‘Whose Side Are You on Anyway?’, Sarah L. Byrne

Illustrations © 2013 Laura-Anca Adascalitei



 [ It was raining on the other side of the fence, © 2013 Laura-Anca Adascalitei ] It was raining on the other side of the fence.

Mila stared up at the blue sky, her eyes screwed up against the sun, and held out her hands to feel for raindrops. Nothing. It was a hot July day, the afternoon sun warm on her bare arms and legs in her cut-off jeans and red tank top. Not a drop of rain.

She peered through the wire fence again, her face against the fine green mesh. Definitely raining, on the other side.

What are they doing in there?

An older woman walked by, with a small terrier. It pulled at the leash, pushed past Mila’s legs and sniffed at the fence curiously.

“It’s raining, through there,” Mila said, “Have you seen?” The woman gave her an odd look, glanced at the fence, then back at her with an uncertain smile.

“Wish it was, love. My garden could do with a drop, I can tell you.” Mila blinked. “Come on, Reggie.” She gave the dog’s lead a little tug, and it turned reluctantly away and trotted after her.

Reggie knew something was up, didn’t he?

She walked a little way around the perimeter, pushing her bike. You couldn’t see much on the other side. Concrete slabs on the ground, weeds and grass growing in the cracks, neglected-looking. The building was grey and functional, three storeys with all the windows dark and empty. She’d looked up the location on her phone, Google Earth had it down as some industrial training provider. No way, Mila thought.

There was no obvious way in. The fence was twelve feet high, easily, the gates tall and chained, barbed-wire coiled on top and no gap even for a small slim girl to wriggle underneath. It surrounded the facility on three sides. And on the fourth, there were the deep waters of the docks, looking dark and chill even on a day like this. The fence jutted out well over the water, but still, you could, couldn’t you?

If you were agile enough, if you dared, maybe you could… and there was something about this place, something that drew her in. Something more than curiosity.

Mila looked up again, her eyes following the tall white stalk of a pole, up to the round bug-eye camera she knew was at the top. A crack ran across its shiny black surface, no tiny red light flickered on the underside. Hmm.

No, Mila said to herself. Go home. Haven’t you got yourself in enough trouble, last few years? Got to stay out of it, get your degree finished, get a job. All that stuff. You know.

She did. But.

Hmm.


Mila pedaled hard, building up speed, then leaned into the bend, pushing her knee towards the ground as she went flying round the last corner into her street. And slammed on the brakes and skidded to a halt as a loud whistle hailed her.

Sitting on a swing in the park opposite her house, red jumper, long dark braid down to her waist. Lavni waved frantically.

“Mila!”

Oh, I don’t need this, Mila thought.

Lavni ran over to her as she got off her bike to push it the last few yards.

“Mila, babe.” She slid her arms around her, kissed her. “Where’ve you been? I’ve been waiting ages, I thought your class finished at four?”

“Nowhere, really,” Mila said shortly. “Just rode around a bit, needed some time to think.”

Lavni looked at her curiously.

“Come back to mine, I’ll cook you dinner. You’ll stay over tonight, won’t you? My housemates are away, we’ll have the place to ourselves.”

“I’m supposed to be studying,” Mila said, then shrugged. “Okay. Whatever. It can wait.” Because the library was even less appealing than Lavni’s suffocating company. What was the point studying for exams you were sure to fail anyway?


Sitting at Lavni’s kitchen table, bare feet tucked up on the chair, Mila told her about the rain.

“It’s got to be climate research or something, hasn’t it? What do they call it, geo-engineering? Why keep it so secret though, why all the pretense? Maybe there’s more going on with the climate change stuff than we’re allowed to know about?”

Lavni looked at her fondly.

“You and your conspiracy theories. You should’ve been at that, you know, Greenham Common.”

“That was nothing to do with climate,” Mila said, slightly irritated. “Or conspiracies.”

“No, but, well, it’s all related stuff, isn’t it? We could have gone together, camped out for a while, we’d have fit right in, from what I hear.”

Mila laughed despite her annoyance.

“I guess we would.”

Lavni made pasta, over-cooked and stodgy with cheese, and afterwards brewed tea Indian-style in a pan on the stove.

“Look, your skin’s browner than mine.” Lavni turned back her sleeve, put her wrist next to Mila’s, then brushed her sunburnt forearm lightly. “You’re out in the sun too much.”

The milky tea bubbled up, frothing at the edges of the pan. Mila stared out of the window at the sky turning dark, thinking about the strange rain. She could feel Lavni’s fingers stroking her arm, over and over, until it started to feel sore. So gentle but it’s like water wearing away rock, she’d wear me down to the bone with gentle persistence. Mila jerked her arm away.

“Sorry,” Lavni said, flinching.

The tea was too sweet. Too hot, for a warm evening. Everything felt wrong tonight.


Mila slid quietly out of bed, reaching for her clothes on the floor in the dark. She started to wriggle into them. Then turned, startled, as the bedside light clicked on, the soft glow of it dazzling her.

“You’re leaving?” Lavni was watching her, sleepy-eyed. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” Mila pulled her sandals on, bending down to fasten them. “I can’t sleep, that’s all. It’s too hot in here, I need some fresh air, I need my own space.”

“We can open the window if you really want,” Lavni said dubiously, sitting up.

“No. I’m going home. Just leave it, all right?”

“All right…” Lavni was looking at her, worried, puzzled. “Will you be OK? It’s like, two a.m., isn’t it? Want me to walk with you?”

“No. I’ll be fine.” Mila turned away. “Go back to sleep. I’ll see you tomorrow, yeah?”

“Will you?” Lavni asked. There was the rustle of sheets as she got out of bed. “What’s going on with you, Mila?”

This was as good a time as any, Mila thought.

“Maybe I need a break. You and me, I mean. It’s not working for me.”

Lavni blinked at her, dark eyes brimming with hurt.

“I knew this was coming. You’ve changed. You’re different, the way you are with me. Body language, everything.”

“I’m sorry.” Mila said. “I don’t mean to be such a bitch to you. It’s nothing you’ve done wrong, it’s just… I don’t know what I want, I need some time to work things out. It’s not you.”

Lavni flinched slightly at that.

“No, I get it.” Her smile was bitter. “They say never date a bi girl. What a fucking cliché.”

“No…” Mila put her head in her hands. “It’s not like that. Look, I’ll call you sometime, OK?”

Lavni shook her head. Her mouth twisted away from the smile, a tear starting to run down the hollow of her nose. She wiped it with the back of her hand and turned away towards the wall.

Mila stared at her crying with her face in her hands, long black hair massing over her hunched shoulders. Despite it all she wanted to reach out, touch her soft arm. Instead she turned towards the doorway. I’ll only make it worse. I always do.

Outside, the air was cool, with a earthy damp smell like the memory of rain. It was light enough, the streets well-lit and a near-full moon overheard. And quiet, the whirr of Mila's bike chain the only sound as she rode down the empty street. Heading towards her house, at first. Then turning, the other way. The wrong way; something drawing her inevitably that way, the same strange something that drew her there in the first place. Out towards the old docks.


Mila left her bike locked to a railing, and walked around to the end of the fence again. It was dark, once she switched off the bike lights, but not so dark she couldn’t see her way, the sky midnight-blue and moonlit. The water in the dock was black and shiny.

Mila swung herself round, feet dangling over the water, launched herself across, reaching for the stone sill on the other side of the fence. She caught it easily. Cold… It was cold, and slick with ice. What? Her fingers slipped off it, she frantically grabbed for a handhold, anything. Nothing. She slid into the water.

The cold was a slap of icy pain, paralyzing. Mila struggled to tread water. How can it be so cold? She couldn’t catch her breath, couldn’t make herself gulp in the air she needed to. She bumped against something in the water, a lump of ice, she realized. How? She caught at it, but it slipped away, and she was drifting away from the edge too, out of reach.

Swim, you’ve got to swim, but she couldn’t feel her arms and legs, couldn’t make them move. She slipped under the water, black and silent, came up again coughing and gagging on it and before she could breathe in properly she was going under again. Drowning? A strange calmness, sleepy almost.

Then a splash in the water beside her. She bobbed up to the surface again and it was there, a huge black thing like a bear. She grabbed onto it, clinging on desperately with numb clumsy fingers, fighting for breath. It’s a dog, she realized as it began to swim, strong strides through the water. It pulled her to the bank and nudged her against it, holding her there, treading water with its massive paws.

Gasping for breath, struggling to get a grip on the slippery stone wall, Mila looked up. A sleety rain was falling. And against the night sky, a man stood there, looking down at her. Tall, hard-faced, all in black. A black patch covered one eye.

“Good girl, Perdie.” He nodded to the dog, then glanced back to Mila. She stared up at him, coughing, fingers slipping on the wall. It was too high for her to climb out, even if she’d had the strength left.

“What’s this, then?” His voice echoed oddly through the water in her ears.

He knelt down, gripped her under the arms and hauled her out, soaking wet and shivering violently. The dog bounded out of the water and shook vigorously, water flying off her coat, breath steaming hot. Her feet were webbed, Mila thought blankly.

The sleet had turned to a fine snow, swirling gently in the light breeze.

Mila scrambled up and tried to run, towards the fence, security lights flicking on. Her legs were numb and she stumbled and fell forwards, putting out her hands to break her fall. The dog had trotted after her, nosing at her solicitously. The man followed, and she shrank away from him.

“Don’t move,” he said. He knelt down. “What have you done to yourself?”

She’d grazed her knees and cut her hand on the concrete slabs, bleeding, she realized, though she was too cold and shocked to feel it properly.

“Please… don’t hurt me,” Mila managed, her words coming out in gaspy sobs, and then she burst into tears.

“You’re doing a good enough job of that yourself,” her captor muttered. “Come with me.”

Mila felt him lift her to her feet. She stumbled against him, shivering so hard she could barely stand.

“Keep moving,” he said harshly, though his arm around her was firm but gentle. “Better that way.”

He led her across the courtyard and up to a heavy metal door at the back of the building, which he hammered on with his fist until someone opened it, warmth and light flowing out like heaven on earth.


Mila sipped the hot liquid gratefully, warming her hands on the mug. It was scalding hot and the milk tasted burnt, but she didn’t care. She was huddled shivering in front of the wood-burner, wrapped in blankets and a foil sheet while they talked around her.

“Anders found her in the dock,” one of them said with a grin. “One of the local students, apparently. Looks like she’s one of us.”

“Perdita found her,” Anders said. He was sitting on a bench in the corner, the huge dog at his feet. He’d watched silently while the others discussed her—and questioned her, at least when she’d stopped shivering enough to talk.

“Where is this,” Mila asked at last. “Who are you?”

“Who are you?” one of them said.

“I’m, er, Kate,” Mila said, recovered enough to be wary again, and use the fake name that had kept her out of trouble at many a student protest turned bad.

“We’re Mainport travel and tourism,” the youngest man said, giving her a grin. “Part of it, anyway, we’re a multinational. I’m Neil. That’s Liu over there. John’s our boss, team lead. And we’re in November.”

“Seriously?”

“Does it feel like July to you?”

“Mainport’s studying time-displacement zones like this one,” John explained. “We’re focusing on the tourism market. Winter sun, summer skiing. Difficulty right now is controlling what time offset happens where. November in the London summer isn’t much use to anyone really. But they’re all worth studying, to try to get a better understanding. Also most people can’t cross between time zones, pretty big problem for the tourist angle. Some of the guys back at the main office have been working on a device that might allow just that. Curious thing actually, it’d probably work the other way round for you or me, would make us stay in the same time. It’s experimental so far, looks promising though.”

“But this is incredible,” Mila said. “I mean, think of the things you could do. Never mind about tourism, what about agriculture? Extending the growing season, increasing yields, and then there’s solar power… and why all the secrecy, anyway, shouldn’t this be shared? You could get government grants, partner with university research groups…”

Neil was laughing.

“Well, that’s you told, John,” he said. “Seems like you’re doing it all wrong, might want to tell your boss about that.”

“I’m serious,” Mila said. “You could do so much more.”

“It’s confidential because we don’t want any competition. We’re about making a profit, and the money’s in tourism, not all that eco stuff.”

“I thought agri-science was pretty big business,” Mila insisted. “And what about doing the right thing, isn’t the food crisis a bit more important than someone’s expensive holiday?”

He shrugged.

“Maybe. But we’re not a charity.”

“It’s not about charity.” Mila was warm now, and she could feel her face getting hot. “And you say that like it’s a bad thing, like it’s something dirty. The world might be better for a bit more charity in it. That’s what happens when you get stuff all run by men like this. Where are the women in your organization, huh?”

“Perdie’s right over there,” Neil said. “Only here because she prefers the cold, mind. Doesn’t much like July, poor thing.”

“Not what I meant.”

“It’s usually men who have the ability to travel,” Liu said. “Just the way it is, one of those things. There’s some women though.” He glanced at John. “I mean, we were founded by a woman, weren’t we?”

“We were.” Mila looked at him questioningly, and he went on. “In fact, she’s where our whole ethos comes from. Young woman, no one knows quite where she came from, she kept her private life pretty private. But travelling in India was all the rage back then for you student types, wasn’t it? Anyway, she had a good head for business, as it turned out, was determined to make serious money and convinced the travel market was the way to do it. And that’s how we’ve done things ever since.”

“Sounds like she made some bad decisions,” Mila said slowly. "Sounds like she was too proud to admit when she'd taken the wrong path."

And some part of her started to know.


After, they excused themselves and disappeared through one of the interior doors, closing it firmly behind them.

“They’re deciding what to do with you,” Anders said. He and Perdita had stayed behind. “Don’t look so bloody miserable,” he added. “It’s not going to be anything that bad.”

“It’s not that,” Mila said. “I broke up with my girlfriend. I dumped her, I feel like such a bitch.”

He nodded sympathetically.

“You want to go back and not do it? You could just go round and apologise, you know, tell her you didn’t mean it.”

“No.” Mila shook her head. “I’d go back and never get with her in the first place. I never meant to, really. She was just cute, and she really wanted it, like being proper girlfriends and everything, so I guess I just went along with it.”

“You didn’t get along, then?”

“She drove me crazy.” Mila looked up with a rueful smile. “Seriously. She was just clingy, obsessed, she wanted to be with me all the time, she’d, like, stalk me, wait outside my house. She’d have to be touching me just constantly, and, well, I kind of like my personal space.”

He was looking at her with an odd smile.

“She sounds like a normal enough girlfriend, you know. You’re the one with the issue.”

“What issue?” Mila demanded.

“Most travelers are like that. It’s the usual temperament. Used to be said they weren’t marrying men, back in the day. Or civil-partnering women these days, I guess, though it’s mostly men, just one of those things.”

Mila couldn’t suppress a slight shudder.

“She actually used to talk about that. And about having babies. Getting a place together when we graduate. Deep down she wanted me to support her, be like whatever kind of businessman her parents expect her to marry. I mean, we’d only been together six months. It’s not just me, right? That’s kind of suffocating?”

“I was married once,” Anders said abruptly. “I had a daughter. They both died.”

Mila looked up, startled.

“I’m sorry,” she started to say. “I didn’t know…”

He shrugged. “These things happen in life. It was an accident, I was driving. That’s how I lost my eye, if you were wondering. And no,” he saw her look. “No I can’t just go back and change it. That’s not how it works. Not for the big things, life and death.”

“What about the little things?” Mila asked.

“Like you and your little girlfriend? Sure, maybe. Course, you might put that right, but screw up some other way, no way to tell.”

“I messed up my exams too,” Mila said. “Just never got round to studying properly, I always get kind of distracted.”

He stared at her for a moment, rubbing Perdie’s head absently, his fingers stroking her soft ears.

“She’d be nearly old enough for college now. My little girl.” He turned away. “Don’t waste your time, that’s all I’m saying to you. Don’t just go along for the ride. You never know.”


“You’re offering me a job?” Mila asked, blinking.

“Provisionally,” John said. “You’re one of us, that counts for a lot, and you seem like you’ve got potential. Finish your degree, get a decent result, show us some commitment, that you’ve got what it takes.”

“What it takes for what?”

“To be the best. One of the leaders of the future, management someday.”

“Oh right. All the usual corporate stuff. I get it,” Mila said. “I’ll think about it.”

He nodded.

“Good. Think carefully, this is a great opportunity for you. You work hard, get through your training, in ten years you could be looking at junior management positions.”

“Wow, ten years,” Mila said.

“Maybe less if you get on board with the Mainport way of thinking, if you’re a good fit with the culture.” He didn’t seem to detect the irony in her voice. “Well, Kate. Are there any questions you want to ask us about the company?”

“Tell me more about your founder. How did it all get started?” Mila asked, wide-eyed with feigned interest to cover up the frantic need to know. What was her name, her name?

He told her. He told her everything, as they walked out towards the gate, the full corporate pitch. The first site discovered, forty years ago in India. Seemed to be a hotspot, because the latest one was in the same area, and that one was remarkable for being not just a few months ago but years, decades, about forty years back, he’d heard.

“That’s quite a coincidence,” Mila said, but softly, to herself. Hadn’t she known, before he said it. That something, like deja-vu but more. Drawing her here, as inevitable as though it had already happened.

They reached the gate, and Neil gestured towards it.

“There you go then. Back to July. All right for some, hey? Hope we hear from you soon.”

“Sure,” Mila said.

Perdie ambled up to her, nudged at her hand insistently.

“What is it, girl?” Mila asked. “I’ve got nothing for you…” She held out her open hand to prove it, and Perdie dropped something into her palm. Smooth and round like a marble. Looking up she saw Anders wink at her, one-eyed, unsmiling.

Thank you she mouthed silently, but he had turned away. Then Lavni, I’ll miss what we had, and for a moment she wanted to drop it, go right back to where she left off, try to make it up.

Her fingers closed tight around the little pebble. Just how experimental is this thing, anyway? she wondered for a moment. Then she slipped through the gate and let it clang shut behind her.

Mila stared around, momentarily disorientated. There was no warmth in the morning sun. It was a pale November dawn.

It worked.

She glanced back at the locked gate, looked in amazement at the device in her palm. It was black, shiny, bug-like. But the world-changing possibilities wrapped up in such a tiny thing. She smiled suddenly.

“You’ll be hearing from me sooner than you think,” she said softly. “Forty years sooner.”


Back at home, Mila was in her room, wrapping up in warm clothing and packing books and papers into a satchel. Her housemate Paul wandered past her open door, stopped when he saw her there.

“You coming out tonight?” he asked. “LGBT-soc social?”

The one where I meet a gorgeous girl who turns out to be from my hometown and has the softest lips, and we know how that turns out?

“No. Can’t, I’m going to the library. I’ve got to study. Then got an exam tutorial first thing tomorrow.”

“Seriously? What got into you? Oh my god, where’s the real Mila, abducted by aliens?”

“Shut up.” Mila went on gathering up lecture notes. “Look, I just realised, I’ve got time to make a go of these exams if I get down to it now. Anyway, I, er, had an interview, got an offer. For a grad job, big company. I need the grades.”

“No way. You’re selling out to the corporate world?”

Mila shrugged.

“It isn’t all bad. I think sometimes you can make more of a difference from the inside. Anyway I don’t even know if I’m going to take it. I was thinking about going travelling for a few months. I never got to do the whole backpacking gap year thing. Was thinking maybe India.”

“India? Oh, wow, cliché-tastic, isn’t it? I know loads of people who’ve done it, all said they were going to get off the beaten track, road less travelled and all that. All end up in the same places doing the same stuff though. Didn’t think that was your style, to be honest.”

 [ You've got to swim, © 2013 Laura-Anca Adascalitei ] Oh great. No girlfriend and even my friends think I’m a sell-out. Altering the course of history better be worth it.

“This,” Mila said, “is going to be a bit different. Trust me.”

“Don’t tell me.” He was looking at her, slightly puzzled now, eyebrow still raised mockingly. “You’re going to find yourself, yeah?”

She kicked the door shut firmly, reached to touch the smooth shape of the pebble in her jeans pocket. The buzz of ideas made her grin. Find the site, jump back 40 years. Then with the device, freedom to come and go across the border—for anyone. Open it up to the local community. Do things differently this time around.

“Actually, yes,” she called out through the closed door. “Yes, I am.”


© 2013, Sarah L. Byrne

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