"We can't leave him alone," Aug said again, not as if he feared that he wasn't heard but as if he needed to drive it home. He was intent on Neal when he said it this last time.
Neal sat in the dressing room with a towel on one shoulder, taking his boots off with a disturbing air of calm. It was the hardest show he'd ever played, and even now, just sitting and going on like everything was fine was driving him crazy. There was a meet and greet to live through yet, a crew and girlfriend to act nonchalant for, and all he wanted to do was lose it. But he couldn't yell at Aug, not for anything.
"Aug," Jon said softly.
"I know he beat it before," Aug said. "I saw what it did to you guys first, though."
"If I pull him here, or 'jump'," Neal said, "it'll center right on us. It already knows where we are, but if we make a lot of noise right now, it might not be able to resist taking a run at us."
"Like waving a red flag at a bull," Ross said from his spot on the sofa shoved against the back wall.
"It's learning," Jon said softly. "This time it's gonna go the careful way, and so should we."
Aug shook his head, but had nothing to add. He was deeply rattled, and it was apparent to everyone. Even Deen was changing in silence, pale, thinking about what had come through Jon's studio while he lay on the floor to hide from it. Too much for one day, for a lifetime, and for the first time Aug wanted out. The quiet they'd had over the past several months had seemed so final.
"Nothin' we could do right now," Neal said softly. "Nobody wants Steve right here, right now more than me. If it just wanted to kill us, that would be scary enough, but it wants a lot more." He rose and walked away then, because he didn't want to get into particulars, and he couldn't deal with the fear on Aug's and Deen's faces.
"Okay," Ross said softly after a long moment. "Nothing to see here, move along."
Aug found himself wanting to berate all of them for taking it so lightly. They weren't, he knew they weren't, but he was having trouble keeping the lid on. It had been nothing but monsters since he'd fallen in with the band, and he wasn't ready to face another. Or more of the same.
When no one moved at first, Ross clapped his hands together once, the report loud and sharp in the confines of the room. "I said break it up, guys. Life's short and getting shorter all the time. Don't waste it staring at each other in here."
Jon hung behind, watching Aug make a break for it, feeling the singer's parting glance bore a hole through his skull. It felt like everything they'd done could so easily be for nothing, and he didn't trust himself to say anything reassuring.
Not even to himself.
Neal walked back in, then, eyes alight with amusement. The transformation took Jon by surprise, and he took a step away. "What're you -"
"Go after it," Neal said with a grin, like he was giving up a punchline before a joke.
Confused, Jon just squinted at him.
"The Ender," Neal said. "Let's go find it, tear the shit out of it, send that bastard running."
Jon cocked his head back a little, watching the manic gleam in Neal's eyes get a little more manic. "Now you're out of your fuckin' mind," he said.
"Steve says no point waiting for someone else to call the shots," Neal said. "What, wake up every morning wondering if today's the day it gets us? If we wake up at all? No more sitting around."
"Who's idea was this?" Jon said.
"Steve's," Neal said, "like it makes a difference."
"It does," Jon said. "If we go stir that thing up, then we're just askin' for it."
"I'd agree, if it was just mindin' it's own business," Neal said. "But it ain't. So we maybe should mind ours and keep the Ender on the run."
Jon sighed. Why did it suddenly feel like everything was coming apart? What could he do or say? "Keep me out of it, then," was what he settled for, ignoring the surprise on Neal's face. "I saw what it did in Athyri, what it did to the studio, and I saw what it did to Steve. He's gonna choke, when it comes down to it."
"Hey," Neal said, and there was an equal measure of Steve in it.
"Bullshit, Neal," Jon said, lowering his voice but raising the intensity, leaning toward the guitarist. "It's still got him," he said. "We've all been though it, but after Tuirnarin, and the Keepers, and the way you got turned against us, and murdered more than once, he's gonna see that thing up close and go bugfuck again. Perry, shut your goddamn mouth."
Steve was in Neal's eyes by then, a force in the room, trying to get something across.
"I know you both," Jon said. "I see you both. Don't you use a game of grabass for catharsis. We slip this time, and it's not just losing each other, it's losing this time and place. We've done too much to stay in this life, to exist. Don't you two bring that fuckin' thing down on us."
Neal waited until several heartbeats had passed, making sure Jon was done. Then he said, "We already have, Jay. Can't sit here and wait for the other shoe to drop, like we been doin' lately."
Jon nodded a little, not in agreement, just acknowledgement.
"Siarion walked right in and knocked us over without really doin' anything," Neal said.
"That's my point," Jon said.
"That's mine too," Neal said, almost on top of him. "They've only gotta hit one of us. I don't wanna give anyone the chance to walk right in. Better to have it on our terms."
"We're gonna lose, Neal," Jon said.
"We'd have done it already, then," Neal said. "Come on. On top of all this, now I gotta pretend everything is fine so Amber don't catch on. If it threatens us, I want it dead. I want somebody's head on a big pole to put out front, and I want 'fuck off' written right on the forehead, so everybody knows we're serious."
"We're not serious," Jon said. "That's the problem. Lots of luck, and you rewinding us, got us this far."
Neal shrugged. Steve had so much to say and nowhere to get a foot in. "Fine. I think we should get first crack at someone, just once. It's what we're supposed to be doin' anyway, to keep the namers off us."
Jon shook his head, and walked away. Neal let him go, knowing he was tired. They were all tired, in so many ways. It had been quiet just long enough to make them think - no, hope - they could handle what might come. Now 'might' felt like 'will, any moment'.
"I promised you," Neal said aloud to Steve, now that they were alone. "I promised you I'd kill you myself, before I'd let that fucker get you."
Lot of good that'll do us, Steve replied. Better to say, I'll be the one promising you.
* * *
"You wanna come back with us, hang out for a couple of days, go over a few things?" Jon said.
Aug paused as if considering the offer, but his eyes already held the answer. "I'll just fly on home from here," he said. The mark under his chin was bandaged by then, but no one had any doubt it would scar.
Jon nodded and clapped him on the shoulder with a half smile. "Say hi to Lydia for us, huh?"
They watched him go, and Neal said, "Shit."
"No," Jon said, and Steve echoed it, but for different reasons. "This makes me feel a little better, about all this. Now is when we really need everyobody but us out of this. And he was getting a little too brave. Now he's not trying so hard."
Part of it was that Aug just couldn't look at Steve yet, and not for awhile, and they all knew it.
* * *
Jon was sorry he agreed to hashing the whole thing out at Neal's two days later. And later on, he was sorrier about not having done it sooner.
"There's no reason why we can't - " Neal began, then was cut off before he could add look ahead aloud.
"No, no, no," Steve said, then went on saying it. "Holy shit, there's absolutely no way to know what you'd walk into, or how, and if you don't get out, do you find out on this end before it happens, in which case if you'd already done it, we'd already know what happened."
Jon looked between them without saying anything. He was only getting the surface of the conversation, he could tell. They thought between themselves much faster than they spoke, so he waited. There would come a day when they said little aloud and became impossible to understand.
"Maybe," Neal said. "But if that was the case, it probably wouldn't come back here, it would be its own line already, since it involves a decision, right? So other versions of us would already - " Neal paused suddenly in mid gesture, pointing at Jon. "I guess not."
"Right, so you didn't do it," Steve said. "So quit arguing about it, since you know it's not a good idea. I don't even remember what Siarion said about going forward, but there's nothing good you can do with it." His eyes darted to Jon for a moment so short that Jon wasn't even certain he'd seen it except for that bare instant of connection. "The known evil is always the better bet."
Neal didn't move, but the insinuation of agreement seemed to settle over him. "Easier, anyway."
"Safer," Steve said. Without looking at Jon, he added, "Remember, there's only one of you? Thousands of me and Neal, none of them walkers or anything else, but only one of you anywhere. So I don't know if it's that our decisions don't split off into their own lines, or if they go on just without you, or whether they don't exist at all. I think there's just us, repaving this one line over and over." He shrugged.
"We just don't know enough, Neal," Jon said in the resulting silence. "Can't trust the past anymore than what's about to happen, but at least we've got some idea of where we've been. That's all we get from being linear."
"So, two to one," Neal said.
"Jon's vote counts for at least two," Steve said. "Mine, about a half."
"What are we supposed to do, then?" Neal said. "The only other thing I can think of is just chasing after the Ender. Otherwise, we just stand around and wait. And that's never done us any good before. What the hell do we do to get ahead?" He no sooner said it than his head snapped around to Steve. "No."
"Why not?" Steve said, with audible challenge.
"We've already been through this," Neal said in a monotone.
Jon waited, and when nothing else came out, he said, "We keep our eyes open. The point of this was to be able to go on living our lives. So live."
"And wait for the end," Steve said. "Because Neal's a dumb, stubborn bastard who won't do anything that might make it look like it wasn't his own idea."
"Jesus," Neal said, staring at Steve, "I'm not lookin' forward to keeping you around, the way you fuckin' act, so you think maybe I would've put you away by now if it was the only way?"
"If it was the hardest way," Steve said evenly.
The muscles in Neal's jaw stood out plainly. "It is the hardest way," Neal said. "Goddamnit, don't act like you know better."
"Could avoid all of it," Steve said. "It's that you don't have the cajones to do it."
"I'm not wastin' any more fuckin' time arguing over this," Neal said with an audible edge of anger.
"Or it's more fun to string me along," Steve said.
"If I wasn't such a good fuck, I'd already be -"
Neal was already on his feet, and was reaching across the table. Steve didn't try to get away; the reaction was part of the process. Neal had him by the front of his shirt and managed to drag him partly onto the table, spilling coffee. One of the mugs crashed to the floor.
They stared at each other from close up, and there was nothing else in the world but the emotion in that small space, and a shared heartbeat. Even when Jon finally got up and moved around them to find a towel to mop the coffee up. "You guys used to fight in ways everybody could understand," he muttered as he passed.
Neal released Steve finally, his face purposely indifferent. He leaned down to pick up the pieces of mug, making a point of examining exactly what spots it had shattered along.
A moment later, Jon took the pieces away from him and placed a whole, uncracked mug back on the table. "All drama aside," he said, "we don't know what to do because we don't know what the fuck we can do." He tossed the towel on the floor and gestured for Neal to take care of the mess. He sat down heavily, staring across the table at Steve. "Instead of everything we can't do, talk about what we know. After all the bullshit we've been through, there's no way we can't find a way around all this."
Steve watched Neal wipe at the floor for a moment. Then he said, "I think I was wrong about it all starting with Colin, with Neal leaving the line. Maybe..." he paused. "There was a namer, just after we took care of Tuirnarin, that told us it could see I was from another line. The me you're talkin' to was asleep by then, but I know what happened with the other version of me." He glanced at Neal again. "You thought that because it was me from the same line, that it was me. You were right and you weren't. The same thing happened here. It's me and it's not me. Same line, same guy, two Er Rai's. All that was only possible because the line got split anyway. This timeline is fucked up because you went on without returning me, because I ran from you, and we wouldn't have tried to bond in the first place if the Formless hadn't found us, and the Formless wouldn't have found us if we hadn't bonded. It's a mess."
"Then time doesn't go on," Jon said, as Neal stood and threw the damp towel into the kitchen. "How do you figure in stuff like the dinosaurs, and history in general, if 10,000 years from now me and Neal were hiking and you pulled us away?"
"The notes on the song changed," Steve said. "The dinosaurs played their songs for millions of years, then the notes changed enough that the world did too. It's not all some straight line. The human race will go on playing its songs for millions of years. The notes will change a little over time. It was 10,000 years of linear time to the distant Er Rai, not to the folks here in this placeline."
"Lost me," Jon said. "I've fallen, and I can't get up. It was 10,000 years, or it wasn't. And don't flip me some shit about bein' linear."
Steve shrugged. "That's all there is to it. You're linear. It don't mean you can't imagine different. He straightened things out, Jon. He didn't keep looping around. He went off, second star to the right, straight on 'til morning. He purposely chose a straight path because he could, because he could see the scope of it, and he wasn't put back in the circle."
"So what year was it when me and Neal were grabbed as kids, as other people?" Jon said.
"1994," Steve said.
Jon just stared at him.
"1994 the 5th time around," Steve said. "1994 happens every two thousand years or so, give or take a decade. And it's different every time."
Jon went on staring at him.
"That explains why certain fashions keep making a comeback," Neal said.
"You're jerkin' me around," Jon said.
"I'm not. Where would I make this shit up, Jay? Where would I get it?"
Jon sighed and looked at Neal.
"It's the way he understands it," Neal said. "He ain't lyin'. If it isn't true, it's because the way he sees it isn't right, not because he's fuckin' with you."
"Timelines aren't lines," Steve said. "You know that, right?"
Jon shook his head.
"They're circles. Not perfect circles--there's no such thing. More like...ovals."
"Ellipses," Jon said.
Steve was already on to the next thing, though, waving Jon away with a yeah sure whatever look. "Spirals. They go on and on. The same timeline will play itself like a record over and over, only the grooves change a little each time, so it loops, but loops off a little bit each time. Like a giant Slinky. Same songs, in the same order, changing a note at a time by the little things. You'll always recognize the songs, recognize the album, but it's bein' played live every time, and never played the same twice."
"You're freaking me out, Steve," Jon said. "You're just fuckin' scaring me, now."
"You gotta understand this," Steve said. "Timelines are stacked on each other in no particular order, kind of like LP's on turntables. They don't touch each other, they're always parallel lines. But there's no measurable space between 'em."
"Get to the point while I can still handle this," Jon said.
"Okay. The...what are we callin' him? We can't keep calling him Er Rai."
"The distant Er Rai," Jon said. "We can't call him you, either. He isn't."
"Distance," Neal said. "Call him 'Distance'. That works in a lot of ways."
Steve sighed, not wanting to comment on that. "He didn't go on, back into the circle. He didn't let the song finish, so that line began to warp, like an LP left out in the sun. And he dragged his note of the song out, until it started crossing the others. He dragged that note out across other parts of the line, until he started disrupting the other songs. It started looking like a spiral instead of rings on rings." He paused. "And the walker...the walker crossed lines. There are still a lot of versions of me. But not nearly as many as there were. He's been killing me for a long time, but it never occurred to him to hurt me back until the Formless got hold of him and gave him the idea. He was looking for a way to get back at me, and he never thought shooting an earlier version of himself would do it."
Neal said, "Each line has little whirls and eddies, though, like wind patterns, like tide patterns."
"And the distant Er Rai stretched a few of these whirls into big whirls, straightened one of 'em out, without knowin' or caring, and that stretched the line thin," Steve said. "It split in places under the weight. It got worn thin. There are places you can see right through it into the next line. Right into the Evenwhen."
Jon leaned back and looked at him again.
"The space between the LP's is the Evenwhen, Jay," Neal said.
"The Evenwhen is the turntable, too," Steve said.
"Fuckin' Christ," Jon said. "Can anyone...can some walker who doesn't know they're a walker, can they--"
"Fall through?" Steve said. "Yeah. The Bermuda Triangle."
Jon started to laugh. Neal said, "What do you think it is?"
"A lot of bullshit," Jon said. "Why not, though? I can believe it. It's all just a little too 'Ripley's' for me right now, that's all."
"I know," Neal said. "It's not like somebody'd be walking through the park and fall through some hole in space. It's still a wavelength thing. The right folks would know."
"Then the right folks could mess with the Evenwhen," Jon said.
"Not without me," Steve said.
Jon stared at him again. "Oh, shit," he said.
"Right," Steve said. "Let's see, I'm an angry Formless/walker/namer/whatever, and I don't like the way things are going. I've been trying to get rid of some aspect of Existence for the last, oh, million turns or so. I see a nice thin spot in a line, caused by a pissed off Er Rai, and it takes me a long time to spot it but wow, those guys are making noise no one can ignore! So I finally see the spot, and the Er Rai, and if I get in close enough--"
"I get it," Jon said. "Every fuckin' thing and a little more will be out of the woodwork, after hearing us together as long as we were. Not much more than a moment in the real span of things, but long enough for every head to turn our way. How are we supposed to fight everything off?"
Steve looked at him solemnly.
Jon sighed. "You can't," he said. "You can't, unless you and Neal are solid." It was silent for a long moment. Then Jon said, "Atoms," distantly, rubbing at his chin with an absent interest that usually meant he was going to present an idea he wasn't sure everyone would like. "You guys were saying, the space between LP's on a turntable. Atoms got space, between their parts. Protons, electrons, they hold each other away a little by nuclear force, so there's always space between 'em. Nothing that exists is solid, everything has parts that have parts, and there's always a little space between 'em."
He paused, then looked up.
Steve was just staring at him, nodding a little.
"The Evenwhen's that space, isn't it," Jon said. "Or that's part of it."
"So don't we know more than we did before?" Jon said. "Can't we do something with this? Or do you guys wanna go back to breaking up?"
Steve shrugged. "He's not gonna bother using a familiar face this time," he said, and they knew he was talking about the Ender. "He doesn't have to. Impatient enough to make a play for us while we're on guard?" When no one responded internally or externally, he added, "He knows that killing the walker put us together even further. He knows the walker reverted to me, but he doesn't know that it would have been very temporary. Maybe, at least, he won't do that this time. There's at least that."
"He's still gonna want a crack at both of us," Neal said. "He might be pissed enough to take some time and vent a little. That might leave us an opening. Still don't know how we took it apart, the first time."
"For every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction," Jon said, "to paraphrase Newton. So if Siarion made the walkers, who the hell made the Ender? You can't tell me there's only one."
Neal shrugged. "Nice to think there's some reason to all of it. Maybe the Ender was a walker, once, maybe someone started makin' Enders because of the walkers. But you'd think anyone tough enough to make an Ender would already be capable of knocking the walkers off. No need to go the long way. All I know is, I don't wanna stand around and wait to see what happens this time. We gotta get control of this, somewhere."
Steve was silent. His face evinced neither agreement or dissent. Jon stared between them for a moment, then said, "Going after the Ender doesn't give you control over anything."
"Waiting will drive us nuts," Steve said. "The advantage is all his, this way. If I was him, I'd let enough time go by that we let go of some vigilance. People do that, no matter what happens to 'em. Time fades everything, and maybe we'd start living life a little, and then one day you open the door and there he is, and it's all over. We can't watch all the time, and I won't hear him coming. So if we go lookin' for him while he's still trying to get his shit back together, and we lose, at least it would be over."
"For you guys," Jon said shortly.
"For everybody," Neal said. "Existence would become whatever the Ender wanted after that, once he's got Steve. He won't just attack us, he'll hurt one of us, and while the other is busy freaking out, he'll sit back and wait until we're totally helpless. Siarion taught us that." He paused. "It's what I'd do. I'm pretty sure we could find him without spending a lot of time looking."
"Or wasting any time drawing attention to yourselves," Jon said. "There may be other stuff in the woodwork. I just wish we could set up a decoy or something. There has to be a way to trap the bastard."
"The rest of the Six would have already done something about him, if he wasn't part of the natural order," Steve said. "Walkers probably screw lines up all the time, and the Ender comes along and cuts it off. More like, too bad we don't have him on our side, to trap Distance in a corner of lines somewhere, and let him burn himself out."
"So what's an Ender want, more than anything else?" Jon said.
"To end things," Neal said.
"Whether it's time or not," Steve said.
"So why doesn't he?" Jon said. "End this one line, catch us somewhere else where we haven't put our heads together?"
Neal and Steve shared a glance. "Probably can't," Steve said. "Maybe he can't, while there's still a walker livin' in it. So, remove the walker."
"And then what?" Jon said. "That's all, end the line? End all the lines? Then what? There's gotta be something else he wants."
"You mean, what if we cut a deal to do some of what he wants if he agrees to get off us," Neal said. "There's no deals with this guy, Jon."
"We've already been making deals, with everybody," Jon said. "And folks don't do that unless they've got the idea they could lose everything unless they deal. So, there's a lot more we can do, and we haven't gotten there yet. We gotta find out what more we can do, and not go jumping to finalities. Yet." He rose, glancing at Neal, hoping for eye contact and not getting any. "You guys need anything, call me. Or show up. Or whatever. But no more fighting, right?"
Steve shrugged. Neal said, "Fighting's all we know how to do, no matter how we're doin' it. We're good at it." But he looked up at Jon, and the look on his face said he knew what Jon thought he should probably do.
Jon nodded a little, and dropped a hand on Steve's shoulder briefly as he passed. He walked out without another word.
There was a long moment of silence before Steve raised his head again. "Still wanna go after that asshole? Because you're really hard to read today, for some goddamn reason."
"I still think we should," Neal said. "While he's still messed up. But, Jon's got a point about it."
"I won't freeze," Steve said.
"That's not what I'm talkin' about," Neal said. "You should know that. We've all been through way too much, but you're the one gettin' torn apart and shot and threatened with payin' for stuff you didn't do, so where do you get off not bein' hysterical?"
Without hesitating, Steve said, "Because there's you."
Neal tilted his head a little but had nothing to say to that, nothing to feel but confusion, because he wasn't good at this part, with anybody, ever, and sure as hell not someone he'd spent most of his life fighting with. "Aug will come around," he said, skirting the comment.
"I don't want him to," Steve said quickly. "Let him stay afraid of me. Nothin' gonna come of me and him but trouble for him. He sings, and that's what he does. No walking, no bein' part of this goddamn mess."
"Nice try," Neal said.
Steve shrugged halfheartedly. "Don't ask, Neal -"
Steve shrugged again. The unspoken question Neal had thought of when Steve had said sings was why don't you, anymore? "I don't feel like it," he said aloud. "There hasn't been a chance, and what the hell do I have to sing about, lately?"
"I don't think it'll do the same thing to me that playin' guitar does to you," Neal said.
"Whatever. It doesn't matter, anymore. I don't really wanna talk about stuff right now, Neal."
"But we should," Neal said. "I mean...." For Christ's sake, just tell him, what's the big deal?
"Tell who?" Steve said, and as he was saying it, there was a thud from somewhere near the front door.
Both heads swiveled to the sound, watching the door swing halfway open in a slow, summer breeze kind of way. They waited for the wind, or Jon to announce he'd forgotten something or that he wanted to reiterate how stupid they were, but there was nothing.
"I didn't do it," Steve said.
"I already know that," Neal said, rising and walking toward the door.
"Don't," Steve said, shooting to his feet, remembering the night they'd had to run from the house from things they couldn't see.
But it was already too late. And over.
They weren't alone.
* * *