Track Seven

The next few minutes are a kaleidoscope of vignettes. The first one is a swapping panoramic view of the islands — from the NOAA weather station at the eastern end all the way to the sturdy bridge Beach Guy and Diver Dude inspected in a previous scene at the western end. We had been so sure nothing short of Maddie's expertise could take out that bridge.

But the bridge is gone.

The next one is a montage we've seen before: posters put up by the Parasol Sisters warning of the dangers of modern life.

Then things change. Ice cream is scooped out just for Melody, which seems odd given the young woman's pariah status.

Time jumps forward by several weeks, enough time for trees to have their summer majesty rather than the blush of spring, enough time for springtime blossoms to be replaced by summer flowers that look neglected.

There's a dark-haired girl that might be the town bully's girlfriend walking up Main Street dragging a decapitated dog by one paw. Her movements look like someone who's being controlled by someone else, a marionette. She's covered in blood, and the knife in her hand drips with it.

Teresa states in horror and drops her bag; two cans of soda go rolling across the street.

The Parasol Sisters scream, and never stop their screaming.

Sunny waits for her friend outside the doctor's office as the physician helps Melody out the door. At the sound of the screaming, the little girl looks around in panic. She's clearly looking for something or perhaps someone. It's just as evident that she doesn't see the help she needs.

The dark-haired girl states at Teresa, her eyes completely black. I've seen mutants with eyes like that, but I've never seen a normal human with absolutely no white in their eyes. The look that girl gives Teresa is far too familiar — it's the same look I got from the Aryan Knighthood leader that night in Commerce City: hatred, hunger, passion . . . but mostly hatred.

Then the girl explodes. Teresa bears the brunt of the hundreds upon thousands of obsidian shards that radiate from the girl's body. It's the opposite of the light I channel from Mother. This is the gift of the Adversary, the Shadow. The girl just laughs as Teresa is ripped to pieces.

Melody's eyes are empty as she looks down at the black spear, thick as a tree limb, that impales the left side of her chest.

And then . . .

And then the Shadow and the Shadowkin devour their world. Again.

"Jesus Christ." Pablo has whispered so softly that I wouldn't have heard him without my hypersensitive hearing.

The scene change is abrupt and disorienting.

"Ouch?"

I realize I'm squeezing Pablo's hand harder than usual.

"Sorry. That was . . ."

"Horrifying?"

"Yeah, that. But damn, that scene change made me dizzy. I hate feeling dizzy."

"We're doing another rerun, I think," Rene says. "Look"

He's right. We're back at the part where Lucy is talking with the sheriff and asking for some kind of password to use in case they're time traveling, which they clearly are not. This is also the point where Chelsea and Newspaper Man come into the sheriff's office to report the dead body in the garbage truck.

The sheriff asks Lucy a question, but I don't think it's one that was posed in the previous iteration. It might have been asking if Lucy was all right, since the woman looks a little unsteady on her feet.

Not a ghost. Just for a second, I felt a little wobble. Probably something I ate.

Lucy shakes her head, then goes over to Newspaper Man, taking his arm.

Am I late? Is that why you came looking for me?

She smiles at the sheriff.

Sorry, didn't mean to make your office Grand Central. Sorry if my questions were a bother.

"Hmm, Lucy seems to be recovering from the 'reset' better than last time," I note.

Chelsea looks utterly terrified, however. If her qi is any indication, she's fairly sure that telling the sheriff about the garbage truck was the thing that got the woman killed the last time around.

Um, sorry. I have to go home.

Then Chelsea just walks out of the sheriff's office.

I brought Chelsea by; she had a scare in the woods. Frankly, I don't think it's anything, but if you'd be so kind as to take her information and then if she needs to make a formal report, you have it on file.

"Oh, great. Now I can hear Newspaper Man, too. He's babbling."

"The girl decided not to tell the sheriff about the incident with the garbage truck, I see." Pablo's brows furrow. "She thinks the sheriff's death is her fault?"

I nod. "She didn't say as much, but that's what I see in her qi."

"The end of the world scene was considerably different from any we saw before," Rene says. "Because the sheriff needed to be part of something that happens in the future?"

I shrug. "It's as good a guess as any."

The sheriff says something to Newspaper Man; the only thing we catch is the last bit when she looks in Chelsea's direction with the door already closed behind her.

. . . has decided that it's not a problem. Kids, right?

She says something else, but we can't tell what it is. Chelsea is practically curled around herself, hugging herself as she wanders slowly toward her home. She's scared and keeps looking over her shoulder.

After a few minutes — not long enough for her to get very far, considering how slowly she's moving — Newspaper Man catches up with her.

Sorry about that. This loop took me for a turn. How are you doing with it?

"Well, that's a fucking stupid question."

"Andrea . . ." Pablo's voice holds a hint of impatience.

"Sorry. He asked her how she's doing."

"Ah. Yes. Stupid question."

Something changed, obviously, and she died. I thought it might have been because I came here and told her what I saw. I don't know what to do. That man is still dead in the dump, probably. I can't go out there. We can't. But don't we have to do something? We can't ignore it, can we?

"Gods, that poor kid."

"I caught enough of that," Rene says. "It's probably a good thing Maddie isn't here. Whenever anyone gets trapped in that . . ." He gestures toward Chelsea. "I call it a panic cycle, but she uses crasser language."

"I know." I give Rene a half-smile. "I've freaked out once or twice."

"Oh, you she'll just slug. And besides, you weren't on a mission at the time. As I recall, you were pregnant and freaked out quite a few times. During a mission, when there are regular folks in the troop? She walks off and heads into the Big Bad's lair all on her own."

"I remember when she did that in Idaho springs. I believe you were the one most upset by that strategy, by the way, Jacobs."

"You both know I love Madeline," Pablo says, "but I swear she's going to give me a heart attack some day. And will the two of you pay attention, please?"

Chelsea finally notices her phone and pulls it out to find two messages from Beach Guy.

Where are you?

You guys OK? Heading back to town. Where are you?

The teen texts him back immediately.

Leaving Sheriff's office, heading home with Derek. Lucy inside.

The scene change is abrupt but not really surprising. We're back to following Beach Guy and Diver Dude out at the Butterfly Factory. Diver Dude is holding up his hand and saying something to Beach Guy.

The haunted look in Beach Guy's eyes makes me wonder if Diver Dude dove off the deep end one day and never really recovered. It's like he's dead inside or something. All of this is just too . . . casual maybe?

Fortunately, we can catch most of what Beach Guys says.

. . . further forward? . . . what went wrong . . . try variation.

"Try a variation?" Pablo studies the two men for a moment. "I hate to even contemplate what that means to them. But what would it do to your spiral theory?

I shrug. "I suppose it depends on what they do. Increase the entropy, decrease it . . . who knows? Chelsea didn't mention the dead person to the sheriff, so maybe it doesn't have anything to do with whatever these yahoos did at the butterfly place."

"It's not like they did much," Rene notes.

"Sure. Diver Dude just tried to buy the place or bribe his way into the the place. Probably a big deal, except he didn't succeed."

"What if he does this time?"

I look at Pablo and say very seriously, "Then I feel sorry for the poor butterflies. He's poison."

Rene nudges me when Beach Guy pulls out his phone. I'm not as interested in whatever message he plans to send — although it would help sync up the two scenes nicely — as I am in whatever Diver Dude is saying.

. . . change a variable. Those garlands . . . one you removed . . . replaced . . . harvest a few more?

"What? You fucking idiot! No!"

Beach Guy isn't particularly reassuring in his efforts to stop the madness.

. . . form of protection . . . more will help? . . . remove another . . . see who replaces it.

"Oh, my gods! And here I was thinking that Beach Guy was the rational one!"

"Clearly not," Rene says dryly.

Beach Guy sends a text to the whole group.

Where are you?

That syncs up the scenes, true, but it also causes my ears to pop. Again.

"Damn it, I'm going out to Ganado when we're done here. I need to have a chat with Tommy about this weird portal."

Pablo rolls his eyes.

Fine. Tommy doesn't understand this any more than I do. But at least he doesn't roll his eyes at me anymore when I'm just bouncing admittedly weird ideas off his walls.

If it's protection, we have bona fide evidence that it straight-up doesn't work in its present state. If taking enough of these things causes a containment failure, we establish their effectiveness, and we can try slowly harvesting a bunch in a future run with which to protect the primary target. Get her in ring of them. See if that helps.

As surprised as I am to be able to hear Diver Dude, it's nothing compared to the fury that his words elicit. My eyes are glowing again. A lot.

I know this because I'm literally blinded by the golden light.

Pablo squeezes my hand and Rene practically puts me in a choke hold.

"Share," my husband says tersely.

So I repeat what Diver Dude said.

"What the hell is he talking about?" Pablo asks.

"Didn't one of the girls from school say that those little bouquets were a ring of protection to keep the bad stuff inside?" Rene asks. "And could you dim the lights a bit, sister?"

I take a deep breath. "Yes. Keep bad stuff inside. If there's something bad inside that ring of flowers, ripping them all out — hell, ripping out only a few — will be really, really, really bad."

There's still a golden haze in my peripheral vision, but I've pulled back most of my anger . . . at least until Diver Dude opens his mouth again.

"What the . . .? You fucking dumbass! What do you have to lose??"

Uh oh. My eyes are glowing again. Pablo wraps his arm around my waist this time and Rene just hugs us both.

"Things get rather odd-looking over there when you're this angry, Andi," Rene says. "Hold it together. Think of this as being on a mission with Maddie. She's kick your ass if you lost it."

"She'd let me kill that asshole," I say between clenched teeth.

"And then I'd be forced to look at you sadly, with great disappointment," Pablo adds.

I close my eyes and smile. Mother pours her energy into me as though she's trying to siphon off my anger. It takes quite a few deep breaths before I feel calm again, however. My vision is clear when I open my eyes, and I look at my husband.

"Thank you, dear. And here I thought you saved that look of disappointment for the children. But did you see what he said?"

"Unfortunately, no. Well, maybe fortunately."

"Sadly, I can hear him in this iteration . . . faint whispers. He, Diver Dude, is treating this like a game. Claims they have nothing to lose in dying over and over. And . . ." I swallow and think about all the people I've tried to protect since taking up the staff and accepting my role as the Warrior. I think of all the people I've failed. "Meaningless deaths? Meaningless?? How can a human being even say that, Pablo? That's what the ones who fall prey to the Great Evil believe.

"'No loss or sorrow that won't be wiped out by the next respawn.'" I spit out the word as though it's the foulest thing I can say. "He can't know that!"

"Shh . . . we are the Witnesses, sister. His comrades might still talk him out of this nonsense."

I turn my head to look into Rene's eyes.

"You can't talk a person out of madness. You know that, Rene. The best you can do is talk them off the ledge. It takes divine intervention to get a person out the other side of madness."

He can see the sadness in my eyes, and his his smile for me reflects that sadness. Then he kisses my forehead.

"I haven't thanked you this week for what you did for Maddie and me."

I pat his arm that's draped over my shoulder. "I think you probably did. But you're welcome."

"You can hear him but not the other guy?" Pablo asks, trying to distract me, I suspect.

I shrug. "It doesn't make any sense."

Diver Dude is going on and on about having unlimited time and opportunities. I think he's deranged. Learning something each time they spiral through another iteration is worth more than the unpleasantness of death? Dear gods, I've died twice and neither time was merely "unpleasant" — not for me, not for my loved ones. The first time, in fact, was horrible. It hurt a lot. But the pain I felt was only a fraction of what Pablo and Maddie felt when I died.

If he wants to keep dying over and over . . . Well, that's his business. The fact that the entire town dies, too, seems to be something he isn't morally capable of processing.

"The horrors which end us are reduced to mere annoyances? Holy sit, this guy is beyond fucked up!"

"Witnesses, sister . . . we are only Witnesses."

"I know, Rene. I'm going to pummel Talia the next time I see her, though."

"No, you won't," Pablo says with a sigh. "You'll be happy to see her and her family. That's the way it is with you. You love your family even when they annoy you."

I give Pablo a stink eye. "Fine. Talia isn't responsible for Diver Dude's lack of ethics or a moral compass. He does need to be eliminated for the good of the other people in that town, though."

"If I'm reading the other guy right — and it would help if other people were lipreading as well — he's trying to be reasonable." Rene shakes his head. "Or maybe not. I think he just said something about waking other people. I assume that means making them part of the Horror Spiral Club."

Pablo looks at Rene and then at me. "He can be snarky but I can't?

"Neither one of you gets to be snarky."

"You clearly need some food, Andi," Rene remarks absently. "The writer is proposing that what they're going through is related to chaos theory. And then something about rules . . . not knowing them, what they are, how they work? Maybe?"

I close my eyes and lean on Pablo. "Maybe. Dumbass says that in itself is a rule they can learn, that chaos can be exploited. How the hell can you exploit something you don't understand? I've met some stupidly arrogant people in my life, but this guy is right up there in Stryker's league."

Rene groans. "He loved to hear the sound of his own voice."

"Yeah. That's pretty much what Maddie said before we attacked his lair."

Again, I listen to Diver Dude speechify. I'm beginning to hate him about as much as I still hate William Stryker.

"Now they're actors on a stage and should be stealing scenes, improvising, not going by the script. Directors really hate that, or so I've heard, unless you're someone like Robin Williams or it's written right there in the script that the actors should improvise. What's the point of them having an awareness of all this? They don't even know. Shouldn't they be trying to figure that out before screwing with their reality?"

Pablo and Rene exchange looks. Yes, yes . . . I have my eyes closed, but the qi never lies.

"Oh, nice. Now he's talking about how death isn't something to be feared anymore because he's always going to wind up back here in this little town. Why should he fear that?"

I open my eyes and look through the portal.

"I'm going to start swearing pretty soon. He seems way too excited about the idea of waking everyone in the town and giving them their quote-unquote free will back. If I were one of the oblivious people and suddenly became aware of the spirals of time, of death, of monsters? Oh, I think I'd kill him. Slowly. With a spork."

"You're getting a little bloodthirsty, Andi."

I glance at Rene. "He brings out my inner bitch."

"I'm not sure what Beach Guy just said," Pablo says. "Something about giving up the need to understand what's going on, I think."

I shrug. "That's pleasantly Taoist. And Buddhist. And . . . well, any philosophical or religious system that relies on faith more than science."

Diver Dude is babbling again.

"I really wish I couldn't hear this guy. In one breath he seems to be deriding the notion of faith, and in another he says that they're outside the laws of science."

"Um, what's outside the laws of science?" Pablo asks. "I thought there were two perspectives about science: everything we understand according to the laws of science, and then everything we don't understand yet according to the laws of science."

"Do you want Ninja's smartass answer or an answer from the sweet librarian you used to know."

"Oh, by all means," Rene says, "let us finally hear from the librarian."

I elbow him in the ribs again. Then I quote Clarke's Third Law. "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Personally, I'd include metaphysics in the category of technology for this analysis."

"Like opening portals and talking to Spirits." Pablo glances at both the portal and Rene before turning back to me.

"Exactly. I know how I do the things I do. The science nerds don't have the instruments and words yet to call it anything except magic. Or mutant abilities, which often boils down to the same thing."

"Let's not get into that argument again about how you'll destroy their equipment when they do finally figure out how to make the instruments."

I smile at him. "Okay."

The two men get into Diver Dude's car. Beach Guy must have noted a lack of response from his previous text because Diver Dude . . . oh, never mind. He's just a pompous jerk.

Finally, just before they get to town, Beach Guy's phone shows a message form Chelsea.

Leaving Sheriff's office, heading home with Derek. Lucy inside.

He must have reported to Diver Dude, as the latter pontificates yet again. He wants to go to Chelsea's place? Seriously? Oh, I'm sure her mother will be thrilled with that!

Beach Guy isn't thinking clearly either because he texts to the entire group.

Heading to Chelsea's, catch us up as soon as you can.

"He's really working my nerves, Pablo."

"I'll grant that he's possibly delusional. But so is your best friend."

I give him another stink eye. "Yes. And how often does Bobby work my nerves?"

He smiles and shrugs. "At least twice a week. It's a decided improvement over the multiple times a day when we lived next door to him."

Beach Guy's phone shows another message.

Not my place or I'll have to go in. How about the library?

He responds again to the entire group.

Ok, meet at library soonest.

Fortunately, we flip back to Newspaper Man and Chelsea as they turn around and walk up the street toward the library instead of her home behind the diner. They continue talking quietly — a man is dead.

Sometimes my brain gets a little overenthusiastic about latching onto song lyrics. Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja: the man is dead, the man is dead. It's from a song by Peter Gabriel that he released the year I was born called Biko. It's on one of the Flirtations CDs Bobby had given me not long after I moved in next door to him. Why is that important?

I'm not sure. Maybe because you can blow out a candle, but you can't blow out a fire; once the flames begin to catch, the wind will blow it higher. It's a message of hope in dark times. I think that's why it always sticks with me.

But a person is dead in a garbage truck. In their last iteration, the sheriff died, too. That was somehow significant. Does she play a part in stopping the world from ending? It's possible, maybe even likely.

If Diver Dude doesn't royally fuck everything up, we might even have a chance to find out.

Tomorrow, they're supposed to have a picnic to keep the sweet old lady from dying. Apparently, she's important, too, because the world ended when she died as well.

Maybe some people are more important than others — and they're the ordinary townspeople, not the dreamers.

Poor Chelsea. Seventeen-year-old girls shouldn't be panicking over who's dying and why. She should be worrying about finals and prom and where she'll go to college. And we haven't even reached her horrific future that my son saw.

How does everything go so wrong?

For the moment, in this current iteration, the sheriff is safe, and Newspaper Man is doing his best to calm the teenager.

I nod at his words. "Okay, Newspaper Man has an excellent point. When these . . . flips happen, they back up to a time and place when and where they have a chance to correct something they did wrong the last time."

Pablo's brows draw together. "A do-over. But the universe is showing them where they went off the rails?"

"The universe or whoever is controlling this . . ." I shrug. ". . . well, whatever the heck is going on there."

Newspaper Man and Chelsea arrive at the library first, both sitting in one of the Adirondack chairs on the porch. Beach Guy and Diver Dude aren't far behind, the former leaning against the post of the overhang, the latter merely standing on the top step. Beach guy looks at his phone; there's a message from Lucy indicating that she's on her way.

So. A foreshortened loop this time. What changed?

Even the sound of Diver Dude's voice is starting to grate on my nerves.

I don't know if others changed anything, but I didn't tell the sheriff about the body I saw in the garbage truck.

Chelsea pauses, then hands the camera to Diver dude.

This fell out of the truck. I think it was the dead man's. You should probably look at the pictures.

How many times have we seen the same photos?

"At least that's a constant across two iterations now."

I nod absently at Pablo's comment. "There have been other things, too, but this is the most . . ." I clamp my jaws closed and don't finish the thought.

"Concrete proof that the Shadow, the Darkness, exists across universes." Rene understands more than most the differentiations between alternate or parallel universes and the various dimensions associated with them.

"Yeah. That. I'd hoped that only our universe was infected."

"Andi, dear sister, surely you understand by now that this particular Evil will exist everywhere humans exist."

"I know, Rene. I don't have to like it, but I do understand it."

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing," Pablo murmurs. "With the exception of the diver, they all appear to be good men and women who are trying to do something."

I smile sadly. "You're the last person I'd have expected to be quoting Edmund Burke."

"Oh, is that who said it?" He shrugs. "I just know it's something I hear your friends in the LGBTQ+ community say a lot."

I raise an eyebrow in his direction — part disbelief, part exasperation. Except Pablo has always been relatively good at remembering quotes that resonate with him; he just never cared about who said what. Even my exasperation is for show.

To be honest, I really just don't want to see those photos again.

"Lucy just arrived," Rene informs us.

Any more leads?

I dare to look at the portal. Beach Guy responds to her question, although his answer is unclear. Something about keeping the sheriff alive. I assume they're getting on board with the idea that the sheriff's death led to the last "reset."

Then Diver Dude hands the camera to Lucy. I'm more than a little concerned about the movement and colors of his aura as he pauses to look at the picture of the Shadow. But my jaw drops when he speaks.

"You need to stop doing that, Andi." Rene nudges me.

I shake my head in disbelief.

"Andrea, what's going on ?" An almost imperceptible tremble of fear flows through the bond Pablo and I share.

"He . . . he wants to fight the Shadow." I try to wrap my mind around the rest of his words.

"Not the worst idea," Rene says. "Even you have to admit that."

I swallow hard and look into his eyes. "By dying over and over until they get it right?"

"How is that different than what we both know Maddie and Logan have done?" He asks softly.

"They don't deliberately take innocents out with them. That's how it's different. None of us would intentionally harm innocents, especially children." I pause, pulling energy from Mother to keep my anger in check. "That's what he's proposing."

The pain in Rene's eyes takes no special ability or connection to see. "That's where he's heading. That's what Paul saw, isn't it?"

I nod. "A fraction of it. I don't know why Talia doesn't want me to do something about it."

"Because you could inadvertently do something that would cause the end of their world?"

I sigh. "That's a good reason, I guess. But cross-dimensional Seeing isn't anything she could ever do before."

"Maybe it's more about what it would do to you then . . . being a part of that cycle."

"Damn you, Jacobs. Why do you have to be right?"

He smiles. "Part of my charm."

"Kids, the writer is talking about finding weapons to fight it." Pablo squeezes my hand lightly.

I turn back to the portal. "Lucy is . . . huh. Well, she suggested trapping the Shadow if they can't kill it. That's the smartest thing anyone has said over there yet."

"Like you sealed up the Aztec lunatics years ago?" Rene asks.

"Not as easy as that. The Shadow has a hell of a foothold over there. It needs to be beaten back. Even in our world, we need to be constantly vigilant." I tilt my head, considering options. "We cut off access to our plane of existence by removing the primary players intent on bringing it into our world, the ones who knew about it."

"Stryker," Rene says.

I nod. "Tezcatlipoca's Chosen One."

"Are you sure she actually knew about the Shadow?" Pablo asks. "She didn't seem all that bright."

"Tezcatlipoca knew. Quetzalcoatl knew. Without her help, without your help, the crazy Aztec demi-gods couldn't have done anything."

"I don't see any winged snakes or jaguars over here. Maybe they don't have a problem with interference from gods over there."

"I really hope our universe is an anomaly in that respect, Pablo. As much as I love you, Rene, the Benevolent Spirits being involved in people's lives can get a little tiring."

"Well, how do you think we feel?" he teased.

"And aren't the gods real in your imaginary friend's universe, too?"

I reintroduce my elbow to Pablo's ribs. "Moira is not imaginary. And there are even more gods there, yes. They're just not the interfering types."

I squint at the portal. "Great. Now Diver Dude's babbling like a bad financial advisor." Then I look at Chelsea with surprise. "Wow. Smart kid. She's basically asking if they might be able to do what we did, banishing the Shadow. Newspaper Man suggests the military or government might be behind it."

"Given some of what Maddie and I saw . . ." Rene is pensively silent for a moment. "Possibly mercs as the muscle, and there were certainly plenty of unpleasant governments involved in a lot of shady stuff."

"I think the writer is suggesting they just let events play out the way they'd done before the whole lot of them woke up." Pablo shakes his head. "Haven't they already moved forward, though, and changed things? Just because they all died and caused the world to end again doesn't mean that they didn't do something right. And if one of the changes they already made affects whatever future they'll live if they just let events play out . . ." He groans. "It makes my head hurt."

"I know, but you're essentially talking about the Alternate Universe Split theory. While Beach Guy's idea isn't necessary a bad one, they've already made several potential splits. So their future won't be the same one that they remember."

When Diver Dude starts babbling again, I roll my eyes at first but wind up glaring at him.

Establishing a baseline, a control run from which to test hypotheses at a future point? Not a bad idea. I'm not certain, however. Deliberately going back to a failure state should be an option but one which we should have good reason to choose. I don't think we have that at the moment. My own inclination is for a more iterative approach. Fix things as we learn how to fix them until there's nothing left unfixed, refining each cycle until we break it.

"I'm really starting to dislike this guy," Pablo says after I repeat what I hear.

"Only just now starting to dislike him?" Rene asks, incredulous.

"What you haven't learned yet, Rene — and I'm surprised by your denseness — is that Pablo is generally open-minded and good-hearted." I glance back at Rene. "He's almost to the point of wanting to grab the damn fool by his ears and fly him up to maximum cruising altitude and then drop him somewhere out in Elbert County."

"More likely Cheyenne County. It's less populated," Pablo corrects me.

"Isn't that what the Shadow did to him the first time around?" Rene asks.

"Oh, I'd just drop him." Pablo looks as annoyed as I've seen him in years. "If the fall didn't kill him, the contact with the ground would. They'd still need to dig him a grave."

I gesture to the group on the other side of the portal. "Newspaper Man is questioning Diver Dude's assumptions, thank goodness. Not quite in the right way, but close enough. He's pointing out that they don't know how many resets they have. They don't understand that they're essentially spiraling. Beyond that . . . he chatted with his sister who isn't sleeping on the sheriff's sofa. To him, that's a significant change. Oh, and he still plans to save the old lady tomorrow."

Pablo nods. "Beach Guy — great, now you've got me doing it — agrees, by the way."

I grin at Pablo before watching the portal again. "Lucy is getting very esoteric now, wondering if the Shadow is part of a cosmic balancing. And don't even start, you two. I don't see any Bodhisattvas in the area to balance that amount of evil. She's also wondering if the appearance of the monster is or isn't related to the time loops. Just, you know, imagine all the air quotes I'm using."

"Um, now he's wondering if anyone has things in their past that would condemn them to Hell." Pablo squints at Beach Guy. "Still not as bad as three years in Quetzalcoatl's training camp, so I'm not sure I'd consider that Hell."

"It does get worse," I remind him.

"Yes. And right now, it's not Hell. Maybe it will be later. But later isn't now."

"You're starting to sound like my Siblings in the other dimension, brother. You need to take a break from chatting with Eagle."

"How long did you spend trapped in the dimension where Andrea found you, Rene?"

"Touché. I don't know, and it was far too long."

"Believe it or not, listening to the two of you bicker is better than listening to Diver Dude. He didn't even hear Newspaper Man's theory that they don't have forever to work out whatever problem they have. He's still going down his path of keep on keeping on until the end of time bullshit."

"You're not Talia. How do you know they don't have forever with certainty, dear?"

"Because they're spiraling. Well . . . sort of. They're not replaying the same thing over and over. Not only are they spiraling, sort of, they also seem to be going inward — toward the center, toward a particular state of being. How long will it take them to get there? I don't know. But it's less than forever.

"Oh, and they're talking about making plans, Diver Dude is attempting to control the narrative, they're going to check out the dump themselves, and the asshole is still treating death like it's no worse than a bad hair day. And Chelsea needs to get home.

"Do you think he's suicidal on top of being paranoid?" I ask. "He just talks so casually about getting killed. Too casually."

"Madeline does the same thing, doesn't she, every time she takes point?"

"No, Pablo. First of all, we're living pretty much linearly . . . especially if you discount the wonky nature of time when we move from one dimension to another. Second, for all her madness of walking right up to the big Bad's front doors, Maddie hates it. Oh, she'll do it when it's the fastest and easiest way of getting Big Bad's attention. That doesn't mean she likes it."

"Apparently, they're all going to the dump sans the girl. Monsieur Beach has suggested that she can keep tabs on Melody." Rene sounds almost cheerful. I can't blame him for wanting to lighten the mood.

I nod as we watch her walk home, arriving there safely. The note on the refrigerator from her mother makes me smile. Pablo and I do the same thing for our kids sometimes, though our notes are shorter. They're still too young for jobs, but they do have chores and so many friends that I can hardly keep track. They're smart, they're athletic, and their mother doesn't work a regular job. Most of the notes amount to nothing more than 'picking up groceries, back soon . . . love you!'

It's nice to see Chelsea settling in to do her homework before the scene changes to follow the adults in their adventure.

Unfortunately, the camera's — or portal's — point of view is from the interior of Diver Dude's car, and it's creepy as fuck.

Listen, I get it that there are dark roads everywhere. There's aren't a lot of street lights in the Nation, even in Window Rock. Sure, there are some on the bigger highways and in the larger cities, but why bother? It's nice to see the stars. Sometimes I feel like there are too many lights even on the eastern plains of Colorado and in the mountains. On the other hand, those are some dangerously curving roads in the mountains, and they don't always have guardrails. Even I'm not reckless enough to take those roads in daylight at anything more than the posted speed limit. So sure. No lights on the road? That's fine.

But when there's a big, black vehicle coming at you with its lights off?

Rene is startled, Pablo gasps, and I actually let out a small scream. In this universe, I'd have my bike turned around so fast, and on that asshole's tail so fast that he'd have to hope he's NSA. I still won't mess with the NSA. But any other three-letter acronym or police from the state down to municipality level would get an earful.

And for the NSA, I'd call my pal Harry at the FBI so she could call the NSA.

They drive a long time in the dark before they get to the dump.

"Ew. I'm so glad this show doesn't come with Smell-o-vision," Pablo says.

"It's not supposed to come with sound either," I remind him. "Newspaper Man is wondering if that car was the cleanup crew and might have been responsible for the sheriff's death. Kind of stating the obvious, if you ask me. Diver Dude suggests they arrive before the cleanup crew next time. Please stop me from trying to kill him from here."

"Talia told you not to go with your instincts," Pablo says.

"I'm not sure she could have accounted for Diver Dude."

"I will have to look at you with disappointment and disapproval?"

I sigh. "Well, Newspaper Man is going on about some theory regarding his brother-in-law. He was allegedly or hypothetically part of an experiment that kept him from being shot during the war, however, after he got home all the bullets hit him. Time warp or something. And he doesn't know what it has to do with his niece or Melody."

"Other than his niece is the daughter of the dead man?" Rene asks.

"Doesn't seem to part of his thought process. And did you notice anyone say something?" Both of them shake their heads. "Hmm. Well, he's telling whomever about his brother-in-law. Unsolved murder, he was found shot to death and riddled with bullets. There's no evidence. How can there be no evidence? Never mind. He says no one knows what happened and that's why his sister started drinking. Oh, and the brother-in-law was in the military. Which is . . . okay, maybe it's not as self-evident as it would seem. Civilians are in war zones, too, right?"

"Yes. We discouraged it, but those were different times," Rene says. "Also, you know how hard it is to tell Maddie that she can't do something."

I nod. "Don't waste your breath. Right. But even in our universe, there are civilian journalists and photographers embedded with various units. The only oddity about his reiteration is that I gather Sunny's dad caught a lot of bullets, which is weird for civilians. And I'm pick at nits now, aren't I?"

"Yes, dear." It's in stereo.

"Well, it's not like they're doing much of anything. Other than picking through a garbage dump, that is. In the dark."

We watch the four of them poking around in the dim light that might be the glow of big city lights or the moon reflecting off the clouds, diffusing it, spreading it out.

Beach Guy eventually finds the body.

I shiver when I hear the radio that I ought not to be hearing. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is a hard song for any First Nations folks to listen to.

"Execution."

I glance at Rene.

"I agree."

I sigh when I look at Pablo.

"I don't disagree, guys. Not when I can hear Buffy St. Marie singing on an old radio over there. But why? No. Never mind. Annie Mae was never supposed to be found or identified."

"Who?"

"The song I hear, Rene."

It hurts . . . that song. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It's different now, but not different enough. We keep moving forward, but it's a "two steps forward, one step back" sort of game. Are we ever going to win?

"Andrea?"

"Sorry." I smile at Pablo, although he knows how forced it is. "Ah . . . Lucy says she has a strange feeling that the person who did that . . ." I point to the corpse lacking hands. ". . . used a nata. I have no idea how she'd ever know the word. I don't doubt that Rene and Maddie and Logan know what it is, and it's only an odd bit of luck that I do. But she's calling it a butcher knife and a cleaver, so I'm fairly sure she doesn't know what it is. It's weirder than the usual shit that going on over there, I guess is what I'm saying."

There's another song playing now, one I don't recognize but it's just as dark as Buffy St. Marie's.

. . . we could simply be evil . . .

I blink. Lucy hears it too.

"We could simply be evil. I can't see any of the Shadowkin, I don't see their qi, but both Lucy and I hear them, or something, say that."

"I'm just going to stop asking what any of this means," Pablo says.

I shrug. "Witnesses. I'm not sure we need to understand everything. On the other hand, I'm not sure we don't either."

I listen to the dying radio, to Newspaper Man, to Lucy.

"Oh, she really did not want to say that, and I think she's serious."

"What?" Oh, look. I've gone and confused Pablo again.

"What Lucy said. 'If you cannot win the game, change the rules.' James Tiberius Kirk, by the way. Well, maybe he didn't say exactly that, but that's how he beat the Kobayashi Maru."

"She's speaking in tongues, isn't she?" Rene asks Pablo.

"No, I actually understood that."

Whoever they are, they're cleaning up, like you said. With the time jumps, why don't we set up someone to be a problem that needs to be cleaned up? One of us . . .

"That's where she tries to catch herself, but doesn't."

. . . like someone from out of town, let them think I'm some kind of reporter, investigator, something. I mean . . . I should come back again, I hope. Don't stop them, just observe who does me in, then we can find out who they are. At least some of them.

"Is she insane?"

"Dunno. I think Beach Guy asked her something. It's too dark to make out what he said, though. But Diver Dude, unsurprisingly, seems to believe that the idea is reasonable. "

"But how can they be sure . . .?" Pablo shakes his head and sighs. "Never mind. We've already established that the diver needs professional help."

"Newspaper Man is on the sane side of the line. He said he'd like to avoid dying."

"Don't we all?"

I look at Rene. "You're already dead. You have the best of both sides."

He smiles his radiant, charming, magic-infused smile. "Yes. I do, don't I?"

"Knock it off." It's hard to be serious, though, when Rene turns on his charm.

Unfortunately, I hear Diver Dude's next bit of verbal diarrhea and let out a strangled scream. "Oh, my gods, what a self-centered, conceited son of a bitch!"

Rene looks at me with a serious expression then. "From the way your talking, I'm getting the impression he reminds you of someone."

"Oh, yeah. William Fucking Stryker. The leader of the Aryan Knighthood up in Commerce City. A lot of the more intelligence Friends of Jesus Fanclub members."

Pablo grunted. "And you'd think he was supposed to be one of the good guys."

I exchange a glance with Rene before focusing my attention on the portal.

"Even the best of us can fall prey to the influence of the Shadow, brother," Rene says, almost too softly to hear.

I continue listening to those on the other side of the portal, including snatches of Blue Öyster Cult's Don't Fear the Reaper from the dying radio — shouldn't it be dead already? — and consider their outlandish plan. Even Maddie wouldn't walk right up to Big Bad's front door without intel. Oh, she might not have a plan, but she'll find out as much as she possibly can about whichever Big Bad she's going after. Sometimes I help her. Sometimes Rene helps her. More often than not, it's Freak who gathers the most information.

These people are willing to continue dying without knowing any of the rules of whatever the hell is happening around them. I'm the leading expert on energy manipulation in our universe and I haven't figured it out yet, not quite. If you don't understand the dynamics of the play around you, it's reckless to go barging in and changing things.

Yes, yes. Something needs to change. But what Diver Dude decidedly cannot understand, and what Newspaper Man seems to intuit, is that they need information.

Not data points.

Information. What are the stories of the world they've woken to? They have mysterious butterflies and an allegedly schizophrenic teenager and a little girl who communications through her teddy bear. They have a kind old woman and a pragmatic town sheriff, both of whom fit somewhere in the story playing an important enough role that the world can't survive without them.

How do all those pieces fit together?

They know, or they should know, that the world ends when Melody dies. How had the little girl put it? When they kill Melody, it's the end.

At least they finally realize that poking around in the town dump in the middle of the night isn't going to get any of their questions answered or any of their problems solved.

Next up: Track Eight

© Kelly Naylor