An EARTH GIRL Short Story featuring Jarra.
The Earth Girl stories are set in the Portal Future, where humanity portals between twelve hundred colony worlds scattered across six sectors of space.
Earth 2788 is set on Earth in June 2788, five months before the start of the Earth Girl trilogy.
Original home world of humanity
During Exodus century (2310-2409)most of the population of Earth left for new worlds that were less polluted and overcrowded.
Physically located in the centre of Alpha sector, Earth is administered by the main board of Hospital Earth under the moderate culture of Gamma sector.
Artwork by Alex Storer thelightdream.net
Warning notes for travellers:-
Hospital Earth requests all visitors to avoid using the ‘ape’ word to refer to its wards.
Special travel information:-
Earth is the only world with more than one inhabited continent. Visitors wishing to travel between continents need to use the inter-continental portals at Transit facilities.
Special safety information:-
Hospital Earth allows its wards free access to all public areas on Earth. Medical experts advise that there is no health risk to visiting Earth or interacting with the wards of Hospital Earth, however some visitors prefer to take the safety precaution of only consuming food and drink from sealed cartons in private.
Earth has extensive ruined cities and wilderness areas that contain dangerous animals and lingering pollution hazards. Visitors leaving the designated safe zones do so entirely at their own risk.
Earth is the only inhabited world that suffers from regular solar storms. These affect the portal network, causing portal shutdowns that can last for periods of up to three days. Visitors are strongly advised to pay close attention to any solar storm warnings.
Hospital Earth accepts no liability for any injuries or inconvenience caused to visitors. The main board of Hospital Earth wishes all visitors to Earth a pleasant stay.
My best friend, Issette, followed me into the foyer of our Next Step. We’d both lived in Hospital Earth residences since we were babies, first Nursery, then Home, and now Next Step. Every one of those residences had an identical foyer, an echoing empty space with standard, institutional, pale green walls, and a single portal in the centre.
Issette watched me dial the portal. I daren’t enter the code for our real destination, because Hospital Earth had systems that monitored the portal travel and credit records of its wards. If the systems spotted that any of my destinations or purchases were flagged as unsuitable, they’d automatically notify the Principal of my Next Step, and she’d drag me into her office for a lecture.
Our destination today wasn’t just flagged as unsuitable, but utterly forbidden. That meant the systems wouldn’t stop after alerting the Principal. Alarms would start flashing and the police would be after me, so I had to dial the closest respectable destination instead. Earth Europe Transit 3.
As the portal established, I turned to frown at Issette. “You really shouldn’t get involved in this,” I said, for the third time in the last hour.
Issette grinned at me. “I’m coming with you, Jarra.”
I groaned. “Well, if we get caught, then you have to put all the blame on me. Tell everyone that I pushed you into doing this.”
I stepped through the portal, leaving Next Step behind me. On Year Day 2789, Issette and I would become 18, legally adult, and leave this place forever. There’d be no more Principal lecturing us, no more systems spying on us, no more staff searching our rooms. We’d finally be free. That freedom was still six months, eight days, and thirteen hours away. I wasn’t quite at the point of counting the minutes. Yet.
I appeared in the main hall of Europe Transit 3, moved clear of the red floor area that marked the arrival zone, and turned to watch Issette come through the portal behind me. This was just one in a row of over twenty local portals, and a constant stream of people were moving between them and the area that held the special longer distance inter-continental portals to Earth America, Asia, Africa and Australia. Issette and I hurried across to a quiet spot out of the way of the other travellers, and I looked round carefully. I could only see one security guard, but he was uncomfortably close to us.
We went over to the wall and leaned casually against it. Issette checked her lookup and gave a theatrical yawn. I tried to act bored instead of nervous. Anyone looking at us should think we were waiting for a friend who was late. It was pure chance that we were doing our waiting right next to a small white door in the wall. I glanced across at the security guard, willing him to go and stand somewhere further away.
I didn’t know why Issette was insisting on coming with me. I was the one with the history of rebellion, not her. I didn’t even know why I was doing this myself. I was never any good at making sense of my own emotions. This was somehow like the crazy thing I did back when I was 14. It was about frustration, defiance, and looking my enemy right in the face.
A woman walked up to the security guard. I couldn’t hear what she was asking him, but he nodded, took out his lookup, and frowned down at it, clearly checking some information. Issette and I would never get a better chance than this, so I turned to the door beside me, and entered a code into the lock plate.
I held my breath as I waited to see if the code was accepted. I’d had no idea how to get it myself, so I’d nagged my friend Keon for days until he’d agreed to help. Keon was incredibly smart, but also incredibly lazy. If he’d given me a random number to shut me up …
The door was opening! I hurried inside, Issette followed me, and I closed the door behind us. We were in a grey flexiplas corridor now, with the glows on a minimum setting. It seemed very dark compared with the bright lights outside, and further down the corridor was utter blackness. I heard Issette gasp.
“I hadn’t realized there wouldn’t be proper lighting in here,” I said. “We’d better go back.”
“No,” said Issette. “I’m totally fine. I’m not scared of the dark anymore. My psychologist helped me overcome my fear.”
I wasn’t convinced. For one thing, I didn’t believe the compulsory sessions with a psychologist that Hospital Earth inflicted on its wards had helped me with anything. For another, I could hear Issette’s voice shaking.
“We could get torches and come back later,” I said.
“Jarra, Jarra, Jarra, stop wasting time,” she said. “My eyes are getting used to the darkness now. I told you that I’m totally fine.”
“You’re more than totally fine, you’re totally amaz.” I hugged her, then led the way along the corridor past a set of numbered doors that probably hadn’t been opened for a century or more. The blackness ahead of us retreated as the ceiling glows detected our movement and automatically turned on. I glanced over my shoulder, and saw the ones behind us going out. The effect was chaos creepy, as if the darkness was a living thing chasing after us, and my mind started conjuring up unwelcome memories of scenes from horror vids.
We reached a junction, took a left turn, and moved on in our own small bubble of light. Some of the glows were flickering strangely now, which could be a sign they were failing from old age. If all the lights went out, how would I stop Issette from panicking while we groped our way through this maze of corridors? We could completely lose our way in the pitch darkness, and then …
I shoved that thought aside, and kept talking in the most cheerful tone I could manage. I wasn’t just trying to keep Issette’s fear at bay now, but also my own. “I found out about these corridors by pure accident. For the last hundred years, they’ve only been used as an emergency access route for when a solar storm brings down the Earth portal network. I was reading about what happened back in 2693 when …”
“No!” Issette interrupted me. “This place is dreadful enough without having to listen to one of your boring history lectures as well. Bad, bad, Jarra!”
I laughed and turned right. “Sorry. Careful on this bit, there’s quite a steep slope down, but we’re nearly there now.”
Two minutes later, we were facing a door at the end of the corridor. The locks were to keep people out, not in, so I just had to wave my hand at the door release and it opened. I went through into sudden brightness, tugging Issette after me, before closing the door and looking hastily round. I’d aimed to arrive through this door in particular, because the plans I’d found on the Earth data net had showed a bank of food dispensers in front of it. The dispensers must have been replaced a dozen times since those plans were made, but they were still in the same position, so we were safely hidden behind them.
I leaned my back against the sheltering bulk of one of the machines, turned to Issette, and gave a breathless giggle of jubilation. We’d made it. No one under the age of 18 was allowed through the security checks without a parent or legal guardian, but we’d bypassed them and reached the forbidden territory of Earth Europe Off-world.
Issette giggled back at me. “I’d no idea this place was so close to Europe Transit 3. The portal codes are totally different, so I assumed … What now?”
I had last minute nerves about leaving our hiding place, but we were wearing our best clothes, and Issette had spent nearly an hour adding makeup to our faces in the same style as a famous Alphan vid star. We must look at least 18, if not 20, and surely no one could tell we weren’t norms just by looking at us.
“Now we go and look at the information display like genuine interstellar travellers planning our route. Ready?”
Issette gulped, ran her fingers over her frizzy hair to smooth it into place, and nodded. I led the way out from behind the dispensers, and saw a vast open area, even bigger than a Transit. There was a huge array of seating in the centre, where a scattering of people sat facing the …
I’d intended to look adult, sophisticated, and bored as I walked straight across to the information display, but I couldn’t help stopping and staring at the portals. Inter-continental passenger portals looked almost identical to local portals, just a fraction thicker, but these were very different. Ten matching interstellar portals, with huge chunky rims. The nearest one was active and locked open, the green sign above it saying “Outgoing Adonis.” A short queue of people were waiting their turn to step through. The woman at the head of it held the hand of an excited boy who looked about 5 years old. A uniformed man gave her a nod, she picked up the child, walked into the portal and vanished.
I heard myself make a soft sound of pure longing. The woman and child were on another planet now. Adonis, the closest colony world to Earth. Adonis, the first planet to be colonized back in 2310 at the start of the Exodus century that emptied Earth. Adonis, capital planet of Alpha sector, with its historic Courtyards of Memory and the proud traditions of the Adonis Knights.
There was a tugging at my arm, and I heard Issette’s frantic whisper. “Jarra, you can’t keep standing here and staring like this. People will notice us and we’ll get caught!”
She was right. I was acting like a total nardle. I forced myself to turn my head away from the portals, and walked across to the wall that glowed with portal information and lists of staggering off-world portal costs. Portal 1 was marked in green and locked open for Adonis outgoing traffic. Portal 2 was in red and locked open for Adonis incoming. Portals 3 to 6 had a list of times for the scheduled incoming and outgoing block portal slots to and from assorted Alpha sector worlds, listed in red and green as appropriate. Portals 7 and 8 were amber, flagged for use by anyone who was chaos rich and willing to pay four or five times the cost of a block portal journey for the privilege of dialling an interstellar portal link at their own convenience rather than waiting. Portals 9 and 10 were grey, because …
I hastily turned my head away from the information for portals 9 and 10, and went into the nearest vacant journey planning booth. Issette squeezed in beside me, and gave me a grin.
“Where shall we go?” she asked. “There are a couple of hundred planets in Alpha sector to choose from.”
I shook my head. “Why settle for Alpha sector? Let’s go all the way to the frontier. We can be colonists going to one of the new planets in Kappa sector.” I tapped the Kappa sector option on the booth display and laughed. “Several planets in Kappa sector are trying to improve their low ratio of female to male colonists by offering subsidized travel for incoming female colonists. Do we want subsidized travel?”
“Definitely,” said Issette, entering into the spirit of the fantasy. “I couldn’t get to Adonis on my credit balance, let alone Kappa sector.”
I selected subsidized travel, and a holo of the three concentric spheres of humanity appeared. The first sphere was Alpha sector, with Beta, Gamma and Delta surrounding it to form a larger sphere. Beyond those, all the frontier sectors had been added to complete the third sphere. All of those sectors were marked as uncharted, of course, except for newly colonized Epsilon and Kappa.
This holo was the fancy version, with hundreds of thousands of dots for star systems, the scattered brighter dots showing those which had an inhabited world. A white line zigzagged its way out from Earth at the centre to show our journey to Kappa sector.
“We join a block portal to Alpha Sector Interchange 2 in three hours’ time,” I said, “then we have four more block portals to get us from there, across Gamma sector, and to Kappa Sector Interchange 1. We should arrive there in thirty-eight hours’ time, and a representative of the Kappa Colonization Advisory Service will help us make our final choice of a colony world.”
Issette wrinkled her nose in mock disgust. “A thirty-eight hour journey is ridiculous. I thought they were desperate for female colonists.”
I giggled. “They aren’t desperate enough to pay for them to dial a special cross-sector portal link.”
We moved across to the seating area, and chose chairs well away from everyone else. The people sitting in the waiting area looked oddly alike, arms huddled round themselves to avoid touching anything, and wearing matching expressions of pained distaste. Most of them were sitting in total silence, but the couple to my left were arguing.
“I can’t believe you made me come here just to save a few credits,” said the woman.
“It’s not just the credits,” said the man. “Avoiding Earth entirely meant an extra thirty-one hours’ journey time as well. It’s in the centre of Alpha sector, and has five Off-worlds, so a lot of traffic is routed this way.”
“Well, it shouldn’t be,” said the woman. “Nobody wants to come to Earth. It’s not safe!”
The man sighed. “We’ve had this discussion ten times already. It’s been scientifically proven there’s no medical risk in spending time on Earth.”
“The doctors can’t know that. They’ve absolutely no idea what causes the problem. I know there won’t be any of them in here with us, but …”
She gave a graphic shudder of disgust, and I wondered what she’d think if she knew two of them were sitting only a few chairs away from her. I was tempted to go over and tell her what I was. I wanted to see the look of horror on her face and laugh at her, but I couldn’t. It wouldn’t just be me who got into trouble for sneaking in here, but Issette as well.
The couple lapsed into sulky silence. I tried to forget them, and sat watching the people arriving from other worlds. Issette was studying their clothes, but I was looking at their faces. Most of them were coming over to the waiting area, so Earth was just one step on their journey. I concentrated on the ones heading for the exit, the ones who were actually visiting Earth, wondering what had brought them to such an unpopular destination.
Portal 4 flared into life with a new incoming block portal, and a large group of people in medical uniforms came through. One of Earth’s major specialities was medicine, so these were probably off-world students here for part of their training. Behind them walked a couple with two children, both girls.
The older girl was about my age. I pictured the life she had, and thought how it could have been mine too if the genetic dice had landed differently. I could have been growing up with a family on a distant world. I could have been portalling to Earth for a visit. I could have had everything, instead of …
Issette gave me a painful jab with her elbow, and I turned to frown at her. “Ouch!”
“Shhh,” she hissed. “Look over there!”
She was pointing towards portal 7. Someone had obviously just arrived through it, because a set of hover bags were still appearing. I watched them chase after their owner and gather up in a group behind him, then looked at the owner himself and gasped. He was young, attractive, and dressed in clinging clothes that showed bare patches of skin in shocking places. I stared at him for a moment, totally grazzed, before turning my head away.
“He must be from one of the planets in Beta sector,” said Issette, still happily studying him. “Nowhere else has clothes like that. He’s got to be filthy rich to dial interstellar instead of block portalling, so maybe he’s from their capital planet, Zeus. He’s got nice legs, hasn’t he?”
She was using the polite word, “legs,” but I could tell from the way she said it that she really meant a far more private area. I frowned at her. “Issette, behave yourself!”
She turned her head for a second to give me a wicked grin, before staring at the man again. “It’s not my fault he’s dressed like that, and everyone else is looking too.”
I gave in to temptation and had another look myself. The man did have extremely nice legs, and you could see an awful lot of them! He was dark-haired, and I generally preferred men with the much rarer blond hair, but in this case I could definitely…
At this point, a security guard hurried up, threw a blanket round the man’s shoulders, and had a whispered conversation with him. The man laughed, but nodded, and went off with the blanket wrapped firmly round him.
Issette sighed. “Pity.”
After that, we watched a group of young people come through portal 2, chattering to each other in the classic drawling voices of aristocratic Alphans. Judging from the snatches of conversation I could hear, they were pre-history students returning from a break on their home world. I was planning to study pre-history myself, so I listened avidly, trying to work out which of Earth’s ruined cities they’d be excavating. Since they’d portalled into Earth Europe Off-world, it was probably London, Paris Coeur or Berlin. Madrid Main Dig Site was still closed for clean up after an ancient storage facility had a major radioactive leak. Rome didn’t accept students. Budapest was …
I heard the sound of someone shouting, and twisted round in my seat to look across at where people were entering Earth Europe Off-world the legal way through the security checks. A man clutching a plant was arguing with the guards. I shook my head in disbelief. Did he seriously expect to stroll through an interstellar portal carrying that? The dimmest of nardles should know that introducing random plants or animals to an alien world could cause havoc with the eco system. Even some of the most carefully planned introductions of Earth species to colony worlds had caused unexpected problems.
Apparently this dim nardle truly didn’t know that, because he was shouting at the security guards so loudly now that everyone in the waiting area could hear him. “You’re a bunch of officious nuking idiots!”
Issette turned to me and pulled a buggy-eyed, shocked face, which could either have been at the man’s stupidity or at him using the nuke word in public. I covered my mouth with both hands to stop myself laughing. If I was one of the security guards, I’d be strongly tempted to let the man try to take his precious plant through an interstellar portal. The bio-filters would instantly shut the portal down, and he’d be fined a fortune for attempting to breach interstellar quarantine.
The security guards had a lot more patience than I did, because they just made soothing noises, took the offending plant into custody, and let the aggrieved traveller stalk off through portal 1 to Adonis.
I was still exchanging grins with Issette when portal 7 came to life again. We both turned to see if this was another scantily-clad man from Beta sector, but this time it was a couple in the unremarkable clothes of Gamma sector. The woman was openly crying, uncaring of who might see her, and the man appeared to be torn between comforting her and keeping his distance. I’d worked out what was happening here even before an older woman in the formal grey and white uniform of a Hospital Earth Child Advocate hurried up to meet them.
The man spoke before she could. “There’s no throwback genes in my family. This must be a ridiculous mistake, unless …”
He turned to give a suspicious look at the crying woman, and she seemed to forget her tears as she glared at him in outrage. “There’s never been any apes in my family. It must be you!”
The advocate hastily intervened. “Please remember that on Earth we prefer to use the official term, Handicapped, rather than derogatory slurs. I’m sorry, but there’s no mistake. Your son was born with a flawed immune system, so he can’t survive on any world other than Earth.”
She paused for a moment. “There’s a random one in a thousand risk even with two normal parents, so this can happen to absolutely anyone, but you’ll be happy to hear your son was portalled here in time to save his life. He’s currently in a Hospital Earth Infant Crash Unit, but his condition should soon be stable enough for you to visit him. Before then, I’d like to give you information on all the options available to help parents move to Earth to be with their Handicapped babies.”
The three of them headed off to the exit, with the advocate still talking in bracingly cheerful tones, but I could tell she was wasting her time. The man had a rigid, cold expression on his face, and the woman had the distant look of someone already rehearsing the speech she’d make to explain how she couldn’t possibly give up everything and move to Earth to take care of her son. She’d use the same excuses they all did, claiming it was nothing to do with the embarrassment or the damage to her lifestyle, but because she felt it was best to let the child grow up with his own kind.
This couple were going to do what 92 per cent of the parents of Handicapped babies did. They were going to hand their son over to be raised as a ward of Hospital Earth, turn their backs on the reject, and walk away. That was what my parents had done when I was born. That was what Issette’s parents had done. That was what the parents of all my friends at Next Step had done.
I turned to look at portals 9 and 10 for the first time. They were dark, but occasionally their lights would blink as they relayed a portal signal for an incoming medical emergency, sending a newborn Handicapped baby directly to a Hospital Earth Infant Crash Unit.
I glanced at Issette’s face, saw she was on the verge of tears, and stood up. “We’d better go now.”
We walked back to the door hidden behind the food dispensers. I’d just entered the code into the lock plate, and was opening the door, when I heard a sudden shout.
“Hey! Where are you going?”
I looked round, and saw a security guard heading towards us. I grabbed Issette’s hand, dragged her through the door with me, and kicked it closed behind us. Hopefully, the guard wouldn’t know the code to open the door and …
There was a series of clicks from the lock plate, and I saw the door start opening again. I groaned, turned, and ran down the corridor, tugging Issette along with me. The ceiling glows overhead were automatically turning on for us, just as they’d done earlier, but now we were moving too fast for them. We were running on the edge of darkness, with the pool of light always a pace or two behind us. I could hear the sound of heavy footsteps chasing after us, and noisy, irregular gasps for breath from Issette. Was she breathing like that because of the physical effort of running, or because she was about to panic?
There was a dark shadow on the wall to my left. A side corridor! I turned and skidded into it, towing Issette with me. I was hoping that we could hide while the guard ran past us, but of course the glows overhead started turning on, signalling our location.
“Nuke it!” I cursed my own stupidity and ran on, taking another couple of random turns. We’d been moving faster than the guard to start with, but now I was horribly aware the footsteps behind us were getting steadily closer. Our best chance would be to split up, because a single guard could only chase one of us, but I couldn’t leave Issette on her own in the darkness.
I was expecting to be grabbed from behind at any moment, when the sound of footsteps suddenly stopped. I risked turning my head for a second, and saw the guard standing still, leaning against the wall and panting for breath.
“He’s given up!” I said.
We ran on down another couple of corridors, before stopping to rest and get our breath back. I was rejoicing in our escape, when Issette spoke in a shaky voice.
“Is it far to the way out?”
There was a sick feeling in my stomach as I tried to remember all the turnings we’d taken during the chase. We must be far away from the route we’d used to get to the Off-world. I tried to keep my voice calm and confident as I answered her.
“There are several ways out. Let me check the plans on my lookup to work out which is closest.”
I tapped my lookup, and stared at the maze of corridors. We’d taken a right turn, run past two more turnings, taken a left, and then … No, according to the plan, the left turn we’d taken didn’t exist. Either I’d forgotten something, or I’d missed seeing some side turnings in the darkness. I couldn’t work out where we were, or even which direction we should be going. There was a numbered door nearby, but that didn’t help because there were no numbers on my plan.
I daren’t tell Issette that we were lost. If we kept going straight on, then we must get somewhere eventually. If we didn’t … Well, we could use our lookups to call for help, but we’d be in an awful lot of trouble.
“We go this way,” I said.
I led the way down the corridor to the next junction and went straight on. At the next two junctions, we went straight on again, but at the third we had to turn left or right. I’d just decided to go right, when there was a cry of delight from Issette. I turned to look at her, and saw she was pointing to a faded sign on the wall. A fire exit sign!
We followed the sign down the corridor to the left, found another sign pointing to the right, and a corridor that ended in a red door. I waved my hand at the door release, the door opened, and a combination of heat and bright sunlight hit us as we went through it. We’d escaped!
I stopped and shielded my eyes with one hand as I looked around. We were standing outside a massive building, its grey flexiplas wall dotted with small doorways and windows. At the far end of it, I could see some much larger doors, and a huge sign saying “Earth Europe Off-world”. If we wanted to, Issette and I could come back when we were 18, go in through those doors and see those ten chunky portals again. What we couldn’t do, what we could never do however old we were, was walk through one of the portals.
I knew exactly what would happen if we did, because Hospital Earth allowed its wards one attempt at portalling off world when they were 14, to prove there hadn’t been a mistake in diagnosing them as Handicapped. I’d been one of the very few fool enough to try it. I’d portalled from a hospital rather than an Off-world, arrived on an Alpha sector world, collapsed into the arms of the waiting medical team, and been thrown back through the portal. Things were a bit hazy for a while after that, but I remembered enough pain to make me absolutely certain I never wanted to try it again.
Interstellar portals were for the norms, not for me and my friends. Whether you called us the officially polite but sneering word, Handicapped, or the open insults like throwback and ape, didn’t change anything. Every other handicap could be screened out or fixed before birth, but the doctors couldn’t do anything about this one. There were over eleven hundred inhabited planets spread across six different sectors of space, but we were imprisoned on Earth. Any other world would kill us within minutes.
© 2014 Janet Edwards. All rights reserved.
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