Wielding An Absent Hand I: Point Of Reference
(c)4/1/00 B Stearns

Author's note: written in an afternoon, in one shot, while trying to get myself un-stuck on another project. And while I should have been doing something else. But it was April fools' day and I'm a fool. Non compos mentis. Warning: multiple character deaths. Now be good to each other. Because you never know; your timeline could end tomorrow.

As the sky threatens, another land beckons
We can't take it anymore
Have to know, once and for all
Do we stand, or do we fall...
--Colin Hay, Road To Mandalay

~~~~~~~~



Silence.

The man stood just short of an unseen boundary, acknowledging its existence inwardly but otherwise giving no sign of his hesitation. It wasn't his own uncertainty; there were other forces at work, here, and he respected them.

He would murder them, if he could. But he respected them.

"It's almost light," he said aloud to the raven on his shoulder, a large coal-black beast that seemed to absorb the ambient light from the sphere that hung over the man's right shoulder. He needed to break that silence, to hear a voice. The raven's eyes were a dull, sullen green reminiscent of the color of a child's glow in the dark toy and it clicked its beak in response. A sentient agreement.

The man paused, tested the breeze. It drifted across a rolling plain at the forest edge, from a direction he'd come to consider The Turning. The light--by no means a sun--arrived from and disappeared to this same marker on the horizon at irregular intervals. It could have been East in the world he'd been born to. But there was no East here, and never would be. If there was an established pattern of days or seasons, he had yet to see it. Had no desire to see it. Time ran at will there, and his linear-centric body and mind made their own patterns out of the mix. He'd avoided trying to mark the passage of time in that place after the first fifty Turnings or so, because it reminded him of the fact that they were trapped. And there was no way of knowing how much time had passed in the world they'd been born to, or which direction it flowed. Nothing changed, where they were. Or they certainly didn't, at any rate.

The others had escaped, though. There was always that.

Jonathan Cain glanced over his shoulder again, mindful of the comfort of the creature that followed. It was a hand-sized bit of spherical brightness hovering in midair; it created the light they walked by, and of its' own accord. Most of the Wisps, fearing The Lady's wrath, had expelled them from Athyri; one had rebelled and left the caves to accompany them, following along without gaining human form or speaking to them. It lit their way in the darkness, and vanished in the light to do whatever a Wisp did with its free time.

But minds could be changed. He didn't like the thought of services rendered because of who the Wisps had decided he was. It hadn't amounted to much.

The Lady still lived.

As did the Keepers.

And after failing to use the briefly-opened gate created by a now-missing key, the Inverse and the Er Rai walked a strange and unfinished world, hunted and hunting, alive and not living. Because he acted as a beacon to the mistress of that world, Steve Perry had found himself hiding in plain sight during the dark hours by changing his form. Sooner or later, the Keepers always ran across them, and he had to show himself to help Jon put an end to the shambling horrors. But the real trouble in that had been the fact that every time the light turned over, it was more difficult to leave whatever form he'd chosen; eventually he'd have to choose one and keep it until that world either absorbed or released them.

And then there were the Daywraiths. Sooner or later there'd be another of them, and they'd deal with that as it came.

They'd traced their way back to Siarion's Tower, originally, and had been unable to scale it again. That had taken the will of the entire band, something beyond their reach. The Nightbringer of the Evenwhen pulled twilight down as she saw fit and may have had no further knowledge of their existence. Eventually, the denizens known to the Wisps as the Sedhi--a tribal, overzealous people--had become aware of them and begun tracking them. They'd seen the bird, for one thing. They wanted it, terribly. And of course The Lady had made it apparent that she wanted them both bled dry into the dust of that place. It hadn't come to the point of confrontation yet. But it was only a....

Jon paused at the thought. A matter of time. Whatever the hell that is.

Of all of it, the most intolerable thing to Jon was the mental condition of his companion. The Lady--if it had been her at all--had gotten her way; the last of the singer's memories and sense of self had been extinguished during that final attempt at escape in the labyrinth beneath the Keep. Siarion had warned them of it, and Jon hadn't taken it that seriously even as Steve began losing most of his memory. He'd believed they would all get out. He hadn't even entertained any other possibilities. Yet the singer had tried to stay behind, to make sure she didn't get back out, didn't bridge their worlds and run rampant between. Steve had known at the last that keeping her out meant creating a loop in the gate, becoming part of the gate. Jon had lingered too long in trying to pull the singer back through; Steve had tried to shove him through and hadn't succeeded.

Jon had found himself wishing he'd succumbed to that shove many times during the last several dozen Turnings. But he knew the singer never would have survived that world on his own.

Steve was back in his adult form--when he was human--and no longer losing whatever memories he gained. But anything from the life they'd lived before was gone. The band. His own family. His entire life up to that point, gone. Jon had no one to share his memories of home with. In a way, he wasn't even Steve Perry anymore, not in the ways Jon defined things. But he had retained his ability to sing, to write music. He'd been hardwired from birth to do that, probably, like Jon was. Like Neal was. But Jon tried not to think of Neal or anyone else back in the world he belonged to. It hurt. Jon had tried teaching Steve some of the music they'd written together. It was their only solace, and after awhile they'd written new things. Songs no one else would ever hear.

To Steve, the deserts, woods and plains of the godforsaken fourth dimension were home.

Jon couldn't even make reference to anything outside that world and have it make sense, even though they were connected and Jon could 'show' him his memories. The stories he told of home were as fanciful to the singer as Jon would have once thought Athyri was. Tabula rasa. Not even the inside jokes remained. Steve was complacent and devoid of opinions but not intelligence; he was as much a creature of that world as the flip of light that followed them from place to place. Most recently, 'place to place' meant the boundary they now stood on, in the woods outside Athyri.

No matter which direction they went in, they ended up there. The circle turning back on itself forever. Jon had finally understood that after their third attempt at trying to find a way out of there by walking in a different direction each time. At first he'd only felt like screaming. After awhile, he had. Steve had startled away from him in horror, unable to understand what the problem was.

And, damn her, The Lady vanished periodically, but she pursued them with a single-mindedness that frightened Jon. Or she had. She'd vanished much longer than usual, this time. She was afraid of them--he knew she was--but she had to have Steve. The singer had taken some convincing on that point, and had been scattered twice more since their attempt at escape. With every scattering, he reset again, like a video game starting over with a new score, and Jon had to explain things to him again. Once it had been a Keeper. The second time, that shadow of his had gotten loose while he was sleeping...

Jon shuddered involuntarily, causing the raven to resettle itself on his shoulder. He didn't like to think about that; that had almost been the end, for both of them. Steve had been scattered for some time before Jon had been aware enough of himself again to realize that he had been the one to do it.

It had occurred to him to see if he could find a way to use Steve to get them both the hell out of there. But it was the using that made him balk. Sooner or later, he would break down his own defenses and do whatever he had to, to get free. But he wasn't quite desperate enough yet to give her the chance to escape with them. She was always waiting.

The horizon became a visible 360 degree ring, the light steadily growing. Siarion's brother...Sidain? She'd made reference to him on the Tower. He apparently brought the light every Turning; Jon had yet to determine where he'd taken up residence. He wanted to meet the lightbringer. That sounded like a goddamn good idea.

It felt like months. It could have been years. He no longer had any reliable way of marking time. The Turning didn't come at regular intervals, was nothing they could call a day. It was unpredictable, and Jon knew at least part of that was The Lady. Before, she'd only been able to pull the plug on the light when they were in her part of the desert. She might have been getting something out of their involuntary residence by then. There'd been too much time for Jon to think about that. Whatever resonance the band had been giving off as a whole, there had to be some signal that he and Steve were responsible for collectively. It had occurred to Jon that she might have found a way to set herself to that wavelength and use it to channel herself through it, no matter where they were. She'd been finding some way of getting stronger, the last time they'd seen her. She was building toward something, maybe confronting them herself when she was ready.

And Jon had no idea what they'd do.

The light tried to gain strength for a moment, as if dawn really was approaching; then a boundary was crossed and instead of building gradually like natural light should have, the light snapped to full strength. Still over in the orange part of the spectrum, dimmer than it had been on their world. But the world they were in was still in the construction stages.

The raven ruffled it's feathers and settled down again, waiting to see if the light remained. There had been one 'morning' that it hadn't. Sidain--if he really existed--had called the light up, and Steve had no sooner gained human form than the light snapped back off again. Two things had occurred to Jon at once, but he only said one aloud. The generator isn't kicking on. And then he said, "April fools."

The Steve that had walked in there with him would have either laughed aloud, or agreed with a muffled curse, depending on what mood he was in. This one didn't understand the reference anymore, didn't really grasp irony or sarcasm. This one stood, startled, until Jon said, "They'll center on you if you don't change back." And the raven had settled on his shoulder again.

The light remained this time, and after a few minutes the raven gathered itself to leap into takeoff. Jon bent his head to avoid that first burst of a wingbeat, and the black creature coasted away from him. He'd go up a little first and see if anything was on their trail; Sedhi, or Daywraiths. And if the terrain had changed during the darkness, he'd see that too. Steve knew the terrain a thousand times better than Jon did, had seen it all from above by then, and was more than useful in that regard. Jon watched until he couldn't really see the raven anymore, then looked out across the boundary again. The edge of the woods.

He remembered the first time they'd come through there, that desperate sprint out of the desert after leaving the Keep. Steve singing the goddamn Keepers away. They'd walked into the light at this boundary, had turned to look at the invisible line that separated the darkness from them. They'd paused long enough to try to figure out what the hell to do, to worry about what Steve was Becoming. There was still some kind of boundary there, something The Lady didn't readily cross. Jon figured there was something about it he should have understood, about why she was limited past that line. Someone had set up a point of reference there, and she either didn't care about it...or simply couldn't cross it.

He remembered something Mairiesa had said, about the Inverse that had been there before he was. The one we had went off with the night things. There hadn't been time or opportunity to discuss that, what it had meant.

Had someone told him it had been him, he never would have understood. Not yet.

Something else the Wisp had said during that bizarre conversation in the field outside Athyri while Steve had been Becoming had been resurfacing over and over in Jon's mind the last several Turnings: that's not someone you know anymore. Not much of him, there. Whoever he was, if you had a thought for him, put him to rest.

Jon had already put the singer to rest, in his mind. He wouldn't be getting Steve back; the rest of the band wasn't going to be able to come to their rescue, and no one on that world was going to assist them in getting out. The options were dwindling. Figuring a way to use the Raven Key to get himself out was becoming less of an ethical question to him all the time. But he'd wait. Out of respect, he'd wait. Even though the man he was traveling with wasn't the Steve he'd known, they'd become everything to each other.

He glanced over his shoulder and knew the Wisp would be gone. He'd never seen it leave; it just vanished in the light, even though the light it produced was stronger than what came down from the not-sky.

The raven came back into sight, angling in low between the trees. It began to pull up several yards from Jon in a space large enough to allow a nearly six foot wingspan. Then it shimmered, from the feet up, a ripple in the air like heat off the asphalt on a July day. Before it would have been a snap of thought, like the coming and going of the light. But now the singer had to work at it considerably. From human to raven was effortless; but the opposite was rapidly becoming more than he could accommodate. The day when Jon would be left talking only to the raven was fast approaching.

The shimmer gained momentum, and by the time the shape had succumbed to gravity enough to force a touchdown, it was Steve's feet that hit the loam of the forest floor. But just barely. That trick wouldn't work for much longer.

Breathing hard, unblinking, the singer stared at him with that strange exhilaration that usually followed him back to the ground after a flying session. A predatory avian stare. His movements were more and more birdlike as time went on, as well. Jon tried to ignore it, and disassociate himself from it. He envied Steve for not knowing what the hell was going on.

"It's smaller than it was yesterday," Steve said breathlessly. "It all drops off just after Siarion's Tower." Then he came forward and slipped his arms around Jon, embracing him.

Jon returned it with heartfelt emotion, glad to see another human being and this one in particular, for however long they were still allowed. Jon was terrified of being left in that place alone, maybe with only the Wisp following him around, and only slightly less terrified of having only the bird as company. Sooner or later the Keepers would get one of them, if the law of averages held in that backwards place. And still connected like they were, there was no telling what the surviving one would feel.

Steve had been reporting a decrease in the size of the place for the last several Turnings. He'd been unable to really explain it, but Jon saw it though the singers' eyes. The world was dropping off into nothing. Not a blackness, not a mist. Just Nothing. It was the same Nothing the eight-year-old version of him had seen from the top of the Nightbringer's tower, the same thing he'd seen when first discovering his other form. The world just ended.

They were running out of time.

"Are we gonna try to see if the Keep is back, today?" Steve said without letting go.

"I think we should stay here for a bit," Jon said. "There's something about it. You feel it too, or you did once."

Steve stepped back to look at him. "She drew a line here," he said.

*Like a line in the sand, and she wants someone to toe it,* Jon thought.

Steve tilted his head, less a Perryism than a birdlike gesture of interest.

Jon heard his confusion. "It's an expression," he said, feeling disheartened and trying to shove it away. His disappointment hurt the singer when it was felt or shown. Jon was like an idol to him, a figure of authority and affection. Something akin to the way most species of birds imprinted on the first living thing they saw when they came out of the egg. Jon tried not to find it eerie, tried not to despair, and could only think of how different things might have been had the 'real' Steve been with him.

*We'd have been knocking on the bitches' door in all kinds of ways,* he thought, mostly to cover his disappointment. Before Steve could show any further confusion, he added, "For all I can tell, this might be her door. I don't want her attention, anymore. I'm just hoping we stumble into something that'll help us, if we look in the right places. Or look long enough."

Steve nodded, then stretched. "You're tired," he said. "Why don't you sleep for awhile, and I'll watch?"

Jon nodded. His circadian rhythms had died hard, but they'd died. They took turns sleeping about every two Turnings, when they were of roughly even lengths. Some Turnings were too goddamn long. And occasionally, they lasted only minutes.

He'd sleep for awhile. Then they would see if they could affect that place somehow. Jon had a feeling that they'd never been given a chance to discover what they could really do. Steve's shadow...and the fact that the singer was 'lit up' should have meant so much more to him. But pieces were missing. It all stared him in the face, but he couldn't help feeling that he was being disassembled the way the singer had been, stripped of who he'd been and what he'd known. And it wasn't just him. The entire place felt as if it was crumbling at the edges, brittle and dry. Abandoned. A well had dried up somewhere...

They hadn't seen The Lady for at least a dozen Turnings. She had been relentless before. So it was a toss up between which situation was more disturbing: seeing her, or not seeing her. There'd been a Keeper two Turnings ago that Steve had destroyed. Otherwise it had been quiet. They had wandered in circles, keeping their rounds without meaning to, ending up back at ground zero again at the boundary into The Lady's true territory.

Jon sighed and sat down on the ground. It didn't matter where. It was always in the 60's, it never rained, and nothing seemed to live in the ground. They hadn't bothered constructing a shelter of any kind because they just didn't need it. There was no weather to protect themselves from, and it would never have helped them avoid the Keepers. The caves of Athyri would have been ideal. But they weren't welcome. Not even near the fence. Jon had nearly taken an arrow on that point, and Inverse or no Inverse he didn't want to find out what that felt like.

He rolled himself up in his cloak, tucking his head down and using the hood of it to cushion his head. He was asleep almost immediately. Steve sat close to him, close enough to touch, silent and alert.

* * *

~~~Flip Side

It had to come down.

Everyone knew how he felt about it. But not why. He'd never told anyone the truth, never even discussed it with the other two who'd been there but returned with him. And now it was too late, anyway. They'd be the ravings of an old man.

Neal Schon stood outside Wild Horse Studios, and wept silently.

Jon had built the studio separate from the house for a reason. Home is home, he'd said. The music is personal. But sometimes you have to keep it separate.

They'd done so much, there. But they just hadn't had enough time. They'd been pulled into that crazy place and had run the whole obstacle course intact. All of them. Only to lose Jon and Steve at the very end, when Steve had opened that gate and made them go through it. So close. And Jon had tried to make Steve come along, had been afraid the thing would snap shut on the singer and trap him. Selfless, crazy bastard. He'd hung behind, mother-henning them to the last. Trapped in that godforsaken place.

That had been 37 years ago.

He, Ross and Smitty had panicked when they'd found themselves back in the studio two members short. They did everything they could think of to try to get back there. But there was nothing to work with on their side. Not a damn thing. Neal had even gone so far as to make circles of stones inside and out of the studio, as Steve had done atop Siarion's Tower. But the Nightbringer didn't hear, or didn't care. Jon and Steve were never found despite an investigation by the FBI, despite public pleas from their families for their safe return. The remaining three members of Journey had to watch it all and say nothing.

Helpless.

And still feeling responsible for it, after all this time, despite the fact that there'd been no way to alter what had happened. And no way to repair it, either. But that didn't matter. Both Jon and Steve had been declared dead after seven years. All three Cain children had grown up not knowing their father; Madison was the only one with any memories of him. The twins had been born after he was gone. Jon had two grandsons and a granddaughter that he would never see. The oldest boy--Madison's--looked enough like Jon to make him hard to look at. Neal was as close to those kids as he was to his own grandkids. At least Jon went on, somehow.

Now Neal stood outside the studio, glad everything had been moved out of it years before. There'd been an earthquake a couple of weeks earlier, a 6-point-something that hadn't really harmed the Cain house (Liz lived alone after the kids moved out; yet it wasn't like she was ever alone). But Wild Horse Studios, which had gone on being used by other bands for 20 years after Journey's demise, was in ruins. Part of the roof had caved in, and it had shifted off its' slab foundation by nearly a foot. It slanted a little, looking as tired as Neal felt. The structural integrity had been compromised, and it would be demolished before the week was out. No sense replacing it, either. The building was dying along with the last of Neal's hope.

No one would have let him do what he was about to without a fight. But he had to see the inside of the building one last time, touch the walls and say a silent goodbye.

He walked up to the entrance, glad it wasn't tilted too badly to get through. Afternoon sunlight slanted in through the side of the roof that had fallen; dust swirled in lazy patterns through the beams of light. He stepped in without hesitation. He was in his eighties, dammit, and if the thing fell in on him he'd mark it down to poetic justice.

He stood in the short hallway just inside the entrance and surveyed what was left. The equipment was gone; what little had been stored had already been salvaged. The Whale had been disassembled and stored elsewhere decades earlier because no one could stand to look at it anymore. A waste. So much waste...

And he'd give almost anything to argue with Perry again.

The signal was strongest here, he thought. That's how she got us. We were strongest, here.

A couple of the old chairs they'd used to sit at the mixing consoles were still there and intact, and when he'd had enough of staring at the interior remains of the place, he brushed the dust off one and sat in it. The sun slanted across him, and he drifted into a lifetime of memories. He'd had a dream, once, just after they'd escaped, that he and Jon were kids. They'd known each other as kids and were laughing over something ridiculous. The laughter had wound down and Jon had said, I hope we know each other forever. He couldn't remember any more than that, but it hadn't mattered. The feeling of it had followed him into wakefulness and he'd treasured it almost jealously. Sometimes, if he tried hard enough, he could invoke that feeling again. Maybe even make himself believe that it had happened in another place and time. Because he knew there were other places and times, and that had been a comfort.

He dozed off sitting there thinking about that dream, thinking I hope we know each other forever, and after awhile it seemed like he could hear an echo of music somewhere. Something they'd written, something Journey had done at the last.

Then it faded, and so did he, part of him joining the music and leaving a shell behind the way the building had become a shell for the music it had once contained.

* * *

"Jay?"

Jonathan stirred a little at the insistent shaking of his shoulder.

"Jay!"

It was fright, that time, and Jon startled fully awake. Steve had hold of Jon's cloak in both hands, was huddled against him in terror. Jon's first thought was that the light hadn't changed; there was no way they were being attacked by Keepers. Then he thought about Daywraiths and sat up.

He didn't see anything at first. Steve couldn't speak, and Jon didn't have time to ask him what was happening anyway. He caught on because their thoughts were linked, they were part of each other and the singer recognized what he was seeing.

Nothing.

The Nothing Steve had seen from the air. The world was unraveling in a colorless way that wasn't sight or sound, no longer crumbling or getting smaller by degrees. Something had triggered a final, rapid collapse. There was no sound of destruction, no cloud of dust; not even a breeze to act as a precursor. A world-sized eraser was working its way toward them, toward the boundary they'd settled at, the finish line. All out of options, out of time.

Out of timeline.

Jon thought wildly, I never asked anyone if timelines ended. He and Steve gripped each other's arms in that last moment, and there was time enough only for Jon to apologize aloud. To everyone and anyone, for the way things had turned out, whether it was because of a decision he'd made or not. It was all he could do.

Then the timeline fell slack, leaving nothing behind or ahead.

Silence.

~~~~~~~~~