As Agent Josephine Creed sat beneath a pine tree in Oregon’s Milo McIver State Park, she came to the realization that she hated her current assignment. Wearing plainclothes during a field operation was one thing, but tie-dye, bell bottoms, and flowers braided into her hair made her want to punch someone. Then punch them again. She sighed and then looked around. The Vortex I music festival was underway all around her, filling her eyes and ears with the sights and sounds the local rock and roll scene had to offer.
“What the hell am I even doing here?” Creed asked herself.
She already knew the answer. Over a year prior, during Woodstock, several anartists had caused multiple instances of trouble. From acid laced with a compound that made you see your lives in parallel universes to soaps that made your skin glow various colors in tie dye patterns, the whole festival was a hot mess of breaches of the veil. At least three riots broke out among the performances, and in one instance an entire stage descended into hell, band and all. It was a good thing drug use had run rampant there, and that the drugs of choice affected memory, because enough amnestics had been given out to wipe out the collective remembrance of a small city. This time around, however, the Foundation was prepared for the worst. Dozens of field agents like her were sprinkled throughout the venue, with amnestic sprays and other tricks up their sleeves to quickly and quietly squash any anomalous activity as they found it.
The sound of a frenzy of applause and cheers broke Creed from her reflection. Looking up, she watched as the Portland Zoo Electric Band finished its set and began to clear the stage for the next performance. She gave a few half-hearted claps of her own as she scanned the crowd for a contact that was supposed to have met her an hour and a half ago. Some hippie named Phineas. She had been told that he had the means of allowing her to literally alter the way she saw the universe. She was keeping her fingers crossed for a legitimate bust, and not just another peddler of scheduled Class-I substances.
“You Cherry?” A man’s voice came from behind Creed. Turning her head, she saw a greasy man with long matted hair peering at her from the other side of the tree. Despite the rest of him being dirty, the teeth visible in his grin were immaculate.
“I take it you’re Phineas?” she asked.
“That me.” He continued to grin. “Marco said you were looking for some special supplies to up your concert-going experience. Said you passed his test.”
“Sure am,” Creed replied with a smile, and got to her feet. “Though I didn’t know I was being tested at the time.”
“No one ever does,” Phineas chuckled. “That’s what makes it so far-out. Anyway, you ready?”
“Whenever you are.” Creed twisted a specific bead on her bracelet, sending a signal to their HQ that she was in the process of a potential bust. A small mental ping went off in the back of her head as HQ confirmed receipt of her status.
“Righteous.” Phineas then turned and began to walk away from the crowds. “Follow me.”
“Wait what?” Creed asked. “We need to leave? Why?”
“This place is crawling with Suits, sister,” Phineas commented over his shoulder. “I’m not stupid enough to bring anything here in bulk when Three Ports is a hop, skip, and a jump away. Come on. If we don’t hurry you’re not gonna have your treat in time for the next show. You’ll need it.”
The two wormed their way through the various crowds, the occasional concert-goer nodding to Phineas as they passed. Before long they arrived at the opposite edge of the clearing, Phineas leading them to a large Douglas fir. He stopped and gave a satisfied nod to the tree, then turned back to Creed.
“Alright Cherry,” he said, “here we are. Go ahead and walk around this bad boy five times clockwise then knock on the trunk seven times.”
“Why…” Creed raised a confused eyebrow.
“You really don’t know do you?” Phineas commented with a grin. “Oh man, this is gonna be your first time. You’re in for a treat.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You’ll see,” Phineas chuckled and gestured for her to get on with it. “Go on. Do the walkin’ and knockin’.”
Creed shrugged, sighed, and then proceeded to do as she had been instructed. As soon as she completed the seventh knock, she felt the wind rush out of her as her vision went dark, followed by a bright white. Creed blinked and now stood in front of a three-dimensional shadow of the tree. The summer sun had been replaced by gray clouds and rain. As she caught her breath she looked around to find herself within a large park, surrounded by the buildings of a large city. There was a dull thud, and Phineas appeared next to her.
“Welcome, sister,” he said with a laugh, “to Three Portlands.”
“What the fuck…” was all Creed could manage in reply as her head swiveled back and forth to take in the change of venue.
The city itself was huge. A mixture of West Coast, East Coast, and European architecture dotted the skyline, punctuated by the shadows of buildings she recognized from Portland. A constant drizzle of rain fell from a cloud-choked sky. It wasn’t until closer examination that she could tell that the raindrops themselves shifted between numerous psychedelic patterns as they fell, giving the sky a mind-bending coat of color. Within the park where she stood, hundreds of people gathered around wooden stages where holograms of the various Vortex I shows played out, some of which had not yet occurred, their music permeating the park and the city beyond. Despite multiple shows playing at once, their sounds didn’t blend. All it took was concentrating on the song you wanted to hear for the rest to fade away from your ears. Creed twisted a different bead on her bracelet, one indicating the discovery of a major anomalous find, but never received the mental ping indicating that HQ had received her signal.
“Where the hell are we?”
“Like I said,” Phineas replied, “we’re in Three Portlands.”
“What the hell is a Third Portland?”
“The space where the Portland, Oregon, Portland, Maine, and the Isle of Portland in the UK coalesce into a beautiful whole,” Phineas explained. “Think of it as a kind of… alternate dimension… A city existing outside the mundane world. A far-out town. Granted it’s not always done up this nice. They really pulled out the stops for Vortex. Hell, you should have seen the party they put on for Woodstock.”
“How long has this been here?”
“You got me.” Phineas shrugged. “Forever, maybe?”
Creed stared at Phineas with her mouth agape. She had so many questions, but no more words bubbled up from her throat.
“You need a moment, I can tell.” Phineas grinned. “But do you mind if we take that moment on the run? My apartment is still, like, three blocks away once we get out of the park.”
“You live here?”
“It’s a city… a lot of people live here. All kinds of people, in fact. Artists, writers, scientists, magicians, musicians. You know. Cool people. Seriously though, we really need to get moving…”
“R-right… of course…” Creed gestured for Phineas to lead the way. Without a moment’s delay, he led her out of the park and into the city proper. Despite their distance from the park increasing, the sound of Vortex I’s music sounded as though they still were still front and center.
As the two of them weaved their way through the crowded city streets, Creed felt more and more like a minnow in a shark tank. Around her, anartists openly purchased supplies, magic was demonstrated freely, and anahumans of all shapes and sizes roamed. The anomalous world flooded her senses and she feared they might soon detect her occupation and collapse upon her like an avalanche. But the doom never arrived, and the only thing Creed was bombarded with was the occasional smile from a passerby, and Phineas’s amused chuckles.
“Here we are,” Phineas eventually said, stopping in front of a tall apartment building covered in a thick layer of alternating moss and concert posters. “Home sweet home.”
Creed was led up a set of stairs to a studio apartment. Inside, the vast majority of the space was dominated by work benches covered in a wide array of half-finished clockwork machines, and various sculptures and art pieces. Unwashed plates, half-drunk mugs of tea, massive dusty tomes, and an impressive amount of vinyl records filled the spaces in-between.
“Sorry for the mess,” Phineas replied as he headed towards one of the work benches and began to dig through the drawers. Creed took the time to study the menagerie of art on display, her eyes eventually settling on what looked to be a kind of clockwork snake.
“Wait…” Creed’s brow furrowed. “I remember hearing about these things. Couple people out east were keeping them as pets. Bought them from someone named Tick Tock. Wait, are you Tick Tock?”
“In the flesh,” Phineas replied, still digging through the drawers. “Had to stop making those after the Suits started busting people for them. Though to be fair, they were a bitch to make. Almost lost a few limbs once or twice. Aha!” He pulled out a small dropper and held it aloft.
“Is that why you moved here? The Suits.”
“One reason, yeah.” Phineas shrugged. “As far as I know the Suits don’t know about this place. Can’t get busted for following your dreams here. Plus, if I fuck up here, normal people won’t get hurt. That’s a pretty sweet deal in my opinion.”
He then handed her the dropper. Creed examined it carefully. The dark brown glass was labeled with a picture of a dove, and appeared to be filled with sand.
“It’ll become liquid once you use the dropper. Two drops in each eye. You’ll see every possible version of whatever performance you are viewing all at once, aaaaaaaaand be able to comprehend them too. Just say the word ‘Chicken Feet’ aloud when you want the effects to stop.” He then grinned, his immaculate teeth reflecting the light of the studio. “You’re in for a mind-blowing time. Trust me, it’s the best way to watch a concert. You get to hear all the songs.”
Creed nodded and placed the bottle in her pocket. Normally at this point, she’d draw her gun and make the arrest, but given her current situation this action seemed unwise.
“Thank you,” she said.
“No problem, sister,” he replied. “Though you best be moving along if you’re going to make the next show. You can get out the way we came in. Just knock seven times and then five counterclockwise trips around the tree.”
“You’re not coming?”
“I’ve got a few more things to grab before I head back to the real world. You’ll be fine. If you need help, just grab someone in the park. They’ll know how to help you.”
“Thanks for everything then…” Creed nodded. “This place is pretty far-out. I’ll, uh, probably be back sooner than later.”
“No one stays away for long. You enjoy the show, Cherry.”
Without another word, Creed found herself back on the city streets, the psychedelic rain still drizzling upon the heads of the busy passersby. It was all she could do to keep from sprinting back to her exit. This was going to be the biggest Foundation discovery since the Wanderer’s Library. She remained calm and collected as she disappeared into the flow of the foot traffic, reemerging at the border to the park. There, a man in a long brown coat was waiting for her to arrive. Creed's eyes widened as he smiled and nodded at her.
“Heeeeeeeeey skipper,” he said, and began to reach into his coat.
Creed didn't wait to see what he was going to pull out, choosing instead to draw the pistol concealed on her person and firing a shot before taking off down the street. Looking over her shoulder she could see her shot missed, and hit a tree in the park, the crowd of concert goers shouting in confusion at the sound of the gun shot. The man in the long coat had dove to the side, and was now getting up on his feet to chase after her.
She zigged and zagged through the crowded streets, her plan to move round to the other side of the park, then cut through to the tree that contained her exit. As she turned the corner, another man in a brown coat leaped at her from a doorway. Creed grabbed him by the lapel and, turning his momentum against him, turned and threw him into a nearby street vendor's cart filled with flowers. As he crashed through the stall the flower petals turned to hummingbirds and flew away. Creed would have stared at the tiny creatures in wonder, but was too busy sprinting further down the street towards a street car, the first man in a long coat close behind her. With the last burst of her speed, Creed hopped onto the streetcar's back platform, and hauled herself aboard.
"Hey!" The attendant shouted at her as he forced his way through the crowded cars. "Hey you need a ticket, you can't just hop-"
Creed pointed the barrel of her pistol at him and the man fell silent, holding up his hands in surrender.
"Enjoy your ride…" he said with a nervous smile, and stepped out of Creed's way as she navigated to the front car. There was a thud from the back as one of the men in the long coats hopped aboard.
"Open the door," she said to the driver, flashing her pistol.
"Ma'am I can't do that while we're in motion," the driver replied, her eyes looking between Creed's gun and the tracks ahead. "If you wait for me to stop, I'd be happy to-"
Click. Creed pulled the hammer back on the pistol.
"Open the door!"
The driver nodded and pulled the lever. Creed quickly hopped out of the car, tumbling as she hit the pavement to avoid complications from her landing. She waved at the man in the long coat as the streetcar continued to glide along its track. Picking herself up, she then made the final sprint towards the shadow tree that waited for her in the park.
As soon as she arrived at the dark pine, she slammed her hand into it with heavy knocks, counting out loud with each blow.
She then proceeded to make her counterclockwise circuits around the tree, only just completing her fourth lap when she was tackled from behind and slammed into the wet park grass.
"God damn it, skipper!" A familiar voice shouted. "We're on your side!"
A badge was pressed into her face.
Agent Fredrick Gibson
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Unusual Incidents Unit
Three Portlands Division
"UIU…" Creed muttered. "Are you kidding me? You're UIU?"
She then began to laugh. The man helped her to her feet, cuffing her arms behind her back, as his partner arrived and flashed his badge to the crowd of concert goers who had gathered around to watch the spectacle.
"Agent Tobias Wood. UIU. Move along," he said. With murmurs and shrugs the crowd soon dispersed.
“Come on. Let’s go somewhere a little more private,” Agent Gibson said. Wood nodded and soon Creed found herself being lead to a small clearing away from the stages where a deserted picnic table awaited them. She took a seat and looked at her two new friends.
“I got to admit, finding UIUseless here is probably the biggest surprise of my day,” Creed commented, breaking the silence.
"Will you stop calling us that?" Wood replied with a frown. "For starters, we caught your scrawny ass."
“Fair enough." Creed shrugged. "How long have you guys known about this place anyway?”
“The Federal Government has operated here since the Hoover era,” Wood replied. “I’d say welcome to the party, but the girls already jumped out of the cake, and everyone has had a slice.”
“Cute,” said Creed. “And you never told us about a potentially massive breach of the Veil because…?”
“We didn’t need to,” Gibson answered. “The fact that the Foundation is only just now finding out about this place should tell you how self-contained it is. Generally, this place operates under Vegas rules. What happens in Three Portlands stays in Three Portlands.”
“So, what, you guys are detaining me?” Creed raised an eyebrow, and gesturing to her still handcuffed arms with her head. “Are you prepared for the fallout of that kind of action?”
“Not detaining so much as stalling,” Wood chuckled. “We’ve had a protocol for this exact scenario prepped since the mid 60’s when the number of carts and cans in the Pacific Northwest started increasing. Right now, our director is probably on the phone with one of your big wigs. Telling them what’s what.”
“Oh, they are going to tell us what’s what are they? And why are we going to listen to you?”
“Because if you don’t, and treat this place business as usual, you’re going to be making your job infinitely harder,” Gibson commented.
“I don’t follow…"
“You ever wonder why the Pacific Northwest is so much quieter than other sections of the US in terms of the strange and mysterious?” Gibson sighed. “It’s because most of that activity gets siphoned into here. No need to risk magic and mad science in the real world and risk getting skipped when you can just move to a place where open practice is legal and the norm. You guys come in here and try and contain things, all that activity is going to spill back out again. I guarantee it. You’ll only be making your job more difficult.”
Agent Wood pressed two fingers to an ear, then looked as his watch, then tapped on it. Gibson nodded and removed Creed's cuffs. The Foundation agent rubbed her wrists as she watched the UIU agents take their leave.
“Anyway, enough stalling, contact's been made," Wood called back. "You enjoy the rest of Vortex, alright skipper? Try to catch the Jacob’s Ladder set if you can. They aren't half-bad.”
Creed watched as Wood and Gibson vanished into the crowds within the park. She sighed and got up, making her way back to the shadow of the tree her and Phineas came in through. As directed, she knocked seven times, then made five counterclockwise circles. She felt the wind get knocked out of her again, as her vision went white, then faded to black.
When her senses returned to her, she was standing in the warm summer sun, near the large Douglas fir within Milo McIver State Park. Her fellow Foundation field agents surrounded her, each bearing a concerned expression.
“Creed? What happened?” Agent Stuart asked, taking off his rose-tinted glasses as he looked her over for injury.
“You hit your major anomaly bead. Is everything alright? Where is the anomaly?” Agent Philips questioned. She kept one hand on her can of amnestic spray, and one eye on the crowd.
“You completely vanished! Where the hell did you go?” Agent Ferrell inquired. His head bobbed back and forth as he looked around the tree, as if some great discovery was merely hiding behind it.
She held up a finger as she caught her breath.
“Debriefing,” Creed finally managed to say. “I need a debriefing. Now!”
Sunny days in Three Portlands were few and far between. From pouring rain to simple overcast, the pure blue of the sky rarely became visible for the city's residents. Even rarer, however, was the sky being clear at sunset, the vanishing sun painting a vibrant canvas of reds, oranges, purples, and yellows across the sky.
Agent Josephine Creed sat a park bench, watching the sun go down. She hummed a tune to herself as a familiar man in a long brown coat sat next her, holding a briefcase on his lap.
"Agent Creed," he said as he too looked at the sky. "Welcome back to Portlands."
"Someone I met on my first trip here said that no one stays away from here for too long," Creed replied. "Nice to see you again as well, Agent Gibson."
"True words." Gibson nodded in agreement, flipping open his briefcase and looking at the contents. "So, you guys are finally starting to keep an eye on the Northwest, huh? Sticking around for a while?"
"Given the potential for Three Portlands to someday spill out into the real world, we deemed it wise," said Creed. "Did you bring it then?"
"All cataloged Ways into Three Portlands, and where they connect to baseline reality." Gibson handed her an unmarked booklet. "If you guys are going to be keeping an eye out and making sure the oddities stay in their cage that kind of information will be crucial. Note we aren't telling you what the keys are. You don't need to be able to open a door to see who goes in and out of it."
Creed nodded and placed the booklet in her bag. She then handed him a large sealed envelope in return. "As promised, five minor anomalous objects with anti-thaumaturgic properties, one of which just so happens to be a Richard Nixon bobblehead."
"And what does that one do?" Gibson asked with a chuckle as he placed the envelope in his briefcase.
"Thaumaturges in its presence can't lie."
"I'll say," Creed laughed, then turned her attention back to the sunset. "It’s funny, Tom McCall sponsored Vortex to get the hippies out of Portland because Nixon was going to attend that American Legion gathering. Then Nixon ended up canceling his appearance. Had Nixon decided to not appear at all from the beginning, Vortex wouldn't have happened, and we never would have found out about his place. So, in a way, you can blame the President for this little breach."
"Tricky Dick does it again." Gibson laughed as well. He then placed two fingers to his ear and tapped his watch. He frowned, then stood and prepared to take his leave. "Since you and your colleagues are probably going to be here for a while, I should give you a little warning. Be careful. This place sticks to you. You don't want to lose touch with reality because you're lost in all the wonder."
"You're serious…" Creed raised an eyebrow. "Wow…"
"As cancer," Gibson replied. His smile turning to a frown. "Too much of a good thing and all that jazz."
"Thanks for the heads up," said Creed. "It’s appreciated."
"Don't mention it," Gibson gave a small salute. "Not so UIUseless after all."
"Far from it," Creed chuckled, and watched her contact vanish.
She then turned her attention back to the sunset a final time. She took a deep breath. The smell of pine trees and sea salt filled her nostrils. In the distance, a group of people flew through the skyline on broomsticks. Nearby, a friendly looking pair of young men were putting on a magic show for a group of children, fantastic figures of light and sound dancing around for the little one’s amusement. Distant music could be heard among the hustle and bustle of people of all sorts enjoying the dying light.
“Can’t imagine why anyone would want to stay here…” Creed said to herself with a small smile, then began her journey back to her Way. She needed to report in to the new Foundation site with her findings.