Eric stepped into darkness. Rippling light from the portal poorly illuminated large, indefinable shapes. He had the sense that he was indoors, and there were other people around. He could hear shuffling, perhaps furniture moving. Jeff bumped into him with a grumble.
“Oh I’m so sorry. That’s you Eric, right?”
“Eric, would you mind taking one more step forward. It’s just that Akua will be.. ooof!”
“Sorry! sorry! Why is it dark?” asked Akua as the portal behind them shrank toward its center and quickly vanished.
“I guess it’s taking Jim a while to find the lights,” Jeff said. Shortly afterward, a faint electric hum was heard and fluorescent lights flickered to life on the ceiling. Jim stood by the light switch and shrugged apologetically.
Eric looked around, flummoxed. Faded paper covered the walls of a room lined with vinyl covered chairs with worn arm rests. Ten year old magazines were piled haphazardly in a corner basket. An aquarium with too many fish in it bubbled away on the opposite wall. The muzak version of the Girl from Ipanema drifted through the room.
“This is Doctor Gabor’s place. The portal led to my dentist’s office?”
“Yes! Well no, not your actual dentist’s office. This is an interactive hologram of your dentist’s office!”
“Why?!!?” Eric asked in wonder as he examined the fish tank for holographic lasers.
“It’s meant to be a place you would feel comfortable waiting. Our research showed you’re at the dentists often so we thought it would be the perfect place.” Jeff said, beaming next to silent Jim and the light switch. Akua picked up a dog eared Time magazine and began reading in a corner chair, humming softly along with the music.
“I had a ton of expensive and painful root canals and I have two kids. I am at the dentist a lot, but trust me, it’s not because I enjoy it.” Eric said, taking off his winter coat and draping it over his arm.
Jeff appeared disconcerted. “I am sorry. Dentistry is a rather pleasant experience here. I have my teeth whitened once a month just to relax!” Jeff said smiling again. His teeth were awfully white.
Jim nodded to the grinning man and Jeff said, “It seems they’re ready for you back there.” He opened the waiting room door and gestured to Eric to go through. “Oh, you won’t need your coat. You can leave it here.” Eric draped his heavy coat over the arm of a nearby chair. He peeked his head around first before stepping slowly into a brightly lit corridor that looked exactly like the one at his dentist’s office.
Immediately, he was assaulted by a bitter smelling mist that sprayed all over his clothes, face, and hair as a woman’s voice loudly spoke gibberish from above. The mist stopped as abruptly as it had begun.
Eric, gasped in shock and shook the liquid from his hands. “What is this? What did she say?” He squinted and blinked away droplets from his eyes.
“She said, ‘Please test spray in an inconspicuous area before applying to clothing.’ But don’t worry, it doesn’t stain and it dries almost instantly. It’s an immunization spray. We can’t inoculate the entire town of Newburg, but the spray should keep them safe from you until we can run your information through our database of known diseases and viruses. It’s just through here now.”
Jeff and Jim directed Eric to an empty exam room. He was astounded that by the time they reached the door, his clothes had completely dried.
The exam room, of course, looked like any of Dr. Gabor’s exam rooms, complete with a sleek dentist’s chair and a pallid man in a white lab coat. Eric’s teeth started to ache at the sight. The man smiled at Eric and said, “flksidnn xidownf.”
“I’m sorry, say again?” Eric said.
“He said please have a seat,” Jeff said.
“What’s this all about?” Eric asked squeaking his way into the oddly shaped chair.
“You can understand me because I’m actually speaking English. Coming from different realities, almost everyone in Newburg speaks a unique language. There are two ways of overcoming our language barriers: the first is to implant a small automatic translator device into your brain which is powered by your heart beat and sends translations directly to the language center of the brain.”
“Implant? You want to perform surgery on me?!!?” Eric said gripping the arms of the dentist’s chair.
“I suggest the second option which is to use a sage spell. It’s less physically invasive,” Jeff said. Jim nodded.
Eric bit his lip in thought. He’d been through a sage portal and had come through it safely. He’d prefer more of the same considering the other option involved an implant. “Ok,” he said. “I’ll take the spell.”
The man in the lab coat gave Eric a thumbs up and then said, “yursk paucshwl.”
Jeff said, “Dr. Brisbane wants to know what your favorite song is.”
“All My Exes Live In Texas,” Eric said matter of factly. Jeff and Dr. Brisbane gave him a quizzical look. “George Strait,” he explained further. Dr. Brisbane frowned and shuffled through a box of records at his feet.
“I don’t think that will work for our purposes. Dr. Brisbane is selecting another song for you. One without lyrics.”
Dr. Brisbane made his selection, and ever so carefully, as if he were handling delicate, antique china, he removed the record from its sleeve and placed it on to an ancient-looking record player. Eric couldn’t tell if he was imagining it, but the record seemed to glow with a faint green aura. Dr. Brisbane placed padded headphones over Eric’s ears and motioned for him to lie back. Then, he dimmed the overhead lights.
The recording crackled in his ears for a moment before it began to play the most beautiful music, and he closed his eyes in appreciation. He had heard the piece before, long ago, but he couldn’t remember where. The bittersweet melody touched Eric with nostalgia and joy. He felt both elated and despondent simultaneously as the music flowed from cadence to cadence. Overcome with powerful and complex emotion, he hugged the arm of the dentist’s chair, and when the song finally ended, he blinked his eyes open.
“My little Gabby used to love that song. Intermezzo, from Cavalleria Rusticana.” he said quietly as he wiped his teary eyes onto the armrest.
“By Mascagni!” Dr. Brisbane said triumphantly.
Eric assumed he was hearing more gibberish, but then recalled Mascagni was the composer’s name. “That’s right!”
“May I have my arm back please?” Dr. Brisbane asked. Eric looked down to see that he hadn’t been hugging the armrest during the song, but Dr. Brisbane’s arm instead. He recoiled in embarrassment. “It’s quite alright,” Dr. Brisbane said, returning the record gently to its sleeve. “Emotions are trigger points for memory. The record is infused with a communication spell, and the music stimulates powerful emotions so the brain can absorb the spell quickly. It’s also pumping out binaural beats to induce beta brain waves, so it’s an understandably intense experience. After all, you’re essentially learning a new way to communicate.”
Dr. Brisbane stood and turned the lights up, signaling the end of the session. Eric squeakily removed himself from the chair.
“There are different ways to evoke the proper emotional response,” Dr. Brisbane continued. “Certain movies, viewing paintings, dance, even food.”
Jeff opened the exam room door and before exiting said, “We learned that you loved your grandmother’s mole sauce. So we tried to make it, but uh, Jim said it wasn’t right.”
“Too much garlic,” Jim finally spoke.
“Hey, don’t be too hard on yourself,” Eric said grasping Jeff’s shoulder. “No one can cook like Abuela did.”
Eric followed Jeff and Jim down the office corridor as Dr. Brisbane called out behind them, “It’s always a pleasure meeting a new recruit to Newburg. Good luck out there!” Eric waved back hoping he wouldn’t need the luck, but becoming less sure with each step he took.
Jim opened a door at the end of the hallway and Eric stepped through to a mild breeze and blinding sunlight. The door opened onto the sidewalk of a busy street, bustling with pedestrians. Red brick buildings lined the road, and Eric felt he could be anywhere in America save for the carriages in place of cars, and one man in luxurious red robes smugly riding what looked like a floating Segway.
“This is Mercury Street, the heart of Midtown. You’ll find a lot of civic buildings here. Up ahead is Unity Way which runs the length of Newburg proper,” Jeff explained with a flourish of his arm. A shadow passed overhead followed by a great whooshing sound. Eric turned his face skyward to see a black and green steam train straight out of the 1800’s glide swiftly over the rooftops.
“The Skytrain!” he said. “Just like I remember!” Though he hadn’t remembered it. It was merely data downloaded through his optic nerve from the Newburg pamphlet. As confusing as that reality was, Eric still stared after the train in awe.
“We’re headed to the station now to catch a ride,” Jeff said pleasantly. He then tapped and rotated a brown ring on his finger and a screen projected from it.
“Nice! I can’t wait til my phone can do that,” Eric said.
Jeff smiled and selected a series of options on his screen which then drew together to form a grapefruit sized sphere floating above his hand. “This is Newburg,” he said proudly.
There were dark, unrendered areas, but looking closer at the globe, Eric could see most of it was comprised of a big landmass with a bite taken out of it from the sea. Digital snow was falling over what was labeled as the polar tundra near the top of the globe, and a train coasted on an invisible track above a number of buildings.
“Small world,” Eric said. “So we’re in a different galaxy now?”
“We’re definitely not in the Milky Way anymore,” Jeff said with a laugh. “We’re taking the Skytrain here,” he said pointing to an area on the northwest part of the tiny continent.
The three men walked along Mercury Street, and people smiled or waved as they passed. Eric saw two teenaged girls walking side by side and video chatting with each other on the projected screens of their com-rings. He chuckled.
“I guess no matter how far technology advances, teenagers are still the same, huh?”
“Hmm?” said Jeff, poking the air at his own com-ring screen. “Oh, sorry. I haven’t checked my messages in a while.” Jim, walking behind them, shook his head in reproach.
A grey and white tabby trotted up next to Eric and kept pace with him for a while. “Hey kitty cat,” Eric greeted as he walked along.
“Hey yourself,” the cat replied before growing larger and transforming into an exact duplicate of Jim. Eric halted and leaned against a lamp post in shock. “What’s the matter; Is this not a good look for you?” said the identical Jim in a voice that did not belong in Jim’s body. His features and clothes changed again, and Eric was faced with another version of himself. Eric let go of the lamp post and came nearer to his copy who was standing in Jim’s long shadow.
“I know I’m taller than that,” Eric said with narrowed eyes.
His copy reached out a hand and said, “I’m Tom.” As Eric shook his own hand, Tom changed again into a wiry man with curly blond hair. “Hope I see you around sometime. Hey, Jim, hit me up. We’ll go water skiing next weekend. Later.” Jim acknowledged Tom’s invitation with an upward jut of his chin.
As Eric watched the transfigured man walk away, Jeff straightened his sunglasses and said, “We’re not sure if that’s Tom’s original form or not, but we haven’t seen anyone else that looks like that around here. There aren’t any other grey and white cats around either though. Makes you wonder.”
Jeff and Jim walked with Eric a few more blocks before they reached a wide set of concrete steps with a sign above them that read Midtown Station. At the top of the steps was a covered platform where they waited briefly for the Skytrain.
When it arrived with its wheels turning slowly in the air, Jeff pointed to the billowing steam from the train’s smoke stack. “It’s not actually steam. It’s vapor from the liquid nitrogen that cools the superconductors.” Eric raised his eyebrows in appreciation.
A few people got off with briefcases and hurried down the stairs. Eric was not prepared for the being that oozed off along with them. “Wow!” he said gawking at the pastel pink creature fidgeting with a com-ring on one of several tentacles. “That wasn’t in the brochure!” Eric whispered loudly to Jeff.
Jeff sighed. “Yeah. Xans. A pamphlet wouldn’t do them justice. You have to experience them.”
“Hey Jim,” the Xan said nonchalantly while slithering passed. Jim grinned.
The train resembled a subway on the inside with hand grips and poles for steadying against. Eric and the two men took their seats on a bench that ran the length of the car. The train was propelled into motion and Eric got a bird’s eye view of Newburg through the car’s large rectangular windows. It was like flying. His daughter, Liza, would have loved it.
Afternoon sun reflected off white rooftops of the Midtown buildings. Eric squinted against the light. “I wish I had brought my sunglasses too. You guys are always prepared.”
Jeff chuckled. “Watchers, like Jim and I, have the ability to see other people’s magic. It shows up as colorful light around specific areas of person’s body. Our eyes have become a bit light sensitive over time. Yours is a rather bright yellow around your head,” he said adjusting his glasses again. Jim nodded.
“I have magic?” Eric said patting his head.
“Everyone does. The scientists of Newburg will hotly contest this idea, saying their so called talent is the result of years of study and hard work. But see, they have an intrinsic ability to mentally categorize data and form theories that is quite frankly… magical. There are some abilities that are rarer than others. People like Akua who can open portals are extremely scarce. There are only two that we know of. So if you know anybody making a big shiny ring out of thin air, let us know,” Jeff giggled awkwardly. “Technically, if you’re in the right place at the right time, anyone can open a portal. But to open one anywhere that leads to a place you want to go, that takes extra talent.”
Eric frowned thoughtfully as a flock of pigeons flew next to do window, their mottled grey and burgundy feathers catching the sunlight at different angles.
“You think it’s all magic though?” Eric asked, as the pigeons broke away and flew over shingled roofs and leaning turrets of what the globe had labeled as Old Towne.
“Most of the scientists here still believe that the more mystical sage abilities all work within natural laws; they just haven’t scientifically explained how yet. They could be right. I don’t see why it can’t be both. What’s wrong with something being scientifically magical?” Jim shook his head in agreement. The train slowed abruptly and Jeff said, “Here’s our stop. We’re going to have a look at the forest first.” He grinned, showing all his whitened teeth and straightened his hat before stepping off the train.
After another short walk and a hover truck ride-which Eric thought was like being on a small Skytrain- the watchers took Eric to a field at the edge of a forest. It seemed peaceful, but something was definitely off. It was late summer and none of the grasses were seeding yet. Eric had wanted to take a closer look, but Jeff had warned against venturing any further at that point since the forest had already sent two people to the hospital and stolen eleven chickens. It would be best to come back with the proper equipment after he had studied the situation thoroughly.
Their next stop off the Skytrain was to Lower Newburg, specifically the Complex Lab Complex. This was a development of sleek, modern buildings nestled in the desert.
Approaching the glass door to the largest building in the complex, Eric said, “I don’t understand how you can have such distinct bioregions so close to each other. We just came from a temperate coniferous forest a ten minute ride away, and now we’re in a desert. How is that possible?”
Jeff reached to open the door. “If we could explain that, it would be scientifically magical indeed. Newburg is a unique place.”
Upon entering, the entire building shook, rattling the glass in the windows and sending the light fixtures swinging from the ceiling of the atrium. After the shaking settled, a muffled chorus of cheers rang out from somewhere below them. “Ah. They must have discovered a new particle,” Jeff said. “This way.”
They took an elevator down six floors, then got in another elevator and took it up two floors. Eric followed the watchers through a labyrinth of white walled hallways, passing closed doors behind which Eric could hear a cacophony of strange noises. Green flames burst out of one door, but Jim and Jeff walked on casually.
A tall, steel-haired woman emerged from a lab, locking the door behind her before she noticed the watchers and their companion. She tsked and made a disgusted face. “Ugh. You’re new, aren’t you? Great. I’m going to tell you this once. Don’t ever step foot in my lab. All I need is some noob wandering around and messing everything up.” Eric stared after her in surprise as she rolled her eyes and began to pass them. “Hi Jim,” she said as she stomped away.
“Don’t mind Dr. Webber. She’s um. She’s just well um… very focused,” Jeff said, forcing a smile.
After a few more twists and turns, they arrived at a door at the end of a hallway. “Your lab is here,” Jeff said.
“My lab?” Eric asked.
Jeff opened the door and Eric’s jaw dropped in amazement. The room was cavernous. A large work table with microscopes and distilling equipment stood at the center of the room. Sweet-smelling, flowering vines covered most of the walls, though one wall was a floor to ceiling aquarium where giant sea kelp swayed rhythmically in an unseen current. Far off in a dark corner was a stand of massive tree trunks as wide as a car. Eric was compelled toward them like a magnet.
“These…these are redwoods,” he stammered. Looking up, he could see the sun filtering through their leafy branches. The windowed ceiling of the room was barely visible at its great height.
“Indeed. Dr. Jimenez, we believe your theories will not only help with Newburg’s little forest issue, but they could have untold benefits for agriculture, sustainable forestry, and simply understanding global ecologies at a fundamental level. The lab was prepared especially for your needs and preferences. We hope we got our research right.”
“Yeah,” was all Eric could manage. It was a far cry from his office closet at Lambreth University.
The ride back to Midtown on the Skytrain was a quiet one as Eric digested the events of the day. Newburg was unbelievable. He had been promised a fair wage for work that was profoundly fulfilling. His odd experiments and theories about plant intelligence might actually help people. He could play a part in saving the world! Worlds. Yes, more than one. But he’d have to bump up against ridiculous egos like Dr. Webber. It would be like working with the Dean all over again.
Returning to Mercury Street, the watchers made one final stop in front of a sprawling red brick building. “This is Newburg Public School where your daughters will attend, if you accept of course. Here, they can choose from a number of electives from beginning guitar lessons to quantum mechanics.”
Eric looked out at the children laughing and running on the playground. Liza and Gabby both would love guitar lessons. But was it worth uprooting them to another reality? His girls had been through so much already. Could they handle more change?
A carriage stopped nearby and a woman in blue stiletto heels and a matching dress stepped out. She strode earnestly toward Eric who took a moment to make sure his shirt was tucked in professionally.
“Dr. Jimenez, I’m Mz. Bliss.” She gripped Eric’s hand in an unyielding handshake.
“Yes, the Parliamentarian. How did I know that?” Eric asked, dismayed.
“Our pamphlets are quite thorough,” Mz. Bliss said. “I’m pleased to have caught you. Your research proves you to be the man to help our town and the forest. I hope I can report that you’ve accepted?” Mz. Bliss waited expectantly for a confirmation, her pursed lips an asterisk of red lipstick.
Eric rubbed his goatee in thought and looked back at the school yard. He wasn't sure which choice to make. If only his wife were here. Lucy? What do I do? he thought.
A man, a woman, and a little girl no more than six exited the school doors and walked down the steps together. Suddenly, the girl stopped and inspected something in the sidewalk. “Daddy, a flower! Look!” she cried, stooping low to smell the tiny white daisy. The man and woman both stopped and bent to smell the flower. Satisfied, the little girl skipped ahead along the sidewalk.
Thank you, Lucy. Eric smiled to himself. Clearing his throat he said, “I accept the opportunity, Mz. Bliss. On one condition.”
“And that is?” Mz. Bliss asked.
Eric turned to the watchers and said, “When my girls go through the portal, they better not come in through the dentist’s office.”
“It’s a deal,” Jeff said smiling. Jim gave him a thumbs up.
“Welcome to Newburg, Dr. Jimenez,” said Mz. Bliss.