Donovan had been trapped for three years.
A ten year veteran (not counting the last three years, as he hadn't survived the trip yet) of spacetime exploration, he had encountered an incredible variety of colossal fuckups, all of them the direct result of human error.
This, on the other hand, was entirely accidental, and would have been refreshingly so if not for the utter seriousness of the consequences.
Approximately ten minutes into what was meant to be a three hour exploratory probe, Donovan's return portal had been blasted shut by what to the best of his limited analysis capabilities looked to have been an intense beam of neutrinos, almost certainly artificial in origin. Universes in this sector almost never developed neutrino beam technology for at least another four hundred years.
Protocol in situations like these was to wait for the team on the other end to punch a retrieval hole. In this case, Donovan had looked around, seen a whole lot of humans who were not in protective suits, hiding from robotic menaces, visibly diseased, occupied by foreign powers, or any of the other large scale disasters that make waiting around a particular hazard.
So, he'd identified the local languages, found a pawn shop, and after an educated guess that doing so wouldn't raise too many eyebrows, hawked a few of the smallest precious metal trinkets that prudent explorers carried for similar occasions.
A street vendor supplied a piece of processed meat and some kind of beverage, and Donovan sat on a bench to observe the populace while he waited for his instruments to detect a way home.
A few hours of observation left him with nothing more than greasy burps and soul crushing boredom. Aside from the rogue neutrino event, there didn't appear to be anything particularly interesting going on. Almost perfectly baseline in terms of social and technological development.
Before he could decide whether or not to grab another meat stick and purple drink, a few of his embedded instruments chirped and his HUD flashed the location of the pickup. He was highly puzzled at the distance indicated - a little over a kilometer away from the entry point, and protocol said that the first attempt at emergency pickup should be no farther than 10 meters.
He got up and calmly proceeded towards what looked to be some sort of combination restaurant and gym. Data streaming back through to his instruments was starting to update him on the specifics of what had happened. Apparently the neutrino beam had done some seriously weird things to the gear in the lab, and nobody was quite sure what was happening.
Grateful that his garb didn't conflict too seriously with what seemed to be local normal, he navigated into the gymnasium and walked slow circles attempting to find the pickup. It should have been plainly visible on his implants' HUD but was not. He concluded that it must be out of sight, somewhere inside one of the pipes or tubes that connected the exercise equipment together.
Mutters and sharp voices brought his attention carefully to the women gathered in the area between the restaurant and the gym. Several of them were calling their children away from the exercise area.
Donovan realized that he had been doing laps around a children's play area, and had probably broken some sort of taboo. Just as he was beginning to weigh the options for continuing, the pickup disappeared.
That had been three years ago.
The pickup would appear sporadically, usually for only seconds at a time. Once, for an entire hour. It always appeared in the same place - right inside one of the Play Place slides, halfway up. Donovan had taken to eating three meals a day at the McDonalds, taking his time, waiting for the pickup to appear long enough for a message to get through from the lab.
It had been two weeks since the last appearance. Donovan was just beginning to tuck into his third combo meal of the day when his instruments chirped to life.
Two bites into his double quarter pounder with cheese, mustard only, a message. The first in years.
KNOW YOU ARE STILL THERE. INSTRUMENTS GOOD. PICKUP STABLE THIS TIME.
OPEN FOR TEN MINUTES ONLY. LAST ATTEMPT FOR ONE YEAR. OTHERS
STRANDED IN WORSE PLACES. GET YOUR ASS HOME.
Slackjawed, a half chewed bite of burger fell from Donovan's mouth. Holy shit. Another year?
He flew into action. Or at least sort of rolled into action. Actually, he wasn't able to extract himself from the metal bench and table with anything like alacrity, having become an enormous pile of hot mess after years of eating fast food three to five times a day.
He struggled into action, dropping heavily padded elbows onto gradeschooler domes, clawing and wedging himself up the narrow stairs and to the mouth of the slide, where he promptly stuck himself firm with the same sound a bag of pork chitterlings makes when punched.
Absolutely unwilling to believe what was happening, Donovan struggled for a moment before realizing that he was never going to make it without some help. He didn't think nine minutes was going to be enough time to either lose fifty pounds or convince a bunch of kids to shove him down there like a cannonball, so he'd have to do it himself.
Thinking madly while bending his knees to lever himself out of the tube, he realized he was going to need to slide down there somehow. For years he'd thought of easier ways to get at the pickup, but none had been feasible, terrified that the pickup may open on a day the McDonalds was closed for some reason. They had all required what amounted to vandalism in the local area, and he could never have risked being in jail. In fact, avoiding jail for loitering or trespassing was the reason he'd had to eat so many goddamned hamburgers to begin with.
Shoving by crying children and now shrilly hysterical mothers, he began stripping off his local clothes while making straight for the kitchen, revealing the skintight jumpsuit that was standard equipment for all explorers. He paused briefly while accessing forgotten menus, dialing the surface of the suit down as smooth as it could get.
Serious commotion now. The women were screaming, customers were watching. Employees starting to respond. Donovan coldcocked an artificially blonde teenager as he made his way through the clearly marked door into the fryer-scented hell of the food prep area.
Two heaping handfuls later of the white, rancid smelling, room temperature solid fat composite used to fill the fryers, and Donovan was as low-friction as it was possible to get on such short notice.
The entire incident from aggravated assault on a minor to body slather had only taken three minutes. Six minutes to get through the pickup.
There was serious commotion now. Donovan dimly noted a lot of hollering from a man whose badge proclaimed him to be in charge of the restaurant. The beginnings of an angry mob in the lobby, too.
Absolutely determined, Donovan did his best imitation of a run towards the door, intending to barrel through with inertia alone. He got as far as the exit to the playland before the first major obstacle.
More men with badges, and these particular badges, while part of a uniform, featured large impressive seals instead of a clown face that looked either terrified or overmedicated depending on the angle.
They were coming in through the main entrance doors and at first, paid an awful lot of attention to the weeping women and children pointing at Donovan. After that, they paid even more attention to the portly, grease-slick lunatic dressed in a skintight white latex gimp suit.
While Donovan's implants were beeping with three years of message backlog, the five-o was screaming about where he was supposed to be putting his hands. One of them had his hand on his gun. And while the jumpsuit would protect him, Donovan would probably be out of commission long enough to miss the pickup.
He screamed the first thing that came to his mind, something about having to be somewhere else, and slimed his way through the playland door. By the time Donovan got to the stairs, the cops had almost closed the distance.
Shrieking now, and scrabbling at the plastic coated metal rails, Donovan cursed the fates of all the universes as the police, one grabbing for each ankle, struggled to get a firm grip.
NO ANSWER FROM YOUR END. HAVE YOU GONE NATIVE?
GET YOUR ASS HOME.
One of the policemen fell on his ass and almost started laughing at how stupid he must have looked. Coated to the elbows with whatever this weirdo had smeared all over him, his partner wheezing and screaming and threatening, and then preparing, to use the taser.
As his partner clicked the holster open and gave the formal warning, the weirdo climbed up onto the safety rail, wobbled once, then did his absolute best imitation of an off-the-top-turnbuckle-torpedo-dropkick and disappeared down the slide.
His partner circled around, ready to tase the weirdo the instant he popped out at the bottom of the slide, but he never did.