Perspectives: Chapter Two

by Russ Allbery
© 1995

It don't matter where it takes me,
Long as I can keep this feeling
Runnin' through my soul.
Never took this road before,
destination unknown.

Marietta, "Destination Unknown"

It's too early. That was Jim's first thought as he was pulled out of a sound sleep. The remnants of the dream were still there, and he almost turned over and tried to recapture it, but there was something wrong. It was hours before dawn, and there was no reason for him to be awake. Something had woken him up.

He opened his eyes and blinked a few times to try to get them working. Nothing except the normal darkness of his room. Then he turned and saw the flashing yellow light, and he was instantly alert.

As he threw off the covers and reached for his clothes, he scanned the rest of the status panel. Green lights marked each exit, as well as several internal motion detectors; the only warning light was for the window. There were no guests in the tower, and any of the outside doors would have set off an alarm. That meant the portal.

His footsteps were soft thuds on the carpet as he half-ran down the corridor connecting his room and the viewing room. His mind raced as he ran. No one had ever come through the portal in the heart of the tower before, at least as long as he had been here. He had assumed that it led to nowhere, or at least nowhere that any human could live. Obviously, he had been wrong.

As he reached the bend of the corridor, he could see the flickering light from the moving window. He slowed as he approached the door, prepared for anything — not that there would be much he would be able to do. There were no weapons in the tower that he knew of, and he had never been much of a fighter. Trying to move quietly, he turned the corner.

The boy standing in the middle of the room was about eighteen. His face was a mask of concentration as he moved the view across the landscape, and it held all of his attention. Jim doubted he even knew anyone else was in the room. The scenes in the window flew by; most Jim recognized, but a scattered few he had never seen before.

Trying to slow his breathing and calm his heart so as not to give his presence away, Jim stood in the doorway and studied his visitor. The boy's clothing was simple but efficient, a half-leather jerkin over a black hooded shirt, and was clean and well cared for. The make of the clothes was late medieval, as were his well-worn leather walking boots — probably from Europe, 15th century or so— Jim cut that line of speculation off; the dates and places of all the history he knew were probably meaningless. Still, that would give a general idea of the technology level the boy was likely to be familiar with. He obviously wasn't a young nobleman, but neither was he a farm worker; he had the bearing of one who lived on the streets, but his clothing didn't fit that either.

Even after several minutes, the boy still hadn't looked away from the window or noticed that anyone else was in the room. Better to be the one to attract his attention and start from a position of strength. The older man took a deep breath and began to concentrate, reaching out easily to feel the window and its insubstantial controls. He began pulling the window slightly in a direction different than the boy was moving it, slowing it and making it feel sluggish. The boy tried to force it in the direction he wanted, but Jim had been doing this far longer. After a moment's struggle, the window stopped moving, fixed on the edges of Tanagrel Wood where Jim had left it when he went to bed.

The boy suddenly whirled around to face Jim, his eyes calculating and wary. He took a half-step towards the hall leading to the portal and dropped into a crouch. Jim stepped back slowly, trying to look non-threatening, and then leaned back against the wall, crossing his arms. The casual posture seemed to put the boy at ease slightly, or at least he didn't vanish down the hall. Jim said the first thing that came into his mind.

"Welcome to Crossroads."

Now if only the kid spoke English....

Luke eyed the man warily, not daring to relax for a moment. He appeared to be unarmed, but to have a device like this he was likely to be a mage of some power. Still, he hadn't seemed upset, and it was probably pointless to try to run anyway, especially if he was in a wizard's tower. Besides, the man looked nothing like any mage Luke had seen; he was clean-shaven and there was only streaks of grey in his hair.

"What's your name, boy?" the man asked, his voice dry and a touch sleepy, as if he'd just woken up.

Luke searched his memory for tales of spells that triggered on names and came up blank. Silence would be unnecessarily hostile, and he saw no need to lie.


The man appeared to breathe a sigh of relief. "Luke," he repeated, as if trying to fix it in his memory. "Call me Jim."

Almost certainly not a mage; they would be too proud to use a farm worker's name. Luke looked the man over carefully again. His clothing was very strangely made, but it didn't seem anything like what a mage would wear either, and he wasn't acting like a servant. But if he *didn't* have magical ability, then where had the window come from?

"What is this place?"

"A tower, near the edge of the inhabited area of Crossroads."

The only Crossroads Luke knew of was a small village outside of Westmark, and it definitely didn't have any kind of tower anywhere close to it. None of the areas he had seen through the window had been familiar either, even without the gleaming metal and floating city.

"Where is Crossroads?"

"There isn't any answer I can give that question that you would understand. The only thing I can do is show you."

Luke moved back warily as Jim came towards him, and for a moment the tension hung sharp in the air. Then the older man quite deliberately turned his back and headed down the hall Luke had been standing in front of. Either the man was brave beyond belief to turn his back on a possible enemy, or he was so confident in his own ability that he felt no danger. Regardless, he was someone to be cautious of. Hesitating only slightly, Luke followed a ways behind him. A few paces down the hall, Jim stopped and pressed a hidden switch in the paneling.

The ceiling flickered for a moment and then lit with a soft glow that spread down the hallway like a flood. Almost as bright as the sunlight from the window behind them, the light was obviously artificial and soothing to the eye. The radiant panels ran down the center of the ceiling to the end of the hall.

Jim walked on and Luke followed, glancing up at the light. There was no feel of magic about it, and the man had cast no spell to activate it. It seemed to be completely automatic, like machinery of some kind, but Luke had never heard of machinery that could generate light.

They reached the end of the hallway, and Jim stopped in front of the heavy wooden door and turned to Luke. "You came through here?" At Luke's silent nod, he pushed the door open and stepped back.

The light from the hall flooded into the small room until it reached a strange glowing plane and was swept away, shifting and glittering and bending aside in a direction the mind could not follow. The plane pulled all the light into itself, made it part of its radiance, and then cast it back in patterns that twisted the eye. Luke looked directly into it and felt the distant pull, but covered with a muted feel of satisfaction. Somehow he knew that he was seeing a gateway, and that were he on the other side it would be doing all that it could to make him pass through.

"That's a portal. You came here by going through it."

Jim's voice off to the side was background noise, hard to concentrate on with the portal demanding his attention, but Luke forced himself to listen in case any details were important.

"On the other side is your world. You can step back through at any time, but there's no guarantee you'll come out where you went in. The other ends of the portals move about quite a bit, I've heard."

Luke never considered going back. This place felt too right to leave so quickly. Besides, he was certain that the portal didn't want him to go back, although he wasn't sure how he knew.

"On this side is Crossroads."

Jim was obviously waiting for a question, and Luke knew the man's next move depended on what he asked. His eyes were drawn back to the portal, and as he looked into it, he could begin to see how it worked. It twisted there....

Luke looked away, his eyes burning. Almost, he could follow it.

"It's a bad idea to stare into it for too long."

But he had felt something about it. This end was anchored, tied deep into the foundations of the world. And there were other ties....

Luke turned to face Jim. "There are other portals."

The older man was obviously caught by surprise; his eyes narrowed as he re-evaluated who he was dealing with. Good. Luke preferred people slightly uncomfortable; they were more likely to let drop information they didn't intend to.

Jim clung desperately to his outward calm, determined that the boy not see him afraid. His heart pounded in his ears, and he was amazed that he wasn't sweating. This was no merchant he could bluff, no terrified thief that he could frighten off. For all he knew, the boy was mage-gifted and capable of burning him alive or bringing the tower down around his ears. Or a psi, reading his mind right now, preparing to rip it to shreds....

With an effort, he wrenched his mind away from *that* train of thought. He had planned for this — hoped that it would never happen, but planned for it regardless. Alone in the tower, he had no way of defending against anything coming through the portal except appearance and knowledge. If he could just keep control of the situation, never show any fear, then he may get out of this alive. It had worked before.

The boy was too fast, though. Trying to keep him off-balance wasn't working; he was taking each shock as it came, as calmly as if he'd been in Crossroads his entire life. But there was nothing to do but go on.

"Yes. There are many portals, more than have ever been found or explored, and each one to a different world. Some say there is one to every world possible."

The boy's considering stare was unnerving. If only he would react, show that at least some of this was a surprise to him. His eyes never left Jim's face.

"Who are you?"

Now for the dangerous questions. Jim's stomach was tied in knots, but he kept his voice level. "A traveler, a seeker of knowledge." Could that momentary flash be approval?

"Is this place yours, then?"

"I live here for now." The truth was a gamble, but probably safer than a lie.

"And the window? Did you construct it?"

"That would take far too long to explain to start now." Jim didn't want to try to explain anything about the window until he was well-rested and sure of thinking clearly. "Time works differently in Crossroads. I don't know what time you think it is, but here it is the middle of the night. There will be time to discuss the window, and other things, in the morning." He bowed slightly and motioned down the hall. "My hospitality is yours. There is a room you can use for the night."

Again the considering look, but the boy — Luke, he reminded himself — nodded slightly. He moved down the hall, still wary, and Jim followed only slightly behind. When they re-entered the window's chamber, Luke paused, looking at the bright, sun-lit scene, and Jim prepared to attempt to explain how it could show day while it was night.

"That much be able to reach the other side of the planet." Luke's murmured comment was barely audible, but Jim still almost stumbled in surprise. Stupid, to underestimate the boy again. He quickly tried to cover himself.

"Your room is straight down the hall, on the left side," he said, motioning towards the other exit of the chamber.

Luke half-shook his head, as if surprised he was staring at the window, and walked through the doorway and down the hall with the older man. They stopped in front of a plain, wooden door, which Jim unlocked and opened. The room was a bit musty and felt abandoned, but it was large and had a good bed.

"Thank you for your hospitality." The look was less considering than before, but no less wary.

Jim nodded again. "I will see you in the morning." He turned and headed down the corridor for his own room, feeling eyes on his back until he went around the bend in the hall.

Not until he got back to his own room and closed the door did Jim let himself relax, and then he almost collapsed on the floor. Relief washed through him like a flood...someone had come through the portal and he was still alive. Not only that, but he thought he might even be able trust this boy.

Jim laughed grimly to himself. Well, he'd have to trust him, wouldn't he? Luke was just down the hall, and if he wanted to do anything, Jim wasn't going to be able to stop him. "Dancing on the edge of a knife," he muttered to himself. "You're fine unless you flinch."

He locked the door and laid back down on the bed, but sleep was a long time coming.

Luke lit a candle, putting it on the table beside the bed, and looked around the room. Judging from the layer of dust, it had been two or three months since anyone had slept in it last. The room was big, as large as the rooms in a high-class inn, but empty except for the bed and the small table. The walls were dark grey stone, just like the other stone tower he had entered to reach here and nothing like the glossy paneling of the corridor.

Laying his pack on the floor, he went through the contents carefully. Food, clothes, candles, flint-and-steel, and a small, leather-bound book. It was strange to think that all of these things were from a different world, perhaps all of his own world he would ever see again. He knew Jim was right, though; there was no way that gateway just connected two points in the same world.

He considered going to sleep — it was late evening by his internal clock — but even here he could feel the window's pull. The desire to be back skimming over the countryside, seeing sights more incredible than he had ever imagined, was irresistible. Grabbing an apple to eat, he stepped quietly out into the hall and walked down to the window's chamber. The controls were even easier to feel this time, and in moments the view was sliding across the countryside.

Morning found him still there, sitting cross-legged on the floor, watching Crossroads flying past.

Dedicated to Robert Jordan
An Age yet to come, an Age long past.

Last spun 2013-07-01 from thread modified 2013-01-04