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

I still remember that day...it could have ended that way.
--Jonathan Cain, Baptism Day


"I've got an idea," Jon said.

"You're not going back over there," Neal said immediately.

"No better way to get their attention."

"We've had enough attention. Come on, Jay. What's there to do?"

"The stones," Jon said.

Neal raised his eyebrows. "We can't even touch them. What are you thinking?"

"Remember, on Siarion's Tower...we had to put them in a circle to get her attention. It means something to them."

"And it's okay with you if we just summon anything," Neal said. "No, I can't think of anything better. It just doesn't look to me like there's anything we can do." He paused, then said, "Dammit, I'm not giving up. You just have to decide how much you want to give up to get so much back."

Jon swallowed hard, thinking about the piano upstairs. "You usually know what I'm thinking. But this is getting scary."

The two men looked at each other.

"You gotta start realizing stuff isn't right, Neal," Jon said. "We have to start considering what kind of crazy shit is going down, here. I think you know by now that we're really not home. I don't know what's being done to us. I think if we figure that out, we can start thinking about how to get out of it. There's no way to figure anything out, standing around here."

Neal stared at him.

"You know I'm right. Or else the world ended and someone forgot to tell us."

Neal sighed heavily, and Jon purposely looked away, knowing he was crowding Neal with his insistence, fearful that the scion had been right to say what it had.

An hour later, they were back at Steve's. The front door was still open, but there were no ravens this time. The stones remained in place. The remnants of the scion had vanished.

"I hope to hell it's not walkin' around," Neal said.

Jon nudged a couple of the stones with one foot, surprised he didn't feel anything even from the incidental contact. Neal stood well back, not touching anything. Then Jon leaned over with a thoughtful look on his face, and picked one up...

"Jon!"

Startled by Neal's shout, Jon dropped the stone with a convulsive jerk. It thudded hollowly to the floor, and the sound traveled on without stopping, the floor failing to muffle it. It faded as they stared at each other in silent horror and listened to the sepulchral ringing until they couldn't hear it anymore. But they knew, knew, it went on regardless.

"Holy shit," Neal whispered. "What the hell were you doing?"

"It isn't not-stone," Jon whispered back, unable yet to break that appalling silence entirely. "It isn't whatever it was when we were here before."

"The what made the floor hum like that?" He didn't like the implications behind Jon's words, didn't want to listen to what he could hear, really hear, behind Jon's eyes.

"When you hear a song on the radio..." Jon began.

"No way," Neal said, cutting him off. "Don't go there, Jonathan. Don't."

"When sound leaves our atmosphere, it goes on forever, in all the directions it can. Like dropping a pebble into the middle of a pond. The waves spread out from the middle until they hit the shore."

"Jon!"

"What if there's no shore!"

"What are you trying to say!" Neal shouted.

Jon looked hopeless for a second. "I don't know. It's like I've been trying to get at something all week, and it won't stand still long enough."

"I know you're goddamn coming unglued on a regular basis," Neal said. "You've got a pretty good reason, sure, but I'm not used to seeing it. You have to calm down."

Jon almost said, I think I am coming unglued, I think I'm beginning to disappear, somehow, and there's stuff I don't remember that I should, but he was quiet and Neal didn't look as if he caught any of it.

"Let's get the hell out of here," Neal said, "and stay out."

* * *

Arkansas, July, 1960

He was out at the edge of the weather-beaten dock again, pondering how the water directly reflected the sky. If he squinted his eyes a little he could almost get himself to believe one was an extension of the other.

"Jonathan."

He looked over his shoulder, and his brother Hal was there, tall and fair, scowling at him with impatience. Like Jon, he was wearing cutoffs their mother had sewn just as school was ending for the summer. They'd outgrown their school clothes again like clockwork. Hal held a fishing pole in his right hand.

"Mom's got Tommy," he said. "Dad n' I are goin' fishing down the lake.You coming with, or you gonna stare at stuff all day?"

Jon shrugged. "I'm thinking."

Hal's sarcastic expression said there's a big shock!

"I'll come over later. You guys go on without me."

Hal nodded. "Remember, Dad said no swimming by yourself."

Jon nodded. "I know, Harold."

Oh, he hated that! Jon grinned as his brother's scowl became fiercer for a moment, then diminished. Hal walked back down the dock and left him to his thoughts again...

Of the water.

Dad did say to stay out of it. He sighed aloud. Decisions about what one should or shouldn't do were bothersome to a ten year old, especially one on vacation from the suburbs of Chicago. He wanted to follow his father's advice, and keep his trust, but ten minutes later the argument had gone from being all one sided to balancing carefully between the two choices. He would hardly be in there, after all, and by the time anyone came looking for him he'd be dry again in that warm afternoon sun.

I won't.

I will.

I won't.

With a sudden dash borne of the thrill of disobedience for it's own sake, he vaulted off the edge and cannonballed right into the lake.

Grinning to himself over his own temerity, Jon surfaced and swam out a little further, keeping an eye out for anyone who would be likely to tan his hide. Just a minute or two, that was all, no harm...

If he stretched his toes down all the way, he could still touch the silt and mud at the bottom. So long as that was true, it was really more like wading, if you thought about it. The argument wouldn't save him if he was caught, but at least technically he wasn't disobeying. He could say he fell in, which was also technically true.

He went out a little further, touching bottom every so often, the contact reassuring. He was a good swimmer, but inexperienced, and he was fine so long as the bottom stayed within reach. He ducked his face into the water until lake and sky met each other in his vision, until they were One. There was something to that...

The bottom dropped off sharply and without warning, forming a depression in the lake bed, and when he tried to touch bottom again there was none.

He panicked, knowing better but unable to help it. He thrashed instinctively and took in a lungful of water almost immediately.

It took the air out of him, and the strength out of his legs as well as destroying his ability to scream for help. He choked, trying desperately to regain a footing that wasn't there, struggling to get back to where he'd been standing. He didn't care if he was caught, or grounded for the rest of the summer. He didn't care if Hal rubbed his nose in it for months...

Everything he'd been taught, about keeping his head and relaxing, abandoned him.

The lake closed over his blond head and took it all away, whirling back to stillness until the surface was like glass again, a mirror to the sky.

* * *

No one slept well, among the ones who slept at all; the combination of what was at stake and what had happened kept even the ones who'd traveled from getting much in the way of rest. Two and Gabrielle ended up on the hide-a-bed in the living room; Syd and Lora took Syd's room. Ross took the floor in the living room, and Steve insisted on sitting up in an armchair, since his hip had taken all the excitement it was going to and made it difficult to lie on. Siarion, claiming she'd never slept during her existence, was outside on the deck staring at the sky, and Ellie was either out there with her or seated on the floor with her back against the hide-a-bed, listening. They purposely left a light on in the hallway. They had all talked softly in the semi-dark until those who had traveled the farthest to be there gave in to exhaustion.

And in some cases, dreamed...

The hymns...

He'd been perched on the counter forever, back in his own house, a candle in his hands, and the hymns came effortlessly. He couldn't stop singing, or the demon would come out of the dark again. He didn't want that, after having finally sent it away...

Something shifted, then, reaching for the light, for him, and he shrank away. The music strangled to silence when Neal's dead eyes met his own, the corpse stumbling toward him...blaming him and worse...

Steve's eyes snapped open again, to pre dawn light and an apartment full of Journey fans. Maybe he had died and gone to hell, he thought, then reconsidered. That wasn't fair. He was a hell of a lot better off where he was than where he could be, he knew. He sat up stiffly, his hip and back complaining. He began to sigh until he glanced down and found Ellie staring at him, lying on her side on the floor, head propped in one hand. He meant to snap at her out of nervousness, but nothing came.

"Nightmares," she said, and Gabrielle stirred.

He nodded.

The estimation held neither sympathy or accusation, just a matter of fact appraisal. It dissipated the rest of the nightmare, and he nodded again.

"Don't you sleep?" he sighed.

"I gave it up."

"Who the hell are you," he said, and she knew he meant all of them.

Gabrielle rolled over on the hide a bed and said, "You two need to stay the hell away from each other."

"Thank you," Steve murmured.

* * *

"There has to be a reason why we remember Jon and no one else does," Lora was saying later that morning. "There has to be a common thread, besides the obvious. I don't know why I knew you would still remember him," she said to Syd, who nodded. They were seated at or around the table in Syd's dinette.

"I don't suppose it's too much to hope there are a few thousand other Journey fans out there who are thinking the same thing," Gabrielle said.

"Oh, I don't think we're alone," Syd said. "But I don't think we have the kind of time it would take to go looking."

"What if we were just skipped over?" Two said.

"Yeah, but skipped over because of something," Ross said.

"How did you guys all meet each other?" Steve said. It was the first thing he had said since scolding Ellie earlier.

The fans turned almost as one to stare at him, the sound of his voice reminding them how much he was there. Ross they'd accepted almost immediately, as a matter of course. But Steve had been tuned out slightly while they turned the mystery over, and when he spoke it was like being jostled awake. They stared dumbly until Steve raised an eyebrow at Syd.

"Through the fanclub," she said simply.

"As opposed to rehab," Ellie said.

Two shot her a reprimanding glare and said, "By accident, the same way Journey got together. Isn't it all a series of accidents? And being somewhere at the right time."

"But before that," Steve said, deciding he was on to something. "Something made you guys join the fanclub. Something got a group of people from various parts of the country together, in this room, at the same time, when you never would have run across each other otherwise."

They all considered that for a moment in silence. Siarion was on the deck again, staring at the sky like she hadn't seen it before.

"Something that let us all get the lights on in time," Two said, and Ellie stood with hands raised and walked away, out onto the deck with Siarion.

Ross watched her walk away, then centered on Two, opening his hands slightly in a gesture that asked her to go on. He was watching all of them in turn, painfully aware that he was the only one in the room who remembered the wraiths from close up and recently.

"We didn't know that until later," Two said, "that we all had something more in common than the music. Not until Ellie made some cryptic remark that shouldn't have made sense to anybody. Then it all came out. We all survived something. That something probably pulled us together subconsciously. At least, I'd like to believe it was only subconscious. We're all making noise, too, in a way. Aren't we?"

"Noise that's made us exempt from whatever's been done to the world," Gabrielle said.

"So, what do we do with it?" Syd said.

They fell to staring at each other again.

"So no one's explaining the turning-on-the-lights thing, then," Ross said after a moment.

Two shook her head. "No one wants to keep tracing it back to you guys," she said. "Best leave it alone. It won't help us now, anyway."

"I have to get through to Jon, somehow," Steve said. "That's all there is left to do, make sure he knows where he is. He'll be able to help us find a way out of this. I don't know how. But he will."

"Then which one of us gets killed immediately afterwards?" Ross said. "The namers are gonna get tired of you, Steve. They're already tired of you. I think there's another way, and it's got something to do with these guys."

"Then why not me?" Steve said. "What did Jon do that he had to be...cancelled? If they're tired of me, why not just wipe me out?"

"What did Hal say, exactly?" Syd said.

"That Jon drowned when he was ten," Steve said. "That's the most we got out of him. It's obvious they never got over it. They were on vacation by some lake, and he..." Steve's eyes widened perceptibly, and he stood.

"No," Ross said.

"Yeah," Steve said. "If there's a version of Neal over there and I can get to him, if he can do what you guys said he could, before..."

"It wouldn't work," Ross said, cutting him off. "Even if he could, they'd go right around behind him and drown Jon again, and step on you both in the process. Neal could be dead on both sides, then. And, of course you don't remember, but the namers took Neal's abilities away. A copy is still a copy, Steve. If there's a Neal over there..."

"There has to be. I could be missing on that side for years and maybe no one would notice, but Jon would miss Neal right away. Especially since there's a tour on the way. I need to do something to make sure they know they're on the 'wrong' side."

Steve looked at Siarion, who was leaning in from the deck. She stared back without comment, and this time he knew she had nothing to add. He looked at Ross again and said, "And a better idea would be...?"

"Look," Ross said, "there was stuff missing before and we figured it all out. Don't go rushing off until we come up with a solid idea."

"I agree with Steve," Ellie said, leaning in the other side of the door from Siarion.

Ross rolled his eyes. "Thank you, peanut gallery."

"Go on," Ellie said to Steve. "Do it. At least tell them what's going on."

"But I've never had time for more than a sentence or two," Steve said. "I thought if I grabbed Neal, and..."

"Steve," Gabrielle said, "take a note or a tape or something over with you. Don't try and stay. Just hit and run."

Steve stared at her. "We hadn't thought of that."

"And then of course there's always the consequences to consider," Ross said, glaring at Ellie. "Last time we tried this, they managed to kill Neal and get every cop in the known world looking for Steve. This time, if we're lucky, it'll be something more along the lines of Tuirnarin's kind of justice. But you don't remember that, do you?" he said to Steve.

Syd returned from the living room with a cassette tape, which she handed to Steve, who followed her back into the living room. "I think this thing has a recording feature on it somewhere."

"Make me a message for my answering machine while you're at it," Ellie said.

Steve glanced at her. "What the hell is with you?"

"Please?" Ellie said.

"Don't talk to him," Gabrielle said. "Go stand in the goddamn corner if you can't behave."

Ellie shrugged. "What if flipping over demagnetizes the tape, or something? Aren't there electromagnetic forces at work, here? Be a big waste of time, to give Jon an empty tape."

Steve paused. "I'm not committing anything else to paper, after all this."

"I'll write it," Two said.

"Make sure it's all phrased with Journey lyrics, so that only Jon will understand," Ellie said.

"Out," Syd said, pointing at the sliding doors to the deck. Ellie went back out there with Siarion. Two found a pen and began writing, fielding ideas from Lora and Ross.

Five minutes later, Steve was gone.

Five seconds after that, Ross said, "Shit."

"How long have you known Steve?" Two said. "Twenty years?"

Ross glared at her.

"Because we just met the guy, and we knew he was gonna do it anyway," she finished.

Ross sighed. Lora shook her head at Two, who shrugged apologetically.

"Well," Gabrielle said, "never a dull moment. What are we gonna do about these namers?"

"Oh, no problem," Two drawled, stretching from her position at the table. "We'll just reason with them, you know, convince them that since we're all mortal all they have to do is wait an eyeblink or so and we'll be out of their hair."

"That's a thought," Gabrielle said. "Why fuss over mortals, no matter how noisy they are?"

"Shouldn't he be back, by now?" Lora said.

"Time probably runs different between here and there," Two said.

"One of these days, we're going to have a normal conversation," Syd said. "I know we will."

"Keep hoping," Gabrielle said.

* * *

Steve felt the displacing, disjointed lurch that came of leaping between, and he was still unable to completely believe he was doing it. He'd been on his knees in the grass for several seconds before he felt it, and when he looked up Jon and Neal were sitting a few yards away, gaping at him.

Neal! Neal was alive...

And then he remembered the namer. It could have been anything sitting there with Jon. But at least it was definitely Jon.

"I hope you're real," he heard himself say, staring at Neal. The world was drifting in front of his vision in fits and starts, as if he was underwater...

Then Jon had him by the arm, and he was giving him the note.

"I won't be here long enough to explain," Steve said. "They won't let me."

"How'd you get away?" Jon said, and Steve knew then that the namers had Jon thinking the singer was in a 'habitat' in the Otherworlder cage at the zoo, like Jon and Neal were.

"I didn't," Steve said. "It's you that needs to get away. You know that by now, right? Just...make sure that's Neal. Hope it is."

Then something pulled him back, but not where he'd been or how he'd left everyone. He was standing by the stereo in Syd's apartment, and Ellie said, "What if flipping over demagnetizes..."

And he knew he was hearing it for the second time.

They all froze and stared at each other. Siarion was the most distressed, realizing what had happened to them before anyone else did.

"This is more than deja-vu," Syd said.

"We have been rewound," Siarion said, "to a point before the note was written, and we should not remember it."

"I remember everything," Lora said. "We were waiting for Steve to come back."

"I was there," Steve said. "I saw Jon and Neal. They were both there."

"It could have been," Ross said. "But--"

"No," Steve said, "they had it all set up to look like it should have, like they were home, and I think Jon knew where he really was but he wasn't sure where I was from. He thought I was trying to escape...it makes sense, that they'd make a double of Neal."

"I can't believe this," Ross said. "Goddamnit, it never even happened."

"But I was there!" Steve said.

"You were and you weren't," Ross said. "There was and wasn't a note. The big question is, what now? What else are they going to resort to, to stop us?"

Steve sighed and looked at the ceiling. The pointlessness of doing anything struck him, the realization that they were dealing with something so much bigger than themselves. Ellie and Gabrielle went out on the deck to see if anything looked rewound.

"I could...flip back over again," Steve said halfheartedly.

"We can't keep up with them," Ross said. "They have more time and patience than we do. They'll just keep rewinding us."

"But the timeline will wear thin if they continue to adjust it," Siarion said. "They have already tampered with this one too often."

"There has to be...I don't know...a higher up we could take this to," Steve said angrily. "Everybody answers to somebody."

Gabrielle stepped back into the apartment. "Speaking of which, the police are here."

Ross looked at Steve.

"Are you guys sure?" Syd said. "You can barely see the road."

"Part of it, though the trees," Ellie said, looking at Steve. "Three or four cars, no lights or sirens."

"Coincidence, my ass," Ross said. "Nowhere to hide, kid."

"I'm not going back," Steve said immediately. "I'll flip over, first."

"Out," Gabrielle said. "You two, out, now."

"Where?" Ross said incredulously. "Like we're not conspicuous? We won't make it down the stairs."

"They'll set up a perimeter while we're standing here debating it," Ellie said. "Then they'll have us surrounded." She looked at Steve. "I told you, we won't let anything happen to you. We need a diversion."

"Oh, no," Syd said. "That's not--"

"You guys get down the stairs, split up, and we'll meet down the hill in, say, half an hour," Ellie said. "Isn't there a Fred Meyer or something?"

"What the hell do you think you're gonna do?" Syd said. "We all go, or--"

She was wasting her breath. Ellie was out the door.

"Hell," Gabrielle said, "don't waste the chance. She's crazy, she'll be fine."

Steve said, "What's she--"

"Never mind," Ross said, checking the stairs by the open door. "If it means what it does when you say diversion, you don't wanna know."

* * *

She didn't see them, at first; they were doing what she'd thought, blocking the entrances to the parking lot and heading for one particular building on foot. By the time she saw the first cop, it was nearly too late; he was headed for the back staircase that the others would be running down in short order. She ran behind the next building, casting around on the ground for the closest thing to a weapon, and found a part of the easement fence between the complexes that had come loose. She picked it up and looked at the back of the building. Sliding glass doors, concrete patios...and a kitchen window at face height.

"Sorry about your window," she murmured, then wound up and smashed it inward. The cascading glass made the kind of noise she'd hoped it would, resounding between the buildings as it crashed to the pavement below and into the apartment beyond. Then she screamed, hurling the fence board away, and went on screaming hysterically until the first uniformed officer came running around the corner with gun drawn, skidding on the grass.

She screamed and pointed toward a busier than usual James Street, which was just on the other side of a hedge. "There's a crazy man!" she shouted. "He's armed!"

"Miss," the officer said, "are you--"

"He was in one of the apartments, then he ran toward the street! He threatened us!"

"Just calm down," the officer said, stepping toward her, and that was when she ran for it, screaming all the way, even when she bolted into the street.

* * *

They were on the second landing when the first scream reached them, and they froze.

"Give her a moment," Gabrielle said. When the screaming went on and began to move away, she rounded the next set of stairs and looked down across the strip of grass that separated the apartment complexes. The same hedge that bordered the street also bordered the rear of the complex, reaching above their heads. Crossing it and splitting up would put an effective barrier between them and the police. Enough to get a head start, anyway.

"I'm going to kill her," Syd whispered from behind.

"We'll meet in the...sports department at Freddy's," Gabrielle said. "We'll be harder to spot, split up. There's a McD's down there, too, some of us can hang out there and lay low."

They went down the stairs and through the hedge a pair at a time, heading off in different directions, cutting through the next complex. Steve went with Syd, Ross stayed with Lora, and Siarion walked away with Gabrielle and Two. They walked away unseen, winding through the neighborhoods on Kent's East Hill.

* * *