This weighs on me
as heavy as stone and as blue as I go.
--Dave Matthews Band, The Stone

Memory Bound Chapter XV
(c)2001 B Stearns
______________


The next thing Steve knew was the cold, rushing water; he was drowning, lungs bursting for air, wanting to stroke for the surface but unable to. One shoulder was wrenched, that arm nearly useless. And the other--

The other grasped something he couldn't let go of, for any reason.

He didn't remember falling; there'd been the slide to the edge of the cavern, a terrible heartbeat of weightless free-fall...

Then they'd been submerged in the river. No impact, no actual fall.

He kicked furiously, not even bothering to try going against the current. He just wanted air, wanted to quit tumbling for a moment.

Tumbling. They were tumbling because...

The waterfall.

Please, Steve thought, oh god oh please don't let us die like this, god not over that thing that goes Nowhere!

The 'us' part got through then, and he remembered what he couldn't let go of. Aug. Aug, who was dead weight tumbling in the water with him.

Luckily, Steve had his head back, trying to break the surface as he kicked, or the resulting impact might easily have fractured his skull when he slammed against a submerged boulder.

It drove what little air he had left out of him, the pain an orange-red explosion behind his eyes. He braced his injured hand against the rock, promising himself he would scream the moment he broke the surface. Then he crawled upward along it, fighting the force of the water at his back that was plastering him against the stone.

When his head did break the surface, it wasn't to scream. He gasped at the air frantically, struggling for purchase, and his fingers found a ledge. He opened his eyes, blinking water away, and the sharp daylight nearly blinded him after hours of dimness.

The mouth of the waterfall gaped ahead, taking up his entire field of vision. The roar of the water as it shot into the emptiness below was deafening. They'd been less then a hundred feet from a fall into eternity.

He braced his elbow on the ledge through brute force alone, levering himself partly onto it. His shoulder protested loudly, but he had to get Aug out of the water, had to get the water out of him. He managed to get a knee up over the ledge and roll the rest of the way out of the water, depending on adrenaline to help him. The motion brought Aug to the surface. On his knees, Steve gripped as much of Aug's cloak as he could at once in both hands and pulled, bringing Aug's upper body out of the water. He pulled again, fighting the river, bringing the other singer most of the way onto the ledge with him.

He rolled Aug over, ignoring the screaming his shoulder was doing, brushing away a tangle of hair to look into his face, to feel for a pulse. Nothing.

"No!" Steve shouted at him. "No!" He rolled Aug over again and pushed on his back, trying to force water out of the other singer's lungs before he attempted to force air back into them.

Nothing.

What the...?

Steve rolled Aug onto his back again, tilting his head back and starting CPR, ignoring what it did to his shoulder. How long had he been dead? No water in the lungs meant he'd been dead when they hit.

But we never hit the water, Steve thought. We never fell. There's no head injury I can see, so what killed you, Aug? What happened to you in midair?

There was no further coherent thought, just a litany of chest compressions and mouth to mouth resuscitation, punctuated by Steve's internal demand for Aug to

*Live...live...live.*

Fuck the bottom of the waterfall. Steve knew what eternity felt like.

Then Aug took a gasp on his own, followed by another, and Steve sat up. When Aug kept breathing, Steve tilted his face up to the ceiling of the cavern, eyes closed in thanks.

He opened them again and took a glance around the half-submerged ledge of rock that had suddenly become his universe; it was roughly elliptical, maybe ten feet by four, and the grooves cut into it told the story of a river that had risen and receded many times. The far side of it sported a narrow pillar of rock that stretched nearly twenty feet into the air before tapering off to a point. Steve had the feeling that if he looked hard enough, he'd be able to see where it had once met the ceiling.

But it would be good enough to lean on, for now.

He spent a moment wondering about the pros and cons of moving Aug and decided it didn't make that much difference, after what they'd been though so far. He took hold of the shoulders of Aug's cloak, dragging him to the other side of the ledge before sitting down with his back propped against the pillar. Then he propped Aug's upper body across his own legs, heaving a sigh of exhaustion...

That hurt like hell.

I hit the rock a little hard, that's all, he thought. Just a little body slam, no problem...

But he knew better. There were cracked ribs, and if he was really unlucky, internal bleeding. But they were both alive. He watched the water burst out of the cavern and into the space until he couldn't keep his eyes open any longer.

Then they were back in the water; Steve struggled against the relentless current, unable to let go of Aug, unable to break the surface. He slammed into the rock again, losing his grip on Aug, and the singer's lifeless body tumbled over the waterfall--

no. no!

"Steve. Hey, Steve."

Steve opened his eyes, and Aug was there, staring at him with concern, a hand on his good shoulder. He was still soaking wet but seemed fine otherwise, and Steve focused on him blearily.

"Aug?"

Aug patted his shoulder and leaned away. "You were...it didn't sound good. What happened?"

Steve explained what he could, trying to save himself breath by using a little mental imagery that Aug could pick up, and pausing often. "Something happened...you...midair. Don't. Your heart...stops."

Aug sat close to him, staring intently. "How hard did you hit that rock?"

"Hard enough," Steve said.

"Jesus," Aug said. "What'd you do -- rupture an organ?"

Steve waved him off. "What'd you do?"

Aug shrugged, settling in front of Steve cross-legged. "I was trying to stop us from sliding. There was a click, in my head, and that's all I remember."

"It was like...we never hit the water," Steve said. "I don't know. Try not to do it."

Aug looked out across the water. "It's gettin' dark," he said. "Do you think the others are -- " He glanced back at Steve and paused. The older singer's eyes were closed, head tilted back against the pillar. "Steve?"

There was no response, and Aug left him to his rest, watching the water. He discovered he couldn't see that far back up the river despite the size of the cavern. It was black, the rocks hiding what little there was to see.

Stranded.

They were too far from the nearest bank to even attempt reaching it, at least not by conventional methods. The water was too swift. Even if it weren't, Steve was in bad shape.

He looked at the other singer again and watched the light begin to fade. The cloak was weighing him down, and he took it off, shivering. "Steve."

Steve stirred again, frowning without opening his eyes.

"I don't think you should sleep," Aug said.

"Have to," Steve replied finally.

Feeling beaten and exhausted, Aug sighed. "Can you...open your thoughts, so the others can find us?"

Steve roused himself slightly. "No. Give us away." He paused. "Failed," he whispered.

"How?" Aug said aloud, leaning closer to hear. "Who?"

Steve shook his head.

"It isn't your fault," Aug said. "You didn't pull us into this. You got us away from that bastard, and we're not on this rock because of you. You're not makin' any sense."

"So what else...new," Steve whispered. His breathing was labored, the glow of his eyes fading. Aug began to realize what was happening.

"Don't leave me here alone," Aug said. "You can't."

"Don't mean to," Steve said. His eyes closed again.

"No," Aug said aloud, fighting his panic down. "No, we'll get out of this. You have to hang around."

But Steve had already slipped away into unconsciousness.

Aug rested his forehead on Steve's knees, and prayed.

By morning, the older singer was gone. Aug sat huddled on the far edge of the stone, hugging his own knees against his chest, staring into the growing light. He was cold, his body hurt, but not as much as his heart did. Perry was dead, there was no telling where the others were, and he was further from home than he understood. All beyond his reach, not a damn thing he could do about it. There was only the rock, and the water, and after awhile he'd probably join Perry, wherever he'd really gone...

Useless. I was useless, and didn't do my part.

"Aug."

The world spun a little; the sound of the water remained, but his vision lurched crazily for a moment. He knew the voice, felt cool grass beneath his back and legs, and realized the light was harsher. He looked up into an orange sky and blinked. His stomach lurched along with his vision, and he realized he was still soaking wet. He'd swallowed water, enough to get it in his sinuses and be generally miserable.

"Aug. Look at me, New York."

Aug tried to shift his vision but was too disoriented, and a face leaned in above him.

Steve.

"Uh huh," Steve said, grinning. It was shaky, but it was a grin. "Full of tricks, aren't you. Among other things."

Aug focused on him blearily. "Where --"

"At the bottom," Steve said, helping Aug sit up.

The source of the roaring noise was a few hundred yards off; the waterfall arced high above them, cascading out of existence far from the hill they were on. Aug stared, and made no sense out of it, wasn't certain what was real. "We're still here, then?"

Steve shook his head. "Here?"

"How long have we been dead?" Aug said.

Steve waved a hand in front of Aug's eyes. "Jesus, whatever you did really stopped the blood flow, huh? We look and feel dead, but we're alive."

Aug looked around again, then back at Steve. "But the rock...we were stuck on it, for more than a day. You -- you hit it, pulling us out of the water, and died. I was...I saw it."

Steve nodded. "Were you conscious, when I was pulling you out of the water?"

Aug thought for a moment, the rest of his lights beginning to come on. "No."

"When you were unconscious, and you were seeing and feeling what I was, did you see everything in color?" Steve said.

"Yeah."

Steve nodded. "I saw you go over the falls. I saw the rockslide crush us both. I saw something come out of the water and grab you. The water fucked with our heads. I can only see in black and white, you know that."

Aug stared at him. "Then...how do we know this is..." He paused, shaking his head.

Steve grinned.

"Oh, fuck you," Aug said, and Steve laughed aloud.

"Uh huh," Steve said. "Any more big questions?"

"What the hell is with you?" Aug said. "You act like this is all in a day's work."

Steve sighed and sat down next to Aug, looking back out across the waterfall. "I've done this before, been here before. You hang around this band very long, it'll be normal to you, too."

"No way," Aug said. "Not this shit."

Steve shrugged, then winced and tried to stretch his shoulder out.

"So how'd we get all the way down here?" Aug said.

Steve turned back to him. "You. Whatever it was you did, you got us out from under that rock slide. And we were on a rock, for a moment, until the water pulled us away. We started over the waterfall. Next thing I knew, we were here. Whatever the hell it is you're doing -- and I think I know what -- cut it out, because it stopped your heart the last time."

"You said that before," Aug said. "On the rock."

Steve stared at him for a moment, picking up on his tone. There wasn't just fear; there was a little guilt.

"You're not useless," Steve said. "You just saved our goddamn lives. You don't know what you can do, yet." Thanks, guys, thanks for insisting on keeping the band going and sucking this poor guy in with us.

Aug didn't reply, and Steve shrugged again. "Maybe it all happened, or none of it did. But we're down here instead of..." He gestured at the depression the waterfall fell into.

"You said....you thought you might know what it is," Aug said. "That I did."

"Yeah," Steve said. "We'll get into it later, after we find the others. No, I'm not tryin' to put you off. I need backup on the explanation, that's all."

"Where'd you learn CPR?" Aug said, tone nearly accusing.

Steve arched an eyebrow at him. "You obviously haven't spent much time backstage yet."

Aug stood and looked around, finding himself surrounded by plains that ran straight into a sheer cliff marred only by the waterfall. There was an obvious line of demarcation that looked like halves of different planets had been slammed together unevenly.

It did happen, Aug thought. It all happened. Maybe it's still happening.

"I knew you'd catch on," Steve said.

Aug turned to look at him. "You heard that."

Steve nodded a little. "Part of it."

"How's your shoulder?" Aug said. "You really did wrench it, I know that much."

"Mmm hmm. I'll live."

Aug looked at him again. "I lived part of your life," he said. "I died with you."

"It's okay," Steve said. "Don't let it overwhelm you. It'll suck you right in." He paused, then said, "Don't drink the water."

Aug sighed and tried to wring the cloak out.

"Let's find somewhere for you to hole up," Steve said.

"Where the hell do you think you're going?" Aug said. "Hole up, for what?"

"Well, you're gonna get cold as hell, for one," Steve said, regaining his feet by levering himself with his good shoulder. "It might be worth the risk to start a fire. Were you ever a boy scout?"

"No," Aug said shortly. "Don't fuckin' baby me. Now what the hell are you doing?"

"I gotta see for myself if anyone else made it here with us," Steve said. He meant to say I need to find Neal but kept it down. "I don't hear anyone else. If they're not here, I got no way of findin' 'em myself, even with you here."

Before Aug could ask him what that was supposed to mean, Steve added, "I don't wanna leave you alone. But I gotta know, and opening my thoughts to find out means makin' us a target. I won't be gone long. I just need to know."

Aug nodded. "What...kind of wildlife, we got here?"

Steve shifted uneasily, and that scared Aug into staring at him. "That's the other reason why I want you to hole up," Steve said. "They got shit here you're better off not runnin' into. A fire will keep most of it off. And no way will I leave you alone in the dark."

Aug went on staring at him for a moment, then looked back to the rock wall, searching it for any overhangs or alcoves. "I wish I could fly," he said.

Steve nodded.

"Your shoulder good enough so you can?" Aug said.

"Will be," Steve said. "I know just enough of the layout that I should be able to search most of it before I'm gone long enough for the daywraiths to smell you."

"What the --" Aug paused. "You gotta be kidding. What the hell lives here?"

"They're like veloceraptors, if you crossed 'em with piranha," Steve said. "We don't need to go into that. Don't even know if the fuckers are still around. No sense takin' chances. Gonna find a place in these rocks and stash you there. When I know a little more about where everybody is, you'll get the whole story. But first thing's first."

Aug stared at him for a moment, then looked around. He thought about what the water had done to him, thought about the bird and the green light. "Okay."

Steve laughed. "You're tough," he said. "You had to be, though, or they wouldn't have come lookin' for you."

Aug looked at him a moment. "I won't even ask," he said.

"Uh huh," Steve said, and laughed again. "C'mon. I think I see a good spot, over here." He pointed, and Aug looked. Further down the wall, far out of the spray of the falls, was an alcove in the rock. It was roughly three feet off the ground, a jagged crack big enough to wedge an adult human into.

Steve crawled up to it first and had a look around, squeezing in and finding that it opened up a little inside. Just enough room to hide.

Or be trapped.

He sighed. It was too small for a daywraith to get into. With a fire in front of it, the other singer would be fine.

He had to be.

* * *

Jesus, don't they ever end?

Ross passed another straggling crowd, and tallied up what he'd seen so far. One, they were always armed. Always. Adults only, no children or even youths anywhere to be found. The males and females in the population seemed to be perfectly even, like it was planned...

Well, it had been planned.

For another thing, they were silent. All the time. If they spoke to each other, it was in low, hushed tones like they might be overheard. Whether they didn't want to be heard by other Sedhi, or they were trying to hide from something greater, he couldn't tell.

Their weapons and clothing were different; still made from the immediate world, but with much finer detail and the occasional attempt at real design. Bows, spears, and the occasional blade. They'd been metalworking. It showed in their clothing as well, in fasteners and ornamentation. Mostly hide, interspersed with woven plant materials. The place was so different that Ross didn't recognize any of the plants.

He just hoped the basic layout was the same. Tuirnarin wasn't there to shift it around, but that didn't mean someone else hadn't found a way to do it.

Something had set the place off, had caused the desert to become aggressive and the whole place to take off running. To be its own world. He liked to think it was the fact that they'd removed Tuirnarin. But he had a feeling there was a lot more to it than that.

He narrowly avoided another swift moving pair of Sedhi, flattening himself against a boulder to do it.

It didn't so much look like a settlement as it did an army camp. They were gearing up for something.

He headed back in the direction he thought might be the Wisp caves, thinking there was no way they were still there, not with the Sedhi so ready to move on them all the time. Not unless the Wisps had gone through the same transformation.

He almost walked right into it; another two steps and he would have marred it and possibly given himself away. It laid out across the sand in front of him, sprawled for nearly fifty yards, marked in spots with larger stones, or smaller stones laid in rows. It took him a moment to see it for what it was.

A map of Athyri.

But why lay it in the sand, when wind or rain would destroy it at a moment's notice? Why not paint it on the Turning wall?

Maybe because Athyri was shifting like the sand was, and needed to be amended constantly.

* * *

The raven landed on an outcropping of rock and sat, letting the wind ruffle its feathers. Except for the wind, it was silent. No chattering of anyone living below, no bells chiming in the wind. He couldn't see the fence from there, and wondered if it had been overtaken by the sand like everything else had.

It was all rust red sand here, no grass left to speak of except for what was trying to poke through. Little tufts still existed, breaking the continuity in places.

Except for the pool of water that lay like a small mirror to the sky.

It sat just outside the cave in a small depression, bordered by a small outcropping of rock that leaned slightly over it. Nothing broke the surface. He wondered if the Wisps had created it prior to leaving, if indeed they had left.

Just beyond where the fence had once been, the world dropped away. The desert where the Keep had been, and the forest bordering it looked like they had been slammed down by at least 250, 300 feet. Sheer cliffs were left, and the desert went on below. Somehow, it had spread a hell of a lot before the cliffs had stopped it.

The raven coasted down to where it thought the fence would have been, and hopped over the tumbled gravel. There, a bit of the fence still showed through. Something had broken it down, and the sand had overtaken it not long after. The raven pecked at it a little, cocking its head to see if any light would reflect off anything shiny in the sand. Looking for bells.

It took flight again and landed at the mouth of the largest cave, where the Wisps had been the last time they'd been there. There was a low, mournful howling noise from below, the wind whistling through the empty space. There were no recent tracks in the sand, nothing to suggest that they had been recently vacated. Just emptiness and the sense that nothing had lived there for a long span of time.

The raven hopped into the cave a bit and looked around, its eyes glowing green in the dim confines. It stretched one wing out and let it hang, resting an aching shoulder. There were still berths in the stone, and there was still an entrance at the back of the cave that might lead to the living quarters below. The raven had no interest in going down there, not when it had better things to look for.

It hopped back out of the cave and took flight, headed for Siarion's Tower, gaining it in only minutes.

There was nothing that insinuated this had been disturbed recently either, but the raven sat on the edge and looked out over the landscape. The sand had lost part of its foothold here, and more grass was showing. But the desert had been winning.

Nothing moved in the sand, or at the base of the tower. Nothing moved in the shadows below that his sharp eyes could catch. There was still a treeline further on, much further on, and nothing moved there either.

It stared out across the space for awhile longer, then realized something was out of place. There was a shape at the base of the tower, something that ruined the smoothness of the boulders below and stood out from the flat landscape.

A tree.

Waiting for an updraft, the raven coasted down, spiraling on the air to save the energy of flapping its wings. He landed in the grass near it -- the sand made a wide berth around it -- and he sat flexing his wings. Still, nothing moved. With some concentration and a great deal of effort, he was human again.

Steve sat in the grass and stared at the tree, amazed at the unnatural symmetry of the thing. It didn't seem threatening, but he didn't move any closer all the same. He'd seen the Wizard of Oz too many times...

That nearly made him laugh. Dorothy, I ain't.

Then a shadow resolved itself in the upraised roots against the trunk, something that hadn't been there before. Something that hadn't shown itself right away.

Steve tensed and wondered if he was better off as the bird.

Long moments passed, and nothing moved; the shape went on resolving itself beneath the tree, and he strained to see it. He waited for something, anything, and was rewarded only with an intermittent breeze. The figure among the upraised roots became humanoid in shape and stayed where it was.

Wisp? No. Not out lounging in the daylight, desert or no. Not unless the Sedhi had moved on completely. A Sedhian, then? And only one? Stranger things had happened. It was too much for coincidence, and Steve felt the wheels that moved everything catch a little again. He opened his thoughts.

*Unable to avoid me, brother? Even across worlds?*

Neal startled awake, disoriented and feeling out of place. It took him a moment to remember where he was, and he had the feeling he hadn't only been asleep. He thought he'd heard --

He sat up and looked around. There, a figure in black, standing in the grass. *Steve?*

The figure grinned. *I'm here.*

There was no guessing this time about either of them being the real article. Neal stood and walked away from the tree, letting Steve meet him halfway, gathering him into a fierce bearhug.

*Wasn't sure you got away,* Neal thought, not caring that Steve also heard what ran beneath; a desperate joy that the singer was safe, that he had the chance to hold him.

*Neither was I,* Steve thought wryly, his head tucked into Neal's shoulder. The relief was terrible. *God -- what's happening to us?*

Neal knew he meant the way they were behaving, and didn't reply.

*Jon?* Steve thought. *Ross? I tried to --*

*I know,* Neal thought. *If they're here, I haven't found 'em yet. But I haven't been here all that long.*

Before Steve could add anything else, Neal caught a glimpse of a figure in street clothes with long, curly hair. He pulled away and said, "Aug? Aug is with you?"

Steve grinned. "Yeah, is he ever. He's fine, I just...had to scout around."

Underneath ran the concept of had to find the others, had to find you, had to find you, had to find you.

Neal heard and nodded, carefully releasing Steve. Steve cleared his throat, and Neal looked at him. "Jesus," he said, "what the hell happened to you?"

The marks on his throat. Steve rubbed at them absently, showing Neal a quick mental picture of the battle in the kitchen. Neal sucked in a breath, following it with a curse.

"I did the best I could," Steve said. Guilt over Jon and Ross, and maybe Deen, ran beneath it.

"Yeah, you did," Neal said. "They could still be here, somewhere."

Steve tilted his head back to look at the tree. "What's with this?" he said.

Neal shrugged. "Dunno. It's something, all right." He walked slowly around the tree, watching his footing as he went. There wasn't another until the woods began in earnest a good half day's walk away. The only tree for miles. Growing in dry, rocky dust.

As the seed is planted...

"Mairiesa told you guys this is where..." Steve trailed off. *Where they buried me.*

"She said they took your body out of the snow, buried it at the foot of the tower," Neal said. "Nobody thought about it again. I thought they'd clear you out when they tossed us out. They said 'anything not of this world' or whatever. Shit, I don't know."

It rang a distant alarm somewhere in the back of Neal's mind, but he couldn't focus on it. There was something he should've seen, then and there, and it didn't coalesce.

"It's me," Steve said. "The same line but moments before we got pulled in here, that time."

Neal was nodding as he spoke, still walking around the tree. "I hate this," he said. He stopped and looked at Steve, who wouldn't look back. He was thinking of the nightmares Steve had been having.

Steve caught a little of it and shrugged, wincing at his shoulder. "You recognize this species of tree?"

"No. No, I don't think this is anything like the other stuff growin' around here, or anywhere else," Neal said.

Steve looked up into the branches, looking for anything that broke the continuity of them. But the trunk ran in a perfect upward spiral; the branches spiraled in gentle, perfect order upward and outward. And the leaves hung in lazy downward spirals, each leaf the exact same size and shape. He had a sense of the roots reaching downward in the same spirals, and before he could think better of it, he reached out a hand and laid it gently on the trunk...

...and saw the roots, each separate but connected, every single one woven through the bones below, through the gaping eyeholes in the skull and the collapsed ribcage, wrapped through fingerbones and tibia and pelvis, out and down through the entire world, connecting everything, everywhere, cradling skeleton and world, and if you dug deep enough anywhere you ran into the roots sooner or later, until they punched through to the layers beneath where there was no more world...

Then Neal had him by the shoulders of his tunic and was shaking him. He'd yanked the singer away from the tree to save himself as much as to save Steve. He only got a suggestion of what the singer saw, but it'd been like touching someone being electrocuted without grounding himself first. The current traveled along the path of least resistance...

"Okay," Steve said, sliding to his knees, and he wasn't talking to Neal. And Neal knew it. "Okay."

"Don't go touching anything if you don't know what the fuck it is," Neal said angrily, shaking him again. What he thought beneath it was, *But you do know what it is, don't you.*

"Yeah," Steve said. "Yeah, okay. It's holding the place together."

*I'd like to know what's holding YOU together,* Neal thought.

Still in shock, Steve was unable to sidestep the question like he would have normally; before he could avoid it, he thought, *You are.*

Neal released him, and he sat there, wishing he could put the lid back on, realizing he'd been wishing it for most of his life. They stared at each other for a long moment, and Neal realized the tree hadn't done the same thing to him that it had to Steve, that he'd been sleeping under it without realizing what it really was.

"What's it mean?" Neal said softly.

"I don't know," Steve said. "The roots..." he trailed off. *It wasn't so much of a world the last time we saw it,* he thought. *Now, we got...* He trailed off again and stood. "I gotta go back for Aug. I can't leave him alone, where he is. We don't know what lives here, anymore. We'll meet you here, maybe go on to the caves."

Neal shrugged. "It's as good a place as any." *I don't really think anything'll bother me here, now.*

There was a hell of a lot not being said, not even being alluded to in their thoughts, just a low undercurrent of uneasiness and a sense that they were avoiding it by agreement.

* * *

They put a rush on the phone records for Jessica - Perry's and Schon's only. Cain's were the territory of the team assigned to his house, and she wasn't about to start stepping on toes. It was about ten o'clock the next morning that she found what she thought she was looking for.

A call made to a local door repair company. She dialed the number to confirm it, got an answering machine that detailed their hours and what they specialized in. Home repair. The day after the incident at the mall.

She didn't believe in coincidences.

These guys seem to have a lot of trouble with their doors.

She left a message, checked in with Navato PD, and waited.

The repair place called her back ten minutes later, and she asked them to check their service logs. A tech named Larry Wilkens had responded to the call to come out to Neal's and replace the front door. The receptionist said she'd patch her through to the tech's truck phone.

After a few rings couple of fuzzy minutes of being put on hold, she got through and explained who she was.

"Yeah," he said. "I remember that. It was busted up, bad, hinges destroyed, everything. Door wasn't salvageable. Good one, too, solid hardwood, old house. Not this pressboard shit they do now."

"Did the homeowner say what happened?" Jessica asked.

"Mmmm...nah," Wilkens said. "Said he'd come home and found it like that. I remember thinkin' that was weird, because it was a swing-inward type door, and it had been blown off from the inside. I mean blown off."

"No scorch marks, no sign of explosives?" she said.

"Nah. Blown, like a compressed air cannon or something. Took the molding off, propelled the door a good twenty feet into the yard. Stripped the hinges right out."

"How'd the homeowner behave?" she said.

"Look, is this guy dead or somethin'?" Wilkens said. "I wouldn't be surprised, but usually folks don't call us to investigate stuff."

"Why would you say you aren't surprised?" Jessica said.

"He was pretty stressed out," Wilkens said. "I mean, anybody with a door blown off from inside would be. But he kept lookin' at the floor. Not like he was tryin' not to look at me, but like he'd lost somethin', was looking for somethin'. I dunno. Jumpy." He paused, and she waited, knowing enough that if you let people fill silence for you, they often added necessary things. "Sooo...he dead?"

Or not. "No," Jessica said. "Thanks for your time, Mr. Wilkens. If we need anything else, I'll be in touch."

* * *

Aug said, "Holy shit."

They stood at the base of the tree, staring into the branches. Aug had greeted Neal enthusiastically, glad to see the guitarist for himself even if Steve had already told him Neal was fine.

"The east coast speaks," Steve said.

Aug shrugged. "I just...this place..."

"I know," Steve said. "Don't try and take it all in at once, like I said. Deal with what you can, shoulder it a bit at a time. It'll be okay."

*Oh, that's real good, comin' from you,* Neal thought.

Aug nodded and walked around the tree, studying it from different angles.

Steve looked at Neal. *Okay, smartass. I don't hear you leapin' in to make it any easier on him.*

Neal shrugged. "First order of business we got is shelter. We sure as hell ain't goin' into those caverns you two were in. Might've been nice to know the Turning Wall was hollow, huh?"

"It probably wasn't, the other times we were here," Steve said. "At least now we know the damn thing ends. We might not make it back to the Wisp caves in time for the Turning. You seen anything else?"

Neal shrugged. "You're the bird."

"There were a few good overhangs marked into the Wall, on the way there," Steve said. "Build a fire to keep the night things off, if we got 'em, and hope no one else sees it. Then second order of business..."

"Ross, Jon and Deen," Neal said, not needing to say it aloud but wanting to.

"Ross should be in here with us," Steve said. "He went when you did. It's Jon who got stuck, and I got no sense of Deen. I don't know if that's 'cause I haven't really been around him, or what. How the hell Aug got stuck with me, there's no telling. I tried to throw you all at once."

"So, you can either fly around, which is harder than hell on you, until you find everybody -- assumin' they're here," Neal said. "Or, you can crack your thoughts open all the way and see what's really here. And maybe make yourself obvious to anyone who wants to know where the Er Rai is."

Steve nodded. "No guarantees, either way. No guarantees on findin' anybody ever, no guarantee we'll ever get home again, on and on. Gotta hope the Ender isn't on our trail, because I have no idea what the fuck to do if it shows up here. It's not Tuirnarin. This is another whole rung up on the badass ladder. I don't wanna think about what it'll do at home, if it can't find us."

"But you tricked it," Neal said, looking up at the sky, not seeing Aug place his hands on the tree. *That's actual sky, an actual sun. I recognize the layout, but Jesus, this is a different place.*

"Once," Steve said. "It's not gonna be dumb with us a third time. Before it was lookin' at us like the bottom of the food chain, and now it's just pissed."

"One thing at a time," Neal said. "We gotta do what we can to find everybody, stay safe long enough to plan somethin' out. Let's get headed to the caves."

Steve opened his mouth to argue, and ended up taking a full step back when something shot through him. It wasn't pain, just a disturbance, a big one, and he slammed his thoughts shut in confusion. Neal startled, looking at him in amazement, then looked at Aug in response to an audible crack he heard behind him.

The other singer stood there with a branch he'd stripped from the lower part of the tree. It was walking - stick length and of a faintly spiral shape. He stood examining it until he realized they were staring at him in silence. He looked at Steve and paused at how gray the other singer's face was.

"Aug," Neal said slowly, "you wanna...be careful about touching stuff, here." To Steve, he thought, *You felt that. You fuckin' felt that. That tree grew out of -- *

Aug was watching Steve carefully. "I did something, there, didn't I," he said. "How bad was it?"

"I don't know," Steve said. "I'm not sure what it's about. You okay?"

"It didn't do anything to me," Aug said. "It didn't occur to me that it might be somethin' besides a tree. It's not just a tree, is it."

"No," Steve said, voice finally beginning to shake. "It's not."

"I'm sorry," Aug said breathlessly, looking like he was afraid to move.

"Come away from it," Neal said. "Let's get out of here."

Aug walked back around to them, branch gripped tightly in his right hand. He moved to hand it to Steve, but Steve recoiled. "No," Steve said softly. "You hang onto it. I don't think it'll help me any. I got a feeling it wouldn't let you take it, if it hadn't wanted you to."

"I'm sorry," Aug said again, looking like he might actually break down.

"You didn't know," Steve said. "Hell, we didn't either. Just don't...don't take anything for what it looks like, you know?"

"Yeah," Aug said, still watching Steve. He looked at the branch. It had snapped cleanly off, no greenstick fracture or frayed edges. It wasn't deadwood, but it wasn't any kind of alive he'd ever known, either.

They headed off in the direction of the Wisp caves, of what Neal and Steve remembered as Athyri, keeping to the Turning Wall.

* * *

They needed to rest before they expected to, and found an overhang that sloped into the Wall, a three-sided enclosure that got them out of the elements and temporarily out of sight.

Aug stepped out into the orange light and had a full look around, feeling the sand beneath his boots. At least he was finally dry. Far enough out, closer to the treeline, it became grass again, but that was a good day's walk away. Something had caused the desert to spread. Siarion's Tower was half a mile off to his right, the only break in the Turning Wall. The desert thinned out to grass there, the boundary uneven. At its base he could still see the tree. He felt another pang of guilt for taking a walking stick off of it. But he hadn't known. And it had let him, anyway, like Steve had said.

Neal and Steve were back to arguing about the bird vs. something Steve referred to as 'opening his thoughts', and when Aug had asked he realized what he was asking; what had happened in the studio had been purposeful. He didn't entirely grasp it yet. But he had a sense of what it meant.

"If Jon was here -- or Deen -- would you be able to find them without searching the whole place on foot?" he asked.

"Yeah," Steve said. "That's what I'm gonna do, first. I've only done it once, and it'll announce me to the whole place. But if I go searching the timelines with Neal -- assuming we can --- we'll be announcing ourselves to everybody, everywhere, so this is nothing." He paused. "Maybe."

"Just searching by air would take a long time," Aug said. "And maybe, they're in trouble and we need to move quicker than that."

"Yeah," Neal said. "We're kind of screwed here, either way. One way's too slow and the other's too dangerous."

"The thing that was at Jon's might hear you?" Aug said.

"And a lot more," Neal said. "Maybe. No telling. It goes both ways. The right guys might hear us, and the wrong guys too. And we don't know if he's got any more control over it than he did at Jon's."

"I don't wanna meet nothin' else that's big enough to pull us into another goddamn world," Aug said.

"No," Steve said. "Nobody does."

He closed his thoughts as he said it, and Neal opened his mouth to say wait but couldn't do it. Steve was already trying to open his thoughts again, and they waited to see what would happen.

Nothing.

Steve's disappointment was in his thoughts only. He turned to look back out into the desert, and Neal thought, *You had to be pretty pissed off to do the wraith trick. This ain't that different. You had to be pretty scared when you did it for the Ender.*

Steve nodded a little but didn't acknowledge him otherwise. He wasn't thinking anything in particular, just feeling around for the mechanism that allowed him to close his thoughts. Then he remembered the switch. All the switches. The one in the kitchen. The one in his head.

*If you force it,* Neal thought, *what makes you so sure you'll get it closed again?*

Steve turned him away, and Neal didn't understand how he did it, but it was like being sidestepped. The singer went on looking, sinking a little deeper into himself, shutting them out completely until it seemed as if he'd fallen asleep standing up. There was no particular sense of him, just a low static hum of his presence that only Neal heard. They watched him, Neal with nervousness and Aug with curiosity.

Steve closed his thoughts again, folding them by levels instead of slamming them, and as he did a memory drifted to Neal of something he hadn't been present for: the wraith attacking Jon in a snowy field. Blood and firelight and desperation splashing across the snow in equal parts. There was the mental equivalent of a running jump, and Neal pushed Aug back a step, knowing it wouldn't make any difference but giving in to the reflex anyway. He heard himself say "It has to go both ways," and knew the words weren't his.

Steve's thoughts opened all the way, and as they spun outward Steve saw the tree again for a moment, saw the root structure. There was something there he should have understood, but he was too busy looking at the entire world after that. It was too much space for his mind to look at at once, and it only lasted for a few seconds as it had the first time he'd attempted it. Anything that lived there was a pinpoint somewhere on the spectrum, not necessarily visible but apparent to him. That applied to the not-quite living as well, and Steve was able to retain a few familiar pinpoints before the whole thing collapsed.

* * *