“It looks crowded,” Justin said as they came in sight of the Universes entrance. Streams of Vattas, including the stream in which they moved, flowed in, directed by Waystation staff and four Universes staff in their somewhat different uniform. He jumped a little as Shar’s elbow found his ribs. “Look ahead,” she muttered. “Those aren’t Vatta.” Justin looked and saw a large clump–almost filling the wide passage–of people in clothes like those in ancient history vids. Very ancient history vids. They weren’t all human. Tall ones, short ones, all kinds of strange outfits…he glanced back at the Universes entrance. His desire for an illicit fizzy drink with ice cream and a slab of cake evaporated. Treats with relatives were all right, better than schoolwork, but adventure was better than either. He saw children mixed in that crowd too. He glanced at Shar. She had already edged to the margin of the Vatta stream.
When he caught up with her, she was using the benches on the far side of the passage as cover to evade the staff herding Vattas into Universes. The noise level from the restaurant and bar easily covered any noise they might make. “Give me your tie,” Shar said, “and take off that stupid jacket.” Justin was glad to comply; Shar snatched the tie from him and made a headband for herself, then picked open the ornament on her necklace and took out the tiny knife. Before he knew what she intended, she had started cutting the seam between his jacket sleeves and the rest.
“What are you doing? Grandmother will kill me! Great Aunt–”
“They’ll never know. You were going to lose it, and you’ve almost outgrown it. Look at them. Some of them are wearing trousers and sleeveless jackets over their shirts.” One sleeve was out; she slit it down its other seam, then did the same with the other. “Here–put this back on.” She took off the headband, put one of the opened sleeves on her head, then made the tie into a headband again and pulled up the sleeve fabric until it made a sort of floppy cap. “Those girls, some of them, wear scarves or caps. Now–” She put the little knife back in the locket and snapped it closed. “If only you had a knife or sword for that belt.”
They worked along behind the benches until they came to the next bulkhead. The noise across the way was even louder, joined by voices from the strangers in costume. Suddenly they heard “What are you hiding for?” Three children were looking over the backs of the benches at them.
“Shhhh,” Justin said. “We didn’t want to go to the other party with our grandmother–you looked much more interesting.”
“Really?” The boy in the middle looked at them, brows raised. “We think you look more interesting. Where are you from?”
“Never mind that,” Shar said. “Stand back up and let us sneak behind you down that way.” She pointed.
“Won’t you get in trouble?”
“Probably,” Justin said. “But not for awhile, until they find us. And meantime we’ll be free and having fun. ”
“Are you principals or extras?” the girl with a long yellow braid asked.
“They’ll search harder for principals.”
“Then we’re extras,” Shar said. “Help us?”
“Right.” The boy who’d spoken first stood up and without a word gestured to the others, plus two more from their motley crowd. And very shortly they were edging along the bulkhead of the other passage. “You’re out of costume–we need to see–if there’s–someplace you can change–”
“I tried,” Shar said.
“Good start, but the threads hanging loose are way out of period for our universe.” He was looking at the others they passed, and finally called out “Tia!” A tall teenage girl in what seemed a typical costume for about two thirds of the women turned toward them. As she came nearer, she scowled at the twins.
“What have you done?” she asked, and went on without waiting. “You know perfectly well those aren’t from the costume shop. How’d you get past Mrs. Terganian? You’ll have to go back. Nobody in Paksworld has that kind of cloth–and those shoes–”
“Can’t you fix them up, Tia?”
“I shouldn’t, but–we do seem to be stuck here just waiting for some reason. Come on, you two. Good thing you’re just extras–” She led them past the rest of that crowd, all wearing what Justin thought of as historical clothes from Old Earth. They smelled different, too, a curious mix of wool and spice and flowers. Finally Tia tapped an intricate pattern on a bulkhead with the outline of a door on it, and they walked through to find themselves in some kind of shop with racks of clothes in that same archaic style, all kinds of clothes. A stout woman came toward them.
“What’s wrong? Oh…you two.” She scowled.
“I don’t know which they are,” Tia said. “All those books, you know. Jamis here says they’re extras.”
“Well, that’s easily handled. There’s the changing stalls–hurry up. I’ll bring you what you need.”
In short order, Justin wore a plain shirt that felt too big, and dark trousers tucked into low boots. Over the shirt a long sleeveless vest, and over that a belt with a knife hanging from it. “Whatever your station was before, these are merchanter class. Forget your assigned role; you’re supposed to have good manners in this outfit. Your father’s a wool merchant in Valdaire.” Shar found herself in a similar shirt, blue instead of cream, embroidered heavily on the yoke and cuffs, worn with an almost ankle-length striped skirt in red and blue. The gray piece of sleeve had been replaced with a kerchief. “You’re from Fintha; your mother is a weaver. Got that?” Shar nodded. “Then get out of here, the pair of you, and catch up. I’ll mend this mess of the jacket you made; you can pick it up later.”
“She was in a good mood,” the boy named Jamis said, grinning. They took off running back up the passage, only to be stopped by a man in a Waystation Security uniform.
“See two kids named Vatta anywhere about? Boy in gray suit with a tie, girl in a fuschia dress? ”
“No, sir,” Justin said. It was sort of true. He hadn’t seen himself in the gray suit, and Shar wasn’t wearing the fuschia dress now.
“Damn. They must have gone out the other way somehow.” The man spoke into a communicator then hurried off down a side corridor.
“Your name’s Vatta? I’m Jamis Arcolin.”
“Justin and Shar,” Shar said.
“You might want some less distinctive names,” Jamis said. “Sharra’s easy enough for you, Shar, but Justin–”
“My middle name’s Danos.”
“I can use my middle name,” Shar said. “Elia.”
“And there’s our crowd. Ten books’ worth.” Jamis looked a bit smug at that. Justin wondered how many of them Jamis had been in, and if he’d had any outtake story lines. “And some short fiction collections. I got lead in ‘A Bad Day at Duke’s East’ but it’s not out yet.”
“Seven for us,” Shar said. “So far. Author just finished one.”
“We’re here for the 30th Anniversary celebration; they’re re-issuing the first three books with new covers. We were going to have a cast party in Universes, but if you Vattas–”
“Let the grownups sort it out,” Justin said in a different accent, picked up from Jamis. Danos, he had already figured, would be a practical, serious boy. All right for a few hours, but he really preferred the roles he got in his own series. Except that it always paired him with Shar, and maybe if she was being Elia they wouldn’t have to stick together so tightly.
(to be continued.)