You Can't Go Back

For Bryan, the in-between was the hardest part. Things had happened, and there was no time machine to go back and undo them; he was caught between his new reality and its acceptance. It was the part where he kept thinking, "what if?" He played it out so beautifully that sometimes he got lost in a daydream of some alternative universe. It was when everything and everyone were perceived through this new reality, and he couldn't really hear, couldn't really be present, and his mind just kept processing things over and over and over . . .

He heard the baby crying, turned off the faucet, took a deep breath, grabbed a towel, and headed upstairs as he dried his hands. Even the baby's cry was heard to hear. He loved the child, of course, but everything was so different now . . . so unsettled, so unsure.

Baby Michael stopped crying as soon as Bryan picked him up. He nuzzled his six-month-old head against Bryan's neck and fell back to sleep. Bryan loved that. He sat down in the rocking chair, rocking back and forth with Michael on his chest, fast asleep. He'd loved this kind of moment before three weeks ago. He'd thanked God for this kind of moment before three weeks ago.

That had been when his world had changed. No, it had actually been five weeks ago: that's when she told him that she'd slept with another man and didn't know if Bryan was Michael's father. That was when the spinning started, but Bryan thought he could stop it. She'd said it was a mistake, that it meant nothing, that her childhood had caught up with her, and she was finally ready to address it. Oh, and that she loved him.

Maybe Bryan could forgive his wife. Perhaps this was what happened in marriages at times. Didn't other couples go through this? Didn't wives regularly tell their husbands, 'Oh, this texts you just saw on my phone? Yeah, that was from the affair I had last year, and by the way, this might not be your son'? Wasn't that a normal part of getting to know each other better?

Four weeks ago, the spinning had turned into a pulsating headache, and the sleeplessness had started. Four weeks ago, Bryan had gotten the DNA test done. But he'd thought all he needed was to get the test results back, and this would be behind them. She was going to a therapist. He'd join some sessions. This was the child he'd always wanted. They had a home; they had a life. To undo it all would be painful, painful, painful. The test would show that Michael was his son, and all would go back to how it should be.

Three weeks ago was when the test results came back. That was truly the moment of change. The doctor had told him, 'I'm sorry, Bryan, but this is not your child. Michael is not your baby.' The world had changed.

Now, he was in-between. He hadn't taken action. He hadn't yet accepted the reality of what it meant. He was still in this house with his wife, with Michael. She was still upset that he'd gone through her phone — as if none of this would be true if he hadn't checked her phone. They'd been together for six years, and he'd never once checked her phone. But by chance, he'd looked from a few feet away as she scrolled through her messages, and when the scrolling stopped, he saw the message from someone named Papi. It said: I wanna fuck you again.

That was the night he'd gotten up and checked the phone. That was when he'd read the text message and saw a picture of Papi's little papi and his wife's little mami that she'd sent to Papi. Then the build-up to the meeting . . . and the aftermath . . . and her regret and telling him to stop contacting her.

He'd asked her that night about the texts. It all had come out then. That had been five weeks ago.

Now, in the present, he heard her come home. He put the baby back in his crib and went downstairs. She was distant and walked right past him. This was her new thing: One day, she was apologetic and kind and would do whatever it would take, and the next day she would be resentful that somehow this was all his fault.

He grabbed his car keys and walked out of the house.

* * *

Where am I? Where am I?

The words felt like peals of thunder ricocheting around inside the cavern of their skull, pounding with each purposeful footstep.

The person walking down the street was petite, no more than an inch above five feet, if it was even that much. Even on close inspection, anyone would be hard-pressed to give an adequate description. Wearing jeans, work boots, and a Navy pea-jacket buttoned all the way up, the individual walked with head down and hands in their jacket pockets.

Male or female? Um, yes? It was hard to tell . . . it could be either, or maybe neither. Definitely an androgynous person.

Hair color and style? Well, short . . . kind of. Some of the hair around the face was nearly chin-length, but wispy bangs almost covered the downturned eyes, multi-level spikes on top, and the back was layered. And the colors? All of them. Really! Every color from black to white, every possible shade of brown, red, gold, and even gray.

Who who who who am I?

Every so often, that refrain reverberated from boot heels, through tibia, fibula, and femur, up the spine to the base of the neck, and dashed against the inside of the cranium.

However, all thoughts stopped when the individual purposefully and quite accidentally attempted to stride right through Bryan. Physics demanded that the more petite individual bounce back a bit, just enough to stumble and fall, arms flailing.

It all seemed to happen so fast: in a heartbeat, in a second, in less than a second. And yet, time seemed to stretch, taunting and mocking the participants in the play, showing them how little control either had over the other, or over the situation.

The individual who was no longer walking sat on the ground, looking up at Bryan, almost as though shocked to see anyone.

Nationality, skin tone? Human? You know what I mean! Not light, not dark. Ordinary. Very ordinary.

Well, features then? The usual arrangement of things. Maybe a strong jaw. But it was a face that was just a face.

Oh! The eyes! The eyes were kind of golden-amber in color.

Oh, yes, indeed! A sketch artist would have a great time with all of that.

Lips moved, but no sound came out. Almost as if this person wasn't used to speaking? They cleared their throat, and another attempt was made.

"Ss . . . sorrr . . . sorry."

Even the voice — dry and crackling — couldn't be placed in either the male or female register.

"O . . ." Brows furrowed in concentration. "Okay you?"

Odd phrasing, that. But no hint, no trace of an accent.

Bryan was taken aback by the sight of this . . . person. He'd never seen anyone like him, um, her . . . them, ever. Their appearance was startling, but not in a shocking kind of way, more in an instantly intriguing sort of way. They were like an interesting piece of art that drew the eyes in at first glance. And those eyes! Amber-colored! How unusual, how beautiful!

For a moment, he forgot about his problems, and the impossibility of his situation. He reached down to help the person up, but the gesture wasn't entirely welcomed. Or, at least, that's what he assumed. So instead, he did the oddest thing: he sat down on the ground next to him, um, her . . . them. He sat down right next to them and introduced himself.

"I'm Bryan. So sorry about bumping into you like that. Are you from around here?"

He looked at those amber eyes, and for a moment, he was sure this must be a woman. Then he looked again and thought, no, this had to be a man. The eyes reminded him of a tiger stone. His father had given him one when he was a little boy, and he'd saved it all these years for when he could pass it on to his own son.

His own son. The thought brought him right back to his current predicament. He abruptly stood up again and reached a hand out to him, um, here . . . them, smiling warmly. Surely, they would allow him this kind gesture to help right whatever wrong he somehow must have committed, resulting in the crash to the ground.

As he looked down at them and into those amber eyes, he felt a moment of more profound connection. He couldn't explain why, but there was a level of intrigue about this person or whatever he, um, she . . . they must really be. He felt something so oddly familiar about them, even though the two of them had just met.

His arm remained outstretched.

He received a blank look in response to his questions. Confusion, worry, fear, and a whole host of more subtle emotions played across the other person's features in an instant.

"Sorry? Why is?"

Amber eyes watched him, his face, his hand for seconds that became nearly an entire minute.

"I . . . I am one who . . . who is not seeing? Looking. I crash. I fall. Ah! Sorry is I! Not you."

Perhaps that had been the cause of all those emotions: merely the confusion over this apology. The face surrounding the eyes became a study in patience.

Hesitantly, the person sat up straighter, then ran fingers over their face and through their hair. It almost seemed as if they were trying to decipher what they might look like. It was oddly reminiscent of a blind person getting to know what someone looked like by seeing their features with their fingers. These fingers moved swiftly, with purpose. Like fluttering butterflies, they danced and darted and finally came to rest, of a sort, in front of this person's face. The hands were then carefully inspected, too.

Finally, Bryan was the one being inspected again. Judged? No, not quite. Measured, certainly. A weighing was being made.

At last, one hand was placed in Bryan's. The action was hesitant in a way that seemed just the slightest bit off. Not as though there was any hesitation in taking Bryan's hand, but because this person, perhaps, was unfamiliar with the gesture. In fact, before Bryan could even grasp the hand, the person rose with preternatural grace.

Almost like a cat.

"I . . . this one . . . first called . . ."

Again, the look of puzzlement crossed those unusual features. This time, it remained there. So many things forgotten! Language . . . rudimentary at best. Identity . . .

Who who who who am I?

. . . forgotten, forgotten, forgotten.


"Thinking I am called first . . . Shia." A tilt of the head then, listening to something far off? Looking for something far inside?

"Is fit. Shia. This me."

Perhaps it was a trick of the light . . . either before, or perhaps now. But the person calling herself Shia was definitely on the female end of the androgynous scale. She looked at her hand in his, as a child might see a new thing and wonder about it. But unlike a child, she studied that connection, however slight, between two beings. Then, not understanding — not knowing, not remembering — what, if anything, that connection meant, she looked up at Bryan.

"Here is where? Here mine? No." Again, she paused, obviously thinking through her denial, finally shaking her head sadly. "No. My where . . . not this."

Bryan listened to her speak. Of course, with a name like Shia, he was going to assume that this was a she, though he still wondered. He remembered very well all the individuals he'd met in his college days through his gay roommate — from lip-syncing drag queens to transgender women — all of whom intrigued him much more than the norm he'd been used to.

Although it didn't sound like Shia spoke with an accent, her words suggested a foreign take on the English language. It was the odd order of the words. Or, perhaps, she had a mental disability? But the way she'd raised herself off the ground made him wonder if she was a ballerina or some other type of dancer.

"Shia, it's very nice to meet you," he replied. "You're on Williamsburgh Boulevard." Unfortunately, this information didn't seem to resonate with her, making him wonder how old she was. He really couldn't tell, but she seemed younger rather than older. Maybe a young adult? But perhaps that was due to her slight stature.

"Shia, may I ask where you're from?" Bryan figured that might answer some of the preliminary questions in his mind. Perhaps he could walk her to her destination, maybe invite her back home, then drive her where she needed to go. Or maybe he'd just have to call 911 to have the authorities help out. As he thought this, he reached into his pocket to pull out his cellphone but paused before removing it. He had a feeling that pulling out the phone might startle her, and that was the last thing he wanted to do.

She still looked puzzled. She didn't say the street name so much as mouth it silently, breaking it into parts.

Williams . . .

Burg . . .

Shia drew her brows together in concentration. "Burg . . . town, city? William's city?"

She shook her head as if disappointed in herself.

Where, where, where? Did she know of a William's City? No. A boul . . . horrible word . . . like street, though, perhaps. Or close enough?

"No. Know this not. But from?" Again, she thought about it, considered what she knew . . . contemplated how it would be said here.

It was at this precise moment that he heard a horn honk twice. He looked over to see his sister-in-law driving by, clearly on her way to visit his wife. This was the same sister-in-law with a borderline personality disorder who was suspicious of everyone and anyone. He thought she might be the most unethical being walking the earth.

Before Shia could say anything more, one of the loud, ugly . . . things . . . rolled by. It moved much more slowly than any of the other similar things she'd seen. And the person inside had made the horrible noise so many of them made. She forced herself not to wince.

"Perfect," Bryan muttered. Just what he needed: Lauren going back to his wife and claiming she saw him with a . . . well, female, and most likely, the story would be elaborated on from there. Indeed, the last five weeks had been duly complicated by Lauren with her claims that it was, in fact, Bryan who'd been cheating. Of course, he hadn't, but as with anyone with borderline personality disorder, the best defense was a remarkably illogical and fully projected offense. His wife had momentarily grabbed hold of those allegations solely because it helped alleviate the weight of what she'd done. But when questioned, Lauran quickly admitted that the 'friend' who'd confided in her was just Lauren confiding in Lauren; In fact, it was just more of a hunch. In truth, she had nothing.

With a sigh, Bryan turned his attention back to Shia.

Strangely, this newly met person, this Bryan, seemed as upset by the thing as Shia was. She was oddly relieved by that.

"Ah . . . home. From . . . home. Have not words? Yes. Have not words for saying home name."

She looked away toward the black strip on which the loud and ugly things traveled.

"Meaning . . . is meaning . . ." Shia said softly, "is meaning light. Is light."

Was it far away? Had it been a long time? Had something happened that she only remembered . . . some small things of home? She stood perfectly still, hoping to catch a glimpse of something to latch onto . . . something to remember. The stillness itself? Yes, that was something . . . that was important. But why? She would need to learn that.

Without really looking at this person with her . . . Bryan, the name, the designation, yes. Bryan . . . it was a thing she should remember. Without looking at Bryan — except that he was in her peripheral vision when she pointed at the moving object that they both seemed to dislike — she said, "Is good not. Loud, ugly, smelly. Is good not for me."

Then she looked at him, and the golden eyes made her gaze seem more intense.

"Why is good not for you?"

Bryan laughed at her question, perhaps a little too loudly. His last job at the state environmental department would have had him answering the question with talk of the carbon pollution from the vehicle and the greenhouse effect. He assumed everyone knew all about that by this point, at least the general idea. So instead, he decided to answer from a more personal perspective. Who cared if he'd just met this woman. It was the truth. And at this point in his life, the truth seemed to be the only thing he had any feelings about.

"The woman driving that car is named Lauren," he began. "She's my sister-in-law and a horrible person."

God, that felt so good!

"She's highly manipulative, irrational, and vindictive. She thinks only of herself and is the perpetual victim at all times."

He said the last few words more loudly, just because he could. He didn't have Lauren around to be afraid of. Nor did he have his wife there playing the game of 'you can't complain about my sister, but I can, and if you do, then I'll yell at you, but if I complain, then you need to agree, but don't agree too much because then you're complaining, too, and I'll yell at you.'

Shia's golden eyes seemed to bring something out of him.

"You know, speaking of my wife . . ." he continued, although he technically hadn't been speaking of her. But some things needed to come out, and the kettle was ready to blow its top. "My wife cheated on me. Yup! Cheated. And never told me about it. And she gave birth to my son, my only child, my firstborn! And then I saw a message on her phone from across the room, and I looked at it. And I discovered she'd cheated. Yup!"

That 'yup' was said way too loudly.

"And the best part? Do you want to know the best part? It turns out that my son isn't my son! Yup! He's not. So, I'm living in a house with a woman who cheated on me and taking care of a baby who isn't mine. YUUUPPP!"

Shia merely watched him, showing no emotion beyond some surprise. But inside . . . oh, inside, her thoughts were reeling!

A bad person? There was something about a bad person she thought she should be remembering, and it frightened Shia more than she could admit that this inability to remember could cost her dearly: her life if she was honest, although she didn't know how she knew that. Bryan spoke of other things, but the words washed over her. She didn't understand most of what he said. The individual words . . . well, yes. Their order, their organization . . . no, not really. Although . . . although . . .

It finally dawned on her that his speech patterns were unlike those she was using. She hadn't interacted with enough people since she arrived in this place. Not this place that was a street of William's Burg, but the vastness that contained it. Mostly, other people had given her short bursts of words. She realized only now that they were, for the most part, invectives.

That explained some things, yes.

So, what was it about these words of Bryan's, this new person who spoke to her as . . . others had? In the past? In the elsewhere?

Bryan ran his fingers through his hair and then let out a long, loud, agonizing sound, followed by a moment of silence. This culminated in a ball of sorrow finally coming out in a series of long, sad sobs. He dropped to his knees.

"I don't know what to do," he sobbed. "I don't know if I should leave. How could I even stay? What am I supposed to do with this anger and hurt?" The anger returned to his voice as if mentioned it had summoned it. "And she has the fucking nerve to act like I'm the asshole??"

Another sob escaped, followed by one last burst of anger.


Having gotten that off his chest, Bryan took several deep breaths before looking up at Shia. He wondered what she must think of him right now.

Something, Shia couldn't say what, seemed to have come from a place she couldn't see, and it hurt him . . . knocked him to his knees. He continued with the words that made no sense to her, but something had hurt him deeply.

She crouched beside him, unsure what the proper protocol was in this situation. She saw no blood, no wound to bandage. One hand rested on the ground, balancing her . . . the other fluttered toward the man and skittered away again. It, like she, was almost like a wounded animal. She wondered at that, for she had no injuries of her own that she could detect either.

Ah, well, except for this small problem of not knowing who she was or where she was. Or why she was here, wherever she was.

She knew it had something to do with a bad person, though. Something in the back of her mind told her to always, always flee from the bad person.

Except when the bad person had hurt someone else. Then . . . what? She was supposed to do something, but she couldn't remember what. Help, yes. But how? How could she help this one who had been hurt by a bad person when she couldn't even help herself? And there was something, too, about . . . Ah! Why couldn't she remember? No, no . . . she would just let it come to her.

Was that bad person, the bad person in the foul machine, the bad person who . . . Why couldn't she remember? She knew that the answers hid somewhere in the back of her mind. Why did they hide? Had she ever not remembered herself before? She thought she knew who she was, but did she really? There was that one thing she knew with absolute certainty, though. she clasped her hands together near her ankles, balancing perfectly without the need to hold the ground with her hands. She studied this Bryan and decided perhaps it was necessary to tell him the only thing she knew with absolute certainty.

"Bad people. Always escape the bad people. Always, always."

She paused; there was something else. Something else was tip-toeing across her mind, and if she just held her breath for a moment, she would catch it. She would capture it and know one more thing she hadn't known before.

"Flee. Cannot be captured. Capture is death. Death is end. Flee, and fight again tomorrow."

She knew that was as true as . . . as anything else she knew with certainty. Granted, that was very little at the moment. But she was certain about her name. Or . . . well, it was one of her names. It was the oldest of her names, the one closest to her True Name, the one that could be said aloud. And she knew her home was Light . . . or, at least, it was in her language. And she knew that bad people should . . .

Wait. There was something else, wasn't there? She knew there was. Wait and watch, and pounce on the thought!

"Only flee if . . . if last . . . choice? Option? Yes. Else . . . fight and fight and fight. No dying, only fighting. No dying . . . flee instead. Else there is fight. And more fight." She shook her head. "Understand not words all yours. No. Understand bad evil I do. Much. Why? Knowing not. Remembering . . ."

Shia looked away. She couldn't even remember the last time she'd spoken to someone she'd considered a comrade. All had been enemy for too long . . . enemy was all she remembered.

"Remember now this . . . Fight, hurt, destroy evil. Is . . . role? Is purpose? Is purpose mine! Yes."

She sighed and shook her head. Then reluctantly, almost reluctantly, she looked at Bryan again.

"Having bad you, having bad I. Different bad. But bad, very bad, very different. Perhaps, or perhaps not. Knowing not this. Knowing this, yes . . . fight. Fight, fight until fight no more. Flee then, wait, heal. Fight then again and again. Always again. Fight is all against bad evil. Is all. Is everything."

She couldn't tell if she'd made any more sense to him than he'd made to her. She wrapped her arms around her legs and rested her chin on her knees . . . an odd position to see for a human, yes, yet she found it comfortable and almost comforting. It didn't occur to her that she'd perhaps be perceived as an acrobat or contortionist when she folded herself this way. She only knew . . . comfort. And perhaps some small amount of safety. Amber eyes quietly watched this Bryan, this other. He was not enemy. That was enough for now.

Bryan wondered if Shia had taken some sort of yoga pose. But her words, although jumbled, actually made a lot of sense. Lauren was the enemy, and, in many ways, his wife felt like the enemy, too. And maybe he needed to fight; perhaps he just needed to flee. But he felt like he was dying inside. Shia said not to die: fight or flee, but don't die.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then smiled at Shia. "Thank you. Thank you very much. You're very wise, and I appreciate your honest feedback."

No sooner did Bryan feel a sense of relief and regrouping than he heard a car come to a screeching halt behind him. He turned his head away from Shia, a beacon of friendship right now in some crazy way, then looked behind him to see the enemy staring him right in the eye. It was Lauren. Of course it was.

Shia might have replied had the other, the enemy, not stopped her foul machine and approached. Wise? No. That wasn't the correct word to describe what she'd tried to convey to him.

Lauren got out of the car, slammed the door, and headed toward them rapidly, shouting, "You motherfucker! I knew you were cheating on my sister!"

Bryan stood and turned his body so he was standing between Shia and the oncoming assault from Lauren.

"Look, you need to chill the fuck out. I don't even know her, and I'm not going there with you right now, Lauren."

Lauren stopped a foot away from him and continued to shout. "This is why my sister ended up in the arms of another man! From all your lies and cheating! You drove her to it!"

As Bryan stood and placed himself between her and the enemy, Shia at least felt the sense he might have understood what she'd said. It wasn't wisdom, however. She knew that. It was simple pragmatism. She stood as well, quickly unfolding herself, still unaware that those around her did not move as smoothly and effortlessly as she did.

Bryan felt his blood pressure rise and balled up one of his fists. "Lauren, you need to turn around and continue on your way."

"I'm not going anywhere!" she shouted, then turned her body to get a good look at the person behind him. One look at Shia, and she gasped, then laughed. "So this is what you're into? Some fucked-up-looking transvestite? Wait until my sister sees this one! She's taking your ass to court and getting everything you got!"

The woman reached into her back pocket, took out her cellphone, and held it up as though to take a picture of Shia.

"Give me that!" Bryan said and grabbed Lauren's wrist.

Time seemed to stand still.

"You motherfucker!" Lauren growled as she looked at his hand around her wrist. "So, now you're assaulting me?"

A smile spread across her face. This was precisely the moment she lived for: when she provoked someone into actually doing something that could put them in the wrong.

In that instant, Bryan thought back to his wedding. Lauren had claimed that one of the waiters made a pass at her. After the waiter turned out to be gay, and her lie didn't make sense anymore, she changed her story and claimed he'd threatened her. The young man had, at first, been taken aback, then apologetic, and finally became upset about the false accusation. That had been when the police arrived, as Lauren had called them . . . because she always called the police. As the officer had been approaching the knot of people, walking up behind the young man, he'd been just in time to hear the waiter say, "You lying bitch! I really should kick your ass!" The officer had grabbed the young man's arm, twisted it up, and pushed him to the ground. Technically, he'd just threatened Lauren. Kind of. Or at least, he gave proof to the claim for which Lauran had called 911 in the first place. And Bryan had watched the whole thing unfold in front of him. The waiter was arrested but later released because Lauren found someone else who'd captured her attention. She hadn't the need to entertain herself by making the waiter's life miserable anymore.

Coming back to the present, Bryan knew this wouldn't end very well. He'd actually grabbed Lauren's wrist, although not hard. Still, this couldn't end well, and, given the smile on her face — like a cat that had just cornered her mouse — she had him.

Shia didn't understand the enemy's words . . . well, a few of them, perhaps. She understood the enemy herself, however. She'd faced this kind of foe in the past. How she knew that . . . she couldn't remember. Who that previous adversary had been . . . she couldn't remember that either. But Bryan's actions seemed to indicate the object in the woman's hand was a weapon of some sort, although it was possible that he merely perceived it as one. In either case, it didn't really matter, for the enemy had drawn him into her trap.

Ah! Traps were full of danger! Shia remembered being deceived, being caught, being confined. Dying was not an option; fleeing was not an option, so fighting was the only possibility. And so, because she was Shia — and something more, besides, though she . . . well, she was starting to get frustrated at her inability to remember. But she was a fighter, above all else. That much she could remember. She slid from behind Bryan to the side, looking between him and his enemy.

The enemy's face was oh so familiar . . . not the features, no. Just the expression. It was an expression that said the fight had been won before it had even begun. Except the enemy did not know Shia. Bryan didn't really comprehend Shia either, but he seemed to trust her. She just wished she knew herself better than she did. She reached out and lightly tapped Bryan's wrist.

"Not this meaning am I. No, no," she said, glancing at Bryan for an instant.

Amber eyes turned on the enemy and appeared to look into the very depths of her polluted soul. Then the weapon disappeared from the enemy's hand. Shia remembered enough of herself to know that neither Bryan nor the enemy would be able to say what had happened to the item, except that it completely disappeared. Shia knew, but she would never tell.

"Evil are you. Evil fight I. Want fight Bryan you? No, no. Evil are you. Want hurt Bryan you."

For a moment, Lauren was shocked into silence. Her expression flowed from the triumph of victory to mild uncertainty.

"No, no, no say I. Hurt no one you. Evil. Losing always is Evil to Shia."

Even Shia herself might be surprised by the look on her face if she could see it in a mirror. Although her words were nothing more than a mild rebuke to the enemy, Shia's expression was very clearly predatory. Not threatening — the enemy would not need to fear retaliation from Shia for attempting to harm Bryan. No, her expression was predatory — the enemy should probably fear that her life was about to end as Shia killed her in one of the dozens or hundreds of ways she knew to kill. Frustratingly, Shia could say how she knew that . . . just that she knew it.

Lauren was looking at someone who seemed even more dangerously unbalanced than she was.

However, appearances are so often deceiving. While Shia was, at this moment, in the midst of a battle, as dangerous as a wild tiger poked with a stick, she was absolutely and utterly balanced. She felt . . . right, proper, appropriate, herself! Shia felt like herself for the first time since she found herself in this strange place with no memories. She was reasonably confident that the name was only remembered by . . . well, possibly no one. But whatever name others called her, this was who she truly was.

To Bryan, it all happened so quickly that he wasn't sure it actually happened. He'd seen Shia move; he'd heard her words. He'd seen Lauren freeze and stare at Shia. But the next thing didn't make sense: both he and Lauren noticed at the same time that her phone was no longer in her hand.

Lauren looked down at the ground as if she'd dropped her phone. Nothing was there. She looked back up at Shia, who was staring intently at her. Lauren paused, then shouted, "You fucking freak!"

She turned her attention to Bryan, then took a few steps back. "So this is what you're into?" she yelled. "Some crazy freak?" Lauren made one last attempt to see if her cellphone was on the ground, then looked back at Bryan. "A freak who steals phones!" Then she turned and ran toward her car. Once she opened the driver's door, she looked back at them. "You're gonna pay for that phone!" She took another look at Shia, who was still staring at her. "And you! You don't scare me . . . FREAK!"

Freak? Shia wondered at the enemy's insistence on naming her unusual, out of the ordinary. That much was obvious. What point did she have in repeating it? Did she mean it as an insult? Being unusual, not conforming to the norms? Shia had been that way . . . always? She'd come into existence behaving in ways contrary to those generally accepted by . . . by whom? Why could she remember some things so clearly, and other things seemed lost in the vast emptiness of space?

"Steal? Steal? No, no, no." Shia smiled at the enemy as the woman got in her car and peeled away. She wasn't lying. She didn't steal the weapon.

Bryan let out a deep breath and turned to Shia. She'd stood up for him. It had been so long since someone was on his side . . . since someone actually did something for him. It had felt like all he ever did was give and come up empty. But here, Shia offered something to him, and she'd stood up to crazy Lauren to do it.

"Thank you," he said with a smile. "I'm sorry Lauren came at us. But thank you for helping."

"Oh . . . help not so much did I," she replied. "Only keeping safe you. Job? Duty?" She shrugged. Slippery are words still."

He looked down at the ground, all around them, genuinely wondering where Lauren's cellphone was. Lord knew she'd probably take him to small claims court over it. But there was no phone.

"Her cellphone? That's so odd." Bryan shrugged lightly, then looked back into Shia's amber eyes. "Thank you again." At the thought of Lauren being stopped in her tracks and peeling away . . . Well, it was like the bully being defeated on the playground. He let out a laugh. It felt so good.

"Cell. Phone? Is what?" Then Shia made the connection. "Ah! Weapon! No, no, no. Odd, no. Gone, yes. Existing . . . no more, never, not before, not now. Soon forgetting weapon is enemy. Bryan, too. Yes. Remembering only is Shia." She shrugged again. "Slippery words. Slipperier time, things."

He placed a hand on her shoulder, a gesture of friendship, but quickly pulled it back. He hoped he hadn't just overstepped a boundary. She didn't flinch at his touch; she barely seemed aware of it. She was trying to find the words to explain the non-existence of the weapon, but she suspected words didn't actually exist. Or that in her current state, even she wouldn't understand them.

"Shia, are you hungry? Can I treat you to something to eat? You know, as a thank you."

"Hunger . . . eating . . . ah, food, yes." Shia considered his question carefully. On the one hand, this chance meeting had slowed her search for . . . for whatever she sought: clues to her identity, mostly, but how and why she arrived here were also of great importance. On the other hand, food would provide energy to search longer. She remembered a vague warning from . . . someone . . . that depleting one's energy beyond a certain point only made it more difficult to regain the energy. Was she at that point yet?

No. She was, perhaps, mildly hungry . . . if that word meant what she thought it did. But if she stored more energy now, she could search longer before needing more energy again. And this Bryan wished to thank her by allowing her to collect more energy. She remembered that this was considered a kindness — even something more, sometimes — in the place where she originated. In the world of the Light . . .

That someone had been her cousin!

Ah, if only she could remember more. But unfortunately, she only vaguely remembered her cousin. But she remembered the pleasant feelings of 'together' and 'happy' when she thought about the cousin whose name she could not even remember.

She nodded slowly. "Yes, thanking and accepting. Food, yes."

Bryan was so glad that Shia said yes. He really wanted to do something kind for her. Even though they'd just met, he felt that she was a sincere person. He thought that she'd genuinely appreciate a kind gesture. He longed for that appreciation.

"Well, we're only a minute away from my house. There's a good chance Lauren is there, but we can hop in my car and go to the best diner in town. They have an incredible cream of broccoli soup that will knock your socks off!" Bryan realized that perhaps using idioms might not translate well for Shia. He was still curious about where she was from but decided to let her tell him when she was ready. "I mean, you'll like their food a lot. Everyone does. Come on, let's go."

Shia wasn't entirely sure what Bryan was saying, but it didn't really bother her. She could tell from his reactions that he was pleased; that was all she needed to know. But, then, it occurred to her that she was remembering the how of things . . .

She remembered studying and learning languages and mannerisms and nuances and meanings. She just couldn't remember why.

She remembered that it was essential to make every effort to blend in with everyone else. She just couldn't remember why.

She hadn't remembered that part when she . . . put the weapon elsewhere. Perhaps she'd remember now. It seemed that once remembered here in this place, a fact would manage to remain in her mind. She still wanted to know where she was . . . how she got here . . . and most importantly, who she really was.

Bryan walked beside Shia as they walked down the street. Old Mrs. Hildigger was tending to her flower bed and noticed the two of them. He knew that this would fuel some great gossip. But, for the first time in a long while, he just didn't care. Let them all talk and wonder!

"That's Mrs. Hildigger," he whispered to Shia, "the neighborhood gossip."

As he pointed out an older person caring for plants in front of one of the houses, Shia furrowed her brows slightly as they continued down the hard pathway. She wasn't sure she understood what he meant by 'gossip.' She knew — although she wasn't sure how she knew — that those who tended to plants in such small places were called gardeners. Those who tended plants in very, very large areas were . . . ah, she knew that this was a word she ought to know! What was it again? Framer? No, that wasn't it. Furrier . . . franker . . . banker? No, that was going in the wrong direction. Far . . .? Farmer? Yes! Yes, that was it! Gossip didn't seem to fit with either word, however.

Then the postman came walking by. "Hey, Pete!" Bryan called out and waved. Pete smiled but lost the smile when he saw Shia. Bryan kept moving and offered, "Have a good one!" as they passed each other.

This other person . . . Bryan greeted him as though . . . She pondered that for a moment. Perhaps they were friends? Was that the right word? It seemed to apply in how Bryan greeted the Pete and perhaps in how the Pete smiled at Bryan. But the frown he'd shown her? She might still be misinterpreting almost everything.

As they approached Bryan's house, he noted that Lauren's car was in the driveway behind his wife's. Fortunately, he'd parked on the street a few doors up. They could slip into the car and drive away without incident.

Shia saw the foul machine of the enemy before Bryan pointed at his own machine. They were not alike, and yet . . . Were they not both machines with rotational implements to allow them to imitate gliding across the ground? How could one be bad and one not bad? This was something she'd need to puzzle through later after food was consumed and she returned to . . .

She wasn't sure where she was supposed to return. There was an image in her mind of something that looked like an expanse of grass. She knew the green, cool ground covering was called grass. There had been a lot of it when she'd found herself here, hadn't there been? And there was something specific she was supposed to find in that place with all the grass.

"Okay, Shia, the black car is mine." He walked to the passenger side door, unlocked the car, and opened the door for her. He smiled, gestured toward the seat and said, "After you, Madame."

Her expression changed slightly when Bryan opened the door of his . . . his car? Yes, he'd called it a car. A brief flash of a smile displaced the impassiveness for an instant when he opened the car door for her. She remembered . . .

After you, Madame . . .

Had that been something she'd said. Or had someone else said that to her? Who? And when? And where?

Just then, the sound of sirens pierced the air. Bryan looked toward the sound and saw a police car speed down the street. It stopped in front of his house. "Don't tell me she actually called the cops!" he muttered. "That crazy bitch!"

Perhaps it was just her imagination that time had stopped. Shia heard the shrill, piercing sound coming closer and looked through the front window at the machines that stopped in front of the building where Bryan said he lived.

Two police officers exited the car and walked to the front door. Fortunately, they didn't see Bryan and Shia. In response to ringing the bell, Lauren opened the door. Of course. The police officers stepped inside.

Shia watched the enemy open the door, allowing the others into Bryan's home. Confederates of the enemy? Or impartial intermediaries? She felt such an overwhelming urgency to do something and knew it was only another partial memory of something she couldn't begin to fathom. Here . . . now? There was nothing she could do about Bryan's enemy. She didn't even know if she should do something. She didn't know enough about the situation. She didn't understand this place well enough to even begin to learn what she didn't know. She noted Bryan's hesitation and looked up at him. She was clearly puzzled, but if she looked any more puzzled than she had since meeting him . . . well, that would be difficult to discern.

"Time is now to flee, yes? Having more allies is enemy, yes? If not fighter you, allies must you find." Shia shook her head sadly. "Cannot help I. This fight? No. Understanding too little. Allies you find. Find . . ." She looked around, then shook her head. Gazing with an unfocused look out the window as though she was searching the horizon, she spoke softly. "Find home must I. Find memories must I."

Bryan took a deep breath. She said it was time to flee. At least, that's what he thought she'd just said. Her words almost made sense, but they were just jumbled in the wrong order. Or perhaps a different order . . . maybe not necessarily wrong.

Shia moved to leave his machine. If she could not help, she suspected she would be a greater liability than another other he might have.

"No, no, you're right, Shia." He nodded and looked over his shoulder to ensure no one had noticed them. "Let's flee. Let's go. Nothing good can come of this. And I don't want to drag you into this mess."

She shook her head. "Not understanding you. Leaving should I. For protection of you."

He looked her in the eyes; the color was, startling, different and beautiful. He could tell there was so much thinking going on in her head. He just assumed she'd had a fascinating life — just based on her appearance, never mind her grasp of English. Maybe she'd immigrated here. He didn't want to be rude, so he kept talking.

"I'd really like to take you out to eat. It's the least I can do to thank you, and we can get away from here."

She grimaced in frustration as he looked at her and then decided to flee this place anyway. At least, she assumed he meant as he walked to the other side of the vehicle and entered it.

Shia couldn't quite say why she felt she was a danger to him, except maybe for the flashes of memory that happened every now and again. She wasn't sure they were real memories or even her own memories. But they were dreadful memories nonetheless. Perhaps it was something she'd seen on one of the large boxes behind glass in the buildings on much busier streets. The boxes showed scenes of . . . well, all sorts of things. Some of them made less sense to her than others, but some were eerie in the way they seemed to make far too much sense.

The memories where someone was chasing her? The ones where some very bad people actually caught her? Those scared her. She wasn't too proud to admit that. But she wasn't sure they were her memories. Not really. The person she remembered — or seemed to remember — looked different than she did. That person's eyes were the same, though. Perhaps it was some relative of hers who was in trouble? If it was kin, didn't she owe them the loyalty of helping? She wished she knew.

She sighed. She needed to decide what she was going to do.

The front door to Bryan's home opened, and his wife stepped out with their baby son in her arms. Well, no, not their son, Bryan corrected himself. His heart ached. The baby was crying, and she was trying to soothe him. Bryan looked longingly at the woman he should have loved, who should have loved him, at their son. He thought about how he'd have been the one to help comfort whoever needed it. One of the officers walked out and stood very close, too close, to his wife. Then, as if time slowed to a crawl — the kind of slow motion in which a second became a minute and a minute became several, where every detail was seen and heard and remembered — his wife held their son to her chest, hugging him, and over his son's head, the officer leaned in and kissed her. He kissed her! And she kissed him in return! The officer patted his son's head and put an arm around his wife. If he didn't know any better, Bryan would have thought this was a picture-perfect family, the new neighbors that had moved in one house over.

Bryan wasn't breathing. His heart was racing.

Shia watched as a female person emerged from the enemy's lair, holding an infant offspring. She was followed by one of the enemy's minions. She understood less and less as the moments stretched into the future. Bryan seemed mesmerized by the scene. The person — the woman, that's what female persons were called here — the woman pressed her face to that of the enemy's minion. She shuddered as a memory, this one so real that it could only be her own, crashed over her. Shia remembered what that face pressing meant. It was an intimacy that was shared by people . . . she wasn't sure of the exact words, but her memory told her it was — it had been? — a thing that was pleasant and wonderful. But from the way Bryan was reacting, that was obviously not the case here. In her flash of memory, however, it was much, much worse.

Then the woman looked at Bryan; she seemed surprised, seemed . . . no, not afraid, not precisely. Still, the minion came toward them . . . a step, then a second. She closed the door of Bryan's machine firmly.

"Trap. Trap you they will. Go. Go now."

He was too caught up in the scene before him, and she had no way to protect him from what the minion might do. She wasn't even sure she could protect herself, although she trusted her instincts entirely in that regard. Her knowing mind could forget everything, but her unknowing mind remembered everything that was important.

And right now? Fleeing was important. Very important. Shia poked her fisted hand against Bryan's shoulder.

"Go now say I! Now! Not joking! Not!! Go!"

Her unknowing mind, her instincts, they told her that the enemy of Bryan couldn't harm her . . . the minions of the enemy couldn't harm her. Not like her own enemy could harm her. But she owed it to Bryan to see that he was not damaged either. At least . . . well, she thought that was what she was supposed to do.

Oh. Jason . . . that was his name. The pilot. He'd saved her, and she'd saved him. She remembered only the fleeing from those who chased her. And the pilot whose vehicle was damaged. Helping repair the vehicle, and then they'd left just as her pursuers had arrived. It had been a close thing.

This was a close thing. This was not good.

"Now. Go. Flee. Must, must, now!"

Taken aback by the kiss between his wife and the officer, Bryan almost didn't register officer coming toward him. Not just coming toward him, but pulling out his gun and aiming at him. Shia's fist hitting his shoulder was the best thing that could have happened: it jarred him to his senses. He looked at the odd woman, appreciative that she chose to stay with him. He felt so alone at this moment, except for Shia. She gave him comfort.

He turned the car on and threw it into gear, pulling away and driving right past the officer. Everything seemed okay, except he was running away from the police. He was rationalizing now: The police officer had personal motives with his wife, so there must be something below the law going on here. He was thinking about his options, about ways of handling this, when he heard the first gunshot. No, this can't be happening! The second gunshot shattered his rear window.

"Shia, keep your head down!" he shouted as he took a hard right down a side street. Looking behind him, he could see a large hole where the rear window had been and shattered glass all over the back seat. "That son of a bitch!"

Bryan glanced at Shia for a second. "Are you all right?"

Sirens were going off now; they seemed to be getting closer. "They can't be chasing us! This is ridiculous! We've done nothing wrong!"

He swerved down several more streets, trying to shake his pursuers.

Shia heard Bryan's words but didn't bother parsing them to decipher the meanings. Things were happening here that seemed . . . familiar?

A ship, a pilot, and frantic words as she watched people chasing . . . they were chasing her. And the pilot was helping her. Why? It hadn't mattered. What had mattered was the help. She could remember the ship . . . was that the right word? Perhaps not. But she remembered the vehicle rising into the air. She remembered the relief on the dark face of the pilot. She remembered her own relief.

And why remember all this now? Was something the same? She rested a hand lightly on Bryan's shoulder. She meant it to be a small comfort, for she knew such things were comforts to those of his kind.

What did that mean? Those of his kind? Was she not of his . . . No. She instinctively knew that she was different. And it was instinct again that had led her to give him the small comfort of touch.

"I know where we can go for food . . . and safety." Bryan sped down another street. In his mind, he pictured the hideout: his great aunt's home. She had a garage to hide the vehicle and plenty of food.

It was the extremely high level of emotions that allowed her to see . . . something. She thought that was the reason, at any rate. What did she see beyond a haze of fear? A child, a woman, another man . . . no, no. These things were not going to help. A building. A building to hide the vehicle in which they traveled. That was a helpful thought and a good one on Bryan's part. But how could it really be helpful? She would not have found the memory of . . . Jason? Yes. She would not have found that particular memory of Jason if it weren't helpful to this situation. Would she?

What had come after that? What had happened after Jason helped her escape from those trying to capture her? How did she know that?

Ah. Yes. Nabob. It was always, always, always Nabob. But not here. Not now. Those chasing Bryan were not the same . . . and yet, they were.

How to help, how to help? This building, the image of this building that Bryan yearned for . . . Yes. He should go there. He would likely be safe there. But where is it? She only got the sense of 'west' from him beyond his fear. That might be enough. Around the building were . . . yes! Many, many trees! They were not the trees she needed to find, but they were legion. And that, too, was good.

"I am well." It was important to reassure him of that. But, unfortunately, it barely did anything to diminish the fear. Why was it that she knew this? How? No, no . . . she couldn't take the time now to puzzle through all the things that were happening. She must act, and she must act quickly.

"Help you now, I will. Trust. Please. Help you I, as one helped me." She had a feeling that he wouldn't trust her. Or that he'd take on the role that should be hers. "Go you to place of . . . of the many trees. The place of building to hide this." She touched the dash of the vehicle. "Go you must. Trust me you must."

Shia looked behind them and saw the pursuers. Yes. They were just far enough away that her plan could work. She unbuckled the safety harness and said again to Bryan, "Trust me. Go, go, go . . . and trust. If find you I can, I will."

Then she opened the door and rolled out, managing to slam the door closed in the process. She stopped in the middle of the street and rose to her hand and knees, precisely as she'd meant to do. For a moment, she wondered at the thought that she still had this skill. Still? No matter. The enemy would need to roll over her to reach Bryan now. She didn't think they would, for they were not Nabob.

She kept her head lowered and shook it from side to side. Memories were returning, and quickly. But were they memories that would help her? Were they memories that would allow her to help Bryan?

"Shia!" Bryan yelled at the top of his lungs. He looked in the rearview mirror and saw her land safely. How the hell did she do that? His first instinct was to turn the car around to get her, even if it meant confronting the police and enduring a possible arrest.

But her words sank into his mind: she'd said to trust her. If nothing else, she might stop the cars from pursuing him. Yes, or she might get herself killed if they ran over her! He considered his options and rationalized that it would be impossible to get to Shia before the police could. Somehow, he knew that she'd be all right . . . even if they swerved around her and didn't stop. Yes, at the very least, they would swerve, and he'd gain some precious seconds ahead of them. Or they'd stop altogether, and he'd be free.

He decided to trust Shia and kept driving. After all, he felt like the two of them had something in common.

He made several turns as he zig-zagged his way through the city, finally getting on a road heading toward the countryside. There was an abundance of trees, forests really, that lined the country road, broken up by the scattered country houses and close-cut lawns. As he approached a right curve in the road, he reached over, opened the glove compartment, and pulled out a small device with two buttons, one red and one blue. He clicked the red button, then made a sharp right turn into what should have been a forest of tall oak, elm, and pine trees. Instead, the image of the trees faded to reveal a long driveway, and he sped down it. As he clicked the button again, the forest image returned, hiding this secret driveway from the road.

A quarter-mile down the drive, he spied his great aunt's home. It was an enormous mansion with sweeping peaks, a three-quarter wraparound porch that welcomed long talks in the spring and autumn months, and an excellent place to watch summer thunderstorms. He pressed the blue button on the remote, and the garage door to the right of the mansion opened forward and upward, revealing an inclined ramp that curved down and to the left. He rolled in, pressing the blue button again to close the door. Lights came on along the underground driveway. He drove the car into an ample open space lined with lights on the ceiling and walls. Stopping the car, he sighed with immense relief. He was safe here and could figure out what the hell was going on.

As Bryan stepped out of the car, one of his great aunt's staff greeted him with a cold drink on a tray and three oatmeal raisin cookies, his favorite. "Good afternoon, Master Bryan. It's so good to see you. Your aunt is eager to catch up with you and learn about what has been happening from your perspective."

Ah, right. The tracking device and surveillance cameras. Bryan supposed, in this instance, they may actually prove beneficial, as his great-aunt Elsa had always insisted.

"Thank you, Max. I appreciate it," he says, taking a cookie.

"As always, Master Bryan."

Bryan headed up the ramp and into the dishing room. This was where every visitor, including Bryan, must "dish" about where they'd been. This included any relevant information to the mission. An extensive log was kept and archived. Elsa had been working on improving the dishing room: Instead of talking and relaying all the human errors and inaccuracies, the new equipment would be able to scan a person, including their brain, and gather all data electronically. Bryan wondered if the new scanning system was complete yet.

* * *

Shia had heard Bryan call out her name, and she'd ignored him. She was far too busy dealing with the memories. She'd never lost them so extensively before. Usually, there was little more than a momentary disorientation when she . . .

When she what?

Okay, those memories were still hiding.

However, by the time the police cars screeched to a stop, she knew considerably more about herself than she'd had when she jumped out of Bryan's car. In fact, it was enough to know that she'd been just as reckless as she'd always been in jumping out of the car. She'd have smiled at that if she dared.

She remembered her True Name, her first Chosen Name, and many of the names she'd used over the years — including the one known to Nabob. Fortunately, she never entirely forgot Nabob. Given the paucity of memories she had before dunning into Bryan, it wasn't surprising that she'd given him her True Name. She could hear doors opening and people exiting the vehicles. She remained safely crouched on the ground. If she was actually threatened by these people, she was reasonably confident she could evade them. So, she'd stay . . . and buy time for Bryan to escape. He seemed like a decent enough person; she owed him that much.

"Miss . . . are you okay?"

She sat back on her heels and looked at the man who'd asked the question. He was wary, approaching her as if she were a wild animal. That was pretty darn funny . . . and awfully damn accurate.

Her features were no longer the ones Bryan had seen. Instead, they had more definition and were much more distinctive. She thought it unwise to do anything drastic about her hair, and she could never do much of anything about her eyes, but now she looked distinctly feminine. She might not be considered beautiful by local standards, but she was at least pretty.

"I . . ." She looked at her hands, which showed a patchwork of minor scrapes. That would do. She patted herself as if checking for any injuries she might be too shocked to recognize if not palpated.

"I . . . I am thinkings am oh kay, da."

Coming up on the police cars blocking the road was the vehicle of Bryan's . . . enemy. What did he call her? The Lauren? No, no . . . just Lauren. Sister to the spouse, who was . . . unfaithful? Yes, that was it. So, this was a culture that placed emphasis on fidelity, or seemed to anyway. That information might come in handy.

Shia could the side of one police vehicle: City of Seattle. She let that settle in with all the other memories. It seemed familiar. But the cultural significance of infidelity clicked in sync with . . . well, whatever she was remembering.

The police officer stepped closer while several others trained their weapons on her. She didn't sigh, although she really wanted to. Her memories showed her the numerous times she'd been in a similar situation.

Here we go again!

"I'm just going to step closer," the officer said, "and I'll help you up. Then we'll make sure you're not hurt, okay?"

She nodded and smiled slightly. "Da . . . yesyes. Thanking you."

He came to her side. Then, with one hand on an elbow and the other under her opposite arm, helped her stand.

The length of her hair, her eyes, her height . . . these were things she either couldn't or dared not change. But nearly everything else had changed enough that, had Bryan seen her now, he'd undoubtedly have done a double-take. Her hair had more luster, her skin tone was slightly darker, and she was very definitely female.

"Ah, am thanking. I am thinking to be well," Shia said to the officer who helped her.

"That bitch stole my phone!" Lauren screamed.

Shia started enough to stumble into the police officer and then looked wide-eyed at the woman. It was an act, and it was a good one. She remembered that acting as the person she appeared to be . . . Ah, yes. That was the essence of how she evaded Nabob. But there was an element of genuine surprise in her act. She'd told Bryan that she'd essentially taken the phone out of this reality and that he and this Lauren person would soon forget it had ever existed. It was disconcerting that this woman was still so vehement about the phone's existence. By now, she ought to be questioning why she even thought there'd been a phone. Well, Bryan had said the woman was evil. Shia wondered if that had something to do with her mind refusing to give up the knowledge of the phone.

"Now, don't worry, miss. We'll get this all sorted out. Ms. Soler seems to think you took her phone, and you were seen in the company of a known fugitive," the officer said. The rest of the officers were putting their weapons away.

This was not the . . . the law enforcement person who'd been at Bryan's house, the one who . . . Well, she didn't have time at the moment to try picking out the memories of what might have been happening at his house.

"Ah, am not maybe understanding," she said. "Nyet, I having no phones." She shrugged helplessly. "My . . . hmm, belongings, da? They are to be stealing. I am walking, am not seeing where going is. Bump, crash. Bryan only to help me after fallings, da?"

"Um, where are you from, miss? Is there someone we can call for you?"

"Oh, from Belarus! Am sorry not say. English still not goodness." She chuckled in a self-deprecating way. "Only coming here . . . is yesterday am thinking." Then Shia sighed. "Da, wander for nighttime having sorry for self. Please . . . am Shia Volkova. Coming to visit friend and having only . . . is word contact? Da? Correctness? In phone all. Losing."

"Okay," the officer said hesitantly. "And how did you come to be in Mr. Merchant's car?"

She looked at him, puzzled. "Is merchant Bryan?"

"Yes, ma'am. His name is Bryan Merchant."

"Oh! Am understand now! Only he is saying Bryan for name. But in car? So he will drive to place I stoling . . . no . . . have steal? Da. Things. Help maybe find. If nyet, saying will bringing me to . . . to place, nyet for understand words from him . . . for makings of reports. Ah, for stealings. Bryan is saying police — you! — helping Shia will do."

"That transvestite is lying!" Lauren yelled as she tried pushing past the lone officer attempting to keep her back.

Shia looked at the other woman almost blandly, as though she'd never seen her before, and was just a bit unnerved by the woman's outburst. The three officers closest to Shia sighed.

"Walters, you wanna go help Napoletani calm down Ms. Soler?" The man talking to Shia gave the third officer a stern look.

"But that's . . ."

"Yeah, yeah . . . I know who it is. And Santos oughta have better sense than to get mixed up with that loon's sister. And it ain't helpin' that the loon's got it out for the brother-in-law. Santos is gonna be in a world a' hurt down the road. He ain't high enough on the food chain ta keep the loon under control."

Shia found it interesting and extremely helpful that they spoke so freely in front of her. Perhaps they believed their colloquial way of speaking would confound someone who appeared to be inexpert in their language. All the better for her, of course, especially with her memories . . . Well, there were still plenty of them missing, but she had enough to evade this evil woman. Of course, it was only Bryan's opinion that she was evil. These law enforcement officials seemed to think crazy was a defining characteristic of the woman, although there was a subtext of evil as well.

"Sorry about that, ma'am. I just have a few more questions. First, did Mr. Merchant — Bryan — say where he was going?"

She paused to give the impression she was considering the question. "So . . . am thinking only he was saying namings of friend? Funny name, for make me smile. Is Eugene. Not saying where is friend, though."

The police officer paused, too. "Do you think he might have meant the city of Eugene?"

Shia giggled. "Having city of these names? Would like to see, da! But . . ." She shrugged. "Am understand not good. Only know Eugene is saying."

The officer looked at his partner. "Get a BOLO out on that car of his. He's likely heading to Eugene. He can't get far this time of day."

He looked back at Shia. "Now, Ms. Volkova, could you give me the name of your friend that you came to visit? And where your friend lives? We'll try to track them down for you."

She nodded as though parsing through his words and then smiled broadly. "Thanking much! So many kindnesses! Da, friend naming of Teshka Konstantinova. Live . . . ah, many sorries. Knowing only Teshka say View of Bells, excepting not. Teshka know Shia forever nots saying, but is naming difficultness in lake and town. Is enoughs?"

He gave her a sympathetic smile. "Sounds like that could be Sammamish. It's a town across Sammamish Lake from Bellevue."

"Yesyes, da! This is naming Teshka giving Shia!"

The officer nodded. "Sure, that should be enough. It's an unusual name for these parts. She shouldn't be too hard to track down."

Shia beamed. She was going to use up all her aliases if she kept making up fictitious friends. Oh, well. She didn't intend to return once she got out of here.

"That whore is the reason that asshole left my sister!"

"Oh, shut up, Lauren," said one of the officers tending her.

Shia stopped smiling and looked at Lauran with a convincing look of worry and fear on her face.

"Am understand nyet her sayings, but making loudness . . ." Shia snugged her jacket a little closer around herself. "Am having fearing . . . fearful?"

"You seem like a nice young woman, so you probably don't want to understand," the officer said. "It's . . . not polite."

"Why angry are people?" So many angries. For making of so many sadnesses for Shia."

"I can't really say, Ms. Volkova. That's a question for philosophers, I guess, and not beat cops."

She watched his face, pretending to work through what he'd just said.

"Ah," she said finally, then pointed to his name badge. "Furst is job doing, leaving great thinkingness to phil . . . o . . . Da! Job of great thinkingness for importantest thininger. Not Shia. Not Furst." She sighed but gave the man a smile. "Not wanting job of many thinkings for others, nyet. Not these for Shia."

The officer chuckled. "Right," said Officer Furst. "Leave the hard thinking to the guys who are better at it. So what do you do in Belarus, Ms. Volkova?"

She ducked her head, seemingly embarrassed. "To nyet have the laughings for my sayings."

"Nah, I promise I won't laugh," he said with earnest seriousness.

"So, am in studying . . ." She peeked up at him. ". . . for Sestra of Holy One."

It took the man a few seconds to realize what she'd said. Then, as promised, he didn't laugh. But he did look surprised.

"You're studying to be a nun?"

"Nun?" Shia blinked, then nodded vigorously. "Da! Sister, Sestra. Sameness."

"Whoa. Well, then it's really a good thing you didn't understand Ms. Soler. Listen, we ought to bring you down to the station while we track down your friend," he said. "Is that okay?"

Shia looked down the street in the direction from which she'd first come. Bryan had been driving in that direction. Then she looked back at the officer.

"Must being this? Shia remembering seeings of grass tree sittingness place. So much likings of being in light." She moved her hands slightly to her sides, palms up, and tilted her head skyward. "Shining sunnynesses is peacefulnesses, da?"

the two officers exchanged a glance. "Aw, what can it hurt, Furst?" asked his partner. "Liz probably wouldn't mind sitting with her until we track down this friend."

"Right. Liz probably won't mind, but you know the Captain hates answering his own phone."

"Yeah. And you know all his calls go through the front desk. All Liz does is type up bullshit all day. And you know she's five minutes away from walking out half the time anyway."

"Geez . . . fine! Give her a call, see if she's willing."

As his partner took a few steps away and pulled out a cellphone, Officer Furst said, "Officer Harper is going to see if the station secretary — her name is Liz Bennington — would be willing to keep you company in the park. You understand?"

Shia nodded slowly. "Shining sunnyness enjoying by Shia and . . . and . . . Liz."

A babysitter. Great.

"Right," Furst said with a smile, nodding.

Shia smiled in return. "Oh kays."

* * *

Bryan stood in the dishing room and waited to see if the automatic scanner was up and running yet. He was just about to start speaking as usual when the lights flickered, and an automated voice welcomed him.

"Please remain still and breathe at a normal resting pace. The scan is about to begin. Welcome."

The lights went out, then came back on with a blue tint. Bryan could feel a warmth moving from his head to his toes, and back up again. This process was repeated several times. When the standard lighting came back on, the door opened.

"Scan complete."

Bryan walked out of the room and down a long hallway. At the end was the back entryway to the kitchen; he could smell something delicious cooking. He was almost surprised to discover that he was hungry. He walked into the kitchen to find Elsa cooking chicken Francaise.

"It smells delicious!" He said with a smile and open arms. Elsa put down her cutting knife and walked over to him.

"Well, I have a special dinner for a special visitor," she replied warmly as she hugged him.

"I take it Max has the night off from cooking duties?" Bryan joked.

"Oh, yes, but just tonight," she said.

Elsa was tall and slender, with a heap of white hair on top of her head. Her eyes were a magnificent blue. Most people thought she was much younger than her actual years. Even Bryan didn't know exactly how old she was.

"I see the new scanner is working now," he noted as he sat on a stool at the counter.

Elsa resumed cutting up vegetables. "Yes, it is, and I love it. Not only does it scan your mind for an instant record of all you know, but it also scans your body for cell memory and injury. I had to negotiate the latter, of course."

Before Bryan could ask how she managed that, she yelped in pain and grabbed her finger. "Damn! I always do this when cutting onions." She held up her finger, and familiar green blood rose to the surface. After a moment, her finger healed itself, and Elsa wiped the blood on her apron and continued cutting.

"I was chased today," Bryan said.

"I know," his aunt replied with a smile. "I track you, remember."

"Yes, yes. I know. I suppose you saw Shia?"

"Oh, yes, Shia. I'm very, very intrigued by her." Elsa set the knife down on the counter. "She's unlike anyone I've ever seen. Of course, she can't be from this planet, but that would mean there are others besides us. I'll look at the scans from your memory and see if we can find some indicators of who she is."

"I really wanted to bring her with me. There was something very kind about her." Bryan signed.

Elsa walked around the kitchen island and put an arm around his shoulders. "Don't worry, dear. You're almost ready for your ultimate mission. And when you are, much more love will be waiting for you."

"Elsa." He rolled his eyes. "I already told you I'm not interested in Melba."

"Who said anything about Melba? Look, it was your choice that you got involved with that earthling. And now you're upset that she'd been living a lie? Well, so have you, young sir."

* * *

Shia wasn't thinking about Bryan . . . much.

She was mostly thinking about how she was going to get away from her babysitter. And how long it would take for the others to figure out her "friend" Teshka didn't exist. They wouldn't be particularly thrilled. But, on the other hand, it should be enough time for Bryan to reach his destination. He'd be safe. Her obligation would be ended.

That would leave the rather daunting task of figuring out a way . . . hmm, no, not home. She hadn't been back there in more years than she could count. It had been clear before she'd even left that she wasn't quite like the rest of them. She did miss her cousin, that was true. But the old leech that stuck by her cousin almost every waking moment? No, Shia could do very well if she never saw her again.

"So . . . Furst says you're studying to be a nun," Liz said from her place on the park bench. "I didn't realize you had to study up on that stuff."

Shia shrugged, but she smiled at the woman from the police department. "Is depending, maybe? Everythings not for knowing of Holy One, da? Teaching they are for Shia is English learning." Then she laughed. "Not good learnings! No, no. Teshka are saying for visiting so learning betters."

Liz nodded slowly. "You came to the U.S. to practice English and visit your friend. Is she a nun, too?"

Shia's hands crossed delicately over her mouth as she giggled and shook her head. "Oh, no, no! No, not for Teshka is this livings! No, no. Not and nevers."

The other woman finally cracked a smile at Shia's reaction. "So she's not cut out for the life of piety, huh? That's cool. I sure ain't either. What does she do, though? How'd you meet her?"

Shia understood that the giving up of information was a necessary part of this little play, even though this Liz individual wasn't an official part of the police hierarchy. How many times had she tried sweet-talking information out of other people?

Well, Shia? How many times?

Another unanswered question. Every answer seemed to bring no less than half a dozen additional questions. However, she was almost entirely convinced that she was in the correct park. That was something.

"Am knowing of Teshka for many evers. Friend of childs and am always remembering Teshka when living." Shia nodded, hoping Police Department Liz could make sense of her nonsense. And maybe hush up for a couple of minutes. She had the feeling if she just immersed herself in silence for a minute or two, that the memory of why this part . . . why that stand of trees . . . was so important.

"Ah, Teshka is being . . . what word? She say, only I think our word, da? Oh! Da! Engineer!" Shia smiled cheerfully again. "She is always like to making things."

She looked at the trees again. "Excusing, but what being are these trees?"

Liz chuckled. "Chica, the way you mix up words is pretty funny. Now, don't get me wrong; I'm not laughing at you. Just saying that you string words together differently than anyone else I've ever heard. And I like it, okay?"

Shia smiled again at Liz. Well, somebody ought to be having a good day, right? And if it wasn't going to be her, it might as well be her babysitter.

"Am still learning way of making words here. Tess study years of many. Shia only have the study for . . . ah . . . months, da. For siem, vosiem . . . as, is seven, eight. Liz of Police to help Shia saying rightest words? Da? What is saying of those trees?"

Liz grinned. "For studying only seven or eight months, you're doing really well." She looked over at the trees in question. "Most of them are poplars. That one with the red leaves? That's a red maple."

"Poplar. Maple." Shia nodded. "Not like our sayings. Liking poplar. Good tree, good word." She glanced at Liz, then back at the trees. "Shia look closer? Liz sit sitting stay. Relaxing, da? Never seeing I this tree of . . . pretty?"

Liz chuckled again and waved Shia toward the trees. "Sure, have at it. There's not much to see, though. It's all fenced in with apartments on either side. If you get all the way to the end, there's another street, but that end is fenced in, too. So just turn around and come back."

Shia nodded. "SO many of the fences! Sad for trees, not grow all everywheres." Then she stood and smiled happily, almost childlike, at Liz. "Thanking you! I look, you sit, I come back."

She walked toward the trees with a light step and stopped at the first poplar. Pretending to study the tree's leaves and bark, she tried to sense where it was that she needed to go. She'd never been good at this part of . . .

Of what? Again, the lost memories left gaping holes exactly where she needed them most. She moved slowly from one tree to the next, inspecting each one. Well, no, she was pretending to examine each one. She was really looking for something else. She knew it was somewhere among these trees. The problem was . . . well, she had no idea what she was looking for. She only hoped she'd recognize it when she found it.

It was so much a memory as it was a feeling . . . she would recognize that when she found it. But she also had the impression from the few memories available that she didn't always notice the . . . whatever it was she sought — even when she was certain she knew where it was.

* * *

Bryan headed upstairs to his bedroom to rest and get cleaned up for dinner. Although it was still early, he was tired and needed to rest. As he walked up the broad staircase, his hand slid along the smooth wooden banister. All the paintings along the walls, the carpeting, the old wood furniture . . . it all reminded him of his younger years. This had been his home for as long as he could remember.

Remembering . . . there were so many things he didn't want to remember: Like how his parents had left him with Elsa when he was a baby and had promised to return to get him, but she never did. Or how he had impressions of siblings in his mind, though Elsa swore he was an only child. Or how he discovered that Elsa was different and, eventually, that he was different.

It was why, or at least part of why, he'd fallen in love with his wife. He'd wanted to be normal, to belong, and be part of a family. Damn her. Why did she have to turn out to be a liar? And why couldn't the baby have been his? Damn all of this!

As he sat on the bed, Bryan thought about Shia . . . dear, sweet, odd, intriguing, mysterious Shia. Why was he so drawn to her? What was it about her that made him stop and think? He leaned back on the bed and closed his eyes, picturing Shia's face, her eyes . . . those beautiful amber eyes . . .

"Good Lord!" he gasped and sat up in bed. Now he remembered!

* * *

Moving farther away from her babysitter, Shia began to relax. Liz was right: If she walked too far to the left or the right, she caught sight of the fences. Continuing forward, she could hear the sounds of those ugly conveyances . . . what was it that Bryan called then? Ah, right . . . cars. There were also the occasional sounds of something larger and heavier.

In the middle of the moderately young trees — they couldn't have been more than a decade or two old, and she wasn't sure how she knew that — Shia spied an ancient tall, gnarled oak lording over the rest of the trees like a wise ethereal elder. Not that there was anything divine about the tree. It was sturdy enough to have hosted hundreds or even thousands of children as they clamored around the lower branches. Even she felt the pull, the force of its majesty. It was just the sort of tree she liked to climb herself, although she tended to perch in the higher branches. That always unnerved most people. She knew herself well enough to know that was a part, albeit a small part, of why she climbed so high.

She backtracked just enough to check on Liz. Good . . . she was engrossed in her handheld device, so Shia went back to the old oak tree. She circled it several times, sensing something peculiar on one side. She didn't want to get too close, and she wasn't sure if this was the oddness she should be looking for or if it was something to avoid. She could see the red maple that marked where she entered the grove; it was to her right and slightly behind her. Then she looked at the oak tree again.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right, Shia?

Despite her apprehension, she crouched down close to the . . . the spot of strangeness. She wasn't close enough to feel anything other than the fact that it was strange, but if she reached her hand out . . .

Glancing over her shoulder one more time, she nodded to herself. Then she looked at the spot on the ground at the base of the tree that emitted sensations that none of her five senses registered. It wasn't even triggering an actual fight or flight response, either. Just . . . just an aura of not-normal. Slowly, carefully, she stretched her hand over the spot, palm down.

A tingle of recognition vibrated through her whole being, and she smiled. Yes . . . yes, this was a familiar thing! This was very likely the thing she sought. As she held her hand out, she closed her eyes to concentrate on the familiarity. It wasn't that she was remembering, not exactly . . . it was merely some part of her recognizing it. Of course, she might eventually recall what it was that she knew. But it was enough to know that the growing certainty in her unconscious and subconscious mind — and in her body, too, it would seem — meant that she'd discovered the place she'd needed to find.

Now to figure out what to do about it . . .

* * *

Bryan sat on his bed in a fugue state, remembering.

It had been a cold winter night, and he'd been ten years old. There'd been a loud banging noise and a bright light outside his window. He'd called for Aunt Elsa, but she hadn't come. Then, suddenly, his bedroom window had burst open, the curtains fluttering. Although he'd been terrified, he'd gotten out of bed and pulled the window closed.
He'd turned around to see a little girl sitting on the edge of the bed, her knees tight to her chest. She'd just looked at him. Only now, he was remembering her eyes — intriguing yellow tiger eyes. He'd asked her name, but she hadn't responded. So, he'd told her his name. He remembered her speaking to his mind without moving her lips. Bryan is your name here. Your parents named you Keenan.
My parents? You knew my parents?
As if he'd spoken aloud, she replied, Yes, I knew them. He remembered taking a step toward her, but the window had burst open again. He'd turned quickly to close it, and when he'd looked back at the bed, the girl was gone.

He ran his fingers through his hair. He'd forgotten all about her. But it felt as though he was supposed to have lost that memory. She knew Shia couldn't be that girl. Or could she?

Only one way to find out. He stood and headed back to his car. He needed to find Shia.

Speeding down the road, he nearly ran into a tractor-trailer coming around the bed. He was driving too fast, too erratically. All he knew was that he needed to find her. Shia was bringing back a memory for him . . . something he needed to know about.

He wasn't sure why he thought she'd be at the park about half a mile from his house, but that's where he headed. As he pulled up, he caught a glimpse of Shia in the trees. A woman he vaguely recognized as someone from the local police station was sitting on a nearby bench, engrossed in her phone.

This is my only chance. I have to do this right.

Bryan got out of his car, fell to the ground, and started shouting, "Help! Help! I've been mugged! Someone, please help me!"

Liz jerked her head up and immediately took off running toward him. When she was a few feet away, he shouted, "He took off that way! Around the corner! He has my wallet and all my money and social security card! Please, to get him!"

"Are you okay, sir? I can call for a squad car and an ambulance," she offered.

He grabbed his side and said, "I'm fine; he just pushed me down hard. Please, for the love of God, go get my wallet!"

Liz nodded and took off around the corner, dialing her phone as she ran. She wasn't trained in police work, but maybe she could keep an eye on the guy until the patrol officers arrived. Bryan could hear her talking to one of them on the phone.

As soon as she was out of sight, he got up and hopped back in his car. Then he drove into the park, across the grass, and under the trees. He pulled up next to Shia with the passenger side door facing her, reached over to open it, then shouted, "Quick! Get in!"

She'd been so engrossed in her search and examination of this . . . this spot of power, that she hadn't heard the cry for help that drew Liz off. she hadn't registered the sound of the car until it passed beneath the canopy of the maple tree. At that moment, the spot of power completely disappeared, causing a backlash of its energy to jolt Shia. She ignored the car coming closer as she clawed at the ground.

"NO! No, come back!"

Shia fell forward to her knees, huddling on the ground, crying from the agony of being so close to her goal . . . only to have it torn from her grasp. She heard the voice and wondered why Bryan would have come back. It made no sense. And it had been his machine that took away her . . . she wasn't sure, but something somewhere in her mind told her it had been safety. He had taken her safety away.

After a moment, she looked up and turned to him, to the machine of his . . . that damnable machine! She didn't realize she had tears streaming down her face.

She also didn't realize that she'd unconsciously changed her appearance yet again. While not her True Form, it was the form she'd first mastered. Her skin was a warm shade of brown, and her features could be described as a mixture of many Native American groups. Her black hair was nearly waist-length and fell in a carelessly tangled mess around her face and shoulders. She was no longer petite and androgynous but a tall, athletically lithe woman. Only those golden eyes remained the same.

"Why? Why do you come back and have your machine take away my safe place? Why Bryan? WHY?"

When she'd turned to him, Bryan thought he'd been mistaken . . . that this wasn't Shia. But the woman knew his name, and her eyes were . . . Could it be? Those eyes . . . yes, this was Shia. At least, he was almost convinced it was.

"Shia, is that you? I came back for you!" He got out of the car and took a few steps toward her. But the way she clawed at the ground and cried . . . he stopped, hesitating. She seemed under such duress. But the car was still running, and they didn't have much time.

Shia made no move to get up and exhibited no desire to get in his machine. When she'd first met him, she'd had so few memories and so much confusion. Now, a great many memories had returned. Now, she had despair.

"Shia? If that's you, please, we need to get in the car and go. I have a safe place for us to stay." Bryan turned to the car and opened the passenger door wider. "Shia? Please, just get in the car!" he pleaded.

She wasn't moving. He walked over to her and knelt down beside her. What had she been clawing at? Bryan touched the earth next to her hands. Perhaps it was his imagination, but the ground felt cooler — or was it warmer? — than expected for an instant, enough, perhaps, for his fingers to notice but not enough to register to his mind. He placed a hand on her shoulder.

"Please, Shia?" he asked one more time.

"I only wanted to go . . ." Shia whispered the words, unable to complete the sentence. After all, what could she say? That she wanted to go home? She knew that wasn't true. There was nothing there for her anymore. She couldn't remember the names of the places that she knew were safe . . . but she could picture them in her mind's eye. She couldn't look at Bryan, so she looked up into the myriad woven branches of the tree instead.

"You were the one in danger here, not I."

Or had she been? No . . . no, she knew that this place was one where Nabob wouldn't find her. She still couldn't remember how and why she knew that with such certainty, but she knew it was the truth.

"I only could not remember. I am remembering now."

She stood as gracefully as she had previously, although now she was a good seven or eight inches taller than she'd been when she tumbled to the ground after running into him. It seemed to her that days, rather than a mere few hours, had flown by in the interim. Looking back at the base of the tree, Shia shook her head and sighed, causing part of the unruly mess of her hair to cover her face. She seemed surprised as she touched it and moved it away from her face. Then her head snapped around to stare at Bryan and his vehicle for a second, that became two and then three.

"Ah, no . . ." She shook her head again as she leaned against the tree while pulling the hair back to the nape of her neck. "Remembering enough to claim First Form. Remembering enough that I should pay more attention," she murmured. Her hair stayed as if tied back when she brought her hands forward again. She crossed her arms and looked at him impassively. She'd need to search elsewhere for . . . whatever this thing was called. Was there a proper word for it? Was she just not remembering? It didn't matter. The machine interfered, and so she must search again. Or . . . perhaps waiting would be enough if the machine were not here.

"Here is where I found the passage I sought. And now . . . no more." She nodded toward the idling car. "Those make the passages disappear. Is there another? I don't know. I still don't know where I am. Will this one return? Yes. Eventually."

Shia glanced at the red maple, surprised that anyone dared drive their vehicle into the stand of trees. Liz was . . . not there. That was good. Then she looked toward the far fence the woman had mentioned, toward the street beyond it. She signed again.

"You should go. You should go to your place of safety." She looked at Bryan and again nodded toward his vehicle. "I can stay here until the passage returns. I will be safe in the tree." She looked up into the branches again, and this time she smiled. "Yes. It is a good tree, and I will be safe here. No one will find me."

Bryan wanted to reach out and rest his hand on her shoulder, just to touch her and offer some type of support. Clearly, his return wasn't as welcomed as he'd thought it would be. Perhaps this connection he felt with Shia, including the memory she stirred in him of a visitor from long ago, was just in his mind. Her transformation proved to him that she was different and, most likely, not from here — here being Earth, of course. She was from some other place; Bryan could intensely relate to that.

"Shia," he began slowly, "I think I understand." He looked at her for a long moment, seeing the sadness in her eyes, and slowly reached his hand out, laying it gently on her shoulder. Perhaps touch could say more than any words. In mere hours, his whole life took another turn for the unexpected. He could never un-ring this bell.

As it had earlier in his car, touch brought with it the vague concepts behind his thoughts. Before, Shia hadn't understood the why and the how of that peculiar near-communication. Now . . . maybe she almost did. Some of the thoughts or emotions or whatever it was she saw in him were undoubtedly true. Some of them were entirely false. The expression on his face was easier to read, and she wondered again why he seemed to feel drawn to her . . . why he seemed so reluctant to leave. She'd asked him earlier to trust her. He had . . . but he hadn't. That was understandable in some ways. She, too, was stubborn and opinionated and did what she thought to be best.

He still had enemies, and remaining in her orbit would only attract them and make him a target again. She might have been able to leave this place, leave him to whatever safety had had in his place among the many trees. Unfortunately, that option was no longer available

Shia didn't believe in coincidences. Bryan had returned for his own reasons, but his intervention meant there was still something here for her to do. She smiled ruefully at him as she shook her head. He might understand a sliver of her personality; he might think he understood her reason for needing to leave. No one had ever fully understood the being whose True Name was Shia. Even Shia sometimes found her actions and thoughts incomprehensible when layer after layer of personas was wrapped around the core of the one known as Shia.

Bryan moved his hand from her shoulder and looked up at the tree branches. Did she mean to climb it? How that would be possible, he didn't know. But right now, he felt that he wasn't welcomed. He was chagrined that he thought he would be. He walked back to the car and then took one last look at Shia. She looked quite beautiful in this different form. How he wished she'd have been happy to see him! He closed the passenger side door, stepped around to the other side, and got back into the car, all while watching her. Finally, he closed the door and put the car into reverse, slowly backing up and turning the car around once on the grass. This wasn't what he'd imagined would happen.

As he was turning around, Liz came running from around the corner, empty-handed. That made sense, of course, considering that he'd made up the whole story about someone taking his wallet. She didn't recognize him, which was a small blessing. He calmly drove to the park's edge and gave her a wave.

"I found it on the ground about ten feet away," he called to Liz. "He must have dropped it. Thank you for your help, officer!"

Liz attempted to say a few words, not the least of which being that she wasn't an officer. But Bryan was already turning away from her and heading in the opposite direction. There was a lot of work to get done, he knew. Whether he liked it or not, Aunt Elsa's plan was already in motion. He drove to the far corner of the park and looked one last time at Shia as he stopped. This was her last chance to go with him.

As he paused at the cross-street, Bryan briefly thought about another woman who hadn't followed him. It had been a long time ago, and he'd been the fool then: not taking her seriously, starting that fight. But when he'd gone after her and tried to apologize and make things right, Rebecca had done what Shia was doing now: sitting and watching him drive away. He'd never seen her again after that night. As he looked at Shia, he wondered if he would ever see her again if he drove away now.

Fortunately for Shia, this was not one of those times when self-knowledge was elusive. She knew exactly what she was doing in sending him away, refusing to go with him. She felt a tug of what might be an emotion akin to guilt when she saw the look on Bryan's face before he drove off.

Well, that can't be helped, Shia, old girl. It's not like you've never seen that look on anyone's face before, right?

As Bryan drove off, Liz took a few careful steps into the grove of trees. In the few seconds it took for her eyes to adjust to the dimmer light, Shia had resumed her seat on the ground against the trees. She made damn sure her appearance matched what Liz expected to see.

"Shia? Are you okay? That guy didn't bother you, did he?"

"Okay very much, yes. And thanking you!" Shia said. "Am not to understand what man is saying, only he is not being rude to Shia, da?"

"Um, okay." The other woman looked around at the trees that did nothing to inspire her. "You really want to just sit there on the ground?"

Shia beamed. "Is finestness of trees this!" She leaned back against the trunk of the big oak. "If only little again, liking I to be climbing tree."

Liz shook her head. "No, thanks! I'll stick to the ground. Still haven't heard anything about your friend."

"Oh, many workings is Teshka being. Workings time being finishing before Teshka is think to worrying of Shia." She shrugged philosophically. "Okays, yesyes. Shia is good for waitings."

"Well, if you don't mind, I'll just go back and sit on the bench. Let me know if you'd rather do something else, or if you get hungry, or anything."

"Oh, much again thanking! Liz so kind for Shia. Shia say please to Holy One give kind for Liz, da?"

Liz smiled. "Thanks, sweetie. That's nice of you. You enjoy your tree."

As Liz walked out of her line of sight, Shia sighed with relief as she stood again. She had to jump to reach the lowest branch, but once she swung herself onto it, her progress up the tree was swift and sure. It didn't take long to catch sight of Bryan's car — it was the only one with the back windows shattered, after all.

However, he was going to pass out of view momentarily, so she needed to decide how to proceed. The passage below could return any second . . . or it could be days, weeks, even months before it reappeared. She didn't understand the passages well enough. What were they? Why did they appear only sometimes, in some places? Was there any rhyme or reason to their reappearance after they disappeared?

Oddly, or perhaps not, Bryan apparently thought she'd be safer in his safe place among the many trees. He may or may not be right about that. Of course, staying here with Liz wasn't a viable option in the long-term, where long term meant anything more than another hour or two. Shia watched as Bryan's car followed the curve of the road, taking him out of sight for a final time.

"Oh, bloody hell," she muttered as she leaped into the air and took wing in flight.

Why am I always chasing after trouble when it's not bothering to chase me? she thought to herself. Come to think of it, her cousin always asked her that question, too.

Shia had always enjoyed flying. From the first moment she'd felt the updraft of air lifting her as she stabilized her form on the winds, she'd fallen in love with flying. It made a certain kind of perverse sense that her most well-known moniker was the name of a bird — at least, among the less savory people who had the misfortune to meet her.

Bryan hadn't driven as far as she'd have expected when he turned off the road into a driveway. Shia felt . . . something very peculiar about the area, something more than just unnerving. It felt dangerous. She shifted to her True Form then, finding a measure of safety from virtually anything or anyone . . .

Wait, was that true?

She thought it was. Even Nabob had never been able to find, touch, hold, or hurt her when she was in her True Form. And yes, she felt she should remember someone who almost understood her when she took this form.

Well, the memory would come, or it wouldn't. She drifted high above the building and grounds hidden by trees. It didn't look anything like Bryan's initial image, but perhaps his thoughts had been more of safety and familiarity than the actual structure. Finally, she saw where his car entered the building.

Now what?

She was as safe here as anywhere else, at least in this form. But she couldn't sustain it indefinitely — not in this place, anyway, and not if she was going to find another passage. So . . . what?

She dipped and floated and glided to the trees across the road from the driveway and assumed one of her favorite forms. The driveway wasn't visible, yet, she knew it was there.

That's some damn advanced illusion technology.

She'd seen similar technology, sure. But this place didn't seem to be capable of producing something that advanced . . . or something that could create the go-away barrier that unnerved her.

Oh, yes. That was very interesting. Just who was this Bryan Merchant anyway?

She was intrigued. She curled up on the ground, golden eyes watching the illusion of trees across the road.

It was an illusion of her own, of course, that she had all the time in the world. But she did have plenty of time to simply wait him out.

* * *

Bryan got out of the car and walked right past Max, who stood with a tray and a pitcher of fresh lemonade.

"Master Bryan?" Max inquired. He received no response from the young man.

Bryan walked into the dishing room and waited for the scan to complete. All he wanted at this point was to go to his room, close the door, and just sit in this feeling of emotional pain, depression, and misery.

Elsa was waiting at the bottom of the stairs when he exited the room. She appeared to be genuinely concerned about him. "I presume you couldn't convince your friend to come with you?"

Bryan shrugged his shoulders and walked past her, climbing the stairs. She already knew the answer to that, or she would once she read the complete report from the dishing room. He closed the bedroom door behind him and walked over to the window, opening it so the breeze could blow gently over his face. He looked out over the lawn, all the way to the row of trees lining the road. After a few minutes, he stepped back and fell back on his bed, closing his eyes.

What a day.

* * *

She watched. She waited. And time passed.

The woods on this side of the road were alive with life. There was the predator, there was the prey: each went about being who and what they were. All of them avoided Shia.

Opposite her, on the other side of the road, there was nothing. Well . . . no, not exactly nothing. But the natural wildlife was also affected by the go-away barrier. Shia knew Bryan was there, unless he'd left in some other direction. She doubted that he had, though, given his insistence on reaching this place of safety.

On the road itself? Cars and . . . ah, good, more memories were returning . . . trucks and motorcycles. There had even been a pair of bicycles. No one seemed to notice the hidden driveway; no one saw Shia. Of course, she was as invisible as the driveway. She merely used a different type of camouflage.

Afternoon became evening, and Shia hoped Liz of the Police wouldn't find herself in too much trouble due to the disappearance of her charge. The evening moved toward night, and Shia thought, perhaps, she could see lights through the trees on the other side of the road. Or she imagined them.

As night fell, a youngling prey animal . . .

. . . fawn . . .

. . . nearly stumbled over her in its exhaustion. It cried from hunger and fear.

Oh, little thing . . . can't you hear your mother calling you?

It looked at the form Shia had chosen and cried again. It didn't seem to understand that Shia's shape was that of a predator. But that misunderstanding could be forgiven, for it was young, and Shia's form wasn't native to this area. Its tired little legs gave out, and it cried again as it dropped to the ground.

Staying close to the ground, Shia crept over to the tiny thing and wrapped herself around it to keep it warm. The mother had been searching, but now it was too dark. Shia hoped the mother would continue seeking her offspring in the morning. She didn't want to leave her post; she needed to watch this odd entrance to Bryan's peculiar place of safety. But she couldn't in good conscience let the youngling die from exposure either. It shivered, but that was mostly from the cold . . . it seemed to find comfort in the warmth of Shia's body. Soon enough, it fell asleep.

As she watched, protecting this young animal, she wondered about the child Bryan had worried about. Now his words made more sense, although they'd barely been more than incoherent sounds to her ears earlier. Even though she hadn't experienced a betrayal of that type, she'd known others who had. It was never easy. And because there was never anything she could do beyond what she'd done today — merely listen — she always felt dissatisfied by her own inadequacy. Someone . . . she wished she could remember who . . . had told her that it was because she had the soul of a warrior.

Hmm. Well, if souls were somehow part of what made a being who they were, then perhaps that was true enough.

She spent the rest of the night alert, as a warrior would do no doubt, and pondered the peculiarity that was Bryan Merchant. He didn't appear to need her assistance any longer yet gave every indication of needing something from her. Or did he just want something? If so, what was it?

Ah, language barriers and the curse of lost memories! Still, as she played back all his words, she found no clues.

Several times, the fawn woke — startled by a sound on the road, perhaps from a dream if such animals had dreams, and finally from hunger. Shia soothed it back to sleep, but the hunger was persistent, and there was nothing she could do about that. Although there was no light yet on the eastern horizon, she could sense that day wasn't far off. And the mother was calling for her child again. Shia nudged the youngling, and it protested. But the mother heard, and her cautious steps through the trees were all but silent.

Jaguars weren't generally found in North America outside of zoos; even in Mexico, their populations were dropping. And to discover a black jaguar on the outskirts of Seattle? Well, it certainly amused Shia. On the other hand, the doe didn't seem to quite know what to make of the sight she came upon when she stepped into the tiny clearing.

. . . predator . . .

. . . although an unfamiliar one . . .

. . . caring for her offspring.

Jaguars were big cats that roared so they weren't capable of purring. Cougars could purr but were never as black as midnight. And shapeshifters? They could do anything they damn well pleased . . . including further confusing the deer by "greeting" it with an appropriate deer vocalization.

It surprised the youngling, too, who jumped up with more energy than Shia would have expected. She tried hard not to ascribe human or human-like attributes to its behavior, but it almost seemed to be trying to introduce its mother to its new friend.

Really, little one? Please just go with your mother. You're hungry, remember?

It took several minutes of nudging the fawn toward its mother while also keeping watch on the hidden driveway across the road before she managed to push the fawn far enough away. The world was hinting that the day was about to break by the time mother and child leaped away, bounding deeper into the woods. Shia shook her head as she returned to her spot under thick bushes.


She wasn't sure how long she should wait here. Until the sun was overhead? Would that be enough time to divine Bryan's intentions and cryptic warnings? To determine who or what was such a danger to him? To identify who or what could be a danger to her in this place? She hoped it would be and feared that it wouldn't. And yet . . .

Well, she knew the location of one passage point nearby. She'd sensed it not long after the little fawn had fallen asleep.

On the other hand, something in the back of her mind — a cautionary voice that apparently remembered even the things she still couldn't — said that nines times out of ten, when proceeding through one of the passages, she jumped from a frying pan into a fire. Sometimes, those fires were painfully literal.

She would wait.

"Psst. What are you doing down there?"

Shia tensed and looked up in the direction of the voice. What she saw was as incongruous to her surroundings as she was. As far as she could remember, there weren't even any Hawaiian hawks in zoos — not in any versions of Earth she'd visited. Therefore, seeing one outside Seattle was possibly even more bizarre than seeing a jaguar. And she knew with certainty that no avians on this planet spoke as articulately as it would seem this hawk had.

"Well? Whatcha doing?"

Shia sat up and twitched her tail in annoyance. That thing must assuredly also be a shapeshifter.

"Waiting. And you?"

"Oh, just watching you. That was a nice thing you did for the little deer."

She couldn't quite shrug in her current form, so Shia just tilted her head.

"My guardian spirit is Deer, so I kind of feel like I should watch out for them. The real ones, I mean. What are you waiting for?"

Rather than answer the bird's question, she asked one of her own. "Do you always talk this much?"

"Nah, not usually. Just with my brother. Or when we feel like teasing our cousins."

"I see. And who might you be?"

"Oh! I'm Maria. Bet you guessed that I'm a shifter, huh? Takes one to know one, that's what Billy says. He's my cousin, and he's a shifter, too."

The only emotion Shia displayed was a slow blinking of lids over amber eyes. "I hadn't realized this world had . . . enhanced human."

"Oh, it probably doesn't. And we're mutants. There's no shame in that. That's what Uncle Charles says, and he's the smartest guy ever! And super nice, too. Well, I guess cousin Em isn't technically a mutant. She's an Elder like her dad. Uncle Logan can be pretty scary to bad people, but he's really nice when there isn't anyone around getting their wicked on. That's what Mom calls it. Well, Aunt Lin isn't a mutant either, she's just really special. And I'm not sure Papa is a mutant either because he got his superpowers from an Aztec crazy god. But he has superpowers and isn't . . . Rats, what did Leon call it? Oh, yeah! He's not outside the line of homo sapiens like Uncle Logan and Em, so legally — outside the Nation, of course — he's a mutant. Mom gets mad when she talks about Uncle Charles's friend Eric, but I guess he thinks mutants are, like, homo sapiens plus. Or two point oh, or something. From what I've heard Aunt Lin say, he doesn't sound all that bad, but Mom really has a grudge against him. I don't know why. She won't tell. But I think it has something to do with Aunt Lin and Uncle Rene. He's a spirit, you know!"

Shia stared at the hawk for a moment as she tried to figure out what it was saying. Was there still a plethora of memories missing that she didn't even know were missing?

"I'm not sure I understood most of what you said. I gather you are not from this world, but the rest of your . . . information does not align with my memories."

The bird seemed to laugh. "You talk funny! I like it. And nope, we're not from here — wherever here is. Paul was playing around and accidentally opened a portal and — whoopsie! Here we are! Mom is going to be so mad at him! He's not supposed to be opening portals without her super . . . um, supervision. He sort of has the same superpower she does, only not as good. It's not his primary. Probably that's why he isn't as good at opening portals. And Mom is the best . . . like, ever . . . anyway. He can't call them to him, either, like she does. Sometimes it takes him a while to find one. Well, the between place where he can open one, really. That's what he's doing now. Looking for one."

Shia's ears perked up at that. "He can find the passages between and through the multiverses? I would like to learn that skill."

The bird fluttered to the ground and took the shape of a small child. Then the child sat cross-legged in front of Shia. Shia noted that the child had the sense to sit where she couldn't be seen from the road. She'd been trained well, then . . . by someone.

"I don't think Paul can teach you. Mom's still trying to teach him. You're really pretty. That's jaguar form, isn't it? Billy likes to sift to all the big cats." The girl grinned. "He does cartoon characters, too! That's how he got Em and Vin to fall in love with him, but Mom says everyone just naturally loves Billy. But Vin said they couldn't stop laughing when he did Spongebob Squarepants the first time."

Shia glanced at the hidden driveway again before turning her attention back to the girl. "You are speaking nonsense again."

"Oh, sorry! If you're from here, then you wouldn't know all the stuff about our dimension, would you? Well, this place seems a lot like our world, but it's probably different enough that you might not have Spongebob Squarepants. Papa says it's . . . um . . . Oh! An acquired taste! Like coffee. I don't like the taste of coffee, but Uncle Bobby says I shouldn't drink it anyway because it will stunt my growth. Aunt Lin — she owns coffee plantations! Anyway, she says Uncle Bobby is off his rocker and that I'll probably like it by the time I get out of high school. Well, she's usually pretty nice when she says Uncle Bobby is a total goof. Mom's the one who gets all nutty about Uncle Bobby's goofiness. I guess that's what best friends do. Maybe. I don't really have a best friend, except for my brother. But he's my twin, so it's kind of like having a built-in best friend. Vin and Em are twins, too! That's why we decided to be twins before we were born — well, it was really Paul's idea, I think, but I guess it will be okay. We wanted to be best friends with our cousins because we haven't lived lives with them for a long time. Well, it's hard to tell time in the Before Place. But we have to get older for that, though, because we're still kids, and they're grownups already. But we all have the gene for living a really long time, so it's okay! So, what's the deal with the driveway over there? That's some pretty cool hiding technology they have. I bet Aunt Lin has stuff like that. She has the COOLEST stuff! Are they bad guys over there? Are you a superhero, too? Are you going to keep them from doing bad things?"

Shia's ears flickered at the sound of feet approaching. "You really talk too much, you know."

Maria laughed. "I know!"

"Hey, sis! I found . . ." A young boy, clearly the girl's sibling, ran into the clearing and stopped in his tracks. "Whoa."

Shia felt a subtle push away from the girl and turned to look at the boy.

"It's okay, Paul. You don't have to do the Beastmaster thing. He's a . . ."


"Oh." Maria looked at the jaguar. "I'm sorry. I thought you were a guy. I didn't mean any offense by it."

"And none was taken. But how did you know, child?" she asked the boy.

"It's his primary. He's a beastmaster. He watches out for me when I shift. Mom says we did it on purpose . . . have . . . um . . . synergistic gifts."

"Maria!" Paul definitely sounded exasperated. "You talked her ears off, didn't you? Never mind. I know you did. You always talk nonstop when you're scared. I found the anchor spot. You can chill out." The boy seemed very mature as he bowed to the jaguar. "This is my sister, Maria Yazzie-Garcia, and I'm Paul Garcia-Yazzie. We're of the Ts'ah Yisk'idnii and born for the Naakaii Dine'é. How may we address you, fellow traveler? I'm sure my sister neglected that courtesy," he added with a fond smile for his sister, who sheepishly shrugged.

"I have been known by many names, Maria and Paul of the . . . Ts[ah Yisk'idnii, is it? But here, in this place, I have been using my True Name: Shia."

"Well met, then, Shia. Yes . . . Ts'ah Yisk-idnii is our mother's clan. We're Diné . . . the People. Outside the Nations of the First Peoples, we're known as Navajo."

The jaguar tilted her head again. "I've heard of the First People. I've often been mistaken for a member of one of the many nations in my First Form. A question, if I might ask it of you . . .?"

Paul nodded and held his hand out to Maria. "Of course. Asking is the easy part. We'll need to hurry so I don't lose the anchor point, though."

"I must often find these passages your sister said you are able to open. Once found, it is merely a matter of waiting for it to open, to appear. Is there a way I might learn to detect them, to find them?"

The boy rubbed the back of his neck with the hand not holding his sister's, suddenly looking as young as his mere ten years.

"Honestly? I'd say try to find our mom . . . Andrea Yazzie. I've never heard of them opening spontaneously, but . . . ah . . ."

"I already told her you were messing around and opened a portal accidentally."

The boy smiled guilelessly as he hugged his sister. "Yeah, I'm going to get my head thumped when we get home. I don't know everything and probably will never know as much as Mom does. But I'd guess there's something about your qi — life force, energy, however you describe it — that triggers them open. Cat says Mom calls them to her, and she sort of does, but she still has to look around for them. She's way better at it than I am. So if you can find our dimension . . . find our mom. Not before . . . hmm, probably 2013. You know, if you wind up moving between whens and wheres. I know the portals do that sometimes."

Shia nodded. "Thank you. I will make every effort to seek out Andrea Yazzie."

"Oh, of the Ts'ah Yisk'idnii and born for Tódích'ii'nii," Maria said. "Her maternal grandfather's clan is Hooghan Łání, and her paternal grandfather's clan is Dziłt’aadí." She grinned at Shia. "Yazzie is one of the most common names among the Diné, and there are bound to be other Yazzies named Andrea."

"But perhaps no others have these superpowers you spoke of." The jaguar seemed to chuckle.

"Maria!" Paul sighed and shook his head. "No, probably not. It was nice meeting you, Shia. We really need to get going now," he said, tugging on Maria's hand.

"It was nice meeting you! Thank you for listening to me, Shia. I hope whatever you're waiting for is a good thing. And that it shows up soon!"

Shia watched the youngsters run off before taking up her post again to watch the hidden driveway. She could sense the location of the passage when it opened. So. There was definitely one closer than the park . . . that was good. She wouldn't wait forever for Bryan to tell her what he wanted. It was good to know she' wouldn't need to go back into the city.

* * *

Bryan woke up after what felt like a few months of sleeping. He knew he couldn't do that again, sleep so long. He'd miss so many opportunities, especially the chance to reunite with Shia. However, one good thing that had some of this longer-than-usual sleep cycle was the dream he'd had about that little golden-eyed girl he remembered from childhood. The dream had been exceptionally detailed and so real.

"You're a descendant of the Emperor, you know. Probably some sort of cousin of the Empress," the little girl said.

"So?" Bryan asked. "I'm here on Earth. I don't think we're going anywhere."

She shrugged. "Wanna hear the gossip about you?"

"What?! Who'd be talking about me? I'm just a kid!"

"Everyone starts out that way, you know." She giggled. "As a kid, I mean. Even my stuffy big brother who thinks he's so important was a kid." She laughed again; it sounded like tiny bells. "There's this prophecy, you see," she said, trying to be serious again. "I guess a whole lot of years ago, when Emperor Ch'lehta was in charge of your planet—"

"Earth is my planet," Bryan interrupted.

"You know what I mean!" she said as she poked his arm. "Your mother's people. Their planet. Anyway, way back then, old Ch'lehta had a fortune teller . . ." She paused and wrinkled her whole face up in concentration.

Bryan thought she was kind of cute when she made that face, even if she was sort of annoying.

". . . or diviner? Someone who dies divinations? Some people actually can see the future. Well, possible futures. But I think this diviner was the sort who could only see, well, sort of like mazes or something. Anyway! Whatever she did, she was pretty good at it. This was about when all the fuss was being made about recalling everyone from Earth back to Home. Maybe that's why he did it."

"Did what?" Bryan asked, feeling very confused.

"Oh! Call everyone back. Didn't I say that? You remember your history, right?"

"Yeah. Some folks didn't go back. He called them Renegades. Then, before I was born, Empress Maya declared them all Visionaries and wanted to have everyone be one big happy family again."

The little amber-eyed girl nodded. "Yep. Well, that's the short version anyway. Back then, this mystic person saw that there was a pretty good chance that Earth would wind up in the same sort of ecological nightmare as Home had. I guess maybe he didn't want any of his people to go through that again?" Once more, she shrugged. "You know, we have this same conversation every time I visit, Bryan. I wish you'd remember better. Anyway. The Renegades stayed. But I guess she wasn't all that upset because the mystic also said that one of his descendants would return to Home looking for the same kind of help for Earth that Home had gotten from Earth all those years ago."

Bryan looked at her, still confused and now frustrated as well. "But what does that even mean? I'm supposed to grow up, be a scientist, and save the earth?"

The little girl just laughed as she jumped up, preparing to leave. "How am I supposed to know that, Keenan? I'm just a Messenger! But would you please try to remember at least some of this conversation for the next time I visit? It's getting really boring telling you the same thing over and over all the time."

She paused and then sighed.

"You'll have help when you need it; that's all I know. I'll help you. And there will also be a Traveler to teach you when you get older." She bit her lip and glanced at the door before leaning closer and whispering, "There are bad people out in the universe, though. Some of them might try to stop you." She gave him a quick hug and a smile. "Don't worry about that, though! That's a long time in the future!"

Bryan woke not only remembering the dream in detail but sensing that it was a dream he'd had many times. It seemed odd that he'd always manage to forget something so peculiar and detailed. He quickly got dressed and quietly went downstairs. Something in his gut told him he needed to leave without being noticed. He wanted to find Shia and see if she was the visitor from his childhood, even as his rational mind said it wasn't possible.

As he turned the corner into the kitchen, he heard Elsa talking. He stopped and waited, distinctly hearing her say, "I want you to inject him again. I can sense that his awareness is maturing. We must keep him here until Delthar arrives. I'll decide then whose side I'll take. Hopefully, Bryan will cooperate."

He stepped into a nearby closet as the man and Elsa walked up the stairs, then hurried out through the kitchen into the garage. He knew taking the car would be a risk, but he had no choice. After he got away, he'd figure out how to disconnect its tracking system if it proved necessary. He got into the car, then sped down the tunnel, the door at the end opening automatically as he approached. he suspected that Elsa might regret that enhancement later. Once through the door, Bryan pressed the button to allow passage through the image of trees, stopping momentarily at the edge of the road. Which way to turn to find Shia?

* * *

While the visit of the two children had been an interesting, educational, and amusing diversion, the fact remained that Shia was growing bored. She wasn't accustomed to being bored. If truth be told, she hadn't actually been bored since leaving her home world all those years ago. Meeting new people, and then meeting that individual from a dimension she'd never found again, which led her to her current preoccupation with destroying Nabob and his slaver empire . . . No, there's hadn't been time for boredom. She knew she wasn't the only one fighting him. she was just one member of a team made up of those with the highest skills for infiltration. She was one of the few with a phenomenal talent for not getting caught. Most importantly, she seemed to be the only one with a shitload of luck for not winding up dead.

She ought to be looking for Nabob, not waiting for . . . Well, she wasn't sure how she'd describe Bryan, but the words privileged, clueless, and naive came to mind. And that wasn't fair. Well, it probably wasn't fair. He had his life here, his worldview had been knocked askew, and he was undoubtedly still reeling from that. On the other hand, this world didn't have Nabob. It might have its faults, all worlds did, but it didn't have a psychopathic egomaniacal slave trader hunting for those special ones who brought the highest number of credits in the slave markets.

Shia growled almost involuntarily. She really hated that man. Maybe it was a good thing, then, that she'd temporarily been stranded here on this world. Hate got in the way. Hate was something the enemy could turn against her. She thought about the children . . . they'd been bright and talented. She'd be interested in finding their world and learning more about people like them. Perhaps she could enlist some of them in the fight against Nabob. Maybe the girl would stop talking so much when she grew older. Well, the brother said she only did it when she felt scared. Interestingly, she hadn't exhibited any signs of being afraid, nothing that Shia had noted anyway. Interesting . . . very interesting, indeed.

Sensing more than seeing anything, Shia studied the hidden drive for a moment. Was that one of the conveyances she heard? In an instant, she was up in the tree, occupying the same branch the girl had, in a similar form, although the form she took would not be out of place in this locale. The illusion cleared as one of the conveyances emerged. Yes, it was the same vehicle Bryan had been using yesterday. She turned her head this way and then the other, making sure the person inside the vehicle was, indeed, Bryan. When the car stopped before moving onto the road, the illusion reappeared.

And still, Bryan seemed to hesitate. Shia got a sinking feeling in her now-avian belly that he was looking for her and that he wasn't going to give up until he found her. Given his tendency toward dithering, in her not-so-very humble opinion, she might as well make things easier on both of them.

She took to the wing and drifted down to the vehicle, landing lightly on top. Then she shifted to True Form and, rather uncomfortably, began working her way through the non-living material of the vehicle. Ugh. The things she did for people! She shifted back to First Form when she was satisfied that her form wouldn't intersect the non-living material. She found herself sitting in the front passenger seat of Bryan's vehicle.

"Hmm," was all she said at first as she looked around.

Bryan saw was the vaguely Native American woman from yesterday appear beside him, dressed in jeans, hiking boots, and a denim jacket. The shirt under the coat was royal blue, but that's all the information about it that could be seen beyond the mostly-buttoned coat. She turned to him, amber eyes boring into him.

"Well? Let us go do whatever it is you need to do. I have now located two passages and do not doubt that others could be located. While I will need to return to my own battle sooner rather than later, I believe I have regained sufficient memories to understand I do have some time to aid you in your . . . quest?"

Bryan couldn't believe his eyes at first. One minute, he was trying to decide which way to turn to find Shia, and the next, she just appeared in the passenger seat beside him! He was so grateful to find her, that she'd come back to him, that he reached over and hugged her. However, the embrace wasn't reciprocated, and he quickly let go and composed himself.

"Shia! Oh, Shia! I was just beginning the hunt for you." As soon as he said it, he thought 'hunt' was probably not the best choice of words. "I mean I need to talk to you; I need to explain a few things."

Shia was not only surprised by the embrace, but she was also slightly unnerved by it. It made her realize again that Bryan was . . . young. While it would be difficult to compute an accurate age for herself in this place and at this time, she was unquestionably not . . . young. But she returned his smile tentatively, though it looked more like a grimace.

He paused for a moment and just smiled. Of course, in his mind, Shia was the girl who'd visited him so long ago. Until she told him otherwise, he wanted to believe that they somehow had a connection greater than chance or coincidence. But there was a loud roaring noise coming from behind them, one that Bryan instantly recognized as one of the motorcycles from Elsa's army of machinery. First, they needed to get away from here; only then could he share what he needed to tell Shia.

"I'm glad we made it back to each other," he said, smiling with gratitude. Then he looked forward, turned the wheel to the right, and stepped on the gas. The car sped around the curve of the road and onto a long straight stretch. He took a quick left down a country road he knew would bring them through the woods more quickly, then onto the highway. Elsa had a tracking device on the vehicle, configured to keep tabs on him wherever he went. They needed a new means of transportation, and Bryan had just the idea for one.

He looked in the rearview mirror. The motorcycle, ridding by one of Elsa's handymen, was racing down the road after them.

As Bryan drove, Shia turned to look behind them. Her eyes narrowed as she noted the pursuer. It didn't escape her attention that the pursuer was following from Bryan's alleged place of refuge. That didn't bode well for anyone.

"You do not exactly know how to make friends, do you?" she asked without taking her eyes from the man behind them. It was part rhetorical question and part . . . She almost chuckled. It was part of her acerbic humor returning.

She was definitely acquainted with being pursued, but this situation was particularly odd. She wasn't the one being hunted. When was the last time that had happened? It had been so long that she couldn't remember: decades maybe. So while it was refreshing not to be the quarry, she'd allied herself with the quarry.

Yes, that was a brilliant move, wasn't it, Shia?

Ah, well. What was done was already done. At least the pursuer seemed to be maintaining a constant distance between them. He wasn't going to catch them anytime soon, but they certainly weren't going to be able to outrun him, either. She had none of her weapons with her . . .

. . . and where exactly were they? Great. Something else she still hadn't remembered.

But she wasn't exactly helpless. On the other hand, Bryan appeared to be the typical squishy and easily broken human. So, the outlandishly crazy ideas she usually relied on when she fought or fled on her own weren't appropriate here.

Hmm. Well, it was his game, wasn't it?

She turned to face forward again, hands folded neatly in her lap.

"I do hope you have some plan that is at least semi-coherent, as I am loathed to jump from a vehicle moving at this velocity."

"You won't need to jump out, okay? Just trust me. I got this," Bryan asserted, though he wasn't exactly sure that he had it, whatever it was supposed to be. Sometimes we say things because it's what seems like the right thing to say, he thought.

Although she raised an eyebrow — questioningly or skeptically, it was impossible to know — Shia just shrugged.

"Okay. Your show."

Bryan was now speeding by trees and more trees as the country road twisted and turned. He'd catch a glimpse of the motorcycle behind them every so often, but he was keeping a reasonable distance ahead of it. He knew these turns and was, hopefully, more familiar with the road than the man behind them. His car's engine was probably better than the bike's . . . at least, he hoped it was.

He really wanted to ask Shia the question on his mind, but he thought better of it for the moment. She was here; that was the best thing that could happen. How did she change herself like she did? He remembered Elsa telling him something about certain beings who could change shape. But when he looked confused, she'd said that some people could put on an illusion, like a magician or something.

Shia watched the pursuer and felt some relief when he showed less skill on his bike than she possessed. At least she remembered that! She never would have allowed Bryan to evade her.

Finally, they made it to the highway. Once there, Bryan sped even faster. They'd passed two exits before Mister Motorcycle made it onto the highway. By that point, Bryan was already exiting. He noticed Shia looking around and wondered if she recognized where they were going.

She sighed when she noted they were driving toward the enemy's home. Was this man crazy?

After another five minutes, he pulled the car over to the side of the street, parking in the same spot where they'd first met. It was time to reveal his grand plan!

"We're going to walk the rest of the way . . . to my house. And we're going to take her car instead." He got out of the car, closed the door, and walked to the other side to open the door for Shia. "I know she'll be home. We just need to get the car and find a safe place to sit and talk."

He waited for Shia to get out of the car.

She pinched the bridge of her nose and groaned when he explained his "plan." After a few moments, she looked at him, resisting the urge to simply walk away from this obvious madness.

"So. This one who is your wife will be at your home. And so, of course, will her conveyance be there. What of the madwoman that is her sister? What is your thought if she, too, is at your home? What of the one who is of the police . . . the one with whom your wife betrayed you? What will you do if one of these other conveyances hinders the removal of your wife's vehicle?

"I do not disagree that finding safety is of paramount importance, especially for one such as yourself who appears to have more enemies than I. However, if one must make plans, one must also make contingency plans. Although you cannot plan for every eventuality, you should at least consider the most likely obstacles."

Shia looked at the area around them, then beyond him to the nearby buildings. The last time she'd done anything this insane was . . . Well, it had probably been that time she'd actually been caught by Nabob's goons. It had been stupid to assume they wouldn't have weapons that would be out of place on that planet. And wasn't she just the damn fool when that creep turned up with a stunner stick? Fuck, that had hurt!

She looked up at Bryan. Although she turned in the seat, placing her feet on the ground, she didn't get out of his vehicle.

"I have heard your primary plan. Please share your secondary and tertiary plans if you would. You have far more at stake than I do, of course. I do not know who your enemies are, nor why they are your enemies. I have offered you my assistance, yes. But I do not relish the thought of engaging in a battle for a cause of which I am ignorant. If this were merely the matter of your offspring and your spouse's betrayal, why were you pursued from your place of refuge by someone who clearly did not intend to smother you with kindness?"

Shia finally stepped out of the car and stood to look at him, eye to eye. In First Form, she was taller than many women. Those amber eyes showed no emotion whatsoever. "Perhaps it is time to talk, standing in this place you deem less than safe." She looked to her left, her right, then up at the morning sky. Finally, she looked at Bryan again. "I remember who I am. So there is no danger here. For me."

Bryan wanted to ask her who exactly she was. But that would be in line with his original questions: Was she the girl who had visited him so long ago? He decided to wait on that. Honestly, he hadn't thought of contingency plans. But as he pushed his brain to think of one, a brilliant idea came to mind.

"Shia, I need you to change into someone for me!" He quickly pulled out his cellphone before she could even take in his request. "Please, if you can turn into someone, I need you to turn into her." Bryan held the phone up to show a picture of a disgruntled woman who spent too many days in the sun with the wind rarely at her back.

"This is my mother-in-law. She's a bitter woman and only seems to point out all that's wrong with anyone, from your clothes to your hair to your scent. If you could change into her and ring the doorbell, my wife will come out, and so will anyone else, for that matter. Just start complaining about how she never calls, then ask why she'd wear such a hideous outfit. While you distract her out front, I can get in through the back door and grab her car keys. She always hangs them on the key rack in the kitchen, right near the back door.

"Her mother has diabetes and doesn't take her insulin as she should. After a moment of insults, act like you're weak and tell her to get you some juice. And if her sister is there, tell her to go get a chair so you can sit down. And if anyone else is there, tell them that you're feeling even weaker and to make you a sandwich." He looked pleadingly at Shia. He hoped she'd say yes to this. If not, he did have an alternative plan, but this was the best one, the one that came to him first.

Shia glanced at the picture on his device. He listed to his . . . ideas. Then she took several steps away from him, planted her fists on her hips, and stared down the street toward his house. She could see the roofline; however, the slight curve of the road didn't allow her to see anything else. This was madness. First, because she so rarely worked an operation with anyone else. Second, when she did work with others, they were professionals.

"I would like to understand with clarity, Bryan Merchant," she said without looking at him. "You had a desire to take your wife's vehicle, yet you knew you would need to also obtain the key from her? You rushed here with no thought but, I assume, to exchange your vehicle for hers. You did not consider the possibility that others might be present. You did not consider your dilemma of obtaining this key. Or perhaps you thought she might willingly exchange her vehicle for yours? You are beginning to convince me that you have more desire to die than live."

She turned her head to look at him, anger flashing in her eyes. "It is my job to protect those who wish to live. I rescue the imprisoned ones before their will to live has been destroyed. There are too many beings in this universe to concern myself with those who cannot be saved. If you are fleeing toward death, I cannot save you."

She jabbed a finger at his device. "That?" Her voice was hard and harsh. "Do you think what I do is as simple as putting on a new shoe? Each new shape must be studied carefully for months or even years. To attempt to imitate a thing from nothing more than an image? It is madness!" She shook her head and stared back down the street, crossing her arms defensively. "Without resorting to utter madness, I can tell you if the enemy's vehicle is near the house. I can tell you if the vehicle of the betrayer is near the house. I cannot tell you who is in the house, for I have no plausible way to enter, nor do I have a way to distract anyone long enough for you to effect the theft of both key and vehicle."

When she turned to look at him, he saw someone who was a fighter, a soldier, a warrior. This wasn't the helpless child he'd met yesterday on this street; this was the individual known as the primary source of disaster for a slaver's empire that spanned galaxies and universes.

"What concerns me is your need now to flee from those who were supposedly your allies yesterday. You have no plan, your thoughts are in disarray concerning your escape, and I am wondering if there is anyone on this planet who is your ally. If I am your only hope, Bryan Merchant, you are — as my friend Jason was fond of saying — in deep shit."

At first, Bryan was stunned at Shia's harsh words. He started at her, unsure how to take it all in. But after a moment, tears welled up in his eyes. She was right. He really didn't have any allies he could trust at the moment.

"I didn't mean to assume or insult you by asking you to change into my mother-in-law. I'm sorry." He choked up with those words. He realized the gravity of his situation. First, he'd had the initial betrayal of his wife and discovery that his son wasn't actually his biological child. Then he'd fled the cops, one of whom was his wife's lover. At the time, he'd sensed even more danger in that situation. Then he was trying to process his vivid dream, Elsa's words this morning, and the familial legacy he knew very little about. There was so much he thought he should remember.

Again, there had been a sudden feeling of danger from Elsa. She'd apparently injected him with something to keep him oblivious. She controlled and monitored his every move. What had previously seemed like advanced technology and abilities meant to love and protect him now looked like a way to manipulate and spy on him. His final thought was the dream girl had told him of his destiny to somehow save the world. Was Shia that girl? Was Shia the one who would help him? Or was he just crazy and naive to want to take his wife's car? Was he too small-minded for the warrior standing beside him?

She watched him closely: shocked, stunned, hurt.

Good. Sometimes, that's what a person needs before they wake up to reality.

A thunderous rumble rattled around them as Bryan opened his mouth to speak. Massive dark clouds were rolling in; thunder started booming, and lightning flashed. Rain began to fall.

Great. Just wonderful. The Multiverse knows how much I just love rain.

"Shia, if you can tell me if her vehicle is there, I'll do the rest and not ask you to help me get it. I do want to live. And I do want to understand what's going on. You're right. I don't have many allies right now. But what I do know is that something terrible is going to happen, and I'm the one who has to fix it. I'm the one who has to save this world."

Shia's mood wasn't improving, not at all. If this man-child was a budding weather worker who didn't even know he was a weather worker . . . Oh, saving the world wouldn't be what he was going to wind up doing . . . not this world, anyway . . . not by a long shot.

Bryan assumed she thought he was crazier than before. But just as everything around him seemed to be changing, something inside was changing too. The thunder seemed to be reverberating with his thoughts and emotions.

Under the storm, growing louder, was the roar of a motorcycle. Bryan grabbed Shia's hand and pulled her across the yard of the nearest house, ducking behind a group of large pines. As they huddled there — hidden from their pursuer, partially sheltered from the rain — he looked her in the eyes. "Shia, please don't give up on me."

He needed her to support him just a little longer. Somehow, he knew all the answers were going to come out.

Shia heard the bike the same time Bryan did. Grabbing her hand as he had prevented her from hiding more effectively. Was it just Bryan, or was this entire world constructed from clichés? She barely held back a sigh. Well, at least clichés were predictable. She wasn't one to back down from a fight, but it would be nice to know what in the Name of All she was fighting for here. She looked around and grinned at the knot of bushes closer to the house. She nudged him toward them.

"Crawl in there. Stay in there until I get back."

At least he wouldn't feel the full onslaught of the rain under that canopy. Why did she always get the crappy jobs? Oh, right . . . she generally volunteered for them. But that was after the mission parameters were outlined!

"And calm the hell down, will you?" she said, glancing up at the sky. "Shitty weather keeps me grounded . . . limits my options."

She waited, staring at him until he was better hidden from his pursuer. It wasn't like the pursuer would miss the vehicle just sitting there on the road. Given the neighborhood Bryan had chosen, and where the pursuer originated, it wouldn't be a far stretch to assume the pursuer would believe Bryan was going exactly where he'd intended.

Just like a cliché, right?

It wasn't necessarily a bad plan, of course. Leading the bad guys into a trap where her backup waited to have a little chat with them — or snapped their necks, as the case warranted — generally resulted in at least some intel and usually resulted in fewer bad guys. A human she'd once worked with referred to it as shooting fish in a barrel, although he'd never satisfactorily explained why anyone would put fish in a barrel. And then shoot them.

She glanced back toward the road . . . the bike was just coming into view. Good.

She dove across the lawn, shifting as she did so, and loped down the block as a wolf at a ground-eating speed. Then slowing, shifting, coming almost to a complete stop across from the house beside Bryan's, Falcon stood on the sidewalk. An old man, neatly dressed, stood looking back the way he'd come, his bushy white eyebrows drawn together in what might look like confusion.

Hmm. Must have moved faster than I thought . . .

Ah, no. The pursuer on the bike had stopped beside Bryan's vehicle and was looking inside. Falcon saw the man look toward Bryan's house. Falcon stroked his beard as he waited, a cane hooked over his arm as he looked both ways up and down the street. The wife's vehicle was in the driveway. The enemy's vehicle was nowhere to be seen. In fact, the road was oddly empty.

Memories of other places, other towns like this one . . . a day when most of the neighborhood went elsewhere to work? That seemed reasonable enough.

The pursuer on the bike was coming closer, but more slowly now, looking from side to side along the road. At least Bryan had stayed in the bushes, undetected. The next act of the deception was about to begin.

"Old man!" The man on the bike was neither old nor young by human reckoning. Falcon would guess maybe mid-forties? He looked respectable enough; definitely non-threatening.


"Sir, I'm looking for my cousin who's gone missing. Do you live in this neighborhood?"

"Missing?" His appearance and the pitch of his voice were meant to give the impression of an octogenarian. "Yes, yes," Falcon said, pointing the cane down the road in the direction both he and the pursuer had come, back toward Bryan and his vehicle. "Lived here since the children were small. Missing children, now that's a sad thing."

"Oh, my cousin isn't a child, but the family is worried. I wonder if you know him . . . Bryan? He lives over there?" The concerned cousin pointed at Bryan's house.

"Ah! Nice young man!" The old man nodded. "Friendly. Helpful. Good boy." The bushy brows pulled together again, and rheumy eyes looked jaundiced rather than amber. "Missing? Just saw him . . . two, three days ago. Sad thing, him and the wife not getting along, and with a baby, too. Hope they work things out. Should be at work now, though, don't you think?"

"That's what we thought, but he didn't show up for work, and that's his car down that way." The man pointed at Bryan's vehicle.

"Well, isn't that strange? You say that's his car?" Falcon peered in that direction. "Well, you'd know, of course! See better than I do, too, I'll wager!" He shook his head. "Wasn't there when I started out on my walk, though. Quite strange, indeed. And the young man is missing? Dreadful. Just dreadful! I do hope he turns up, and all right."

The pursuer seemed impatient, which delighted Falcon. "You didn't see him walking up this way while you were out?"

"Oh, goodness, no! No, no . . . I might not see well enough to drive anymore, but I'd recognize young Bryan. Quite the spring in his step he has, you know." The old man chuckled. "Of course, you know, being kin. Of course!"

The cousin sighed. "Well, I wonder how long his car has been there. Could you tell me how long you've been out walking?"

"Oh, yes, yes! Clues! Of course!" Falcon ensured the cane was hooked solidly over his forearm, then reached into an inner pocket to pull out a pocket watch. He brought it close to his eyes — here's an old man who should be wearing glasses! — and smiled before tucking it away again. All of this was done with slow, precise movements.

"A whole two hours!" The old man looked in the direction he'd supposedly come and pointed. "I walk all the way around the big curve there to the main street. Do it every day! Usually rest a bit at the bus stop. Doctor says it's good for the old ticker."

"And you're sure you didn't see Bryan?"

"Now, son . . . I'm old, but I'm not senile. Already told you I didn't see him." Falcon gave the pursuer an old man glare until the younger man backed down, embarrassed.

"Sorry, sir. I didn't mean anything by it. We're all just so worried."

"Well, I suppose that's reason enough to excuse you. Did you check with his wife? Maybe he just wanted to see her. Goodness knows I miss my wife . . . gone for fifteen years now. But it happens. I've still got my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren!"

The younger man's body language was much more expressive than he probably meant it to be. He was impatient and frustrated with the old man.

"They had a big fight yesterday. The cops were here and everything. You didn't notice that?" The tone was barely on the civil side of insolent.

"Oh, goodness! That's terrible! Oh, I'll bet that dreadful sister of hers started it all. What a nasty woman! Always swearing and causing trouble. Her mother didn't wash her mouth out with soap often enough. And since I was spending the day with my grandchildren in Tacoma, I couldn't have hardly noticed anything in the neighborhood, hmm?"

The old man looked insulted. "Well, if you don't think he'd go home to see his wife and baby," Falcon said in a tone that implied this was something any normal person would do, "then I suppose the only place Bryan could have gone would be out to the highway in that direction." He pointed with the cane in the direction they'd all come into the neighborhood.

"Damn," the pursuer said under his breath. Although an old man wouldn't hear it, a sharp-eared soldier certainly would. "Well, thanks for your help, sir." He pulled a card from a pocket and handed it to the old man. "If you happen to see him, would you give our aunt a call? She's been beside herself with worry."

"Of course, of course. I hope you find him! Be careful now," the old man said solicitously. "You don't need your aunt worrying about both of you." He slipped the card into his pocket and started shuffling slowly, very slowly, back toward Bryan and the home where the old man allegedly lived.

The pursuer turned the bike around and headed back the way he'd come, stopping again for a moment at Bryan's car before rounding the curve of the road, out of sight.

However, Falcon hadn't stayed alive and free for so long by being overly trusting. As soon as the alleged cousin was out of sight, the old man became a younger man and took the card out to inspect it. It was a simple white calling card; the only thing on it was a telephone number. That was suspicious. Falcon dropped the card into the nearest sewer grate. He would have to trust Bryan to stay where he was for a while longer. At least the weather hadn't worsened.

Falcon sighed again, then leaped up, shifting and winging above the trees. She could see the pursuer from here and followed him as he paused at the main thoroughfare, apparently indecisive. After and few moments, however, he turned his bike back toward Bryan's supposed place of refuge. Falcon followed until she saw the pursuer return through the hidden driveway, then shifted again to a larger, faster bird before flying back to Bryan's neighborhood.

Why the hell are you doing this again, Shia? You're crazy; you've finally cracked.

Well, she couldn't argue with herself. As she neared the pines behind which Bryan had initially pulled her, she shifted and dropped to the upper branches, shifted and scampered down branches and trunk to the ground. The gray squirrel looked around for anyone or anything that wasn't Bryan and, satisfied, shifted one last time to First Form.

Bryan was in awe of her. He watched what he could from his hiding place. Her ability to change, to shift, was just incredible. He wished he had that gift, too. He also felt such immense gratitude toward her for being here with him and actually trying to help. He could tell it really wasn't something she wanted to do.

Shia walked over to the bushes and crossed her arms. "The wife's car is in the driveway. The enemy's car is nowhere to be seen. The pursuer has returned to your refuge." She snorted and grinned wickedly. "And your cousin and aunt are frightfully concerned for your safety and asked Mr. Gerhardt to spy on you for them. Mr. Gerhardt tossed the calling card in the sewer, by the way."

Bryan crawled out of the bushes, smiling as he stood up. "Thank you, Shia. Truly." He looked deeply into those amber eyes, the same eyes that he'd looked at so long ago. He didn't want to ask her just yet if she was the girl who'd told him of his destiny. Maybe his reluctance was because he feared the answer was no.

"If Lauren's car isn't there, then there's a good chance my wife isn't home either. She very well may be out with her sister. Let's go!"

He started down the walk toward his house but noticed rather quickly that no one was walking beside him. He turned to look at Shia and realized that he needed to have a plan. That's what she'd said.

"Okay, what about this?" he began. "Could you possibly ring the bell at the front door? If you hear her coming, that means she's home. Can you change into a bird and just fly away before she opens the door?" Bryan wasn't sure if he was using the right language and assumptions with his suggestion. He hoped he hadn't just insulted his only friend in the world. "I'll be at the back door. Either way, once I hear you ring the bell, I can quickly go in and grab the key. Meet me at the side of the house in the driveway. We'll jump in her car and go."

The plan seemed simple enough. With any luck, the house would be empty, so all of this worry would be for nothing. He looked longingly at her.

"Please, Shia?" He knew of a place where they could go and collect their thoughts, then have that conversation he'd been waiting to have with her.

Shia continued to stand on the sidewalk with her arms crossed. He'd not only figured out quickly that she wasn't following him but also the reason why. Well, part of the reason, anyway.

"Okay, Bryan. Let us say your assumption is correct: your wife is out with her sister. And let us assume that you'll be able to get the keys, and we can drive off without any further difficulties. Next, let us assume that your wife is going to come home at some point. Since you seem to have angered the gods of this universe, we will assume that things will go horribly wrong," she said wryly. "After all, everything else has. So, your wife will arrive home sooner rather than later.

"Now, I am sure she will notice that her car is missing. Unless your wife and her sister have unsavory family connections — something I would not rule out entirely — the logical thing for her to do is call the police. This will once again involve the one with whom she betrayed you. I have already seen that you cannot make clear decisions when confronted with that reality."

Shia tapped her foot and continued to watch him. "Do you plan to drive randomly until you are caught? I was under the impression yesterday from your . . ." She absently waved a hand in his direction ". . . your actions, your words, your demeanor, your spiritual unrest that this place where you spent the night was your best option for safety."

She shook her head and threw her hands up, obviously frustrated. "Is your plan to run from here to the farthest corner of the world to escape from your wife, your wife's sister, Santos the usurper, this man who claims to be your cousin, and your alleged aunt? And what then? After you have finished running and have found yourself in a corner, surrounded by enemies, what is your plan then?"

That probably wasn't quite the worst-case scenario, but maybe if she dropped a metaphorical ton of bricks on his head, it would shake something loose, and he'd be able to look more than one step ahead. Rather than playing touch-and-run, he ought to be playing that Earth game Jason had taught her. What was it called again? Right, right . . . chess. And it wasn't as though she could be of any help beyond trying to keep him out of trouble . . . she had no fucking clue what was going on here. Having a clue would help. Knowing what in all the Many Names of Everything was going on with him would help even more.

Shia's attitude was starting to get on his nerves. "Look, I haven't done shit like this before, okay? I get the whole idea of supernatural phenomena and beings. I get the whole idea of secret technology. but I've never had my wife cheat on me, and had my child turn out not to be mine, and my aunt trying to drug me, and her handyman chasing me, and cops chasing me, and I don't even know what else!"

Shia smiled slightly at his rant, not because it was amusing but because it meant he had the potential to fight back — really fight back — and not just passively let circumstances control him.

Bryan rarely lost his cool; when he did, it was always short-lived. He ran his fingers through his short hair. "I'm sorry. If you have a better idea, then we can do that. My parents owned a little cabin up in the mountains. I used to go there as a teenager to get away from everything. That's where I thought we could go to talk and figure things out. I guess you're right. The idea of taking her car is stupid. I don't know what else to do at this point."

She was once again forced to roll her eyes. "The idea of taking your wife's vehicle is not stupid . . . not thinking your plan through is stupid. Taking the vehicle might be stupid or might not be stupid, depending on the consequences that could follow the theft. And if your relatives at your place of refuge know about your parent's home, that might be no safer than simply driving to Atlanta."

Wait . . . Atlanta? What did she know about Atlanta? Damn. More missing memories. But she knew it wasn't this Earth where she knew that Atlanta, so the whole point was moot at the moment. Probably.

Bryan took a deep breath and scratched the top of his head. "Shia, by any chance, did we ever meet before this? There was this girl that used to visit me when I was young. She had amber eyes just like you. She'd come through my window at night. And she told me that it was my destiny to save this world. She said that just like Home had been saved so many years ago by getting natural resources from Earth, I was to do the same. Make a trip to Home, I guess, and bring back something? I don't know. But she said I'd have help when I did it."

Shia shook her head at his question, but as he continued his tale, her expression changed to one of genuine puzzlement combined with worry. The planet name was singularly unhelpful, that much she knew. But the description of the child? It was eerily familiar, although she couldn't trust that Bryan's memories and her knowledge of old legends meant what she thought it meant. Not really. But the child definitely wasn't one of her people . . .

He looked at her for a long moment, his cheeks burning with embarrassment. He knew it made no sense, but he went saying this ridiculous thing about him being meant to save the world.

"You know what? Fuck it." He turned to walk toward the house.

Shia sighed. "Sure wish I could remember more ways to swear," she muttered, "because this shit could use a paint-blistering level of cursing." Then she shook her head and followed him, shifting again as she did so. The dirty, ear-notched bit alley cat with amber eyes paced Bryan, staying on lawns and behind hedges as much as possible.

This aunt of his had been drugging him? Or had it merely been an attempt? He seemed old to be coming into whatever powers he might have, but Shia knew full well that different races matured at different rates. What games are being played within this supposed family, she wondered. His dream, the presence of the Messenger in that dream, at least gave her some reassurance that she wasn't assisting the wrong faction in a family squabble. It certainly wasn't going to be of any use if a Messenger had actually visited him, and his fate was actually to save this world.

Saving the world, any world, or even assisting in saving the world was absolutely not in her job description. And helping someone get to another planet? By all the gods, she could barely manage to get herself from one place to another, and never with any reliability.

Because cat forms couldn't groan, the alley cat hissed irritably at a moving leaf. If the dream wasn't just a dream, if it actually had been a Messenger that had visited Bryan as a child, she should probably stick around as a bodyguard until this alleged help arrived. That should be fun . . . for various definitions of fun that aren't generally found in dictionaries. No, no . . . the Klingons would define this as fun, those assholes.

As Bryan neared his house, the alley cat ran across the street and up to the house's front door. There, it sat down and merely watched Bryan.

Of course, he'd seen the cat from the corner of his eye and knew instinctively that it was Shia. He could feel her presence. Maybe she intended for him not to see her; maybe she didn't care. But she followed along. At this point, he was on his own to get the car. She had a point about the aftermath of stealing the vehicle. He hadn't really thought things through that far, but his mind focused more on getting to a place of safety. Besides, he bought the car for his wife and was making all the payments on it. It was in his name. Anyone who looked at the title would see his name on it. But it was still theft, he guessed.

Bryan walked to the back of the house and entered the kitchen door. It felt like a year since he was last inside, and he was immediately greeted with nostalgia. It had been here in the kitchen where she'd given him the news: she was pregnant, and he was going to be a father! They screamed and wept for joy, then made love on the kitchen table.

What a fucking actress.

He looked at the stack of mail and papers on the table. Among the mess were the divorce papers. At least she'd taken the initiative. He shook his head and paused to listen for anyone else in the house. He called out; no one answered. He knew he didn't have much time, but there was one thing he needed to do. Passing through the living room, he saw all the pictures in perfect frames. He walked upstairs to his son's room. Maybe he should be thinking of it as the baby's room. But Michael had been Bryan's son for the first six months he'd been on this earth. There was no denying that Bryan loved the child. If things had been different, he'd have been content to continue on as if none of this had happened.

He picked up the baby book he and his wife had been chronicling their son's milestones and flipped to a page in the back. Parents usually gave up on these things after the first dozen entries; they certainly had. The reality of living with a child kicked in, and it was all they could do to keep up with the daily tasks of feeding, changing, and loving Michael. On one of the last pages, Bryan wrote a note to his son:

My name is Bryan, and I was married to your mom. For the first six months of your life, I believed that you were mine. I loved you like you were mine. I used to come into your room late at night, pick you up as you slept, and then rock you as I looked out the window . . . your head on my chest, the sounds of your dreams in my ears. I will always be listening for your dreams and wishing you all the happiness in the world, wishing that all your dreams will come true. I will always love you. Always.

Bryan felt tears welling up in his eyes. He closed the book and took one last look at the baby's room. It was time to leave.

It was time to leave this life.

He walked back downstairs and looked over the divorce papers. She was asking for everything. It was too bad for her that he'd already changed his will.

Next, he wrote a message on the notepad on the refrigerator:

My darling, I miss you so. I want to work it all out tomorrow. I forgive you for everything and hope you will too.

P.S. I needed to borrow your car for a few errands. Don't worry, I'll get the oil changed as one of them. See you later.

Fuck you, bitch.

He grabbed the keys from the rack, shutting the door behind him as he walked out. After getting in the car, he adjusted the seat and rearview mirror, then put the car in reverse. He slowly backed out of the driveway, then pulled to the curb near a cluster of trees. He waited for a particular pair of amber eyes to join him.

Shia had heard him when he called out, heard him walking around inside the house. Her left ear twitched once or twice while she waited. Typically, this was a sign of annoyance; today, she worried he was taking too long.

She couldn't really blame him, could she? It wasn't likely he'd be back here. Saying goodbye wasn't easy. Her own parents had been killed in one of the battles of a never-ending war when she was very young. So many people died in that war. While Shia had remained on their home world, Salia had been taken — practically kidnapped, really — by her governess-bodyguard to another world. Many years had passed before her cousin returned home to fulfill a prophecy about her.

Shia should be judging Bryan so harshly. Salia hadn't wanted to be the one to unite their world and hadn't really felt prepared to do so when she returned with that unpleasant Anya. But . . . but her cousin had fulfilled the old prophecy. Tracking time wasn't easy when one traveled through the Multiverses and through time. But enough time had passed that they were now a provisional member of the Federation.

It still felt strange to Shia: to return to her home and see the harmony.

When she'd left that first time, only Salia had bid her farewell. Even her stepmother hadn't understood Shia's compulsion, her need to go. Only Salia had whispered, Come home someday, Shia. And she'd never been able to deny her cousin anything. So, Shia returned and continued to visit whenever she found herself in that particular Multiverse. It was never easy to find a way home. But at least Shia would be welcome there whenever she did make it back.

It didn't seem like Bryan would have that chance. Shia didn't have any possessions or place in the Multiverse that she treasured, and there was only one person she could call family. Despite having friends, good friends, having a family was . . . Cats don't really sigh, so the alley cat meowed quietly as the back door closed, and Bryan came out of the house. She understood betrayal . . . not this specific betray he endured and was still processing.

She looked around as the vehicle backed up slowly onto the street, then stopped. She shifted again as she walked down the front steps and got into the car. She regarded Bryan for a moment before fastening the safety harness.

"I apologize for pushing you so hard," she said, scrutinizing the surrounding area. "It is my habit when working with others. I am . . ." She looked him in the eyes again. ". . . not accustomed to working with new recruits, nor have I ever worked with civilians who were not mercenaries." Pointing toward the main thoroughfare in the area, she continued, "We should leave this area quickly but safely. I would like to understand your situation. If I have information that could be of use, I will gladly share it."

She paused for a moment but looked out the side window when she spoke again.

"Someone once said to me, 'Naming the thing that causes you pain takes away some of its power. Speak it, drop the pain, release the fear . . . or you will never win the battle.' I called him Old Apple because he looked withered and shriveled like that. He thought it was funny." She shook her head sadly. She'd never been able to find that Multiverse again; she'd liked that old man. "I mention this because it makes me wonder why you have never spoken your wife's name."

She glanced at him, then resumed her scans of their surroundings. "It is just something to consider for the future."

Well, look at her! Assuming there'd be a future! Of course, she always managed to get out of whatever trouble she found herself in. She'd just never had to do it while guarding a civilian.

There was a first time for everything, she supposed.

Bryan looked at the woman staring out the window for a moment, then turned to stare down the street. She had some great advice, and she'd also asked a great question. He hadn't realized he'd never used his wife's name . . . perhaps because it hurt so much to say it. He paused, looking forward, concentrating on the pain in his heart. As Shia said, maybe by naming the pain, it would lose some of its power.

"Her name is Briana." He looked back at Shia. "We were Bryan and Briana, or the Bri Team."

Throughout their dating years, everyone seemed to adore them as a couple. They were always invited everywhere together. If one showed up without the other, it was commented on; people assumed something was wrong. When they married, 'Bryan and Briana' was printed on everything: the plates, glasses, keepsakes. They'd almost gotten matching tattoos. Thank God they hadn't.

Shia nodded. It was the first step. Maybe it would help him heal. Healing without festering wounds beneath scabs was important, whether the injury was to the body, mind, or soul.

He shifted the car into drive and started down the street. He knew he'd never come back down this road again, not after what he was planning to do. He wondered if his son would have any memories of him. He doubted Briana would mention him. How could a mother tell her son that she ruined a man's life by deceiving him and conceiving a child outside their marriage vows? Would she marry the biological father? Would his son ever find the note he'd left him.? They drove for some time, Bryan deep in thought. Finally, he was ready to speak.

Shia appreciated the quiet drive. It gave both of them time to think. She still hadn't remembered how she arrived here, on this particular world. Given where she'd followed Nabob the last time — the ice ball of a planet the Terrans called Cottman IV — and the fact that so many of Nabob's people had been wandering, where they'd parked their ship . . . The lower classes among the native population believed the Terrans were demons. Most of the aristocracy hated Terrans, and the rest merely disliked them. No one trusted them. It wasn't that Cottman didn't have nominal slave traders of their own; it was that no one liked the outsiders.

She knew there were highly gifted people on the planet; some of them were extremely powerful, both in the use of their gifts and their position in society. She tried to steer clear of the whole lot of them. But Nabob had been there too many times; she'd followed them too many times for her not to have heard native legends and stories. Weather should have kept Nabob away from the planet entirely and from Caer Donn specifically. She'd only risked it because the most reliable of the planet's six passages was nearby. It made no sense for Nabob to have been there, none whatsoever. She should have been paying more attention to the stories. She should not have followed him and his men higher into the ridiculously dangerous mountains. Why had he been heading further north when the planet's primary slave markets were to the south, in towns on the desert plain? There wasn't any profit for him in the north.

But apparently, some of those highly gifted telepaths were in the area. She could almost remember the threatening touch before the darkness, the nothingness, and waking up here. Her best guess was that she'd been slammed through the passage. She hoped Nabob was having a worse time. It would be nice to think he was dead . . . but she wasn't stupid.

Bryan headed down an old dirt road to a long wooden bridge that overlooked Thunder Creek, which ran through the mountains and flowed into Shannon Lake. In the springtime, locals would design miniature sailboats to lower into the river from the bridge, letting them flow toward the lake. Judges waited on the lake's shore to see which sailboats made it down the river in good condition.

"Thank you for pushing me, Shia. I need to think things through better. After today, Briana, Lauren, and, hopefully, Aunt Elsa will all come to believe the same thing."

He stopped the car on the dirt road just before the bridge. Then he revved the car back and forth several times, jerking it from side to side as it kicked up a miniature dust storm. Finally, he pulled the car to a stop after edging it a few feet onto the rickety bridge. The structure was hardly wide enough for an average car; the side guards were low and made of rope. There'd been numerous tragedies over the years, with drivers trying to cross the bridge in rainy or snowy weather. Their cars slid off the side, plunging into the water below. The current carried the cars downstream toward the lake, where they'd be discovered. All too often, the bodies were wept even farther into the lake; sometimes, they were never found.

It was a wonder the bridge still existed in its current condition. It was even more surprising that it wasn't blocked for vehicular traffic.

Shia broke out of her reverie, sitting silently through his odd ritual.

Bryan stopped the car and turned to Shia. "Here's the deal: I need you to get out of the car. I'll be getting out myself in a moment, too, in just enough time before the car goes over the edge of this bridge. By tomorrow, it should be discovered at Shannon Lake, and the whole town will believe I'm dead. It's the only way I can free myself from all this bullshit and misery of my life. Then you and I can continue on foot to my parent's cabin. It's quite a hike up the mountain. It belonged to my dad's father, so Elsa doesn't know much about it if she knows anything at all. I never told Briana about it. We should be safe there for a while. And there's one hell of a night sky. You can see every star in the galaxy from that cabin."

He nodded, assuming she'd have questions about food and water. "Don't worry. I've been going up there to think for a few months now. I have bottled water, cans of soup, lots of firewood, and other necessities. We'll be okay for a few days at least, maybe even longer. I just need to put all this to rest and then look toward my destiny." He smiled, though tears were welling up in his eyes. "I need to do this. And when we get to the cabin, I'll share everything I know. Maybe you can help me fill in some blanks."

He took one more deep breath. "So, I need you to please step out of the car. Please, Shia."

Shia raised an eyebrow as she faced him. This was a much more thoughtful plan than anything else he'd offered thus far. It might even work.

"I must disagree with your assertion that every star in this galaxy can be seen from your cabin," she said with a smile. "Even from space and outside the plane of the galactic disc, this is not possible. But I will accept that many more stars can be seen from that location than others in this vicinity." Her smile broadened into a grin before she nodded. "This plan to deceive those who mean to harm you is not a bad plan. However, I would like to be quite clear on your execution of this plan. I do not criticize; please do not take it as such.

"As I understand, you will cause this vehicle to plunge into the river below, and you will exit the vehicle before it falls. While I do not doubt your faith in yourself to be able to accomplish this task . . ." She looked out the side, then front window, and finally shrugged. ". . . would it not make more sense for someone with experience of doing such things to cause the vehicle to fall?"

She looked back at him, expression placid. "It's quite fun, really . . . although the majority of my compatriots do find it rather unnerving to watch. Truly, it would be such a simple thing." She raised an eyebrow again. "What if you get out of the vehicle, and I ensure that it begins its fall in such a way that investigative authorities could not doubt that the vehicle's driver accompanied the vehicle into the water?"

Bryan smiled genuinely for the first time in what felt like forever. If she could change shape and climb high into trees, then why couldn't she do exactly what she said she could do? It felt good to receive some help from someone.

"Shia, that would be wonderful! Thank you."

He got out of the car and walked about ten feet down the bridge, turning back toward the car. He wondered about what precisely she was going to do and how many other stunts like this she'd ever pulled. Maybe in time, he'd learn more. But, right now, he felt only relief. It was like running a marathon and being told someone else would run the last mile for you. And maybe now he could start moving forward with his life and get to whatever it was he needed to be doing. This was it: his new beginning.

"Are you sure you don't need anything?" he asked her.

Shia got out of the car, looking over the passenger side of the bridge as she got out. After walking around the vehicle, she also looked over the driver's side of the bridge. She shook her head, both to Bryan's question and in amazement. It wasn't often she'd come across bridges this ridiculous meant for vehicular traffic. She peered into the driver's area of the vehicle, studying the design. It was more complicated than a skimmer but considerably more streamlined and straightforward than Jason's craft, and she'd managed to learn how to fly that engineering marvel. She'd piloted similar vehicles like this, though usually in other forms.

Finally, she looked over at Bryan. "After this task, I will need more rest than usual, I fear. However, I am not concerned at the moment about my energy levels. For this task, I believe I will only need you to remain away from the bridge." She chuckled. "And do not stand too close to the precipice. I do not wish to startle you when I return from ensuring the vehicle is submerged."

She looked down again at the river. It appeared moderately deep, perhaps two to three meters, unusual for a mountain waterway. From this height, it was difficult to tell what hazards might lie beneath the surface.

"Hmm. I will assume the expectation of . . . investigators will be an unfastened restraint harness and an open or broken window. Human nature dictates that you would attempt to extricate yourself from the vehicle." She waved a hand at him, shooing him away, toward the opposite side of the bridge. "I will begin the exercise once you have left the bridge. Go, go . . . Do not be concerned if it takes more than a few minutes."

Shia flashed him a smile, produced a pair of thin driving gloves from . . . somewhere . . . and put them on before getting into the vehicle. After fastening the harness, she revved the engine, nodding with satisfaction. She rolled down the window before beginning the exercise; the day seemed pleasant enough. She wasn't sure if investigators here could determine if the window was open before or after the vehicle was submerged, but it wouldn't matter in either case. While they might find smudges of her own on the passenger side of the car, it would never do to have any but Bryan's or his wife's fingerprints on the driver's side. Although that, too, would make little difference . . . the patterns she had studied and incorporated into most of her human forms was that of someone either long dead or not yet born . . . and from another Multiverse entirely.

Once she saw Bryan step off the bridge, she set the vehicle's controls for forward motion and moved ahead slowly for a few feet. Then she increased the speed considerably, immediately hitting the brake pedal hard while pulling the steering mechanism sharply to the right. She snickered as the vehicle teetered on the edge of the bridge for a second . . . then two seconds . . . before beginning its plummet to the river below.

"Wheeee!!" she laughed as she and the vehicle fell. It fell fast and hit the water with tremendous force. She shifted to True Form at the moment of contact to avoid injury, then shifted to First Form again to unlatch the restraint, then to Falcon's most common male form as the vehicle settled on the bottom of the river. Edward's height was about the same as Bryan's, although his mass was greater. However, that should matter underwater. Noting that the vehicle was already shifting in the current, Falcon smiled and climbed out the open window.

Wow. Now, that had been fun!

"Shia!!" Bryan yelled as the car plummeted into the water below. He forced himself not to move, but after the car was entirely underwater, he couldn't help but run onto the bridge and peer over the edge where it had fallen. For a moment, he considered the notion that something went wrong, that Shia wasn't the superhero he wanted her to be. He contemplated the possibility that not only had something just gone horrifically wrong, but the only friend he had in the world — this innocent friend who was only trying to help him — had just lost her life.

Should he jump in after her? That would most likely prove to be a fatal mistake. He knew the undercurrent of Thunder Creek was much stronger than it appeared from the surface. He looked down at the water for what felt like an eternity; the thought of losing Shia made him feel gutted and empty. It wasn't just guilt or losing someone he'd grown fond of. There was something more profound.

Then a memory struck him, practically pushing him back upright. It was almost as if the remembrance had been hidden in his cells. The potential loss of a friend pulled it out into the present. He'd had this feeling before; it was the last visit he'd had with his mystery childhood friend with amber eyes.

She again explained his destiny to him, and he listened but couldn't quite understand it. As he tried to process everything she was saying, he saw a heart pendant hanging around her neck. No, it wasn't precisely a heart, but it reminded him of one.

"Where'd you get that from?" he asked, pointing to the heart.

The girl looked down at the pendant, then back at him with concern, as though she was worried he was focusing on a physical object instead of her words. Then she smiled. Keenan was still only a child.

"My mother gave it to me so that I would always remember to listen to my . . ." She struggled to find a word he'd understand. ". . . always listen to my heart."

He reached forward, touched the pendant, and then turned it over to see the other side. The name Lizbeth was engraved there.

"Is that your name?" Bryan asked her.

She turned the pendant back around. "I'm not supposed to tell you. But you're a special one, so I will. Yes, it is. Lizbeth is the name my mother gave me."

Bryan looked into her amber eyes, nodding. Then there was a flash of light, and a dark, cloudy creature appeared in his room. Lizbeth yelled at him to look away. He covered his eyes out of fear and heard her scream the most agonizing scream, and then . . . Then she was gone, as was the shadow creature. His room was so quiet. He felt so empty. Somehow, he knew that he'd never see his friend again.

That was the same emptiness he felt now. But the memory made him realize that Shia couldn't have been his visitor from years before. He saw the bubbles surfacing and focused on the present, on Shia.

Once out of the vehicle, Falcon shifted from Edward's form to the only aquatic animal she knew that was small enough for the river. It wasn't an animal ever seen on Earth, and the water of Thunder Creek was a bit too warm and definitely not acidic enough for the actual creature to survive here. But it was large enough to fight the surprisingly strong currents, and she moved upstream, processing the massive amounts of visual data coming in. She couldn't remember what the natives of its world called it . . . something like ikarango. It had enough eyes to make the housefly of Earth jealous . . . all over its body.

Swimming upstream was a little like flying through the heavy winds of her own world; it took effort. Despite the frustrations since arriving here, the atmosphere on Earth made shifting easier than it was on many other worlds. Her innate sense of self-protection combined with years of practicing to thoroughly be the forms she took made deceptions easy. At least she didn't need to deceive Bryan. And speaking of Bryan . . .

She focused her back eyes in the direction she'd come. Even compensating for seeing things outside the water while being inside the water — an enjoyable demonstration of the physics of light waves — it was apparent that Bryan was on the bridge, looking over the opposite side. Hadn't she told him to stay off the bridge? She was pretty sure she had. If alien fish creatures could sigh, Falcon would have sighed.


She'd gathered enough data to be reasonably sure that the vehicle of Bryan's wife would be pushed toward the lake. Unless it got caught on a larger rock than any she'd seen so far, its arrival in the lake was inevitable. Not finding a body with the vehicle? Eh, she'd tried to leave enough evidence to suggest the driver had attempted an escape. There'd be a search for Bryan, even if only a cursory one. Perhaps the aunt would insist on something more thorough . . . perhaps not. But for human bodies, this water was cold . . . very cold.

Falcon shifted again to True Form, floating in the thin atmosphere. She moved toward the end of the bridge where Bryan was supposed to have waited. Shifting to another form near the ground, he shook his head and looked at Bryan.

"Dude. Not so good at following instructions, huh? Okay, whatever. But we should probably get going, though, right?" A blond, amber-eyes young man stood smiling at the far end of the bridge, hands tucked into the pockets of his leather jacket. His faded jeans looked clean enough, and his hiking boots looked like they actually got plenty of use. His gray t-shirt had a faded picture of Albert Einstein on it. He looked like a college student, maybe old enough to legally drink. Maybe.

"I go by Shane in this form."

Shane . . . shit! That's why Atlanta seemed familiar! The last time I used this form was on Earth . . . in Atlanta.

There was another memory related to Atlanta that he couldn't tease out. Oh, well. It would come. Or not.

Bryan was speechless for a minute. Despite seeing Shia as a large cat and old man, this form took him entirely by surprise. Even the voice was male. She looked like an actual, genuine guy. Only Shane's amber eyes gave any clue that this was Shia. Finally, he walked to the end of the bridge to meet this new incarnation of his friend.

"Shia . . . um, Shane. Nice to meet you."

Bryan laughed. It wasn't that this situation was particularly funny: saying nice to meet you to someone he already knew. It was more about letting out some tension. In fact, his laughter deepened to something almost desperate and verging on hysterical as he wrapped his arms around his waist. After a moment, he dropped to his knees. the dam of emotions broke as his laughter got caught in his throat. He didn't find it incongruous that he was on his knees, hugging himself and sobbing. He was crying because they'd just ended his life as he knew it. There was both relief and loss in his tears.

Shane stepped closer to Bryan when he fell to his knees. He crouched down, watching Bryan cautiously. It seemed to be a cathartic thing he was doing, but even as Shane . . . Well, taking things for granted had gotten him into more trouble than all the other forms combined. And that was saying a lot, what with Edward's penchant for causing trouble.

After a few moments, Bryan was able to compose himself and stood up, wiping his face with his shirt. Shane stood, too, and smiled with relief.

"Thank you, Shane. I know I should have stayed put, but I was worried about you. But it looks like all went well. And yes, we need to get hiking. It's about three hours to the cabin, and we have just enough daylight to make it safely. We might have time to look around a bit." He gestured in the direction they needed to walk.

"Honestly?" Shane's smile was open, honest, and friendly. "More people worry about me than all the versions of me put together. And you don't really need to worry."

Bryan hesitated a moment before starting off on the trail. "I think we need to take our shoes off. We don't want to leave any footprints for them to follow. If we can make it to the trees over there, we can put them back on." He pointed to the forest where several great oaks and pines stood as the doorway to the mountain. It hadn't rained in over a week, so the leaves would be just dry enough to serve as a protector against any footprints. He sat down and began removing his shoes, waiting for Shane to do the same so they could be on their way.

Shane looked at the ground where Bryan had pointed. He watched Bryan remove his shoes. Then he snickered.

"Cool. You walk barefoot." He pointed to his feet. "I'll walk bear foot!"

Indeed, Shane's feet now looked bizarrely out of place: he had the feet of a black bear.

"I'll just follow you, cover up your tracks. Rescue workers aren't going to go looking for you if there are bear tracks around, right? Not unless they see blood and gore and entrails and all that. I don't think black bears are into that sort of thing. Oh, I should warn you: I'm the talkative one."

Shane grinned at Bryan. "Go ahead and put your shoes on. I'll bet they're more comfortable than bare feet. Maybe not as comfortable as bear feet," he said as he tapped one foot, laughing at his own joke.

"So, tell me, Shane," Bryan said as he started putting his shoes back on, "is this a version of Shia? Or is Shia a version of you?"

Shane was silent until Bryan stood up and started up the trail. Finally, he shrugged his shoulders.

"I'm all one, and each form is separate. It's really hard to describe to someone who isn't a shapeshifter." He paused for a half dozen steps. "The first human form I learned was the one who rode the car into the river. That's Shashina. Each form has a different name and personality, so I guess, in some ways, you could consider me someone with dissociative identity disorder. Except not really, because each one is just a character . . . an actor? But a really good one. Oh, and Shia is the closest human approximation of my name back home. Edward was down in the water because that form is the closest to yours. But, wow, Edward is . . . um, fastidious? He would definitely not get into hiking. Think of Daniel Craig's version of James Bond. Wait, how do I know that? Oh, well, doesn't matter. Anyway, that's Edward. He's not much fun. Shashina would probably be better at hiking than I am — I'm kind of a klutz sometimes — but she's wound awfully tight. The diplomat, you know? Not that she's exactly diplomatic sometimes."

He chuckled to himself. "Anyway, we're all Shia. Shia is all of us. I don't know where the hell I got that form you first encountered, though. Must have been a new one . . . Well, makes sense, I guess. I couldn't remember shit when I showed up here. I suppose I just thought 'human' and wound up with that."

Bryan really liked Shane; he definitely was talkative. He just couldn't get over how Shia's — no, it had been Shashina, hadn't it? — and Shane's personalities and abilities were so different from one another. He recalled Aunt Elsa saying that the mind was a powerful instrument with capacities many humans never actualized. He wondered if there was a genetic component to all of this for Shane . . . Shia.

"Shia, thank you," he said over his should before catching himself. "Um, I mean, Shane."

As he led the way into the woods, a cascade of memories came to mind. He used to spend all day in the peace and tranquility of the forest. His father would go looking for him once the sun started setting, and Bryan would come running at the sound of his voice . . .

Shane followed Bryan through the woods, shifting his feet back to regular human feet, wearing sturdy but conventional hiking boots once they were far enough away from the bridge. Bryan was a thanker . . . that Jason fellow had been one, too. Yep, that dude had been one of the good guys. Despite the circumstances, escaping with him from whatever dirtball they'd been on had been fun.

He stopped suddenly, the memory of his father's voice fading. It was almost as if something was pulling it away. He looked around the woods again, but now a different memory rushed forward. It had been one of Aunt Elsa's henchmen calling his name. It wasn't his father's voice because . . . because . . . because Aunt Elsa had raised him. His mother had died during childbirth, and his father died a year or two later in a car accident. Then how could he have had the most vivid memory of hearing his father's voice and following it and then of his father smiling at him with open arms to bring him back to the cabin? The memory of his father was jerked away again, replaced by the story Aunt Elsa had told him his entire life.

Because he was thinking his own thoughts, Shane practically walked into Bryan when he'd stopped.

Bryan started walking again. They had to keep a steady pace to arrive at the cabin before dark. But he knew something wasn't right.

"Shane, have you ever struggled to remember something?" He paused a moment. "Or have you ever had someone try to steal your memory?"

Shane had almost started his banter again, but the set of the other guy's shoulders was a little odd. But on the other hand, so was his question.

"Um, hello? I got dumped here with virtually no memories at all. I'm pretty sure I was working a hundred percent on instinct until I ran into you. So, yeah," he said cheerfully, "the last day has been one long struggle to remember everything."

Ooh! Was that a snake over there? One of these days, he would study the hell out of some snake and learn that form. Probably not here, though.

"Except for the experience that landed me here . . ." Shane shrugged, following Bryan along the hiking trail. "Well, given my physiology, I don't think any other kind of event could have managed that. If you mean grabbing just a few memories or a set of memories? Nope. Probably couldn't happen. Physiology and all. But humans store memories differently, and I've seen it happen to other people. Some memory or a bunch of them get erased either by accident or intentionally. There's the whole amnesia thing that humans do. I read that it's usually caused by trauma. You ever see that movie Men in Black? Not all versions of Earth have it, which is too bad because it's a hell of a lot of fun. But they've got a blinky thing that erases memories, then the alien-fighting FBI guys plant new memories to keep people from knowing the aliens are around. In theory? I suppose it's possible. I've never seen tech like that, though."

Shane had been on many planets in many different forms, and most of those planets had forests. And as forests went, this one was pretty nice. He'd been to one world . . . he shuddered at that memory. There'd been one massive section of woods that had been . . . well, not exactly sentient, but it had definitely tried to eat him. If he never went back to that place, it would be too soon. Nope, he preferred the many different versions of Earth. Most of his other forms didn't. Hmm. He didn't think he'd ever stopped to consider why that was. Maybe after he helped Bryan do whatever he needed, he'd wander around this version of Earth for a while to figure it out.

"Anyway, a lot of times, memories will come back if you're exposed to things that might trigger them. It's not really that much different from just remembering stuff you never forget." He shrugged again. "That's not ever been one of my areas of expertise, you know . . . understanding how thinking and remembering happens. I could refer you to some folks, but they're not on Earth . . . any Earth. So, not really helpful, I guess."

Bryan looked back over his shoulder at his friend. Yes . . . he considered this person his friend, the only one he had at the moment.

"There are many Earths? What do you mean by that?"

He kept walking. After all, there was a lot of ground to cover. Before Shane could answer, he continued with another thought.

"It's interesting what you're saying about memory. I haven't been in these woods for a long time now, but I can already feel something being triggered. I don't know. Maybe it's best that I don't know." With those words — as if he dared whatever this was to show itself again — Bryan suddenly remembered his father chopping wood near the cabin. He could see him. His father smiled at him and said, 'What are you doing, son?' Then the memory shifted back and forth between his father's face and Elsa's right-hand man.

Shane raised an eyebrow at the topic shift and subsequent backing off. It was incredibly familiar . . . his behavior, that is. And if Bryan's struggles meant what Shane thought they meant . . . Well, Bryan was right. He probably didn't want to know. But hadn't he told Shia that he'd been coming up here to think these past few months? Man, this guy's brain was like Swiss cheese!

Bryan stopped and shook his head. Was he going crazy? What was happening to him? He'd seen Men in Black; he hoped no such device existed here on this Earth. He went back to his original question.

"So, Shane, you were saying that that's more than one Earth? Care to share more?"

Ah, now on this topic . . . Shane grinned.

"Oh, yeah, way more than just one version of Earth. I spend a lot of time on Earth — Shane does, I mean. It's kind of a vacation spot. That's why I spend more time here than any of the other versions of me: I'm not a soldier. I'm not even a particularly good spy. Anyway, I'm not sure what the scientists and mathematicians who recognize the Multiverse have to say about how and why various universes develop. None of it makes sense to me, especially since it seems like all those folks are deliberately trying to contradict one another.

"On the other hand, a lot of humans have written stories about all the 'what if' kind of stuff that could happen. It's not always called science fiction; some of it's just weird. Like . . . what if Hitler had never been born, or what if Al Gore hadn't defeated Laura Bush for her second term in the White House. Stuff like that. The social scientists make more sense — although I swear even they're a bunch of loons sometimes. But according to those theories, significant events, sometimes even minor ones, cause timelines to split off into whole different universes.

"Now, in my home universe, the humans from Earth managed to find common ground, venture out into the galaxy, meet other races, and go on to form the United Federation of Planets. It's called other things in other universes. And in most universes, traveling through the galaxy in spaceships is complete science fiction. I guess that's why the passages can drop a person from one planet to another. And even when the UFP exists, and even where the military branch is called Starfleet, things can be plenty different."

He chuckled. Some things are always the same, but a lot of times, the little details could be surprisingly disorienting: like the first time Falcon had met a friendly Klingon.

"Then there are the universes that are just plain strange. The first time I got dumped in one of those was when I realized there were multiple kinds of universes. That's when I met Shashina's pal, Jason. He's an anthropomorphic panther. Not the sort of panther I can do . . . I actually become a panther. Jason was a panther that walked upright like a human. And he had a friend . . . Delia, I think her name was . . . who was an anthropomorphic wolf. That universe was full of these folks. And there are a couple of universes where the various gods of whatever planets I visited were damn real. I don't just mean people thought they were real . . . they were as real as you and me."

Shane shuddered; he hated those places so very, very much. They were just too freaky for words. On the other hand, Shashina seemed to enjoy them just fine.

"Some . . . beings can move through the Multiverse on their own. I can. The other people in my . . . unit? Squad? Team? Whatever. They can, too. Weirdly, I met a couple of kids while waiting for you this morning, and the boy could not only find the passages but actually open them on his own. That's a damn rare talent. I'm not sure it even exists outside that kid and his mom. Most of us are lucky to be able to locate the passages . . . then we wait.

"Some evil brainiac invented a device that could rip a passage open. Nabob has those things installed in a bunch of his ships so he can get from one universe to another and plies his slave trade across all the universes he can reach. Fortunately, there are universes that the device can't find, or it can't penetrate the barrier, or whatever. Those are the universes only people like me can get to. And thank goodness! Otherwise, I'd never get any peace from chasing him and his cronies down."

There was more to it than all that, of course. But those other stranger universes probably weren't relevant . . . especially since Falcon had only caught a glimpse of a few of them. If Falcon couldn't get to them, then Nabob couldn't get to them. And while they might make for great safe zones in which to rest, they were a little too strange even for Falcon.

"So . . . enough sharing? Too much?" He grinned. Shane was the one who tried not to worry, the one who tried to enjoy. "It probably wouldn't be good if you tripped over some tree root because your eyes are glazing over."

Bryan's brain was working at a breakneck speed. Multiple universes. Some things were the same, some were different . . .

If Al Gore hadn't defeated Laura Bush??

"There's so much I want to ask. If there are multiple universes and many different Earths, then does that mean there's a possibility more than one Bryan exists? More than one . . . me? And what about the timing of everything? If I decide to take a longer walk to the cabin on this Earth, is there another me somewhere on another Earth that will arrive at the cabin sooner?"

He stopped so he could take this all in. What about all the things that Elsa had told him? What about the Home planet? She made it sound like there was only one universe and one Earth and that the Dinhisa'uta — the people of Home — had been lucky to find it. Had that been a lie? Or were Elsa and her people merely limited in their knowledge of the many versions of . . . everything?

"And Al Gore didn't defeat Laura Bush. He lost, and it was to her husband, George Bush. Climate change is a real issue here on Earth now. And we've had wars that we never would have had in the say way if politics had been different. What's your understanding of the American presidency? Who's president today?"

Shane watched Bryan take it all in. All things considered, he was handling the concept of the Multiverse better than most . . . in that he was actually accepting of the idea. Most people refused to even entertain the notion.

"Okay, you understand that the study of the Multiverse isn't something many people spend time on, right? Are there other versions of you?" Shane shrugged. "Maybe. If enough of the events leading up to your existence happened on other Earths, then probably. Are they enough like you that one of them would arrive at your cabin before you or after you? Who knows? There's no way to test whatever hypothesis the science geeks postulate anyway. In the grand scheme of things, what does it really matter, you know? That's something that's fairly insignificant and so fine-grained that it would be tough to spot even if an outside observer was watching closely."

He looked around at the forest. He'd been to multiple versions of Earth, but this area of the planet wasn't one he'd visited much before . . . at least he didn't think so. But it didn't look much different from those few times he did remember.

"On a larger scale, though, I can tell you what I've observed. In any parts of the Multiverse that have reliable space flight, I try to find out anything I can about my home world. Where there isn't space flight, sometimes all I can do is verify that the star system exists. Earth-bound telescopes aren't as good at picking out the planets as the space ones, and I still haven't found a way access the Hubble.

"In most of those universes, when I can get information about the planet and the people, my cousin still manages to stop the civil war and bring our people together. Apparently, that makes her a significant individual. A version of me exists in some of those universes, but not in all of them. And in only one other universe does another version of me even leave our home."

Shane looked over at Bryan and shrugged. "That version of me left when Salia did. But I was adopted by a Starfleet captain and became Chief of Security on some ship. Oh, and here's a fun fact: the closer you get to another version of you, the more you get repelled. It's different for everyone, but the closer your life path is to . . . let's call it your doppelganger's, the worse you feel. Sometimes it's physical, sometimes emotional. I was somewhere in Asia when my doppelganger was in San Francisco . . . I couldn't get off the planet fast enough. Think massive anxiety attack, triple it, then toss a migraine on top of it.

"Dude, I'd love to tell you the ins and outs of the Multiverse, but it's a tool I use, and I don't even use it all that well. Like that car of yours, you know? I could drive it . . . but explain all the components of it? Nope, not even the playboy me could do that. Could I build one? Ha. Never."

Bryan shook his head slightly, then turned and resumed walking. His mind was racing. What if he could somehow travel to another Earth, where life turned out differently? Or could he influence the outcome? He needed to understand more.

"I truly appreciate anything you can tell me, Shane . . . please?"

He followed Bryan as he started walking again, grinning and returning to his more localized question.

"Who's the president? Well, it depends on what year it is, right? Seems to be maybe 2014 or 2015, so . . ." He recalled all the Earths he could, the ones where he'd stayed long enough to notice who the leader of any particular country was. Then he chuckled. "Trying to figure out the one true universe? Good luck with that. But, sure, I can tell you who's the president in all the universes I remember. In 2014 or 2015, the president is Barbara Boxer, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. It gets a little tricky keeping track of time, but I've been doing this job for over fifty years. Of course, keep in mind that I haven't always known. If I was in a different part of the world, I was acting like a person from that country. In some cases, the U.S. was already pretty much obliterated. Of course, when that was the case, most of the rest of the world was also destroyed. Before you ask, it was war . . . every time.

"So, yeah, most societies that far advanced technologically will be messing up their planet, and know it. They either figure out how to deal with the problem and avert the crisis . . . or they don't and have a lovely little war to really ruin things. Then they blame the war. It's not just humans. Other races have done the same thing."

Shane watched Bryan's back as they walked and shrugged. For Bryan, this was all academic. Some people could find the passages and use them — Falcon was one of them. Only one person in the Multiverse had the technology to rip open his own passages. That was Nabob, and this was a Nabob-free universe. Falcon and his team were as confident as they could be that Nabob had eliminated every other version of himself in any universe he could access.

However, Bryan's problems were here, in this universe. While those problems might not be confined to a single planet, they were at least limited to a single universe. Bryan was lucky there.

But then there'd been that other question he'd asked and dropped like a hot potato. The memory issue was far more of a concern than the philosophy of the Multiverse. While most beings couldn't travel across the Multiverse, memory manipulation was at the other end of the scale: a relatively simple matter for most species with the right technology.

"Let's go back to the topic of memory. You said that this location triggered something and that maybe you'd be better off not knowing what it was. You had serious suspicion vibes going on when you said that, too. To me, an outsider who doesn't know much about you, that sets off my spidey sense for danger. What do you remember that you think you shouldn't remember? And what or who makes you suspicious?"

Bryan's head hurt, though it wasn't due to Shane's explanation of the Multiverse. In fact, learning about all the people who might have been president was comforting. All these people were in the mix here in this universe. Granted, whoever was president could change the course of history for the country and the planet. Bryan considered the analogy of driving. Sometimes a person was in a rush and thought that if they could just pass the next car, they'd be better off. But then they reached a red light, and that same car pulled up next to them. So why all the rush? Both vehicles ended up in a similar destination, despite jockeying for position. In the long run, drivers reached their target. That begged the question, though: Were some events and situations inevitable?

"Yes, it's 2015 here. In this universe, the president is Barack Obama," Bryan said. "About memory and suspicions . . ." He glanced over his shoulder at Shane. "I think I have just enough time to share this before we reach the cabin."

As he walked and shared his story, his headache worsened. "I was told that my mother died in childbirth, and my father died in an accident shortly after that. My great-aunt Elsa took me in and raised me." His headache backed off momentarily as he related the often rehearsed version of his origin. However, it flared again as he began sharing the feelings that the woods evoked.

"I have a sense that I was here before, in these woods, as a child. Okay, I know I was here before, but under different circumstances. I remember my father chopping wood and smiling at me. But that would be impossible if he were dead."

A wave of grief swelled and stuck in his throat. The loss of his parents had always been an unresolved issue for him. He swallowed hard.

"When I was little, like four or five, I would have these dreams that seemed so real. And I'd be with my mother and father . . . I even had a sister. It was like I had a life at night in my dreams but then had a completely different life with Aunt Elsa and her staff during the day."

Bryan stopped and turned to Shane. "There's also this," he said as he pulled up his sleeve to reveal a circular scar on his arm. "My sister did this to me in one of my dreams. But it was still there when I woke up. I never told Elsa about it. She always had an explanation for everything." His head began to throb as he thought about his sister and the vivid memory of her carving the shape into his arm. He had to return to the idea that she didn't exist before the headache subsided enough that he could continue. "I guess my question is: Why would Elsa want to manipulate my memories? Do people really do this?"

Shane listened without interrupting but frowned at the scar.

"Why?" He shook his head. "I don't know the woman, so I couldn't even begin to speculate. But do people screw around with other people's memories? Yeah."

He contemplated Bryan's situation; it wasn't anything he'd encountered before . . . not in any of his guises. It wasn't even a tactic used by Nabob. It was unquestionably too sneaky and underhanded for him. That scum bucket always went for the direct-kill approach.

"I guess I could get into all kinds of conspiracy theories. You're the heir apparent to some royal family. Your auntie isn't really your auntie, but a diabolical kidnapper and blackmailer. Seems a bit farfetched, though. You look like you're going to hurl when you start thinking about these alternate memories, so . . . maybe take it easy with that? Baby steps, you know? But you mentioned some place called . . . Dinhisa'uta, was it?"

"Dinhisa," Bryan said. "That's the name of the home planet. Dinhisa'uta is a person from there or a descendant of someone from there." It didn't even occur to Bryan to wonder how he knew that or why he so strongly believed it to be true. It had been the story Elsa had been telling him all his life. Was it as much a lie as the story about his parents? No, he couldn't think about that.

Shane nodded. "I don't know any place with that name, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. I haven't been everywhere. But maybe rather than thinking about these memories that seem to have been, I don't know, overprinted . . . you could think about why your auntie would like to you. What does she gain from it? It doesn't seem like your memories were actually erased . . . just suppressed. If someone has the tech to muck about with memories, especially as selectively as yours seemed to be, erasing the original and replacing them with new ones is easier than just suppressing them."

Shane shrugged. "I don't know, dude."

Bryan considered that. Perhaps it wasn't worth trying to unravel his memories, determining which were true rather than false. They were nearly at the cabin, anyway. Tomorrow, his car would be discovered, and half the town would be talking about his unfortunate demise. Now probably wasn't the time to be thinking about the past. However, he wondered if Briana would play it up and talk to the news crews as the devastated widow. He shook his head to clear it.

"I'll tell you what I know about Dinhisa, according to Aunt Elsa, of course. The story goes that the planet was in jeopardy of implosion: The pollution created a near-inferno, ticking timebomb, and was killing all the wildlife. Some brave pioneers traveled throughout the galaxy, eventually discovering Earth, this planet. They brought back some natural resources to Dinhisa: plants, animals, water, and soil samples. They were considered heroes and credited with saving Home, giving it a new ecological beginning. Some pioneers remained on Earth and were viewed as having abandoned Dinhisa."

He started walking again. "Isn't it interesting how we know what we're told? The power that people around us have over our understanding of the world? It's extraordinary. Everything I know about our home planet is oral history. I never read it. But it seems to make sense . . . and at the same time, it doesn't."

That thought increased the pain in his head, so he backed off.

Behind him, Shane shrugged. "A lot of people value oral history. That doesn't make it less true than something written down."

Bryan nodded. That was probably true, but he still thought the whole thing was odd.

"I know Aunt Elsa is different from humans. She bleeds green blood, and she has a heightened ability to read minds . . . and just know things. I'm a half-breed: My dad was human; my mom was Dinhisa'uta. I've always felt like Elsa looked down on me because of that." He shrugged. "I was told that Dinhisa healed itself and became a renaissance of nature. Elsa claims that this renegade faction stayed on Earth to gain insights into restoring our planet and how it might be related to Earth's development."

Shane looked more than a little skeptical. "While I don't doubt there's a place called Dinhisa by the local population somewhere in the Multiverse, it's a little difficult to imagine a planet that close to death being brought back from extinction just by importing some flora and fauna from Earth. It's not impossible, I suppose. Given the number of universes, I guess nothing would be impossible if you find the right one. But it is kind of farfetched." He shrugged. "I don't usually spend a lot of time hanging out with the scientists or ecologists. It's not that I don't care about saving worlds . . . Well, a long time ago, I dedicated myself to a particular mission in some universe that isn't this one. I haven't a clue what I'd do if we ever mopped up the entire slave trade. I suppose I'd figure something out."

Shane was right; saying that out loud made Bryan realize he didn't know the whole story. How and why were Dinhisa and Earth so intertwined? Instead of thinking about that and risking an ever-increasing headache, he flipped the topic entirely.

"Shane, do you maintain all of Shia's knowledge? Do I need to repeat everything I told Shia, or is it already part of your genetic database?"

Shane snorted. "Dude. Okay, I guess some people call their memories databases. And technically, memory might be an organic database. But it's a shitty database. I'd fire the programmer." Then he laughed. "I don't think you grok. I'm all the forms I've ever learned. I have one memory. It has to be that way, or I'd never remember how to get from one form to another, right? So . . . green blood?"

Shane stopped walking, shimmered, and shifted; where he'd stood was a young woman considerably shorter than Shane. Her skin tone was oddly hued, her short, straight black hair tucked behind ears that came to a delicate point.

"Lieutenant Commander Ni-Sha, Starfleet Security. In this form, I bleed green. I'm also an expert marksman. In this universe — most of the Multiverse, actually — I'd be mistaken for what many Earth folks call a Trekkie, especially in this uniform," she said, indicating the red miniskirt and knee-high black boots. "Also, this form is patterned after an actual person who's a friend of mine. I don't generally do that, but she found it amusing."

Ni-Sha shifted to another man, tall and distinguished, standing on the path wearing a tuxedo. His dark hair was stylish and graying slightly at the temples. "Damien Edwards . . . my cousin is particularly amused by this form for some reason. She claims it's proof that I have an obsession with Terrans."

Damien shifted to another man, stockier, more dangerous-looking, and half-smiled. His blond hair was a little shaggy, but his suit was perfectly tailored and looked prohibitively expensive. "Edward Winther the Fourth . . . playboy extraordinaire."

Edward shifted back into Shane, who grinned at Bryan. "You've seen a few of my animal forms. I like birds the best. I've mastered all the larger birds from Earth and even some from other planets. Cats, dogs, wolves, quite a few water animals . . . a lot of Earth animals. There are some things that wouldn't be able to survive on Earth. I have about another dozen human forms, and Ni-Sha can pass for either Vulcan or T'Kuhtian . . . even Romulan, if there aren't other Romulans around. I have a form that can pass as Klingon except among other Klingons. There are probably another half-dozen races I can mimic fairly well, but not enough to pass close scrutiny. I'm pretty sure I could survive on the surface of Jupiter in my True Form. That can't be seen by most eyes or detected by most instrumentation. Pure energy."

Shane chuckled. "That's a long-winded way of saying I remember what you told me. There was that thing you said just before storming off to steal your wife's car, about some girl with amber eyes who came to you when you were a kid."

He paused and looked back the way they'd come before looking at Bryan again. He gestured to keep them moving along the trail.

"My eye color is the only thing I can't change. No matter what form I take, assuming it's a form with eyes, they're always amber. My cousin prefers dark eyes; she can change their color.I'm not sure why I can't, but Salia thinks it might be related to the x-ray storm I got caught in when I was young." Shane shrugged again. "It doesn't matter much, as long as I stick to adult forms or animals.

"So about the girl with amber eyes . . . Well, there are some entities out in the Multiverse like that. They always look like children, although they're hundreds or maybe thousands of years old. They always have amber eyes. That's why I avoid looking like a child. Anyway, these folks are called Messengers. They're . . . different. I'm not sure if they're from any particular part of the Multiverse. They seem to transcend all the universes. It's not that I don't like them or don't trust them or anything; it just seems like every time I run into one of them, I'm going to wind up getting shot at more than usual. I'm not fond of getting shot at, by the way. They're called Messengers because they, well, deliver messages. Someone in the organization I loosely work with has access to them, and the messages I tend to get are locations where I need to be in order to stop shit from going down. Lucky for you, you seem to have gotten a more polite message."

Shane grinned at Bryan's back. "So. You're supposed to save the world, huh? Any idea how you're supposed to do that? And how far to this cabin, anyway?"

Bryan was transfixed by Shane's explanation and his ability to shift so effortlessly and authentically. And these Messengers? Amazing!

"We're not far, maybe ten more minutes. It's just over this hill." His head was spinning from all this new information. "So, if I was, in fact, visited by a Messenger, who told me I'd be the one to save the world, could it be possible she wasn't talking about this world? I assumed she meant Earth because that's all I knew back then. But now you're telling me about all these different universes . . . She could have been talking about any world, anywhere."

And what if Aunt Elsa's stories had been a lie? What if she'd just made everything up about Dinhisa? Was she even his aunt? Look at what Briana had done! His did wasn't even his kid. People lied; anything was possible. He sighed.

"I guess your ability to shift is genetic, right? It's not something just anyone can learn to do, is it? And if Elsa bled green, what does that mean about her? You can sift into this Ni-Sha and bleed green. Would it be possible that Elsa is a Trekkie, too?" Bryan ran his fingers through his hair. "I wish I knew if I had any hidden talent or powers. I just feel like there's something more to all this. I wish there was a way to find that Messenger. Obviously, she knew what I was going to do one day. I wonder if it's even possible to locate her. Maybe she has more information."

Shane just let Bryan talk. He thought he had the hang of it now . . . Bryan's thoughts were everywhere, and Shane just needed to wait until all of them finished bouncing around. Then he just needed to patiently wait for the questions to run out. Oh, and then try to figure out how to respond to some of them because . . . hmm. Some were definitely easier to answer than others.

They crested the hill and followed another path for about a hundred yards. There, in a clearing, was a small log cabin.

"Well, here we are!" Bryan grinned. It was just as he remembered it. He could feel the memories of his parents starting to emerge again. But he pushed them back; those memories wouldn't be much help now. He stayed focused on the present as he walked to the cabin's door. It was never locked and opened easily. The cabin had two rooms. The main room had a wood-burning stove, a slightly rickety wood table and chairs, and an old loveseat. There was a counter with a few cabinets above and below on one side of the room. A small under-counter refrigerator was at the end of the counter. This was the kitchen area. The other room was a bedroom with a full bed and nightstand.

"It's not much, but it's home . . . for a few days, at least!"

Shane nodded at the amenities of the cabin. He could curl up and sleep next to the stove quite comfortably.

"Okay, about your questions. The most straightforward one to answer is probably about your aunt. If she doesn't have people looking at her oddly or commenting on some strange disease that gives her skin an unhealthy cast, then she's not likely a Vulcan, T'Kuhtian, or Romulan. But I can't say what race she might be without knowing more.

"And yes, the shifting is something all the people from my planet can do. Not many of them want to shift, but the ability exists. Other races are shapeshifters in some parts of the Multiverse, but it's about as rare for any of them to leave their homes as it was for me. Ah, well, except for the two or three universes where the Dominion has any presence." Shane shuddered. "Those are creepy folks but, like I said, not very common in the Multiverse. One of the kids I met this morning was a shapeshifter. So, at least in some of the universes, humans mutate a gene to allow them to change shape. Or at least, some humans do. It's hard to get information out of kids, and if you thought I talk a lot, you should have heard the shifter. But she did say they were mutants."

He shook his head, smiling as he sat down at the table.

"Apparently, if I ever meet their mother, she can teach me how to find those passages." Shane took a deep breath. "And Messengers . . . You can't find them. They find you. That's . . . just how they work, who they are. I've heard of people going off to look for them." He looked at Bryan; he was deadly serious. "No one ever came back. Ever. Now, some people have semi-regular contact with one or another of them. For instance, my boss can contact the Messengers, but it's only because a Messenger essentially gave him their phone number. Other than that, they just somehow find the rest of us, as far as I can tell.

"I've only gotten messages that were literal and straightforward. If you were told you were going to save the world . . ." Shane shrugged again. "It's probably whatever you think 'the world' means to you . . . and it's probably this universe because, again, moving between them isn't easy."

Shane leaned back in the chair and stretched his legs out under the table. "So. Supposedly, we're safe here. What next?"

"What's next is that we need to eat and then get some rest." Bryan opened one of the cabinets and took out a can of beef stew. "These things don't expire for a couple of years, and I bring up a new stock at least annually."

He pulled a pot, can opener, and stirring spoon from cabinets and drawers. After digging through another drawer, he pulled out a box of matches and started a fire in the stove. Finally, he poured the stew into the pot and set it on the stove to heat up.

"I know this isn't the best way to do this," he said, gesturing to the fire. "My father knew the best way." Bryan froze; the knowledge of his father lighting the stove came out as naturally as if he knew it. He couldn't recall how he could possibly know it, though. He couldn't picture any of it without pain once more blossoming in his head. He watched the fire for a moment before turning to Shane.

"This will take a while, but it will be worth it," he said, smiling. "And it will warm the place up for the night."

Bryan sat on the loveseat and let his head fall against the back, closing his eyes. "I really need some answers here . . . more than the great ones you're giving me."

At the table, Shane merely raised an eyebrow. It was hard to give answers to questions he didn't know. He suspected that Bryan himself didn't know what questions to ask, making it even more difficult to provide answers. It almost seemed like Bryan was looking for a precognitive to tell him where to go and what to do.

Bryan opened his eyes and looked down at the scar on his arm. Funny . . . he couldn't remember how it got it now. Somehow, he'd just . . . forgotten. But the memory came rushing back when he touched it with his other hand. It had been the Messenger who'd given him this, not his sister. How odd. He even remembered her words: When the time is right, just push here as hard as you can, and I'll remind you of your destiny. It was the last time he'd ever seen her . . . right before the shadow monster had killed her. He was tempted to push on this scar right then and there but decided to wait until after they ate and got some rest. This had been a hell of a long day.

"So, what other abilities besides shapeshifting have you seen?"

Shane shrugged. "That I've seen? Hmm, pretty much anything you can imagine from science fiction and fantasy novels, really. Telepathy of one form or another seems relatively commonplace among most non-humanoid races. Heck, even among some humans, it's pretty common. There's telekinesis, healing, weather working, energy manipulation, flying . . . even some genuine precognitives. The problem most of them have is sooner or later, they go crazy. Most of what I've seen would probably just be considered ordinary skills taken to a higher level.

"For instance, I have a knack for languages, mostly non-human ones. Oh, I'll pick up the human ones eventually if I spend enough time with people speaking the language. Other than that, I have skills honed over years of practice. I mentioned marksmanship earlier . . . at least as Ni-Sha, Shashina, or Damien."

He wondered if he ought to describe his job more diplomatically . . . or if the bald truth might benefit Bryan more. Ah, well. If the truth was too much, it's not like he'd never spent a night or a dozen under the stars.

"My job would probably be classified as spy and assassin. I listen; I remember what I hear. When I have an opportunity, I'll report to someone on my team. Give me a weapon, and I'll be able to use it. Well, not so much in this form," he said with a self-deprecating chuckle. "The Shane persona is the klutz who stumbles into someone. And picks their pocket. As Shane, I might be able to handle a compound bow if hard-pressed.

"I could run through a list of which forms can do what, but there doesn't seem to be much of a point. Birds have talons, cats have claws, and wolves have teeth. I can ride — horses and motorcycles. I can drive most Earth vehicles with wheels, loathe chariots and automobiles made before the 1950s, and love sports cars. Tractor-trailers are fun. I can fly small planes . . . well, Damien can. There are a couple of small spacecraft Shashina can handle. I can hack some computer systems; others are like trying to beat information from a rock."

He tilted his head to the side and watched Bryan for a moment.

"I try to keep the killing to a minimum unless the mission directive calls for extreme prejudice. Even then, I do everything I can to protect the innocent." Shane shrugged again. "It's mostly worked for me so far."

He furrowed his brows and looked at the door. "That car-off-the-bridge trick will probably fool most people. Your aunt has some seriously unnerving tech, though. The shifter could sense the illusion across the driveway. I don't think too many people could do that without some monitoring technology of their own. You'd probably need to be really attuned to energy. My point is that it's not common for people who have nothing to hide to be using that kind of tech to hide. I hope she doesn't have any way to track you down."

Shane looked back at Bryan again. "If your creepy aunt is even the tiniest bit suspicious, she's going to want to track you down. I'm going to bet she'll be really unhappy if you get past her memory blocks, too. So besides roughing it," he said, nodding to the stove, "what skills do you bring to the table in this Saving The World endeavor?"

Bryan just stared at Shane. A spy and assassin?? He felt like his reality just got even more surreal. Given what was stacked up against him, having someone like Shane on his side was a good thing. Finally, he got up to check on the stew, ladling it into a couple of bowls. He handed a bowl and spoon to Shane before sitting down on the loveseat to seat his own.

"Almost like homemade!" After a couple of spoonfuls, he looked over at Shane. "You know, the Messenger who visited me when I was a kid, she put this scar on my arm and said that when I wanted to remember everything, to just push on it really hard."

Shane stopped with the spoon half-raised and stared at Bryan, who seemed to be mired in his own thoughts again. Earlier, he'd said that it had been his sister who'd given him the scar, but if it had been a Messenger instead . . .

Bryan shifted on the cushions. "I wanted to wait until morning to do that. I just feel like it will be a lot to take in, and I need the rest."

The shapeshifter relaxed minutely.

After another spoonful of stew, Bryan continued. "You're probably right about Elsa. She likely has a way to track me. Maybe she'll fall for the drowning story, but I'm not really sure at this point. I also think she'd hesitate to come up here so soon. It's too close to the bridge. If I wanted to get away, wouldn't I have taken off and gone as far away as possible? So, maybe we've got a few days of breathing room here before she starts looking in earnest . . . if she's going to look at all."

Shane tensed again, staring intently at Bryan. It didn't make him feel particularly safe that Bryan kept modifying his story. It might just be his blenderized memories . . . or it could be something more sinister.

Bryan continued to nearly inhale the stew. "This is so good, especially when you haven't eaten all day." Then, noting the flower pattern along the inside edge of the bowl, another memory crashed into his mind so forcefully that it almost blinded him with pain.

He'd been a few years old — maybe five or six — and someone had just put a large spoonful of ice cream into his bowl. He could see the hand, a woman's hand. A diamond ring was on it, in the shape of a crescent moon. He looked up and followed the hand to an arm, then to the body, and finally to the neck, where he saw a silver chain with a pendant also in the shape of a crescent moon. He tried to see this person's face, but just as the woman's chin came into view, a vicious pain stabbed through his head.

"AUGH! Damn this headache!" He stood and walked to the bedroom. "I need to lie down and get some sleep . . . hopefully, sleep off this headache. Make yourself at home, okay?"

Bryan shut the bedroom door behind him, then crawled into bed and closed his eyes. He'd just wait for the pain to go away, hopefully fall asleep, and sleep through to morning. He was ready to know more; if this scar on his arm could give it to him, that's the way he'd go. But first, he needed to get rid of this splitting headache.

Shane had tasted the stew and decided there were probably better ways to get nutrition. It was only marginally better than that vile Vulcan concoction Ni-Sha used to make. One of the many perks of being a shapeshifter was altering the sensitivity of one's senses. He suspected the stuff in this bowl was a cultural phenomenon, perhaps even racial. Non-humans would find this stew as appealing as non-Vulcans found plomeek soup. Bryan had gotten that look on his face again, the one where he was accessing memories that made him wince. That was probably the right way to approach this problem: poke at the memories a little bit at a time until the larger ones were revealed. That's not how Shia had done things, of course . . . but Daled physiology was wildly different from human physiology.

Except Bryan hadn't just winced this time. He'd dropped his bowl and spoon, let out a pain-filled yelp, and went to the bedroom.

"Make myself at home, huh?" She muttered. "Sure. Why not?"

He picked up the bowl and spoon Bryan had dropped and carried them, along with his own, to the counter. Looking through a few cabinets, he found a plastic container that would hold the remainder of the stew. No sense in letting it go to waste. Bryan had certainly seemed to like it. He stashed the container in the refrigerator, even though it didn't seem to be turned on. He didn't see a switch and shrugged. Then he washed the pan, bowls, and spoons before finally checking the fire in the stove. It was safe enough with the glass door closed and would likely burn itself out before morning. Shane didn't think it was particularly cold, even at this slightly higher elevation. Bryan ought to be okay with a blanket or two. He was going to assume that Bryan had blankets in the bedroom.

Shane looked at the closed bedroom door, sighed, and shook his head. His original plan had been curling up next to the stove in wolf form. Now? He needed to recharge his energy, and his instincts told him to stand guard all night. There was only one form in which those two incompatible objectives would be possible. He shifted to True Form and drifted up toward the ceiling and through the roof, floating unseen over the cabin.

As pure energy, Shia could sense all the myriad sources of energy for miles around. First, there was the planet's energy: the nearby volcanoes were easiest to detect. Then, there was the energy of the planet's star that saturated the atmosphere even at night. There were the hundreds of lifeforms within a very small radius of the cabin . . . a few miles, perhaps. Most of them were small; there were only two . . . no three . . . lifeforms other than Bryan that were larger than a meal-sized rabbit. Ah, now rabbit stew . . . that would have been tasty! Two of the lifeforms were feline and hunting for smaller game. The other was ursine and somnolent.

Farther away was the energy of various human communities. The energy remained contained within those communities. In Shane form, it had been easier to convey the concern about Bryan's aunt tracking him without being alarming. In True Form, Shia could sense something of the adversary's influence on him. In another place, among other people, Shia might have described it as a geis, a magically induced compulsion for Bryan to avoid those memories. As any sufficiently advanced technology would appear to be magic to a culture that didn't understand the technology, the analogy seemed apt in Bryan's case. The compulsion appeared to be caused by a combination of drugs and technology. No doubt the aunt had other things hidden behind her go-away field beside a house. Drugs seemed a logical component; it was hard to obtain the technology to affect memories without drugs. It did exist, though. Keep your prisoner inside the containment field long enough, and behaviors and memories could be altered over time.

Shia rippled in a shudder. Nabob and caught her in one of those once. Only her unique abilities, her very nature had kept her safe and sane. That had been the planet and universe where she'd met Jason.

That scar on Bryan's arm, however? If a cloud of energy could groan, Shia would have groaned. Oh, yes, that was technology, all right.

Shane had been completely honest when he'd told Bryan about the Messengers. One doesn't go looking for them. Only some people could call the Messengers, ones the Messengers deemed sufficiently . . . Hell, Shia had no idea what criteria they used to decide who could and couldn't call them. That bit of technology in Bryan's arm? It was the same sort of technology in the . . . ah, appendage of her platoon leader. She knew the Commodore had used every means of tracking and tracing at their disposal, and those means were not inconsiderable. Nevertheless, the fact remained that only Shia could detect the technology of the calling device, and only if she knew she should be looking for something.

Not for the first time, Shia wondered about the organization she worked for. It didn't have a name, at least not one she ever knew. She had no idea how large the organization was. She was part of a squad of six. As far as she could tell — and it had taken nearly a decade to work it out — there were four squads in the platoon. She had no idea how many platoons there were. How many people were trying to stop Nabob and all the other evil beings in the Multiverse? The beings in her squad seemed to be the only ones able to move across the Multiverse without the kind of technology Nabob had.

Shia felt the quality and quantity of energy in the area vibrate and would have groaned again if it had been possible. It took a moment for the new energy to coalesce into a solid form.

Messenger Menolly.

"Lady Shia! How nice to sense you again!"

The wings are a new affectation. They look ridiculous, by the way.

The Messenger laughed. "How else am I to have fun?"

You have a message for me?

"Of course. The Commodore would like you to report to headquarters immediately. The location of the passage is 44.989907 latitude, -74.695164 longitude."

Shia focused on Bryan for a moment before she addressed the Messenger again.

I will go after the human wakes. It would be rude to just leave without saying goodbye.

The Messenger fluttered her wings and laughed again. "And when has that ever stopped you, Lady Shia? However, it happens that I have a second message for you."

How could I possibly get this lucky?

"It's hard to tell when you're in this form, but that was sarcasm, wasn't it?"

Either that or resignation to my fate of being plagued by you for the rest of my existence.

The Messenger clapped her hands. "And I like you, too, Shia! Now about this second message . . ."

Had I breath, it would be bated as I await your newest proclamation.

"My progenitor would like you to assist the human below."

Shia's True Form flared with irritation. Two messages . . . that are conflicting? Do tell, Messenger Menolly, how am I to fulfill both requests?

"Lady Shia . . ." The Messenger sighed. "You know the passages move you from one location to another, as well as between one time and another, even across universes. I gave you the location of that specific passage because it will take you to the Commodore's headquarters at a time not long after I left its presence."

Shia was utterly still, the energetic equivalent of staring.

"Oh, come on, Shia. You're the only being any of us has ever known who's never refused a message."

There's a first time for everything.

The Messenger crossed her arms. "As much as we seem to unnerve you, your honor won't allow you to turn us away. And no one ever jokes with us! If you weren't so . . . amorphous . . . you, too, could be a Caller!"

Thanks, but no thanks. You're not from any of the universes, and yet you seem to be present in all of them. That's more than just unnerving.

The Messenger giggled. "Silly! You just haven't found the spot in the Multiverse that has access to our plane of existence. Those two children you met earlier? In their world, there's indirect access to us. Sadly, only their mother can reach it." She smiled, happy and childlike. "Still, it proves we do have our own world, in our own universe. Our universe merely has access to all the others."

I believe you just contradicted yourself.

"Not so! For other beings, access to our universe is virtually impossible. There is only indirect access from very few places in the Multiverse, and hardly anyone is powerful enough to reach us if they could get to any of those places. We are . . . different. We are Messengers. Our whole purpose for existing is to move between the universes carrying messages."

Once again, Shia stared at Menolly for several minutes. Finally, she said, Fine. What does your progenitor mean by 'assist'?

"Oh, you'll know. You always know the right thing to do."


"I'm so glad you think so, Lady Shia!" The Messenger flickered her wings again. "I wish I could stay longer, but I have many more messages to deliver! Don't worry . . . I'll see you again soon!" With that, the Messenger simply disappeared.

Don't worry? Shia knew better. When anyone said 'don't worry,' it usually meant it was an excellent time to start worrying . . . a lot.

* * *

In the cabin below, Bryan tossed and turned as he slept.

The dream was intense. Aunt Elsa appeared in the cabin and told him her patience had run out, that she needed to deal with him. She said she should have done this long ago, but she'd grown fond of him for some dumb reason.
Her words stung. She'd always maintained a distance from him, or so it seemed. As warm as she could be, there was always that distance. Now, with her standing in front of him, peering at him, he could identify that distance. On some level, he'd always felt it but just chalked it up to Elsa being his aunt and not his mother.
He felt two sets of strong hands grab his arms, and suddenly he was back in Elsa's house in the dishing room. The hands pushed and pulled, got him in a chair, and tied him down. The ropes were strong and made him feel confined. Then Elsa was there, inches from his face. She had a knife in her hand . . . no, not a knife. It was some sort of device, maybe. She grabbed his arm and pulled it to the side, causing the restraints to dig into his skin. She angled the device toward the scar on his arm and was just about to jam the thing into his crescent-shaped scar . . .

Bryan woke with a start; it was still dark. He was soaked with sweat, almost shaking from the realism of his dream.

"What a nightmare," he mumbled as he sat up. Still groggy, he got up and walked out of the bedroom to check on Shane. To his dismay, his friend was nowhere to be seen. The fire had burned out in the stove; he added another log from the pile and restarted the fire. Then he sat down on the loveseat, the cabin lit only by the light of the fire.

"Well, now's as good a time as any to experiment, isn't it?" he murmured. Looking down at his arm, he traced a finger along the scar. "Here we go," he whispered, then pressed the scar with all his might.

A biting, shocking, radiating pain went up his arm and through his body. Bryan fell forward, inexplicably still pushing on his scar. As he looked at the door, hoping that Shane would walk into the cabin, the room gave way to another vision.

* * *

Hovering over the cabin for much of the night in True Form and listening to the stars' songs, Shia regained much of the energy she'd expended over the past couple of days. She could feel the sun rising in the east while Bryan began mumbling below her. She let the energy of the sun's rays restore her, as well, while she listened to Bryan moving around, throwing more wood on the fire.

Yes, just another few minutes . . . just to watch the sunrise.

Except, apparently, the idiot in the building decided to choose that moment to become a Caller. Before the energy wave could blast through the roof and through her, she shifted to the most massive mammal she could think of in that fraction of a second and dove off the building.

Roll and thud to the ground would have been a far more accurate description of the activity. The sehlat got groggily to its feet and shook the residual static electricity from its fur. It heard the being inside . . . fall to the floor? Shifting again, Shane sighed. Maybe he should have mentioned the people who call the Messengers to Bryan — especially the part about the necessity for a considerably higher threshold for pain. The Commodore's, ah, appendage would spasm for hours after he called one of the Messengers. The Commodore claimed they didn't feel any pain. Shashina, the form that usually met with them, thought he was a damn liar.

Should he go inside and make sure Bryan hadn't killed himself? Shane was pretty sure that wasn't possible . . . probably wasn't possible. Maybe he should just stay out here and wait for the Messenger to show up. It was never long . . . never long enough.

Yep. Sure enough, Shane could see a small figure walking out of the trees toward the cabin. At least it wasn't Menolly again. Sighing once more, Shane shifted to First Form. She wasn't sure why, but Messenger Duncan didn't like Shane. Now that he thought about it, most of the Messengers didn't care much for any of her forms other than True Form and First Form.

"Lady Shia. I had been told Messenger Menolly had delivered the message that you should assist the human."

"Indeed, Messenger Duncan. Had I realized the human would attempt to Call you, I would have assisted him in not doing so."

"Despite the fact that it was clear to you that Calling was something he would, of necessity, need to do?"

"Just so. I believe he has caused himself to pass out with his premature action. I am certain that he came within a fraction of a second of scattering my atoms through the entire atmosphere of this planet."

"And you would have re-coalesced."

"Of course . . . over the course of many days. Who would have assisted him during that time?"

Duncan nodded. "He is still young."

"I've noticed," Shashina replied dryly. "Even younger than Messenger Menolly."

Messenger Duncan, looking entirely too much like a human child, couldn't pull off a sufficiently disdainful look of disdain. "The wings again?"

"I did tell her they looked ridiculous. I doubt she cared."

"We should check on the youngster who Called."

"And by 'we,' I take it you mean me." Shashina rolled her eyes at the Messenger, walked over to the cabin, and peered in through the window. "Are those devices supposed to cause hallucinations, Duncan?"

"No. Of course not."

"Hmm. I'm no expert on such things, but the young man does seem to be seeing something other than the room. He's talking to something or someone, too." She turned to Duncan and shrugged. "It could be the food he ate last night. Drugs, poisons . . . those do cause hallucinations."

"Did you eat any of it?"

"Seriously? Would it have mattered? Any toxins are flushed out when I shift to True Form. You know that. But yes . . . a spoonful, maybe two. Foul stuff. The remainder is in the non-functioning cooling unit."

"I will test it, though it seems unlikely to be the culprit."

"He did mention that his memories may have been tampered with. Would that interfere with the device's functioning?"

Duncan looked pensive. "The device itself, no. One's reactions to it?" He nodded. "Unfortunately, yes. Do you know who tampered with his memories?"

"His alleged aunt is the most likely suspect."

"Then we will need to determine who this aunt of his is . . . and what her agenda might be."


Duncan tapped his breastbone twice. Shashina barely had time for another sigh before Messenger Menolly reappeared. Fortunately, she left the wings behind this time.

"Hello again, Lady Shia! And a good day to you, Duncan! What message may I deliver for you today, O Wise One?"

Duncan glared at Menolly, then nodded to Shashina. "You know the location of this individual, Lady Shia?"

"Yes," she replied hesitantly. "I'm not particularly interested in infiltrating her compound, however. She has quite a powerful go-away barrier."

Duncan merely tilted his head to one side. "Give the location to Menolly. She will investigate."

Then he looked at his fellow Messenger. "You are to deliver no message. You are to remain unseen and undetected. You are to gather as much information about the compound's inhabitants as possible, as well as information about the compound itself. Do you understand?"

For the first time in Shashina's memory, Messenger Menolly looked serious.

"Yes, sir. Shall I report to you here or await your return to our home?"

"Return here. Lady Shia?"

Shashina stepped over to Menolly and pressed the palm of her hand against the Messenger's forehead. After a moment, Menolly stepped back.

"You give excellent directions, Lady Shia. Thank you." Then she just . . . disappeared.

Shashina narrowed her eyes at Duncan. "I assume you're not going to tell me what that was all about?"

"Only this: When a Messenger goes missing, I am the one who responds to those who Call them. The young man was visited by one who went missing. We suspect the organization involved is the same one you . . ." Duncan cleared his throat. ". . . enjoy harassing."

Her grin was almost feral. "Enjoy might not be the word I would use, but if that organization and the individual who runs it are involved here . . ." Shashina bowed in a courtly manner to Duncan. ". . . I am at your service, Your Highness."

"Stop that, Shia. We haven't used those titles in millennia."

"And yet, you continue to address me as Lady Shia. Tit for tat, Your Highness."

Duncan sighed. "Very well, Falcon. Shall we see about the young man?"

"Of course, Messenger Duncan."

When Shashina and Duncan walked into the cabin, Bryan was sprawled on the floor, staring at the door. He almost looked like he was expecting someone, and that someone was neither Shashina nor Duncan. Shashina raised an eyebrow and moved closer to him while Duncan closed the door behind them and stood against it.

"Bryan," Shashina said as she crouched down just out of his reach. "Bryan, are you okay?"

That was a dumb question. He didn't appear to be okay. Nor did he even see either one of them in his vision . . . or hallucination . . . or whatever it was.

Bryan saw his mother and father.

Bryan ran along a freshly mowed strip of grass, the roar of a lawnmower at the far end of the yard. His father played this game with him: mowing paths on the lawn so Bryan could wander along the maze, pretending to escape an enemy, making his way back home again. His father encouraged him to use his imagination. Today, the sun was warm, and the pollen floated on a light breeze, making it look like it was snowing on the bright spring day. It looked magical.
"Bryan," his mother called out over the sound of the lawnmower. "Bryan!"
He turned and looked toward the house and his mother. She looked so young and beautiful, so alive, so natural with her hair pulled back and braided down one side.
"Lunch is almost ready. Tell your father . . . he can't hear me."
Bryan nodded, happy to help. He turned, ran back along the path, and then turned to the left. It was a dead end. He ran back and took the first right turn in the other direction. He knew he needed to get through the maze to give his father the message: no cheating, no stepping outside the lines. He took another wrong turn, ending up in a large square of mowed grass. It was like a parking lot! This was no fun! Before he could turn around and try again, the lawnmower stopped, and he heard a scream. It was his mother! He looked toward the house. Usually, he could see his mother through the kitchen window as she got lunch ready. But she wasn't there. He turned toward his father and looked across the law. All he saw was the lawnmower . . . nothing else.
What was going on? How could this be?
Then he felt cold drops on his skin. The pollen was changing to actual snow. A strong wind blew, and everything around him got much darker and colder. Someone had their hands, their really big hands, on his shoulders. It was as if someone had changed a slide on a screen. He looked in front of him, and there was a machine — maybe a tank or a spaceship. He wasn't sure what it was. But his parents were standing in front of a ramp connected to the thing. Bryan could see their hands were tied. There were also men and women with guns. Were they laser guns? Whatever they were, they kept his parents afraid as they turned to one another. He wanted to scream but realized there was tape on his mouth. His hands were tied too.
The bad people made his parents walk up the ramp into the spaceship. There were other people, a lot more of them, around the ramp. They all looked afraid. Their hands were tied, too. Everyone was being forced to walk up the ramp.
Bryan watched in fear and horror. Eventually, the ramp closed, and the spaceship lit up with bright lights that flicked for a minute. Then, in an instant, it was gone. His heart broke. Where had his parents gone? When he looked down, he saw tiny feet to his left. He looked up and saw a little girl who looked a lot like him. This was his sister! She had tape on her mouth, too. He had to do something! He was supposed to protect her!
A bright light flashed, making it hard for him to see. The slide was changing again, and Bryan heard an unearthly voice speaking. "You were meant to stay. She wasn't. Do what you are meant to do, and you will see each other again one day." Bryan saw a hideous monster with a huge mouth and too many teeth. Saliva dripped from the mouth. It wasn't human, though it stood upright. He felt tears rolling down his cheeks. He was petrified.
"You listen to me," the creature said. "I know you are the Chosen One. But you will use your powers to bring justice to my kind, not yours. If you want your parents to live, swear to me here and now that you will do right by me. Then, when the time is right, you will return to me and surrender your powers. You will trust me and believe in me. When I ask, you must do as I say. Because . . ." The creature morphed into a younger version of his Aunt Elsa. "Because, dear Bryan, I will be the only one you will ever know."
She laughed and held up an odd-looking device. From behind him, a firm hand grabbed Bryan's arm. As she moved the device closer, he saw she was wearing his mother's crescent moon necklace. The device pierced his skin, and he screamed. Everything about his parents and sister was pulled from his mind. His screams echoed on and on . . .

Bryan looked up to see Shashina. Where was he? As he began convulsing, she held him down.


"Got it . . . maybe." The Messenger knelt beside Bryan's head, cradling it. "He wants to remember. Immense blocks . . . never saw anything like this before."

"Duncan, he's going to kill himself here."

"No, he's not. Just hold him still."

Thank goodness she was stronger than she looked. Bryan was turning into quite the handful.

"Okay, got it."

"Got what, Duncan?" She sounded both frustrated and angry.

"The trigger. Disconnected it." The Messenger practically collapsed against the loveseat. At the same time, Bryan stopped convulsing, but he stared at the ceiling unseeing. He looked like he was screaming, but no sound came out of his mouth.

Shashina sat back on her heels and looked at Duncan. "This is not okay. What the hell is going on here, Duncan?"

"His memories . . . he remembers things he shouldn't remember . . . things that never happened to him."

"If his memories were being blocked, something had to replace them, right?"

"Oh, it's worse than that."

She glared at him. "Duncan." Shashina made it sound like a threat.

"All the memories that are being blocked? Some are his . . . some are . . ." Duncan shook his head. "I couldn't tell. Might be his sister's."

"His sister's? He actually has a sister?" She sighed. "You know what? Never mind. The Vulcans are big on that kind of thing. A few other races, too. Some people hold memories of those who've died."

Then Menolly reappeared, still without those ridiculous wings of hers. "Except she isn't dead. It's awful, Duncan," she said.

Duncan closed his eyes and sighed. "Do you want the rest of my bad news, Falcon, before Menolly reports?"

"Oh, sure," she said sarcastically. "Pour it on."

"He's a Traveler."

Shashina stared for a second, then blinked. "One of those creepy eggheads from . . . my home universe? I think it was mine."

The two Messengers exchanged a glance.

"No. Well, yes and no. Most of them are pretentious geniuses, although they are from your home universe," Menolly said. "They can only move through time and space." She avoided looking at Bryan. "This person is like you."

"Um, no. I'm a shapeshifter from Daled Four. He's from Earth . . . or at least, he thinks he is. In any case, he's got this whole squishy, physical body thing going on."

"What you do, Lady Shia," Duncan said wearily. "You're the only one from your universe who can travel the Multiverse. You'll need to teach him."

"Are you out of your ever-loving mind, Duncan? I can barely figure out how to get from one universe to another. Are you trying to get me to kill him? More often than not, I wind up in an environment where no humanoid could survive! Nope. Not doing it, and you can't make me. I'll get him out to the coordinates Menolly gave me, take him to see the Commodore, and have someone else train him."

"Lady Shia . . ."

"Shut up, Duncan. I don't work for you. I work for the Multi-Tentacled One."

"That's not a nice name for the Commodore!" Menolly exclaimed. "Don't you have any respect for him?"

Shashina rolled her eyes. "He calls me No Form or Creepy Shape or just unsettling, depending on his mood and my form. Have you heard about this new trend called teasing?" Damn Messengers . . . always so painfully literal. They were even worse than Vulcans. She looked down at Bryan.

"I think he's coming out of it . . . whatever it was."

After another minute, Bryan blinked and seemed able to focus on her face. Unfortunately, he also looked confounded.

"Just lie still, Bryan. You had a seizure or something. Just . . . just hold on, okay?"

She looked at Duncan and Menolly, then smirked. She shifted to Shane's form. Duncan groaned, and Menolly let out a surprised shriek. Shane settled cross-legged next to Bryan and rested a hand on his shoulder.

"Besides your seizure or convulsion or . . . Nope, not gonna make anything up that's weird than that. Anyway, I'll catch you up from my point of view. Hopefully, you'll look less . . . pale and transparent by then. You've got two guests here, Messengers Duncan and Menolly.

"After you went to bed last night, I decided to watch the stars — listen to the stars? — instead of staying inside. Gorgeous night. It was wonderful until the little winged weirdo over there—"

"Lady Shia!"

Shane looked at the Messenger. "Hush, Menolly. I'll tell the story my way."

He looked back at Bryan and rolled his eyes. "Anyway, the Messenger gave me two delightfully contradictory messages: keep an eye on you and report back to my boss. I have to assume she wasn't joking about the specific passage she told me about . . . that I could go wiggling through space and time." He shrugged. "All was well until you got up and decided to try incinerating me—"

"Falcon . . ."

"Fine. Duncan's right. Using the Call button in your arm would've only scattered my atoms through most of the atmosphere." Shane grinned. "Good thing I move fast. Probably a good thing no one else was around to see a very large, very furry animal, not from Earth, fall off your roof. Duncan there answered the Call.

"Now, here's where things got weird. Okay, Duncan being annoyed with me was normal enough. Apparently, I wasn't supposed to let you Call them, except how was I supposed to know that, right? Right. So, I peeked in the window, and you looked like you were having hallucinations . . . talking to nobody. I mentioned to Duncan that you've been having memory issues. Hope you don't mind, but it seemed relevant at the time. And I told him about your aunt, too. Then Menolly came back, sans wings, thank goodness. She went to check out your aunt's place."

Shane glanced at Duncan before continuing. He carefully watched Bryan's face as he spoke. "Duncan disconnected whatever trigger mechanism or compulsion your aunt had on you, at least as far as your memories are concerned. He says you have more than just your own memories in your head, which . . ." His eyes flickered to Duncan again. "Well, the only humanoid race that can do that, as far as I know, are the Vulcans. A few non-humanoid ones can do it, too. Um, there's some other stuff that should probably wait until you're not going to go screaming off into the woods like someone from a horror movie. Oh, and Menolly hasn't mentioned much about what she found out about your aunt.

"You think you can sit up? I'm not sure you should eat more of that stuff you ate last night. It might have caused your hallucinations."

"I am beginning to doubt that, Lady Shia," Duncan said.

"What did I tell you about that, Your Highness?"

Duncan sighed heavily. "Falcon, could you please use a form that is less . . . antagonizing?"

Shane shook his head and grinned. "Nope! This one is the best for my buddy Bryan here. Well, Granny Agnes would be okay, too, I think. But Agnes might look too much like good old Auntie Elsa. And since we're all here for Bryan, you two get to enjoy Shane!"

He winked at Bryan. "They don't like me because they don't think I'm serious enough. But you should try to sit up. We should probably hear what Menolly has to say."

Shane unfolded his legs and sat back on his heels again, holding a hand out to Bryan.

"And, dude, what the hell were you doing?"

Bryan stayed still. He heard the conversation around him and could see Shane with his arm outstretched. From the corner of his eye, he could see the two children, the Messengers. He slowly reached out and grabbed Shane's hand to pull himself to a sitting position. He sat still for a few moments, just taking it all in.

"I saw my parents. They were taken . . . in a spaceship. There were other people, too. I saw them." He rubbed his head, then looked at the scar on his arm. "And I had a sister. Have a sister? I think she was taken, too. Not sure if it was the same place as my parents." His voice trailed off as he looked at the Messengers.

"Aunt Elsa . . . she's some type of creature. She isn't really my aunt. She wants me to help her kind. She made me promise. But I don't remember saying yes. She took my memories away." He looked at the scar again. "I need to know who I am. And I need to know who Elsa is. I have to find my parents. They're somewhere. And there are others with them."

Shane gave all his attention to Bryan. In a far corner of his mind, he knew that both Duncan and Menolly were uneasy. Menolly was edging toward panic. Neither of them ever understood that Shane wasn't the one who pushed situations toward the precipice of disaster. That was a particular delight for Edward . . . and even Shashina on occasion. Of all the humanoid forms Shia had mastered, Shane was the one who best grasped the human notion of empathy.

He nodded to himself as Bryan spoke. He remembered something, and he wasn't passing out from pain. That was some sort of progress. Probably. Who Elsa was, why she was doing whatever it was that she was doing . . . Well, if Duncan was right, it could turn out to be Shia's problem in a roundabout, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon kind of way. Finding Bryan's family? It was nice to have a family to find, wasn't it? Since Shia didn't have anyone other than her cousin, the idea of family was a higher priority than Messengers generally assigned it.

Bryan looked at Menolly. "Do you know anything?"

Shane nearly laughed out loud at Menolly's shriek and subsequent disappearance. Unfortunately, Duncan noticed his mirth.

"Falcon, not everything we do is designed to amuse you."

"Oh, I know! Most of what you do is designed to annoy me." Shane grinned cheerfully at Duncan.

The Messenger glared at Shane for a moment, then looked at Bryan as he shook his head. He at least tried to look sympathetic.

"Menolly is young and easily startled. She will return when she has had a chance to calm down. I cannot tell you anything about your sister other than she is alive, and you seem to hold some of her memories. But I can tell you about my sister."

Shane looked from Bryan to Duncan and back again as Duncan turned to look at the door, the wall, the floor, the ceiling . . . anything but Bryan.

"Liz . . . Lizbeth . . . was younger than me by quite a few decades. She excelled in everything, or, at least, I felt like she did at the time. Maybe I just remember her that way . . . choose to remember her that way. She had a dozen different names. She most often used Angela or a variant of it. Falcon knew her as Vesna."

Shane's eyes widened, and he merely stared at Duncan. Vesna had been the first Messenger he'd met and had been the only Messenger he'd met until five or ten years ago. He wasn't quite sure how long it had been . . . time was wonky for him.

"Although she was my sister, I didn't know the details of her duties. We were not of the same pod . . . team, you might say." Finally, Duncan looked at Bryan again. "She gave you the device in your arm. Your memories are a jumbled mess — understandable, given the strength of the inhibitions on them — so I couldn't say for certain when she did so. Was it prior to the rending of our family or after? I do not know. What I do know is that once the bo'kallsu is given to a Sha'ula'ro — a Caller, as Falcon calls you — the Messenger then returns a number of times to Teach the . . . the Caller about the device. How it is properly used, in what circumstances it should be used, and so forth. However, before Liz could teach you these things . . ."

His eyes dropped to his hands that were folded in his lap.

It was clear to Shane that Duncan wasn't going to say anything else . . . at least, not without prompting. "Nabob?" he whispered.

Duncan shrugged one shoulder. "One who worked for him, yes." He wouldn't even look at Falcon now. "We cannot be captured any more than you can in your True Form, Shia."

Shane clenched his teeth. Angry, angry, angry . . . The breath he took in was shuddering, but it helped him to relax a little.

"But you can be killed."

"We can. She was."

"Who, Duncan? Even in this form, I'm angry enough to rain down the fires of hell on whoever it was! I actually liked Vesna."

Duncan's lips twitched in what might have been the beginning of a smile. "Thank you. But you have already done that service after escaping Nabob's prison. You do have my profound thanks."

He looked up and net Shane's eyes. No matter how long ago her death occurred, Duncan was still not at peace. Falcon had dispatched the murderer with no second thoughts, no remorse, and for no more reason than he'd been a slaver in Nabob's network. He hadn't known about Vesna. The assassination of that particular individual had been a turning point for him, Duncan, and the organizations they both represented. Falcon might have once had qualms over that assignment; now, his mind was at ease.

Shaking himself from the reverie, Duncan looked again at Bryan. "It has been a long trail, spanning decades, that led us back here to this version of Earth. by some divine coincidence, Falcon was thrown through one of the passages by the witches of Cottman Four and wound up here—"

"And I'm not going back there, Duncan. I'll tell the Many-Tentacled One that, too. I scan as a high-level psi no matter what form I take . . . never mind the fact that my psi abilities are practically non-existent and definitely erratic. Those freaking witches are nasty."

"I'm sure Commodore Illtyd will be pleased to know how well you make friends everywhere you go," Duncan said mildly. "May I return to the matter at hand?"

Shane shrugged and waved a hand in Duncan's direction.

Duncan nodded, turning back to Bryan. "We suspect your alleged aunt has a tangential relationship to the one Falcon has sworn to remove from existence in every universe. Those of us who are Messengers are able to locate Travelers — the rare beings like Falcon who have the ability to reverse the Multiverse without the use of technology. We had suspicions about Ahrimana — your Aunt Elsa. Because Illtyd's most versatile operative was fortuitously on this version of Earth, we thought it best for Falcon to learn more. You quite cleverly escaped Ahrimana's immediate influence. However, you must remain outside this operation until we are certain her control over you is broken."

Duncan looked at Falcon. "Is it possible her interest in young Bryan is because of who and what he is?"

Shane shook his head. "I wouldn't rule it out completely, but only if she knew about the Call button and hated you Messengers. Have you done anything to pique her interest?" He looked at Bryan and shook his head again. "No way she could have known he was a Traveler. Oh, by the way, congratulations, Bryan! You're a Traveler! No, I can't teach you how to do what I do, but once all the crazy has been resolved here, I can take you back to HQ. Saira or Viator should be able to teach you. Don't let your head explode yet. I'm sure there will be more madness when the Winged Wonder returns."

"Falcon . . ." Duncan sighed heavily.

Shane grinned at Bryan. "Do you really want this discussion to be totally serious? Your life has turned upside down six ways from Sunday, dude! If you forget to laugh, or at least smile, you'll probably implode or something."

"You are not helping, Lady Shia."

"Yes, I am," Shane muttered to Bryan before turning an expression of dramatic innocence on Duncan.

After sighing with ponderous weariness, Duncan said, "We know little more about this alleged aunt of yours than what I have already stated . . . and that is precious little. It should not have been possible to reach this universe with the technology available, and she cannot travel the passages on her own. I have seen in your memories the stories she planted there. I can tell you there is very little truth in them, although the tales may have been spun as a mixture of countless mythologies. She does appear to possess proscribed technology, lending credence to the theory that she is a criminal. Menolly made what I hope is a thorough examination of her sanctuary here. She can provide a report on her observations when she returns.

"In the meantime, are there any questions I might answer on topics that do not need Messenger Menolly's input?"

Bryan stared at Duncan for what felt like a month. Then, te slowly turned to Shane. Although he tried to speak, all he could offer was open-mouthed breathing. His world had turned upside down several times over.

"I'm a . . . Traveler?" he finally asked. So, he did have a gift after all. Bryan shook his head slightly, then looked at Duncan again. He'd said that his sister was real. And alive. Somewhere. An actual sibling, something he'd always wanted. All those lonely holidays and birthdays with no one to share them with except Aunt Elsa and her henchmen.

And what was that about Duncan's sister? He'd said she was the one who gave him the device. What that what he actually said? And that someone had killed her? How terrible! So, it had been Duncan's sister who'd come to him? Was she the one who visited him and told him he was meant for something great and important? He shook himself out of the reverie.

"What exactly is a Traveler? And was I born this way? Does this mean my parents were Travelers, too?"

Duncan sighed as he looked at Shane.

"What? He was like this when I met him! I didn't do anything!"

The Messenger shook his head. "Commodore Illtyd, I'm sure, can give you a more detailed and thorough explanation of the Travelers, but to put it simply: A Traveler is able to navigate the passageways through time, space, and, usually, the Multiverse as . . ." Duncan pointed a finger at Shane. ". . . this one does." It was hard to tell if Duncan sounded annoyed with Shane or if he was frustrated, exasperated, or merely tired of the shapeshifter.

"Few can do it. To be honest, we don't know if a person is born with the ability, if it is the result of trauma, or if, like many less-than-ordinary gifts or senses, it is triggered by puberty. Every Traveler I have heard of has discovered their ability accidentally, as Shia did, or because a Messenger sensed their presence. While not strictly impossible, mathematically speaking, it is virtually impossible that your parents would also have this gift."

Shane noticed when Menolly reappeared, although he pretended not to.

"Duncan's right. I'm not sure exactly how many of us there are — the Commodore won't say, but I've only met a dozen or so. And Squid Head has the only team of . . . Travelers, I mean. Well, as far as I know, anyway."

Duncan sighed heavily again, and Shane glared at him. "Dude, I'm begging you . . . lighten up, will you?"

"You realize that we're generally uncomfortable around you Travelers, don't you, Falcon? 'Lightening up' is not something that comes easy for us. And you have a unique talent to be the most annoying member of your squad."

Shane shrugged. "Don't know how many times I have to remind you, Duncan: All of my various human forms annoy you in some way or another. The non-human forms — except for Ni-Sha, who is even worse than I am — are not great at communicating. This form is most likely to keep poor Bryan from freaking out again. And I can't even promise that."

"You change shapes," Menolly said in a quiet voice that was almost a whisper. "It's . . ." She shook her head as she sat on the counter that separated the kitchen area from the rest of the cabin.

"I know. I've heard of other people who can do what I do, but I've only ever met the people from my planet, and most of them hate substantial forms." Shane shrugged apologetically. "You grow wings and sometimes antennae on your head."

She shook her head. "It's just an illusion."

Shane studied her for a few seconds, surprised. "Really? But that's cool! Duncan doesn't do that."

Menolly looked down at her hands as she twisted them together in her lap. "It's . . . it's just a game. For little kids."

"Oh, foof and twaddle! Duncan just doesn't remember how to have fun," Shane said cheerfully as Duncan let out another quiet groan of exasperation. "The wings and antennae are an illusion game, games are fun, teasing is a game, and that's fun . . . so . . . It's all good, right?"

The younger Messenger looked up, although she barely looked at Shane and avoided looking at Bryan. It was clear she was shaken by more than just Bryan's presence.

"I observed the location Lady Shia provided. I watched the people and examined the technology as best I could." She was terrified. "There is the woman who claims to be . . ." She closed her eyes and nodded in Bryan's direction. ". . . his aunt. There are four others, although one of them appeared to be struggling to fight a compulsion, just as . . ." Menolly's voice trailed off, and she was quiet for a couple of minutes.

Finally, she shook her head, returning to her job, her duty. "Shia already mentioned the compulsion force field. It's cylindrical, so theoretically, someone could drop down from the sky, but it's high enough that only Shia could get there. I think. The flying machines, the ones that fly really high . . ." She glanced at Shane.


Menolly nodded. "They go high enough, but I don't think they can go slow enough to let someone out. The other kind with the spinning wings . . . helicopters? Those can't go high enough. She has an illusion generator, too. The building is almost as big as the illusion makes it seem, but it's not anywhere near as nice.

"The has four people with her, and the three who are not afflicted by the . . . the coercion to forget are . . ." She paused again, her forehead wrinkling with consternation. "Not exactly soldiers, either professional or mercenary. Just . . . well, just not nice people."

Shane sighed. "Common thugs? They're always so unpredictable."

Menolly shrugged. "They're strong and look like they can fight. They're mean, too. And then there are the four people in the stasis chamber—"

"Stasis chamber??" exclaimed Duncan.

"I swear, Duncan. There were at least four life pulses in there. Three of them resemble . . ." Menolly pointed to Bryan. "The other was . . . odd. Maybe similar to one of the others. I really couldn't tell. I didn't want to get too close. Someone with a stasis chamber might have the technology to see me."

"Even Nabob doesn't have that kind of tech, Menolly," Shane said. "Most of the time, he and his goons can't identify me. You guys are just about impossible to detect, even by the best tech I've seen. You're kind of like me when I'm in True Form."

Menolly looked at him for a moment before giving her attention back to Duncan. "I was scared."

"It's okay, cousin," Duncan said kindly. "The first multi-faceted mission is always like that."

Shane looked from one to the other, opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again and shook his head.

Menolly nodded. "When . . . that . . . whatever she is . . . went to her room, Max . . ." Her brows drew together for a moment before she nodded to herself. "Yes, that was his name. Max just stood outside the room and stared at the door. It looked like he was trying to raise a hand to touch the door, but all he could do was stand there and stare. I think those people are important to him. Maybe."

Duncan sat quietly for a moment, then looked at Falcon and sighed. "It seems that we have an infestation."

Shane groaned. "I'm not even supposed to be here!"

"And yet, here you are."

"What? I should be thanking the witches of Cottman Four?"

Duncan smiled. "That won't be necessary. I'll ask Commodore Illtyd to send someone who won't antagonize them. And perhaps mention that Nabob is using the old spaceport again."

"But I need to clear up this mess," Shane said dryly. "That's what you're implying here, isn't it, Duncan?"

"It is your job, isn't it?"

"You don't need to be so smug about it."

Duncan grinned. "You can't teach Bryan how to travel the passages, but he could certainly help you free his family."

Falcon glared at Duncan. And Duncan looked back at him blandly.

With a sigh, Shane asked Menolly, "Any idea what sort of alien she is? If she bleeds green, as Bryan said, it has to be one I don't know. I can't see either a Vulcan or a Romulan doing what she's doing. Of course, T'Kuhtians think everything is a joke, but this is too mean for them to be a part of it."

The young Messenger glanced at Duncan before responding. "Human. Well, humanoid . . . I'd guess she's one of the Diaspora humans. I guess that would mean there's time travel involved, too."

Shane shrugged. "That's how the passages work even with the tech used on ships. Both the when and where are crap shoots, usually. But even Diaspora humans still bleed red. We'll circle back later to the fact ship-bound tech shouldn't have been able to get into this universe."

Menolly bit her lip as she drew her eyebrows together, looking like a child imitating an adult. "Duncan said all kinds of memories were planted in . . . in . . ." She shuddered and looked at Bryan. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "You Travelers make me nervous."

Shane looked at Menolly while she looked at Bryan. He didn't quite understand what was going on with her, or with Duncan, for that matter. But he still needed to comprehend the scope of the situation.

"So, this person who's pretending to be Bryan's aunt is really human, and the majority of his memories are false ones planted . . . why? That's one thing we need to figure out. This person has proscribed technology and is holding Bryan's family captive. Again, why? It's more likely that she's working for Nabob, but I suppose we need to verify that, too. And why is she holding his family hostage?"

He stopped suddenly and ran his fingers through his hair several times, finally lacing them together behind his neck. Then, he bent forward to rest his elbows on the floor. It looked like some kind of odd yoga pose.

"Ahrimana probably doesn't know about the Call button." His voice was muffled but still easily understood. "But what if someone does, Duncan?"

He looked up, hands holding his head as though it ached fiercely. "What if Nabob knows?"

Duncan returned his gaze, and his expression hardened. Behind him, still sitting on the counter, Menolly paled visibly.

"Yeah. That's what I thought. "We're screwed, aren't we?"

Bryan had been sitting completely still throughout the conversation. It wasn't about Elsa anymore; it was about his family. His mother and father and sister were still alive, with Elsa? Or used to be there? He still didn't understand what everyone was talking about. Finally, he turned toward Menolly and said, as gently as possible, "Thank you, Menolly, for finding out about my family. Thank you so much."

Menolly shuddered visibly, but she didn't disappear this time.

His eyes welled up. He knew he was the odd man out here, but given all the information he was getting today, he felt maybe he was more like these folks than different. Nevertheless, the questions Shane had raised were important and needed answers. He wiped his eyes and looked at Shane.

"So, what's our plan? I'm ready. If I had to guess who might be our way in, I'd bet everything on Max. He's loyal to Aunt Elsa, but there have been so many times over the years that he covered for me. I think he has a compassionate side under it all. Frankly, I think she has something over him, and that's why he serves her like this. What do you think, Shane?"

Shane twisted his fingers in his hair and pulled. "GAH!! I'm not good at this part!"

Jumping up, Shane paced back and forth across the cabin several times, rubbing the back of his neck. "This isn't working. I'm at a disadvantage here."

Duncan groaned.

"Well, just close your eyes and don't watch if it bothers you that much, Duncan," Shane said, not unkindly but definitely with frustration. "You, too, Menolly."

Duncan closed his eyes, but Menolly curled up on the counter much as Shane had done earlier, ensuring her head was covered by her arms.

Then Shane took a deep breath and, over the course of several seconds, twisted and shifted into the brown-skinned, black-haired woman Bryan had first seen in the little park near the police station. Instead of Shane's casual clothing, Shashina wore motorcycle leathers . . . right down to the boots. Her long hair hung straight down her back, tied at the nape of her neck with an invisible band . . . or perhaps it was just shapeshifter magic. The only thing Shashina had in common with Shane was her golden eyes. Yesterday, Shashina hadn't remembered everything she'd lost when she'd been thrown through one of the passages by the leroni of Cottman Four. Now, she remembered. It was apparent in her confident posture. While Shia and Shashina shared First Form, Shia was formal and almost courtly. Shashina had a military bearing and was much more relaxed. She took a look around the cabin and nodded to herself.

"All done, Puffball," she said to Menolly. "And thanks for the intel on the ground." Shashina smiled at the still-curled Messenger. "You did good . . . real good."

She turned to Duncan. "I don't suppose you have any weapons we can use? Or that you can get to Illtyd in enough time to send reinforcements?"

Duncan shook his head. "Getting to the commodore isn't the problem. It's always getting personnel and equipment back to the right time and place through the passages. Besides . . ." He didn't have to finish his statement.

"I know," Shashina said with a sigh. "Our people are spread too thin as it is."

She grinned that almost predatory grin of hers. "So, we do this by wits and wings alone. If this Ahrimana is working closely with Nabob, we need to shut her down hard, and we need to shut her down fast. Hell, we need to shut down this operation even if she's a free agent. I'd be a whole lot happier if you and Menolly went home and stayed out of it, Duncan. But I understand you have skin in the game. And we can probably use your help once we get rid of her security field."

"Hmm, it's not like you can order us to leave anyway, Falcon."

She laughed. "Oh, come on, Duncan. You can bamboozle Shane, but I'm harder to push around. I have the same rank in our organization that you Messengers do. And if you want to go my hereditary titles, I'm closer to the throne, so to speak, than you are . . . despite the fact that you don't actually have a hereditary monarchy anymore."

Duncan chuckled. "Indeed. Our latest report from your home indicates Salia is happy with one child, leaving you second in line, whereas my cousin has had another daughter, dropping me to fifth in line. If we still had a hereditary monarchy."

"Ah, but I've abdicated my place in the succession! So, my cousin had better hope her daughter finds a suitable mate." Then Shashina shrugged. "To be honest, I suspect by that time, the Federation's representative governing template will have taken hold, and there won't be a need for this inherited rulership nonsense. It's a good thing heredity doesn't really factor into the running of most governments, isn't it?"

Sticking her hands in her jacket pockets as she turned to Bryan, Falcon's smile lost the teasing edge and offered a bit of compassion for the young man.

"A plan? Hmm." She studied him for a few minutes, recalling far too many of the people she'd rescued or attempted to rescue from Nabob's organization. Many had lived. Some had died. Bryan had the advantage of not being in a cell, cage, or crate at the moment — and that made his chances of coming out of this adventure in one piece a whole lot better.

"At this point in any operation, I advise those I'm rescuing to pray to whatever deities they have. Okay, technically, we're saving whoever is in that stasis chamber Menolly found. But since you're not trained, I'm going to leave you in the 'to be rescued' category for now. And I don't make plans. That's Illtyd's job." Falcon grinned cheerfully. "It makes him happy, and he doesn't believe a plan is the first casualty of any engagement. He just keeps on making plans as the previous one becomes a victim of reality and considers all plans to be part of the grand plan. That said, I do have a few ideas."

She glanced out the window, trying to gauge how much time they had. Even with the physical problems Bryan had encountered, and the amount of time they'd spent talking already, it was barely midday. It should be enough time for her to do what she could. They'd be relying on luck and the kindness of strangers to get Bryan back to the city within a window of opportunity for him to be effective.

"Your car is bumping along with the river's current. You don't have the abilities the rest of us do to get from here to Ahrimana's base quickly and easily," Shashina said, looking at Bryan. "My suggestion would be for you and Duncan to hitchhike back to the city while Menolly and I scout the area around the base more thoroughly. Not only is Duncan more comfortable in your presence, but his ability to cast a glamor is significantly better than Menolly's . . . no offense, kiddo."

"None was taken. It's just the truth."

Falcon nodded. "I don't like the idea of you being on your own, Bryan. Ahrimana . . . Elsa . . . whatever you want to call her has shown she's ruthless and has little regard for your continued wellbeing. If questioned on your way to her place . . ." She looked at both Bryan and Duncan critically before shrugging. "Well, he can pose as a younger brother, I think. We'll need to have another discussion once I've seen the situation on the ground, but how does that sit with you for a first step?"

Duncan nodded. "That would be acceptable to me. Just wait for us somewhere safe for Bryan, and I'll find you." The Messenger turned to Bryan for his thoughts.

Bryan didn't even think about it. "I'm going with you, and I'll do whatever I have to do. Elsa needs to be stopped."

He walked to the cabinets, intentionally not making eye contact with Menolly, so he didn't scare her. After rummaging through a couple of drawers, he pulled out a notebook, pencil, and red highlighter.

Menolly still disappeared for an instant, reappearing at Falcon's side.

"He's not going to hurt you, Menolly."

"I know. I'm just . . ." Her voice trailed off, and she shrugged.

"I'll draw a map of the house for you," he said as he sat down again on the loveseat. "I lived in that house for nearly all my life. There are several hiding places I used all the time, with closets and crawlspaces no one uses. I'll mark those with a star."

Falcon tilted her head. It would certainly help to get an additional perspective, especially because Messengers saw things differently than she did. More telling was Bryan's casual mention of having hidden in any number of nooks and crannies when he was younger. That didn't correlate to any of the false memories. Looking at Duncan and raising an eyebrow, she received only the slightest nod and a frown as a response. Interesting. Bryan had calmly, almost offhandedly, mentioned an actual memory that was likely one of those suppressed by his alleged aunt . . . without the slightest hint of distress.

Bryan continued sketching the building's outline and the interior walls for both the first and second floors. "There are also rooms that have been locked off for as long as I can remember. I used to hear noises coming from them . . . voices, and sometimes I'd see flashes of light under the doorway. Whatever she's hiding, there must be something in those rooms." He marked those rooms with the highlighter.

Once finished, Bryan handed the map to Falcon. "Maybe if we split up, we stand a better chance of covering more ground. She can't catch all of us simultaneously, so consider this a rescue plan."

Menolly teleported to Duncan's side.

"Menolly, if you're going to keep doing that, you're not going to be much help to me." Falcon stared at the young Messenger, then tapped a finger on the map.

Duncan sighed as he grabbed one of Menolly's hands and started poking, bending, and stretching it. Falcon could only watch for a few seconds before rolling her eyes, then turned her attention back to Bryan and the map.

"Yeah, splitting up is the best way to tackle this. I'm just trying to figure out the most practical approach to the problem. Despite never having worked on a mission with a Messenger — let alone two of them, assuming Menolly can get her shit together — you're the biggest unknown in the equation, Bryan. Don't take that the wrong way. If this whole thing blows up in our faces, those two . . ." She nodded at the pair standing near the table. ". . . can just think themselves anywhere they want to go."

"Not really," Menolly said, "but I guess it's as good an explanation as— OW! Duncan, that hurt!"

"Ignore them," Falcon said to Bryan. "The point is that they can get out. There's close to a hundred percent chance I can too. That leaves you. And you're not going to get far without learning how to use the passages. These hiding places?" She tapped the map again. "Make use of them if you have to. I'd like to have a look at them, but it's good that you've got them available if you need them."

She studied him for a moment, sensing his frustration. She'd been in that position plenty of times: being the least experienced, the most vulnerable, the weak link in the chain. She didn't like it and was pretty sure Bryan didn't either.

"I'm not trying to diminish your role here. If that's really your family being held in stasis, if we can really get them out, you're going to be the one who'll do them the most good. If it seems like I'm being overprotective, it's because I am. The three of us can take hits you can't. Let us take them. You'll get your moment to shine."

She gave him a half-smile. "I'm not a cold-hearted bitch, no matter what some people think." She shrugged. "I'm just an asshole. I spent a little too much time in Edward's form as a . . . ah . . . guest of Nabob."

Looking out the window, Falcon shook her head. "I'm not sure how far downstream that car of yours will get. If it's been found, Elsa will probably believe you're dead. Waltzing in the front door like nothing happened probably isn't the best idea. Too many questions." She looked at the map again, absently tracing the rooms outlined in red. "On the other hand, if it hasn't been found, then the only explaining you'd need to do is the absence of your car. There are probably plenty of those — explanations, I mean. But I don't know what they'd be on this version of Earth in the current year. Expending all your fuel is probably the lowest common denominator that doesn't involve the police."

Falcon stared off into space again for a few seconds, trying to coordinate the activities of four individuals. This is exactly why I work alone. This is like doing quantum mathematics in my head.

Finally, she shook herself from her reverie and studied the map in earnest. "Still need to get the human from here to there in a timely fashion," she muttered.

Time was a significant factor here. Sure, Bryan and Duncan could hitchhike. But that could take all day. The only forms she could shift to that were large enough to carry Bryan would be pretty damn obvious, and not a single one was either from Earth or not some kind of fictional beast. Demeter, the ship that had crash-landed on her planet years before she was born, had carried an incredible amount of information. The ship itself had been named for one of Earth's Greek deities, so Falcon knew exactly was a Pegasus was. She also knew that no one could ignore a winged horse flying across their skies. There were giant winged lizards from a planet she'd never visited. She knew the human inhabitants called them dragons and considered them a good omen when they flew overhead. But no one could ignore a giant flying lizard with wings either.


"Duncan?" she said without looking up from the map.

"There's a way to get Bryan out there safely and quickly."

"Hmm?" What Duncan said didn't register as she committed the map to memory.

"I said I can get myself and Bryan to Ahrimana's location faster than relying on the random appearance of vehicles and the willingness of their owners to transport us."

Falcon looked up at him and frowned. "What are you talking about, Duncan?"

"I can bring Bryan with me."

The shapeshifter merely stared, not quite comprehending. Menolly, on the other hand, blinked and exclaimed, "You can??"

Duncan nodded and turned to Menolly. "It's a rare ability in some families." He smiled ruefully. "And it takes a century or more to become proficient at it."

"Will I be able to do that too? I mean, we are cousins, after all."

He shrugged. "I didn't realize I had the ability until I was nearly ninety."

"Oh." Although they both looked like children, it was evident that Menolly was considerably younger than Duncan, certainly younger than Shia, and possibly — if counted linearly in Earth years — younger than Bryan. It was also clear that she was disappointed.

Falcon blinked. That would make Duncan upwards of two hundred, maybe even older. And she'd thought he was closer to her age. "Um, but you are proficient at this, right?" she asked skeptically.

"As much as any of us can be, yes. It takes considerably more energy than moving as we ordinarily would, especially in an atmosphere."

"Uh huh. And you didn't mention this before when I was sending you off hitchhiking . . . why?" She gazed at the Messenger with a bland expression, except for the raised eyebrow. It was the Vulcan Stare she'd learned from her T'Kuhtian friend.

Duncan looked at Bryan sheepishly. "It might be unpleasant."

"Define unpleasant," Falcon said with an exasperated sigh.

"It varies. Sometimes it's nothing more than a bit of dizziness."

"Duncan." She was becoming annoyed.

"Everyone is different, Shia. Why bother mentioning all the possible reactions when Bryan may experience nothing more than slight disorientation. The whole lot of you Travelers are laws unto yourselves, you know."

She grunted. "Right. Have I mentioned that the lot of you freak me out?"

"Not in the last half hour, no."

"Smart ass." Falcon turned to Bryan again. "I'll make a sweep down the river and see if I can spot your car. We can talk about the next step when we meet at the glade. You might as well take Duncan up on his offer. It's the best game in town, I guess. The upside is that you'll get to the glade faster. The downside . . ." She shrugged as she folded the map. "Well, you can be assured that Duncan won't get you killed. And whatever side effects his little trip through the timeslips Messengers use aren't going to be purposely heaped on your head."

Duncan cleared his throat.

"Now what?"

"While I know it will be faster than human conveyances, I'm not sure how long it will take to reach Ahrimana's base of operations. I'm not even going to try explaining the physics, but we'll be . . . Well, at least fifteen minutes behind you but probably not more than thirty."

Falcon handed the map to Menolly and rubbed her temples.

"Get out of here, Duncan." She pointed a finger at Bryan as she glared at the Messenger. "Don't kill him."

She gave Bryan a softer look, smiling almost sadly. "You can at least take comfort in the fact that Duncan will keep you as safe as he knows because squad members watch each other's backs. And he's a lot nicer than I am." She smiled then and waved a hand in Duncan's direction.

With that, Duncan wrapped a hand around Bryan's wrist. "We need to start outside. It's . . . it will just be easier."

"Yeah, fine." Falcon followed them outside and watched as they started down the trail toward a nearby open spot among the trees.

"Be careful," she whispered. Once they'd disappeared, she stared at where they'd been for nearly a minute.

"You're worried."

She turned to Menolly, who was perched on the railing of the cabin's stairs.

"Isn't that uncomfortable? And I always worry when it looks like Nabob might be operating even further outside the boundaries of decency than even Illtyd thought."

Menolly shrugged. "He doesn't know everything, Shia." Still, the Messenger looked worried, too.

"I know. He just has access to a lot more intel than I do. He didn't know about this place. I think it gives me plenty to worry about."

Menolly stared off in the direction her cousin had gone with the newly discovered Traveler — almost as though she could see into the timeslip they'd used. Well, maybe she could.

"Do you think they found this place the same way you did — by getting the witches of Cottman furious with him?"

Falcon shook her head. "It seems improbable. The witches don't care about the old spaceport or who goes up there. That's all on the local government. If one of his minions went up into their mountains . . ." She rubbed the back of her neck as she thought. "What are the chances one of his minions could have survived getting tossed through a passage like that? And then survived the effects of gravity as their body came through the passage at a speed I'm used to? I managed to survive both times only because I default to True Form when I get injured that badly. And this last time was worse than the first — the whole thing is still a little fuzzy, and I might be missing some memories yet."

"Okay, all of that is true. But what do the witches hate even more than someone with a psi rating?"

The shapeshifter sighed with frustration. "Tech."

Menolly nodded. "We know Nabob keeps going back there. We know that time can be meaningless or broken in the passages unless you compensate for it . . ."

"So, if one of his minions was using tech up in their mountains and got tossed here, they could have survived, maybe. And arrived any time."

The two looked at one another for several minutes.

"God, I hate that fucking guy."

Menolly shrugged one shoulder. "We all do. But what do we do now?"

Falcon took a deep breath and looked up at the sky. It was a slightly overcast day: solid yet minimal cloud cover. For some reason, this kind of day always reminded her of home.

"Well, we scope out the base more thoroughly as a first step. I'll do that while you keep watch for Duncan and Bryan. Then we rescue Bryan's people. After that, get rid of the infestation. Finally, close the passage, so Nabob can't use it anymore. I mean, he had to have set up a link to one of his own outposts to get all that equipment you found over there, right? What worries me about that nearby passage is that the kid who actually opened it from his world even managed to tap into it in the first place. I don't think it's the one Nabob used to set Ahrimana up. However, I've never seen two passages that close together before."

"Could Ahrimana's be more unstable than most? None of the passages the Cottman witches rip into space-time are ever quite right."

"True. That's all the more reason for me and any psi-rated Travelers to stay away from Cottman."

"You're the only one left who triggers their defenses, Shia."

Falcon drew her brows together and looked at Menolly. "Can't be. What about Fauna, Castor, and Ard?"

The Messenger said nothing for a while; Falcon waited patiently. Finally, Menolly said, "Fauna retired. I thought it was before you went out on your last mission, but I guess it wasn't. Castor's injuries just aren't healing well enough for him to be useful in the field. Illtyd has him running one of the intelligence networks at HQ."

After another very long silence, Falcon prompted, "And Ard?"

"Missing. Presumed dead."

Falcon swore creatively in a number of languages. "Damn it. I was just starting to warm up to her, too."

Menolly rolled her eyes. "You're prickly, Falcon. You annoy people . . . even your friends."

It was Falcon's turn to shrug. "All part of my charm. But that means we're going to need Bryan all the more. We're down to . . . what? Six field agents now?"

Menolly nodded. "On Illtyd's team, yes."

"Oh, so there are other squads in the field!" Falcon said, smiling slyly.

"I can neither confirm nor deny that, and you should stop thinking about it, Shia. Really." Menolly paused. "Please."

"Hmm. Fine. Plausible deniability . . . I get it." She took a deep breath, held it for a few seconds, then blew it out. "We should get going, shouldn't we?"

Menolly nodded. "Where should I meet you?"

"Wait for me in the clearing I showed you." Falcon paused again, recalling her night across from the compound, waiting for Bryan. "I don't remember a lot of traffic on the road, so it should be safe enough. The native wildlife is either small enough not to be concerning or herbivores. Well, non-predators, at least."

Falcon shifted to one of her namesake birds and winged up to a nearby tree branch.

Although she averted her eyes when Falcon shifted, Menolly tilted her head as she tracked the bird from the ground to the branch overhanging the stairs.

"I haven't seen this form before. What is it?"

Peregrine falcon. It's smaller and faster than the gyr I usually choose.

"More coloring and pretty, too. But I like the white and black of the other one."

Hmm. That explains the wings you sprouted earlier. Falcon's mental voice rang with humor. As she launched herself into the air, she added, See you later, kiddo.

Because she flew at the highest limits and fastest speed of the shape she'd chosen, because trees obscured many of the roadways below, Falcon couldn't see much of the paths and trails through the woods she and Bryan had hiked. Following the river was easier anyway. She thought she caught sight of Bryan's car; it wasn't as far downstream as she'd anticipated. Diving downward at over two hundred miles per hour was pure joy. If a bird could have smiled, she would have been grinning. It took mere seconds to confirm that the car was fully submerged and caught on a jagged boulder beneath the surface. As she regained altitude, she pondered the likelihood of the car becoming dislodged in the near future. If the currents moved just right, it could be on its way toward the lake where the river ended. More realistically, it would probably take runoff from the nearby mountains after a winter of heavy snow to get that thing moving again.

That was excellent news.

The winds were tricky in this area — some currents swept off the nearby slopes, some swelled off the ocean. At times, they would slide over and under one another, causing updrafts and downdrafts that Falcon glided through. When they slammed together — no doubt something that helped spark the area's weather systems — she again took advantage of the peregrine's ability to dive at prodigious speeds as she angled toward her destination.

She could see the house hidden among the trees before she felt the effects of the forcefield. Peregrine falcons weren't common in this area, that is, if this world was anything like the other versions of Earth she'd visited. It wasn't until she dropped down to heights more suited to non-raptors that she felt the urge to turn away. She shifted to True Form instead.

As she'd expected, the field had no effect.

Menolly had been right, though. If she'd dared to take the more fragile bird form high enough, she could have dived straight down through the open top of the forcefield. But that might have attracted unwanted attention. In True Form, she could not only see the field but match the vibrational colors to pass through it undetected. It was dissimilar enough from her own vibrational signature that it ticked a little, reminding her of the gamma storms back home. All the youngsters loved them, and because they were rare, adults were generally indulgent about allowing time away from the busy work usually assigned to children.

As she drifted down toward the building, Falcon's first thought was that it seemed a lot smaller and considerably more drab than it had looked yesterday. It was downright dilapidated when compared to Bryan's memories of the house. The grounds were not nearly as expansive. Although the lawn had recently been mowed, it was patchy and already sprouted dandelions and clover. There were no gardens; thorny hedges encircled the property.

Ahrimana must have been using her illusion around the whole property, not just the dirt and gravel driveway. As seen from this side, there were very few trees between the house and the road. In addition, the house itself was in desperate need of a paint job. It might have been a charmingly bright shade of blue at one time. Now it was just washed out and sad-looking.

Falcon could sense four . . . no, five people inside. Four seemed to be no different from any of the other humans she'd encountered since arriving here. The odd one must be Ahrimana: the woman Bryan knew as Elsa. Hmm, yeah, definitely Diaspora human. If Falcon had to guess, her home world might originally have been either the Vega or Caldos colony. Both of them and slightly lower than Earth-normal gravity, and the woman wore a light exoskeleton to compensate. Rather than the complex Lieber system used by the Elaysians, Ahrimana's likely looked like nothing more than a ballerina's leotard and tights.

It wasn't a sure bet by any means, but there was a good chance the woman wasn't particularly strong.

It would certainly explain the employment of the three thugs in the room adjacent to the one she currently occupied. The fourth man was as far away from them as he could be while remaining on the same building level. All five of them were on the first floor.

As far as Falcon could tell, the second floor was empty. She could see the electrical circuits and faint ribbons of electricity running through the walls, but nothing that suggested a lifeform . . . or anything else of interest, for that matter. Bryan did say his bedroom was on this level, so she made a mental note to check it out later. She would have missed the hidden spaces he'd marked on his map in True Form.

The basement was an entirely different story! There was equipment drawing massive amounts of power. The largest of these was likely the stasis chamber. Interestingly, a moderate amount of power was funneled to one of the rooms near the entrance to the building. She would need to get closer to figure out what that was all about.

True Form had a multitude of advantages, and one of them was the ability to literally sink into the ground of most planets. Trying to pass through non-organic matter was somewhat painful, but soaking into this planet's crust was always a treat no matter which part of the Multiverse she was in. Granted, her movement was slower than in the gaseous atmosphere, but Falcon used that to her advantage. She could study the house's foundation, the alien technology, and, specifically, the power source for all of it as she circled the building.

It was disturbing, to say the least. None of her personas were engineers — not by a long shot — but Falcon had been on enough ships to recognize the similarities between an impulse engine and the power source under the house.

Who the hell puts a fusion reactor in a populated area — not only inside the planet's atmosphere but underground?

Right. That seemed like something right up Nabob's alley. No matter what else they did here, they needed to notify Illtyd about this so he could send a team to get that thing away from this planet.

Finally, she carefully drifted through the building's first floor, starting with the rooms Bryan had marked as perpetually locked. If she'd been in a form with eyes, she'd have blinked them in surprise. Neither room had much of a floor: the stasis chamber was tall enough to protrude into this level. There were only two walkways, one that ran around the room's perimeter and the other that crossed the room where the wall had once been. All manner of lights, gauges, and things Falcon had never seen before, nearly covered the top of the unit. She wondered how old this thing was, then decided it didn't really matter.

She'd never met anyone other than another Daled who could sense her in True Form, but she stayed near the upper corners of the rooms as she drifted through them. The three thugs sat around a table in what might have been a den at one time. Now, it looked like a disaster area. In fact, it looked a lot like the sort of disaster area Damien the Playboy left in his wake. They were playing a card game that bore a striking resemblance to something Jason had taught her. What the hell was? Ah. Right. Canasta. They didn't seem any better at the game than she was. They also weren't particularly exceptional specimens of thugs. Shane was probably the only persona that would have a difficult time causing them any damage. Both Edward and Damien could disable them quite handily, though Edward was more likely to kill them. Each man had some sort of projectile weapon that could severely damage or even kill Bryan. She would definitely need to keep the thugs away from him.

In the next room, the kitchen . . . this must be Ahrimana. She was pacing back and forth across the room, occasionally looking at a clock on the wall. What was she waiting for? Perhaps the question should be: who was she waiting for? After about five minutes, Ahrimana opened the refrigerator and took out a bottle of orange juice. Hmm. That could point to her home planet being Caldos. Humans had adapted to the slightly lower pH and the slightly lower gravity. Flacon watched the woman drink down an entire liter of juice, rinse out the bottle, and toss it in a bin marked Recycling.

It was all so ordinary. That, of course, made Falcon suspicious.

Ahrimana stabbed at a button in an intercom unit near the outer doorway. "Max." She didn't sound happy. "Have you heard from Bryan?"

After a couple of seconds, the box crackled with electricity, and a non-committal male voice replied, "No, ma'am. As instructed, I would have notified you immediately."

"Well, where could he have gone? He's not with that whore he married. Have you discovered anything about this Belarussian girl who got mixed up with him?"

The pause this time was considerably longer. "I'm afraid you haven't authorized sufficient search privileges through my terminal, ma'am. Might I respectfully suggest you inquire about the girl through your contacts on the police force?"

Ahrimana growled as she slapped at the intercom unit.

Interesting, Falcon thought as she headed in Max's direction. Bryan was much more ambivalent about Max if I was reading him right. Maybe there's a reason for that.

She found an older man in a suit sitting in a lawn chair on the far side of the three-car garage. His elbows were propped on his knees, and he held his head in his hands.

Three motorcycles were parked in the space closest to the house; a sensible black sedan was parked in the middle; the far third was used for storage of . . . well, all sorts of things, as far as Falcon could tell. Some lawn care tools were tossed in a corner on top of car parts and crates. She wondered where Bryan had left his car when he was here. Since the underground garage was a false memory, perhaps the motorcycles were usually stored elsewhere.

As she drifted closer to Max, she could hear him crying softly.

That was strange.

Falcon waited a few minutes longer, but Max didn't say anything. Menolly was waiting for her. Duncan and Bryan would get to the glade soon. But something about this man reminded Flacon of someone, even though she couldn't remember who it was or which of her many personas had known them.

Whatever ambivalence Bryan might have about the man, one thing seemed certain: In addition to treating him poorly, Ahrimana had done something that tore at the man's heart.

Falcon arrived at the glade in True Form and quickly shifted to First Form. Unfortunately, Duncan and Bryan hadn't arrived yet.

"I'm not sure how long I was over there," she said to Menolly as the two of them looked up the road from the safety of the trees. "Duncan ought to be here soon, though, right?"

Menolly shrugged. "Duncan is doing something I didn't know he could do. I hope he gets here soon." She looked up at Falcon. "What did you find?"

"Beyond what you reported? Either she has a glamor on the property, or its appearance was part of Bryan's false memories. Or both. It doesn't look much like the house he described to me. From the glimpse I got of it yesterday, it seems like a smaller, more dilapidated version. However, his drawing of the hidden places in the building was fairly accurate. So he should still be able to use his hidey holes if it comes down to that."

"And the stasis chamber?"

Falcon closed her eyes and rubbed her temples, a thoroughly human gesture.

"She's using a fusion reactor to power it. And there was some other equipment on the first level that I didn't recognize. It's also drawing a good amount of power. It was near the front entry."

Menolly looked crestfallen. "I'm sorry I didn't mention that. It didn't seem as important as the stasis chamber."

"Hey, don't worry about it. No harm, no foul." Falcon laced her fingers behind her neck and opened her eyes, giving Menolly a half-smile. "I don't suppose you recognized what it was."

"I think it might be the thing that was reinforcing Bryan's false memories. I haven't actually seen one before, but my progenitor made sure I learned about them. It can work both ways: either implant false memories or pull out recent, accurate memories. Some of the models can do both at the same time." The young Messenger shuddered. "It's nasty. People shouldn't do that kind of thing."

Falcon sighed. "I know. And yet . . . they do." She stared across the road at the illusion of trees and hedges. "There are three men, all human, in a room next to Ahrimana's. They're armed, but if I shift to one of my, ah, less delicate and discerning personas, they won't be a problem."

This time, Menolly sighed. "I really hate Edward . . . even more than Duncan hates Shane."

"I'll keep that in mind if it comes to a fight. I got a good look at Ahrimana. I'm fairly sure she's from Caldos. And she's anxious about getting Bryan back."


Stepping back to lean against a tree, Falcon shook her head as her brows drew together in puzzlement. "I couldn't tell. Let's assume the people in the stasis chamber are his parents and his sister. I think the other one might be his mother's sister; they seemed energetically similar. Why let Bryan roam free, and why hold the others in stasis? If Nabob is involved, it definitely has something to do with his slave trade. But if it's someone else, who can say? Vesna met with the boy, and he's got memories of her telling him he's supposed to save the world."

"That could mean almost anything," Menolly said.

"I know. More than likely, she hadn't meant it literally." Falcon sighed. "She really did like to talk in circles. But I'm pretty sure she was trying to convey Bryan's importance to him. Maybe there's something he'll need to do as a Traveler that's the equivalent of saving the world. But that still doesn't tell us why his family is in the stasis chamber, and Bryan isn't."

Menolly shrugged. "Maybe she's holding them hostage? To force Bryan to do whatever she wants him to do?"

"Sure, that makes sense on one level. But then why bother messing with his memories? Either she's holding them hostage and holding them over Bryan, or she's manipulating his memories, so he thinks his family's dead."

"I don't know, Shia," Menolly said. "None of this makes sense: not her treatment of Bryan, not the equipment she's got over there."

Falcon sighed. "We need a full team here to work the problem." She paused for a few moments. "There was that fourth man, Max . . . the one with a connection to the people in the stasis chamber. Ahrimana told him to get more information about the amalgam form I took when I first wound up here, in addition to searching for Bryan. I burned a couple of aliases, but they're not going to find anything. But it seems like Ahrimana has some pull with the police department." She shook her head. "I suppose that makes sense. She has to make sure Bryan doesn't get into too much trouble. Makes me wonder what else she needs a police contact for."

She glanced toward the hidden building across the road. "I found Max in the garage, as far away from Ahrimana as a person could get and still be in the building. He was crying."

Menolly turned from her surveillance of the road and looked sharply at Falcon. "That's not typical human male behavior. Even I know that much."

"I know," Falcon said, nodding. "But it's not entirely atypical either. If I had to guess at his emotional state based on posture and facial expression, especially given that he was crying, I'd say he was grieving."

"For what? Or who? Bryan?"

Falcon shrugged. "Without asking him, I can't be sure. I don't have enough data to even speculate."

The sky began to darken ominously. Traveler and Messenger looked up at the dark gray disc hovering about the house Falcon had just inspected. Menolly shook with fear; Falcon started swearing.

Duncan arrived with Bryan just then, the former looking ashen and the latter shivering and looking nearly frozen before he fell to his hands and knees and began vomiting. Falcon had just started on some particularly potent Klingon curses.

"What . . .?" was all Duncan managed before he saw the gray disc as well. "Oh, shit. Is that—?"

"Nabob," Falcon spat out. "Yeah, and way too close to the planet, if you ask me."

The three of them watched the ship for a few seconds.

"But why?" Duncan asked.

Falcon shrugged. "There's no way he could have known I was here, at least, I don't think so. Not so fast, anyway. But you two might have blipped on his radar."

"Illtyd doesn't believe he has that technology," Duncan insisted. "And, as you said, he arrived awfully darn soon after we all arrived."

"Okay, then. It's just a huge coincidence that the three of us are right here with an untrained Traveler when he decided to visit his pal Ahrimana." Falcon glared at Duncan. "I don't like coincidences. And you look like shit."

"As ever, the soul of tact, Lady Shia."

"Fuck you, Duncan. We don't have the manpower or the weapons we need to deal with this added complication. You need to warn Illtyd."

"And you?"

She shrugged and pointed to the still-vomiting Bryan. "I'll take him to the coordinates Menolly gave me and bring him back to HQ. It's most of a continent away, but once we get out of Ahrimana's sphere of influence, we shouldn't have too many problems."

"I don't think you're going to have time, Shia," Menolly said with terror in her voice. She was staring at the ship.

One of the lower bay apertures was opening. Falcon recognized it as an atmospheric missile launcher. She'd seen Nabob use it once before; those missiles left a fairly decent-sized crater.

"Oh, fuck us all."

"Can we get any of the people out of there?" Duncan asked.

Falcon shook her head. "No. Once that . . ." She pointed to the slowly opening bay. ". . . starts, Nabob is done talking. The next move is boom."

"I don't think he ever started talking," Menolly pointed out.

"But why?" Duncan looked more confused than Falcon had ever seen him.

"I'm beginning to suspect Nabob found out she lost Bryan here. He doesn't take other people's failures very well. Never mind that it probably wouldn't have taken her very much longer to find him . . . even with me helping him. She'd have tracked him down in a day or two if I couldn't have gotten him off the planet. Probably."

"He's going to kill everyone in that building because Ahrimana hasn't recovered Bryan?" The Messenger sounded shocked.

"Nabob always cuts his losses, Duncan," Falcon said. "Ten people dead is nothing to him." Her golden eyes hardened. "Except it's going to be a hell of a lot more than ten people. Ahrimana has a fusion reactor under the house powering her stasis chamber."

He stared at her in horror for a couple of seconds. "UNSHIELDED???"

She nodded.

"Bryan will never make it out of the kill zone in time. Menolly and I can leave, but we have no way of protecting Bryan or taking him far enough away fast enough. Can you protect him?"

Falcon shook her head again as she glanced at Nabob's ship. The missile bay was halfway open.

"From a fusion reactor blast? Duncan, that's like an impulse engine overload. It's not as bad as a warp core breach; I'll grant you that. Depending on how well-made that stasis chamber is, the people inside might survive. But no. I can't protect Bryan. It's something that would hurt me even in True Form and would take hours, maybe days, to heal enough to take a solid form again.

Duncan sighed. "Fine. Can you get him out of here? Use the nearby passage you told us about?"

The shapeshifter growled in frustration. "Duncan! He has no training! I can sure as hell try, but all I can do is drag him along with me. I don't know how he will react to being towed through a passage or what we'll find on the other side. If I get injured, I can always shift to True Form. He's a squishy, easily damaged human!"

Duncan looked at Bryan, now curled in a fetal position and moaning. Then he looked at the ship. The missile door was about three-quarters open. He looked back at Falcon.

"We don't have a choice, Shia. What's that saying about fleeing that the Klingons hate so much?"

She sighed as she eyed the ship. "Run away to fight another day," she murmured. "Damn it, Duncan!" She looked at him, her eyes glistening like amber lights. "We're leaving hundreds, maybe thousands, of people to die because of that rat bastard."

Duncan's gaze didn't waver from hers. "I know."

"How can you stand it?"

He shook his head slightly. "I can't," he whispered. "But we keep going to fight another day."

Falcon blinked away the tears. First Form was one of her more empathetic ones, although she always tried to hide it. She spent so much time with humans in this form that she just cared too much. At least Shane was a little more balanced and even-tempered about his empathy for humans. Shashina was too mercurial.

She nodded to Duncan and Menolly. "All right. You two get out of here. I'll deal with Bryan."

"The least I can do is help you get him to the passage," Duncan offered.

Falcon shifted from First Form to Damien: the rugged six-foot, two-inch tall playboy who, apparently, had the training of an ex-Special Forces bodyguard. He easily picked Bryan up and hoisted him into a fireman's carry.

"I got this. I'll send you the cleaning bill if he pukes on me. Now get out of here, both of you."

With a final glance at the ship, Duncan and Menolly disappear. Damien started toward the passage deeper in the woods, muttering the whole way. Most of it was curses in various human and alien languages; sometimes, he just talked to himself.

Once he reached the passage, he set Bryan on his feet.

"Listen, man, I can't carry you like that through the passage, okay? I'll keep a good grip on you, right under your arms, right? You need to hang on, Bryan. I know you're groggy. I can see that you feel like shit. Yeah, I get that. But if you want to live, we need to go through that passage."

The sound of a whoomph presaged the fiery wind that would hit them any second.


Falcon jumped feet-first into the shimmering pool of energy, holding tightly to Bryan. No two trips through a passage, any passage, were ever the same. This one was more sensory deprivation than anything else, but there was a strange vibration to it as well. Could be the explosion causing it, he thought.

He only realized they'd existed the passage when he stumbled as he touched the ground. Surprisingly, the drop had only been a few inches. Also surprising, as well as distressing, he was alone.


Shifting to True Form, Falcon searched in ever-widening spirals for Bryan's energy signature.


Well, not nothing . . . just no Bryan.

At the edge of a highway, Falcon shifted back to First Form. "SHIT SHIT SHIT!"

She took in her surroundings. The constellations in the clear night sky guaranteed she was still on some variant of Earth. The nearby highway sign was an even better indication. It read: Albuquerque 44 — Gallup 183.

Wonderful. Just fucking wonderful. Who the hell knew where Bryan had wound up? Hopefully, he was somewhere on this gods-forsaken planet. Hopefully, he was all in one piece. Hopefully, he was in the same damn part of the Multiverse Falcon was.

In this case, the old song Two Out of Three Ain't Bad wasn't going to cut it. Bryan was going to have to hit the trifecta. And Falcon was going to have to find him.


© Kelly Naylor and TruthSeeker