Muddle-headed Kay (mhw) wrote,
Muddle-headed Kay
mhw

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The Road Taken, Part 1

TITLE: The Road Taken
AUTHOR: Kay Dekker
EMAIL: kaydekker @ yahoo.co.uk
RATING: Suitable for adults and mature younger people. Occasional sex and violence.
CATEGORY: AU, M/M.
SUMMARY: Set in Roger Zelazny's Amber universe, somewhat after Prince of Chaos. Florimel's son Joseph has created a problem, and his companion Kenton is off in Shadow helping to resolve it.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks are due to everyone who helped me while I was writing this, by encouragement, suggestions, or beta reading. The copyright has been assigned to Griff because this was a birthday present for him. If you want to do anything with this story, you need to talk with him.
DISCLAIMER: Some characters and places mentioned in this story are the property of the estate of the late Roger Zelazny. Others are mine or belong to various players in our periodic Amber roleplaying game. This story is not intended as an infringement upon anyone's rights and is meant for entertainment only. The story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the copyright holder.
COPYRIGHT: Adam Griffen Sanford, 2005.

The Road Taken



Sometimes I can tell that there's a shift on the way, but more often than not they happen without warning. Most shifts are really small, so insignificant that I'm not conscious of them happening; some time later, I'll glance at the rear-view mirror and see that my hair's now just a bit longer than it used to be, or that my eyes have changed colour; perhaps I'll eventually notice that my shirt's turned into a jacket or a turtleneck sweater, or fastens with laces or toggles instead of buttons. Little things like that. A CD of Verdi arias will, unheeded, have transmuted into a tape of John Coltrane or Laibach or some music that I don't recognise, or I'll find myself glancing at a news bulletin or a ‘Yurts of the Rich and Famous’ programme on a dashboard TriVee.

The way I've had it explained to me, each shift is a transition between two Shadows, two different versions of reality. Nobody knows how many Shadows there are; someone once told me that there's a greater than infinite number of them, but I'm not quite sure what she meant by that. It's possible that she was simply drunk. All I can tell you is what people have told me, and one or two things that I've guessed at for myself.

Anyway, the smaller the shift, the less the difference between the Shadows. A minor shift may mean that a few hundred years ago an unimportant battle went one way rather than another, or that a little-known author used a different title for a book; a big shift can mean radical differences in culture, technology, climate, geography and so on. I believe, though I can't be sure, that I won't be shifted to a Shadow where it would be impossible for me to survive, though I'm sure that such Shadows must exist. Apart from that, I think, all bets are off. Anything may happen, and probably will. I've certainly visited low-gravity Shadows, Shadows where people live as easily under water as above it, one Shadow where cats not only talk (I think that it's the minority of Shadows where they don't, actually) but also hold most of the positions of power. They do a pretty good job of it too.

Even minor changes could be disorienting if I hadn't learned to pay no more attention to them than needed while I'm travelling. For example, after one shift the CD player had transformed into a crystal hemisphere, shimmering with intermittent iridescent colours and giving off an occasional hollow metallic trill; I'd shrugged, ignored its enigmatic activities, and driven on. It may have functioned as a source of entertainment or information in that Shadow, but I never found out. Perhaps ten kilometres further down the road I noticed that I was listening to Patsy Kline on an 8-track cassette, though the sky was still a mottled lizard-skin green and the vegetation had stayed a shade too blue for my taste.

Sometimes, though, just about everything can change at once. I've gone from doing a hundred and fifty in a Ferrari Testarossa on an Autobahn, Messiaen blasting out of the Blaupunkt and a frosty night fingering at the windows, then -snap- and I'm clip-clopping along a country lane in a horse-drawn hay cart, a linnet in a wicker cage by my side trilling away into the summer haze. That kind of overwhelming shift is fairly rare, happening maybe two or three times a year.

Yes, I've been shifting between Shadows for quite a while now, and no, I can't remember how long a while it's been.

In all these multiple worlds there are some things that are always present: equipment which, one way or another, makes it possible or easier for me to carry out my task. I have a vehicle of some kind, which I know how to drive, and which I know is mine. There's something in the vehicle for me to listen to or to watch while I drive, sufficient to relieve the tedium of the roads. My wallet contains good ID, national and international travel permits, plenty of local currency, and funds transfer technology if it's appropriate. I can read, write and speak the common local languages. I have a piece of jewelry; usually it's a silver ring with a blue-green stone, swirled and banded like malachite. A gift from a very dear friend, I haven't taken it off in years, though shifts may move it from one finger to another, or occasionally transform it into an earring or other piercing. It's my only adornment and the one thing that I couldn't bear to be without. Call me sentimental if you like; I couldn't care less. I think it carries my luck, and I couldn't do the job without it to remind me of why I'm doing it.

The big point of all this is that the changes that I and my equipment undergo are somehow skillfully managed to ensure that I can blend seamlessly into whatever Shadow I happen to find myself in at any time. Camouflage, if you like. I don't know how it works, but it's not let me down yet. It's important that people who might be looking out for someone like me don't notice me, or at least not before I've noticed them. Because anyone who recognises me, or knows what I'm doing, or guesses for whom I'm working is either a threat or a target. Quite possibly they're both.

Finally, there's the case. Made of cool grey metal with a contoured grip handle, it's about the right size to hold a few legal document folders; the kind of case that, where I come from, any professional might carry. If it isn't examined too closely, at least.

The case is definitely an oddity. You might think that, given how my appearance, my clothing, my vehicle and the rest will change to suit my surroundings, the case would do so as well. There are places, after all, where a backpack, a burlap sack or a wicker basket are the usual ways for people to carry things, but no matter where I go the case remains unchanged. That's not the only peculiar thing about it. Nobody, whether border guard or customs official, security staff or flight attendant, has ever wanted me to open the case, or even asked me what it contains. Which is just as well, because I couldn't have opened it for them. Not because I'm unhelpful or obstinate, but because I didn't know how to do so. Nor could I have told them what was inside it, because I didn't know that either.

There's no obvious way to open it, you see. Apart from the handle and the points of attachment for it, it's featureless. There's nothing that looks like a lock, nor is there anywhere that a key might be inserted, even if I had a key to open it with. Nor are there, so far as I could tell, any keypads, combination locks, fingerprint or retina scanners, let alone anything technologically advanced. There isn't even any hint of how it would open, though I always assumed that it would hinge open like a briefcase; there's no line that might show where two halves join. All that I knew is that when it was time for it to be opened, it could and would be opened — but I couldn't have told you how I knew that.

On several occasions I've had the car, or whatever it was at the time, stripped almost to its chassis by officious uniforms with nothing better to do than hunting hypothetical contraband. The most attention they've ever paid to the case has been to push it aside so that their sniffer animals or their scanners could get closer to something else, and even that's unusual; mostly people and animals act as though it weren't there. I suspect that it's been designed to be extremely uninteresting, and perhaps that's the reason that it doesn't change. It doesn't need to.

Once or twice I'd been tempted to find out for myself what was inside it. Nothing had happened when I'd shaken it a little, as you might with a wrapped gift in order to guess what it is; no noise, no sense that anything inside had moved at all; for all that I could tell it might have been empty. But why would I have been given an empty case to carry around? As with most questions I could ask, the answers weren't readily available.

But all this about the case must make it seem as though I spent a lot of time trying to solve the puzzles that it represented. Nothing could be further from the truth. You see, when I thought of it at all, I thought of it as simply a toolbox, which is what I called it on official documentation. Of course it might as easily have held a weapon or papers or medicines or gemstones or any of a thousand things. Mostly I didn't think about it, and I suspected that that was just the way that whoever had designed the case wanted it. Mostly I just let it, whatever it might be or contain, accompany me through the unceasing cycles of day and night, of weather and roads and cheap motels, of shift and Shadow and shift: going where the instinct led me, playing a waiting game with rules that I didn't know.

I peeled out of the narrow bed, smelling of ineffective flea powder, harsh soap and human grime, in the room that I'd taken for a night at a truck stop just outside Vilnius. It hadn't been a pleasant night, and I was still weary, but the urge to be moving was on me again. As quickly as I could I showered, dressed, hurried down a canteen breakfast of rye bread, sliced smoked sausage and black coffee, and paid my bill.

Catching my breath in the subzero air I stepped out into the parking area and looked around for my truck. It wasn't there; but I knew that the black, vaguely official-looking minivan parked in its place was mine. A shift must have happened while I was away from the vehicle, which was quite unusual, but not unknown. I never liked to think what might happen if the vehicle shifted and I didn't, or vice versa.

The air stank of sulphur and diesel, just as it had last night, but this morning I'd woken several centimetres taller and perhaps ten kilos lighter, my beard had vanished, and yesterday's patched jeans and heavy fleece jacket had been replaced by a crisp grey uniform, somewhat military, which I was now wearing under a long black leather coat, also new. Despite the coat the air was damned cold as I crossed the parking area, and I'd gladly have traded today's gym-hardened muscles for some of yesterday's subcutaneous fat. It wasn't long, though, before I was back on the highway and heading north-east for Utena, the heater pumping out almost enough warmth, and the radio telling me more than I wanted to know about the economic complexities besetting Greater United Europa.

The road wasn't crammed with traffic, unlike many that I'd experienced in other versions of eastern Europe. Most vehicles seemed to be industrial and commercial transport: ten-wheeled trucks and smaller vans, with relatively few of what I supposed were personal vehicles. A glance into the sky before I'd set off had shown no evidence of flyers or other personal aircraft. Maybe most people around here travelled by mass-transit trains or planes. I knew through long experience that my reflexes are speedy enough for automatic handling of most road conditions, so I retuned to an easy-listening station, settled into a comfortable semi-awareness and let the van eat up the distance to the strains of Bacharach and bluegrass. Every couple of hours I pulled in to service stations for bathroom breaks, coffee and food, more through habit than from necessity: a good habit to cultivate, I'd been warned; normal people don't travel from dawn to dusk without taking care of natural needs, and someone might notice and start getting ideas if I did. And so it would be another day, just like any other day, a few hundred kilometres further on my journey but otherwise devoid of significance. Business as usual.

I reached the border and crossed into Latvia without incident, intending to follow the Daugava river north-west to Riga, and then … I didn't know what I was going to do then. You mustn't think that because I'm some kind of agent that I received instructions in a one-time code in microdots of invisible ink on edible paper deposited in drop boxes, or anything like that. Cryptic hints in the personals columns of newspapers? Clandestine meetings under railway station clocks, wearing a gardenia in my buttonhole? You've been reading too many hard-boiled novels. The people I work for prefer subtle approaches such as deeply implanted suggestions and subconscious memory manipulation. Apparently this has the benefit that under torture my body will break long before my mind's prepared to yield up any information. The only thing that I knew that I should do was to obey my intuitions and to follow my hunches.

So that's what I did. After all, you can hardly make reasoned plans when you don't know where your target is, what name they use, or what they look like, particularly when such details are so easy to change. Back at the hinder edge of memory I recalled, or thought that I recalled, someone laughing at me over a delicate porcelain teacup after I'd pointed this out to them during my briefing.

Chaos, he — or she, I can't remember — had said, through the sciences of the vortex and the arts of turbulence, in time again and again brings into propinquity such dispersed elements. To the discerning sense, all things intimately interpenetrate. Which was probably deeply meaningful, and might be all very well if you weren't the poor fool who's just been informed that he's going to play the searcher in a cosmic game of Blind Man's Buff. I'm quite sure that I wouldn't have said that in reply, though; I'd learned speedily enough that you don't talk back to someone who uses that kind of language, particularly when they're just about to reprogram your head.

Twenty kilometres or so past the border I started to get that bitter, lemony taste in my mouth that sometimes heralds a shift, bringing me back from my country music-fuelled haze to full alertness. In moments the air inside the van started to purr with static electricity, and I could feel the steering wheel beginning to writhe almost serpentinely beneath my hands. A shift was coming, without doubt, and by all the signs it was going to be a big one. I gritted my teeth, hung on to the steering wheel and started to cut my speed.

You're going to ask me why I didn't just spin the wheel, burn some rubber and get the hell out of there, aren't you? Why I don't just forget this stupid chasing of unknown targets through multiple worlds, throw away the case, settle down somewhere and use the money and my talents to have myself a sane, reasonable, possibly even happy life? I'll answer the second question first, if you don't mind. It's simply that I gave my word to someone.

No, you don't need to know his name, and it wouldn't mean anything to you if I did tell you. At least I hope that it wouldn't; if it did, I'd probably be a dead man. But I will tell you one thing: he's the one person whom I trust implicitly. I'll do anything that he asks of me, and do it gladly. I often wish that he didn't need to ask, that I could be so attuned to him that I'd be fulfilling his needs even before he realises that he has them. He'd asked me to do this for him, and I wasn't going to let him down. Yes, I was a willing tool.

As to the first question, I don't think that trying to evade the shift would have made any difference in the long run. Of course I don't know how this stuff really works, but I'd bet on it being a swings and roundabouts thing: I might miss one shift, but there'd be others, and I'd probably have ended up getting to where I was supposed to be going no matter what I did. You can call it fatalism if you like. I call it having a healthy degree of suspicion.

I prepared myself for the shift as best I could, tuning my senses and reactions to peak sensitivity, readying myself for the moment where almost anything might happen: and then it hit. It felt as though someone had smashed me across the back of my head, followed by a lurching in my guts like an elevator going into free-fall, and for a moment or two I couldn't see. All that I could do was to concentrate on holding the van steady, slowing a little more, then cracking open my eyes, expecting — what? Something ought to have changed fairly radically after a shift of that magnitude, so I took stock as my eyes came back into focus and the ache in my skull started to dissipate.

Checking in the mirror I could see that my eyes were still that morning's colour of a clear springtime sky, my hair red and wavy and almost collar-length, my jaw firm and clean-shaven, just as before. A glance down revealed the neat grey uniform and the leather coat, also unaltered. The Beatles' All You Need is Love was still playing on the radio. In front of me I saw the same steering wheel, the same dashboard, the same pale tan upholstery; in short, the same van. Maybe things had changed outside. Certainly there was nothing obviously different in here.

If the world outside the van had changed, it wasn't clear in what ways it was different. The vehicles ahead of me looked like the group that I'd been travelling with, more or less, since I'd crossed the border. The same grey afternoon was thickening in the distance to the same chill and early evening. At that point I began to be concerned.

It wouldn't have been unreasonable for a minor shift not to make any immediately obvious difference; most things that happen don't matter a damn, after all, so most Shadows are pretty much like their neighbours. I'd bet that there must have been plenty of shifts so minor that I've never noticed that I'd moved between Shadows. However, that had felt like the onset of a really huge shift; so where were the changes? I'd been prepared for bug-eyed monsters, giant robots, you name it, after that; and yet here I was with everything apparently just as before.

I supposed that it was just possible that there hadn't been a shift at all; but if that was so, there had to be something pretty wrong with me if I had hallucinated what I remembered happening to me. Was I ill? That didn't seem particularly likely either. I'm not invulnerable, but I am tough and physically robust, which is one of the reasons that I was chosen for this job. I honestly couldn't remember when I'd last been in less than perfect health through anything except serious physical injury, and most of the time I can defend myself competently against that. Damage will take its toll on me, to be sure, but I'm difficult to incapacitate and I heal damn fast. Working for the person I mentioned has its benefits. However, I still felt shaky, with an unpleasant queasiness in my guts and a kind of itchy feeling crawling over my skin and seeping down into my bones. I told myself that it was just shock and to get over it.

On the other hand, I thought, if I was going to be ill it might not be a bad idea to get off the road, maybe grab a couple of hours' sleep — last night not having been particularly restful, what with the fleas and all that — and see what happened, if anything. So I took it slowly until the next service station, which fortunately wasn't too far ahead, and pulled off into the parking area.

Nobody seemed to take any notice of me, and that was good: so far as I could tell I hadn't been the target of any kind of attack, but I kept a wary eye on all the mirrors just in case. After five minutes or so I was reasonably sure that I wasn't attracting any unwanted attention, so I picked up the case, climbed out of the van, smoothed the creases out of my coat, and walked into the service area. The air smelled the same: sulphur and diesel on the outside; strong disinfectant, bad coffee and hot grease on the inside. They may not be the universal stenches of industrial transportation, but I seem to smell them all the time.

Past the lavatories and one of those shops that sell the minor necessities of a travelling life at outrageous prices I located the fast-food servery. I could have used one of the vending machines in the lobby, which from the images that decorated them would have supplied me with delicious hot snacks, beautifully-cut sandwiches overflowing with cheeses, sliced meats and salads, and cans of refreshing cold or self-heating beverages at the most moderate prices. You know one thing that's constant across the Shadows? Advertisers are liars. I left the machines and their synthetic treats behind and followed my nose in the direction of things that smelled vaguely like real food.

The servery was much like any high-volume canteen anywhere: brightly lit, loud and greasy. There weren't many people eating there. An exhausted-eyed woman with a pronounced goitre and grey hair pulled back hard in a straggly bun asked me without any real interest what I wanted to eat. Maybe my new local accent wasn't as good as it ought to have been, or maybe I was just feeling too grim to be able to speak clearly, because I'm sure that I didn't actually order what a spotty teenaged boy eventually brought to my table. The bowl that he slapped down in front of me was accompanied by a muttered ‘Shchyef’; he may have been trying to say ‘stew’, or he may have been insulting my grandmother. I can't always tell these things. But like any experienced traveller I'm prepared to eat almost anything that I'm given, and the spicy goop of unidentifiable meat and vegetables and the crisp — or were they just stale? — bread rolls did do something to settle the queasiness. I finished the stew and drank some of the coffee, noticing that this Shadow seemed to use honey rather than sugar as a sweetener, and lit a cigarette. A rare indulgence for me, but one of the recent shifts had seen fit to provide me with a pack and a lighter, so who was I to refuse? it wasn't as though I was going to die young. I smoked contemplatively while my eyes drifted across the gloom outside.

Then I sat up a little straighter. I noticed that I was sitting with most of the parking area in view, and something out there was tugging at my attention. There was no way that I could tell what it was, but after I'd given the steamed and grimy window a quick wipe with my sleeve I could see that it had to be somewhere near the on-ramp.

I spent a couple of minutes in a vain attempt to make out any kind of image, but even keeping a patch of the glass free of condensation wasn't enough to bring it into focus. Whatever it was didn't seem to be going anywhere, but I ditched the second half of my coffee — it wasn't nearly good enough for me to consider doing so a waste — because I wanted to get over there and take a look, just in case. Whatever it was that had drawn my attention was definitely making me feel twitchy, and that, coupled with lingering discomfort from the shift, made me decide to head for the bathroom on the way out. It's always a good idea to take care of bodily needs before setting off into what may turn out to be trouble.

I washed my hands quickly and glanced in the mirror as I shook the water from them, then smiled. I hadn't thought about it before then, but somehow the recent shifts had brought my looks pretty much back to how they'd been before an old friend had given me the shock of my life and dragged me into this new existence. And if I was ill, I certainly didn't look it. I winked and told myself that I was still a handsome devil after all these years; then I bent down to pick up the case, and almost dropped it in surprise. It was vibrating. There was a faint, almost imperceptible, buzzing under my fingertips as I touched the handle, but the case had never done that before. Letting go of the handle, I knelt down and cautiously examined the case. It was also slightly warm to the touch: perhaps only a couple of degrees above room temperature, but it had always felt cool, and when I looked carefully I hadn't set it down near any obvious source of heat. I almost decided to open it there and then; but, as always, something held me back. Gripping the handle even more carefully than usual, I hurried back to the van, keeping my eyes surreptitiously on the exit as I did so.

The closer that I drove to the point where I thought whatever it was that had drawn my attention ought to be, the more puzzled I became. The damnable thing about it was that, no matter how closely I looked, I couldn't see anything that was in any way out of the ordinary. There was the usual assortment of vehicles toing and froing, the slip road leading from the exit to the highway, a weary-looking group of people getting out of a car whom I took to be a family heading for warmth and food, someone by the exit who seemed to be trying to hitch a ride, a big red truck backing awkwardly out of a parking space, two large black birds sitting on the control box for the access barrier and eyeing me cynically, the beginnings of a thin sleeting of slushy rain across my windscreen, but nothing that seemed as though it ought to have caught my eye.

Someone behind me sounded their horn in irritation, and I realised that I was blocking the exit, so I eased out of the line of traffic and parked where the truck had been. It was probably a stupid thing to have done, but I was so convinced that there must be something there that I couldn't leave until I'd worked out to my satisfaction what it was that had been bugging me so. Not only that, I was still feeling a little queasy, and I felt like giving myself at least a few minutes more before heading out into the traffic again.

So for five long minutes I watched, getting more and more frustrated. I'd rather have had anything happen, even something bad, than to be sitting there with all my alerts going off and knowing that I was either going crazy or missing something crucial. Perhaps I really was just ill and becoming prone to imaginings. I turned on the cassette player and some kind of ambient music came out of the speakers: long slow stacked chords in the strings, a subtle rhythmic shading of drums, a high male voice singing words that I couldn't understand. It wasn't the kind of thing that I'd normally listen to, but just then I found it calming, if melancholy. I put myself through a set of breathing exercises that I'd learned years ago, and I was just beginning to slip into a state of alert unmindedness when I snapped back to the now. Someone had tapped on my window.

Being very careful not to show anything other than the mild puzzlement and irritation that any driver might exhibit when roused from the early stages of a nap, I turned off the music, rubbed my eyes with the back of my hand, and wiped away the misting of condensation that had settled on the inside of the window. While I was doing that, I took the opportunity of covertly examining my surroundings once more. The only things that had changed were that the family had left and the hitcher wasn't at the exit any more. I glanced through the window at the person who'd attempted to attract my attention. Yes, that could well be the hitcher, unfortunately.

I don't give people rides, you see. It's not that I'm by nature a misanthrope: if there's one thing about this job that makes it almost unbearable at times, it's that there's no possibility of anything other than the most casual acquaintanceships. But I have to be practical. If someone hit a shift while riding with me, well … either they'd change and I'd have no idea who might now be sitting in the seat next to me, or they wouldn't, and that would be worse. Whatever it is that takes me through the shifts, it always seems to make sure that I'm capable of surviving afterwards. I can breathe the air, even if it stinks, I can eat the food and drink the water, and I can ask for, or buy, help. I don't think that a passenger would necessarily be so fortunate. If there were only slight changes, they might get away with it for a while. They might not notice that they weren't where they belonged, unless the Shadow already had its own edition of them and they ran into each other.

If the changes were greater — well, how would you feel, to get out of an obliging stranger's car and discover that everything is suddenly wrong? Nobody speaks your language, there are no official records of your existence, you have no money, no job, no home, no family, no friends? It gives the phrase ‘displaced person’ rather a nasty spin, doesn't it? And I don't think that's by any means the worst that could happen.

However, I'm not rude enough to flat-out ignore someone who's trying to communicate with me, unless I have a compelling reason to do so, so I cracked down the window enough that we could talk, but not so far that I could be grabbed through it. I've had people try that before, and I wasn't quite in the mood for breaking someone's arm.

‘I'm looking for a ride,’ a cheerful boyish voice said.

My mouth was ready to frame a polite and regretful apology, when I found my face breaking into an amiable grin and my voice saying ‘Sure. Where are you heading?’

‘How far north are you going?’

All my little panic detectors were screaming at me to lie and say that I was actually heading south, that I really was in a big hurry and nice to have met him, pity about our going opposite ways and good luck; but, you know, I couldn't? One moment I was an autonomous person; the next, somehow, I was babbling inanely along to someone else's script.

‘Thought I'd head up to Riga, maybe stay there and grab a few hours' sleep, then swing up the Gulf road, cross over the border and head for Tallinn. How would that suit you?’

‘Tallinn?’ I'd obviously made his day, from the dazzling smile that he treated me to. ‘That would be perfect. Are you sure I'd not be taking you out of your way?’

I swear, I couldn't help it. ‘Jump in,’ I smiled. ‘I could do with some company.’

He walked round to the other side of the van and opened the door. As usual I'd put the case on the passenger seat, where, I always told myself, I'd have it to hand if I needed it. He picked it up before I could tell him not to, and examined it briefly.

‘Where should I put this? In the back with my rucksack?’

Acting casual, I shook my head and took the case from him. It was almost cold again, and the buzzing was only just at the edge of perceptibility. ‘That stays with me,’ I said, trying not to sound brusque. ‘Work stuff,’ and I put it down by the side of my seat. He stowed his rucksack on the back seat, then got into the passenger seat and shut the door.

‘Belt up,’ I said, indicating the seat belt. ‘I don't particularly want to get stopped by the traffic police.’ He chuckled at that, though, I thought, a little apprehensively; he'd taken a good though discreet look at my uniform as we'd been talking. He complied with my request as I started the engine and manoeuvred the van onto the slip road.

It was obvious that this compulsion to help him was carefully controlled; as long as I did nothing to prevent him from getting a lift with me, I could do or say anything that I liked. I'd been compelled by people before, so I didn't go into a flat-out panic, as you might have expected; it's an ugly feeling, I admit, being under someone's control, but I'd learned long before now that struggling invariably made matters worse. Playing along seemed relatively harmless, and since there didn't seem to be any immediately obvious way to get out of the situation, I let matters unfold as they might. Not that I was particularly happy about it. When I found out who'd done this to me I was probably going to hurt them. Or ask to have someone hurt them. So far as I knew, I still had good contacts among some extremely powerful people, and I might ask very politely for a favour when the job was over. Then again, maybe I was in a Shadow where this kind of mind control wasn't at all unusual. It hadn't happened to me before, but, as they say, anything that isn't forbidden will happen somewhere, somehow, and maybe this was simply that place.

I quickly reviewed the situation. Firstly, there had been a really big shift or something that felt like one. Secondly, I'd been feeling weird since the shift. Thirdly, the case had behaved in a way that it never had before. Fourthly, I was under pretty strong compulsion to give someone a ride. Fifthly, that person had paid more attention to the case than I'd ever known anyone else pay. How did that tie together? Did it tie together, or was I looking for meaning in meaninglessness? Well, whether it did or not, I didn't have enough information to decide. Not yet.

I hadn't had much chance to get a good look at the hitcher while he was getting into the van, particularly since he was well muffled against the cold and rain by a padded navy blue jacket and a thick knitted cap pulled low down over his face, but once I'd settled into the easy flow of traffic I gave him a few cautious glances out of the corner of my eye. I still couldn't see much, but I gradually assembled a picture in my mind. A longish face. High cheek bones. Pale skin, with a little adolescent acne around the mouth and on the cheeks, and a dashing of freckles across an assertive nose. Nothing that you could dignify by calling it facial hair, only a little fluff, light in colour, along the top lip and a trace on the chin. The end of a curl of hair, too pale to be brown, too dark to be really blond, perhaps with a hint of red, peeking from under the cap. Big hands with long fingers, unless the gloves were very padded; but then the size of his boots confirmed the idea of larger than average hands and feet.

I wasn't cautious enough, though; he caught me looking and laughed.

‘Don't worry,’ he said. ‘I'm not going to car-jack you, or anything like that. If nothing else, I can't drive.’

I smiled at that and forced myself to relax, telling myself that my nervousness was due to nothing more than the unfamiliarity of having a passenger beside me. I couldn't feel any obvious compulsion any more; perhaps whatever someone wanted doing had been done. Maybe I didn't actually mind so much that I hadn't acted out of the goodness of my heart; after all, if a shift hit and he got hurt, it would hardly be my responsibility.

He pulled off his cap and gloves and tossed them onto the back seat, and then unzipped his jacket. Running his fingers through wavy honey-gold hair, he stretched out and sighed in contentment, holding his hands to the warm air that flowed from the heating vent in front of him.

‘It's good to be warm again,’ he said with a look of honest gratitude. ‘I'd been standing there for hours, hoping that someone would be kind, and I was beginning to think that I'd have to sleep under a bush again tonight.’

I remembered the crisp crunch of my boots on the frosty ground this morning. Though that Shadow had been perhaps one big shift away from this one, I couldn't see any reason that this version of the Baltic states should have been any warmer last night than that one had been.

‘No money?’ I asked, and he looked embarrassed, his grey-green eyes not quite meeting mine.

‘Not enough to get a room, that's for sure,’ he said with a sigh. ‘Some guy gave me a ride two days ago, and when I looked for my wallet afterwards it had gone. If I'm lucky, it fell out of my pocket and he'll mail it to me …’ He shrugged and looked down at his lap, where his hands had tight hold of each other. ‘If he stole it, I hope he needed the money more than I do.’

I nodded sympathetically. ‘That's grim. You probably haven't been able to afford to eat recently, either.’ I pointed at the glove compartment in front of him. ‘If you look in there, you should find something to eat and drink. I'm not sure exactly what there'll be, but I always make sure I have something to snack on, just in case. Help yourself.’ I wasn't sure, though, because I hadn't actually put anything in there; it's just that glove compartments tend to contain, more often than not, the kind of things that I'd like there to be in them. If there were no edibles in there I'd be more than surprised.

He opened it up after having glanced sideways at me to make sure that I was being serious and rummaged around inside, finally bringing out a snack bar of some description, a bag of something that looked like trail mix, and one of those self-heating cans of drink, which he eyed as though it would be the first hot drink that he'd had in quite a while; and maybe it was. I've seen starvation before, and he wasn't starved by any means, but now that I'd had a chance to get a good look at him I recognised the pinched look of the seriously hungry. ‘Are you sure?’ he asked with almost pathetic eagerness, and I nodded. I didn't recognise the products, but he didn't glance at the labels, so I guessed that they were familiar enough, and from the expression on his face they obviously looked good to him.

‘Have it all, if you like,’ I said, and meant it. That stew had been quite enough. ‘I just had food. And I'll get something more enjoyable the next time that we stop.’

The rapidity with which he tore open and devoured the assorted nibbles confirmed my guess at how hungry he was. As he drained the last of the drink and wiped away the crumbs that had caught in the fuzz on his top lip, I said ‘That's better. So maybe now that I'm sure you aren't going to pass out on me from hunger, you might tell me a bit about yourself? It's always good to know something about people that you're travelling with.’ Now that I wasn't actively resisting his being there, I definitely seemed to be back in control of myself again, pretty much free to say and do what I wanted. The shock symptoms seemed to be fading too.

‘There isn't much to tell,’ he replied with a shy smile, putting the empty packaging and the can back in the glove compartment and settling back down into his seat. ‘My name's Kristjan, but call me Kris. I'm eighteen, I'm a student, I live just outside Tallinn, usually. I'm hoping to go to university in Helsinki next year, if I can make some money.’

‘Quite a way from home,’ I said, more to myself than to him, and he nodded but didn't offer any explanation. Obviously the fact that someone had been playing around with my head made the whole affair distinctly unusual, but there wasn't anything apart from that that I could put my finger on. Students did travel around, I supposed, and to someone of his age a hitching trip of a few hundred kilometres would be fun, exciting, an adventure. I had to get over thinking about how things were for me when I was his age, when travelling sixty miles to Fairport would have been a journey of some seriousness, needing preparation and, even in New Albion's relative peace, rather more protection than Kris seemed to have. I'd certainly never have considered making a journey like his alone and unarmed.
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