Dr. Polingyouma’s machine is still running, that’s what they tell me. Just what that machine does depends on whom you ask. And they’ve made it pretty clear that I’m not being paid to ask questions. Since I’m being paid so well, I don’t push it.
Besides, they’re the ones who should be asking me. I’ve spent the most time inside The Effect. Or at least, I’m the one who’s still around to talk about it. That’s what I was thinking on that day, five years into the job, as I pushed my mop and bucket down the hall to the edge of the Safe Zone. Approximately fifteen feet farther down the hall, I could see the beginning of The Effect. It was marked by pools of urine and piles of feces.
These were the unglamorous side effects of an astonishing intersection of worlds. Just that morning, Commander Eaton had referred to it as “The Nexus.” I could tell he didn’t know what a nexus was, because he pronounced it Neeksus, as if he had seen it written in a report but had never heard it spoken. “Harris! The Neeksus is in full effect—so get your ass down there and clean up the floor. And don’t take so long about it, this time!”
“I’ll take as long as I need to.” I used my mild–but–no–nonsense tone. “The overlap zone has to be squeaky clean when I’m finished.”
His face turned red. Eaton was well past seventy and should have been long retired. Sadly, guys like him ended up in offices like this to mark time until the government could force them out. He was as anti–science as they come, and he had no idea what he was dealing with. I suspected his superiors wanted to keep it that way.
“Lady.” He pronounced this word as if he thought I was anything but. “One bucket of hot water! One mop! Squirt some soap in the bucket and get to work!”
I nodded and walked out of his office. Our conversations always turned out that way, and it never mattered. Eaton was a commander, but he had no actual authority over me. He didn’t sign my paychecks, and he wasn’t the one who received my reports. Pretending to check in with him was how I kept him out of my hair while I was working. He was outraged when he found out what they were paying me, and he never missed an opportunity to dump scorn and disapproval on my head when I stepped in to let him know I had arrived.
“I wish I could get paid a fat salary for working one day a month!” he snarled at my back.
“I wish you could, too,” I said, and let his door swing shut behind me.
The fact that I risked my life and sanity every time I stepped into The Effect was lost on Eaton. He couldn’t wrap his head around the idea that the fate of our world might depend on the humble work of one mop slinger. And I doubt he was the only one who felt that way.
“Harris—how come someone as smart as you ended up being a janitor?” his predecessor once asked me.
This fellow was around for such a short time, I can’t remember his name. I didn’t bother telling him that I was a sanitation engineer. A janitor’s job description included electrical, carpentry, and plumbing skills, none of which I had in any great abundance. “Being smart and being educated aren’t as helpful in finding a good job as you would think,” I told him. “What matters most is where people think you belong. You can fight against that perception, and you can win some victories, but you’re always fighting.” I shrugged. “And sometimes you just get sick of it.”
Having worked in a bureaucracy for much of his career, he understood what I meant. So of course, they replaced him with Eaton.
In a true meritocracy, someone like Eaton would never have been placed in that job. But someone felt he belonged there, even if only by default. I didn’t waste my time wondering why; more pressing matters required my attention. I descended the security staircase two floors, past armed officers who knew me well.
You would never know what was going on in the basement of our building if you were walking through any of the upper levels. In fact, most people who worked there had no idea. Not all of the floors were used for Federal business—some of the lower floors were leased to local government and even to private businesses. Of course, some of those businesses were secret fronts; they watched the building and monitored The Effect for the agencies that were really in charge. I encountered several of these agents as I made my way to the elevator, who nodded to me without speaking.
As I passed the door to Dr. Polingyouma’s former lab, I felt a low hum fluttering against my eardrums. On previous occasions I had opened the door to look inside and see what was causing that vibration, only to have it evaporate as if I had imagined it. The lab had very little inside to indicate a time machine had once occupied it. Or at least, I suspected it had been a time machine, though no one had come right out and said so.
I researched Dr. Polingyouma online. What I found sometimes challenged my intellect, because he was a physicist, and my field is geology. But it wasn’t his articles about physics (of which I understood maybe 30 percent) that gave me the clue I needed. It was what he wrote about his tribe and the origin of their beliefs.
Dr. Polingyouma was Hopi, but he explained that Hopi is actually the name of their religion. He asserted that, technically, you can’t call yourself Hopi unless you’re a practitioner who has belonged to one of the religious societies for decades. It isn’t like Christianity, where your duty is to spread the word – some Hopi ceremonies are secret, and you have to prove yourself worthy before you will be trusted with the deeper truths. He was circumspect when he wrote about this, but he was more open when he theorized where that religion came from.
He felt its origins were in Mexico. And this is where his musings about religion intersected with his approach to science. When discussing the idea of time travel, he diverged with other physicists about its possibility. He made reference to the being at the center of the Mayan calendar, who stands outside space and time.
“If one is going to build a working time machine,” he wrote, “one must lay down the burden of time.”
And maybe that’s what he did. On the day Dr. Polingyouma powered up his machine, it disappeared and took him with it. Shortly thereafter, The Effect manifested for the first time.
Each time I inspected that empty office, I got the feeling I was missing something that was obvious. And when I closed the door, the hum started up again.
I didn’t bother to try that experiment this time; I wasn’t in the mood to be whimsical. I took the elevator down to the ground floor, then went through a service door and walked down a ramp to the basement level. I slowed as I began to feel The Effect. It raised the hair on the back of my neck. This happened even before I could smell the mess down there.
I made note of the time. It would go into my report, along with my finishing time. Then I inspected the hall, trying to get a feel for what I would be dealing with. For the last several months, the changes on the basement level had been more and more obvious, and the square footage that needed to be scrubbed had grown. I had a feeling this time would be no exception.
The door to the utility room stood open, a breach of my protocol. The small room contained shelves for supplies and a floor sink for dumping and washing out the wheeled buckets – and that sink had been used recently. There should have been three buckets and three mops inside. I found one mop and one bucket.
Nothing moved in the corridor, but I couldn’t see most of it, since it curved out of sight. When The Effect changed the hall, it grew larger and longer, stretching beyond the boundaries of our building. A cleaning job that would normally take two hours could take up to ten, which was one of the things that had been antagonizing Eaton. Somehow, the missing buckets and mops had the smell of his tampering about them. One bucket of hot water! I could hear him saying. One mop! And my uneasiness grew.
I prepared the remaining bucket. Despite Eaton’s belief that soap was involved, the cleaning concentrate I used contained enzymes to break up the organic molecules in the excretions, as well as anti–bacterial and anti–viral agents. I added hot water and rolled the bucket up the hall, avoiding the feces as well as I could. The urine was pretty much impossible to avoid, but I wore rubber garden clogs that I could wash off at regular intervals.
My usual strategy was to roll my first bucket all the way to the Gate, which waited at the end of the strange zone caused by The Effect. The Gate was the most dangerous place down there, but walking to the end would give me some idea how I should tackle my job without my extra buckets. I normally filled all three of them once I knew how much area I would have to cover, and stationed them at intervals.
To my right and left, doors and archways led to other rooms. I was careful not to look into them.
“Keep your eyes on this floor, Harris,” my trainer had warned me my first day on the job. “If you go through one of those doors, we’ll never see you again. Even looking into them can get you into trouble.”
“What would I see?” It was my first day, and I didn’t know any better.
“Never ask me that.” The way he said that made me wonder if I had already gotten myself fired. I needed the job, and the fact that I would be paid the salary of a mid–level manager for doing janitorial work once every 24 to 28 days still seemed too good to be true.
“You’ll see people in this corridor sometimes,” said my trainer, who was named Reed. “Don’t look directly at them, don’t talk to them, and don’t get in their way. They’ll just be passing through, and they probably won’t even be aware of you. But don’t take chances. Interfering with their journey could get them killed. Or get you killed. Understand?”
No way did I understand. But I believed him. “Yes.”
“Most of the time those people will look human,” said Reed. “Sometimes they won’t. You can’t let it get to you, and the best way to avoid that is not to look at them.”
His remarks would have surprised me if he had uttered them somewhere else. But in that hallway, they made perfect sense. Weirdness seemed to radiate from every surface, and the floor, even covered with that horrendous mess, was the most normal thing to look at.
As we continued deeper into The Effect, people passed us, just as he had warned. I couldn’t tell where they were coming from, but they all went the same direction, toward the Gate. Sometimes they were engaged in conversation as they walked, but I couldn’t make out what language they were speaking. I kept my eyes on the floor, and once the people had left us alone again, something occurred to me. “Reed—don’t the Journeyers care about the mess on the floor? Most people would be grossed out.”
“The Journeyers don’t care,” said Reed. “I’m not even sure they notice. They may be out of phase with this place. It’s the people who made the Gate who care. If all goes well, you’ll never meet them.”
I found it hard to fathom that the Journeyers didn’t care about the mess. That first day, and on many overlaps thereafter, there was blood as well as urine on the floor. Sometimes I wondered if a slaughter had occurred there, and the excretions had been provoked by terrible fear. Other times, it seemed more like something was marking its territory, angry because we had invaded the borders of its hunting grounds. I say its, because often the biological fluids on the floor did not appear to have a human origin.
As Reed and I made our way to the far end of The Effect, the hall opened into an odd bathroom that also contained a floor sink in one corner for wheeled buckets. The bathroom and floorsink were normal features of the basement, but they were enlarged and distorted by The Effect, which twisted the bathroom three–quarters of a turn counter–clockwise to make room for another hallway that intersected the main hall at an angle. One end of this new hallway disappeared around another curve, which arced away from the main hall. The other end continued for a few feet past the bathroom and terminated at a blank wall.
But when I glanced at that wall, I saw ripples spreading in circles from its center, as if it were a pool of water. I looked away.
“That’s the Gate,” said Reed. “That’s where the Journeyers go. No one who’s seen around that bend—” he jerked his chin toward the other end, “—has ever returned to tell us about it. So don’t get curious about it.”
I nodded and looked at the stalls. The fixtures inside also appeared distorted, and I fervently hoped I would never see the creatures for whom they were intended.
“Walk me back out,” said Reed. “Then you can get started.”
I walked back with him, assuming he wanted to talk, maybe give me more advice about what to look out for. But he was silent almost the whole way. He didn’t speak again until we had reached the utility room. “I’ll tell you a little secret. I think men seem arrogant to them.”
“To them?” I asked.
“To the entities who made that Gate. I think some women seem that way to them, too. You may have noticed you had to be extensively vetted before we hired you, Harris.”
I remembered the hours of questioning, the background checks, the lie detector test, the fact that they wanted someone who had at least an A.S. degree (in my case, in geology), but not someone who had a higher degree, as if they needed to find someone who would get the general idea of what was going on, but wouldn’t get any ideas about what should be done about it. “The process was vigorous,” I agreed.
“You’re not the only person we interviewed who had both janitorial skills and a science degree—in this job market, that’s a lot more common. I picked you because you’ve got a natural humility I think they’ll like. But you’ve got courage, too. You’re smart and you’re thorough. That’s what we’re looking for.”
They were also looking for someone who wasn’t married and didn’t have a lot of family ties. Meaning this job was dangerous, and that’s what justified the enviable schedule and the high salary. The job had been mine ever since. When I wasn’t mopping up our intersected worlds, I spent my free time tending my little house, gardening, hiking local spots, and studying. It was a blessing to be able to do that, but the job also tweaked my interest. It required so much attention to detail. I had done a lot of sanitation work to finance my way through college, and I usually wanted to be more thorough than employers wanted to pay me to be.
That’s more important to me than you might imagine, but I admit The Effect was also as alluring as it was sometimes terrifying. During my time there, I walked on the border of another world. I heard languages that weren’t spoken on Earth, glimpsed people who might or might not be human. Sometimes at night I lay awake wondering about their destinations. I wondered what was in store for me, this time around.
As if in answer to my thoughts, a woman moved in the hall ahead of me. I averted my eyes. But a moment later I heard a familiar sound: water being pushed through a strainer. I looked at knee level and saw that she was using one of my missing buckets.
“Are there two of you?” I asked.
She jumped. But then she saw my bucket. “The other girl is around that corner,” she said. “She’s doing the left side, I’m doing the right. We’re working our way back.”
The other girl? I wondered. This woman was older than me, maybe 45. “Ma’am,” I said, “You can’t be in here.”
She gave me an outraged look. “What do you mean? Commander Eaton brought me down here. You’re Harris, right?” She started mopping again, dismissing me. “He said to ignore you. And I need the money. I’ve got to work at least two hours, or he says I won’t get a dime.”
I noticed she wasn’t doing a very thorough job. So not only was she in danger, she was incompetent.
“You could die in here,” I said.
Her mouth set in a stubborn line. “He said you would say that. He said I would be OK if I stayed down at this end.”
This gave me pause. Did Eaton know something I didn’t? It seemed unlikely, but I couldn’t be one hundred percent sure of that. It was true that this end of the hallway felt safer than the end near the Gate. And this woman seemed determined to stay put and earn the money she had been promised. If I wanted to remove her, I would have to go back up and fetch agents to help me. Eaton might get involved, and the fuss that ensued would disturb the Journeyers. That would not please the entities who had made the Gate.
I appraised her again. Unfortunately, she was wearing tennis shoes, and they were already filthy. She would track nasty stuff out of here. I would just have to clean up behind her.
I said, “You must not look at or speak to anyone you see in here, and—”
“I know.” She rolled her eyes. “Eaton told me all that.”
“—don’t look into any of the rooms. You can disappear if you—”
“I know! He told me.”
I nodded. “Okay, here’s what you can do. Work your way back to the utility room from here. Then just stick your bucket in there and leave. I’ll take care of the rest. Can you do that?”
“Sure,” she said. “I don’t want to go any farther in here anyway. It’s creepy.”
I started to leave, but she grabbed at my sleeve. “How much do they pay you?”
I looked her right in the eye. “Everything about this job is classified, including details about me and my salary.”
She snorted and got back to work. She didn’t believe me. But I was pretty sure she would stick to the parameters I had outlined for her. After all, they were easier, and I could tell from the way she was mopping that she wasn’t experienced at this work. Nor did she seem interested in becoming so. I left her and looked for the second woman.
I found that lady about 100 feet farther in. She was working a little harder than the first one, but not much. And she looked twice as spooked. “You don’t have to do this,” I told her. “You two aren’t even supposed to be here.”
She shrugged. “I need the money.”
I made sure she also understood that she shouldn’t talk to anyone or look into the rooms, and then pushed my bucket toward the Gate, mentally damning Eaton to one thousand hells, each darker and more wretched than the last.
You sort of don’t expect that the tangible evidence of the overlap of worlds would be piles of crap and pools of blood and urine. At least, you wouldn’t expect that if you weren’t a janitor—or maybe a biologist. I wasn’t the least bit surprised. After all, the bathroom was still a major part of the overlap, and I don’t think that was an accident.
The plumbing in there is altered by The Effect, but some of it still flushes in a useful manner, so I use a big pooper–scooper from the supplies near the floor sink in the bathroom to pick up the feces and flush them down the toilets. That way I don’t have to dump them in the sink and waste my enzyme concentrate on them. That was the first thing I did after I encountered the two women in the hall. It took quite a long time—my section of the hallway was about five times longer than the part near the utility room.
After I had disposed of the nastiest stuff, I rolled my bucket back up to the juncture where the second woman had started. I could see her just down the hall, so I picked a spot and started scrubbing backward, toward the Gate, thoroughly cleaning one side of the hall and leaving the other half to do on my way back toward the other end. I lost sight of her as we steadily moved apart. I felt glad she was moving in a safe direction. I knew with a certainty that I was not.
I never let myself get comfortable with that. It was tempting to try to ignore fear and pretend everything was all right. But that wasn’t a strategy that would keep me alive. Instead, I focused on what had to be done. I rolled my bucket down to the Gate repeatedly, emptying it and filling it with fresh solution, then pushing my bucket back to where I had left off and scrubbing several more feet.
Organic chemistry is not my area, but general chemistry will teach you that reactions occur more readily if you stir the reactants together. Adding energy in the form of friction heat gives you a higher reaction rate, since energy is required to break the bonds of compounds. In this case, that was accomplished by scrubbing and swishing—expert mop–slinging. It takes a level of dedication that most people never approach, regardless of their vocations. It demanded my full attention.
I wish I could get paid a fat salary for working one day a month! I could hear Eaton saying. But I doubt he would have felt it was worth this much trouble. Oddly, I really did seem to fit this job.
The first Journeyers appeared after I had been working about an hour. They strolled past me without seeing me. I didn’t let my gaze light on them for more than a second, and I only saw them from the knees down. From that angle they looked human.
They didn’t sound human. That wasn’t a new experience, but just before they disappeared through the Gate, I heard one of them say a word I understood. It was a name.
I almost looked directly at them, but I saw a flash as something ran past me. I managed not to look that way either, but my heart jolted into high gear.
Breathe through your nose, I told myself. Keep your head down.
I stared at the floor, examining the work I had already done. My heart rate slowed, but I struggled to regain my focus. Something fluttered against my eardrums. It was the hum I always heard outside Dr. Polingyouma’s lab.
I had never heard it down there before. But I had heard it in my dreams. I sometimes wondered if Dr. Polingyouma was trapped inside that moment when he had switched on his machine, or if he was forever suspended just a few moments ahead of us in time. Did he know he was stuck? Was he aware of The Effect?
“Turn it off, Dr. Polingyouma,” I whispered. “Turn off your machine.”
The hum diminished and faded away. But The Effect remained. The floor still needed to be cleaned. We had made this mess, whether or not we had done it intentionally. They expected us to clean it up. I rinsed my mop, wrung it out, and resumed scrubbing.
Once I’ve scrubbed my way all the way down to the Gate, I always rinse the bucket, both inside and out, before filling it again. This may seem like overkill, but it minimizes the possibility of soiling a surface you’ve already cleaned with dirty wheels or with stuff dripping down the outside of the bucket. I can never resist rinsing my clogs off too, even though I have to stand on one leg as I do this, one at a time. They get soiled again as I scrub my way backward down the dirty side of the hall, but you can’t stand in a mess like that all day without indulging in a little obsessive–compulsive shoe cleaning.
I was perched on my left leg and washing off the right clog in the floor sink in the far corner of the bathroom when I heard a door slam. I almost jumped out of my other clog. I looked down the hall, though most of it was out of sight around the curve. I shouldn’t have been looking at all, but something about that slam set off my alarms. I had never heard a noise that loud in the hallway. I wondered if the two women had slammed the door of the utility room. Now that I thought about it, I hadn’t checked on them for a while, and it was high time.
I would have to refill my bucket in the utility room anyway, as I scrubbed my way back down the dirty side of the hall. So I put my clog on, bowed my head, and started to work my way backward. I moved at a steady pace, but inspected the clean side on my way back, going back over any spots that I thought didn’t look perfect. Once the solution in my bucket needed a refill, I rolled the bucket back to the juncture where I had left the second woman. She wasn’t there, but I could see what she had done.
There was a marked difference between her work and mine. I had expected that, so I didn’t sweat it. I could clean it more easily, now that she had gone over it once. Walking back to the point where I had spotted the first woman, I saw a smear of blood.
It was tiny. I could have missed it on my first inspection. It looked fresh, but blood often looks that way inside The Effect.
Still, I looked up and down the hall. I listened. I didn’t hear a sound or see any movement. And even more importantly, I didn’t see the buckets. If something had happened to those women, shouldn’t their buckets be sitting on the floor?
On the other hand, if they were safe, their buckets should be in the utility room. So I kept rolling my bucket up the dirty side.
Those women would have been offended if they had known I was calling half of the floor they had just cleaned the dirty side, but traces of the mess they were supposed to erase were still visible. Even if the standards of the job had not been high, their work would not have been satisfactory. They had also made the amateur’s mistake of letting the soiled wheels of the buckets roll over clean floor. But they had at least gotten most of the mess; I would be able to clean up the remainder of their work pretty easily.
Still, I judged I had hours to go before this day’s work would be done. This is what I was thinking as I rolled my bucket to the door of the utility room. The first thing I saw was their buckets sitting next to the sink.
The second thing I saw was that the buckets were not empty. They were about one–fifth full of blood.
The blood was red, but some of it was very dark, as if it had all just been squeezed out of a human body and some of it hadn’t had time to oxidize. I leaned closer, calculating the volume. I was pretty sure the human body held about one–and–a–half gallons of blood. It looked like that was how much blood was in each bucket.
“Eaton,” I whispered, “you dumb son of a bitch.”
Something tickled my right ear, and I turned my head. An entity stood next to me, its face inches from mine. I stared at it helplessly, unable to look away, thinking that just because something looks humanoid doesn’t mean it isn’t terrifying.
“You will never find their bodies,” it hissed.
I gripped the handle of my mop. “I know.”
“You—” Somehow, from its inflection, I could tell it wasn’t just referring to me. It meant all of us—our race. “You are stupid cattle.”
“No. I am a sanitation expert. This hall will be clean. A high level of excellence must be maintained.”
“You are the only one who cares,” it said, almost plaintively. “The only one.”
“I care.” I made myself look away from its fearsome eyes and began to work again, starting with the part of the floor the first woman had cleaned so badly. Back and forth went my mop. Every corner was scrubbed, every inch inspected.
“Harris,” it said, “Do you wonder what we are?”
The question shocked me. It knew my name. And I knew I couldn’t lie with a straight face, so I said, “Yes.”
The entity moved so close, I could feel its breath in my ear. “We are your future,” it said.
I was afraid to ask for clarification. Did it mean that some day we would evolve and become them? Did it mean that some day they would invade our world? When I scrubbed this endless hallway, was I cleaning up the scene of some future defeat, removing the evidence of our ultimate rage and despair? But if that were so, why should my work be so important to them? And why did so many people, human and otherwise, pass without a thought through this crossroads between our worlds?
“Inside The Effect,” whispered the entity, “are you what you seem? Am I?”
“I don’t know.”
I didn’t know how to reply to that. It had killed those women. It seemed to approve of me, yet I sensed I was also in terrible danger. I could only do what I had been trained to do. I kept my head down and mopped as if my life depended on it. Because it did.
I don’t know how long the entity lingered. It might have stayed with me until just before I finished. I had to empty and refill my bucket so many times I lost count, and it dogged my steps so closely I was sure I would bump into it. The hours flowed into each other, and at some point I lost my awareness of everything but the floor I was scrubbing.
My nose told me when I had succeeded before my eyes did. The stench evaporated as the last of those organic molecules were digested by the solution. Finally I stood on the clean patch of floor next to the utility room. I lifted my head to inspect the hall. It was spotless—and the entity had gone. The Effect still held sway over the basement. Our worlds still overlapped. But the uneasiness that had driven me to work with such careful attention to detail had evaporated along with the odor, leaving exhaustion in its wake. I checked the time and saw that more than eleven hours had passed since I had started.
I rolled the bucket to the floor sink, noticing that the other two buckets had already been rinsed clean and put back in their places. No trace of blood remained in them or in the sink, but I could not forget what they had contained. Once I made my full report, Eaton would be removed from his post.
I never saw him again, after that day. He disappeared so thoroughly, I wondered if he had been removed from the world.
I cleaned my mop and bucket. By the time I put them away, they smelled faintly of soap. I washed off my clogs, double–checked the floor for spots, switched off the light, and closed the door. I gave the hallway one last look. “I care. I will always care.”
From far away, I thought I heard voices, though I couldn’t make out what language they were speaking. The voices faded, and silence reigned again.
I turned and walked back into the Safe Zone, up the ramp and back to my world to wait for the next manifestation of The Effect, in 24 to 28 days.
That was almost a year ago. Since then, I got my Bachelor’s degree. Since it isn’t in Physics, I figured they’d let me get away with it. And if they don’t—I’ve saved a lot of money. If this job evaporates, I’ll have time to find something else. Maybe even in my field.
Things have continued to change. More Journeyers pass through each time, and I have sensed new doors opening off the main corridor, though I never look directly at them. The hall stretches farther, and eleven hours to complete the job is not uncommon anymore. I clean up the mess we made, or helped something else to make, and I try to keep my head down. Sometimes I hear the humming of Dr. Polingyouma’s machine.
Today, when I was almost done, I heard a human voice.
“Who’s there?” it asked.
“It’s just me. Harris.”
“Harris.” The voice sounded so relieved, I broke my own rule and looked up. I saw a man in the middle of the hall, perhaps four feet away from me. He was human, about fifty years old, and dressed in dockers and a short–sleeved shirt with a pocket protector. His long, black hair was bound at the nape of his neck. “I’m Dr. Polingyouma,” he said. “I heard what you said. I turned off the machine.”
I didn’t tell him that a year had passed for me since I had told him that. For him it must have been seconds.
Dr. Polingyouma took a kerchief out of his pants pocket and mopped his brow. “The entities that operate the Gate—they told me we’ve got about five hours before this Effect wears off. We’ll have to be out of here by then, or we’ll be trapped on their side.”
I weighed that information, then propped my mop in its bucket. “Okay. Please Doctor, follow me.”
I led Dr. Polingyouma back up the hall, past the utility closet and up the ramp that led to the elevator. I pushed the button and waited with him until the door slid open.
“Go up to the third floor, where your office was,” I said. “You’ll find a man named Reed in the office at the far end of the hall. Tell him who you are. Tell him I’ll report to him when I’ve finished cleaning the hall.”
He looked dismayed. “You’re going to stay here?”
“I promised. You’re Hopi—you understand what it means to keep that sort of promise.”
He nodded. “I understand why you’re the one the entities prefer to deal with.” He stepped into the elevator.
I stayed there until the doors closed, and I heard the elevator ascend. I felt reasonably certain that Dr. Polingyouma had made it to the third floor when I went back down the hall to my mop and bucket and resumed my work.
No more Journeyers passed me as I scrubbed that floor until it shone. The voices I heard seemed more distant. Inch by inch, foot by foot, I cleaned the rest of the hall, all the way back to the utility closet. I washed off my clogs, rinsed my mops, and cleaned the buckets inside and out. When they were put away, I stepped back into the hall and inspected my work.
“Remember,” I said, “that I kept my faith with you.”
“We won’t forget,” spoke a voice next to my ear. I saw the entity at the edge of my field of vision, but this time I had the presence of mind not to look.
But seeing Dr. Polingyouma walk out of there had given me the courage to ask a question. “Inside The Effect, are you what you seem? Am I?”
“You will know,” promised the entity.
“When will I know?”
“The next time Dr. Polingyouma turns on his machine,” it said. “This time with the right calibrations.” And it gave me a push—gently, considering what it was capable of—toward the ramp.
I went without looking back. As I walked away, I heard a strange rustling, and I imagined the hall raveling itself back into its normal size and shape. I wondered if they had been holding it, just for me. I wondered if that were even possible, or if I had simply lucked out.
I wouldn’t know until Dr. Polingyouma turned his machine back on, but I doubted we would see that horrible mess in the hall again. If I continued to work for the federal government, it wouldn’t be as a sanitation engineer.
In fact, I might not be working for them at all. Maybe they were no longer the ones who decided where I belonged.
I kept those speculations to myself when I filed my written report.
© 2015 Emily Devenport