A few minutes later I was back in the Jeep and heading up the Interstate. I wanted to just go somewhere where I could be alone for a while, but really didn’t want to go back to my apartment either. I drove in silence for a bit then saw an exit in front of me. Almost without thinking, I took it.
I knew where I was almost immediately. The BP station by the exit and the strip mall down the road. I drove down to the mall and pulled into the empty parking lot in front of Boot Scooters.
I walked inside. Music was playing but all of the TVs were showing static, as usual. I idly noticed that the booth we had sat at several hours before had been reset. After a brief glance around I walked around behind the bar, grabbed a glass, and pulled myself a beer. I thought about that warning I had received… was it really just a few days ago… about not eating or drinking anything from these exits.
“I think I’m a bit beyond that now,” I said to the empty room. Taking the beer, I went back to that same booth and sat down.
I sat there for a while. I had brought my bag in with me and had pulled out my tablet and keyboard and started typing. There was no Internet of course, but I started writing down everything that had been happening to me over these last few days, extending those original posts I had put on Reddit those long days ago.
I had just come back to the booth after my latest visit to the bar and was reading over what I had written so far when someone suddenly stepped up to the booth.
“You can be a difficult man to locate, Mr. Carter. One might think you were avoiding us.”
I jumped with a startled shout, startled that someone was there. I looked. A woman stood there; slender, with short blonde hair and wearing a professional looking dark suit. She gestured towards the other side of the booth. “Mind if I sit here?”
I closed my tablet, suddenly not wanting anyone to see what I was writing and needing something as cover while I tried to get myself back under control. “Um… sure?” I said, finally, gesturing towards the other seat. She sat down without a word, dropping a bag of her own next to her.
“Is the beer any good here?” she asked, gesturing towards the one I had just filled.
“Um… yeah? Sure,” I said, not sure where this was going. I started to get up. “Do you… um… do you want one?”
“Not right now,” she said, gesturing me back towards my seat. “Let’s talk a bit first.”
I felt oddly uncomfortable but slid back into my seat. “OK, what is this about? Who are you? Sorry but… I really didn’t expect to run into anyone else here.”
She smiled professionally at that. “Don’t worry Mr. Carter. I’m not here to cause you any trouble. As I’m sure you’ve determined on your own by now, I really can’t do that anyway. I mean, I could… we could… but you would just undo whatever we did to you and that would just waste everyone’s time. We’d much rather just talk to you.”
She frowned. “Oh, sorry. I assumed Trenton would have told you all about us by now.”
I leaned back, the knot in my stomach getting tighter. “Yeah. You’re the Men in Black.”
She looked down at herself then back at me. “Well, woman in blue actually.” She smiled. “And you can relax. No matter what your friend Trenton has told you, we aren’t monsters out to destroy you and everyone you know.”
“Then what do you want?” I asked. “And Trenton is hardly a friend of mine; he’s just someone who intruded on me.” I paused. “Sort of like you.”
She smiled. “We just want to talk to you Mr. Carter. Dale. Can I call you Dale? Believe it or not, we aren’t an enemy. In fact, we might be able to help you.”
I narrowed my eyes. “I don’t need help.”
“Everyone needs help.” She smiled again, then tilted her head towards the bar. “I’ve changed my mind. Why don’t you get me a beer and we’ll talk about it?”
I looked at her dubiously. “What kind of beer?”
“Whatever you’re having. I trust your judgement.” She paused. “When it comes to beer, anyway.”
I paused. “OK, sure.” I pointedly picked up my tablet and shoved it into my bag before standing up, prompting a smirk and a head shake from her. I deliberately didn’t look back at the table as I got up, went to the bar, and poured a beer for her. Returning to the table, I sat it in front of her then resumed my own seat.
She took a sip of the beer, nodded, then took a longer drink. “You do know your beer, apparently.”
“Thanks.” I said. I didn’t know what game she was playing, but I figured that I wouldn’t get anywhere by trying to be obtuse or antagonizing her. I could probably have just left, but if she could find me here she could probably find me anywhere I tried to go, so I didn’t see any point.
“OK,” I said, taking a drink of my own beer. “Why don’t you tell me what this is all about.”
She nodded. “Right to the point. Good. That will make things easier.” She made a show of opening her bag and pulling out a folder which she placed in front of her. She left it closed but I could see my name on the tab.
“Mr. Carter, I’m with an… organization that is very interested in people such as yourself.”
“So you *are* with the government,” I said, disdainfully.
She smiled. “No, though we do have dealings with them. We’re not what your friend Trenton thinks anyway.”
I sighed. “I told you, Trenton isn’t exactly my friend.”
She shrugged. “Whatever. You’ve met him and talked to him? About you being a Traveller?”
I hesitated, then nodded. “Yeah. But he contacted me.”
“Sure. Understandable. He probably found you the same way we did.” She paused. “We were glad to see you take down everything you had posted, by the way. Makes our job easier.”
“We again!” I said, irritably. “Who is ‘we’? And what is ‘your job’?” I paused. “And who the hell are you, anyway?”
She smiled at that. “Oh, sorry. Angela Hinton.” She held out a hand. I looked at it dubiously for several seconds, then she pulled it back awkwardly.
“OK then,” she said. “I’m not ‘the government’, if that is what you are worried about. I’m a Traveller, like you. But I represent a group that has ties with the government, and with most of the governments on our world. And other worlds for that matter. We’re called ‘The Convergence’.” She winced as she said that. “Yeah, I hate that name too, but they had it long before I joined.”
“The Convergence? If you aren’t part of the government, who are you?”
“That’s a very long story.”
I gestured around the room. “We’ve got a very long time, apparently.”
“Longer than you probably think, I suspect,” she said with a smirk. “But you’re right.”
She leaned forward. “OK, you seem to have the basics down, but you haven’t thought all of this through yet.” She tilted her head. “Why didn’t you bring your girlfriend back to you?”
“How do you…?” I started to ask, then stopped. “Why do you care about that anyway?”
She kept looking at me. “Because that tells me something about you. Most people who suddenly found themselves with your ability would have. So, why didn’t you?”
I looked away, uncomfortable. “Because it didn’t feel right. Because…” I sighed. “Because I would always know that she was with me because I forced her to be instead of letting her make her own decision.”
She leaned back in her seat and took another drink. “Do you know how few people would react that way?”
I nodded. “Yeah, I guess.” I paused. “There was this guy I worked with. He…” I hesitated.
“Caleb?” she asked. “Yes, we know about him too. And what he did.”
“He raped Sara,” I said flatly. I was more angry than I had realized. “If he had gotten her drunk first or drugged her or something then people would agree with me saying that. But… he changed reality to make her want to be with him. Changed her thoughts.” I shuddered. “Trenton? I think… I think he’s doing the same thing.” I shook my head. “I feel really uncomfortable being like either of them.”
I sat there for a long time. Angela sat there, watching me.
“It just felt wrong,” I said finally. “I… I thought about it. I did. But it was what I said; I would always know it was me and not her.” I shifted uncomfortably. “I kinda wonder if I influenced Sara any by thinking about her. She’s… being more friendly to me than she ever has.”
Angela was smiling at this point. She nodded. “You are handling this differently than most people I’ve met.”
I suddenly sat up and shook my head. “Wait a minute. Why am I telling you all of this? You still haven’t really told me who you are or why I should trust you!”
She shrugged. “Who else is there for you to talk to?” She smiled. “And I may have manipulated things, slightly.”
She shook her head. “No, not like that. I just have more information on you than you think.” She shoved the folder that had been in front of her towards me. “Take a look.”
I frowned at her but pulled the folder over and opened it. I spent the next minute or two looking at it with growing paranoia and anger. Everything I had been doing the last few days were in there. Everything. Photos. Terse descriptions of where I had been and who I had talked to. Even a photo of that last hug between me and Lisa; an impossible photo since there hadn’t been anyone with us in the foyer at the time.
“Where the hell did you get this!” I almost shouted. “What… Who the hell are you!”
She sighed. “You’re still new to this. You’re doing a lot better than most new Travellers but you’re still missing the implications.” She pulled the folder back to herself and held it up. “I wanted to know what you were up to. I pictured a place where someone had been assembling a detailed dossier on you but had then left it in an Interstate rest area. So I stopped at that rest area and picked it up. Then I read it and came here.” She leaned back, looking at me. “*Now* do you see why people are interested in you? Why Caleb and Trenton and, yes, even me are trying to influence you? The way you think? The way you think now can influence *reality*.”
I was still angry. “OK, fine. But does that give you an excuse to follow me? To dig into my personal life?”
“That’s up to you,” she said, tilting her head and looking at me. “Take Trenton for an example. We don’t bother him because he’s content to stay out of the way, taking care of himself and not trying much to influence the bigger picture. Caleb? We’re a bit worried about him. He’s making a bigger name for himself but so far he’s stayed away from anything that we would consider ‘important’. But we don’t know how long he’ll be satisfied with what he’s given himself.” She frowned. “We may have to take care of him.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“From our point of view, you’re either on our side, out of our way, or on the other side. Don’t get on the other side.” She gave a tight smile at that.
I took a deep breath, then sighed. “OK. What *is* ‘our’ side?”
“What you seem to understand. Don’t abuse the power you have. Try to make people happier. Try to make things just a bit better than they were before.” She shrugged. “That’s all.”
I frowned. “Who defines ‘better’.”
She shrugged again. “You do. We do. As long as all, or at least most, of us with this ability are trying to make things better in general we’ll slowly be moving the timeline towards one that is best for everyone. Or, at least, what most people think is ‘better’. It isn’t that difficult.”
“And if not?”
“Well… there are ways to stop someone from influencing the timeline. Well… one way.”
I glared at her but nodded slowly. “Yeah, got it. Don’t worry, I’ll be good.”
“Do whatever you like,” she said. “As long as you at worse stay out of the way no one will care.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Then be careful.” She smiled. “Some of us have been doing this for a very long time.”
Something about the way she said that gave me pause. “How long? What do you mean?”
She continued to smile. “You know you can change reality. Why can’t you change yourself? Sick? Heal yourself. Getting old? Make yourself young.” She smiled at that.
I nodded slowly, thinking. I should have realized it myself; I had made Diane pregnant, after all. Why couldn’t I do something to myself.
I remembered the… intervention I guess it was with everyone back at Scott’s condo. They were right. I knew I couldn’t always control myself the way I wished I could. Could I change *that*? Instead of finding whatever pills it was Diane wanted me to take?
Angela had been watching me. “Ah, I see you hadn’t figured that part out yet.”
I shook my head, still running through possibilities in my head. “No, that hadn’t even occurred to me. I mean, I had figured out that I could change other people, but myself?”
She nodded. “Yeah, anything. Only two things can stop you now.”
She laughed. “Yes, two. One, you can choose to change yourself so that you no longer have the ability to do so.”
“Why would I do that?” I said, surprised.
She shrugged. “I don’t know, but I’ve known a few people who have taken that route.” She shook her head.
“And the other one?”
She smiled. “You can die. You can’t change anything after you’re dead, so don’t think that you can do anything you want without fear of repercussions.”
I frowned at that. “What does that mean?”
“Don’t think you can jump off a cliff or something and not get hurt. You can’t shift reality that fast.” She gave me a pitting smile. “And don’t think you can anger too many people and get away with it; a bullet will kill you as fast as anyone else.”
I went cold. “What?”
She shrugged. “We haven’t reached that point with you. Yet. But it’s always an option. And there are other factions out there. Other groups and other people who can Travel the way you do. And some of them don’t take the time to talk first. And they are *very* protective of the world they are trying to create.”
Now I was angry. “You *kill* people!”
She shrugged again. “We do what we have to. We’re trying to make the world a better place for everyone. We don’t need people actively working against us. You see, even we have to be careful not to bring too much attention to what we do.”
I thought about the gun, still cocked, in my bag. “What if I have a gun too?”
She looked at me levelly, but I noticed she started breathing a bit faster. “Then you’ll never leave this place.” She laughed. “You think I came here alone?”
I sighed and leaned back. “So what do you want from me?”
She nodded, relaxing a bit herself. “Help us make things better for everyone. Or, at least, don’t work against us. You want to be a world-famous actor with obliging fans in every city; fine, go for it. You want to be President and force some kind of dystopia on us? It won’t last long.”
I laughed at that. “Then explain the last election?”
She shook her head. “That wasn’t us. Any of us. Anyone.” She laughed, shaking her head. “Sometimes chaos theory wins. Or others.” She frowned. “There are big changes taking place that don’t seem right, but if we move against them directly the people behind them will notice. That’s why we have to work in the background. Slowly. Little changes, a little at a time. Take that to heart.”
I sighed. “OK, fine. Don’t worry about me. I’m more worried about myself and my friends at this point than the world as a whole.” I looked at her. “As long as it isn’t hurting me, you can do whatever you want to ‘improve’ the world.”
She nodded, seemingly satisfied. “That’s all we’re asking.” She finished her beer and stood up. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Carter.” She stood up and started towards the door.
“Wait!” I said, suddenly curious. “You said you’ve been doing this a long time. How long.”
She hesitated a moment, then turned back to me. “I came to the United States in 1721.”
“What!” I exclaimed. “You’re…”
“Over 300 years old,” she finished for me. “Trust me, you can’t do anything I haven’t seen before. And I’m far from the oldest person around.” She smiled. “Keep that in mind.”
“I will,” I said, suddenly annoyed again. I paused. “So… what’s your story?”
She hesitated, then shrugged and slid back into her seat. “About what you probably suspect. I was twelve when my family came here from Sweden. We arrived in New York, we still called it New Amsterdam there, but immediately found ourselves in debt. My father struggled for years and he took it out on my mother and my brother and I.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
She shrugged. “That was a long time ago. I’m over it. Anyway, one day I was running late and I knew my father would be mad at me. I was hurrying and at the same time wishing something would happen to him. I was scared of what might happen and angry at him for how he had been treating us.”
“Then I saw a side road. An alley that looked like a short cut home. Of course I took it.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“What you probably realize. I got home to find my brother and mother crying. My father had fallen and hit his head. He died before the doctors could arrive.”
I grimaced. “That must have been rough.”
“It was.” She was surprisingly unemotional about something that must have been very traumatic at the time. “I was of course upset my father was gone, but a part of me was relieved that I wouldn’t be punished for being late.”
She took another drink of her beer. “It was a few days later before I realized how desperate our situation was. I had seen my mother crying, not sure how she was going to support us anymore. I was worried about that and thinking about it, again, when I was on my way home. I saw that same alley and took it again.”
She smiled. “When I got home I was startled to see another man there. I had seen him before, at the church my parents had taken us to, and had seen him looking in our direction. I hadn’t thought about him that much, but had been wondering if someone like him would be able to help my mother.” She laughed. “He had come over to help after hearing about my father’s death. My mother and Samuel, my brother, both acted like we had known him for years. They were a bit surprised at my confusion but I think I managed to cover it up fairly well.”
“And that’s when you figured out what you could do?” I asked.
She hesitated. “Not quite.” She paused, thinking. “OK, the reason I was late getting home all those times? I had met someone. Someone at school. We had been sleeping together.” She laughed, tossing her head up. “Oh, God! That was so scandalous back then!” She shook her head, then continued. “I got pregnant, of course, and when I told him he got angry, hit me, and left.” That thought did seem to disturb her and she looked down for a moment before taking another drink and continuing.
“I was of course upset. I was walking home, crying, trying to figure out what I would tell my mother and Daniel, the guy she was now with, and saw that same alley again. I took it, again.”
She sighed, seeming to become overcome with emotion despite herself. “When I got back home I was no longer pregnant. I don’t know how I knew, but I did. I was certain. And… I wasn’t. *That* was when I realized that I could change things to however I wanted them, just by thinking about it and taking that strange alley when it appeared..” She smiled at that. “I had a lot of fun over the next few years.”
I found myself smiling as well. “I’m sure you did.”
She nodded, her smile widening as she remembered. “Yeah. I started trying to find a better place. Someplace where people got along and helped each other.” She laughed. “I guess I was young and naive still, but… I found it.”
“Yes.” She shrugged. “We can go anywhere, you know. Find anything. It just may not be in your home time stream. Try to make too many changes and your home ‘reality’ can’t support it anymore. You have to cross to another stream.”
“I thought that crossing the streams was a bad idea,” I joked.
She looked at me strangely. “What?”
“Never mind. So, how do I get to these ‘other streams’?”
“You start somewhere like this.” She gestured around us. “We’re at the very edge of a stream here. You know, how at the edge of an actual stream the water moves slowly? Almost stagnant with whirlpools and eddies? That’s what this is. Time isn’t passing here, not really. That’s why no one is here.”
I nodded slowly. “Yeah, Trenton said something like that.”
She nodded. “Good, so he did tell you *something* useful. So, if you kept going forward instead of heading back to the Road you would find another Road. Get on it and you will be somewhere else.”
“Really?” I leaned forwards. “So… what else is out there?”
“Anything you can imagine.”
“I can imagine quite a bit.”
She did smile at that one. “You may have to go quite a ways, but you will eventually find whatever it is. Just be careful, it isn’t like your own stream. You may not exist there. Or you may already be there and suddenly there are two of you. Your home stream will adapt to your changes; others won’t.”
“OK,” I said. “Got it.” I paused. “So, again, why are you telling me all of this?”
“Remember that place I told you about? Where everyone got along? Well, I didn’t exist there but they welcomed me anyway. That’s how that place was. I found a place for myself there. I was… happy.”
She paused, remembering. “Then, one day, someone showed up at my door. Told me he had the same ability I had, to move from stream to stream and to change the stream I was in. And he asked me for my help.”
She leaned forward again. “That was how I learned about the Convergence. They, we, want to make all the streams like that place I found. We can only change the stream we are in, and even then only slowly. But, if we keep shifting things, then eventually two streams will merge. Converge.” She smiled. “That’s where they got their name. We eventually want everyone to be in that ideal world. Or, at least, one something like it. Some streams may get there, eventually, on their own. We’re trying to help them along.”
She leaned back. “And that’s why I’m telling you all of this; so maybe you will understand that I’m like you. And to give you a choice. You can help us. You can say our of our way. Or…” she shrugged. “You can work against us. It’s up to you.”
I held up my hands. “I’m a ‘live and let live’ kind of guy.” I paused. “As long as my friends aren’t hurt.”
She shook her head. “We wouldn’t do that. You would just undo whatever we did and we don’t have time for that. So, what is it going to be?”
I sighed. I really didn’t want to be in this position. “I won’t make anything worse. And I won’t force anyone to me. Beyond that…” I shrugged. “I don’t know what all I can do yet, but I’ll try to make things better.”
She smiled and nodded. “Good. That’s all I can ask for.” She finished her drink and stood up. “Now, I won’t lie to you; there are some people who won’t be happy with that; who will try to force you to do things their way. As long as you’re at least neutral, we’ll support you if we can. Otherwise…” She shrugged again.
“OK,” I said. “Got it.”
She nodded. “Good.” She gestured towards the door. “I need to leave first. You can go in a couple of minutes.” She smiled. “Sorry, just taking precautions.”
I frowned, but nodded. “Got it.”
She smiled. “Good. See you around?”
“Never can tell,” I said, still vaguely angry and using a barely remembered quote.
She nodded. “All I ask.” With a final tilt of her head, she exited the bar.
I waited a while, deliberately taking my time putting everything away; including the file on me that Angela had left. I looked through it. It was *very* thorough. I shook my head. Could I ‘find’ something like this for… anyone?
I then thought more about what she had told. She hadn’t told me anything I hadn’t already been told or figured out on my own. But it did fill in a couple of gaps.
It seemed that whatever this was depended on exits. On leaving the route I was on and taking another one. Which made sense, from a philosophical point of view, but it was weird to see it applied to ‘reality’. I was already consumed with thoughts on how I could take advantage of that.
A few minutes later I left. The parking lot was empty, as I had expected. I wondered who else had been with her and what would have happened if I had turned her down. Or if I had done something to her. She had to have thought of that. Though I guess what she had learned from my file would have suggested that she was safe.
I got back into my car and headed back to the Interstate. Though I had expected it I was somewhat relieved when I saw other traffic on the road. I hadn’t gotten myself stuck in that strange, in-between world.
I drove along in silence for a few minutes. I kept thinking of things I wanted to try then immediately trying to think of something else. I was almost afraid of what I could do.
Where did I want to go?
I finally decided that at the moment what I wanted to do was go home and go to sleep. The next exit came up and I took it.
The next morning, as I was getting ready to go in to work, I found myself wondering… why? I could probably adjust my bank account to have however much I wanted in it, or just arrange for myself to win the lottery or something. While it *would* be nice to be able to sleep late I didn’t want to rush into anything. I was going to take my time coming up with my new life. I smiled to myself; all those years I had spent building worlds for my games instead of studying would finally pay off after all.
I got to the office, picked up my deliveries for the day, and was loading them into my car when suddenly Sara came running up to me.
“Dale? Dale!” She stopped in front of me, more out of breath than I would have expected from her short run. “I… I need to ask you something.”
I hesitated, covering my indecision by finishing loading my deliveries and closing the back of the Jeep. Then I turned back to Sara, now looking at me with annoyance.
“Sure,” I said. “What do you need?”
“Can you help me find Caleb?”
I hesitated. “Why?”
She glared at me. “You know what he did to me! I need… I need to talk to him.”
I shook my head. “Do you really think that is a good idea.”
She was angry. “What! Look…” She hesitated, gathering her thoughts. “This may be a game to you. You may not think much of us ‘lesser’ people, but what you are doing is affecting us!”
I raised my hands. “I’m not doing anything to any of you!”
“Besides you making Diane pregnant!”
“She asked me to do that!” I said, angrily. “Don’t blame me for that!”
She shook her head. “That’s not what I mean! Look… you can just think about something and it changes, right? We know that. And how do you think that affects the rest of us! We have to live our lives knowing that reality can change at any moment and that we won’t even know it! Our memories, our thoughts, our feelings, everything can be changed by people like you at any time. Do you know how that feels? Can you even *imagine* that?”
I sighed. “Look, I didn’t ask for this to happen.”
She just glared at me. “Does it matter? Look, we have to live with this. The least you can do is help me out.”
I sighed again. “OK, sure. Let me get these delivered, then I’ll meet you back at…”
Sara stepped forward, interrupting me. “Just make a delivery at every exit every few miles. You moved us halfway across the state and back the other day, remember? Why should you spend all day delivering packages like us normal people?”
“I thought about it,” I admitted. “But I figured someone would notice all my deliveries were five minutes apart and that might get management to start asking questions that I really wouldn’t want to answer.”
“Then just arrange it so that they are the proper amount of time apart. Hell, find a bar and sit there for an hour between deliveries.”
I hesitated. “I wish you hadn’t given me that idea.”
She shrugged. “Whatever. Look, just do your first delivery then start looking. That’ll give us a couple of hours to find Caleb, then you can drop everything else off. That work?”
I really didn’t like the idea but couldn’t come up with a good reason to turn her down. “OK,” I said finally. “Let’s go.”
I climbed into the Jeep while she went around to the passenger side. I pulled out of the parking lot and headed for the Interstate.
“Do you have any idea how to find him?” she asked.
I shook my head. “I’m not sure. Did he ever…” I suddenly stopped. “Wait, I have an idea.”
I turned and smiled at her. “Watch and see, grasshopper.”
Her expression turned to annoyance again. “What?”
I shrugged slightly. “Sorry.” I winced as I said it. “It’s… kinda hard to explain and harder to believe. Just… trust me.”
She frowned. “Do I have a choice?”
“Of course!” I said, surprised. “Have I done anything to make any of you distrust me?”
I saw her jaw clench. “Not that any of us know of,” she said, finally. “That’s part of the problem.”
I said nothing as I negotiated the ramp and merged onto the Interstate. “OK,” I said when I was moving with the traffic. “I get it. I don’t know how I can convince all of you I’m not going to do anything to any of you.”
She looked away, out the window. “You can’t. That’s the problem. Even if we think you won’t, is it because we know you won’t or because you’ve changed things so we are just thinking that you won’t?”
I started to say something but she turned back to me and held up her hand. “Look, that’s what I’m trying to tell you. That’s the problem. Even if we believe you, can we trust literally everyone else out there? We don’t know who else can do this! You… Caleb… Trenton… who else?”
“Angela,” I said without thinking. I winced again.
I sighed. “I… ran into someone last night.”
“Someone named ‘Angela’?”
I nodded. “Yeah. I’ll tell you everything in a minute.” An exit had suddenly come up in front of us and I swerved onto it.
“Where are you going?”
“To find out where Caleb is.” I paused to let traffic pass then turned onto the road. A half-block along there was a Starbucks. I pulled in and found a space.
“Let’s go in,” I said, gesturing with my head as I turned off the jeep.
She was frowning at me. “This is that Starbucks off of 400. What kind of game are you playing Dale?”
I raised my eyebrows. “Trust me.” When she started to say something I held up my hand. “Look, you either do or you don’t. If you don’t, then there isn’t any reason for us to keep acting like this. You want out? I can make you, all of you, forget all of this. If you don’t, then you need to trust me.”
I saw a brief panic flash across her face before she got back under control. “OK,” she said finally. “OK.” She sighed. “Whatever you want.”
I nodded, covering a sigh of relief. “OK. Let’s go in.”
We went inside and I glanced around, looking particularly at an empty table near the back. There was a manila folder sitting on it and I smiled. It had worked. I pointed to it.
“I’ll get us the coffee,” I said. “Go grab that table for us.”
She frowned. “It looks like someone is there.”
I shook my head. “No, it’s clear. Trust me.” I smiled at her again. “And you may want to look through that folder.”
She gave me a frown but headed towards the table. I went on up to the counter.
A few minutes later I got to the table. She was going though the contents of the folder, an expression of disbelief on her face. I sat down opposite her and handed her a coffee.
“Cream, no sugar. I remembered that right, right?”
“Can you believe this!” she almost shouted, looking up at me. She shoved the folder towards me. “Look what this bastard has done to himself!”
I glanced at the folder then stopped and read it more carefully. I laughed. I hadn’t even thought of that one.
“Drake Ransom?” I said, still laughing.
She gave me an ugly look. “This isn’t funny! He *did* this!”
I nodded, trying to get my amusement under control. “Yeah, yeah. I understand. But… starting a band?” I laughed again. “Most people grow out of that after high school.”
She was still seething. “It never occurred to me that Caleb and Ransom were the same person until I saw this. Can you change history now too!?”
I started to shake my head then stopped. “We can change things the way we like and everyone not like us, or at least people who aren’t with us when we do it, will remember things as always having been the way we changed them. So we aren’t exactly changing history but… close enough I guess.”
She was staring at me. “Do you know how scary that is?” she said quietly.
I took a deep breath. “Yeah. I guess I do. I’m… starting to understand.”
It *was* scary. At any moment all of history could change and no one would remember the way it was. My whole existence could literally have started a week ago and I wouldn’t know it.
Until now. Now, apparently, I was safe. But everyone else…?
I turned back to her. “What do you want me to do?”
She closed her eyes and shook her head. “I don’t know. I almost want to ask if you can make me forget all of this but…” she sighed. “With everyone who knows me and my involvement with this, it would probably just make things more difficult.”
I nodded slowly. “Yeah, I’d have to erase everyone else who knows you too. And I couldn’t affect Trenton… or Caleb. *They* would remember.” I paused, remembering that folder from last night. “And… there are others involved too.”
She opened her eyes, staring at me through narrow slits. “Others?”
I took a drink of my coffee. “Yeah. Remember that Angela I mentioned?”
She leaned back, crossing her arms and glaring at me. “More? OK, fine. Who is ‘Angela’?”
She continued glaring as I told her what had happened last night, her expression never changing.
“That’s where I got the idea for this,” I said, pushing the folder back over to her. “It should give you everything you need to get in touch with him.”
I saw her clenching and unclenching her jaw. She was angry and scared and didn’t know what to say to me. I guess I could understand; with what Caleb had done to her and what I could presumably do to her, or anyone else like us for that matter, what could she say? How afraid of us, of me, was she?
That was when it hit me. I understood. Trenton, Caleb, Angela… this was the power they… we wielded.
I had just effortlessly moved us 20 miles across town, produced something impossibly detailed out of thin air and given it to her. I could bend time and space. I could rewrite history. I thought about Diane. Hell, I had created life. No wonder Sara didn’t know what to say to me.
What do you say to a god?
I felt myself flush. I remembered the warnings Trenton and Angela had given me, but the power I was suddenly feeling was washing everything out. I could do this. I didn’t know what I would be doing, but I knew that the world was suddenly my playground and I wanted to explore it.
Sara had looked away and was staring out the window. I drained what was left of my coffee and stood up.
“Let’s go meet Caleb,” I said.
She snapped her gaze back to me. “I said *I* wanted to talk to him. I’ve got his number here.” She was still upset, anger on the edge of showing through. “I don’t need to worry about two of you.”
I shook my head. “I understand that, but… he can’t do anything to you if I’m there. I’m pretty sure I can block him if he tries to pull something on you again.”
She recrossed her arms. “Oh? Something else you can do?”
“Maybe.” I gestured towards the door. “Let’s go.”
She frowned. “It’s a long way to Los Angeles.”
I spread my hands. “Where do you think we are?”
“Will you stop it!” she shouted. The other people in the Starbucks looked at me but I turned to them with just a raised eyebrow. The feeling I had of being in control of the situation was almost euphoric. I suddenly didn’t care. For the first time in my life, I didn’t care what someone I didn’t know thought about me. It was an amazingly freeing feeling.
“Let’s go!” I said, walking towards the door. The door was a transition, just like an exit, right? I concentrated on what I wanted as we stepped through.
“Will you please…” she stopped, looking around. The temperature was 20 degrees warmer than it had been when we went in and the highway 400 exit had been replaced with a palm-tree line lane.
She looked around in confusion for a moment, then she stared off into the distance. I could see her jaw clench as she opened and closed her fists several times. After a long moment she turned towards me.
“Will you please stop doing that.” Her voice was level but I could see both anger and fear in her eyes.
“Don’t you want to talk to Caleb?” I tried to keep my own voice neutral but the euphoria I was still feeling came through.
“This is a game to you, isn’t it.” She was showing her anger now. “It isn’t to us! These are our lives you’re playing with! So, will you please stop it!”
I sighed. “OK, OK, sure.” I paused. “Do you just want me to take you back to Atlanta?”
I saw her grit her teeth in frustration. “No… not yet,” she said, finally. “We’re here; we may as well go through with it.”
I nodded. “Sure.” I held out my hand. “Can I see that folder for a second?”
She shoved it towards me. “Keep it. I just want to talk to him.” She turned and walked back towards the Jeep.
I opened the folder and flipped through it. I doubted that ‘Drake Ransom’ would just let us into his house, but there had to be a way. And there was. After a few seconds I found what I was looking for, closed the folder, and walked back to the Jeep.
Sara was already inside, staring straight ahead. I didn’t say anything as I started the Jeep and pulled out onto the road.
I wasn’t exactly sure how I would normally have gotten to “Drake’s” house, but I didn’t need to. I saw a side road just ahead and turned onto it.
Almost immediately we left the city behind. The narrow road spread out into a winding street and we drove past the gated entrances to large, immaculate estates. I saw the one I was looking for ahead.
There were about a dozen people standing on the sidewalk near the gate and looking in. A few had their phones out, taking pictures of the house or selfies in front of the gate. A uniformed guard on the other side was in the process of chasing them off as I pulled up in front.
Sara was frowning but I stopped the Jeep and hopped out.
“You can’t park here!” the guard snapped at me. “Move it somewhere else.”
“We’re here to see Caleb,” I said.
The guard gave me a dirty look. “Who? Come here.”
I walked closer. Sara had gotten out of the Jeep and followed me.
As I got close to the gate the guard stepped forward. “Don’t say that out loud!” he said in a low voice. “We don’t need all these people”, he gestured with his head, “getting any ideas.”
“Sorry,” I replied. “But we are here to see Caleb.”
He frowned. “Who do I tell him is here?”
“Dale Carter,” I said, pointing to my chest. “And Sara Erhorn.” I gestured towards her.
He nodded. “Wait here.” He took a couple of steps away from the gate, pulled out a phone and called someone.
Sara looked at me. “Caleb? Not Drake?”
I nodded. “There had to be a way to let ‘legitimate’ visitors get in. It was in the folder.”
She gave me a grudging nod. “OK, I wouldn’t have thought of that.”
I shrugged. “Only people who he wanted to know, or people like us, would know him by that name. It makes sense.”
She nodded in return. “Yeah, I guess.” She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. “This is all… this is all so scary.”
I looked away. “Sorry.”
She shook her head. “No, not you. Not this time anyway.” She sighed. “It’s… It’s knowing what he did to me. What he could still do to me.”
“He can’t,” I said. “Not anymore. As long as I know you I’ll know if something about you changes. I can undo it.”
I saw her jaw clench again. “I hate the fact that I’m just a plaything of the two of you!”
I started to respond but the guard walked back up. “You’re cleared, go on it.” He went to the side and hit a control to open the gate while we returned to the Jeep.
A few of the people out front tried to run in with us but he intercepted them and chased them back out. I saw the gate closing behind us as we drove up the driveway and stopped in front of the main entrance.
As we got out I was looking at the house and trying to imagine how much something like this would cost. And what I would possibly do with the space. My one bedroom apartment would be lost inside. Sara, meanwhile, was walking deliberately towards the front door.
“Hello, Caleb.” I heard her say, flatly.
I looked. Caleb was walking towards us down the steps. Sara had stopped at the edge of the steps and was glaring at him.
“Sara!” he was saying, extending his arms for a hug. “How the hell…”
She slapped him hard across the face.
He stepped back in surprise as I came up beside her. “What the hell!”
“You bastard!” she shouted. “You lying, shit-eating bastard! You… you… I know what you did to me! What the… why… fuck you!” She trailed off, her face red with anger.
Caleb had taken a step back and was rubbing his face. He turned to look at me. “What the hell is going on!”
“She knows what you did to her,” I said, trying to keep my own voice level. “And so do I.”
“And who the fuck are you?” he said, looking from me to her.
“Someone who took the same exit you did.”
“What?” he said, exasperation in his voice. Then his eyes widened. “Oh… you’re a Traveller.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Apparently. And we all know what happened here.”
He was starting to regain his composure. “Oh, so you’re her latest fuck? Trust me, you can find someone far more imaginative than her.”
Sara went to slap him again but he grabbed her arm. I stepped and grabbed both their hands and pulled them apart. “Look, we’re talking here, not fighting.”
Sara glared at me. “You have no idea. You don’t know what it is like to have him do what he did to me!”
I held up a hand. “Yeah, you’re right. I don’t. But none of this will change that!”
Caleb smiled. “Sure we can. I can make you forget me completely.” He turned his gaze to her. “We’ll never have met, though that means you’ll never be able to tell everyone you fucked Drake Ransom.”
She moved as if to slap him again, but stopped. She turned away from us and covered her face, sobbing uncontrollably.
I was becoming more angry myself. I looked at Caleb. “Why?”
He looked at me, annoyance on his face. “That slut? She was putting out for everyone in the office except me. I wanted her, but I apparently never measured up to her standards.” He laughed. “Whatever the fuck those were.”
He leaned forward. “Then I figured out I could do anything.” He paused. “Do you know Trenton?” I nodded.
He laughed. “Have you seen the way he has half the staff at the Vortex wrapped around his finger? That’s when I figured out what I could do. And I wanted to do her!” He smirked and tilted his head towards Sara. “What was I thinking?”
Now I remembered why I never had much to do with Caleb. “If you were always this much of an ass, I can see why she never wanted anything to do with you.”
He snorted. “Oh, you’re one of those ‘save the world’ guys, huh?” He shook his head. “You’re wasting your gift, man. Look at me!” He gestured around him. “Money. Fame. Girls…” He leered at that. “Lots of girls. And willing ones too. I don’t even have to work on them; they can’t help themselves.”
Sara had turned back to us. “You’re disgusting!” I had to agree with her.
He laughed at that. “Yeah, and you’re fat. And ugly.” He laughed again. “Or you will be as soon as I get the chance.”
I felt myself flush at that and stepped forward. “You leave her alone! She just wanted to talk to you. You had your fun with her, now leave her alone!”
He smirked back at me. “Or what? You’ll undo it? How long before you get tired of it? Or before one of Malcolm’s people puts a stop to you?”
“Malcolm?” The question popped out without my thinking.
That seemed to amuse him even more. “Oh, you’re new then. Well kiddo,” He slapped me on the shoulder. “You’ve got a lot to learn. Some of us know what kind of power we have and how useless the rest of these people are. They’re cattle. Hang around with them if you like, but don’t act surprised when you wind up in the slaughterhouse with them.”
I stepped forward. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
He laughed. “You’ll find out soon enough.” He looked over his shoulder. “Gerard! My guests are leaving!”
A large, heavyset man stepped out of the doorway and came down the steps. “Problem, Mr. Ransom?”
Sara stepped forward and slapped Caleb again. Gerard started forward but Caleb held up his hand.
“I said my guests are leaving.” He glared at the two of us. “Aren’t you?”
I reached out to take Sara’s arm but she jerked it away from me. “Let’s go,” I said. She continued to stare at Caleb.
“Let’s *go*!” I said with more intensity. I reached out for her arm again, but she abruptly spun around and stalked back towards the Jeep. I followed.
“See you around!” I heard from behind me.
“Hopefully not.” I replied over my shoulder.
There was a laugh. “Don’t worry. You won’t.” The laugh continued as I got into the Jeep. The gate was already opening as I approached and moments later we were back on the street.
I glanced over at Sara, who was staring expressionlessly out the windshield.
“Where to now?”
She was silent for a long moment. “Does it matter?”
I sighed. “Back home?”
She sighed in return and lowered her head to her hands. “Yeah, sure. Take me back to my car.”
I nodded. “OK.” I waited for a turn and took it.
We were back on the road leading to our office. Sara kept staring out the window in silence as we pulled into the parking lot. I pulled into the space next to her car and turned off the engine.
“Was that… was that what you expected?” I asked.
She turned to look at me with a blank expression. “He didn’t care. He didn’t care at all. He even laughed about it.”
I nodded. “Yeah. He did.”
“What kind of people *are* you!” She snapped.
I held up my hands. “Whoa! Whoa! I’ve never done anything like that! I wouldn’t even think of doing anything like that!”
“Won’t you?” She was almost yelling again. “You have all this power. You can do anything. Anything! How long before you find something that you decide to bend your standards for?”
I was getting angry too. “Hey, don’t think everyone is like Caleb! I would never do something like that!”
She opened the door and stepped out. “Yeah, between you, Caleb and Trenton you’re the only one with any morals. Got it.”
I stepped out my own door. “What.. Have I… Done to you!” I almost shouted.
“You got me into this!” she snapped back. “It it wasn’t for you I… I… I’d still think my life was mine. It isn’t. It’s yours. Or Caleb’s. Or Trenton’s. Or anyone else who happens to be like you!”
She stopped abruptly and turned her back to me. “I’m going back to the Roswell office. Don’t try to talk to me again.” She walked off. I watched her return to her own car and drive away. After a few seconds I sighed and got back into mine.
I needed someone to talk to, but didn’t know who I could trust at this point. Or who I wanted to get further involved. Finally, I pulled out of the parking lot and headed for the Interstate.
As I headed downtown I remembered that I had never gotten around to making my deliveries that day. I concentrated, and as I pulled off the downtown exit I glanced over my shoulder. The back of the Jeep was empty. I was getting the hang of this.
I drove another block, pulled into the Vortex parking lot, and went inside. Jenny saw me as I walked in and waved, so I walked over to the area around the bar.
“How ya doing!” she said with a smile. She gave me a quick hug as I walked up to a high-top. “What’cha need?”
“Just a beer,” I said, dropping my bag over the back of the chair and sitting down. “Is Trenton around?”
She shook her head. “Haven’t seen him, but he usually drops in in the evening. Your usual?”
I nodded and she went back to the bar. A few minutes later she returned with the beer and a basket of chips and queso. I nodded with a smile of thanks and had a few. Then I pulled my pad out of my bag and started typing.
It was about two hours and four beers later before Trenton showed up. He was heading for the bar when he noticed me, stopped for a moment, then came over and sat down across from me.
“Didn’t expect to see you here,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “So… what happened?”
I closed my pad before looking at him. “We went to see Caleb?”
He smiled. “We?”
“Me and Sara.”
“Ah,” he said, leaning back. He looked at me as Jenny came up to the table.
“Trent!” she gave him a quick kiss on the cheek as she sat a beer in front of him. He smiled and patted her back.
“Great to see you Jenny. Listen, you think you can give me and Dale here a moment?”
She frowned slightly, but nodded. “Sure.” She glanced from him to me. “Just flag me down when you need something.” With another frown she went back to the bar.
Trenton took a sip of his beer then leaned forward again, looking at me. “So… how did it go?” He seemed genuinely curious.
I hesitated, then sighed and shook my head. “Not well,” I admitted. “Caleb, he… he basically did nothing but insult her. Threatened to use his… our ability against her.”
Trenton shook his head. “I should have known when he went with the whole ‘Drake Ransom’ thing.” He laughed. “Could you have come up with a dumber name?”
I leaned forward. “Can he do that? No… would he do that?”
He sighed. “Look, I know Sara is a friend of yours but…. yeah, he could be that vindictive. Just hope he forgets about her again.”
I downed the rest of my beer. “I told her I’d protect her but…” I shrugged. “She doesn’t want anything more to do with any of us.”
“Doesn’t mean you can’t keep protecting her.” He looked at me with what looked like compassion for the first time. “You know, you’re really too sensitive for this. You need to… you need to change the way you think about them. They’re… fluid. Things will change.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Change? What does that mean?”
He sighed and shook his head. “Look. Me, you, Caleb, others… we’re always changing things. Even if we aren’t consciously doing it, we’re changing things. You will notice it because you’re one of us. But them? Their world is constantly shifting around them and they don’t notice. The friends you know… that you think you have… will slowly become different. They will change. People like us won’t.” He looked off into the distance, seeming to become lost in his own thoughts.
“After a while all that becomes permanent is change.” He looked back at me. “Hey, I know you don’t like me because of the way I treat Jenny and Shelly and the others here. But as long as I keep this place locked down, as long as I control it, then I have a place to stay. To call home.” He looked around, and for the first time since I met him I saw vulnerability in him. He stayed that way for a moment, then I saw his face harden again.
He laughed, reached over and slapped me on the shoulder. “You’ve got the world man! Grab yourself a place in it. You want to protect Sara? Find some place and take her with you. She’ll be happy to be with you, if you want her to be.” He winked at me. “There are worse thing that can happen.”
“So I was told.” I said, thinking back to what Caleb had told me. “So… who is ‘Malcolm’?”
He looked quizzical for a moment. “Malcolm? Malcolm Hunt?”
It was my turn to look surprised. “The banker guy? He’s one of us?”
He laughed at that. “Hey, just about anyone who is anyone is. Industrialists, famous actors, politicians… they’re all like us. How do you think they got to where they are ?” He shook his head. “OK, not all of them, but a sizable percentage are. Malcolm is probably the one of us who is exerting the most influence around here. Don’t worry, as long as you aren’t doing anything to hurt him financially he won’t care about you.” He leaned forward. “Why are you asking about him?”
I shook my head. “Caleb mentioned him. Said if I didn’t ‘behave’ he’d have ‘Malcolm’ after me.”
Trenton leaned back, saying something under his breath. He stared at the ceiling for a moment, then leaned forward again. “Caleb’s an idiot. He thinks that because he can shift reality that he doesn’t have to worry about anything. He forgets that there are people who have been doing this a lot longer than him, and the ones who don’t keep their head down are the ones who get all the negative attention.” He shook his head. “All that will happen if he starts talking to Hunt is that he’ll get himself killed as a threat. I just hope he dies before he mentions us to him.”
I sat upright at that. “I thought you liked Caleb?”
He laughed at that. “Liked? Hell no. He was an asshole. I was just trying to help him understand who he was. And frankly, to try to keep him from attracting too much attention to us here.” He shook his head. “He apparently didn’t learn that one too much. Oh well, sounds like he’ll be a self-solving problem.”
I frowned. “What does that mean?”
He held up his hands in a helpless gesture. “He’ll change something he shouldn’t. Or annoy the wrong person. Someone will arrange for an ‘accident’ for him.” He sighed and shook his head. “As long as he doesn’t attract too much attention to us, I don’t care.”
“Glad to know you care so much about us.”
“Hey, I do, I really do,” he said. “But I care about me more.” He shoved back his chair and stood up. “Hang in there man, you can handle it.” He winked. “Now, I gotta go make up with Jenny.” He picked up his beer and headed for the bar.
I sighed and opened my pad again but I couldn’t focus on my writing so I kept staring around the bar. I thought about Sara then pushed her from my head. I should never have gotten her involved in this. Had Caleb already done something to her? Would he? I thought about her again, picturing her as I remembered her. She was still there, and I realized that if Caleb had changed her somehow then I would know it.
I sighed again and looked around the bar. The place was mostly full now, all of the tables were occupied and there were people waiting at the door. I felt a bit guilty about taking up a high-top to myself, then gestured towards the bar. Jenny was there almost immediately.
“What’cha need?” she asked.
“Just another beer,” I said, handing her my empty glass. She was about to leave when I stopped her.
“Wait a second,” I said. She stopped and turned towards me, eyebrows raised.
“Look, it’s none of my business but… you and Trenton get along OK?”
She frowned slightly but shrugged. “Yeah, we get along well. This job?” She gestured around her. “You meet a lot of weirdos. A lot of people always hitting on you. But Trenton? Yeah, He comes across as the tough macho type, but get him alone and he’s a really nice guy. The macho act is just that… an act. He… he’s really good to me.” She looked towards the bar where I saw him watching us curiously. I nodded at him and he turned away.
I looked back to Jenny and smiled. “Sorry, just curious.”
She smiled back. “No problem.” She hesitated. “You know, some of Trenton’s buddies are a bit… weird. You know? But you.. you’re all right.” She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. “Glad you’re here.” She took my empty and left.
I sighed. I wasn’t sure where to go from here. Jenny brought me the beer and I looked around again. One of the crowded tables seemed to be full of young, downtown office workers and I noticed one of them looking in my direction. She looked away as soon as she noticed me looking at her, but a few moments later she looked back. I raised my beer in her direction and glanced towards the empty chair opposite me. There was a brief moment of hesitation, then she got up and walked over.