Reflections on a World
GeyserCon 2019 Fiction Contest Entry
They found her sprawled, unconscious, across the tiles in the ground floor women’s toilet. By the time she came around several women had crowded in, bending over her, and half-a-dozen more men and women peered in through the open door.
Wren opened her eyes, blinked twice, and screwed her eyes shut. Something was wrong with her vision. The light was too bright, and the people… Her head hurt. The babble of voices saying she would be fine was not reassuring. She opened one eye a narrow slit and winced. The sight was unchanged. The woman pressing a wet towel to her forehead sported plumage like some exotic bird: rainbow stripes starting with red over the left ear and ending with purple over the right. She had a ring in her nose, too, but that wasn’t the worst. Hair could be dyed, but skin? The woman’s skin was pinkish beige. The skin tones on some of the others were a darker brown, but the predominant tint was pink. Not one of them had a healthy green tinge. Not one. They seemed vigorous enough, despite looking like they belonged in the morgue. Her colour perception must be off-kilter. What had happened to her?
She tried to sit up; they pressed her back down.
“The ambulance will be here soon,” the rainbow-haired woman said. “Lie still.”
Easy for her to say. She wasn’t the one with elbows and hip banging against the cold, hard floor. “Who… Where…” Wren had too many questions crowding in to form a single coherent one.
Several voices answered, talking over each other in a jumble of accents her ears weren’t attuned to. None of it made sense. Then an authoritative voice from the corridor said, “Out of the way, please. The paramedics need room to work.”
The crowd thinned, making way for the newcomer, another pink-tinged woman with an air of quiet command. Wren didn’t recognise the uniform—black with red shoulders and a high collar—or the badge on the woman’s chest—a not-quite triangle with one point up, the other two points down, over an oval—but she recognised insignia for what it was. Two men in a different uniform, laden with equipment, followed. The men stopped dead, gaping.
“She’s in costume,” Rainbow said.
She was? Wren lifted an arm. She was wearing an old lab coat. Nothing unusual. Her hand was green; her colour perception was fine. She clapped a hand to her swelling forehead and moaned. Who were these people?
The pink in the first uniformed man’s face deepened. He dropped to his knees beside her. “Sorry. Let’s see that bump.” He peeled back the towel. “Your blood’s the right colour, anyway. What happened?”
Wren said, “I don’t know.”
Rainbow said, “There’s water on the floor here. We think she slipped and hit her head on the washbasin on the way down.”
The man—a medical professional of some sort, apparently—said, “What do you remember?”
“I had breakfast…”
“At the hotel?”
Hotel? What was she doing in a hotel? “No, at home, and I went to the market afterwards.” She groped for her shoulder bag and found the expected shape of a loaf through the fabric. She’d bought the makings of a simple lunch: bread, soft cheese, stone fruit, a small bottle of fermented grape juice. “And then… I don’t remember.”
“No great surprise. A bash on the head like this can knock it right out of you.”
He shone a light in her eyes. She understood that he was checking for signs of a concussion, but some other aspects of the examination were bewildering. The inflating cuff gripping her arm like a vice was a startling experience, and the fraction he read out—125 over 83—meant nothing to her.
While he bandaged her head, the uniformed woman explained, “This is GeyserCon, New Zealand’s 40th National Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention. People often show up in costume.”
“Gotcha,” he said. “Like the Klingon I saw on the way in.”
Klingon? GeyserCon? She’d been thinking about geysers. Why? Wren bubbled with questions, but some primitive instinct for self-preservation overrode her training as a scientist. She wasn’t willing to expose her ignorance about this GeyserCon until she had some idea how she had come to be in this strange place.
With the cut bandaged and an ice pack against the bruise, she began to fell more herself again, and walked on her own to a sofa outside one of the hotel’s conference rooms. The medical professionals wanted to take her to hospital for more tests, but she refused, politely but obstinately. Whatever had happened, she was sure it must be connected to this GeyserCon. If she didn’t know where she was, how could she find her way back?
After a good deal of wrangling, they let her be. The uniformed woman walked the two men to the outer door, saying, “Carry on, men.”
They saluted. “Aye, aye, captain.”
Wren settled into the sofa with a sigh, reassured that her assumption of the woman’s authority was correct. For a few minutes, all was still. She had time to reflect on the past week’s creative frenzy. She’d been scribbling equations, experiments to run to test her hypotheses, challenges to the currently accepted theories on wormholes through multidimensional hyperspace. Jetta, her housing partner, had been working on plot points, scenery, choreography, and other details for a new immersive entertainment. Between them they’d covered every flat surface within reach—walls, table top, cupboards, reflector—with their scribblings and drawings. They’d left the ceiling alone only because writing upside down while balancing on a stepladder was dangerous as well as uncomfortable.
Jetta’s entertainment was set in a volcanic landscape abounding in bubbling mud pools and steam vents. Geysers, too, probably. That must be the connection. Was Jetta playing some elaborate trick on her? It seemed out of character, and expensive, too, but it could be done. Hire a few actors—
The conference room doors opened. Fifteens of chattering pink and brown people streamed out. Wren’s stomach clenched. A few actors, perhaps. This many? Impossible. The stream moved past her. A fifteen or more individuals stopped and asked if she was feeling better, and could they do anything for her? Much better, and no, she didn’t need anything, she answered each one. Her stomach unknotted under their smiling warmth.
She began to pay attention to their attire. A few women wore skirts, but most, men and women alike, wore common labourers’ trousers, of a peculiar blue fabric and unflattering cut. Not a single man within sight wore the educated class’s skirts. Her stomach knotted up again.
The number of rips in the trousers shocked her. What sort of industrial accident could tear such holes without maiming the wearer? And could they not afford patch material?
The trousers also had the most peculiar patterns on the rear. She wondered what they meant, then saw one man pull a thin, metallic oblong from one. She stared, realised she was gawking at a man’s buttocks, and looked away, her face on fire. After a moment, she closed one eye, turned her head, and peeked around the ice pack. Yes, those were pockets, attached to the outside of the garment. She shuddered.
The short-sleeved shifts many wore on their upper torsos were odd, too. She would have taken them for undergarments, but for the elaborate decorations on the otherwise simple article. They appeared to be advertising of some sort, but she couldn’t make out what for. Were these labourers so poor they had to rent out their bodies as walking signage? How much could one earn in that way?
The crowd returned to the conference rooms. The doors closed. A few strays wandered past. A young man in the blue trousers dropped into a chair close by and grinned at her.
He said, “You’re here for the LARP?”
“Live Action Role Playing. I figured, the way you look…”
“Oh. Yes, I’m familiar with role playing, but not that term.”
“First time at the Con? The LARP’s tonight after dinner. It’ll be great fun. You’re a shoo-in for best costume. That armour looks more authentic than most SCA chain mail I’ve seen.”
Armour? Did he mean her lab coat? Authentic it certainly was. She’d had it a fifteen of years and it had saved her life when one experiment went catastrophically wrong. That blast had left the scales down the left side cracked and discoloured. In other spots the black finish had eroded, exposing the underlying iridescence. She had already collected two demerits from the Physicists’ Guild for wearing the ratty old thing in public. She appreciated the young man’s approval.
He dropped the booklet he’d been thumbing through, said, “See you later,” and strolled away.
She picked up the abandoned booklet and read through it. Many words were unfamiliar or used in ways that confounded her. What she did understand raised two questions for every one it resolved.
A woman in a skirt and a man in the blue trousers strolled past, arm in arm, talking with enthusiasm about the effects of gravity differentials on exobiology. Not uneducated, surely. The text in the booklet did not support that supposition either.
Of course, the LARP! They were all in costume. She laughed at herself for making foolish assumptions.
She shifted the ice pack and settled into a more comfortable position, probing her memory. She and Jetta had each experienced intense creative bursts, but never before at the same time. The lines on the walls of her sleeping alcove, where she had started writing, were already fading. They were at the new moon; by the next new moon the non-permanent ink would show no visible trace. As per her usual work habits, she’d written her equations in red, commentary blue, planning for experiments green, and instructions to her metal mind in purple. She had scribbled over lists and maps in the same colours. Jetta didn’t mind; their metal minds had recorded it all, and could sort it out by which set of pens had been used.
Jetta’s could, anyway. Jetta’s pens were precision instruments, with the best, and most expensive, accelerometers available.
Her own were older and cheaper, the best her family could afford when she had qualified for instruction in the higher maths. Her pens alone could not provide enough information to the metal mind; it had to supplement with optical data. Some of her colleagues sniffed at her set, but her pens had sentimental value, and were sufficient for her purposes. Her metal mind did sometimes get confused, but the mistakes were amusing, and she was reluctant to lose that touch of serendipity.
She had been playing with the purple pen on her way home from the market. A new idea had come to her, and she had stopped to scribble on the reflector just inside the door. She hadn’t even bothered to drop her shoulder bag.
No. Sitting bolt upright made her head throb. She put her hands to her head and concentrated. She hadn’t meant to drop the bag; she’d pinned it against the reflector with her hip and was fumbling for the green pen while she wrote with the purple. The purple pen had started vibrating. She’d ignored the malfunction signal and continued writing. And then…
And then she’d come to in this strange place. She rose, frowning, and retraced her steps along the corridor. It turned, and she found two doors, labeled with stick figures, one in a skirt, one in trousers. These people segregated public facilities by class? How ridiculous! She was proud of her working class roots. Her chest swelled with outrage. How could they…
“Can’t blame you for not wanting to go back in there.” A grey-haired woman in the blue trousers passed her. “After that nasty knock you had.” The woman pushed open the door with the skirted figure, and held it for her. “But I expect the floor’s dry by now. Watch your step and it’ll be fine.”
Wren noticed the word printed under the symbol. Smiling sheepishly, she followed the other woman in, used the facilities with only a little awkwardness, and dawdled. When the other woman had gone, she examined the full length reflector at right angles to the washbasin. It was solid. Ordinary.
She frowned at her reflection. The pale bandage was unmistakable against her skin and holly-leaf hair. She unclipped her hair and tugged a handful of curls over the bandage. Better, but still noticeable. Still frowning at the reflector, she fumbled with the hair clip, dropped it, and bent to retrieve it.
A purple pen—her pen—lay on the floor, almost hidden in the counter’s shadow. She pounced, and brought it up to the reflector. The pen vibrated. She pressed it against the surface. The pen and her hand went through. She followed, not falling this time, pivoted, surveyed the visual cacophony in her home’s common room, and landed hard on the floor for the second time that day. She rubbed her rump, then pulled the fermented grape juice from her bag and downed half the bottle without taking her eyes off the reflector, where purple scribbles layered across a drawing of a geyser.
What exactly had her metal mind done? She nibbled at her lunch while hunched over the metal mind’s control panel. Late in the afternoon, when she had discovered how it had misinterpreted her instructions for testing her hypothesis, she copied its internal state to safe storage at the Physicists’ Guild. She still had no clue how it had found a wormhole, much less one leading to a world with such strong similarities to her own, but that was a problem for another day.
After all the struggles she and her colleagues had had to get funding for their projects, how would they react when she explained that the scientific breakthrough of the age had come about because she was too frugal to buy a set of first-rate pens? She laughed until her sides ached.
She gave the metal mind instructions to forward her notes to her supervisor in the morning. Tomorrow would be soon enough. Tonight, she would celebrate. She was going LARPing.