THE DEMON HAUNTED WORLD Chapter IV
(c)1998 B Stearns

"The hall is rented, the orchestra engaged...it's now time to see if you can dance."
--Q, Star Trek: The Next Generation


Ross didn't bother to knock.

"This is getting to be like a hobby," he said. "Siarion, you can't tell me that out of all the spots the Evenwhen could dump you, you'd choose here."

Steve was looking at Ross and didn't see Siarion fix her eyes on him the way the raven had been doing. He also missed the derisive gesture Neal made in his direction.

Ross caught it all in his peripheral vision, and nodded. "Ah." He looked at Steve, who still looked like he thought it was all bullshit but was keeping it to himself. "You don't remember a damn thing, do you."

Neal pointed to the candles that graced nearly every surface. "He remembers something," he said, then explained what they'd done with their morning after leaving Jon's--or what they'd thought was Jon's--in confusion.

"Goddamnit," Ross said, "who's idea was that? Drowned, at ten."

"That almost did happen," Neal said, subdued again at the memory of the headstone. "He was on summer vacation with his family, somewhere in the Midwest..."

"I've heard the song," Ross said. "Christ, I thought it was a metaphor. You know, like 'When The Spirit Comes.'" He glanced pointedly at Steve. Then to Siarion, he said, "From the top. With details, since we're not gonna give him his memory back." He looked at Steve again. "Sit down, kid. Not all of us would be jerking you around at once. This is the truth."

* * *

It took awhile, with Steve interrupting constantly to have one of them, particularly Siarion, reiterate something that he couldn't quite get a handle on.

"A bird," he said at one point. "Like the one that's been following me around."

She nodded grimly. "They felt it was necessary...to watch you. You are not allowed to have contact with the others. You attract too much attention.."

"You make too much noise," Neal said contemptuously.

"We made too much noise," Ross murmured.

"You told us Jon is 'elsewhere'," Neal said to Siarion. "You need to be a little clearer on that, I think. Is he okay? Does he even know he's missing?"

Siarion looked startled. "An interesting question."

"Yeah, so keep putting me off, huh? If he doesn't even realize he's gone...I mean, hell, if they went to so much trouble, to drown him and screw up the world, then wouldn't they try and have him thinkin' everything is fine? If they can change what happens in the Evenwhen, they can do that."

She nodded. "He might think he is home."

"What about Liz, and the kids?" Steve said suddenly. "Did they even happen? I mean, Liz could be married to anybody."

She shook her head. "They are with him. They have tried to duplicate everything."

They all stared at her expectantly. "Okay," Ross drawled when it became obvious he was the only one who dared to ask. "How closely is it duplicated? We're all here, so there must be...ah...versions of us, because Journey's getting ready to do a small tour, and I think he'd notice if the whole band vanished. Unless they wiped his memory of a few things."

Siarion nodded wistfully. "The namers have been very thorough."

"The Otherworlder cage at the zoo," Neal said with exasperation. "Christ."

Steve sighed, not quite impatient, no longer as disbelieving, but still skeptical. It was all insane, but there remained the fact that something bizarre had happened to Jon. "I could accuse all of you of being high," he said finally, still seated across from Siarion and staring past her out the windows. "Or suffering some shared hallucination. Or maybe even making this up out of boredom. But Neal just doesn't have the imagination."

Neal made an impatient motion with his head, looking at the ceiling, purposely keeping his mouth shut. This, this is why I don't like you, you're on my fucking case all the time.

"So what's your point?" Ross said.

"Was I really eight?" Steve said.

"Jesus Christ," Neal snapped. "You're gonna say that every time, aren't you. Yeah, eight, and I'm sorry you grew up."

Steve glared at him incredulously, and Neal decided he'd seen the look one too many times. The guitarist rose to stand in front of Steve, looking down at him. "I take that back," he said. "You never did grow up."

Steve let the incredulity become confusion, and glanced at Ross, who smiled with a grim I told you so look in his eyes. Siarion was watching with wide, intent eyes. Steve stood carefully, realizing he'd baited Neal for no particular reason except that it was easy. Too easy. They had business to get out of the way before they went on. Or at least that's what he told himself.

"So what now?" Steve said, and it was obvious he meant a lot more than finding Jon.

"You can drop the fucking attitude," Neal snapped.

"After you."

Ross sighed loudly. "Here we go."

"Yeah, you're not running everything this time and you don't know what's going on, so you're playing high and mighty to cover for it," Neal said.

Steve rolled his eyes.

"You've always been a control freak, and it's not like we had much further to go anyway. So you can drop the martyr bullshit. For what it's worth, if you haven't been listening, we didn't have a choice about making a change."

"We don't really have time for this, you guys," Ross said, knowing no one heard him. They never had. It was a well worn line and came without thought, like a dully rehearsed part.

"You had a choice about the way you did it, loudmouth," Steve said, keeping his voice down and his features neutral. He'd never had to shout to get Neal going, and the condescension in his eyes was more than enough to keep the fuse lit. "You've been digging yourself a hole, Neal. No one's gonna stand around and watch you drive 'your band' and everything it meant into the ground."

"This isn't about the fucking band," Neal said fiercely, "and you know it. You run away from everything. And while we're at it, you couldn't have everything to your specifications, so who was running it into the ground? Talk about a slow death."

"And then blaming your lack of commitment on not being able to stand me," Steve said, tilting his head, realizing they were in each other's personal space by then and backing down would be impossible without one of them physically moving the other. Or worse. "'Perry drove me away'. Bullshit. So long as it was a big party, you were into it. Otherwise, who could find you? Don't say shit to me about growing up, you hypocrite. 'No more tails'. You're fucking hilarious. I don't have to pull a martyr act. You're handing it to me without my help."

Ross stood, having found the whole thing only mildly exasperating--and amusing--until the pressure in the room went up noticeably by several degrees. There would be a day, if they kept at it, when one finally snapped, and there's be no forgetting it and no apology that would smooth it over.

"Everybody's right, okay? Everybody's an asshole. Can we get on with this?" Ross said, getting as close as he dared, wondering almost idly which one of them would be safer to grab if he had to break something up.

They ignored him, glaring at each other.

"You guys settle this later," Ross said. "We've already done the prerequisite breakup thing, huh?"

Neal and Steve continued staring at each other furiously, neither willing to back down.

Losing his temper, Ross reached out and shoved Neal hard with one hand, sending the surprised guitarist stumbling to one side. Steve took a step back, and Neal said, "Hey!"

"Bullshit," Ross said. "You know what this is? It's the all time, world record for longest session of foreplay."

Anger forgotten, they both stared at him with undisguised horror, unable even to respond. The tension in the room broke almost audibly.

"Most married couples don't act this married," Ross continued in a low, furious tone. "What the hell would you call it? For twenty years, it's been, 'I love him, I hate him' over and over! There's no in between with you guys. One does something to purposely piss the other off, then bitches when they do get pissed. You're masochists."

Steve folded his arms across his chest and shifted his weight completely off his bad hip, expression indignant. Neal held his impatient posture like a shield, still unwilling to back down.

"Now," Ross said, "with that settled, can we get back to finding Jon? Or do you two wanna be alone?"

Steve shook his head, not answering Ross, just making the motion with a fit of laughter hovering behind his eyes.

Neal wrinkled his nose in disgust, refusing to look at any of them. The anger refused to leave, and he hated it as much as he hated Steve right then.

Then Steve said, "He's a pussy, all right, but not the kind I usually go for."

Neal was no longer standing close enough to swing at Steve, and he had already clenched one fist and taken a breath to complete the move when he realized it. It was pointless, both physically and in the greater scheme of things. Ross saw the potential in the brief struggle Neal was waging with himself and made no move to prevent it. Ross himself was torn between breaking into laughter or hitting Steve, and he wished Jon could have been there to mediate the whole thing. He knew it wasn't his job. He didn't want it.

Steve volleyed his attention between Ross and Neal, waiting to see what came of it all, and he found himself strangely disappointed when Neal simply walked away. No parting remark, no sneer or other typical sign of dismissal. They couldn't play their parts properly without the entire cast present; it just didn't work.

When Neal was out of earshot, Ross said, "We're running out of time."

Steve shrugged. "Unless you're talking about creatures that operate outside of it, which is what I'm getting from you guys. What does it matter? Couldn't they just...rewind whatever we do?"

Having kept quiet during the altercation, Siarion said, "They are not trying to affect the rest of your world. They have had to use great care with what they have already done. At times they had to...sift individual days to repair what damage might have been done to the timeline by removing the Inverse from it."

Steve and Ross glanced at each other. "But they didn't 'sift' us," Ross said. "Why?"

Siarion fidgeted. "As I told you, there is a disagreement. Someone may have removed you from the effects of the tampering. What you will do today, however, will alert them that you were not...included. If you are unsuccessful, that inclusion may still occur. They may just stop at the point of wiping any memory of the Inverse from your minds. But they may not."

"Let me get this straight," Ross said, "or at least as straight as it'll get. Even if they ignore us, and we find Jon, wherever the hell 'elsewhere' is, what's to stop the namers from putting us right back where we are now? We'd never get anywhere, because they'll rewind things or put us 'elsewhere'. We're linear, remember? We're not good at the whole paradox/multiverse thing. That was Jon's job. And we're also pretty low on power over here."

Siarion sighed, that same weary I'm explaining fire to the cavemen sigh they'd been getting since the first time they'd run into her.

"The multiverse is like a tapestry," she said. "It is an old story. If you reweave one strand too often, it grows thin. Once broken, a timeline is irretrievable."

"Couldn't they rewind the whole thing and put it back together?" Ross said.

She smiled grimly at him. "Those who oversee the tapestry itself do not necessarily have access to what it is hung on," she said.

"I thought that's what the Evenwhen was," Ross said.

She shrugged. "The Evenwhen is the walls and ceiling. But certainly there are the windows to be considered."

"Can we back up the metaphor truck?" Steve said. "What little I'm following of all this is telling me we need to come up with a goddamned plan that's just as ridiculous as everything else is."

Siarion nodded. "There is no guarantee it will work. But we may attempt something."

Steve thought, very plainly, oh no.

From underneath her shirt she withdrew something that had been around her neck, a black-rimmed sapphire blue stone on a slender black cord. She stared at it wistfully for a moment, then held it out to Steve.

Steve took a step away, unwilling to go anywhere near the stone and not even bothering to question why.

"Is that what I think it is?" Ross said, sounding more accusatory than he'd intended.

She glanced at him. "I do not know what you think. But I was able to bring this with me."

"What the hell are we gonna do with a Saros stone? It's not gonna do anyone any good to sleep through this, assuming it'll work over here at all."

"Remember," Siarion said, "there was more than one kind. This is not like what was made for the Inverse. This was meant to increase the powers of the wearer."

"Perfect, since we don't have 'powers' at all," Ross said.

Neal, having returned unnoticed, spoke from behind Ross' left shoulder. "And we can trust you, right?"

Siarion flinched. "I will not endanger the Er Rai. You must believe at least that."

"Someday, when we don't care much anymore, you can finish explaining the Er Rai thing," Ross said. "'Raven key' doesn't quite cut it. And this supposed argument between the namers has obviously been coming for awhile."

She nodded.

"So we're being sacrificed to something again," Neal said flatly.

There was a moment of silence, and Steve said, "What are we supposed to do with the stone?"

"You can cross over, if you try hard enough," Siarion said.

Despite her obvious conviction, Steve said, "You have to be kidding," in the same tone of voice he would have used to say, who the hell are you people?

"What kind of proof do you need, Perry?" Neal said.

Steve turned his head to stare at Neal for a long moment, feeling the hair raise on his arms and the back of his neck. Something besides the obvious was so damn wrong. Something with the whole damn world, yes, with the silver eyed girl and the missing keyboardist, but also right in front of him. He'd been baiting Neal for a reason, and he didn't want to look too closely at that, the way he didn't want to look at the stone Siarion was holding out to him again. This time he took it without looking at her.

"Why should this work over here?" he said.

"Because to him, you are the one who is missing. He will have the 'beacon' running again. Thinking of you purposely, thinking you have been taken by the namers again. That is why it would work. If you focus on him, it may be enough, and only because you all have exceptional abilities in the first place. It is what these stones are for, when given willingly."

"How do you know he thinks I'm missing?" Steve said, the suspicion in his face obvious in his tone.

Siarion glanced at Neal, then back at Steve. "Because they have been trying to duplicate you for some time, and they continue to fail," she said, hushed. "I have watched. You may not be represented on his side at all; if you are, he will know it is not you. I knew."

Steve hated the sound of that, and covered it by saying, "Everybody's been trying to duplicate me and failing, from what I can see."

Neal made a derisive sound in his throat.

Steve fingered the stone absently, registering that it was warm. He stared into the dark depths of it, wondering if it was worth it to humor them.

"Do you want someone to try and force you?" Neal said.

Steve's gaze snapped back to Neal's defensively, a distant alarm jangling to life somewhere in his mind yet again. "Had enough of that already," he said.

"Aren't you at least gonna try? What the hell's it gonna hurt?"

"You must believe it first," Siarion said, sounding urgent. "As he said, it won't hurt to try."

Clap if you believe in fairies, Steve thought, and nearly burst into laughter. "Why don't you guys try it, then, you're so convinced," he snapped. "Neal's the one who was...walkin' between, or whatever you guys were calling it."

"The Inverse is not thinking of us, pretty bird," Siarion said. "He is looking for you. The namers took the walker's abilities away completely, so that they would no longer work no matter which world he is in. He is as dangerous to them as you are, in his way. But they were unable to take your powers."

Ross almost said something aloud, then thought better of it. No matter which world. He was wondering what they were being told, wondering why the stone would work on this side. What were the namers giving away by letting them realize how much was really between them in their own world?

Steve thought about it for another moment, looping the stone around his neck against his better judgment. "Then I guess, after all this, I just have one more question."

"What," Neal snapped.

Steve looked up slowly, centering on Neal, and said, "Are you guys sure we know which world is the 'real' one?"

Siarion frowned, and Ross' jaw dropped. "Fuck," he said.

"Jon may not be the only one in the Otherworlder cage at the zoo," Steve said, backing several steps away, leaving them to stare after him. He'd humor them, and when it didn't work and there was no Jonathan, he'd...

Jonathan...

He didn't even have a chance to blink; then the room changed, shifting, and he was looking at Jon's practice room. There was the piano and little else save for the man seated at it. It was damn good for an hallucination, if that's what it was, and Steve took a step toward him, laying his hands flat on the top of the piano. It was solid.

"Jonathan...?"

*

"Jonathan...?"

Jon looked up from the piano, startled, expecting to see Steve standing there. It had been Steve's voice, a voice he'd heard too often to mistake. There had been something in his peripheral vision, a figure, a reflection in the gloss finish of the piano top, hands braced on it, and a thousand memories with it...

"Can you believe this goddamned rain?"

"You made good time, anyway," Jon said, and played what he'd been working on for Steve, something that was shaping up almost too fast for him to keep track of. Steve braced his hands across the top of Jon's piano and said, "It sounds like a 'somebody's done somebody wrong' song. Who's crying now?"

Jon snapped out of the reverie, conscious that it had been happening constantly over the last two days, memories assaulting him as if he'd been thrown back into the moments themselves.

"Jesus Christ," he said aloud to the silence. Maybe I'm going crazy. Maybe the world has tipped over, though. I gotta decide which one I like less.

He looked back to the piano keys, knowing they were solid, remembering he'd come in there to play to see if it would settle his mind. Neal had taken his advice and gone home to leave it alone for the moment, and Jon was trying to do the same. Every time he'd been chewing on something in his life, he'd found himself back at the piano. A bout of free-form noodling had taken the gum out of the works on more than one occasion, and he was hoping that would be the case now.

He gazed off across the room again, wondering what had set him off, then shook his head and lowered his hands to the keys and rolled into something that kept repeating itself no matter what else he tried to play, and he went with it, knowing better than to...

He paused. That hadn't been the note he'd intended to hit. It broke his concentration, and he opened his eyes and glanced down again.

His hands stilled over the keys, and for several moments he could only register that there was something wrong--something more--but not what. When he registered what it was, his mind moved rapidly from confusion to disbelief. And then to fear.

He stood so quickly that the bench tipped over with a dull thud, and the sound went on for a moment as if the floor had become hollow, ringing dully across the rest of the house. He stumbled over the legs of it trying to put distance between himself and the piano. Then he stood in the middle of the room, eyes closed again, struggling for calm.

There really were only two choices; what he'd seen was real, or he was losing his mind. There were no gray areas to hide in. He'd been playing this same piano for years, he knew it better than he knew some of the people in his life, its tones and moods and sore spots. It wasn't a question of a defect in the instrument. It was a question of reality or insanity.

He exhaled a long, slow breath and opened his eyes again, turning back to the piano. He found middle C with his eyes and trailed downward to B, then A...

There was no B flat key.

It hadn't been removed; there was no gap, just the ivory shades of B and A resting against each other. Yet when he glanced up and down the board, the other octaves were complete. Beginning from the left, he began counting up the scale.

Eighty seven keys.

He counted again. Pianos had eighty-eight keys. He chanted the number in his head as he counted, wanting there to be eighty-eight keys, needing...eight notes in an octave, eleven octaves, eighty-five, eighty-six, goddamnit...

Eighty seven.

He counted a third time, his teeth chattering. There were no gray areas. It was all as black and white as the piano keys in front of him.

*

Steve snapped back to existence in the place he'd started from and fell to his knees, stunned.

*

Jon remained where he was, thinking of raven keys and piano keys, and wondering what kinds of things they each opened...

* * *

When Steve was semi-coherent again, he said, "I saw him."

"Did he see you?" Neal said, and Ross leaned over to help Steve to his feet.

"I don't think so. I wasn't there long enough. But I saw him. What good is it, if I can't really get to him?"

Siarion gasped, and Steve saw the alarm on Neal's face just before the singer was struck from behind hard enough to send him stumbling. The singer winced at the twinge in his hip, righting himself and turning to find himself looking into his own face. His mind refused to believe what he was seeing and he didn't react even when the impossible advanced on him. It was another version of his own face, but furious with promised retribution.

"That's enough," his double said, the voice harrowingly close to his but lacking. "You'll do well, Stephen, not to continue on this path. I'm only warning you once." It's gaze came to rest briefly on Siarion, who refused to look at it.

Too shocked to reply, Steve only gaped at it, trying desperately to catch up. The namer--it had to be that, they knew it--held a hand out to Steve without explanation, a silent demand.

"You may not have the stone," Siarion said, speaking to the namer but keeping her eyes on Steve. "I have given it to him."

"Then he'll give it to me," the namer snarled.

"The namer cannot take it from you. You have to give it willingly, pretty bird," Siarion said.

"You've already earned yourself a punishment for your actions," the namer said to Steve. "We've decided on it. Don't involve yourself any further, or cause yourself any more grief by refusing to give me the stone."

Steve shook his head, not knowing if he meant it as a refusal of the namers' demand or of the situation itself.

The namer dropped it's hand angrily. Then, it's features smoothed to placidity, something a thousandfold more chilling than the snarl of rage. "Stubborn?" it said softly.

Steve felt like lowering his head, couldn't bring himself to stare at the scarecrow any longer, but he wouldn't cringe in front of it, whatever the hell it was.

"Shall we see?"

Look, Steve, a sharp female voice whispered in his memory, something tearing loose accidentally. Look where stubborn leads.

"You're already dealt with," it said, and was gone as suddenly as it had come.

Steve looked at Siarion, the motion forced. His eyes felt as if they'd crack if he tried to move them.

"It was a namer," she said calmly. "They do not have forms that are their own. They must...borrow them. They are the most familiar with yours and are aware of the impact it has."

"'Dealt with'?" Steve said to Neal.

Neal shrugged, shaken but playing it off. "Maybe, maybe not. Is it gonna stop you from trying again?" He was already shaking his head no before Steve said it aloud.

"We will have to try again," Siarion said.

"Shit, I don't know about right away," Steve said. "Whatever it is I'm doing, it's hard on the body. And wherever that is, over there, it looked pretty close to the real thing to me."

"Try again." Neal was adamant, tone leaving no room for discussion.

Steve narrowed his eyes at him, then looked at Siarion. "What if he's not in the same place?"

"He may have had an idea of your presence, however briefly. You saw him, after all. If he is thinking of you, you will be able to find him. The connection will hold."

Steve sighed, trying to loosen the strange ache in his chest that accompanied whatever he'd just put himself through. His shoulder burned a little where the namer had struck him..."What am I gonna do with him, if I manage to stay over there longer and grab him? Yanking him back over here won't do it. There are too many other people involved."

"It would be easier if he believes that he is the one missing. It may be difficult to convince him. And it may be even more difficult to earn the time to do so. The namers are aware of you now, of us, and will act."

"Then why isn't something already done?" Ross said. "Why this bullshit about being 'dealt with' when all they have to do is snap their fingers and displace us, or wipe our memories? So much for omnipotent."

Siarion shrugged, the motion very human and out of place. She glanced at Steve. "He is the Er Rai," she said.

"There it is again," Steve said, cupping the stone in one hand. "Whatever the hell it really means." Then he steeled himself, trying to remember what he'd done the first time...and was gone.

* * *