We all know conspiracies are dumb.
--Blink 182, Aliens Exist
__________________

Memory Bound Chapter II
(c)1999 B Stearns

Ross looked at Lovall for confirmation, and the doctor said, "Patient confidentiality dictates that this is a matter between the patient's family and the health care system," he said, but his face said a hell of a lot more.

Jon folded to the floor, sitting cross-legged, bent over, sobbing quietly. One corner of his brain was dimly mortified by his own behavior, the part that wasn't exhausted or hurt. "Don't," he choked. "He doesn't wanna go."

The doctor had crouched in front of him, placed a hand on his shoulder. "Please. Listen. There was no brain activity. The choice is understandable, and was based on what Mr. Perry's will stipulates."

"Was," Aug said, leaping into the space. "Was no brain activity."

Lovall nodded, glancing up at Aug. "There is now."

Jon startled, taking the Kleenex that were offered to him by Neal. The words were like an electric shock. He looked up, trying to regain control, trying to catch up. "He's--"

"Been upgraded in the last half hour from terminal to critical," Lovall said. "When he stabilizes, we'll schedule surgery."

Jon blinked rapidly.

"He's gonna live," Ross said.

Lovall inclined his head. "He has a chance."

"Good enough."

* * *

Morning came, and Jon was upright with only three hours of restless sleep behind him. That had only been at Neal's insistence.

Your goddamn nose was bleeding. You're tilting off the edge. Who're you gonna help, like that?

Liz had listened to the whole sordid thing with calm compassion, holding him when the tears wrenched out of him again.

And what the hell was he doing now? Driving around goddamned Lemoore because he had to see where it had happened, had to know. Had to talk to whoever he could that might have seen it. It had been just under 24 hours since the accident.

And they weren't going to unplug Steve.

Neal had said they'd meet sometime around noon at the hospital. He said he and Ross had 'business' that morning.

He'd left it at that. He didn't really want to know.

And what was he doing, really? If the bystanders told him what he already knew--that there'd been no one with the singer--what then? All he could do was talk to Steve.

If Steve ever talked again.

And the panic hit him again unbidden, sliding around the barriers he'd put up around it. He'd 'undone' enough damage to keep the singer alive, then left him hanging. What if he was self-aware enough to feel what was going on, but unable to react? What if he was...trapped?

He gripped the steering wheel until his hands ached, turning the radio up until most of what he was thinking was blotted out. 'One Week' came on.

He shook his head. They'd let him see Steve again. He'd fix it.

And then what, Cain?

The green light had been suspicious enough. How the hell would they explain a miraculous recovery?

He dropped the internal argument then, because he'd found the intersection he was looking for. He turned left off the one way street he was on, parallel parked in front of a Starbucks, and got out.

Traffic was light, and he had no trouble crossing. He began walking quickly, head down, his hands in his jacket pockets. It had rained just a little the previous morning, but stayed dry otherwise, and he began to have morbid thoughts about blood on pavement...

No. No, they'll have hosed it down.

He should have talked to the cops a little more, first. But he had to see it. He wasn't sure why. He'd learned to trust most of his instincts over the years.

He knew the spot the moment he reached it.

He'd passed a bus stop--the 31--and kept walking, unsure of the exact distance. But he knew. He paused on the sidewalk to look around. Here the zoning began to overlap; there was apartment housing to his left, a bookstore directly across the street...

And blood in the oncoming lane, a dark brown discoloration the size of a basketball. There had been more, a lot more, but a patch had survived the subsequent cleanup.

You missed a spot, he thought, feeling jittery.

There was a whoosh of sound, compression brakes being applied on the incline, and the bus passed him.

He stumbled back from the curb, stomach twisting, and the next thing he knew he was on his knees on someone's lawn, trying to keep from puking in their bushes. The world tilted crazily, and someone was patting his shoulder, leaning in to say something to him.

"...hear me? You okay? You need some help?"

He took a couple of deep breaths, concentrated on the grass, how it felt beneath his hands. The sidewalk under his knees was striated, rough, and his jeans didn't protect him from it. After a moment, he sat up again, glanced up.

There was a young woman kneeling next to him, hands balled into fists and braced on her knees. She was pale, fine boned, with dark, straight, chin-length hair and sad dark eyes that regarded him with worry. Just behind her stood a man, darker than she was, Samoan or Puerto Rican, looking wary and uncomfortable.

The apartment house. They must have seen him through their windows. What else had they seen?

"I'm okay," he said.

"For a second, I thought the bus hit you," she said. "But it just startled you, didn't it? It would be too much for coincidence, two folks getting hit by a bus on consecutive days."

"Theresa," the man said, his tone a gruff but gentle reprimand.

Jon leaned back on his knees, feeling a little better, a little saner. "Then you saw what happened yesterday," he said.

Theresa nodded, looking confused.

"I'm sorry," he said. "My name's Jonathan. The man who was hit yesterday was--is--my friend."

The pity on their faces was expected. Theresa's next statement was not.

"You've been in some terrible trouble, haven't you," she said.

He stared at her, tried to say something, but the man broke in. "Theresa. The poor guy's had enough already. We already discussed this."

Jonathan said, "What do you mean?"

Theresa paused, her gaze straying over his shoulder to the street beyond. "Why don't you come on inside? I'll make you some tea, and we can talk."

Overly friendly. Nuts? Predatory? Or just a little simple? By the way the guy was protecting her, Jon suspected the latter. But they had his attention. At the least, they'd be able to tell him what they'd seen. He had a feeling there was more, a lot more. The man made a soft, exclamatory noise. Normally Jon would have politely extricated himself, but there was too much at stake.

"If you wouldn't mind," he said. "I'd like to talk to you...about what you saw."

* * *

Neal squinted at the card again.

Either he was getting old and nearsighted...or they were printing business cards smaller.

"Stupid bastard," he said again.

"This is the place," Ross said. "I say I go in, have a peaceable chat with this guy. He sees it our way, I thank him, we get the hell out of here."

Neal looked at him.

"Uh huh," Ross said. "You're a scary son of a bitch, you know that?"

Neal sighed. "Let's get this the fuck over with. What I should've done was bring a lawyer along, but number one, I hate 'em, and number two, one stupid bastard would legally agree with the other."

"I got a crowbar in the back," Ross said.

Neal sighed again."Crowbars ain't my thing."

"I can't let you get arrested, man," Ross said. "Jon needs you." He patted Neal's shoulder and got out of the driver's side of his Forerunner, waiting for Neal to move.

Neal got out wearily, locking the door behind as he slammed it. From the outside, the building housing the Chronicle didn't look like much; few windows, no fanfare. Four corners and three stories of stucco with swinging doors. And a simplistic, sparsely decorated lobby with a bored security guard behind a mahogany desk.

The guard made eye contact but said nothing.

Neal held out the by then well-worn business card. "Here to see Rick Marshall."

The guard eyed the card, and apparently recognized something about either the card or the name. "Reporters are all on the second floor, news room," he said. "You have an appointment?"

"No," Neal said, trying to keep his attitude cool. "This is concerning a story he's working on. I wanna give him a tip."

He heard Ross snort, ignored it, focused on the guard.

The guard picked up the phone, punched in an extension Neal automatically memorized. It hadn't been on the card. 5309. Jenny, don't change your number...

"Couple of gentlemen here to see you," the guard said, then raised his eyebrows and glanced up.

"Tell him Journey is here," Neal said. Ross snorted again, and Neal promised himself he was going to put the bassist's lights out if he heard the sound again. The guard repeated his words with one eyebrow still raised. A moment later, he put the phone down and told them Marshall would be down in a minute.

They wandered away from the desk, out of earshot, pretending to be interested in the headlines framed on the walls.

"'Tell him Journey is here,'" Ross said in a low, menacing tone, doing too good a job of imitating Neal.

"You weren't sayin' anything," Neal snapped under his breath.

"I'm not critiquing you," Ross said without defensiveness. "Keep it cool, Wayne. I have a feeling you're gonna be a bigger story than Perry could ever hope to be, the way you're acting."

"Everything's cool," Neal said. "Now shut the fuck up."

It was nearly twenty minutes before Marshall appeared out of the elevator, a short man with thinning blond hair, ice blue eyes and jittery, hurried motions. He came straight up to them and said, "Well, well. Neal and Ross."

That pissed Neal off even further. It was a bullshit psychological thing, it was something people did to get you off guard, using your name without being given permission, without introduction. There'd been adults when he was a kid, and cops, then record execs and other people who thought they were important, who'd done that to Neal throughout his life. Assholes, all of them.

Then there'd been The Lady.

This pissant wouldn't have lasted 2 minutes with her.

"Well well," Neal said, his tone congenial and his eyes less so. "Rick. How the hell you doin', man?"

No one offered to shake hands.

Taken slightly aback by the tone and unexpected response, the reporter nodded, glancing from Neal to Ross and back. "Fine, fine. I suspect you gentlemen are here about the....unfortunate...incident out in Lemoore yesterday."

"That we are," Ross said with exaggerated brightness. "Go figure, Rick."

Marshall nodded. "Okay, then...listen, why don't you guys come up to my desk, we'll go over a couple of things."

Neal turned slightly and met Ross' eyes. Is this guy fuckin' for real?

Ross nodded. "Great. Lead the way, Rick."

Not a word was said in the elevator.

The news room wasn't half as noisy or disorderly as movies usually made them out to be. There was a scattering of computer-covered desks with a row of cubicles toward the north side of the wide, off-white room. A few maps on the walls, a poster about a diner with a specialty for roadkill. Only about a dozen people occupied desks.

"We'll go into one of the conference rooms," Marshall said, keeping close to the wall and walking quickly toward two doors on the western side. One was apparently the stairway. Marshall opened the other and gestured them in, closing the door behind himself.

A wide oval conference table halved the room, the lights above kept dim. Black and emerald upholstered chairs, eight of them, bordered the table.

No one moved.

After a moment of uncomfortable, ringing silence, Ross said, "So. Tell us about this unfortunate incident, Rick."

Marshall shrugged. "Right off the police blotter. I suspect you gentlemen already know the particulars. I'd give my condolences, but my understanding is the breakup was less than friendly, so I won't waste my time." He glanced pointedly at Neal, who slipped yet another notch on his temper.

"It's always nice to run into someone who knows more about us than we do," Neal said.

Marshall shrugged. "It's common knowledge, to the entertainment rags and the insiders. I'm just echoing back."

"Is that what's gonna run in your article?" Ross said. "Common knowledge?"

"No," Marshall said. "Oh, of course there's backstory. But mostly it's just another blurb about the suicide of a musician. Another VH-1 'Behind The Music' in the making."

"Suicide," Neal said. "Who told you suicide?"

Marshall looked surprised. "By all accounts, your ex-singer threw himself in front of a 7:30 bus, right in broad daylight and in front of the world. The police have it down as suicide."

"Funny, since he's still alive," Ross said.

"Really? Is he? Not after being struck twice. Not with visible gray matter on the asphalt."

Neal gritted his teeth, clenched his fists, and shifted his weight. Ross whistled low, keeping enough of Neal's attention to keep him from swinging.

"Just another misunderstood rock star. Now, you guys have something to add, or can I get back to work?"

"You think you know what's going on," Neal said between his teeth. "But it was an accident. You don't go summing up a guy's life based on what people think they saw."

Marshall smirked visibly. "Word is, the girlfriend left him a couple of weeks ago," he said. "He quit talking to his stepdad about the time his biological father died. News guy says he made a couple of remarks that could easily explain what he did ten minutes later. Bystanders say he was staring into space just before he did it. That sound sane and rational to you? He tried to off himself. He's a fucking entertainer. It's the price you pay for being famous. That's news."

"After all this, he's earned his fucking privacy," Neal said, feeling his temper begin to give, keeping his hands at his sides through nearly superhuman effort. Perry would love this, he thought. I'm ready to kill this guy. "You dumb sonofabitch, if I see a word of this beyond 'accident' in your fucking rag, I'm gonna tear you a new one."

"Don't hit him, Neal," Ross said softly.

"Are you threatening me?" Marshall shouted, the look in his eyes almost hopeful. "Jesus, are you threatening me? Please! Freedom of the press!"

"It's a guarantee, asshole," Neal said. "I'm gonna feed you through your fucking presses."

Ross began whistling through his teeth, and Neal knew it was time to back off before it got physical. Because he wanted it to. He wanted someone to suffer for the last 24 hours.

"Nothing you can do," Marshall said. "Call your congressman. Now fuck off, before I do get the cops down here, before the story I'm writing gets any more interesting."

Neal took a deep breath, several of them, and Ross grabbed the back of his jacket.

"Come on, tough guy," he said.

Neal shook him off, looked dirty at Marshall, tried to think of something original. He failed. "Fucking asshole," he said.

Marshall waved him off, redfaced, as Ross forced him to backpedal.

"Yeah," Ross said, mock serious. "What he said. Fuck you, you fucking fuck!" Then he propelled Neal out the door and back toward the elevator. Both were silent, Neal stewing visibly. They walked quickly through the lobby and were back out on the sidewalk a minute later, where they walked quickly for several minutes, directionless, just walking the whole thing off.

"Feel better?" Ross said.

Neal glanced at him, and snorted. Ross grinned, and Neal began to laugh, hard, and he suddenly found himself with his back against a concrete abutment that sloped with the street and enclosed a yard. He was sliding down it, his knees giving, and he was laughing his ass off, tears running down his face while he sat on the sidewalk and laughed until he thought he would puke. Ross just stood and shook his head as if he was out walking his crazy friend and had to put up with it all. He knew it wasn't all laughter, not really.

When he wound down and could breathe again, Neal said, "I've gotta make someone pay for this, Ross."

Ross nodded, serious. "I know."

"All of it."

"We will. Starting with weasel boy, back there."

Neal squinted up at him. "What'd you have in mind?"

"How about a little constructive hacking?"

Neal grinned. "That'll only hold 'em off for awhile."

Ross shrugged. "Better than the, uh, permanent solution you were suggesting."

* * *

Jon sipped his tea and looked around surreptitiously while his hosts situated themselves around him in the living room of their second floor apartment.

"This is my husband, Rinte," Theresa said. "We moved here about six months ago, from the Philippines. I'm sorry, I should have introduced you sooner."

Rinte shook his hand reluctantly, but with apology on his face.

"It's okay," Jon said. "After all, I did show up on your lawn."

Theresa nodded sympathetically. "I don't know what to say. Your poor friend. He didn't want to go."

Rinte looked uncomfortable again, glanced at Jon as if daring him to patronize his wife. But Jon was leaning forward slightly, intent on her. "Did you see the whole thing?"

She nodded. "I'm up that time of morning, usually at work by eight, so I was sitting where you are." She paused to gesture out the front window, and Jon turned to discover a clear overhead view of the street. "I like to see what's out there, first thing in the morning. There were several people out walking, and your friend came along just after seven thirty, with a paper under his arm. He was distracted, or I wouldn't have really noticed him. Then he stopped, like he didn't have a choice. He said something, and there was no one there, not at first. But someone else walked by, a man in a suit. And when he blocked my vision for a moment, there was a ripple in the air in front of your friend. Like an eclipse of some sort, like having that moment to unfocus my eyes let me see what your friend was talking to."

Jon was holding his breath, and had to consciously make himself relax. "Did you see...what it looked like?"

She paused to frown at him; not with displeasure, but with a sudden shrewd thoughtfulness. "It's something you've seen before, isn't it? Not evil, but no good either. I don't believe all those demon stories, you know, but it meant real harm, whatever it was. Have you ever seen one of those Magic Eye books?"

Jon was confused for a moment, then a memory snapped into place. Madison had one, a picture book where the pictures looked like an acid trip unless you let your eyes relax until they nearly crossed. Then 3D scenes would erupt from the pages....

He nodded. "Sometimes, you just have to look at things differently," he said.

"I know. I didn't tell the police this, if you're wondering."

"I couldn't let her," Rinte broke in suddenly. "They'd--"

"I had a car accident a year ago," Theresa said over the top of him. When her husband fell silent, she said, "I've never been quite the same. Sometimes I think I'm a little between here and somewhere else, so people take me with a grain of salt most of the time. It's all right. Rinte tries to protect me from everything. But even I knew I couldn't say all this to the police. This was only for you to hear."

Jon sipped his tea to keep his hands busy, to gather himself a little.

"Something shoved your friend backwards into the street, right in front of that bus. I saw it happening, and couldn't do anything about it," Theresa said.

"There's nothing you could have done," Rinte said, patting her back.

"I know. But still. I tried to close my eyes, and they wouldn't close, I had to see the whole thing. I'm sure the police told you, what happened after that. About the second car."

Jon nodded.

"Rinte was already gone, to work. I just grabbed a blanket and ran outside. It never occurred to me to call for help, I knew there was nothing that could help your friend. I wanted to make it as though it never happened. I wish I could. There were people gathered around, like they didn't know what to do, and he was....what was your friend's name?"

Jon swallowed hard, tried to answer her, and couldn't for a moment. She leaned forward and patted his knee and nodded.

Liz, he thought. She reminds me just a little of Liz, but Liz's eyes aren't sad.

"Steve," he said.

"Steve. His eyes were staring at the sky like he couldn't believe what had happened to him, and I knew then he'd felt it, that he wasn't seeing anything but that he was still there. So I covered him up a little and sat next to him, and held his hand. It was maybe another five minutes or so before the first aid car came, somebody called from the bookstore first. He just needed someone to talk to him. It was wrong, to be alone at the last like that. So I held his hand."

"Thank you," Jon whispered. "Thanks."

* * *

By the time he left, it was nearly noon, and he stood out on the street for another moment before heading back for his Suburban. He had enough time to meet Ross and Neal...

She hadn't described Neal to him. There had been no visible manifestation of what had pushed Steve into the street. But she'd picked up on it anyway. He wondered what it was like to live life slightly left of center like that, figured he knew. It was just a different way of looking at things.

I wanted to make it as though it never happened.

He stopped, his keys in his hand, frozen.

Never happened.

"Oh God," he whispered. "Oh, no."

* * *

Neal and Ross got there slightly ahead of Jon, after a late night of hacking into the Chronicle's local area network through their IMS and deleting any file that Neal decided he didn't like. It turned out that the files were write protected, but accessible by the phone extension of the author. Their internal extension. Neal had memorized Marshall's, and muttered something about there actually being a God, and how one hit wonders could be useful. And since they'd done it from a cyber cafe', it didn't matter who traced it back to where. They probably had backups, but not anything they could get to by the early edition. There was no way they'd killed the story. Someone else would pick it up eventually. But they were hoping it wouldn't matter by then.

They'd told Aug to skip this one, because they didn't know what would happen. Aug had argued anyway, until Ross had pointed out that it was all a matter of trying to stay inconspicuous for this part of it, and a waiting room full of rock stars wouldn't get it done.

The morning shift in ICU was watching them warily; the nurses had changed, but the story of the night before had made it there ahead of them.

"Where'd you learn all this about computers?" Neal said while they sat and waited.

Ross whistled and looked at the ceiling.

"There's no way we're keepin' Aug out of this," Neal said.

"I know," Ross said. "I'll be surprised if we can keep Deen out. They'd get sucked in, even if they laid low. Guilt by association."

"Be good to know what the hell we did this time," Neal said. "I guess we don't need to ask for it first, though. Just wakin' up and breathing seems to do it."

"Perry gets shoved in front of a bus, and suddenly it's the namers again?" Ross said. "Settle down, biscuit. Let's get the rest of it before we start all that."

Neal gave him a wiseass, sidelong glance.

"Okay," Ross said. "Okay. I'm trying to be sane and rational, here. Cut me some slack."

Jon walked in then, not bringing noise with him but still loud in a compact, internalized way, jittery and wild-eyed. Trying to stay contained and beginning to fail at it. Neal and Ross were on their feet immediately, and Neal looked close in Jon's eyes.

"You okay?" he said. "Jon, you're--"

"Is he still here?" Jon said. "They were gonna wait until he was stable. He can't be stable yet."

Ross shook his head. "He's right where he was last night. What's--"

"We can't let him go into surgery," Jon said, the words tumbling out louder than he meant them to, causing Neal to lay a hand on his shoulder and turn him further away from the nurses' station.

"Jon," Ross said, "that doesn't make sense. It'll probably make it easier for you to..." He broke off when he realized what he'd been about to say. "Shit."

"Right," Jon said, centering on Neal, needing to make sure he understood. "Look, I'm not a healer. I've never had a chance to be sure of how it all works. But all I do is reverse something that's already done. How'm I gonna tell the difference between what should be done, and what shouldn't? I let him go into surgery, and I'll be reversing that before I can reverse the rest of it."

"Jesus," Neal whispered. "But if you went in there now..."

"Maybe I can do it in sections," Jon said. "I don't know. I don't care how we explain the way he recovers. But I have to get in there before they try and 'fix' him."

* * *