Crossroads, p.1Rowan Scot-Ryder
Copyright 2012 Rowan Scot Ryder
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“Welcome to Crossroads, Sam.”
Jay was still unused to the name Sam. But he must get into role, now.
“Just our little joke” Doctor L didn’t bother to explain. Well, Jay could work it out. From Crossroads, you could turn in different directions. North, south. Up, down.
“The procedure has been fully explained to you, Sam. Have you any questions?”
Crossroads was a good place to leave from. Bland but tasteful. Modern, early twenty-second century. But nothing to leave lasting memories.
The doctor smiled again.
You old devil, Jay thought.
“There will be a little memory loss, you understand. The procedure creates some temporal confusion. It’s important we don’t add to that. Nothing essential will be permanently affected. Dissociation is not a pleasant feeling. The sooner you settle into your new persona, the better. Of course we will monitor you every step of the way, and one of us will meet with you at least once a month, so that you can relay collected data.”
“The twentieth century still has many gaps. You will move around extensively, within the agreed areas, but we will support you. The commitment is two-way. You will also be prepared for the nuances of the next place you go to. You will benefit from the body of knowledge. The better prepared you are, the more likely you are to succeed. Okay?”
“You understand the rules. You will have relationships, experiences, a life. You will become fully part of each community you visit. Your cover as a musician will help. But commitment would be a mistake. You will be recalled after your seven year term of duty. Extension is not an option. Your adopted body has already lived under different names and in different places as a boy. Only twenty, and remember, he has known tragedy. His young wife died in childbirth last year, and grief made him a prime candidate for our purpose. He spent some time with us as a volunteer, and is ready to do his part. You’ll make full use of our extended support network. We have nearly a dozen ‘legends’ ready for you to use. Try to avoid being photographed.”
Jay was silent.
“Bon voyage, Lieutenant. Enjoy the twentieth century. It was an amazing place, and a crossroads in their own right.”
The doctor laughed at his own joke. He hoped the young man would manage the transition. So many didn’t. They turned to drink and drugs for support, in these alien worlds. They did not set out with a lack of regard for their adopted bodies, but something subconscious treated their hosts as disposable.
Jay saluted, turned, and stepped smartly through the door.
The Crossroads. He settled into the chamber, as instructed. This was the best way to travel, minimising discomfort and disorientation. Two hundred years was no mean feat, at the limit of ability for most travellers.
He was ready. He closed his eyes on the twenty-second century.
Despite long hours in the simulatron, the sensation was nauseating. Total darkness enveloped him, and a bitter cold sliced him to the bone. Jay twisted as the ground rose up to meet him, and fell to his knees. He clawed at the earth, smelling damp, scrubby grass.
“Sam? What’s up? Hey man, you sick?”
Sam. His name was Sam, now. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and looked up. He was holding a saxaphone. There were stars above him. Trees. Strange dark shapes.
He stared around, wild-eyed. The other man’s eyes shone in the darkness.
“Hey, man, have a drink. Your teeth are chattering.”
The harsh liquid scalded his throat, and he struggled to breathe.
“You want to carry on? You been doing good. Real good.”
“Yeah. Carry on.”
The new voice sounded strange in his ears. Soft, dark. A curious, drawling accent.
He hadn’t been prepared for that. Better get used to it. He stood up, his legs barely supporting him.
“Carry on” he repeated.
Sonny took up his sax again, and began to play. Jay watched him for a few minutes, allowing the music to work its way into his brain. This was good. Music was one thing he understood naturally. He could fit in easily, playing. Copying styles. He joined in.
Sonny stared at him in amazement.
“Hey, man! That’s something else!”
Jay grinned and carried on. The music flowed out of his soul and through his fingertips. Sonny came back in, working to match the boy that he had been teaching.
Who was playing like he never had before.
“You playing like the devil, man! What happened? You sell your soul after Ginny died?”
A residual memory of Doctor L’s saturnine face flashed swiftly before his eyes.
They played on into the night. Sonny was stunned by the sudden changes in his friend. It was hard to believe. Still the same skinny boy – but the music! Suddenly he could play anything. Listen to it once, got it. Change styles. How could that be? He had been so hopeless with the sax that it was embarrassing. Sonny had felt sorry for him, and offered to teach him…
And here he was, playing like a demon.
Man. That talent needed to be heard. Sonny himself was good, he knew that. He had some contacts in the music business. He was semi-professional. But Sam could go all the way. This could drag the boy out of his grieving. Give him a new direction, something to live for. The world was his for the taking. Wherever the talent had come from.
Sonny couldn’t believe the changes in his friend. Still soft-spoken, but the boy’s skinny frame burned with a strange nervous energy, now. He was a different person. A stranger looked out of the kid’s eyes, sometimes. In a month, he was gone. Sonny watched him go with a sense of loss. Something miraculous was leaving his life.
Sam came back every once in a while, and Sonny tried to keep an ear to the ground in the meantime, keeping track of where the boy was. Now Memphis, now Helena. St Louis. Indiana. Texas. Chicago, New York, Kentucky, even Canada. The boy got everywhere. Woman in every town, by all accounts. A child by one, living with another. Folks said that he liked plain, homely women. Whenever he hit a new town, he had a strategy. He would find one in the audience and seduce her, making sure that he had somewhere to live, for the duration.
What a guy. Music, whiskey, women. Big cities, small towns. Drugs to keep him awake and playing in the cities, home-made stimulants like Nux Vomica in little places. What had happened to the kid Sonny had known? Who could say?
“Sold your soul, boy?” they asked him, and he would grin.
“Hey, Sam! Where’d you meet the devil?”
He talked about it, that crossroads meeting. The man was possessed, alright. Everyone agreed on that. Sam had been such a clean-living boy. Quiet, shy. Well-read. Reserved. He moved madly from town to town, sustained by whiskey and drugs, playing like a demon. Lost in his own world somewhere. Now he seemed like a man on a mission, with only a limited time to fit everything in.
His seven years were nearly up.
It was time to recall him, and Doctor L himself appeared for the meeting
Jay scowled at the shadowy figure in the corner of his room.
“Nope. Ain’t going.”
The doctor sighed. The host body was clearly failing. Whiskey, hard living. The stimulants the boy took had damaged him, so that the mild strychnine in them could no longer be fully excreted. He was beginning to suffer stomach cramps.
Time to step in, before the homeostatic balance tipped, and convulsions began.
“Science has moved on, Lieutenant. We have a new assignment for you. Another musician. But one with immense power. A Roman Emperor, no less. He is at a crossroads, too. His mental health has become unstable. If you take over his body, you might save thousands of lives. You may not stop the great fire of Rome, but the whole thing could be handled differently… This time you could be more than an observer. You could change history. What do you say?”
“No sir. I like it here.”
The host body was failing before the doctor’s eyes. The boy’s skinny frame was only held together by nervous energy. L sighed. The man within that body would perish too, when it died, unless he came home now.
A great loss to science.
“I understand… Your choice, of course.”
The doctor reviewed his options... It was time to cut the boy loose. There were no more meetings scheduled. The boy would become a liability, if he stayed here unsupervised.
“Well, it’s been good working with you, Lieutenant. I would like to thank you, on behalf of the Facility.”
The doctor took a bottle from the shelf, and studied the label.
“Nux vomica. A fine old standard. Good choice.”
“Put that back.”
“Would you like something stronger? A token of our esteem?”
The doctor saluted, and stepped back through the portal to the Crossroads. He would return only once more, unseen, to add extra strychnine to the little bottle.
Back to the drawing board. It might be impossible to find someone else to fit into Nero’s body. Pity, that.
But science was all about possibilities. And – by definition - experiments must be repeated.
They studied the past, opening the way to the future.
Crossroads by Rowan Scot-Ryder / Science Fiction have rating 2.7 out of 5 / Based on40 votes