Grandma Vander Sloot told me about the city, how it existed simultaneously in an infinity of alternate dimensions, how an alley could lead you somewhere Kaiser Wilhelm and Germany won World War I, and you might meet the version of yourself that lived there.
She told me about the people imprisoned there, exiles from too many universes to name.
You’d think a place like that might put you in mind of Victorian Gothic novels—Wuthering Heights’ moors and ghosts, a decaying aristocracy, and their uneducated, superstitious servants.
If you did expect that, it would only be the first of a long list of disappointments.
It was a Stapledon weekend, and on Saturday morning, they’d put the older students on a bus, and drove for twenty minutes. They started at seven in the morning.
We’d been staying in the Defenders underground complex that was somewhere in the Great Plains. Where? Nebraska? Iowa? I couldn’t tell—someplace with a lot of grass.
At first I couldn’t see the city. Fifty foot tall, grey concrete walls rose out of the grassland. Barbed wire ran across the top, and guards stood with rifles on their backs. Sometimes they looked out. Other times, they looked in.
It looked like a prison.
Next to me, Travis (my ex-boyfriend) closed his eyes and sniffed the air.
Amazingly, weird habits like that weren’t why we broke up.
He opened his eyes. “Hey Rach, you okay?”
I leaned forward, resting my arms on the seat ahead of us. “Doing great. We’re going on a field trip to an actual field. I’m so excited I can barely control myself.”
He gave a snort. “You know it’s not really a field, right? It smells like New York City, but weirder. A lot weirder.”
As he said it, the sun came out, and the scene ahead of us changed. Buildings stood behind the walls. The nearest had flat roofs and architectural styles that made me think of France.
Behind them rose skyscrapers, but not close behind them—miles behind them.
The bus began to slow, stopping in front of the entrance. Wide and made with chain-link, it had barbed wire on the top. Men in green fatigues stood on the other side.
In the front of the bus, a man in a blue suit stood up. In his mid-50’s, he had that square-jawed look that all superheroes in movies seemed to have. In costume, we called him Bullet. Today we called him Mr. Krantz.
I wasn’t sure if that was his real name or not, but it didn’t matter. Either way I wasn’t impressed. It seemed like he got off on playing the authority figure.
And okay, I might have been reading things into what he did.
He stepped up and stood next to the first row of seats, blocking the aisle. “Do I have your attention?”
He paused, looking up and down the bus before continuing. “Good. I’m going to reiterate your instructions before you leave. As you know, Area 551, or as the residents call it, Infinity City, is an extra-dimensional anomaly. It exists in an unknown number of alternate universes at the same time.
“You may at some point in your career be called upon to catch a former resident of the city. It’s important therefore that you become familiar with the major neighborhoods and factions.
“This morning we’ll separate into groups and lead you on a tour through the major sections of the city. In the afternoon, we’ll allow you some free time to explore the core city.
“The core is the most stable part, and so there should be no reason for you to leave our universe, but as we all know, accidents happen. Therefore, each of you will be loaned a CDPS. In case you become separated, the CDPS will allow you to contact us, and find your way back to our universe.
“Now, any questions?”
No one asked anything.
Bullet nodded. “Good. Then I have one more thing to say. DO NOT lose your CDPS. First, we have a limited number, and they are quite expensive to manufacture. Second, it will be very difficult to get back.
“If you do lose your CDPS, your best bet is to backtrack immediately. You will probably get home. Plus, we are in communication with various groups that control the city in various versions of the city. If you give yourself up, they will likely be able to bring you back as well. I tell you now, though, that you will likely be quarantined so that we can determine whether you are yourself, or merely another version.”
He gave the bus a quick once over. “Alright. Stand up and get ready to exit. It’s time.”