"Now we're finding out that we're not made up of the dominant form of energy in the universe."
--John Ruhl, physicist, U of CA

Memory Bound Chapter XIII
(c)2001 B Stearns

Warning: Minimal hint of improper behavior between former bandmates. If you've read this far, you no longer care. Or if you care...it's a 'positive' kind of caring.

"That was for somethin' else," Neal said into the silence Siarion left behind.

"You said that before," Jon said. "About the thing that marked your house." The Ender, he thought, but he didn't want to say it. It wanted to see what it could get away with. "Was it her, you think?"

"Yeah," Steve said softly. They turned at the sound of his voice. "It was her. I don't know how I know a lot of things, right now. But it was her, this time."

Neal glanced around again like he was waiting for someone else to appear. Then he said, "Whose benefit was it for?"

Steve just looked at him.

"Come on," Neal said, gesturing at the spot Siarion had been standing in. "'It's the Inverse I can't do anything about'? What the fuck was that, speaking in code? That was a warning if ever I heard one." He looked at Jon. "Askin' you if you'd see reason. Like you had somethin' to say about them takin' him." He pointed at Steve, who dropped his eyes. "When you go back to yourself?"

Jon thought again about Siarion's earlier comment, about how she would know if it was like him to hide or not.

"She's either throwin' genuine hints, or she's throwin' us off the trail," Neal said. "Goddamnit, what was that!"

"She said the namers were right to shove you guys," Jon said. "'Least, that's what it sounded like, like she was talking to you two. I guess...you have some sort of confirmation, there. If you want it."

Neal wanted to ask him what the hell that was supposed to mean, but there wasn't room. "Grandstanding," he said instead. "Fuckin' grandstanding. Word games."

"What you were saying," Jon said to Steve, keeping his tone of voice level, "about the Er Rai. Like it wasn't you. What'd you mean, yesterday, about him bein' pissed?"

"Like she said," Steve replied. "it's me, but it hasn't happened to us yet."

"If we had time," Jon said softly, "I'd let it go."

Steve nodded. Then he walked away.

Jon looked at Neal for a long, steady moment. Then he went after Steve, alone.

The singer was out in the yard, staring off at nothing, trying to reorder thoughts that didn't seem like his own anymore. Trying to be himself and failing. He'd seen too many other selves. Too many other failures.

Jon stood with him for a long moment, respecting the space this time, not wanting to startle him. "You're not gonna hurt us," he said.

"Anyone's a span of time from devil or saint," Steve said distantly. "It's all circumstance and time."

"Then you're discounting free will, and ingrained character flaw," Jon said. "You can't really--"

"Jon," Steve said softly, shaking his head without looking at the other man. "Don't argue human nature with me. I murdered you in front of Neal, in that other place we haven't seen yet. And I'll do it again and go on doing it. Like she said."

"In other lines," Jon said.

"In this one," Steve said. "I can't figure out what went wrong, why there's so many versions of this one line. Normally the whole thing is like a web, lines intersect when decisions have been made that create their own lines. It looks like...our part, or line, looks like it does when you walk through a spider web. All disrupted. Or maybe that's just the way I see it."

Jon looked away. He wanted it all to make sense. He'd wanted a simple answer just this once, something they could do to force the namers to leave them alone. He'd known better, but he'd hoped for it anyway. They were looking for the exact start of everything that was happening to them because they were linear, because they thought and lived in straight lines. "What went wrong...might not have happened yet," he said.

Steve nodded.

"You're acting like everything's predestined," Jon said. "If you do that, you won't see anything else, you won't see ways to change it. You know better."

Steve shrugged, then shifted gears, knowing they weren't getting anywhere. He told Jon about changing form, how difficult it'd been and why he thought that was.

"Maybe your body doesn't 'remember' the hip that well yet," Jon said. "It's a lot like muscle memory. When we learn a physical skill, our muscles remember most of the moves involved and the motions are easier. That's where the saying 'like riding a bicycle' came from. Once you learn how to do it, your body always remembers how to balance and pedal at the same time."

"Gonna take me awhile," Steve said.

"Hopefully you won't need the bird again," Jon said. "But at least you know...it's there if you really need it."

There was something else underneath the words, something Jon didn't need to say.

"And on the bright side," Steve said, "I don't have a steel plate in my head."

Jon looked at him for a moment. Then he began to grin, unable to hold it back. "I could say somethin'," he said.

"Yeah," Steve said. "I bet you could."

"You're okay here, with us," Jon said, sobering. "you're not gonna hurt us. And it's not like we would let you, if you tried. You saw too much stuff, and I think you picked out things you could really beat yourself up about. There had to be more. Things that turned out right. I'll bet there are, if you look."

Steve nodded a little. "I'll...look," he said.

"Is that distant version of you lookin' for us?" Jon said.

Steve nodded again. "I think he is. I think a lot of...a lot of things are. I don't remember it all, it was too much time. But it feels right, to say that. That he...I...had a long time to be angry." He paused. "I don't get it, that this part of the line is changed, but he's still around. I don't get it that there's more than one Er Rai when there should only be one."

"We don't get a lot of stuff," Jon said. "Looking at too much might end up steerin' us wrong."

Steve shrugged again. "It's because the line is doin' that spider web thing, like I said. But I don't know. I don't know if he'll ever find us, or what we could do about it. All I know is, we gotta keep the Ender off us. For now." He paused. "Jon...who are you?"

Some other time, the question might have surprised or confused Jon. But he felt it was fair. "Who I've always been," he said. "It probably means different things to different people."

"I didn't see anything about you, but that you were only in one line," Steve said. "That's it, just that there's only one you, no matter what decisions you make or how many times the line splits. There's only you."

"Yesterday, when Neal asked you what happened to all the versions of you," Jon said, "he wanted to know if they'd been killed off. You said they had, by that kid. Do you know that?"

Steve hesitated. Jon said, "I won't tell Neal unless I have to."

Steve nodded. "That kid, he...he's been looking for me. He's been killin' me through the lines. And then he catches up with this version of me, the version that's the Er Rai, and he shoots Neal in front of me and asks me how it feels."

Something caught in the wheels again, something he couldn't place. He knew something and couldn't figure out what it was.

"He was gonna gut-shoot me," Steve said. "So it would take me awhile to die. Only, I guess I wouldn't've really died, if gettin' hit by a bus didn't work. Maybe..he didn't know that."

"You gotta remember, you only wanted Neal alive," Jon said.

Steve nodded.

Jon knew he wasn't getting through, might never get through, on that point. It would take time, if they had it.

"Are you..." Jon paused. Then he shrugged and said it, said what had been off limits their whole time together. Something that had gone unsaid. Jon couldn't find a reason for hiding anymore. Taboos seemed small and petty, after the things they'd been through, after how deeply Jon had been part of Steve, to save him. More than once. "You're still in love with him. You never really did give it up, even though you tried real hard."

Steve didn't answer verbally. It was in the long, slow breath he took, the sigh that followed it. Jon tried to be impartial about it, confused about how much the whole idea annoyed him, when before it had only made him nervous.

"We'll get this figured out," Jon said.

Steve nodded again, and his attention seemed to fade. Jon left him in the yard and went back inside. They couldn't pretend nothing had happened. But they couldn't let it freeze them in place, either.

* * *

Neal fought against the sand, against walls of it.

Wind blew the sand into eddies and pools, mimicking water. He tried to see through it and couldn't, only made shadows out of the dust. Somehow, it didn't get in his eyes or lungs. He stepped forward...

...into a pool of calm.

The sand still whirled, but just out of reach on all sides. It was the eye of a hurricane. Utter silence fell.

In the center of it was Steve.

The singer was sitting on a rock, studying something so intently that he didn't seem to realize Neal was there. After a moment, Neal spoke his name.

The singer twisted in place to look at him, then gestured him forward.

Neal came, looking over Steve's shoulder. The singer held an hourglass the length of his forearm, a battered and aged thing. The sand within was the same color as the sand without. The sand moved, dropping top to bottom in a steady stream, yet there was no loss of sand in the top half. The top half would always be full.

"Now you realize why there was no sky here," Steve said.

Neal realized with horror that they were inside the hourglass, would always be inside the hourglass--

Neal startled awake, taking a moment to convince himself he was home, in bed. The sound of the sand rasping against itself and everything else still rang in his ears, and he sat up to look around. That wasn't good enough either, he'd have to move around to shake it off.

He got up and went out into the hall, knowing Steve was still awake even before seeing the light on in the other room. Steve would always be awake.

At least he knew this dream had been his, from the beginning. He wouldn't be dreaming Steve's dreams with him, anymore. He'd probably be dreaming for him.

Neal thought about the hourglass and the implications of it and went for a glass of water.

* * *

Jessica called again, and they blatantly avoided her. Sooner or later, she'd come out in person. But until then, like Neal had said, there was no proof they'd had anything to do with the kid or what had happened at the mall. No real proof.

* * *

Thursday, December 2nd

Steve daydreamed.

It had chosen itself at random, a memory that surfaced when he drifted out of the house into the backyard. Being unable to sleep left his mind open for occasional forays into a different kind of unconsciousness, a chance to reset, to process what the waking world presented him. He didn't remember walking into the backyard; he was in another place and time, but not one of the time/place leaps he'd been subjected to when out of Neal's sight. That was over.

Frankly, he was glad November was over. If he was lucky, he'd survive the year. Luck was a matter of perspective.

There had been a tower in the Outlands, a room that curved on itself as if M.C. Escher had been allowed to build one of his strange illusions. They'd all been standing there at the end, one way or another, trying to wrench the Evenwhen back out of hands that shouldn't have held it.

...they were all part of it, were all bridged together, even Ross and Smitty even though they weren't in the room. It was like a chord, the perfect chord that spanned a spectrum that included everything heard and unheard.

Then they had destroyed Tuirnarin. The moment had been frightening, had belonged to a version of him that hadn't truly lived that day. His original form was long since buried in Athyrian soil by then, at the base of Siarion's Tower. But the memory remained. There had been that perfect chord, and it seemed like he could almost hear it, if he tried hard enough, if he let it come to him. If only he could hum it, if only it would present itself as actual sound in his memory...

Steve felt a weight press itself onto the surface beside him, and returned from the daydream. He tried to pull a memory out of it, but he knew immediately there was no reason to try. He felt safe. He didn't open his eyes until a hand brushed his hair out of them.

Neal knelt partially over him, one arm braced across him at face height. He had a half smile on his face and blinked at him.

Steve stared up and settled into a kind of welcome confusion, certain it was Neal and certain he was in the right place and time. He wasn't sure how he'd ever managed to confuse Neal with the Ender; there was no comparison. He didn't remember lying down, and it didn't matter. The last time he could remember Neal waking him in person was at some point on the Frontiers tour when he came slamming into Steve's hotel room and whipped the covers off the bed at about 3am. The guitarist, with a variety of sheets in his possession and three sheets to the wind himself, had then run, laughing maniacally, out to the pool and thrown them in. Steve, who slept naked, was nonplused by the incident and had chosen to get dressed and help Ross chase their delinquent band member. Neal remembered absolutely nothing of the incident afterwards.

Hotel management had, though.

"What're you smilin' at?" Neal said, tone friendly.

"Hmmm. Something you did a long time ago. What're you smiling at?"

"The fact that you keep wandering off and lying down in weird-ass places. You have any idea where you are?"

Steve's eyes widened slightly in alarm, and Neal held a finger up to indicate it was all right. Steve lifted his head to look around. It was the kids' trampoline in the back yard. No wonder it'd seemed light and airy; he was outside. He put his head back down and rolled his eyes closed. "Christ," he said. "At least it's not the road. Yet."

"Makes me grateful for the fence," Neal said. Steve could hear the amusement in his voice, and chose to ignore it. "It's gettin' dark. You wanna come in and daydream somewhere a little more traditional?"

Steve smiled without opening his eyes.

"Come on, before you drift off again," Neal said. But he didn't move.

A moment later, Steve opened his eyes again and found himself staring back and unable to read Neal's expression. But it was so damn hard to look away...

Jesus, he thought, we're in so much trouble, and I don't even care.

He felt the arm that had been braced at chest height move and resettle on the other side of his head, and didn't mind about that either. Didn't mind when Neal leaned in closer with that strange look on his face and came within a breath of...

"I hope I'm not interrupting anything."

Neal startled away and off the trampoline guiltily, like a kid caught in the middle of something he knew he had no business doing. Steve rolled to one side and sat up, folding his legs as if getting into a less compromising position would erase whatever that voice had seen.

Jon stood maybe ten feet away, arms folded, face telling them he'd seen everything he'd hoped he wouldn't. The tone of voice he'd used had said volumes, acidly sarcastic, the words bitten off. He'd been there longer than he was trying to convey, had seen the entire exchange, and didn't like the small voice in the back of his head that had urged him to keep quiet and see how far things went. He had the feeling there was very little free will and a hell of a lot of pushing still going on.

Neal looked like he might actually bolt, from the expression on his face; Steve looked like a housepet who'd just wet the rug. Jon had a moment of remorse for both of them, but couldn't afford to show it.

"I can come back," he said with the same tone.

Neal looked briefly at the ground, and Jon thought, I'm the one who practically guilt-tripped him into letting Steve stay here.

"No," Neal said. "We're, uh...

A slip of the tongue from fucking each other blind, right out here in the open?

"...just going back in," Steve said, finishing the sentence without realizing he was doing it, inching toward the edge of the trampoline, dangling his legs over the side. Horribly, the most inappropriate thought he could have dredged up managed to insinuate itself into the forefront of his mind with perfect clarity. Would have been interesting, on a trampoline. Never tried that before! And then he was laughing and couldn't slam it back down, hopping off the trampoline and collapsing to his knees in the grass. He fell victim to a genuine fit of hilarity, and not even embarrassment or Jon's lack of amusement could stop him. The whole thing was so out of control that it seemed fitting he should be, too.

Jon stood by and waited for it to pass, relatively certain he could guess the direction of Steve's thoughts. He settled his gaze on Neal again, who was simultaneously trying not to grin and trying to look defensive. It wasn't working.

"If I thought it really was you starting it," he said, "I'd tell you I didn't like it and leave it at that. Because it wouldn't be any of my goddamn business. But I think you know for sure by now it isn't you."

Neal nodded soberly for Jon's benefit, looking at the ground again. He ignored the amazement in his own thoughts, the nervousness. Steve made it back to his feet, running his hands through his hair as if that would help clear his head of a mental image he really hadn't needed.

* * *

Friday, December 3rd

Another day of quiet. Of waiting. Of standing around and doing nothing to try and avoid what was coming because there was nothing they could do.

Steve went back to looking for things to do to keep his hands busy, and took to lying down in the afternoons. Daydreaming.

So he could watch the floors at night.

He knew Steve Augeri and Deen Castronovo were back in town for the week, would be over at Jon's later that day. He carefully ignored the fact that Journey would be rehearsing new material out back and he would have nothing to do with it. He didn't want it anymore, anyway.

Neal seemed restless, wandering around the lower part of the house. Bored, Steve went to lay down.

He drifted for awhile, peripherally aware of Neal moving around. He didn't let his mind settle on any one thing, just let pieces find each other behind his eyes.

The face of the kid he'd killed, and the memory of the waking nightmare he'd had about the distant Er Rai blended.

Steve snapped back to full alertness without opening his eyes, rolling up on one elbow, a gasp caught in his throat. He choked on it, his throat dry all the way down, feeling like something impossible to swallow had been jammed into his mouth. He knew nothing was there but tried to dislodge it anyway.

I would never. I would never!

No. Never was a long, long time, and given circumstances like that --

Hands shook him, and he opened his eyes on Neal's face.

Oh God, was I ever angry at him? Why? Why?

"I would never," Steve whispered, and he knew it was a lie. He had. He would. Time made the difference. Neal helped him sit up, and he bent over his own knees, trying to contain the very real physical pain that had come with knowledge of what he'd done, would do, would never.

"It was a daymare," Neal said, laying a hand on his back.

"No," Steve choked. "It's happening. All the time."

Neal patted him absently, trying to figure out how to ask what he'd seen.

"He was right," Steve said. "He was right, I didn't realize what I'd done."

"You're not makin' any sense," Neal said.

"I'm glad," Steve said.

Neal came right out and said it, finally. "What'd you see? What'd you remember?"

"I killed them all," Steve said woodenly. "I looked for another walker, another that could do what you could. I don't know what that means. But they wouldn't help me look for you. And they couldn't do what you could -- kill me so I'd stay dead. The wavelength altered a little, and a little more each time you went on."

Neal sat and listened, trying not to react.

"I picked 'em off," Steve said. "The namers came out to fuck with me, it got that bad, and I shredded a lot of them too."

"We've already changed things," Neal said. "None of it'll happen."

Steve shook his head, squeezing his eyes shut. He was holding his breath, and Neal waited through it, knowing Steve couldn't talk.

Finally, Steve said, "It's happening all the time."

"It was just a possibility," Neal said. "It can't go on happening if we've changed what goes before."

"No," Steve said. "The line is fucked up, Neal. The line is bad further on, it loops over itself. It splits. We hit another loop, that night at the mall, and it got interrupted. I don't know how to fix it. I started it."

"There's no way you --"

"I did this," Steve said. His gaze was so steady, so determined, that Neal didn't argue. "I don't know how, or where. But it goes on happening. There's a version of me out there..." he paused. I'm saying too much.

"Is this why they're buggin' us?" Neal said.

"It's only part of it," Steve said.

Neal was silent for a moment. Then he said, "The guys...they'll be at Jon's soon. Come on. That's enough of lookin' at the lines, for today."

* * *

Ross, Aug and Deen had already arrived by the time Steve and Neal did; they were gathered in Jon's driveway just adjacent to the curve that led to the studio. Liz had taken the kids to a play date. Ross stood and looked Steve and Neal over for a moment, careful not to say anything about what had happened earlier in the week. Trying not to treat Steve any differently.

Steve nodded to Deen, exchanged pleasantries and shook his hand. They'd crossed paths so many times in previous years that they were nothing new to each other. Familiar strangers.

Steve let his eyes stray to Aug, who still stood several yards away. Almost afraid to approach. The expression on the younger singer's face was priceless. Jon had been right to say Aug was still a Journey fan. Steve nearly laughed. "Steve Augeri," he said.

"Yeah," Aug said, his eyes clearing a little. Then he caught himself and said, "Um...good to meet you."

Steve did laugh then, and Jon rolled his eyes.

Aug stepped forward to shake Steve's hand, and Jon said, "Steve, this is Steve, as I'm sure you could already tell."

Aug nodded. "At least you pronounce my name right," he said to Steve.

"Somebody's got to," Steve said. "You let them call you Aug?"

Taken aback, Aug just stared for a moment, feeling younger than he was, feeling as cowed as a fan with a backstage pass. Steve laughed again. Neal shook his head and sighed, letting Steve know he was pushing it.

"Aug," Steve said, "did they jump you in?"

Aug regarded him with cautious humor, still trying to decide how he should take the older singer. "No."

"Well, this is California," Steve said. "Joining a band out here is just like joining a gang."

Aug laughed. "I'm afraid to ask what the hell that entails."

Steve leaned forward a little. "Let's just say," he said in a low, conspiratorial tone, "that you'll be needing a hip replaced, later."

"Steve," Jon said softly, "leave him alone. Or I'll see about the other hip." To the others, he said, "Why don't you guys go into the studio. I'm gonna run in, get us something to drink. Give me a hand, Perry."

Steve grinned at Aug. "Nice to meet you, New York."

Aug grinned back, trying to let go of a lot of uncertainties while he did it. He watched Steve and Jon walk back across the yard.

"It's okay," Ross said, clapping Aug on the shoulder. "He only gets worse." Deen laughed.

* * *

"That was obnoxious," Jon said.

Steve nodded, neither pleased with himself or repentant. "You surprised?"

"No," Jon said, opening the fridge and handing a variety of beverages to Steve. "I gotta tell you, though, I'd love it if you'd stay in the house while we rehearse. You bein' within ten miles is gonna make him nervous."

"He can probably take it," Steve said. "He's Italian, he grew up in Brooklyn. He's tough."

Jon straightened to look at him, closing the refrigerator door with his foot. "Nothin', compared to facin' you, wiseass," he said.

"Nothin', compared to the green light and me comin' back from the dead," Steve said, mimicking Jon's tone. Then he smiled a little. "I'll steer clear," he said. "I don't really wanna hear covers of Journey songs anyway."

Jon bit back another comment, settled for giving Steve a look, and walked back out.

Steve followed wordlessly, handing several bottles of water to Ross with a smirk. He tossed a wave at Aug and headed back for the house, feeling the younger singer's gaze on his back. He knew Aug was on edge, wanting to ask about what had really gone on the day of the benefit.

Jon, Neal and Ross would have to decide about telling him. Steve was out of it.

He'd been within moments of asking for an autograph, too. Steve could tell by the look in his eyes. Journey fan. That was fine, so long as Aug shook it off, so long as they gave him a chance to catch up.

Steve didn't mind someone else in his place. He didn't. He didn't. He...

Couldn't keep something and be free of it at once.

He made it through the door with a minimum of trouble, walking back into the house and closing the door behind, honestly not wanting to hear anything just then. He began to walk through the kitchen and paused when he felt the air move.

He turned just in time to see it advance on him, never touching anything, a transparent heat ripple in the air. For just a moment, he thought it was a loose wire somewhere in his head trying to reconnect, another manifestation of the trouble he'd been having with doorways. It didn't alarm him until it gained form, until it already had him trapped.

Steve backed away, realizing the back door was too far off, as quickly as the thing was capable of moving. It coalesced in front of him, reappearing as it had before, in Neal's form. The Ender.

It stared at him for a moment, and Steve froze. "Now I know how much is too much," the Ender said. "Now I know there're at least two ways in, Er Rai."

Steve went on backing away from it, knowing there was nowhere to go but having to make the motion anyway. He felt the kitchen counter at his back. Hyperventilating with terror, he felt along the counter and came up with the butcher knife Jon had used to chop fruit for the kids, earlier. He didn't brandish it at the Ender; he turned the point inward and let it rest against his shirt just above his solar plexus, against the major artery there. Nothing left, he thought. There won't be enough to use.

"You won't do it," the Ender said softly in Neal's voice. "You're too frightened. It'll hurt. And if your aim isn't quite right, I'll be in a lot faster. Wherever you run, I'll find you, sooner or later."

"Then it can be later," Steve said.

The Ender grinned. "I'll shred the others while I wait. Listen to reason, Er Rai. This way your friends don't suffer. It'll only be rough for a moment--well, intolerable, really--and then you'll be gone and I'll be setting a few things right."

The bird wasn't going to save him. It would just be more running, and the thing would be laughing on his heels and maybe getting angrier and angrier until it took its frustrations out on a lot of other folks. Sometimes belief is enough.

He had to play it right. He had no idea where the line was, how much was enough.

"Setting what right?" he said shakily, not really giving a damn, just needing the thing to keep talking while he psyched himself up.

"That won't work," it said, and came for him.

There was a horrible moment where Steve realized he wasn't brave enough to do it. It shook the knife out of his hand, letting it clatter to the floor. Then it had him by the shoulders and he was fighting not to cringe any more than he had to. It took his head between its hands, the gesture looking human and affectionate but feeling the opposite.

"Open your thoughts," it said. "All the way. If I have to pry them open, it'll hurt a lot worse, and it'll do the same damage to anyone connected to you. I think you know what I mean."

Jon. Steve sighed, acted like he was giving in. He felt for the mechanism that let him open his thoughts, knowing he'd only done it a couple of times before and had never figured out how it worked. That didn't matter. He was frightened enough that it was easy to find. Sometimes belief is enough.

Pressure built in the room, and Steve wasn't sure how to control it. He was scared enough to let it loose. But he wanted the Ender too close to get away from him, if he was going to let anything loose.

At first it was a tentative thing, as if Steve was opening a door just far enough to see who was there without letting them in. The Ender did what it was supposed to, committing itself to putting a foot in that door, leaning against it. Taking Steve for all it had ever seen him as: a fearful mortal.

There was a moment where everything was in the balance, where the two were on equal footing; Steve almost didn't see it in time, because he was listening so hard for it. Then he was slamming the door open and lashing out at the Ender the way he would have a Keeper, looking for center. He wasn't expecting anything but grief, and at the very most a chance to keep it from getting any kind of hold on him or the others. It was nothing like clashing with Tuirnarin; she'd been powerful, but had been obvious about her goals. She'd wanted him dead, at the end. The thing confronting him now wanted a hell of a lot more.

It hadn't been expecting him to attack, and it paused long enough to give him a running start.

In the studio, Neal looked up at the same time Jon did, just before Ross did. Somewhere in the distance, Smitty looked up too, hearing Steve open his thoughts all the way. Aug startled without knowing why, starting to ask the others what was happening, hazarding a glance at Deen, who heard nothing.

Before they could react otherwise, Jon and Neal felt a pulling they had felt only one other time.

Neal realized what was happening, and threw his two cents in, adjusting the spin, reaching for something he thought gone.

Between the two of them, it almost worked.

Then there was nothing to see or hear, nothing to hold onto when space opened in every direction. The shockwave of whatever had happened in the house reached the studio and bore them along with it, doing no physical damage but attacking anything that registered in one particular wavelength. They immediately lost sight and feel of each other, melting away through an in-between place that Jon, Ross and Neal recognized.

Steve felt Ross and Neal spin away at the same time the Ender tried to force him to slam his thoughts shut again, the battle as physical as it was mental. Neal had tried to do something when the shockwave hit him, had left an intent behind, and Steve picked up on it in time to try and throw everyone in the same direction. Jon remained caught between while Steve tried to free himself from the many-tiered grip of the Ender. Enraged, it slammed Steve against the back door, trying to injure him physically to the point where he'd lose his own grip, on the Ender, on everything. The glass portion of it shattered, but Steve went uninjured.

Jesus what if I can't get them closed again? Steve thought in a panic. There was no guarantee the Ender could force them closed again, anymore than it could brace them open. And if they never closed -- if the door remained open --

Jonathan hovered in the peripheral vision of the event horizon, caught in the whirlpool of it. The window of opportunity for all of them to vanish to the same hiding place was gone, and now it was all a matter of just getting away.

The Ender caught on, one hand around Steve's throat. It reached for Jon, using Steve as a bridge, disrupting the whirlpool. Steve reached for Jon at the same time, trying to hold onto him. The action pulled on Jon, and Steve felt the keyboardists' wavelength, the fabric of him, begin to tear.


Steve let the keyboardist slip through his hands rather than let him be torn apart. Jon spun away, lost to him but lost to the Ender, too.

He couldn't hear Aug or Deen, just threw intent and desperation into the spreading, invisible ring of the shockwave. And prayed.

Then they all scattered away from him, and he tried to control what away meant before he was caught in the undertow and vanished with them.

Everything dwindled to silence.

The Ender shrieked with rage, sound on a level no human ears could register. It spent futile moments on its rage, searching the threads of the timeline it had been hunting in. It went so far as to go out to the studio, taking the front entrance apart to physically search it.

Deen had been frozen in place, having watched the others vanish. Too scared to get out from behind his drum kit, or to call out. They'd simply vanished. Then he heard the door come off and imagined any number of natural disasters, and he threw himself on the floor.

The Ender drifted through, soundless, invisible except for a colorless ripple in the air, searching. It came within inches of the drumset. Then it listened. There was a faint trail of light-sound playing through what remained of the Er Rai's effort to escape. Something the walker had attempted...

The walker. The walker had not been properly accounted for.

Next time, it would snap the Er Rai's neck rather than enjoy his fear.

It drifted out of the studio and went on hunting.

* * *