Homecoming

As usual, by the time I got to the portal I had everyone on the entire planet chasing after me. As usual, it spirited me away in the nick of time.

As usual, it plunked me right down into the middle of things again.

It was a vicious cycle, compounded by the fact that, as a result of my continuing life of excitement, I was badly in need of rest. The portal seemed to leave all my dirt and grime behind--keeping dimensions tidy, I suppose--but it didn't do anything for my state of mind. Nor of body. The burn on my shoulder started to itch again, the salve Isia had smeared there apparently having stayed behind as well.

So, my fatigued mind was increasingly unable to handle the new situations I found myself in, and I got into trouble ever more swiftly.

I seemed right now to be in some kind of cocktail party. Although the "cocktails" were some kind of vaguely cactus-like plant. A man next to me, who had relinquished his turn at dialogue, absently poked the needles into his chin, withdrawing them a few seconds later. Wonderful.

"Gwessin, darling, what's wrong?"

I turned to see a woman coming towards me. I found the fashions of this world a bit unbecoming already; a large hoop at the waist seemed de rigeur for the ladies(not to mention their horrific coiffures), and as for the male attire--well, I always had trouble walking in high heels, and my garters were too tight. "I'm just a bit tired," I said, smiling wanly.

Her brows furrowed. "Tired? You've done nothing but sleep since you arrived two days ago. I haven't even had a chance to talk to you. Are you ill? Dr. Mawared could have a look at you..."

"Uh--no." I had so far managed to avoid finding out anything about the medical customs of other worlds, especially one as technologically backwards as this seemed to be. Not an electric light in the place. "But you know how it is, after you oversleep, it takes you longer to wake up."

She made a gesture with her wrists which I presumed was a shrug. "Well, as long as you can still do your speech. There are a few people here who still don't think we should have sent you in the first place, so now's your chance to show them their money was well-spent."

The first time this happened to me, I panicked. Now I was just weary. More people expecting me to know things that I had no clue about, who would be angry if I didn't. I would have to run out of here, again, and events would conspire to get ever more people on my tail.

"Where's the..." I wondered what their euphemisms were like on this world; rather than venture one of my own, I just made evocative gestures and put an embarrassed expression on my face.

"Oh, you mean the shitplace? Honestly, I would think you'd know it by now. Out the door, then first door on your left." She smiled, still looking somewhat puzzled, and turned to another guest.

Now I just had to run the gantlet to get to that door in the first place. I decided to put a look of mild distress on my face, and smile apologetically at anyone who addressed me. Give them the impression I'm going to throw up on them, or worse, if I don't get to the 'shitplace' right away. It must have worked; I found myself in a hallway. A few people were standing around out there, to get away from the press, I'd imagine, so I headed for the shitplace until their eyes drifted incuriously away from me. I wondered if any of them were looking at me and thinking of wasted money as I ducked into the small room.

I managed to trigger the lights first try, though I wasn't sure quite how. Unfortunately, like most rooms of this kind, there was only the one door. I would have to outwait them, or just make a break for it and count on the element of surprise. I locked the door while I tried to make up my mind.

A knock jarred me out of my reverie. "Gwessin? It's Dr. Mawared. Ndoyar told me you were acting strangely, and thought I should have a talk with you."

Oh boy. The gig was up already, so soon? Well, maybe I could put it down to some delayed shock from my travels, wherever I'd gone. He sounded like a friend, so I took a chance. "I'm just feeling a little disoriented. Nothing seems quite like it used to."

"Can I come in?"

I unlocked the door and he entered. His heels clicked on the tile floor; he sat down on a stool and took them off, massaging the soles of his feet. "Hate wearing the damned things," he confided. "I imagine you've gotten out of the habit, too."

"You could say that."

There was silence between us for a while. Then he said, "Look, don't worry. I know a lot of people had high expectations for this experiment, but that's their own fault. Or maybe Ndoyar's for talking them all into it and promising the world. Or other worlds, I should say."

That got my full attention.

"Nobody knew--or much cared, I'm sorry to say--what the effects on you would be. I rather suspected the effects of cumulative culture shock would leave you feeling disoriented, like you said. Perhaps more than either of us realize right now. I didn't want you to have to face this so soon, but Ndoyar insisted. She was under a lot of pressure, too, so it's not her fault."

Well, this was a new one. Somehow I'd managed to slip into the body of another traveller, somebody named "Gwessin". Or was that my name? No, don't be silly, just the way I got acclimated to a new identity. First thing to learn is what name to respond to. My name was--well, it didn't matter. If I managed to get back to my starting point, then somebody would tell me what my name was, wouldn't they?

But to the problem at hand. "Do you think you could convince Ndoyar, and the others, that I can't give this talk? I really don't feel up to it, but a medical opinion would help."

"Of course," he said. "I shouldn't have let her talk me into this. You wait here." He left, locking the door again behind him.

Well, that was a start. If this worked, I could manage to break the cycle. Maybe get some rest. Stay a few days before I had to go off to another portal.

Or could I stay here? Pretend to be this "Gwessin", and gradually learn this culture? Unexpected amnesiac effects. Maybe they wouldn't try the experiment on anyone else, and send any poor slobs like me or Gwessin out into a cycle of chaos.

But what happened if Gwessin came back? I didn't know what would happen to me. Would I be sent out through another portal? Or just overwritten and erased? I couldn't risk it. No, I'd have to leave sooner or later, and get back to my own body. After some rest, of course.

I was already starting to feel optimistic. My chances of getting home seemed to be improving. I tried to think of all the things I missed from home. Funny, I seemed to be having trouble coming up with them. But I'm sure there were some. I was certainly suffering disorientation from multiple culture shock. But surely when I got home, I'd recognize it, and everything would come back.

Based on the words: Salve Garter Portal Hop

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The Den of Ubiquity/ Aaron V. Humphrey / alfvaen@gmail.com