
-We have GPS coordinates of the portals, maybe we can find the one corresponding to the exit point in Callejon del Diamante?
-But how can we be sure that the positions are valid? We could end up in a place even more bizarre.
-I’m not even sure there are portals here.
Sophia was busy scribbling in her journal.
They argued back and forth for many minutes, and Ganesh could sense the anxiety in their voices. The argument was starting to get heated when Sophia interrupted them.
-I think there’s somebody coming to talk to us.
A man wearing a ceremonial robe arrived at their group, looked at them intently, and spoke to Ganesh, evidently deciding that he was their leader.
-He says he is worried about us, or angry, I’m not sure, but he wants us to go meet someone. I think someone important, because he used the word for god.
The man made follow-me movements, and so they followed him.
They were asked to wait in a leafy covered courtyard of a large house, well hidden from the outside world. The bright yellow walls seemed to emanate sunlight. They sat on huge chunky wooden chairs, and looked around. Soon they heard voices, and Araceli looked at Sophia, but she just shook her head and said,
-No. Totonac. I think.
A slender bald man came in, did a curious gesture with his hands, and spoke fluid French to them.
The team looked around, but none of them knew any French. The bald man switched back to Nahuatl then, and Sophia provided a simultaneous translation.
-I know that you are not demons, I mean, foreigners… You are visitors from another world; we have had a few of you, but they all die or disappear, but you are the first who speak the language of the gods, so we are… I don’t know the word… You must return, the balance is being hidden, no, lost, and it is very dangerous, I cannot hold them back? I don’t know who he means… I will show you how to get out of here, but I cannot tell you how to get back to where you came from… It is very important that you must go… our world is getting polluted with your world’s problems… you must try to stop it before the summer? No, he said solstice, or it will be too late… I don’t understand that sentence at all.
-Keep going, said Araceli.
-Meet me here at midnight, I will tell the guards to expect you.
The man abruptly got up, did the hand gesture again, and left.
* * *
At midnight, they returned to the house. They were ushered inside. The bald man was waiting for them. He silently led them through the strange but familiar streets towards the central plaza. It was a cold gloomy night, the fog had descended, enveloping everything; the street lamps had a halo of blue. They walked along the narrow streets until they arrived at the base of the pyramid. The bald man pulled out an aerophone, a small clay bird-shaped flute, and blew it twice. When he heard an answering trill, they proceeded to climb the pyramid. Ganesh surreptitiously turned his video on. At the very top, they rested, breathing heavily, knees twinging. Another man came from within the temple, and the bald man spoke to him quickly. Sophia strained to hear the words, but she didn’t catch anything.
Then both of them turned to the team and the bald man spoke,
-This way, follow me.
They entered the temple at the top. The temple was dark, with only a few oil lamps casting strange shadows everywhere. The walls were covered with etchings, and even in the darkness Ganesh could make out vast vistas of colour. They proceeded to one room at the side of the temple, and lo, a familiar smell, the stink of the portal. The bald man lit a small lamp, and they could see the blurry orb. It was obvious what the bald man wanted them to do, return to wherever they came from. But Ganesh and the others knew that the portal might send them anywhere, and they couldn’t take the chance. Not without checking it first. They huddled around the laptop, took some co-ordinates and ran Ganesh’s program for calculating trajectories. If the portal locations matched, then they should emerge right on the bridge over Xallitic Plaza. If the portal took them back to their Xalapa and not some other destination. They decided to go through. One by one they flickered into the orb, and their last view of the other Xalapa was the bald man’s lamp-lit impassive face.
Sudden daylight, and they blinked to see that the calculations were exact. All four of them were standing on the bridge, the hubbub of Xalapa surrounding them.
-But is this Our Xalapa? asked Raul.
—I don’t know, said Araceli, but I have a quick way to find out. She pulled out her phone and made a call. A brief conversation later, she turned back to the team and smiled.
-Yes, it is! We’re back.
They hugged briefly and, almost without a further word or goodbye, they all scattered in different directions.
The next few days passed in a blur. There were relatives to contact, to reassure, and paperwork to tackle and data to analyse. The team spent long hours in the lab, lost in a haze of intense concentration. Sophia was in charge of transcribing all the conversations they’d recorded, and she was brushing up on her Nahuatl, while Raul assisted Ganesh with the maps and trajectories. They adapted Ganesh’s rangoli-inspired pattern seeker program to the new data, and Araceli collated the results into a rough manuscript form. She contacted anthropologists, archaeologists and ethnomusicologists: this was going to make her name.
Ganesh briefly thought of calling his estranged brother, punched in the numbers and then hung up. He thought,
-He’s probably closing some business deal in China or something…
Xalapa seemed to be getting worse. People were more and more afraid to leave their houses, the streets were deserted. Passing by downtown one day, Ganesh felt like the city was under curfew. Armed soldiers wandered the streets holding huge guns and chatting idly. The governor declared a state of emergency, and international pressure was starting to bend the government to allow in outside help. Helicopters flitted about and, since the portals were never detected at that height, it became the safest way for politicians to travel.
More portal investigation teams started arriving in Xalapa. Soon the only people on the streets were the scientists and the military. Unable to survive, there was a mass exodus of people to the neighbouring town of Coatepec, which became jammed, and quite unable to cope with the influx. Almost overnight, Coatepec lost its fame as a sleepy coffee town. The government had already transferred itself to the port of Veracruz, and it looked like Xalapa would soon go back to a sleepy mountain town as it was before it became the state capital.
In the Institute, more money was thrown at Araceli’s team, even though nobody outside of the team knew what they’d found. Araceli made everyone swear to secrecy; she knew that the slightest hint of an “Other Xalapa”, without a proper presentation, would doom their efforts. She was also anticipating the impact the paper would make, and decided to host a press conference once the analysis was ready.
And, finally, almost a month since the day they got out of the portal system, Araceli declared that she was ready to present the results to the public. She set up a date, booked a conference room in the Institute, and then contacted the major Xalapa newspaper, the Diario de Xalapa. The reporter who dealt with her advised her to change the date, there was another press conference that day, at almost the same time.
Araceli was about to agree, when something made her inquire what was going on.
The reporter said, almost offhandedly, that the UNAM team were holding a session, and no, he didn’t know about what; but apparently it was going to be a big one.
After the UNAM team’s press conference, Araceli and Ganesh stood outside the building, too shaken to speak, smoking furiously. For Ganesh, it meant that he could see the end of yet another project, but Araceli looked devastated.
The UNAM team had triumphantly demonstrated a technique for collapsing the portals. They’d set up their equipment in front of one of the portals and, with the flick of a switch, and a sudden sharp explosion, the stench of the portal faded and the blurry orb disappeared into a haze of bitter smoke. One of the technicians walked through the spot where the portal was, to show that Xalapa could now be made safe again. They had already assembled a team of portal defusers whose job was to go around Xalapa and get rid of the portals.
The governor was ecstatic, the press were fawning, and the people of Xalapa were relieved that their long nightmare year was finally coming to an end. There was talk of special honours for the UNAM team, and the next day every newspaper would scream HEROES! The governor declared a day of celebration. All day long the sound of blowing up portals filled Xalapa.
Ganesh asked Araceli,
-What will you do now?
-I don’t know. I think I can still get the paper published, but it will be difficult. I feel like an animal researcher whose subject has just become extinct. I think I will wrap up loose ends as best as I can, and move on to something else.
-Do you think they’ll leave a few, just to study them?
-No chance, Araceli said bitterly. The portals have always been viewed as a menace. Everybody will be happy to see the end of this plague.
Later, at the Institute, the lab was in mourning, all their maps and probes mocking them. Sophia was packing away her Nahuatl books. Raul turned up late; he had been out watching the portal collapses. He reported that the stable portal was gone; Ganesh felt a pang at hearing that. Araceli took one look around, and told everyone to start getting the lab back into shape, and they began clearing things away, silently, each lost in thought, and each object they moved triggered memories.
By the end of the day, the lab looked completely different and, as they stepped out, the setting sun filled the surprisingly clear sky with a pale orange light, and the faint silhouette of the volcano faded into the dusk.
Ganesh looked at the volcano, and told the others that he would stay and watch the sunset. Sophia looked up sharply and said she would stay as well, and the others left.
For many minutes, they watched the sunlight dissipate, and the first stars emerge. Sophia said,
-Are you going to leave?
-Probably. I will find another project somewhere and start all over again. It’s like I cannot possibly stay in one place for more than a year.
-Have you any ideas?
-Not right now, but there is an opening in Sweden that I might apply for, even though the thought of going to a cold place scares me. But the thing is to keep moving…
-Don’t go, Sophia blurted.
Ganesh turned to face her; Sophia was looking at him intently, eyes unwavering, voice trembling.
-Don’t go? But what will I do here now?
-You can always find something. Or someone.
Don’t go. The very thought was alien to him. With no ties anywhere, no family to go back to, the idea of staying, of resting, suddenly grew alluring, like a virus infecting his mind, spreading with breakneck speed.
Don’t go. Stay.
He held out his hand experimentally, and Sophia took it unhesitatingly. It had taken him a decade, but he was finally finding a reason to stay.