Echoes Chapter XI ('Nocebo')
(c)2005 B Stearns


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Here now in his triumph where all things falter,
Stretched out on the spoils that his own hand spread,
As a god self-slain on his own strange altar,
Death lies dead.
--Swinburne
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She was back, and looking at him as if he was something she'd stepped in.

Aug looked at her, keeping the branch held loosely in one hand behind his back. She hadn't made any move toward it, or him, but he wasn't taking any chances. She just popped in and out and looked at him every so often, and he had no idea where he was or how long it had been. There was nothing but shifting gray formlessness and silence, and he hadn't dared move for fear there was an edge to fall off of. He could wrap his head around the idea, at least; after Athyri, an in-between place where nothing adhered to the rules of regular terra firma wasn't so hard to grasp. He took it as it was, and waited. By now - assuming he was in a place that was inside time - Steve would know he was gone and would raise hell through the place until someone tried to do him in or just gave up and let Aug go.

But Aug wasn't going to count on that. No telling what these fools were up to now. Steve was probably in trouble of his own.

If things like that river existed, if things like Steve and the Ender existed, then there were also edges where the fall never ended.

He had worked furiously on a way to get out, but whatever switch he'd used to get from the hotel to his house wasn't something he had a handle on quite yet. He just couldn't give up on it. Plus, there wasn't a hell of a lot else to do. This time, though, he wasn't going to let her get away with just staring at him.

"What are you gonna do?" he said.

She did not answer. She was nothing but large, alien-black eyes and silver braid, wearing the air around her without ever really taking shape.

"You can't keep me here forever," he said.

"You are not a walker," she said as if speaking aloud to herself, "...that I would recognize."

"What am I, then?" Aug said.

"Flawed," Siarion said. "The way the Er Rai was flawed when Neal decided to bring him to life, the way he was further flawed by the Inverse. You are no longer in accordance with your design. You don't have the...power source to do what you're now capable of, and you will destroy yourself soon, the way Neal would have long ago without the Er Rai."

Sucks the life out of you. That was how Steve had described walking. Neal had always had the capability, but it took chunks out of him until he and Steve had linked up.

"I have to try," Aug said. But he was scared, mouth so dry it felt dusty. He gripped the branch between fingers that were rapidly going numb.

"Goodbye, little sapling," she said.

And she left him alone in that dreary space again.

* * *

She wouldn't have been demanding that he point out the walkers if she could see them for herself.

But knowing that didn't help him now. There had to be something to that, but he was too busy panicking over the mess he'd made of things. She had Aug. She knew about Neal's kids (three that he knows of), so she could at least see them. Maybe she was only guessing. What made the difference, he didn't know or care. Jon would know. Something about their wavelengths. In her mind, walkers or no, they would just be offshoots of him that she knew he valued. That was enough.

He wouldn't meet back up with Jon. At first he wasn't sure why - what difference did it make if Jon hollered at him for losing Aug? - but that wasn't it. The namer part of Jon would mean to 'help', but in the end he was still a namer. He didn't want that to be true. He needed that not to be true.

He took the elevator back down, waiting for Siarion to descend on him again. She had him this time, and no amount of smarting off or threatening her would keep her from doing whatever she wanted to Aug. They had all been invincible together, or they'd felt as if they were, and Aug had been safe in the circle of their experience and affection. I can't bring myself to trust Jon anymore, and without Neal at my back I may as well be spread-eagle on that rock the Sedhians were going to sacrifice Smitty on.

And yet, there was nothing in him that tried to deny he had brought this all on himself, one way or another.

He had no idea how to spot other walkers. And which walkers, exactly? Just Neal's, fellow offshoots like himself and Aug? Theresa had shown up in his vision as clearly as any neon sign, and she certainly wasn't Neal's.

By the time he reached the busy lobby, he was shaken but no longer of a mind to destroy anything. He just wanted Aug and Neal back, and to hell with anything else. Siarion would mess with him for awhile, then wander off again, hopefully before the Ender came to collect him. If he did what she wanted, the other Six would come out of the woodwork sooner or later. Ga'ityn would finally take his head off at the shoulders like he'd threatened to earlier, and Jon would get to clean up that mess, too.

The elevator doors opened, and the world lit up.

Soft gray-white auras haloed one out of every 50 or so people he was looking at. Talking, laughing, walking past him without the slightest idea of what they were. The light trailed behind them briefly when they moved, human comets blown along their course by an inconceiveable solar wind. Two of them on opposite sides of the room were tinged with a very faint winter-sky blue. Walkers, further up the power scale. Aug-type walkers. A thought filtered through his amazement, about what Aug's true color would be, how blue Aug really must be after being in the river.

Siarion had gotten into his space and tweaked him to be able to do this. He knew she had. And he was doing exactly what she wanted him to.

* * *

Jon stood in the middle of his livingroom and thought about putting a fist through the nearest wall.

He couldn't imagine where they'd gone. He had a moment of real fear that they'd been taken, but he knew better; they wouldn't go without a hell of a fight. The Ender had not been back. That left Steve thumbing his nose at Jon by dragging Aug off somewhere, and the somewhere was eluding him. If they'd meant to just pick something up or wander away to talk where he couldn't hear them, they should have been back by now. They would have called him or left him a note.

The fact that not even Aug had left a note told him volumes. They didn't want to be found. And Aug may or may not have realized how...broken Steve was, by now. Put back together only so far, and put through more than even the most hardheaded and heedless person could really tolerate. He was pinwheeling along the edge of what little sanity Neal had been able to hold him to.

He just didn't know where to look.

He thought about the mall, then realized Steve would be drawn back there and it might occur to him to show Aug the wall, but he would not go without Neal or Jon in tow. What he'd suffered there had been too large to be taken lightly, even by Steve. Steve would not remind himself of one of the ways he'd lost Neal. Steve was off doing something, anything, to goad the Formless into helping him. And he would not have involved Aug unless Aug was a necessary component...or unless the younger singer had out-stubborned the older.

I'm going to kill them both.

Aug didn't answer his cell. It was either off, or it didn't work where he was.

He couldn't sit there and wait. It was time he took a shot at doing a little goading, himself.

* * *

He put his back to yet another door.

It was his last defense from the thing that had been chasing him.

Neal paused to listen again, breath held although he knew he wasn't physical in this space. He'd built a labyrinth with doors upon doors and locked them all, and the Ender had been rattling the knobs but so far had been unable to break any of them down. So Neal had been moving from room to room and sitting in the dark, waiting for a chance to build up enough energy to meet the thing head on.

If it was still looking for him, if he kept taunting it, then it wasn't hassling Steve or Jon. That was all he dared hope for. Because by now Jon had found Steve, depending on how time ran. But what was there to put together?

Neal had failed. He had promised Steve he would not let the Ender get him, and he had failed.

Don't let him get me

How it hurt to know they might lose everything because he was afraid of losing Steve.

How it hurt to lose Steve.

He could hear, very faintly, the rattling of a knob. So it hadn't given up on him quite yet. When it began hitting the door with enough force to be felt through all the doors, he wondered again why it didn't just make short work of the body that had to be laying around out there somewhere. The only answer he could come up with was that it wanted more from him than his death. Putting him back in the circle wasn't enough; it wanted in. Wearing his face wasn't enough anymore; maybe it wanted to wear all of him.

"Pathetic," he said aloud, and it stopped leveling its rage on the outer doors. "That's the best you can do, asshole?"

There was a long moment of stark silence. Then, "You're getting tired, walker."

"I'm still a lot more than you can handle," Neal said. "There's no way you're getting out of this once the other Six - "

"The other Six are waiting for you to wear out," the Ender said with a patience that spoke more of violence than its ministrations of the door had. "You've been exiled, Neal. Maybe they'll finally get him back, but not until I've had him for a while."

Neal swallowed back the fear that simple statement caused. There was no way it had Steve. It wouldn't have been wasting time with him yet if it had Steve. Still...

One of the knobs rattled again.

"It's not as if I've made it difficult for the namer to find you, eventually," the Ender said. "I can wait, and you can't."

The fear turned to relief. Jon. There was at least Jon.

It got quiet again, and he was fairly sure it had wandered away this time. He wasn't sure if he could stand up to it by himself. He had held a door closed against it in the desert for Steve's sake, once, even though he'd already been physically dead. He would go on holding all the doors if he had to.

Jon...

try not to be dumb and think you'll rescue me.

There was no answer; there hadn't been. Neal knew his own body was lying somewhere, insensible, maybe no longer in one piece. Still, he should have been able to meet Steve somewhere in the space between. They hadn't been separated; he knew it. There was no final silence.

It never occurred to him that he had locked himself in too far down to be reached.

* * *

Jonathan walked through the house, listening. He tried to remember what the other namers had felt like, what the other walker that had been in his space had sounded like. There was no way they weren't watching him. He sat at the piano downstairs and left his hands off the keys, pressing his temples instead.

"Nobody wants this," he said aloud. "Nobody but the Ender. You guys were all big talk about giving us tasks to do, about cleaning up the lines, about keeping the Er Rai from doing more damage. I remember Ga'ityn sitting in my studio and saying 'I would have brought Siarion with me to help, and a namer to block you, and shoved your nose right in the truth.' Don't let this happen. If nothing else, don't let this happen to Neal."

There was no response; he hadn't expected one. Assholes. "You said you wouldn't let this happen. Do you want me to beg? Is that all? Can't pinpoint me anymore? What do you bastards want?"

This one time, there was an answer; wherever she came from, she hadn't come by conventional means, because there had been no footsteps to herald her, no disturbance of the air. He turned his head and recognized the face immediately: Theresa, the woman who had held Steve's hand in the road that day. The only one besides Steve who had been able to see the Ender. He stood to face her, realizing what he was looking at, understanding that she hadn't been awake the first time he'd met her. There wasn't much left in her eyes that could be described as human, and he wondered dimly whether her husband had any idea where or what she was.

"No one gains from the Ender's success but the Ender," she said without waiting for him to acknowledge her. "No one would want it."

"But," Jon said. "You want something." Everyone does.

"What we've always wanted," Theresa said. "The end of the Er Rai. I won't battle Neal over that point. But I can ask for what's owed."

"Then say it," Jon said wearily. "Just say it."

She eyed him thoughtfully, hands grasped loosely behind her back. All of her prior hesitation from the day he'd met her was gone; she was still dressed simply and her expression was no different, but the kindness was missing from her eyes. "He's already ruined." She paused, watching him. "But he deserves to be punished for what he did to the walkers."

"He's not mine to give," Jon said. "And we've already been over this with Ga'ityn." She seemed to flinch a little at his casual use of the other walker's name. "Does the Ender know there's another of the Six living in this line? He'll be after you next."

If she was put off by that, he couldn't be sure of it. She wasn't distracted. "You have some control over both the Er Rai and Neal, though," she said. "They're both yours to give, in this time and place. Their physical forms are constructs of your making."

Siarion had made that abundantly clear the night she'd hassled Steve and Neal and had torn the singer right out of his constructed form. Jon didn't bother to try and piece together how the walkers knew it, unless Siaron had been running around pointing it out. There was nothing cohesive about how this particular walker was confronting him, though - she had her own motives, or all of the Six would be here. They weren't team players. And they didn't already have Steve, or they wouldn't be trying to bargain with him over who would get first crack at him.

She wasn't of his kind. But he could still use her. "Then let me know when you find him," he said. "I can't discuss your terms unless I know where the Er Rai is. Or Neal. I don't suppose you have any idea where Neal is?"

Her silence was an affirmation, even in those expressionless, alien eyes.

"Can you get Neal back?" Jon said, trying to keep his voice level. He kept his hands in his pockets to keep his hands from shaking. "If they're my constructs, then you know they'll need to be separated again before you start in on the Er Rai, or Neal will feel all of it."

"I can't help you," she said.

"You can," Jon said. "It's that you won't. You're afraid of the Ender, you all are. Neal and Steve are a package deal, cutie. You get Neal back here, or no deal."

She turned her back on him and walked out of the piano room. Her feet made no noise on the stairs. He didn't follow.

* * *

He had never imagined so many walkers.

Steve tried to keep walking as if he didn't see what was happening, but he couldn't keep from staring. There were so many levels, so many in-between colors. He was meant to see this, the millions of blues in the rest of his black-and-white world. The street was crowded, affording him a view of who was cursed with walkerhood and who was just plain clean of any suggestion of it. The majority of the people in his view didn't have so much as an outline, much less a halo of color. He found himself keeping a careful eye out for anything orange, but the Ender had bigger plans for him than knocking him in front of a bus again. A group of kids passed him, twenty-somethings shoving and laughing, and one of them was struck through with a pale, washed-out cyan color. Did he even know? Did he have any idea what he was?

What did she do to me?

He remembered the switch Sidain had given him. Who knew what kind of rewiring these bastards could do when they were bored? This was just another switch. Or he was only just now tuned into it. I could do this before, I saw the walker who held my hand. But really, hadn't he only been able to see her because she was the far end of the walker spectrum? He hadn't even been trying. Now he was trying, and he had no idea how to shut it off.

No more thinking. Time to just get the hell out and try and figure how to get Aug back. It didn't matter what the bitch wanted, he wouldn't help her.

The end of everything began as a sharp pain behind his eyes and in the center of his chest. The world seemed to light up a little higher, and then he felt the proximity of the nearest walker like a sharp pulling in his chest. It was just like the Keepers, but they had been reaching for him then, not the other way around. He was lashing out for that signal without wanting or meaning to, digging first into the fabric of the nearest walker, then four others within a block of him. They were people he didn't know and never would have noticed if not for the tampering, but he suddenly knew exactly what each was made of. Parts, so many parts in tandem, threads of life wound carefully into patterns Jon would have understood. He had hold of them the way the Keepers had held him - with total disregard.

He tried to recoil, horrified by the unintended intrusions, and when he did the pain grew exponentially. He had stepped around the corner of the nearest building and plastered himself against a wall, hands cradling his head in reaction to whatever was splitting his skull. Parts, they were just parts, a sum, never solid. Blood and muscle and bone rested uneasily against each other, always waiting to part, held together by the spaces between cells and atoms. So simple to disrupt...

"Go on, Er Rai," Siarion said close to his ear. "The sapling is not a construct like you, but I can stop his heart just as easily as yours. Their hearts, or his. That's your choice."

No.

You can't make me.

"But I am," she said. "I know how you're made. You would like to do it, wouldn't you."

He didn't answer; his entire being was dedicated to getting away. He couldn't let go of them, they were walkers, they were impossible to let go of.

"Fewer walkers means fewer beings that can call you," she said. "They're imperfect and poorly made. Every moment you wait means another moment less I'll allow the sapling to have. And it's another moment that Neal is alone with the Ender. Do this simple thing for me, Er Rai. For yourself."

Her words meant nothing. She had been threatening him from the moment of his creation, and it didn't matter. All he had now was a contest of wills. Because she did know how he was made, and oddly, she'd tried to warn him and Neal about it. He had all but begged Neal to put him away to avoid nameless horrors like the one he was suffering now. They should have listened to her, and Neal should have put him away. He felt something slip; it was the same awful feeling that came when something physical gave, but it was on a more final plane that would never heal. Still he pulled away, knowing he would damage himself in the process. She bore down on him, never actually pulling the trigger herself but making it impossible for him to withstand the pressure. He didn't realize he'd slid to his knees or that his nose was bleeding freely. He hung balanced over the choice of the destruction of himself or of a group of people he didn't know, and his existence narrowed to how hard he could try to escape.

He was indestructable, but only physically.

"I will simply bring the namer," Siarion said finally. "Jon would rather let you go, but he will put you back together again. And again. He won't be able to help it. And we'll come to this same point over and over. I have the time."

He wanted to scream at her, but he didn't have the breath to do it. He was afraid that if he moved, he would slip, and tear the walkers apart. He couldn't lash out at her and avoid losing control somewhere else.

"Everything you love won't last that long."

He never purposely gave in; he reached a point somewhere behind the pain where everything slipped out of his hands. Individual grains slid and tumbled, each acting on the other, governed by outside forces but acting in accordance with their size, shape and weight. Predictable and individual parts of a whole. The hourglass turned, and the same distortion of space that had allowed him to destroy part of a mall and murder another of Neal's incarnations found its way loose again.

A nudge here, a push there, and vertebrae shattered; arteries burst. There were weak spots in each of the five physical forms he had unintentional hold of, and each gave with a minimum of force as individual parts of the whole collapsed or failed in a myriad of ways.

It didn't matter that the deaths were relatively quick and painless. He felt each one. Each signal dulled and became a numb thumbprint pressed into his consciousness as each bit of blue winked out. He sat, stunned, unable to move, unable to contemplate what he'd just done.

Siarion stood next to him but didn't look at him. "Now that you're warmed up," she said...

* * *