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The story involves a group of disparate individuals, self-formed as a quasi-military unit, marching through a long, curved tunnel from portal to portal, each portal a fixed number of klicks down the line.

Each portal opens on another world. The tunnel was part of a recreation system, as I recall, leading to different worlds for vacation adventures.

Something disrupts the tunnel and many of the portals. Now the ragtag group marches, each hoping to find a portal to whichever place they consider home. Each portal is opened in defensive position, as some portals open to hostile environments.

The story starts with a newbie joining the group; a young woman is effectively the "sarge" of the unit. Eventually, she finds a world close enough to her memories to decide it is home.

The newbie is shocked and dismayed when she hands him the cloak of command, then settles in, and the group starts marching to the next portal. The unit seamlessly accepts him as the new "sarge" and the newbies joining at the last portal know no better.

Ring any bells for anyone? Thanks.

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  • Hi, welcome to the site. In roughly which year did you read this, and when do you think it might've been published? Also, did you read it in an anthology, a magazine, or online? Apr 14, 2022 at 23:57
  • I know I read this one, decades ago. Analog, 1980s? Apr 15, 2022 at 1:39
  • @DoscoJones Close, Asimov's, 1979.
    – DavidW
    Apr 15, 2022 at 1:54
  • Had no idea this would be answered so quickly. No recollection of when I read it, obviously (in retrospect) it must have been in the 80's
    – blueman2
    Apr 29, 2022 at 11:52

1 Answer 1

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This is "Mandalay" (1979) by John M. Ford, the first story in the Alternities Inc. series.

The background of the story is that there was a company, Alternities, that had the ability to open portals to alternate versions of Earth. Mostly the company used them for recreation, especially since the difference between lines could be time so you could come out of a portal to an Earth in the 1940s, or 600BC and join in a historically important battle.

Then suddenly, for an unknown reason, there was a Fracture, and Homeline was lost. "Mandalay" follows a group of people trying to find their way home, or close enough. (Other stories deal with people right when the fracture happens.)

A disparate group:

Some wore serapes and wide-brimmed leather hats, boots with clinking brass spurs, tooled leather belts with Swiss SIG automatic pistols tucked in butt-forward. Some wore skintight leotards in brightly colored patterns, masks and cowls discarded for pith helmets or miners' hardhats, the climbing ropes on the utility belts replaced by Dewar flasks of hot coffee. The American paratroops in dusty green tunics wore aluminum German helmets; the Wehrmacht tankers had traded their too-bulky, temperamental machine gun many hatches back for jewel-hilted sabers and explosive rounds for their Walther pistols.

Long curved tunnel with portals a fixed distance apart:

Even with the endless upward curve that made the tube uphill in both directions (impossible, but no more so than a hundred-klick walk to a distant planet. No more so than Alternities Corporation had been, twisting space and time to please the idle in its mountain in Colorado); the loneliness (though they always left half the food and medicine, they had never met or even heard more than legends of another wandering party); the unending march of a hundred kilometers from hatch to hatch, from world line to line, from planet to planet, pass forty and call it a "year" —

People looking for home, and the Fracture that started the march:

Just like the dozens, scores, hundreds of hatches that opened not quite onto Earth, the Homeline, but were close enough that one made excuses to the subconscious... until Charlie Brunner turned his Key and went on up the tube. Even then some would usually stay behind, announcing their choice in loud and uncertain voices. Just as some new people would go on, joining the long march out of the knotting of worldlines they called the Fracture, looking up the tube toward Homeline.

Alternities sold live-in vacation experiences:

Jones was a taxi driver before his Alternities Corporation vacation, before the Fracture. Until the Fracture he was an Alternities guest, living out his private fantasies by killing other Americans from an armed and armored vehicle.

As to the cast, you've confused things somewhat; the woman is Laura Sand, who has been marching with the group for 132 hatches (she's walked 13 200km!) and she is handed command when Charlie Brunner (Alternities staff, NEMSEC Five) decides to stay behind. The newbie is Alvin Lermontov, (staff, Hardware Two), and he has come from an alternate Alternities base just one hatch further up the tunnel.

"You're going on; I'm not."

"What?"

"I spoke clearly. Here, take this." He pressed the Key into her palm. "Take the damned thing; I may not have another chance to give it to you quietly. You know how to use it."

(The Key is the unique device that allows them to open the portals from either side in order to enter and exit the worldlines they explore.)

The story was originally published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, October 1979, and can be read at the Internet Archive.

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    An infinite tube lined by portals to alternative worlds is so reminiscent of the Way in Greg Bear's Eon, which came out only a few years later; surely Bear must have been inspired by this. Apr 15, 2022 at 7:10
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    ...or both Bear and Ford could have drawn inspiration from Poul Anderson's "The Corridors of Time" (1965) ... There are probably quite a few others.... Apr 15, 2022 at 9:37
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    And a bit like the Road in Zelazny's Roadmarks, a highway from past to future, with exits and side roads that lead to alternate timelines. The protagonist is trying to return to his original home trimeline, at one point meets a small man with a mustache, driving a Volkswagen, and asks “still trying to find the off-ramp where you won, Adolf?” Apr 15, 2022 at 16:00
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    This comment section feels like a history-of question in the making ...
    – Rand al'Thor
    Apr 15, 2022 at 17:11
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    Nailed it, really appreciate the info and link. Now I will have to follow up with some of the stories and authors others have mentioned.
    – blueman2
    Apr 29, 2022 at 12:20

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