Salarn was having a busy morning. The 20-year-old had discovered a whole three people on the train who hadn't used a deodorant that morning. She'd given each one a superstrength government-issue can and debited their accounts. She'd also written up a report on it and sent it back to HQ so that they could investigate the area around King's Cross, where the train had started. Maybe there was some awareness-raising needed in that area?
After her obligatory half-hour break she'd signed on for her next duty: happiness-monitoring. She'd gone through the train with the mindscan and only discovered one person who was below the government's acceptable misery line. She'd referred him to a counsellor whom she knew personally.
It was time for another half-hour break.
She was just dozing in her chair when a fellow inspector, clearly the same age, came round. She introduced herself as Darla.
"Hello, there. Ooh, one of us, I see," said the chatty frizzy-haired blonde as she espied the mindscan and the colour on Salarn's name badge. "I'm doing teeth at the moment," she said. "Open wide."
To her delight, Salarn was given a clean bill of health: in fact the whiteness of her teeth was well beyond the government's minimum standard.
"It's hot today, isn't it?" asked Darla. "Busy morning?"
Salarn agreed that it had been.
Darla chatted away for a while. The train pulled into Waltham Forest station.
"Ooh, Waltham Forest," said Darla. "There's still loads of time. I might even have another break. I've been looking into people's mouths and all sorts this morning."
A rather unusual man boarded the train. Instead of wearing white like the rest of the population he was clad in a long dark green robe with a green hood. He had a very long white beard (both girls wondered if the government allowed them to be as long as that under the Health & Safety Act but they'd never come across the problem before) and glasses, which had slid down to the end of his nose. He peered over them at the two girls, who just gaped.
"Aren't you going to check my fingernails or something?" he smiled affably.
Salarn got her mindscan out quick as a flash and checked him over. There was no reading. That had never happened before.
"A drink, Darla," he said, offering a curious bottle to Darla.
He said that he needed to use the lavatory and swept up the aisle. He would be right back, he said.
Darla tasted the drink. It had a rather unpleasant bitter flavour.
"Darla - you're... you're..." said Salarn. Her new friend was disappearing in front of her face.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Chapni gave her grandfather some more medicine. She was pleased with her grandfather's progress - the witchdoctor obviously knew his stuff. She would join him later for a Recovery Dance to help her grandfather still further. She was looking forward to that as she found the witchdoctor a powerful, sexual being.
Chapni missed seeing her boyfriend totally naked but now he had reached his seventeenth birthday he was a man and so had to wear pants. Chapni herself resented the restrictiveness of having to wear a skirt and sandals but she, too, had passed her seventeenth birthday and was now a woman. She had not been able to appear totally naked in public for several moons now. But the Recovery Dance would give her and the witchdoctor a chance to reveal their bare bodies to the gods as they danced her grandfather's health better. She stroked her long blonde hair and thought about the dance. There would be big mushrooms to eat, chavarna to drink and the room would spin round and round. She would receive revelations from the gods and would awake tomorrow sweating. Everything had become exciting since her grandfather had become ill. It was scary, too. Without him nobody could be sure that the sun would remember to rise every day. Without the sun there was darkness.
Chapni walked to the Waltham Forest Temple to await the arrival of the witchdoctor.
To her surprise a man was waiting outside. He was like no man she had seen before. He had a long green garment on covering his body. He must have been very old indeed for he had a long white beard, longer than she had ever known. He had two see-through things perched at the end of his nose held together by what looked like copper.
"A drink, Chapni," he said, offering Chapni a bottle of liquid. She put it to her mouth and tried to spait it out for it tasted bad. Then the man and the Temple began to fade before her eyes.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Her old friend Jemima was staring at her. Patricia stared back. Jemima was fading away, just like the rest of the world.
What had been in that horrible drink that the man with the green robe had sold her in the cornershop?
Having already travelled sideways in time once, she knew that that was what was happening again. She would be going to another parallel 2008.
Sure enough there was a tearing sound and she fell through a line in a grey room. The tear closed itself behind her. She sat down, dizzy for a while. The room was spotlessly clean, smelled like flowers and had one long window in it. Outside was what looked like countryside with just one farm in the distance but everything was grey. Was the window tinted or had she arrived in a 2008 where everything was grey?
The tearing sound happened again and the line re-appeared. A girl with only a skirt and sandals on and nothing covering the top half of her appeard and fell to the floor. Patricia was really shocked and tried to look away but she could hear from her voice that the girl was scared. She helped her to her feet and tried to find out her name but the girl couldn't understand her. (That was because the Proto-Indo-European language hadn't evolved in Chapni's world and, in its place, other Proto languages had sprung up in its place and one had evolved into this one.)
The tearing sound happened again. A girl looking nearly identical to Chapni appeared but this time had frizzy hair and looked immaculate in her sparkling white clothing. She was carrying some kind of dark green box with her. She pointed it instantly at Patricia and Chapni, the latter of whom backed away in terror.
"Ooh, this is strange - the language in her head's a new one on me. You're English, though, aren't you?" said Darla.
"Er - yes. Ha ha ha!" laughed Patricia nervously whilst holding protectively onto Chapni.
"I'm not sure the government would agree with you walking around with your breasts showing," said Darla. "I think that might count as anti-social behaviour."
Chapni looked fearfully at Patricia as if she could translate what was being said. Patricia rubbed her new friend affectionately on the arm. Somehow looking after someone frightened made her less scared herself.
"Anybody know where we are?" asked Darla.
"Er - I think we're in, like, another world, sort of thing - ha ha ha ha ha!" laughed Patricia.
"Ooh, another world, ay?" said Darla, trying to laugh along empathetically.
"I mean, like, it's still 2008 and it's still, like, Waltham Forest but it like ain't the same one as we came from, sort of thing - ha ha ha ha ha!"
"Ooh, a parallel universe?" asked Darla.
At that moment the man in green came sweeping in.
"Good afternoon, Patricia, Chapni, Darla."
He nodded to each in turn and then proceeded to give a short speech which he translated after each line for Chapni's benefit.
"As Patricia has so wisely noted, this is a world parallel to that from which any of you come. You have all been removed - temporarily - from your own time so you can take part in a conference. It's a conference we're holding to establish which is the one true universe, you see. Once discovered, all other universes will POOF! out of existence. You are all chosen delegates and may be called upon, at any time, to defend your own worlds. However, you must be very tired. I will show you to your rooms where you may want a shower. I shall return in an hour's time to take you all to dinner, at which time you will have composed yourselves and will, of course, have many questions. By the way, for the lucky few who return home, you will return back just after the moment of your disappearance. Come."
The man in green took the girls up in lifts, across corridors, into rooms, up escalators and finally to their bedroom doors. They were all adjacent. Each room had the girl's name written on it. In Chapni's case it was strung across the door in knots on a piece of rope.
Patricia went into Chapni's with her to show her how things like the shower worked. When she was satisfied that her friend would be all right she returned to her own room, showered and ate the entire stock of biscuits. Whilst doing that she also boiled the kettle and drank three cups of tea. She looked out of the window. Grey again. Maybe it really was grey out there? She could see a little light at the front of the distant farmhouse. Someone had obviously opened the door - she could see a figure in the doorway there. The door closed again.
What have I come to, thought Patricia, when my entertainment is looking at a door opening and closing in the distance?
The three girls were duly summoned and went down to dinner with the man in green, who introduced himself as Brian Parker.
At dinner Patricia spotted a familiar face: it was Lord Barnet. In her world he had been the previous Prime Minister. She and her friend Jemima had stayed up all night to watch him being booted out by the British public. She spoke to him: yes, he was another delegate from her world. It seemed, though, that he had turned traitor: he would be speaking in favour of the survival of another world.
* * * * * * * * * * *
"Lord Barnet is clearly keen to commit suicide," said Mr. Karnation, Patricia's Maths teacher, "but bringing the whole universe down with him - I mean the real universe - is a bit over the top. Let's examine his case: he says in Universe 23 the Europeans have never fought each other since the Second World War. Let's take a look."
Mr. Karnation summoned up an image on the courtroom wall of various high-ups from Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
"Slobodan Milosovic; Radova Karadic; Radko Mladic... you're quite sure the Europeans are peaceful, are you?"
"Objection!" shouted Lord Barnet. "These were not separate nations: they were one nation having a civil war from which there arose separate nations. Therefore my contention rests: no European nation has attacked another since the Second World War."
"Yes," said Mr. Karnation, stroking his balding head. "Let's look at this Second World War that you see as being such a panacea."
He shone an image of Adolf Hitler on the wall.
"Would you care to tell us who that is?" he asked.
"He was a German dictator," mumbled Lord Barnet.
"What was he again?" asked Mr. Karnation triumphantly. "Louder, please."
"He was a German dictator," sighed Lord Barnet wearily.
Mr. Karnation was onto a winner here. He dragged from Lord Barnet sordid information about the dictator followed by the Russian leader during the Second World War, a man called Joseph Stalin.
The discussion carried on going Mr. Karnation's way for a while until Lord Barnet brought up the "D" word - "democracy". On his own world there was only one democracy: America. Britain didn't really count as some of its constituencies had as few as seven people registered to vote! Germany certainly wasn't one: they still had a Kaiser. Hitler, argued Lord Barnet, was an unfortunate biproduct of the German nation maturing and throwing off its shackles as a nation with a hereditary monarch. And he had brought out the finest in its British adversaries: Lord Barnet cited WInston Churchill as a prime example.
Mr. Karnation countered by saying that a world which had ever had goings on like the Second World War was not fit to exist, however many years ago the War was.
The discussion was in danger of turning into a bickering match so Brian Parker ordered an adjournment for lunch.
Over the next few days the court heard various cases.
One interesting one was the Native American who referred to the Americas as the "Old World" and the continent his ancestors had conquered - Europe - as the "New World." He seemed very politically correct on matters of gender, sexuality and disability but kept referring to the Europeans as the "pale faces". He bent over backwards to say how much he liked them in the way that you do if you don't really like somebody. He referred to French, German and English as "pale face dialects" and tended to lump the "pale faces" together as if they shared one personality across the whole continent. He spoke of the reservations and of how the Europeans were now being permitted to wear their native dress. He shone an image on the coutroom wall of a white family in jeans and t-shirts with Native Americans photographing them.
Brian Parker thanked his guest politely, as he always did, and summoned the next - someone from a world run by the telecom company BT.
After days of these testimonies the speeches started to become more irrelevant.
Months wentby and they became less relevant still.
"Day 185," announced a man in a suit called Dave as he addressed the court from his lectern.
"Do we all understand the meaning of the word 'day'? We do. That's good. What we need now is forward motion. When I talk about forward motion I'm talking about going forwards. I don't just mean me going forwards; I don't just mean a couple of you going forwards. I mean WE - us - all of us in this room going forwards. For what is to happen if we don't? We stand still. The key to this is the 'c' word - c-c-communication. Now I know I'm always banging on about this but it's about listening. Not only listening but learning. You've got to learn how to learn. Not only that you've got to learn how to learn how to learn."
Mr. Karnation leant across to Patricia, "There's an art to this, you know - how to talk complete BS for hours on end and make it look like you've got some point when you ain't."
Patricia laughed quietly.
Dave joined Mr. Karnation and Patricia for afternoon tea. He turned out to be a really funny, witty guy when he wasn't waffling crap in the trial room. Patricia tried to remember this version of him the next time he held a compulsory all-day workshop about... well, whatever it was about.
Mr. Karnation and Patricia were doing their patrol one evening, trying to prevent would-be escapees from the building when Patricia's teacher said, "If we're patrolling, who's to stop US from escaping?"
"Oh, what, you mean - ha ha ha," said Patricia nervously.
"Don't you want to see what's outside this building? I mean all we ever see is restaurants, the courtroom, the swimming pools, the courtroom..."
"Yeah, that's true," said Patricia.
WIthout giving her the chance to change her mind Mr. Karnation raised a chair and attempted to smash one of the windows. It simply bounced off without making a dent. He tried again with the same result.
"Well, that didn't work, did it?" he asked.
They spotted the Native American guy trying to force open the lift door while there was no lift in it. Dutifully they approached him.
"Excuse me, you're not supposed to do that, mate," said Mr. Karnation.
"Really?" said the Native American, turning round. But it wasn't really him. He revealed his real face, beard and robes from underneath his disguise.
"Then why are YOU trying to escape?" asked Brian Parker.