The door closed silently behind her as Briana entered the portal. A soft light illuminated a narrow white corridor perhaps ten paces long and ending in another door like the one now behind her. The wall on her left was featureless as a perfectly calm sea. On the right, near each door was an array of controls arranged in rows. Each row looked the same—a selection button, some illuminated text, and a long sequence of counting wheels. Halfway between the two entrances, an array of small, ornate drawer pulls, no two alike, budded forth from the wall. There were no loose artifacts to be seen: no papers, quills, charts, or discarded swathing. There was none of the elaborate scrollwork and decorations like those in vogue with the magicians of her own world. The whole effect was one of sterile efficiency.
Briana retrieved from her backpack the instructions left by the shrouded stranger. Inside were translations into her own tongue what the writing and symbols meant. The top-most inscription in the panel at her side said ‘location’ and immediately below, two more, ‘Murdina’ and ‘Nowhere.’ All the counting wheels showed zeros.
She hesitated a moment. This portal is magic, she thought. Nothing can go wrong. Nothing can fail. Get on with it. With a last bit of reluctance, she pressed the button next to ‘Nowhere.’ Almost instantly, a sharp click of a bolt sliding into place came from the door. The entire structure began to shimmer. A wave of nausea washed over her, sending her to her knees. Her eyes watered, and she could not keep them in focus.
After a short while, the vibrations stopped. The nausea went away. A warning disk of angry red shown in the middle of the door. She rose and tried the handle, but it did not budge. Evidently, the portal had moved the gateway from Murdina, from the council room to Nowhere, and it was not safe to see what lay outside.
Next, she dialed the right most counting wheels adjacent to ‘Murdina’ to one hundred and then again pressed the selection. As she expected, the vibrations did not start immediately. Instead, the numbers in the wheels began to decrease—ninety-nine, ninety-eight. . .
When the count returned to zero, she braced herself, and the shimmering began again. Better prepared, the upset stomach did not feel quite so bad, and when the vibrations finished, the latch clicked a second time. Now, the handle turned easily. She opened the door and glanced out into the dimly lit council chamber. A pleasing comfort like that from sliding into familiar slippers washed over her. She was back to where she had started.
With gathering confidence, Briana shut the door and selected ‘Nowhere’ from the list of locations a second time. After the vibrations had ceased again, she smiled. Things were working as she had expected. Each listed location was a place the door could be positioned to open upon. And the corresponding countdown determined when the translation would start to take place.
She decided to leave the door through which she had entered parked at Nowhere. It would do no good to use the portal and then have some minion of her father immediately follow.
And the second door. It must open to the shrouded stranger’s world. How else could he have gotten home? A peek there before she returned would be an added bonus to report about to her father. When she did, he would maintain a gruff exterior of course, but inside, he would be proud. Thinking about it gave her a warm glow.
She moved to the other end of the portal. The only choices on the wall there were ‘Nowhere’ and ‘The Vanquished’—nothing that would indicate Randor’s home. He must have wanted to keep his location secret, but, if so, how did he manage to get there after he had visited Murdina?
Briana pushed the thought away. Something to figure out later. There was no time for that now. She shouldered her pack, selected ‘The Vanquished,’ waited for the vibration and nausea to go away and opened the door.
It was dark, not as dark as a moonless sky, but dim enough that she could make out nothing. She snapped one of her glow sticks and cautiously looked outside. The air was tainted with a strange odor she could not identify, something stale and heavy like that of a room unopened in years, but evidently not toxic. She felt no ill effects from what she had inhaled.
Reassured, she studied what she saw more carefully. In the near distance in front of her were what looked like the bars of a cage! She whirled about. The bars gently curved off into the gloom on both sides, hinting at a giant circle of confinement.
Randor had said the natives did not practice any of the crafts. So she had naturally assumed they were primitive as well—living in simple huts, perhaps with plowed fields and tethered animals nearby. But metal bars. . .
Maybe when Randor’s people last visited here, there was no cage. It would make sense to put the portal in an uninhabited location. But the circular barrier now changed things. The first thing she would have to do was. . . escape.
Holding the glow stick in front of her, Briana stepped out of the portal, paced to the line of vertical bars, and started walking the perimeter of the confining wall. After a few dozen steps, she gasped aloud at what she saw—a narrow opening through which she easily could walk!
She started to step through the opening and then stopped. The reality of what she was getting into started to rumble in her head. Her confidence began to falter. Things were not going to be simple; already there was a complication. The enclosing cage was here for a reason. Come the dawn, perhaps natives would arrive to inspect its contents. Even if she were not here, they would see the portal door. She would not be able to leave it unguarded and wander about.
For a few moments, she thought about what to do. The setter, she finally remembered from the instructions. Yes, that was what was needed! She returned into the portal, found the correct drawer in the wall now on the left, and extracted a small, slender device that she could hold easily.
She ran her free hand over the bottom of the container but felt only smooth metal. There should have been a tracker in addition to a setter, she remembered from the instructions. But there was none. On the controller she held, the selection choices near the two doors were reproduced along with their nearby selection buttons and counters. She exited the portal, and back outside, carefully read the instructions for the setter’s use. She studied them a second time to be sure. Even the smallest mistake here could maroon her forever.
When Briana was satisfied that she understood thoroughly, she began pressing tiny button-like objects protruding from the setter. She set the counter for the ‘Nowhere’ location near the door she had exited to one hundred, then set the counter for ‘The Vanquished’ to an additional hundred more.
Next, she started the countdown for the ‘Nowhere’ location to begin— to move the portal door to Nowhere when the count reached zero. Before it completed, however, she started ‘The Vanquished’ countdown as well. The counters for both choices began spinning down.
Just as Briana was beginning to fear something had gone wrong, the portal vanished. Briana twisted her loose curl into a tight spiral. Waiting for another fifty was agonizing, but finally, the magic transport again reappeared. It had gone to Nowhere and then returned.
The instructions said a day on this, the exile’s planet, was forty-three thousand three hundred and twenty heartbeats. Using that number for the length of time before retrieving the portal from Nowhere meant she could hide it for an entire day. And she could set things so that she was present when it appeared and none of the natives was about.
Briana quickly browsed through more of the instructions. How to add and delete location choices was complicated. More complex still were explanations of how the portal worked. It was not a simple matter to have a door stay in one place. A planet spun on its axis and also hurtled through the cosmos. While on the outside, it might look that a door was standing still, it was in fact continually in motion.
Briana made the necessary portal control setting and felt her confidence return, although not quite as high as it had been at first. But no matter. Now for the adventure to begin.
She scrambled through the opening. On the other side, she looked up at a wooden placard attached to the wall written in the script of the natives. With the help of the language guide, she spoke aloud what she read.
“Wattles Mansion and Garden. City of Los Angeles.”