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 the acceptance of it.

It was the part where you kept thinking "what if" — and you played it out so beautifully that sometimes you got lost in a daydream of some alternative universe. It was when everything and everyone were perceived through this new reality, and you couldn't really hear, and you couldn't really be present, and your mind just kept processing things over and over and over...

Bryan heard the baby crying. He turned off the faucet and took a deep breath, grabbed a towel, and headed upstairs as he dried his hands. Even his cry was hard 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 right back to sleep. Bryan loved that. He sat down in the rocking chair, and proceeded to rock back and forth with Baby Michael on his chest, fast asleep. Bryan had loved this kind of moment before three weeks ago. He had thanked God for this kind of moment before three weeks ago.

Three weeks ago, his world changed. Well, actually, it had been five weeks ago. That was when she told him that she had slept with another man and didn't know if Bryan was really Baby Michael's father. That was when the spinning started, but he thought he could stop it. She had 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. And that she loved him.

Maybe Bryan could forgive his wife. Perhaps this was what happened in marriages at times. Didn't couples go through this? Didn't wives regularly tell their husbands that, Oh, those 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?

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

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

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

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

He asked her that night about the texts. What the hell are these texts? And then it had all come out. That had been five weeks ago.

He heard her come home, and he put Baby Michael back in his crib and proceeded downstairs. She was distant and walked by him. This was her new thing. One day she was apologetic and kind and would do whatever it would take; 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 the 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 the 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 there were wispy bangs that 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 and red and 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 then dashed against the inside of the cranium.

All thoughts stopped, however, when the individual purposefully, and quite accidentally, attempted to stride right through Bryan. Physics demanded that the smaller 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! You couldn't tell. Not light, not dark. Ordinary. Very ordinary.

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

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

Yes, indeed, a sketch artist would have a great time with all of that.

Lips moved, but no sound came out. It was almost as if this person wasn't used to talking. The throat was cleared, 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, true. But no hint, no trace of an accent.

Bryan was taken aback by the look of this... well, person? He had 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, like a striking piece of art that drew you in on the first look. And those eyes... amber-colored. How unusual! How beautiful!

For a moment, he forgot about his problems, forgot about the impossibility of his situation. He reached down to help the individual up, but the gesture seemed to not be entirely welcomed. Or so he assumed. Instead, he did the oddest thing. He sat down on the ground next to him, um, her... THEM. He sat right next to them and proceeded to introduce 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, was sure this must be a woman. But 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 had 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 and reached out a hand to him, um, her... THEM, with a warm smile. 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 could not 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 they had just met.

His arm remained outstretched.

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

"Sorry? Why is?"

When he stood up again, the amber eyes watched. And then looked at the outstretched hand for seconds that nearly became 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. Perhaps it had merely the confusion over this apology, for the face surrounding the eyes became a study in patience.

Hesitantly, the person sat up straighter, then ran fingers over his or her face and through her or his hair. It almost looked as if he or she was trying to decipher what she or he 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.

The fingers that moved with purpose also moved swiftly. 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 carefully inspected, too.

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

Finally, 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 was, perhaps, unfamiliar with the gesture. In fact, before Bryan could even grasp the hand, the figure rose with preternatural grace.

Almost like a cat.

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

Again, the look of puzzlement crossed those unusual features... and this time, it stayed. So many things forgotten! Language... rudimentary at best. Identity...

Who who who who am I?

...forgotten, forgotten, forgotten.

Mostly.

"Thinking I am called first... Shia." A tilt of the head... 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. Unlike a child, she studied that connection — however slight — between two beings.

And 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 as Shia seemed to ask where she or he was. With a name like Shia, he was going to assume that this was a she, though he still wondered. He well remembered all the individuals he 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 was used to.

Although it didn't sound like an accent, Shia's words suggested a foreign take on the English language. Her words came out in a different order. Or perhaps she had a mental disability? But the way she raised herself off the ground, he almost wondered if she was a ballerina or dancer of some sort.

"Shia, it's very nice to meet you," Bryan replied. "You're on Williamsburg Boulevard." This information did not seem to resonate with her. He then wondered how old she was. He really couldn't tell, but she was assuredly younger rather than older. He was guessing that she must be a young adult, though perhaps that was due to her slight stature.

"Shia, may I ask where you're from?" Bryan figured that this would answer some of the preliminary questions in his mind. Based on her answers, perhaps he would walk her to her destination, invite her back home and drive her to where she needed to go, or just call 911 and have the authorities help out.

As he thought this, he reached into his pocket to pull out his cell phone. He stopped once his hand was on his phone, however. He just had a feeling that such a move might startle Shia, and that was the last thing he wanted to do.

It was at this precise moment that Bryan 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 sister-in-law who was severely borderline personality, and suspicious of everyone and anyone, though she was the most unethical being walking the earth.

"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.

These last five weeks had been duly complicated by Lauren with her claims that it was, in fact, Bryan that had been cheating. Of course, he had not. But as with any person with a borderline personality disorder, the best defense was a remarkably illogical and fully projected offense. His wife had momentarily grabbed hold of these allegations, solely because it helped to alleviate the weight of what she had done. But when questioned, Lauren quickly admitted that the "friend" who confided in her really was just Lauren confiding in Lauren, and in fact, it was really more of a hunch, and in truth, she had nothing.

Bryan turned his attention back to Shia.

She did look puzzled when Bryan gave her the street name. She didn't so much say the street name 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.

Before she could answer, however, one of the loud, ugly... things... rolled by. It moved much more slowly than any of the others she'd seen. And the person inside had made a horrible noise that so many of them made. She forced herself not to wince.

Strangely, this newly met person, this Bryan, seemed as upset by the thing as she 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 vehicle 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 that much more intense.

"Why is good not for you?"

Bryan laughed at Shia's question and perhaps laughed a little too loudly. His last job at the state environmental department would have had him answering this question based on 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 of it.

So instead, he decided to answer from a personal standpoint. Who cared if he 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 toward.

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

God, that felt so good!

"She is 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. And 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 will yell at you, but if I complain then you need to agree but don't agree too much because then you are complaining, too, and I will yell at you.

Shia's golden eyes seemed to bring something out in 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 had cheated. Yup!!"

The yup was said way too loudly.

"And the best part?! Do you want to know the best part?!? It turns out that my son is not my son! YUP! He's not. So I am living in a house with a woman who cheated on me. And taking care of a baby who is not mine. YUUUUPP!"

Bryan ran his fingers through his hair and then let out a really long, loud, agonizing sound, followed by a moment of silence, which subsequently culminated into a ball of sorrow that finally came 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?"

And the anger came back to his voice as if mentioning it summoned it. "And she has the fucking nerve to act like I'M the asshole?!?"

Another sob then one last burst of anger with "REALLY?!"

And then, deep breaths. Bryan had gotten something off his chest that he had so desperately needed to release. He looked up at Shia, wondering what she must think of him right now.

Shia merely watched Bryan, showing very little emotion beyond surprise.

But inside... oh, inside her thoughts were reeling!

A bad person? There was something about a bad person she thought she should remember, 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?

Then something, she couldn't say what, but something seemed to have come from a place she couldn't see and 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, not sure what the proper protocol was in this kind of 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 did wonder at that, for she had no injuries of her own that she could detect either.

Ah, 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. There was something in the back of her mind that 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. 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 was there 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 somewhere in the back of her mind, the answers hid. Why did they hide? Had she ever not remembered herself before? She thought she knew who she was, but did she really?

But there was that one thing that she knew with absolute certainty. 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, for 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 she would know one more thing that 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... it was one of her names. It was the oldest of her names, and the one that came closest to her True Name, the one that could be said aloud. And she knew her home was Light. Or 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..."

She looked away. She couldn't even remember the last time she had spoken to someone she had considered a comrade. All had been enemy for too long... or 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. 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 had made to her. She wrapped her arms around her legs and rested her chin on her knees... an odd position to see from human eyes, yet she found it comfortable and almost comforting. It didn't occur to her that she was very nearly some sort of acrobat or contortionist when she folded herself this way. She only knew... comfort. Perhaps some small amount of safety.

Amber eyes quietly watched this Bryan, this other. He was not enemy; that was enough.

Bryan wondered if this was some sort of yoga position or if Shia was an acrobat. 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. And maybe he needed to fight, or perhaps he just needed to flee. But he felt like he was dying inside. And Shia just said not to die — fight or flee, but don't die.

Bryan took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then smiled at Shia and said, "Thank you, Shia. Thank you very much. You are 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, who was a beacon of friendship right now in some crazy kind of way and looked behind him to see the enemy staring him right in the eye. It was Lauren. Of course.

She got out of the car, slammed the door, and headed toward them at a fast pace, shouting, "You mother fucker! I knew you were cheating on my sister!" Bryan turned his body so that he was standing between Shia and the oncoming assault of 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."

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

Byran 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!"

Lauren reached into her back pocket and took out her cell phone and proceeded to hold it up as if she were going to take a picture of Shia.

"Give me that!" Bryan asserted and grabbed Lauren's wrist. That was when time seemed to stand still.

"You mother fucker!" Lauren said as she looked at Bryan's hand around her wrist. "So now you're assaulting me?" And with that, a smile came over her face. This was precisely the kind of moment she lived for — the moment when she provoked someone into actually doing something that could put them in the wrong.

At that moment, as time slowed to a standstill, Bryan thought back to their wedding. Lauren had claimed that one of the waiters made a pass at her. But after he turned out to be gay, and her lie didn't make sense, she changed her story and claimed he threatened her. The young man had, at first, been taken aback, then apologetic, and finally became rather upset about the false accusation. It had been at that moment that the police had arrived, whom Lauren had called because she always called the police. And as the officer had been approaching the situation, walking up behind the young man, he was just in time to hear the waiter shout, "You lying bitch, I really should kick your ass!"

And then, the officer had grabbed the young man's arm from behind, twisted it up, and pushed him to the ground. Technically, he did just threaten Lauren, kind of. Or at least he gave proof to the claim for which Lauren had called 911 in the first place.

Bryan had watched the whole thing unfold in front of him. There had been drama at their wedding, something Lauren always created. The waiter was arrested but later released because Lauren ended up finding someone else that she actually liked and hoped to date, and hadn't the need to entertain herself by making another person's life miserable anymore.

Coming back to the present, Bryan knew that this was not going to end very well. He had 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 just corned her mouse — she had him.

Shia might have replied to Bryan had the other, the enemy not stopped her foul machine and approached.

Wise? No. That wasn't the correct word to describe what she had tried to convey to him. As Bryan stood and placed himself between her and the enemy, she at least felt the sense he might have understood what she said. It wasn't wisdom, however. She knew that. It was simply pragmatism.

Shia stood as well, quickly unfolding herself, still unaware that those around her did not move as smoothly, as surely, as effortlessly as she did.

She didn't understand the enemy's words... well, a few of them perhaps. She understood the enemy herself, however. She had 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 he merely perceived it as one. In either case, it did not honestly 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, and 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 the two of them.

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 did not 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. The weapon disappeared from the enemy's hand. Shia remembered enough to know 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."

At this moment, this one moment that might only last a few seconds... a minute... not long at all, 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 at 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 quite clearly predatory.

Not threatening. The enemy would not need to fear retaliation from Shia for attempting to harm Bryan.

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... though she couldn't say how she knew that.

Lauren was looking at someone who might very well appear to be even more dangerously unbalanced than she was.

Appearances are so often deceiving. While Shia was — at this moment, in the middle 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! For the first time since she found herself in this strange place with no memories, Shia felt like herself. She was reasonably confident that the name was only remembered by... well, possibly no one. But whatever name she was called by others, this was who she truly was.

It all happened so quickly that Bryan wasn't sure that it actually happened. He saw Shia move, and he heard her words. Then he saw 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 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, and while taking a few steps backward, yelled, "So this is what you are into?! Some crazy freak!" And as she made one last attempt to see if her cell phone was on the ground, looked back up at Bryan. "A freak who steals cell phones!" Then she turned and ran toward her car. Once she opened the driver's side door, she looked back at them. "You're gonna pay for that phone!" She took one last look at Shia, who was still staring at her.

"And YOU! You don't scare me... FREAK!" Then she got in her car and peeled away.

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 had 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." And then she smiled at the enemy. She was not lying; she did not steal the weapon.

Bryan let out a deep breath and turned to Shia. She 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 stood up to crazy Lauren to do it.

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

He looked down at the ground, and around them, genuinely wondering where Lauren's cell phone was. Lord knew she would probably take him to small claims court over it. But no phone could be found.

"Her cell phone? That's so odd." But Bryan let it go and looked back into Shia's amber eyes. "Thank you again, Shia." And at the thought of Lauren being stopped in her tracks and peeling away... Well, it was like the bully being defeated on the playground. Bryan let out a laugh. It felt so good.

He placed a hand on Shia's shoulder, just a gesture of friendship, but quickly pulled it back. He hoped he hadn't just overstepped a boundary.

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

After the enemy had departed, Shia had wanted to laugh as well, although perhaps not for the same reasons Bryan laughed. Cowards were all the same. She didn't know why she knew that, but it didn't matter. She knew it was true.

"Oh... help not so much did I," she said to Bryan when he thanked her. "Only keeping safe you. Job? Duty?" She shrugged. "Slippery are words still."

She watched as he looked for something on the ground, puzzled.

"Cell. Phone? Is what?" And then she 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."

She didn't flinch at his touch; in fact, 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.

"Hunger... eating... ah, food, yes."

She 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 the how and why of having arrived in this place were also of great importance. On the other hand, food would provide energy to search for 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. She remembered her cousin so vaguely but 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 had only just met, he felt that Shia was a sincere person. He thought that she would sincerely appreciate a kind gesture. He longed for that appreciation.

"Well, Shia, we are only a minute away from my house. There is a good chance that Lauren is there. But we can hop in my car and go to the best diner in town, Kelly's Place. They have an incredible cream of broccoli soup that will knock your socks off!"

Bryan suddenly realized that perhaps using expressions like "knock your socks off" might not translate well for Shia. He still wondered where she was from, but decided to let her tell him when she was ready.

"You will like their food a lot. Everyone does," he said simply. "Come on, let's go."

She 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, and that's all that she really needed to know.

It occurred to her that she was remembering the how of things...

She remembered studying and learning languages and mannerisms and all their various nuances and meanings. She couldn't remember why.

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

She hadn't remembered that part when she... put the weapon elsewhere.

Well, perhaps she would remember now. It seemed that once remembered here in this place, a fact would manage to remain in her mind. Shia still wanted to know where she was... how she got here... and most importantly, who she really was.

They began walking down the street together. Old Mrs. Hildigger was tending to her flower bed when she saw the two walk by. Bryan knew that this would fuel some great gossip. 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."

Then Pete, the postman, came walking along. "Hey, Pete!" Bryan waved. Pete looked at Bryan and smiled, then looked at Shia and stopped smiling. Bryan kept on moving and offered, "Have a good one!" as they walked past each other.

They were approaching Bryan's house. Lauren's car was in the driveway behind his wife's. Fortunately, Bryan had parked on the street a few doors up. They would be able to slip into the car and drive away without incident.

"Okay, Shia, the black car is mine."

He walked up to the passenger side door, unlocked the car, and opened the door for Shia. Then he smiled and gestured toward the seat and said, "After you, madam."

She walked with him along the hard path. He pointed out an older person caring for plants in front of one of the houses. 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 to plants in very, very large places 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.

There was another person whom Bryan greeted as though... she pondered that for a moment. Perhaps they were friends? Was that the right word? It seemed to apply, possibly, in the way Bryan greeted the Pete, perhaps in the way the Pete smiled at Bryan. But the frown he showed her?

She might be misinterpreting almost everything. Still.

She saw the foul machine of the enemy before Bryan pointed at his own machine. They were not alike, and yet...

Well, 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...

Shia wasn't sure where she was supposed to return to. 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 found herself here, hadn't there been? And there was something specific she was supposed to find in that place with all the grass.

Her expression changed slightly when Bryan opened the door of his... his car? Yes, he had 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 some she'd said? Or had someone else said that to her? Who? And when? And where?

Just then, police sirens could be heard. Bryan looked in that direction and saw a police car speed down their street, stopping in front of his house. "Don't tell me she actually called the cops! That crazy bitch!"

Two police officers got out of the car and fortunately didn't notice Bryan or Shia standing about six car lengths away. The police officers rang his bell. Who opens the door but Lauren, of course. The police officers stepped inside.

Oh, God, here we go, Bryan thought. On the one hand, Bryan felt the urge to go in there and clear his name. One the other hand, he felt just as compelled to just leave with Shia. He looked back at her, his hand on the open door, wondering if she still wanted to go get something to eat.

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. The enemy opened the door and allowed the others into his home. Confederates of the enemy? Or impartial intermediaries?

She felt such an overwhelming urgency to do something and knew that 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 did not know enough. She did not 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 perplexed 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. Find you allies. Find..." She looked around and 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."

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

Shia said it was time to flee. At least, that's what he thought she 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. Bryan was ready to close the car door for her and jump in the driver's side and flee, as Shia put it, but just when he was about to close it, Shia started to get out.

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

He looked her right in the eyes. The color was so startling and different and beautiful. He could tell there was so much thinking going on in her head. He just assumed she had had a fascinating life — merely based on her appearance, never mind her grasp of English. Maybe she immigrated here.

He didn't want to be rude, so he said, "Shia, I would 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."

He didn't know what else to do, so he walked quickly to the other side of the car and got in the passenger seat. It was up to Shia to decide if she really wanted to go with him.

She shook her head. "Not understanding you. Leaving should I. For protection of you." She grimaced in frustration as he looked at her and then decided to flee this place anyway.

She 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 even sure they were real memories or even her own memories. But they were terrible memories nonetheless. Perhaps it was merely something she had 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 Shia than others did, but some of them 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 kin of hers who was in trouble? If it was kin, didn't she owe them the loyalty of helping?

She wished she knew.

When Bryan got into his machine, she sighed and knew she needed to decide what she was going to do.

Just then, the front door to his home opened, and his wife stepped out with their baby son in her arms. Well, not their son, really. The baby was hers. His heart ached.

Baby Michael 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 would have been the one to help comfort whoever needed it. Just then, one of the officers walked out and stood very close to his wife. In fact, he stepped a little too close to her. And then, as if time went into slow motion...

...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 then she leaned back in and kissed him in return! And the officer patted his son's head, then put an arm around his wife. If he didn't know any better, he 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. And it was at this moment that his wife just happened to look in his direction — she just happened to turn and look — and she saw him. He could see how she gasped, how the officer followed her gaze, and as if by instinct, stepped in Bryan's direction.

Shia needed to decide right now. Except just then, from the lair of the enemy, a person emerged... a female person... 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 was so real that it could only be her own, crashed over her. She did remember 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? It could be 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.

And 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 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.

She 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 harmed either.

At least... well, she thought that was what she was supposed to do.

Jason... that was his name. The pilot. He had saved her, and she had 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 he left — taking her with him — 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!"

Bryan was so taken aback by the kiss between his wife and this officer, that he almost didn't register officer coming toward him. And not just coming toward him, but pulling out his gun and aiming it at him. Shia's fist hitting his shoulder was the best thing that could have happened. It jarred him to his senses.

Bryan looked at Shia, feeling so appreciative that she chose to stay with him. He felt so alone at this moment, except for Shia. She gave him comfort.

Bryan turned the car on and threw the car into gear, pulling away and driving right past the officer. Everything seemed to be fine, except that he was running away from the police. He was rationalizing this at the moment. The police officer had personal motives with his wife, there must be something below the law here.

Just as he was thinking about his options to handle this, the first gunshot went off. No. This can't be happening. That was the only thing that managed to fly through his mind before the next shot went off and shattered his rear window. "Shia, keep your head down!" he shouted and peeled to the right down a side street.

He looked behind him to see a significant hole where the window had been and shattered glass all over the back seat. "That son of a bitch!" he yelled.

"Shia, are you alright?" he asked. Before any answer could even be forthcoming, were sirens going off.

"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.

"I know you're hungry!" He looked at Shia and tried some semblance of a calm smile even though he was beyond afraid.

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

She heard the words Bryan was saying but didn't bother to try parsing them to decipher the meaning. 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... is 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 sense of respite.

And why remember all this now? Is 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.

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 can 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 useful in this situation. Would she?

What had come after that? What had happened after Jason helped her escape from those who had been 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 needs to find, but they were legion. And that, too, was good.

"I am well."

It was essential to reassure him of that. 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 would 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."

She looked behind them and saw the pursuers. Yes. They were just far enough away that her plan could work.

She unbuckled her seatbelt and said once more 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 came to a stop in the middle of the street and rose to her hands and knees. Precisely as she had 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 did not think they would, for they were not Nabob.

She kept her head lowered and shook it from side to side.

Memories were returning, and they seemed to be returning quickly. But were they memories that would help her? Were they memories that would allow her to help Bryan?

Shia knew of some who invoked deities to aid them. If she knew of any deities that could help her now, she would assuredly invoke them.

Unfortunately, her people had no deities. That much she always seemed to remember.

"Shia!" he yelled at the top of his lungs after she jumped out of the car and somehow also managed to close the door. 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 perhaps even enduring possible arrest.

But in the same instant, her words sank into his mind — she had 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 her over. As if time paused for this moment, as he considered all his options, he realized that it would be impossible to get to Shia before the police did. And he somehow knew that she would be all right... even if they swerved around her and didn't stop. Yes, he thought, at the very least, they would swerve, and he would gain some precious seconds ahead of them. Or they would stop altogether, and he would be free.

He decided to trust Shia and kept driving. After all, she seemed to be similar to him in some ways. Perhaps she had abilities as well.

He made several turns as he zig-zagged his way through the city, finally heading toward the countryside. There were many trees — forests really — that lined the country road, broken up by the scattered country houses and low-cut lawns. As he approached a right curve in the road, he reached down and opened the glove compartment and pulled out a small device with two buttons on it — one red and the other blue. He clicked the red button, and then made a sharp right turn into what should have been a forest of tall oak, elm, and pine trees. But 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's image returned, hiding the secret driveway from anyone that passed by.

A quarter-mile down the road, he saw his great aunt's home, an enormous mansion with sweeping peaks, and a three-quarter wraparound porch that welcomed long talks in the spring and autumn months, and an excellent place to watch thunderstorms in the summertime.

He pressed the blue button on the little remote, and the doors of the garage to the right of the mansion opened forward and upward, revealing an inclined roadway that curved to the left. He rolled in, pressing the button again to close the doors. Lights came on along the underground driveway, and as he drove the car into an ample open space, it too was illuminated along 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. "Greetings, Master Bryan. So good to see you. Your aunt has been eager to catch up and to learn from your perspective what has been going on."

Ah, yes, 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," Bryan responded, and took a cookie.

"Always, Master Bryan," replied Max.

Bryan headed up the ramp and into the "Dishing Room." It was the room where every visitor had to "dish" about where they had been. Everyone, including Bryan, had to share any information that might be relevant to the mission. A log was kept and archived.

Elsa had been working on an improvement to the Dishing Room. Instead of talking and relaying all the human errors and inaccuracies, the new Dishing Room was going to be able to scan a person, including their brain, and gather all data instantaneously.

Bryan wondered if the new scanning system was complete yet.

# # #

Shia had heard Bryan call out her name, and she had 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 had when she jumped out of Bryan's car. In fact, it was enough to know that, in jumping out of Bryan's car, she had been just as reckless as she'd always been. She would have smiled had she dared.

She remembered her True Name, her first Chosen Name, many of the names she had used over the years — including the one known to Nabob. Fortunately, she never entirely forgot Nabob. Given the paucity of memories she had before running into Bryan, it's not surprising that she had 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 would 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 had asked the question. He was wary, approaching her as if she was a wild animal.

That was pretty darn funny. And awfully damn accurate.

The features he saw weren't the ones Bryan had seen. 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 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 small scrapes. That was probably good. 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.

Shia was able to see the side of one police vehicle... City of Seattle. She let that settle in with the 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 did not sigh, although she really wanted to. Her memories were showing her all the many times she had 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 and helped her to stand.

The length of her hair, her eyes, her height... these were things she either could not or dared not change. But nearly everything else had changed enough that, had Bryan seen her now, he would 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 up.

"That bitch stole my phone!!" Lauren screamed.

Shia started enough to stumble into the police office and then looked wide-eyed at the woman. An act, and a good one, for Shia could remember that acting at being the person she seemed to be... Oh yes, that was the essence of how she evaded Nabob.

"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 police officer said. The rest of the officers put their weapons away.

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

"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 to 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 to 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 blandly, as though she had never seen her before. The two police officers closest to Shia sighed.

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

"But that's..."

"Yeah, yeah... I know who it is. And Santos oughta have had 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 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.

She was evil... in Bryan's opinion, she should amend. These law enforcement officers seemed to think crazy was a defining characteristic of the woman, although there was indeed a subtext of "evil" as well.

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

She paused and appeared to be 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..." Again she shrugged. "Am understand not good. Only know Eugene is saying."

The office 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 him or her 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 finally gave her a sympathetic smile. "That sounds like Sammamish. It's a town across Sammamish Lake from Bellevue. 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. Well, once she got out of here, she did not intend to come back.

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

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

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

"Am understand nyet her sayings, but making loudness..." Shia snugged her jacked 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 just said.

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

The two officers 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 ponderous seriousness.

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

It took him a few seconds to realize what she said. As promised, he didn't laugh. But he did look surprised... very 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?"

She looked down the street in the direction from which she had 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, as she 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 cell phone, Officer Furst said to Shia, "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. Do you understand."

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

A babysitter. Great. Oh, well.

"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 he usually would 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 and then came back on with a blue tint, and Bryan could feel a warmth moving from his head to his toes and back up again. This repeated several times over. Then the standard lighting came back on, and the door opened.

"Scan complete," the automated voice said.

Bryan walked out of the Dishing Room and down a long hallway. At the end was the back entryway to the kitchen. He could smell something delicious cooking. He was hungry.

He walked into the kitchen to find his Great Aunt Elsa cooking her homemade vodka sauce and Chicken Française.

"It smells delicious!" Bryan called out with a smile and open arms. Elsa put down her cutting knife and walked over to her favorite great nephew.

"Well, a special dinner for a special visitor," she replied warmly and hugged Bryan.

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

"Oh, yes, but just tonight," Elsa replied.

She was tall and slender, with a heap of white hair on top of her head. Her eyes were a magnificent blue. Most people would think she was much younger than she really was.

"I see the new scanner is working now," Bryan pointed out as he sat on a stool at the counter. Elsa resumed cutting up vegetables.

"Yes," she replied, "it is, and I love it. Not only does it scan your mind for an instant record of everything you know, but it also scans your body for cell memory and injury. I had to negotiate the latter."

Just as Bryan was about to ask Elsa how she achieved that, she yelled out in pain and grabbed her finger. "Damn! I always do this when cutting onions." She held up her finger, and the 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," Elsa said with a smile, "I track you, remember."

"Yes, I know. And I suppose you saw Shia."

"Oh, yes, Shia. I am very, very intrigued by her." Elsa put the knife back down. "She's unlike anyone I've ever seen. She just can't be from this planet, but then 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 as to who she is."

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

Elsa walked over to Bryan and placed her arm around his shoulder. "Don't worry, my dear Bryan. You are almost ready for your ultimate mission. And when you are, there will be much more love waiting for you."

"Elsa." Bryan rolled his eyes. "I already told you I am not interested in Melba."

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

Bryan knew she was right. So much of his life was a lie. Shia made him feel like he could get a fresh start. He wondered if she was even thinking about him right now.

# # #

Shia was not 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 the others to figure out her "friend" Teshka didn't exist. They wouldn't be particularly thrilled.

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 since before she had 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 US to practice English and to 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 Tess 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 necessary, even though this Liz individual was not 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 along with it no less than half a dozen additional ones. She was almost entirely convinced, however, that she was in the right 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 park... 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 mixed 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... ah, 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 at the trees in question. "Most of them are poplars. That one with 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 to 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 were leaving gaping holes exactly where she needed them most. She moved slowly from one tree to the next, inspecting each one. Well, no, pretending to inspect 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 wasn't so much a memory as it was a feeling... she would recognize when she found it. But she also had the impression that she didn't always notice the... whatever it was she sought. Even when she knew where it was.

# # #

Bryan headed up to his bedroom after dinner, and after saying goodnight to Great Aunt Elsa. 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, 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 never did. Or how he had impressions of siblings in his mind, though Elsa swore he was an only child. Or how he first discovered that Elsa was different and, eventually, that he was different, too.

It was why he fell in love with his wife. He had wanted to be normal, to belong, to be a 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 of 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 twice?

He leaned back on the bed and closed his eyes, pictured Shia's face, her eyes. Those beautiful, yellow tiger eyes...

"Good Lord!" Bryan 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... what was the word? Right, right... cars. And occasionally something larger and heavier.

In the middle of the moderately young trees — they couldn't have been more than a decade old, and she wasn't sure how she knew that — Shia spied an ancient tall, gnarled oak that lorded 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 this 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, each time sensing something peculiar on one side. She didn't want to get too close... and she wasn't really 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 the spot 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. Not 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... an aura of not-normal. Slowly, carefully... she stretched out 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 continued to hold her hand out, she closed her eyes to concentrate on the familiarity. It wasn't that she was remembering... it was merely some part of her recognizing it. 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 discovered the place she had needed to find.

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

# # #

He had been ten years old, when one cold winter night, there had been a loud banging noise and bright light outside his window. He had called for Aunt Elsa, but she hadn't come. Suddenly his bedroom window had burst open, the curtains fluttering all about. Although he had been terrified, he had gotten out of bed and pulled the window closed.

He'd turned around to see this little girl sitting on the edge of the bed, with her knees pulled in tight to her chest. At least, he had thought at the time it was a girl. She had looked somewhat gender-neutral.

The girl had just looked at him. Only now did he remember her eyes — intriguing yellow tiger eyes. He had asked her name, but she hadn't responded. So he had told her his name. He remembered her speaking to his mind, without moving her lips, Bryan is your name here. But your parents named you Keenan.

My parents? he'd thought. You knew my parents?

As if he had spoken it, she replied, Yes, I knew them well. He remembered taking a step toward her, but the window had burst open again. He'd turned quickly to close it, and when he had looked back at the bed, the girl had been gone.

Bryan 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. He knew Shia couldn't be that girl. Or was she?

Only one way to find out. He put his shoes back on. He needed to get back to Shia.

Bryan was speeding down the road and nearly ran into a tractor-trailer coming around the bend. All he knew was that he needed to find her. She was bringing back a memory for him... something he needed to know about.

He pulled up along the park and saw Shia looking at some trees. He couldn't have been able to explain how or why he knew he'd find her here — only that, for some inexplicable reason, he knew that she'd be right here. At this park. A woman he vaguely recognized as someone from the local police station was sitting on a nearby bench, but she was 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 started running toward Bryan. When she was a few feet away from him, he shouted, "He took off that way! Around the corner! He has my wallet and all my money and social security card! Please, go get him!"

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

Bryan 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. He could hear her talking to one of the patrol officers.

Bryan immediately got up, hopped back in his car, and then drove into the park, across the grass, directly to Shia. He pulled up next to her so that the passenger side door was facing her, opened it, and shouted, "Quick! Get in!"

She had 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!!!"

She fell forward on 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 a voice and wondered why Bryan would have come back. It made no sense. And it was his machine that took away her... Shia wasn't sure, but something somewhere in her mind told her 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 she had unconsciously changed her appearance yet again. While not her True Form, it was the one she had first mastered. Her skin was a warm shade of brown, her features could be described as a mixture of many Native American groups. Her black hair was nearly waist-length and fell around her face and shoulders in a carelessly tangled mess. 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 the woman turned toward him, Bryan thought he must have mistaken her for Shia, for she looked nothing like her. But the woman knew his name, and when he looked at her eyes, they were Shia's eyes. Could it be? Those eyes... yes, it was Shia. Well, he thought it was.

"Shia, is that you? I came back for you!"

He took a few steps toward her, but the way she clawed at the ground and cried, he stopped abruptly. She seemed under such duress. The car was still running; they didn't have much time.

She made no move to get up and exhibited absolutely no desire to get in his machine. When she first met him, she had so few memories, and she had 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 side door wider. "Shia? Please, just get in the car!" Bryan pleaded. But she wasn't moving.

He walked over to her and knelt down next to her on the ground. What had she been clawing at? Bryan touched the earth next to Shia's 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 in his mind.

He placed his hand on Shia's shoulder. "Please, Shia?" he asked one more time.

"I only wanted to go..."

She 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.

Shia couldn't look at him, and 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."

She stood as gracefully as she had previously, although now she was a good seven or eight inches taller than she had been when she tumbled to the ground after running into Bryan. It seemed as though days, rather than a mere few hours, had flown by in the interim.

Looking back at the base of the tree, she 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, moved it away from her face. And then her head snapped around to stare at Bryan and his vehicle for a second... and another.

"Ah, no..." Shia 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 mumbled to herself. Her hair stayed as if tied back when she brought her hands forward again.

Shia crossed her arms and looked at him impassively. She would 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."

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

"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 place his hand on her shoulder, just to touch her and offer some type of support. Clearly, his return wasn't as welcomed as he thought it would be. Perhaps this connection that he felt with Shia, including the memory she stirred in him of a visitor from long ago, was all really in his mind.

Her transformation proved to him that she was different, and most likely not from here — of course, here being Earth — or perhaps not from the present time — year, month, day. She was from some other place. And 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 a matter of 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, she 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 quite 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 had 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 want 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 he had in his place among the many trees. That option was no longer available, at least not now.

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 herself sometimes found her own actions and thoughts incomprehensible when layer after layer of personas was wrapped around the core of the one known as Shia.

Bryan slowly removed his hand from Shia's shoulder and looked up at the branches of the tree. 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. Not like he thought he would be.

Bryan walked back to the car and took one last look at Shia. She looked quite beautiful in this different form. How he wished she would have been happy to see him!

He closed the passenger side door, stepped around to the other side, got back into the car, all the while watching Shia. Finally, he closed the door and put the car into reverse. Slowly, he backed up and turned the car around in the grass. This wasn't what he had thought would happen.

As he turned the car around, Liz came running from around the corner, empty-handed. And that made sense, of course, considering that he made up the whole story about someone taking his wallet.

The policewoman didn't know who he was, which was a small blessing. He slowly drove the car to the edge of the park and gave her a wave. He shouted, "I found it on the ground about ten feet away. He must have dropped it. Thank you for your help, officer!"

Liz started to respond, but Bryan was already turning away from her and heading in the opposite direction. There was much work to get done, he knew. Aunt Elsa's plan was already in motion, whether he liked it or not.

He drove to the far corner of the park and gave one last look 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 had not followed him. It had been a long time ago, and he had been the fool then — not taking her seriously, starting that fight. But when he went after her, when he had tried to apologize and make things right, she had done what Shia was doing now... Rebecca had sat and watched him drive away. He had never seen her again after that night.

And so, as he looked at Shia, Bryan wondered if he drove away now, would he never see her again either?

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, in refusing to go with him. She felt a tug of what might be something akin to guilt when she saw the look on his face before he drove off.

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

As he drove off, Liz took a few careful steps into the grove of trees. In the few seconds that it took her eyes to adjust to the dimmer light, Shia had resumed her seat on the ground against the trees.

And she made damn sure her appearance matched what Liz would expect.

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

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

"Um, okay." The policewoman 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 even as she was standing 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 window shattered, after all.

He was going to pass out of view momentarily, however, so she needed to decide how to proceed. The passage below could return any second... or it could be days, weeks, 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?

On the other hand, Bryan apparently thought she would 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.

She watched as Bryan's car followed the curve of the road, taking him out of sight for the final time.

"Oh, bloody hell," she mumbled to herself 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.

She had always enjoyed flying. From the first moment she had felt the updraft of air lifting her as she stabilized her form on the winds, she had 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 would 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 her, touch her, hold her, hurt her when she was in her True Form. And yes, she felt like she should be remembering someone who almost understood her when she took to this form.

Well, the memory would come, or it wouldn't come. She drifted high above the building and grounds hidden by trees. It didn't look anything like the image Bryan had initially had in his mind, but perhaps his thoughts had been more of safety and familiarity than the actual structure. 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. 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 was not visible, and yet she knew it was there.

That's some damn advanced illusion technology.

She had seen similar technology, sure... but this place didn't seem to be capable of producing something that advanced. Or something that had the ability to create the go-away barrier that unnerved her.

Yes. Very interesting.

Just who was this Bryan Merchant anyway?

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

She had all the time in the world now.

In this world, anyway.

# # #

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

"Master Bryan?" Max inquired but received no response.

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 and close the door, and just sit in this feeling of UCK.

Elsa was walking down the stairs when Bryan turned the corner from the kitchen and seemed genuinely concerned about him. "I presume you were not able to convince your friend to come with you?"

Bryan shrugged his shoulders at Elsa and walked by her on the stairs. She already knows the answer, he thought. Or she will in a few minutes when she reads the complete report from the Dishing Room.

He went into his bedroom, closed the door, and walked over to the window, opening it so that the breeze could blow softly over his face. His bedroom faced the front of the house. He could look out over the expanse of lawn all the way to the row of trees against the road. Then he stepped backward about six steps and allowed himself to fall back on his bed. He closed 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, and there was the prey. Each went about the business of being who and what they were. All of them avoided Shia.

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, of course, although she doubted that he had, given his insistence on reaching this place of safety.

On the road itself? Cars and... ah, good, more memories were returning. Trucks and motorcycles. And even 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.

The afternoon became evening, and Shia hoped Policewoman Liz would not find herself in 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 perhaps not.

As night fell, a youngling prey animal...

...fawn...

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

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

It looked at the form Shia had chosen and cried again. It did not seem to understand that Shia's shape was the predator. But it could be forgiven that misunderstanding, for it was young and Shia's form was not 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 did not want to leave her post, she needed to keep watch on 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 cold... it seemed to find comfort in the warmth of Shia's body. Soon enough, it fell asleep.

As she watched, as she protected this young animal, she wondered about the child Bryan had been so worried over. Now his words made more sense, although they had barely been more than incoherent sounds to her ears earlier. Even though she had not experienced a betrayal of that type, she had known others who had. It was never easy. And because there was never anything she could do beyond what she had done today — merely listen — she always felt dissatisfied by her own inadequacy. Someone... she wished she could remember who... had told her 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 did not 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 the words he had said, 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. She 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 was not 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 were not 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.

The mother deer, on the other hand, 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... and so they were not 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... sound.

It surprised the youngling, too, who jumped up with more energy than Shia would have expected. She tried very 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 giving out hints that 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 some thick bushes.

Children.

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 — other than his mate, her paramour, and her sister — was such a danger to him? To identify who or what could possibly be a danger to her in this place?

She hoped it would be and feared that it would not. And yet...

Well, she knew the location of one passage point nearby.

On the other hand, something in the back of her mind — a cautionary voice that apparently remembered even the things she still could not — said that nine times out of ten, when proceeding through one of the passage points, 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 on any versions of earth she'd visited. Therefore, seeing one just outside Seattle was possibly even more bizarre than seeing a jaguar. And she knew there were no avians on this planet that 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 humans."

"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' 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. Were 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, super... vision. 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, who then sat cross-legged in front of Shia. Shia noted that the child had the sense to sit where she could not be seen from the road. She had 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 Shift 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 giving 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... umm... 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! Anyways, 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 Super, 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..."

"She."

"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... umm... 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." He seemed very mature as he bowed to the jaguar. "This is my sister, Maria Yazzie-Garcia, and I am Paul Garcia-Yazzie. We are of the Ts'ah Yisk'idnii and born for the Naakaii Dine'é. How may we address you, fellow traveler? For 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 are Diné... the People. Outside the Nations of the First Peoples, we are known as Navajo."

The jaguar tilted her head again. "I have heard of the First People. I have often been mistaken for a member of one of the many Nations when 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 that I don't lose the anchor point, however."

"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?"

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 my 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."

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 who have these superpowers of which you spoke." The jaguar seemed to chuckle.

"Maria! Oh, good grief." Paul sighed. "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 watching the hidden driveway. She could sense the location of the passage when it opened. So. There was one closer than the park... that was good. She wasn't going to 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 would miss so many opportunities, especially the chance to reunite with Shia. One good thing that had come of this longer than usual sleep cycle, however, was the dream that he had. He dreamed of that little golden-eyed girl that he always believed he had remembered from childhood. The dream was exceptionally detailed and so real...

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

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

The little girl 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." 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 does 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 the time all the fuss was being made about recalling everyone from Earth back to Home. Maybe that's why he did it."

"Did what?" asked Bryan, 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. And then, before I was born, Empress Maya declared them all Visionaries and wants 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 again, 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 he 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 with confusion and frustration. "But what does that even mean? I'm supposed to grow up and 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 Br'yan? 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 be a Traveler to teach you, too, 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 smile. "Don't worry about that, though! That's a long time in the future!"

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

As he turned the corner into the kitchen, he heard Great Aunt Elsa talking. Bryan stopped abruptly and waited. He distinctly heard 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 will decide then whose side I will take. Hopefully, Bryan will cooperate."

He stepped into a nearby closet as the man and Elsa walked up the stairs, then quickly walked out through the kitchen and into the garage. He knew that taking the car would be a risk, but he had no choice. Once he got away, he would figure out how to disconnect its tracking system if it proved necessary to do so.

He got in the car and 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 the trees and stopped 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 was not accustomed to being bored. Well, if truth be told, she had not actually been bored since leaving her homeworld all those years ago. Meeting new people, and then meeting that Being from a dimension she'd never found again, which led her to her current preoccupation with destroying Nabob and his slaver empire... No, there 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 was the only one who had a shipload of luck for not winding up dead.

She should be looking for Nabob, not waiting for... well, she wasn't sure how she'd describe Bryan, but the words privileged, clueless, and naïve came to mind. That wasn't fair — well, probably not. He had his life here, his world had been knocked askew, and no doubt he was still reeling from that. And this world didn't have Nabob. It might have its faults, 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 had 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 had said she only did it when she felt fearful. 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, and 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 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.

She 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. And given his tendency toward dithering — in Shia's 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! Only when she was satisfied that her form would not intersect the non-living material did she shift back to First Form. She found herself sitting in the front passenger seat of Bryan's vehicle.

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

What 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 a royal blue, but that's all the information about it that could be seen beyond the mostly buttoned jacket.

She turned to him, amber eyes boring into him.

"Well? Let us go do whatever it is you needed 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, and that she came back to him, he couldn't help but to reach over and hug her. The embrace was not reciprocated, and Bryan quickly let go and composed himself.

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

She was surprised by the embrace, and slightly unnerved by it, too.

It made her realize — again? — that Bryan was... young. While it would be difficult to compute an exact 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, and nodded.

He paused for a moment and just smiled at her. Of course, in his mind, Shia was the girl who visited him so long ago. Until she told him otherwise, he wanted to believe that somehow they had a connection that was greater than chance or coincidence.

There was a loud roaring noise coming from behind, and Bryan instantly recognized it 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 then straight onto a long stretch.

Bryan took a quick left down a country road that he knew would bring them through the woods more quickly, and onto the highway. Elsa had a tracking device on the vehicle, however, configured to keep tabs on him wherever he went. They needed a new means of transportation, and Bryan had just the idea for one.

But as he turned left, he looked in the rearview mirror. The motorcycle, ridden by one of Elsa's handymen, was racing down the stretch of road after them.

As Bryan drove, Shia turned to look behind them. Her eyes narrowed as she noted the pursuer, and noted too that the pursuer had followed Bryan from his place of refuge. Well, that didn't bode well for anyone.

"You don't 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 well acquainted with the feeling of being pursued, but this situation was particularly odd. She wasn't the one being pursued. When was the last time that had happened?? It had been so long ago that she actually couldn't remember; decades maybe. And while it was refreshing not to be the quarry, she had 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. Bryan, on the other hand, 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 were not going to be appropriate here.

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

She turned to face forward in her seat again, hands folded calmly 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, Bryan thought. It was similar to saying, 'Hey, how are ya?' to someone as one walks by them. Technically, we asked them a question, and technically, we should stop and wait for the response. And technically, we should actually be sincere in wanting to hear whatever that response may be.

Although she raised an eyebrow — either 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. Every so often, he would catch a glimpse of the motorcycle behind them, but he was keeping a reasonable distance ahead of it. Besides, he knew these turns and was hopefully more familiar with the road than the man on the motorcycle. Plus, his car's engine was probably better than the bike's. He hoped.

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

Shia did watch the pursuer and gained some measure of relief when he showed less skill on his bike than she knew she possessed. At least she did remember that! And she never would have allowed Bryan to evade her as he managed to avoid the pursuer.

Finally, they made it to the highway, and once there, Bryan sped even faster. They were well past two exits before Mister Motorcycle ever made it on, and by that point, Bryan was exiting the highway. He noticed Shia looking around, and wondered if she recognized yet where they were going.

She did sigh when she noted they were driving toward the home of the enemy.

After another five minutes, he pulled the car over to the side of the road. It was parked at the spot where they had first met. It was time to reveal the 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 now. We just need to get the car, and we can then 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 who 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, then one must also make contingency plans. Although you cannot plan for every eventuality, you should at least consider the most likely obstacles."

She looked at the area around them, and then beyond him to the buildings nearby.

The last time she did anything this insane was... well, probably that time she actually had 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!

Shia looked up at Bryan. Although she turned in the seat to place 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 then were you pursued from your place of refuge by one 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 realized, 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 to be less than safe."

She looked to her left, she looked to her right, she looked up at the morning sky. And then she looked back at Bryan.

"I remember who I am. And so there is no danger here. For me."

Bryan wanted to ask Shia, Well then, who exactly are you? But that would be in line with his original question — was she the girl who had visited him so long ago? He decided to wait on that.

He looked back at Shia. Honestly, he hadn't thought of contingency plans. But as he pushed his brain to think of one, a brilliant idea came into his mind.

"Shia, I need you to change into someone for me!" Bryan quickly pulled out his cell before Shia could even take in his request. "Please, Shia, 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 — one who obviously had spent too many days in the sun, with the wind rarely at her back.

"This is my mother-in-law. She is a bitter woman and only seems to point out all that is 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 her sister or anyone else for that matter. Just start complaining about how she never calls, and then ask why she would 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 they should make you a sandwich."

Bryan looked pleadingly at Shia. He hoped she would say yes to this. If not, he did have an alternative plan, but this was the best one that just came to him.

She glanced at the picture on his device; she listened to his... ideas. Then Shia took several steps away from Bryan, 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 did not allow her to see anything else.

This was madness. First, because she so rarely worked an operation with anyone else. Second, because when she did work with anyone else, 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 of a desire to die than to live."

She turned only 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 the ones who cannot be saved. And 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!"

Shia shook her head and stared back down the street, this time 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 then, he saw someone who was a fighter, a soldier, a warrior. This was not the helpless child he 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 the 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."

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

"I didn't mean to assume or insult you in any way by asking you to change into my mother-in-law. I'm sorry," Bryan choked up with those words.

It was at this moment that he realized the gravity of everything in his life. He had the initial betrayal of his wife, and finding out his son was not actually his son, at least biologically. He had fled the cops — one of whom his wife was cheating with — though he sensed at the time that there was even more danger waiting for him.

Then he was trying to process his vivid dream and Great Aunt Elsa's words this morning, and this familial legacy that he knew very little about. There was so much he thought he should remember.

And again, there had been the sudden feeling of danger from Elsa. She had apparently injected him with something to keep him oblivious. She controlled and monitored his every move. Somehow, what had previously been such advanced technology and advanced ability to love and protect him, had now turned into a way to manipulate and spy on him.

His final thought was the fortune told of his destiny, to somehow save this world. Was Shia the girl from his youth who visited him? 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 this warrior that stood beside him?

As Bryan opened his mouth to speak, to say something, he was stopped by a thunderous rumble from above. Massive dark clouds had rolled in; thunder had started booming, and lightning had started flashing. A few drops of rain fell, quickly followed by more.

"Shia, if you can tell me if her vehicle is there, then I will 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, if any, 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."

She watched him closely.

Shocked... stunned... hurt...

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

But then she looked up at the storm clouds rolling in, where only a moment before, there had been clear skies.

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

Her mood was not improving. Not at all. And if this man-child was a budding weather worker who didn't even know he was a weather worker... Oh, saving the world would not be what he was going to wind up doing. Not this world, anyway. Not by a long shot.

He assumed she thought he was crazier than before. But just like everything around him seemed to be changing, something within Bryan was changing too. At that moment, the thunder seemed to be coming from someplace close to them.

Yes, it was the roar of a motorcycle!

Bryan grabbed Shia's hand and pulled her across the yard of the house they were standing in front of, and they ducked behind a group of towering pine trees.

As they huddled behind the trees, sheltered from their pursuer and the oncoming rain, Bryan looked at her. "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 at about the same time Bryan did. And grabbing her hand as he did prevented her from hiding more effectively than behind a stand of trees.

Was it just Bryan, or was this entire world constructed from cliches? Not that it mattered. And at least cliches were predictable.

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

Just like a cliche, right?

That 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 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. And then slowing, shifting, coming almost to a complete stop across from the house beside Bryan's, the Falcon stood on the sidewalk. An old man, neatly dressed, stood looking back the way he had come, his bushy white eyebrows drawn together in what might appear to be confusion.

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

No, the pursuer on the bike had stopped beside Bryan's vehicle and was looking inside. Falcon saw the man look in the direction of 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 — the sister'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... Well, at least Bryan had stayed in the bushes, undetected. The next act of 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.

"Eh?"

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

"Missing?" Appearances and the pitch of the 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."

"Well, 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 toward 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. That's his car down that way." The man pointed toward 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 made sure 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 it was done with slow, precise movements.

"A whole two hours!" The old man looked in the direction he had 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 just all 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 a lot 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 gave the appearance of having been insulted. "Well, if you don't think he'd go home to see his wife and baby," Falcon said in a tone that implied that would be something any sane 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 had all come into the neighborhood.

"Damn," the pursuer said under his breath. Although an old man wouldn't hear it, a sharp-eared soldier 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 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 over two 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 theoretically 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.

Falcon had not stayed alive and free for so long by being overly trusting, however.

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, but the only thing on it was a telephone number. That was suspicious. Falcon dropped the card into the nearest sewer grate. He was, however, going to have to trust Bryan to stay where he was for a while longer. At least the weather hadn't worsened.

Falcon sighed once more, then leaped up, shifting and winging above the trees. From here, she could see the pursuer... and followed him as he paused at the main thoroughfare, apparently indecisive. After a 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 and flew 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 grey 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, and her ability to change... 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 by her tone and body language that this really, really wasn't what 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."

"Thank you, Shia. Truly." Bryan smiled and stood up. He looked deeply into those amber eyes — the same eyes that he had looked at so long ago. He didn't want to ask her just yet if she was the girl who told of his destiny. Perhaps his hesitancy was that in all likelihood, the answer was going to be no.

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

Bryan proceeded to walk toward the 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 had said.

"Okay, what about this?" Bryan 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 his suggestion was made with the right language or assumption, and was hoping that he hadn't just insulted his only friend in the world.

"I will 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, and we'll jump in her car and go."

The plan seemed simple enough. And with any luck, the house would be empty, so all of this worry would be for nothing. He looked longingly at her. "Please, Shia?"

Once they got the car, he knew of a place that they could go and collect their thoughts, and then he could have the conversation he has been waiting to have with her.

She continued to stand there with arms crossed as he started to walk away. Fortunately, he not only figured out quickly that she wasn't following but also the reason why.

Part of the reason, anyway.

"Okay, Bryan. Let's say your assumption is correct... that your wife is out with her sister. And let's assume that you'll be able to get the keys, and we can drive off without any further difficulties.

"Next, let's assume that your wife is going to come home at some point. Since you seem to have angered the gods of this universe, we'll 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'm sure she'll notice that her car is missing. Unless your wife and her sister have unsavory family connections, the logical thing for her to do is call the police.

"Once again involving 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 just threw her hands up in the air, obviously frustrated.

"Is your plan to run from here to the farthest corner of the world to escape from your wife, from your wife's sister, from Santos the usurper, from this man who claims to be your cousin, and from 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 just 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 a little bit.

"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 technology that not everyone knows about. But I have 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!"

Bryan rarely lost his cool, and when he did, it was always short-lived. He ran his fingers through his short hair.

"I'm sorry, Shia. 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 and 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."

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.

But when he calmed down, she was forced, once again, to roll her eyes.

"The idea of taking your wife's vehicle isn't 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 then looked at Shia, and with a deep breath as he scratched the top of his head, he said, "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 would 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, that 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 would have help when I did it."

He looked at Shia for a long moment after saying this, feeling his cheeks burn up red. He knew it made no sense, but then there he went saying this ridiculous thing about him being meant to save the world.

"You know what? Fuck it."

And he turned to walk toward the house.

At his question, she shook her head, but as he continued his tale, her expression changed to one of genuine puzzlement combined with worry. The planet's 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...

However, when he stalked off, Shia sighed. "Sure wish I could remember more ways to swear," she muttered to herself, "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 big 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. The mention of 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 — or assisting in saving the world — was absolutely not in her job description. And helping someone get to another planet? Good grief, she could barely manage to get herself from one place to another, and never with any reliability.

Because cat forms can'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 'help' arrived. This 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 front door. There, it sat down and just watched Bryan.

Bryan had seen the alley cat out of 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, though, he was on his own to get the car.

She did have a point about the aftermath of stealing the car. He hadn't really thought things through that far, but his mind was more focused on just 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; if anyone looked at the title, they'd see his name on it. But, it was still theft, he guessed.

Bryan walked to the back of the house and used his key to get in through the kitchen door. He felt like it had been a year since he was last inside, and immediately was greeted with nostalgia. It was here in the kitchen that he had come home, through this very door, and she had run to him with open arms to share the best news of their lives. She was pregnant, and he was going to be a daddy! They screamed for joy, and wept for joy, and then made love on the kitchen table for joy.

What a fucking actress.

He looked at the table and saw a stack of mail and a pile of papers pushed to the side. That's when he saw them — divorce papers. At least she had taken the initiative.

He paused to listen for anyone else in the house, but no one else seemed to be there. He called out; no one answered. He knew he didn't have much time, but there was one thing he needed to do.

Bryan walked through the kitchen and into the living room. Their pictures were everywhere, in perfect frames. Perfect fake frames.

He walked upstairs and into his son's room. Maybe he should be thinking of it as 'the baby's room,' but for the first six months that Michael had been on this earth, he had been Bryan's son. There was no denying that Bryan loved the child. If things had been different, he would have been content to continue as if none of this had happened.

Bryan picked up the baby book that he and his wife had been writing all their son's little milestones in and flipped to a page in the back of the book. Usually, parents give up on these things after the first dozen entries at most. The two of them certainly had. The reality of life kicked in, and it was all they could do to keep up with the daily cries for feeding and changing and loving. On one of the last few pages, Bryan wrote the following:

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. And I loved you like you were mine. I used to come into your room late at night, and pick you up as you slept, and then rock you and rock you as I looked out the window, with your head on my chest, listening to the sounds of your dreams. 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.

Time to leave this life.

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

Bryan wrote a message on the notepad that hung from the refrigerator.

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

PS: 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.

Then he thought, Fuck you, bitch.

He grabbed the car keys from the rack and shut the door behind him as he walked out. Bryan got in the car, adjusted the seat and rearview mirror, and put the car in reverse. He slowly backed out of the driveway, then pulled up to a cluster of trees next to the house. He was waiting for a particular pair of amber eyes to join him.

She had heard him when he called out, heard him walking around. Shia's left ear twitched once or twice as she waited. Typically, this was a sign of annoyance; today, she was worried that he was taking longer than expected.

Well, she couldn't really blame him, could she? It wasn't likely he would be back here. Saying goodbye wasn't always easy. Her own parents had been killed in one of the battles of a never-ending war when she was very young; so had her dearest friend and cousin's parents. While Shia had remained on The World, Salia had been taken — practically kidnapped — by her governess-bodyguard to another world. Many years had passed before her cousin had returned home... to fulfill some prophecy made about her.

Shia really should not be judging Bryan so harshly. Salia had not wanted to be the one to unite The World and had not really felt prepared to do so when she returned with that unpleasant Anya. But... but her cousin had fulfilled the old prophecy. When one travels through the Multiverses and through time itself, tracking time was not easy. Enough years had passed, however, for The World to not only be united but to have become a provisional member of the Federation.

It still felt strange to Shia, to return to The World and see the... the harmony.

But when she had left that first time, only Salia had bid her a farewell. Just her cousin had stood as family to Shia; even her stepmother had not understood her compulsion, Shia's need to leave. Only Salia had whispered, Come home someday, Shia. Of course, she had never been able to deny her cousin anything; she had always doted on the younger one. So Shia did return... and continued to visit whenever she found herself in that particular Multiverse. It was never easy to find a way home. But at least she would be welcome there whenever she did locate The World... and Salia.

It didn't seem like Bryan would have that chance. Shia did not have any possessions or any place in the Multiverse that she treasured, and only had one person she could call family. Despite having friends — and good ones, too — having a family was...

Cats didn'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 betrayal that Bryan had endured, was still processing.

She looked around as the vehicle backed up slowly and then stopped. As she walked down the front steps, she shifted again 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, continuing to scrutinize the area around them. "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 street, she continued, "We should leave this area quickly but safely. I would like to understand your situation, and 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, Shashina, 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, you know? He thought it was funny." She shook her head sadly. She had never been able to find that Multiverse again; she'd liked that old man. "It makes me wonder why you've never spoken your wife's name, that's all."

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

Well, look at her... assuming there would be a future! Of course, she always did manage to get herself out of every bit of trouble she'd found herself in. She'd just never had to do with while guarding a civilian.

First time for everything, she supposed.

Bryan looked down at Shia's hands in her lap. She shared some great advice... and she had also asked a great question. Bryan hadn't realized that he had never called his wife by her name in front of Shia. Perhaps because it hurt to say it.

He paused and then looked forward, out toward the residential road that lay before them. He wanted to tell Shia what his wife's name was but saying it would bring up the hurt because their names fit so well together. Everyone loved them together, and everyone loved their names together.

But as Shia said, maybe by naming his pain, it will lose some of its power.

"Her name is Briana."

He looked at Shia. "We were Bryan and Briana. Or the Bri Team."

All through their dating years, everyone adored them as a couple. They were always invited everywhere together. If one showed up without the other, it was as if something was missing. When they got married, Bryan and Briana was printed on everything. The plates, glasses, keepsakes... they had almost gotten matching tattoos. Thank God they didn't.

She had nodded at the naming of his wife. It was the first step, and perhaps it would help him heal properly. Healing without festering wounds beneath scabs was important whether the injury was to the body, the mind, or the soul.

Bryan shifted the car into drive, and they began moving forward. He was deep in thought. He knew that he would 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 ever speak of him. How could a mother tell her son that she ruined a man's life by deceiving him and conceiving a child outside of their marriage vows?

Would she marry the biological father? Would his son ever find the note he left him?

They drove for some time while Bryan contemplated these thoughts in silence. Finally, he was ready to speak.

"Shia, thank you for pushing me. I needed to think things through better.

"After today, Briana and Lauren — and hopefully Aunt Elsa — will all come to believe the same thing."

Bryan had headed down an old dirt road, and come to a long wooden bridge that overlooked the Thunder Creek, which ran through the mountains and flowed into Shannon Lake. In the springtime, there was a local tradition in which residents designed miniature sailboats and lowered them into the river from the bridge, and then let them go. The current carried them downstream toward the lake, and judges waited to see which sailboat made it, and in the best condition.

Shia appreciated, too, the quiet drive. It gave both of them time to think. She still hadn't remembered how she arrived here, in this world. But given where she had followed Nabob this last time — the ice ball of a planet the Terrans called Cottman IV — and the fact that so much of where Nabob's people had been wandering, and where they'd parked their ship...

Well, 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.

Shia 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 all of them. But Nabob or his men had been there too many times. And she had followed them there 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. The only reason she had risked it was because the most reliable of the planet's six passages was located nearby. It made no sense for Nabob to have been there... no sense at all.

She definitely should have been paying attention to the stories. She definitely should not have followed him and his men higher into the ridiculously dangerous mountains. And why was he 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 direction he was heading...

But apparently, some of those highly Gifted telepaths were in the area. She could almost remember the threatening touch before the darkness, the nothing, and then waking up here. Her best guess was that she'd been slammed through the passage. She really hoped Nabob was having a worse time. It would be nice to think he was dead... but she wasn't stupid.

Bryan stopped the car on the dirt road just before the bridge. He pressed the brake pedal, and then the gas pedal. The car revved back and forth with several jerks, and the tires kicked up what looked like a sandstorm. Bryan then reversed the car a little bit, and turned the wheel sharply to the left and stepped on the gas, stopping just short of a large conifer. He put the car back into drive and stepped on the gas, causing the car to lunge forward before turning the wheel sharply to the right and heading back in the direction they had come. He stopped the vehicle after thirty feet or so. Then, very slowly, Bryan turned the car around and drove along the side of the dirt road on the grass so as not to disrupt all the tire tracks left in the dirt.

He pulled back onto the dirt road right before the bridge and then edged the car a few feet onto the rickety structure. It was a monumentally unsafe structure — hardly wide enough for an average car and no side guards. There had been too many tragedies over the years with drivers crossing the bridge in rainy or snowy weather — their cars sliding off the side, plunging into the waters below. The current always seemed to carry the car downstream toward the park, soon to be discovered. All too often, the bodies were swept even farther into the lake. Sometimes they were never found.

Bryan stopped the car and turned toward 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 at this time, it should be discovered somewhere in Shannon Lake, and soon the whole town will believe that I'm dead. It's the only way that I can free myself from all this bullshit and misery that has become my life.

"You and I can continue on foot to my parent's cabin. It's quite a hike up the mountain. It belonged to my grandfather on my dad's side, so Elsa doesn't have much knowledge of it — if she knows anything at all at this point. 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."

Bryan looked at her and assumed she would wonder about food and water. "Don't worry, Shia. I've been going up there to think for a few months now. I have bottled water, cans of soup, a lot of firewood, and some other necessities. We will be okay for at least a few days, if not longer. I just need to put all this to rest, and then look toward my destiny."

He smiled, though his eyes were tearing up. "I need to do this. And when we get to the cabin, I can share with you everything I know. Maybe you can help me fill in some blanks."

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

Shia broke out of her reverie when Bryan spoke again.

He performed some... odd ritual with his vehicle before explaining his plan.

It was a plan that was much more thoughtful than anything else he had offered. And it might even work.

"I must disagree with your assertion that every star in the 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 that many 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.

"I would like to be quite clear, however, on your execution of this plan. I do not criticize; please do not take it as such.

"As I understand it, you will cause this vehicle to plunge into the river below, and you will exit the vehicle before it can fall. While I do not doubt your faith in yourself to be able to accomplish this task..." She looked out the side and then the front windows 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. "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 possibly doubt that the vehicle's driver accompanied the vehicle into the water?"

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

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

Bryan wondered precisely what she was going to do, and how many other stunts like this has she ever pulled. Maybe in time, he would learn more. But right now, he felt only relief. It was like running a marathon and then being told someone else would run the last mile for you.

Now perhaps he could start moving forward with his life and get to whatever it was that he actually needed to be doing.

Bryan got out of the car and walked about ten feet away, then turned and faced the car. "Are you sure you don't need anything?" he asked, though he knew Shia was entirely self-sufficient.

This was it — his new beginning.

Shia got out of the car as well, looking over the passenger side of the bridge as she got out. After walking around the vehicle, she looked over the driver's side of the bridge, too.

She shook her head; it wasn't often that she came across bridges this ridiculous meant for vehicular traffic. Then 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 had managed to learn how to fly that engineering marvel.

Finally, she looked up at Bryan. "After this day, 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 remove yourself 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 — unusual for a mountain waterway — and it was difficult to tell from this height 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. "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 Bryan a smile, produced a pair of thin 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 would be able to determine if the window was open before or after the vehicle was submerged, but it would not matter in either case. While they might find smudges of her own fingerprints on the other side of the car, it would never do to have any but Bryan's or his wife's fingerprints on this 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 had stepped off the bridge, she set the vehicle's controls for a forward motion and then moved ahead slowly for a few feet. She increased the speed considerably but almost immediately hit the brake pedal — hard — while simultaneously pulling the steering mechanism sharply to the right. She snickered as the vehicle teetered on the edge of the bridge for a second... and then two seconds... before beginning its plummet to the river below.

"Wheeeee!!" 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. Underwater, however, that shouldn't matter.

Noting that the vehicle was already shifting in the current, Falcon smiled and managed to climb out the open window.

Wow, now that had been fun!!

"Shiiiiiiiaaaaaaaaa!" Bryan yelled as the vehicle plummeted into the water below. He forced himself not to move, but after the car was entirely under the water, he couldn't help but to run onto the bridge and peer over the edge where it had fallen off.

For a moment, he considered the notion that something went wrong, and that Shia was not 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 right now — 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 terrible mistake. He knew that the undercurrent of Thunder Creek was much stronger than it appeared from the surface. As he looked down at the water for what felt like an eternity, the thought of losing Shia made him feel so gutted, so empty. It wasn't just guilt or the loss of someone he had grown so fond of in such a short time. There was something more profound that he was feeling.

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

She had once again explained his destiny to him, and he had listened but couldn't quite understand all of it. As he tried to process everything she was saying, he saw a heart pendant hanging around her neck. Well, it wasn't precisely a heart shape, but it reminded him of a heart.

"Where did you get that from?" he asked her and pointed to the heart.

The girl looked down at the pendant and then looked back at him with concern. She worried that he was focusing on the necklace, a physical object, instead of the words she was sharing with him. Then she smiled, reminding herself that 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 that he would understand. "...always listen to my heart."

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

"Is this 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. Then there was a flash of light, and a dark, cloudy creature appeared in his room. Lizbeth yelled at Bryan to look away. He covered his eyes out of fear and heard Lizbeth 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 in his young mind that he would never see his special friend again.

That had been the same emptiness he felt now. But the memory caused him to realize that Shia could not have been his visitor from years before.

At that point, bubbles started surfacing from below the surface of the water, and Bryan's focus was brought back to the present, and back to Shia.

Once out of the vehicle, Shia shifted from Edward's form to the only aquatic animal small enough for the river. It wasn't an animal ever seen on earth — 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. However, 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 a lot of 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. Speaking of Bryan...

She focused the back eyes in the direction she'd come. Even compensating for the fact that seeing things outside the water while being inside the water was 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, Shia would have sighed.

Civilians.

Well, 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 had seen so far, its arrival in the lake was inevitable. Not finding a body with the vehicle? Well, she had tried to leave enough evidence to suggest the driver had attempted an escape. There would be a search for Bryan, even if only a cursory one. Perhaps the aunt would insist on something more thorough... and perhaps not. But for human bodies, this water was cold... very cold.

Shia shifted once again to True Form and floated in the thin atmosphere toward the opposite 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-eyed 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 — for now — and his hiking boots appeared as though 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 some other memory related to Atlanta that he couldn't tease out, however. Oh, well. It would come. Or not.

Bryan was speechless for about a minute. Despite having seen Shia as a large cat, this human male form took him entirely by surprise. Even the voice was male, and she looked like an actual, real guy. Only Shane's amber eyes gave any clue that this was Shia.

Finally, he walked across the bridge to meet this new incarnation of his friend. "Shia... um, Shane, nice to meet you." Then Bryan laughed. It wasn't even that this situation was particularly funny — saying 'nice to meet you' to someone he already knew — but perhaps it was more about letting out some tension. In fact, his laughter deepened to something almost desperate and verging on hysterical as Bryan wrapped his arms around his waist. After a moment, he dropped to his knees, and the dam of emotions seemed to break as his laughter got caught in his throat. He didn't find it incongruous at all that he was on his knees, hugging himself and sobbing. He was crying because what they had just done 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 Shane into more trouble than all the other forms combined.

After a few moments, Bryan was able to compose himself and stood up. He wiped his face with his shirt before speaking.

Shane stood up when Bryan did and smiled with relief.

"Thank you, Shane," Bryan said. "I know I should have stayed put, but I was worried about you. 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.

"Well, honestly?" Shane's smile was open and 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 as a thought occurred to him. He turned to the other young man.

"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."

Bryan pointed to the forest where several great oaks and pines stood as the doorway to the mountain. It had not 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.

And he watched as Bryan removed his shoes.

Then Shane snickered.

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

Indeed, Shane's feet now looked bizarre and entirely out of place, but they looked like 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. 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. Then he laughed 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 was silent for a moment. "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 multiple personality 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 at home. Edward was down in the water because that form is the closest to yours. But, wow, Edward is... um, fastidious. And Edward 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."

Shane 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, and he definitely was talkative. He just couldn't get over how Shia's and Shane's personalities and abilities were so different from one another. He remembered Aunt Elsa saying something about how the mind was a potent instrument and had capacities that many humans never actualized.

He wondered if there was a genetic component to all of this for Shane... Shia.

"Shia, thank you," Bryan said over his shoulder and then, catching himself, added, "I mean... Shane."

As he led the way into the woods, a multitude of memories came to the forefront of his 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 respond to the sound of his voice...

Bryan stopped suddenly, the memory of his father's voice fading from his mind. 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 Bryan's name. It wasn't his father's voice because... because...

Because Aunt Elsa raised him. His mother had died during childbirth, and his father died a year or two later in a car accident.

Then how was it possible that he 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, and then another rush of the other memories flowed into his mind — of Aunt Elsa and the story he had been told his whole life.

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

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

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, the escape with him from whatever dirtball they'd been on had been fun. Because he was thinking his own thoughts, Shane practically walked into Bryan when he stopped.

He almost started up his banter again, but the set of the other guy's shoulders was a little too odd. But on the other hand, so was his question once he started moving again.

"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 was going to study the hell out of some snake and learn that form. Probably not here, though. Oh, well.

"Except for the experience that landed me here..." He 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, 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 a lot of planets in a lot of 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 had 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 again, 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 to do, he'd wander around this version of earth for a while to figure that one 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 forgot." 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, Shane, well, Shia anyway, was his friend, and the only one he had. "There are many Earths? What do you mean by that?"

Bryan kept walking; however, there was a lot of ground to cover before it got dark. But before Shane could answer, Bryan continued talking. "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."

And with those words — as if he dared whatever this was to show itself again — Bryan suddenly was overcome with a memory of his father chopping word near the cabin. He could see him, and his father smiled at him, and as he said, "What are you doing, son," the memory shifted back and forth, and his father's face became that of Elsa's right-hand man.

Bryan stopped and shook his head. Was he going crazy? What was happening to him? He had seen Men in Black. He hoped that no such device existed here on earth. This Earth.

He returned to his original question. "So Shane, you were saying there is more than one earth? Can you share more?"

Shane raised an eyebrow at Bryan's second question and his 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.

Now, on the other topic! Shane grinned.

"Oh, yeah, way more than just one version of earth. I spend a lot of time on earth — Shane Me does, I mean. It's kind of a vacation spot. Which is why I spend more time here than any of the other versions of me because I'm not a soldier. I'm not even a particularly good spy.

"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, there are a lot of humans who've written stories about all the 'what if' kind of stuff that could happen. It's not always called science fiction; some of it is 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.

"In my home universe, the humans from earth actually managed to find common ground... venture out into the galaxy... meet other entities... 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. Plus, even where the UFP exists, and even where the military branch is called Starfleet, things can be pretty different."

He chuckled. Some things were 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."

He shuddered. He hated those places so very, very much; they were just too freaky for words.

"Some... beings can move through the Multiverse on their own. I can. A few other people in my... unit? Squad? Team? Whatever. A few others 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. Most of us are lucky to be able to locate the passages... then we wait.

"Some brainiac — an evil brainiac, by the way — invented a device that could rip a passage open. Nabob has those things installed in a lot of his ships so that 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. So just people like me can get through. And thank goodness, or I'd never get any peace from chasing him and his cronies down."

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

"So... enough sharing? Too much?" He grinned; Shane was the one who tried not to worry, the one who tried to enjoy life. "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 pace. Multiple universes. Some things were the same, some things were different...

And had Shane said if Al Gore hadn't defeated Laura Bush?

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

Bryan stopped so he could take this all in. What about all the things that Elsa told him? About the Home planet? She had made it sound like there was only one universe and one Earth, and how lucky the Dinhisa'uta, the people of the Home planet, had been to find it. Had that been a lie? Or were Elsa and her people merely limited in their knowledge of the many incarnations 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 same way if politics had been different. What is your understanding of the American presidency? Who is President today?"

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

"Okay, you understand that the study of the Multiverses isn't something a lot of people spend time on, right? Are there other versions of you?" Shane shrugs. "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 another after you? Who knows? There's not really any way to test whatever hypothesis the science geeks postulate anyway. In the grand scheme of things, what does it really matter, you know? It'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 had been to multiple versions of earth, but this area of the planet wasn't one he visited often. But it didn't look much different from those few times he did remember.

"On a larger scale, though, I can tell you about what I've observed. In any of the Multiverses that have reliable space flight, I try to find out anything I can about my homeworld. 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 to get access to the Hubble.

"In most of those Multiverses, when I can get any 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 Multiverses, but not in most of them. And in only one other Multiverse does another version of me even leave our home."

He looked at Bryan and shrugged. "That version of me left when Salia did, but was adopted by a Starfleet Captain and wound up becoming Chief of Security on some ship. Oh, 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. Could I build one? Ha. Never."

Bryan shook his head slightly, then turned and resumed walking. "We ought to keep moving; we're almost there."

But his mind was moving, too. 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 at his more localized question.

"Who's the president? Well, it depends on what year it is, right? It seems to be maybe 2014 or 2015, so..." He thought of all the earths he could remember, the ones where he stayed long enough to notice who was the leader of any particular country. Then he chuckled.

"Trying to figure out which is the one true Multiverse? Good luck with that. But, sure, I can tell you who's the president in all the Multiverses I remember. In 2014 or 2015, the president is Barbara Boxer, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. 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 US was already pretty much obliterated. Although when that was the case, so was most of the rest of the world. And before you ask, it was war. Every time.

"Yep, most societies that advance far enough into a technological age will discover that they're really messing up their planet. They either figure out how to deal with the problem, avert the crisis... or they don't and then have a lovely little war to really ruin things. Then they blame the war. It's not just humans, either. Other races do the same thing."

Shane watched Bryan's back as they walk and just shrugged. For Bryan, all of this was merely academic. Some people could find the passages and make use of them — Falcon was one of them. One person in all the Multiverses 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.

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

Bryan was lucky there.

But there was that other question he had asked, and then dropped. The issue of memory was far more of a concern than discussing the philosophy of the Multiverses. While most beings couldn't move across the Multiverses, memory manipulation was almost at the other end of the scale — a relatively simple matter for most species with the right technology.

"Let's go back to the conversation about memory. You said something got triggered by this location, and that maybe you'd be better off not knowing what it was. And you had serious suspicion vibes going on when you said that, too. To me — an outsider who doesn't know very 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 was hurting, although it wasn't due to Shane's explanations of this Multiverse theory of his. In fact, hearing Shane talk about the presidency, and the individuals that were president in other universes was comforting to him. All these people were in the mix in this universe in some way or another. Grant it, whoever was President could change the course of history for the country and the planet, but Bryan considered the analogy to driving. Sometimes a person was in a rush and thought that if they could just pass the next car, then they would be better off. But then they reached a red light and who pulled up next to them but the same car they passed? So why all the rush? Both vehicles ended up in a similar destination despite jockeying for position. Things didn't always turn out that way, but in the long run, both drivers reach their targets.

"In this universe — and yes, the year is 2015 — the current President is Barack Obama," Bryan informed Shane. "As for my question about my memory and suspicions..." He glanced back at Shane. "I think I have just enough time to share this before we reach the cabin."

As he continued walking and sharing his story with Sane, his headache got a little worse.

"I was told that my mother died in childbirth, and my father died in an accident shortly after. My Great Aunt Elsa took me in and raised me as her own."

Bryan's headache backed off momentarily as he related this very rehearsed version of his beginnings, but returned again as he started sharing the feelings that the woods were bringing him.

"I have a sense that I was here before. Well, 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 because he would have been dead."

He felt a wave of grief swell up in his throat. The loss of his parents had always, always been an unresolved issue for him. He swallowed hard.

"When I was little, like four or five years old, I would have these dreams that seemed so real. And I would 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 different life with Aunt Elsa and her staff during the day."

Then Bryan stopped momentarily and turned back to Shane. "There is also this," he stated matter of factly 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 then it was there when I woke up. I never told Elsa about it. She always had an excuse for everything."

At the thought of his sister, and the vivid memory or dream he had of her carving the shape into his arm, his head began to throb. He had to go back to the notion that he had no sister before the headache subsided.

"I guess my question is why Elsa would want to manipulate my memories? Do people really do this?"

Shane listened, but he didn't interrupt Bryan. He did frown at the scar, however.

"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 considered Bryan's situation. It wasn't anything he had encountered before... not in any of his guises. It wasn't even a tactic used by Nabob... unquestionably too sneaky and underhanded for him. That scum bucket 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, and your Auntie isn't really your Auntie but a diabolical kidnapper and blackmailer. Seems a bit far-fetched, though. You look like you're going to hurl when you start thinking about these alternate memories, so... maybe you should 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.

Shane nodded. "Well, I don't know of any place with a name like that, 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, well, overprinted, I guess I'd say... you could think about why your Auntie would lie 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 seem to be messed up — erasing the original and replacing them with new ones is easier than just suppressing them."

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

Bryan considered what Shane had to offer as a perspective. Perhaps it really wasn't worth trying to unravel his memories — determining which were real as opposed to the false ones. They were nearly at the cabin at this point. Tomorrow morning, his car would be discovered, and half the town would be talking about his unfortunate demise. He wondered if Briana would really play it up and speak to the news cameras as the devastated widow.

He shook his head to clear it as he continued toward the cabin. "I'll tell you what I know about Dinhisa. All of this is according to Aunt Elsa, of course. The story goes that Home was in jeopardy of implosion... that it was so terribly polluted that the toxic gases were not only killing all the wildlife but creating a near inferno that was a ticking time bomb. Some brave pioneers traveled throughout the galaxy, and finally discovered Earth — this planet. They brought back some of the natural resources of Earth to Dinhisa — plants and animals, water, and soil samples. Those who returned with these natural resources were heroes and saved Home, giving it a new ecological beginning. But some of the pioneers remained behind on Earth, and ultimately were viewed as having abandoned their planet."

Bryan paused his story as they walked in silence for a few dozen steps.

"Isn't it interesting how we know what we are told? The power that those around us have over our understanding of the world is extraordinary. Everything I know about our Home planet is just 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 a bit, so he backed off.

"I know Aunt Elsa is different from humans. Her blood comes out green, and she has a heightened ability to read minds and just know things. I'm a half-breed, so to speak. My dad was human. My mother 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 that stayed on believes that if Earth could gain some of those insights — and restore our wildlife and plants — we could heal whatever damage has been caused, and ensure our future."

As Bryan relayed his story, he wondered about Shane and his memories — specifically, if he remembered everything Shia knew.

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

Shane looked more than a little skeptical at Bryan's tale of Dinhisa.

"While I don't doubt that somewhere in some Multiverse there could be a place called Dinhisa, 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 Multiverses, I guess nothing would be impossible if you find the right 'verse.

"But it is kind of far-fetched." 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..."

He sighed and shook his head. "A long time ago, in some Multiverse that wasn't this one, I dedicated myself to a particular mission. I haven't a clue what I'd do if we ever mopped up the entirety of the slave trade, but I suppose I'd figure something out."

At Bryan's last question, he just chuckled and stopped walking. "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 am all the forms I have ever learned. I have one memory. It has to be that way... otherwise, I would never remember how to get from one form to another, right? So... green blood?"

Shane shimmered and shifted; where he had stood was a young woman who was considerably shorter. Her skin tone was oddly hued, her short, straight black hair tucked behind ears that definitely came to a point.

"Lieutenant Commander Ni-Sha, Starfleet Security. In this form, I also bleed green. And am an expert marksman. In this Multiverse, I would 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 is a friend... in her Multiverse. I don't generally do that, but she found it amusing."

Ni-Sha shifted, and another man, tall and distinguished, stood on the path wearing a tuxedo. His dark hair was stylish and graying 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, and another man — stockier, more dangerous looking — half-smiled. His blond hair was a little shaggy, but his suit was perfectly tailored and looked extremely 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... actually, a lot of earth animals. 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. 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. Pretty sure I could survive on the surface of Jupiter in my True Form... which, by the way, can't be seen by most eyes or be detected by most instrumentation." Shane shrugs. "Pure energy.

"So... yes. I remember what you told me. What you just said, and what you told me just before storming off to steal your wife's car. Some girl with amber eyes came to you when you were a kid."

Shane paused and looked back the way they had come. "My eye color? It's 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, but she can change their color. Not sure why I can't, although Salia thinks it might have something to do with getting caught in an x-ray storm when I was young." He shrugs again. "It doesn't matter much as long as I stick to adult forms or animals."

He turned to Bryan. "You mentioned that girl with amber eyes and... Well, there are some entities out there like that. They always look like children, although they're hundreds or maybe even thousands of years old. They always have amber eyes. They're called Messengers. They are... different. I'm not sure if they're from any particular Multiverse. They seem to transcend all the Multiverses. 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 being 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 to stop shit from going down. Lucky for you... you seem to have gotten a more polite message."

He started walking up the trail again. "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 words, as well as his ability to shift so effortlessly and, well, authentically. The mere idea of these Messengers was something else over which he had to be amazed.

"We're maybe five minutes away. It's just over this hill and to the right," Bryan said, pointing the way as he began walking again. His head was spinning with all this new information.

"So if I was in fact visited by a Messenger, and was told that I would be the one to save the world, could it be possible that she wasn't talking about this world? I assumed she meant Earth because of what I knew then. But now that you're telling me about all these different multi-universes, I realize that she could have been talking about any world, anywhere."

Bryan was also thinking about Shane's point about Dinhisa. What if it was all a lie in some way — just a story Aunt Elsa made up? That was assuming she really was his Aunt! Look at what Briana had done. His kid wasn't even his kid. People lie. It was all possible.

"Shane, I guess your ability to shift is genetic, right? It's not something that someone can learn to do, is it?"

Bryan had another burning question for his friend. "And if Elsa bled green, what does that mean about her? You can shift into this Ni-Sha and bleed green. Would it be possible that Else is a 'Trekkie' too?

"I wish I knew if I had any hidden talent of powers. I just feel like there is something more to all of this. I wish there were a way to find that Messenger. Obviously, she knew what I was going to do one day. I wonder if that's even possible to locate her. Maybe she has more information."

Bryan finally reached the top of a hill and turned to the right down another short path. In front of them, about two hundred feet away, sat a little log cabin. "Well, here we are." Bryan grinned; it was just as he remembered it.

Remembered... He could feel the memories of his parents wanting to emerge. But he was going to hold on to Shane's suggestion. There wasn't much help they could be at the moment. Bryan stayed focused and walked up to the cabin.

The door gave way after a push; the door was never locked. If someone actually made it up here and really needed shelter, his folks would have wanted them to have it.

The cabin had two rooms. The main room had a wood-burning stove, a slightly rickety wooden table and chairs, and an old love seat. There was a countertop with some cabinets along one corner of this room; clearly, this was meant to be a kitchen area. The second room was the bedroom, with a simple full bed and nightstand next to it.

"It's not much, but it's home for at least a few days."

He just let Bryan talk. 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. And then remain patient until all the questions were out.

And then try to figure out how best to respond to some of them because... hmm. Some were definitely easier than others to answer. In fact, they reached the little cabin before Shane formulated his answers.

He nodded at the amenities of the cabin. He could curl up and sleep beside the stove quite comfortably.

"The most straightforward question 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 tone a thoroughly unhealthy cast, then she's not likely going to be a Vulcan, Romulan, or T'Khutian.

"And yeah, the shifting is something all the people from my planet can do. Not that many of them actually want to shift, but the ability exists. Other races are shapeshifters in some of the Multiverses, but it's about as rare for any of them to leave their homes as it was for me. Oh. Well, except for the two or three Multiverses where the Dominion has any presence." Shane shuddered. "Those are mostly pretty creepy folks, but — like I said — not very common in the Multiverses.

"One of the kids I met this morning was a shapeshifter. So, at least in some of the Multiverses, 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."

He shook his head but smiled, then sat down at the table.

"However, apparently, if I ever meet their mother, she can teach me how to find those passages.

"And Messengers..." Shane shook his head again. "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.

"Don't look for them." He sighed. "Some people have regular — or what passes for regular, I guess — contact with one or another or 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, the Messengers just somehow find the rest of us, as far as I can tell.

"I've only gotten messages that were very literal and straightforward. And if you were told you were going to save the world..." Shane shrugged. "It's probably whatever you think 'the world' means... 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?"

Shane's question seemed the best of all. "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. I bring up a new stock at least annually."

Bryan pulled out a pot, a can opener, and a large stirring spoon. He used the can opener to open their dinner, and poured the contents into the pot. Then he reached back into the cabinet and pulled out a book of matches. The cabin had a small iron stove with a glass door that opened for firewood. Bryan placed the pot on the stove and walked back outside. He returned a moment later with two logs of wood and set them in the stove. Then he grabbed the matches and lit one, and held it to get the log burning.

"I know this isn't the best way to do this. My father knew the best way," Bryan said, and then immediately froze. The knowledge of his father lighting the stove came out so naturally, as if he really knew it, although, at the moment, he couldn't recall how he could possibly have known. Also, he couldn't picture it without bringing blossoming pain to his head.

The first log caught the flame, thank goodness. Bryan closed the glass door, and after a few moments, watched the as fire spread its way across more of the first log.

"This will take a while, but will be well worth it," he remarked as he smiled at Shane. "And it will warm the place up for the night."

Bryan sat on the love seat and let his head fall against the back of it, closing his eyes. "Shane, I really need some answers here. More than the great ones you are giving me."

At the table, Shane just 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 at the moment how he got it. Somehow he just forgot.

But when he touched it with his other hand, the memory came rushing back. The Messenger had done this to him. Not his sister. It had been the Messenger who had put it there. And he remembered her words, too: "When the time is right, just push here as hard as you can, and I will remind you of your destiny."

It was the last time he ever saw her. That was right before the shadow monster had killed her.

Bryan was tempted to push on his scar right then and there but decided to wait until after they ate. Maybe even until after they slept. It had already been the longest day ever.

"So Shane, what other kinds of abilities besides shapeshifting have you seen?"

He shrugged. "That I've seen? Well, almost anything you can imagine from science fiction and fantasy novels, really. Telepathy seems relatively commonplace among most non-humanoid races. Heck, even among humans in some places. Telekinesis is another one. There are a few genuine precognitives around -- the problem that most of them have is that they go crazy sooner rather than later. But most of what I've seen would just be considered ordinary skills.

"For instance, I have a knack for languages. Oddly, it's mostly non-human ones. Oh, I'll pick up the human ones eventually if I spent enough time with them. Other than that, I have skills honed over years of practice."

Shane wondered if he should describe his job more diplomatically... or if the bald truth might do Bryan more good. Ah, well. If the blunt 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 termed spy and assassin. I listen, I remember. When I have an opportunity, I report back to someone on my team. Give me a weapon, and I can use it. Well, not so much in this form," he said with a self-deprecating chuckle. "My Shane persona is the klutz who stumbles into someone." He grinned. "And picks their pocket. If hard-pressed, I might be able to handle a compound bow.

"I could run through a list of which of my forms can do what, but there doesn't seem to be much of a point. Birds have talons, cats have claws, wolves have teeth. I can ride... horses and motorcycles. I can drive most earth vehicles with wheels, I loathe chariots and automobiles made before the 1950s. Tractor-trailers are fun. I can fly small planes... Well, Damien can. There are a couple of small space crafts 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 do try to keep the killing to a minimum unless the mission directive is extreme prejudice. Even then, I do everything in my power to protect the innocent." Then he shrugged again. "It's mostly worked for me so far." Shane nodded toward the stove.

"So besides roughing it, what skills do you bring to the table in the Saving the World endeavor?"

Shane furrowed his brows and looked at the door. "That car off the bridge trick will probably fool most people. Your aunt has some seriously creepy 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.

"I hope she doesn't have any way to track you down." He looked back at Bryan again. "Because 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'd be really unhappy if you got past her memory blocks, too."

A spy and an assassin? Bryan felt like his reality just got even more real, or maybe surreal.

Though, given what he was stacked up against, or at least what he felt like he could be stacked up again, having someone like Shane on his side is a good thing. Just then, the stew began to boil in its pot on top of the iron stove.

Bryan got up and pulled out two bowls from one of the cabinets, then opened the drawer next to the sink and pulled out two spoons. He walked over to the stove and stirred the stew a little bit, then poured some into one of the bowls, and brought it over to Shane. "Here you go, almost like homemade."

Bryan poured himself the rest of the stew into his bowl and sat back down on the love seat to begin eating his dinner.

"You know, the Messenger who came to me when I was younger, she put this scar on my arm and said that when I want to remember all she told me, 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. He'd said that it had been his sister who had given him the scar, but if it was a Messenger...

Bryan shifted among the cushions in the love seat. "I wanted to wait until the morning to do this. I just feel like it's going to be a lot to take in, and I really need the rest."

The other young man relaxed only minutely.

Bryan thought about Shane's words regarding his Aunt, wonder if she could track him. "And you're probably right. Elsa most likely has a way to track me. Maybe she'll fall for the drowning story, but I doubt it. I also thought she would hesitate to come here so soon. It's really too close to the bridge. If I wanted to get away, wouldn't I have taken off to go as far as possible? So maybe we've got a few days of cushion here before she starts looking in earnest. If she's going to look at all."

In between sentences, Bryan inhaled spoonfuls of the stew. "This is so good, especially when you haven't eaten all day."

And with that statement, Bryan looked at the flowered pattern along the inside edge of the bowl. Another memory came to him so forcefully that it almost blinded him with the pain.

He had been a few years old, and someone had just put a large spoonful of ice cream into his bowl. He could see the hand, a woman's hand. There was a diamond ring on it, in the shape of a crescent moon. He looked up and followed the hand to an arm, and then the arm to the body, and then the body to the neck, and he could see a silver chain with a charm in the shape of a crescent moon, just like the ring. He tried to look higher in his memory, to see whose face it was, but just as the woman's chin came into view, a splitting pain hit the inside of his head, like a whack with a paddle.

"AUUGGHH!" Bryan let out a yell. "Damn this headache!" He stood up and walked toward the bedroom. "Shane, I need to lie down and get some sleep... hopefully, sleep off this headache. Make yourself at home, okay?"

Bryan kept walking and crawled on the bed, turning over on his back and shut his eyes, waiting for the pain to go away and for morning to come. He was ready to know more information, and if this scar on his arm could give it to him, then that's the way to go.

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. Well, one of the many perks of being a shapeshifter was altering the sensitivity of one's senses. Shane suspected this stuff was a cultural phenomenon, perhaps even racial. Non-humans would find this sort of food as appealing as non-Vulcans found plomeek soup.

Bryan got that look on his face again... the one where he was accessing memories that made him wince. Yeah, that was probably the right way to do things; poke at the memories a little bit at a time until larger ones were revealed. Sure, that's not how Shia had done things... but Daled physiology was wildly different from Human physiology.

Except Bryan didn't just wince this time. He dropped his bowl and spoon, let out a pain-filled yell, and went off to the bedroom.

"Make myself at home, huh?" Shane 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 the few cabinets, he found a plastic container that would hold the remainder of the stew. No sense letting it go to waste, and Bryan did seem to like it. He put the leftover stew in the small under-counter refrigerator, washed the pan, bowls, and spoons, then checked the fire in the stove. It was safe enough with the door closed and would burn itself out before morning. Shane didn't think it was all that cold even at this slightly higher elevation; Bryan ought to be okay with a blanket or two. And Shane was going to assume that Bryan had a blanket or two.

He looked at the closed bedroom door, sighed, and shook his head. Curling up next to the stove in wolf form had been his original plan, but now? Shane needed to recharge his energy, and his instincts were telling 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 then through the roof, floating unseen over the cabin.

As pure energy, Shia could sense all the myriad sources of energy for miles around. There was the energy of the planet itself; the nearby volcanoes were easy to detect. 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 — a few miles, perhaps, to human perceptions. Most of them were small; there were only two... no, three... lifeforms other than Bryan that were larger than a good meal-sized rabbit. Ah, now rabbit stew... that would have been tasty. Two of the lifeforms were feline and hunting for the smaller game. The other was ursine and somnolent.

Farther away was the energy of the various human communities. It all remained contained within those various communities, which was as it should be. 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 Bryan. 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 some kind of technology — no doubt, the aunt had other things hidden behind her go-away field beside a house. Humans, at this time, used drugs to keep other humans compliant. However, Shia was well aware of others who had various types of technology to do the same thing. Keep your prisoner within the containment field long enough, and behaviors and memories could be altered over time.

Shia rippled in a shudder. Nabob had 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 Multiverse where she had met Jason.

The spot on Bryan's arm, however? If a cloud of energy could groan, Shia would have groaned. Oh, yes... that was technology, all right.

When Shane had told Bryan about the Messengers, he had been completely honest. One does not go looking for them. And some very few people could call the Messengers, but only if the Messengers themselves deemed a person of sufficient — hell, Shia had no idea what criteria they used to decide who could call them and who couldn't. But she had failed to mention the bit of alien technology in Bryan's arm was the same sort of alien technology in the... ah, appendage of her platoon's leader. She knew the Commodore had used every means of tracking and tracing at its disposal — and those means were not inconsiderable. The fact remained that only Shia could detect the technology of the calling device, and only if she knew she ought to look for something.

This was not the first time Shia wondered about the organization for which she worked. It didn't have a name — that she knew. She had no idea how large it was. She was part of a squad of six beings. 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 absolutely no idea how many platoons there were. How many people really were trying to stop Nabob and all the other evil beings in the Multiverses? She did know that only the members of her squad had the ability to move across the Multiverses without the kind of technology Nabob had.

Shia felt the quality and quantity of the energy in the area change 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?"

The energy form that was Shia undulated in an approximation of annoyance.

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's attention focused on Bryan for a moment before she returned it to the Messenger.

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 between one time and another. I gave you the location of that specific passage because it will take you to the headquarters of your Commodore at a time not long after I left its presence."

Shia was utterly still, the energetic equivalent of staring.

"Come on, Shia. You're the only being any of us has ever known who has never refused a Message. 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 Multiverses and yet seem to be present in all of them. That's a little creepy.

The Messenger giggled. "Silly! You just haven't found the Multiverse that has access to our plane of existence. Those two children you met this morning? In their world, there's an 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, as you might call it. Our world merely has access to all the others."

I believe you just contradicted yourself.

"Not so! For other beings, access to our world is virtually impossible... there is only indirect access from very few Multiverses, and hardly anyone is powerful enough to reach us if they could get to any of those Multiverses. We are... different. We are Messengers. Our whole purpose for existing is to move between the Multiverses carrying messages."

Again, Shia stared. But finally, she said, Fine. And what does your progenitor mean by "assist"?

"Oh, you'll know. You always know the right thing to do."

Wonderful.

"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!"

At that, the Messenger simply disappeared.

Don't worry? Shia knew better. When anyone said, "don't worry," it usually meant that she should worry. A lot.

# # #

In the cabin below, Bryan tossed and turned as he dreamed. The dream was intense. Aunt Elsa had appeared in the cabin and told him that her patience had run out. That she needed to deal with him. She said she should have done this long ago, but she had grown fond of him for some dumb reason.

He'd felt the sting of her words — deal and dumb — referring to him. She had always maintained a distance from him, or so it had seemed. As warm as she could be, there was always that distance. And now, with her standing in front of him like this and peering at him, he could identify the gap. This was the thing that, on some level, he always felt but just chalked up to Aunt Elsa being a great aunt, and thus removed from being a mother. That must have been the distance he always felt.

He'd felt two sets of strong hands grab his arms, and suddenly he was back in Elsa's house... in the Dishing Room. The hands pulled him and pushed him, got him in a chair, then tied him to it. 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. Some sort of device maybe. She grabbed his arm and pulled is out 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 the crescent shape when Bryan woke up.

Bryan opened his eyes; it was still dark. He was soaked from sweating, almost shaking from the realism of his dreams.

"What a nightmare," he mumbled as he sat up in bed.

Still groggy, he got up and walked out of the bedroom to check on Shane. To Bryan's dismay, his friend was nowhere to be seen. The wood had burned out in the stove, so he added another log from the pile and started a fire going.

Then he sat down on the love seat, the dark cabin lit only by the light of the stove's fire.

"Well. Now's as good a time as any to experiment, isn't it?" he murmured. Looking down at his arm, he traced his finger along the scar. "Here we go," he whispered, then pressed the scar with all his might.

# # #

Hovering over the cabin for much of the night in True Form, Listening to the songs of the stars, Shia regained nearly all the energy she had expended over the past couple of days. She could feel the sun rising in the east at the same time she heard Bryan mumbling something below her. She let the energy of the sun's rays restore her, as well, while she listed to Bryan moving around, throwing more wood on the fire.

Yes, another few minutes... just to watch the sun rising.

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 biggest, heaviest mammal she could think of in a fraction of a second and dove off the building.

Of course, roll and thud on 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 could 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 it didn't feel any pain. Shashina, the form that usually met with the Commodore, thought he was a damn liar.

Should he go inside and make sure Bryan hadn't killed himself? Shane was pretty sure what 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 the trees toward the cabin. At least it wasn't Menolly again. Once again sighing, Shane shifted to First Form. He 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 that 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, could not 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,' you mean me, of course." Shashina rolled her eyes at the Messenger, walked over to the cabin, and looked in through the window.

"Are those devices supposed to cause hallucinations, Duncan?"

"No. Of course not."

"Well, I'm no expert on such things, but the young man does seem to be seeing something other than the room. Talking to something or someone, too." She turned and looked at Duncan before shrugging. "It could be the food he ate last night, too. 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... maybe two spoons of it? Foul stuff. The remainder is in the non-functioning cooling unit."

"I will test it. It seems unlikely, however."

"He did mention that there's a possibility his memories 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 shall need to determine who this aunt of his is... and what her agenda might be."

"We?"

Duncan tapped his breastbone twice. Shashina barely had time for another sigh before Messenger Menolly appeared... fortunately, without the wings 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 Messenger 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 inhabitants of the compound 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 back to you here, or await your return to our home?"

"Return here. Lady Shia?"

Shashina stepped over to the female Messenger and pressed the palm of her hand to Menolly'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 him or her. 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 in nature. "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 most courtly manner to Duncan. "...I am at your service, Your Highness."

"Stop that, Shia. We haven't used those titles in several 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. It was almost as if he expected someone to enter. Shashina raised an eyebrow and took a step 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?"

He did not appear to be okay...nor did he even see Shashina and Duncan in his vision... or hallucination... or... whatever it was.

Bryan saw his mother and his father.

# # #

Bryan ran along a freshly mowed stripe of grass, the roar of a lawnmower at the far end of the yard. His father played this game with him — mowing paths in the lawn so that Bryan could wander along the maze, pretending that he was escaping an enemy, making his way back home again. His father encouraged his imaginative games.

Today, the sun was warm, and the pollen floated on the light breeze, making it look almost like it was snowing on that bright spring day. It all looked so magical.

"Bryan," his mother called out over the sound of the lawnmower. "Bryan!" she called again.

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 the right side.

"Lunch is almost ready. Tell your father, too. He can't hear me."

Bryan nodded, happy to help his mother. He turned and ran back along the path he'd just traversed, turning 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 of the lines.

He took another wrong turn. He should have gone right, but he had gone left instead and ended 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. Then he heard a scream. It was his mother! He looked toward the house — usually. Bryan 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 lawn. All he saw was the lawnmower... nothing else.

What was going on? How could this be?

Just then, he felt cold drops on his skin — the pollen was changing to actual snow. A wind blew from the left, and everything around him got much darker and colder, and someone had their hands, their really big hands, on his shoulders. It was as if someone changed the slide on a screen. He looked in front of him, and there was some type of machine — maybe a tank or a spaceship. He wasn't sure what it was. But his parents were there, standing in front of a ramp connected to the thing. Their hands were tied; Bryan could see that. And there were men and women with guns of some sort. Maybe laser guns? The guns were keeping his parents afraid and turned into each other. He wanted to scream out to them but realized that there was tape on his mouth. And his hands were tied too.

The bad people made his parents walk up the ramp into the spaceship. Then there were other people, a lot more people, around the ramp, all of them looking afraid. Their hands were tied, too. Everyone was being forced to walk up the ramp.

He watched in fear and horror — at the scene in front of him, at his inability to do anything. The ramp eventually closed up. Then the spaceship lit up with bright lights that flickered for a minute. And then, in an instant, it was gone.

His heart broke. Where had his parents gone? He looked down at his feet. To the left, he saw smaller feet. He looked up and saw a little girl that looked an awful lot like him. It was his sister! She, too, had tape on her mouth. He had to do something! He was supposed to protect her.

Then there was a really bright light that made it hard to see his sister. It was as if the slide on the screen was changing again. But then he heard a voice say, "You were meant to stay. She wasn't. Do what you are meant to, and you will see each other again one day."

This new slide came into focus then. He saw a creature, a hideous monster with a huge mouth and too many teeth and dripping saliva — not quite human, but it stood upright. Young Bryan could feel tears rolling down his cheeks. He was terrified.

"You listen to me," it said. "I know you are the Chosen One. But you are going to 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. When the time is right, you will come back to me and surrender your powers to me. You will trust me. Believe in me. When I ask, you must do as I say. Because..." At that, the creature morphed from its hideous form to that of his Aunt Elsa. She continued in a softer voice, "Because, dear Bryan, I will be the only one you will ever know."

She laughed and held up an odd-looking device. From somewhere behind him, a strong hand grabbed Bryan's arm, and as she moved the device closer to it, he looked at her pleadingly and saw her necklace — a crescent moon. It was his mother's necklace! But he had never seen this woman before in his life!

The device pierced his skin, and Bryan screamed, and everything was pulled out of his mind. His screams echoed and echoed and echoed...

He looked up to see Shashina looking at him. Where was he?

When Bryan started to convulse, Shashina rushed to his side, held him down.

"Duncan!"

"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."

Well, thank goodness Shashina was stronger than she looked because Bryan was turning into quite a handful.

"Okay, got it."

"Got what, Duncan?" She definitely sounded both frustrated and annoyed.

"The trigger. Disconnected it." The Messenger practically collapsed against the loveseat. At the same time, Bryan stopped convulsing, but he just stared, unseeing, at the ceiling. 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."

"Well, if his own 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... I couldn't tell. Might be his sister's."

"His sister's? He's got a sister?" She shook her head. "You know what? Never mind. The Vulcans are big on that kind of thing. A few other races I've met, too. Some people hold memories of those who've died."

Just then, Menolly reappeared... thankfully still without those ridiculous wings of hers. "Except she isn't dead. It's really 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 in on."

"He's a Traveler."

Shashina stared for a second and then blinked. "One of those creepy eggheads from... my home universe? I think it was mine."

The two Messengers exchanged a glance. "No. Those people are pretentious geniuses, although, yes, they are from your home universe," Menolly said. "No, this Bryan is like you."

"Um, no. I'm a shapeshifter from Dalad 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. "One who travels the Multiverses through the holes between them. You'll need to teach him the way."

"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 times than not, I wind up in an environment 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 out 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. She looked back down at Bryan.

"I think he's coming out of... whatever it was."

After another minute, Bryan blinked and seemed able to focus on her face. Unfortunately, he also looked bewildered.

"Just lie still, Bryan. You had a seizure or something. Just... just hold on, okay?"

She looked at Duncan and Menolly and smirked, then she shifted to Shane form. Duncan groaned, and Menolly let out a surprised shriek.

Shane settled cross-legged beside Bryan and rested a hand on his shoulder.

"Besides your seizure or convulsion or... Nope, not gonna make anything up that's weirder 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 up 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. You using the Call button in your arm only would have 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 or something... 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 told him about your aunt, too. So Menolly came back, without the wings this time, thank goodness. She went to check out your aunt's place."

Shane glanced at Duncan before continuing. He watched Bryan's face carefully 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 stored 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, too. Um, there's some other stuff that should probably wait until you're not going to go screaming off into the woods like a mental patient. 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 again. "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 Else. 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, at least. And we should 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 had stayed very still. He heard the question and could see Shane squatting about a foot away, with his arm stretched out toward him. He could also see the two children in the cabin, the Messengers. The memories he recovered were still his. Somehow he pulled them from behind a wall in his mind; he'd taken them with him.

Bryan slowly reached out and grabbed Shane's hand and pulled himself up. He sat on the floor, looking at Shane, taking it all in.

"I saw my parents. They were taken — in a spaceship. And there were other people, too. I saw them."

Bryan rubbed his head and then looked at the scar on his arm.

"And I had a sister. Have a sister? But 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 two 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."

Bryan looked at the scar again. "I need to know who I am. And I need to know who Aunt Elsa is. I have to find my parents. They're somewhere. And there are others with them."

He looked toward Menolly. "Do you know anything?"

Shane gave all his attention to Bryan, although some part of his mind was aware that both Duncan and Menolly were uneasy. Menolly was edging toward panic.

What neither of the Messengers understood — ever — was 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 talked to Duncan and Menolly. He was remembering something, and not passing out from the pain, so that was some kind 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. And finding Bryan's family? Well, it was nice to have a family to find, wasn't it? Shia didn't have anyone but her cousin. That made the idea of family a higher priority than Messengers usually assigned it.

But Shane nearly laughed out loud when Bryan asked Menolly his direct question, and the youngest Messenger just disappeared.

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.

Duncan glared at Shane for a moment, then turned to Bryan as he shook his head. He at least tried to look sympathetic.

"Menolly is young and easily startled. She'll return when she's had a chance to calm down. I can't tell you anything about your sister other than the fact that she's 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 several decades. She excelled in everything, or so it seemed. Or perhaps I just remember her that way, choose to remember her that way. She had a dozen different names, although she most often used Angela or a variant of that name. Falcon knew her as Vesna."

Shane's eyes widened, and he just stared at Duncan. Vesna had been the first Messenger he'd met, had been the only Messenger he'd met until five or ten years ago — 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 again at Bryan. "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 your 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 such persons — the Messenger then returns several times to teach 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 was not 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 anymore 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 relax.

"But you can be killed."

"We can. And she was."

"Who, Duncan? Even in this form, I'm angry enough to rain down the fire of hell on whoever it was."

Duncan's lips twitched in what might have been a smile. "Thank you... but you have already done that service — after you escaped from Nabob's prison the last time. You do have my profound thanks." He looked up and met 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 had been a slaver in Nabob's network. The Falcon had once done more than simply do everything possible to rid the Multiverses of slavery... yet, even for Falcon, the assassination of that particular individual had been a turning point for Falcon, for Duncan, and for the organizations they both represented.

Shaking himself slightly from the reverie, Duncan looked again at Bryan. "It has been a long trail, spanning decades, that led us back here to this Earth. By some divine coincidence, Falcon was thrown through one of the passages by the Witches of Cottman Four and wound up here..."

"I'm not going back there, Duncan, and I'll tell the Many Tentacled One that, too. I scan as a high-level psi no matter what form I take... and never mind the fact that my psi abilities are practically non-existent and 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.

Addressing Bryan again, Duncan continued. "We suspect your alleged aunt has a tangential relationship to the one Falcon has sworn to remove from existence in every Multiverse. Those of us who are Messengers are able to locate the Travelers — the rare beings like Falcon with the ability to traverse the Multiverses without the use of technology. As we had suspicions about this Elsa — whom we know as Ahrimana — and because Illtyd's most versatile operative was fortuitously on this Earth, we thought it best for Falcon to learn more. You quite cleverly escaped Ahrimana's immediate influence; however, it is vital that you remain outside this operation until we are certain her control over you is broken."

Duncan gave his attention to 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... if she knew about the Call button. And she really 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 reach 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 Winded 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," he 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 Multiverse with the technology available, and she is not one who can travel the passages on her own. I have seen in your memories the stories she planted there. I can tell you there is no truth in them, although the tales may have been spun as a mixture of countless mythologies.

"She does appear to possess technology that is proscribed, lending credence to the theory that she is a criminal. Menolly made what I hope to be 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 can answer on the topics that do not need Messenger Menolly's input?"

Bryan stared at Duncan in what felt like a month's worth of time. He very slowly looked at Shane again. Then attempted to speak, but only offered an open mouth and inhale, then exhale. His world truly had turned upside down several times over.

"I'm a... Traveler?" was all Bryan could initially say. So he did have a gift, he thought, though pushed the thought to the back of his mind. There was a greater mission at stake here.

He blinked and continued to stare at Duncan. He's said that Bryan's sister was real. And alive. Somewhere. An actual sibling, something he had always wanted. All those lonely holidays and birthdays with no one but Aunt Elsa and her henchmen.

And what was that about Duncan's sister? He'd said she was the one who gave him this device... is that what he actually said? But that someone had killed her? How terrible! Was it Duncan's sister who had come to him then? Was she the one who used to visit him and tell him he was meant for something great and important?

Bryan shook off his long, long hesitation.

"What exactly is a Traveler? And was I born this way? Does this mean my parents were Travelers too?"

He looked at Shane, then looked at Duncan, and took another deep breath. His wits were starting to come back to him. He was focused again.

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 one who is able to navigate the passageways between the multiverses, as..." Duncan pointed his finger at Shane. "...this one does." It was hard to tell if Duncan sounded annoyed with Shane or frustrated or exasperated or just tired of the shapeshifter.

"Few can do it. To be honest, we don't know if a person is born with the ability or if it's the result of trauma or if, like many less than ordinary gifts or senses, it's something triggered by puberty. Every Traveler I've heard of discovered their ability accidentally, as Shia did, or because a Messenger sensed their presence. And 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 us... Travelers, I mean. Well, as far as I know, anyway."

Duncan sighed heavily, and Shane just 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 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 — with the exception of Ni-Sha, who is even worse than I am — are not great at communicating. This form is the one most likely to keep poor Bryan from freaking out again. And even I can't promise that."

"You change shapes," Menolly said in a voice so quiet it was almost a whisper. "It's..." She just shook her head as she sat on the counter that separated the kitchen area from the rest of the cabin.

"I know, Menolly. I've heard of other people who can do what I do, but I've only 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, definitely surprised. "Really? But that's cool! Duncan doesn't do that."

She 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 a 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 young Messenger looked up, although she barely looked at Shane and avoided looking at Bryan at all. It was undeniable that 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, at least 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 were four others, although one of them appeared to be struggling to fight a compulsion, just as..." Menolly's voice just trailed off, and she was quiet for a few minutes.

Finally, she shook her head, bringing herself back 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.

"Airplanes?"

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. And 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.

"She has four people with her, and the three who are not afflicted by the... the coercion to forget are..." She paused again, her forehead wrinkled 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, Meny," 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 to Duncan again. "I was scared."

"It's okay, cousin," he 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 only seemed to nod 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 also 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, Duncan."

The senior Messenger grinned. "You can't teach Bryan how to travel the passages, but he could certainly help you free his family."

Falcon just glared at Duncan. And Duncan merely looked at Falcon.

Sighing, 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."

The young Messenger glanced at Duncan before responding. "Human. Well, definitely humanoid... I'd guess she's one of the Diaspora Humans. Although 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 crapshoots, usually. But even Diaspora Humans still bleed red."

Menolly bit her lip as she drew her eyebrows together, looking like a young human child imitating an adult. "Duncan said all kinds of memories were planted in... in..." She shuddered and looked at Bryan. "I'm sorry," she said, barely above a whisper. "You Travelers make me nervous."

Shane looked at Menolly while Menolly looked at Bryan. He didn't quite understand what was going on with her — or with Duncan, for that matter — but he did need 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 there... why? Okay, that's one thing we need to figure out. This person also has proscribed technology and is holding Bryan's family captive. Again, why? We're close to certain that she works for Nabob, but why is she holding his family hostage?"

He stopped suddenly and ran his hands through his hair several times, and then finally laced his fingers together behind his neck. He bent forward to rest his elbows on the floor. It almost looked like some kind of odd yoga pose.

"Ahrimana doesn't know about the Call button, probably." His voice was muffled but still easily understood. "But what if someone does, Duncan?"

He looked up, hands now 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 are so screwed."

Bryan was perfectly still, unsure about how to respond. It really wasn't about Aunt Elsa at this point, nor was it about the news that she had more "goons" besides Max. It wasn't even about him being a Traveler, though he definitely has felt out of his body since learning about that.

It was about his family. His mother and father and sister, that they were, in fact, alive, and possibly even with Aunt Elsa, or kind of there... or used to be there... he still didn't understand what everyone was talking about at times. But Menolly had said that there were other energies there, right? Or that she felt there used to be?

Bryan turned toward Menolly, and as gently as he could, he said, "Thank you, Menolly, for finding all this out for me. Thank you so much."

Menolly shuddered visibly when Bryan addressed her, but at least she didn't disappear this time.

His eyes welled up. He knew he was probably the odd man out here, but given all the information that he was getting today, he also felt that perhaps he was more like these people than different.

The questions raised were important, and they needed answers. Bryan wiped his eyes and looked at Shane.

"So, what's our plan? I'm ready. And if I had to guess who might be our way in, I would 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?"

At Bryan's question, Shane twisted his fingers in his hair and pulled — almost as if he was really going to pull his hair out.

"Gah!!! I am not good at this part!"

Jumping up, Shane paced back and forth across the cabin floor several times, rubbing the back of his neck.

"This isn't working. I'm working at a disadvantage here."

Duncan groaned.

"Well, then just close your eyes and don't watch if it bothers you all that much, Duncan," Shane said, not unkindly but definitely with frustration. "You, too, Meny."

Duncan did close his eyes, but Menolly curled up on the counter much as Shane had done earlier, making sure 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. Shashina was only slightly taller than Shane, but where he looked like a friendly, somewhat spacy college kid, she looked like a warrior. Instead of Shane's casual clothing, Shashina wore motorcycle leathers... including the appropriate boots. Her long hair hung straight down her back, tied at the nape of her neck by some invisible band... or perhaps it was just shapeshifter magic. The only thing they had in common was their golden eyes. In the park, Shashina had not yet remembered everything she'd lost after being thrown through one of the passages by the leroni of Cottman Four.

Now, she remembered. It was apparent in her confident posture and almost military bearing. 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 grounds." Shashina smiled at the still curled Messenger. "You did good, kiddo... 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 so that it makes a difference?"

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 when they're using the passages. Besides..."

He didn't have to finish his statement.

"I know," Shashina said. "Our people are spread too thin as it is."

The agent who was known throughout many of the Multiverses as Falcon grinned in a rather hostile and predatory way.

"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 to shut her down fast. 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 merely laughed. "Oh, come on, Duncan. You can bamboozle Shane, but I'm a little harder to push around. I have the same rank in our organization that all of you Messengers have collectively. And if you want to go by hereditary titles, I'm slightly 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 seems to indicate Salia is happy with just 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 and is more interested in offspring." Then Falcon shrugged. "To be honest, I suspect by the time Salia's daughter is as old as I am, the representative template of governing that the Federation outlined will have taken hold, and there will be no need for this inherited rulership nonsense on our planet either. It's a good thing, then, that this silly idea of heredity doesn't really factor into the functioning of our respective worlds' governments, isn't it?"

Sticking her hands in her jacket pockets as she turned to Bryan, Falcon's smile lost the teasing edge it had and offered a bit of compassion for the young man.

"A plan? Hmm."

She studied him for a few moments, remembering far too many of the people she had rescued or attempted to rescue from Nabob's organization. Many had lived. Some had died. Bryan did have the advantage of not actually being in a cell, a cage, or a 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 the plans. That's Illtyd's job." Falcon grinned cheerfully. "It makes him happy, and he doesn't believe that 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 at the window, trying to gauge how much time they had. Even with the physical problems that Bryan had encountered, and the amount of time they'd spent talking already, it was barely midday. It would be more than 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.

"Well, your car is bumping along with the river's currents," she said, looking at Bryan. "You don't have the same abilities the rest of us do to get from here to Ahrimana's base quickly and easily.

"My suggestion would be for you and Duncan to hitchhike back to the city, while Meny and I scout the area around there 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 smile as she 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 well-being. If questioned..." 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. "It's acceptable to me. Just wait for us somewhere safe enough for Bryan, and I'll find you." The Messenger turned to Bryan, eyebrows raised, waiting for his answer.

Bryan made up his mind before Duncan finished his sentence.

"I'm going with you, and I'll do whatever I have to do. Elsa needs to be stopped."

He then walked toward the cabinets, intentionally not making eye contact with Menolly so as not to scare her, and looked through the drawers. He opened them slowly one by one until he found what he needed in the third — a notebook and pencil.

"I'll draw a map of the house for you."

He thought he heard someone snicker at this. Certainly, with all their supernatural abilities, they'd have already mapped everything out. However, Bryan was going for a different kind of map.

"I lived in that house for nearly all my life. There are several hiding places that I used all the time, and closets and crawl spaces that go unnoticed. I'll mark them with a star." Bryan paused.

"There are also rooms that have been locked off for as long as I can remember. I used to hear noises coming from those rooms. Voices, and sometimes I would see flashes of light coming out from under the doorway. Whatever she's hiding, there must be something in those rooms." He then went back to the drawer and found a mostly dried out red marker. But there was enough ink to do the job. He marked those rooms with a red border.

Once done, Bryan handed the map over to Falcon. "Perhaps if we split up, we stand a better chance of covering more ground. She can't catch all of us at the same time, so consider this a rescue plan as well."

He waited patiently for a response, fearing they would brush him off, but hoping they would see that he had something of value to offer here.

When Bryan got up to rummage through his drawers, Menolly disappeared for an instant only to reappear at Shashina's side.

"He's not going to hurt you, Meny."

"I know. I'm just..." Her voice trailed off, and she shrugged.

Shashina tilted her head as she considered Bryan's idea of drawing a map of the house. It would certainly help to get an additional perspective, especially because Messengers saw things a little differently than Falcon did. More telling, however, was his casual mention of having hidden in any number of nooks and crannies when he was younger. That didn't correlate with 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 a true memory that was likely one of those suppressed by his alleged aunt — and without the slightest hint of distress.

"That's an excellent idea," she said as he finished marking out rooms and outlining them. As he handed her the drawing, 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." Shashina 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 it, bending it, and stretching it. Shashina could only watch for a few seconds before rolling her eyes and turned her attention back to Bryan and the map.

"Yeah, splitting up is definitely going to be the best way to tackle this. I'm just trying to figure out the most practical approach to the problem. Despite never actually working on a mission with a Messenger — let alone two of them, assuming Meny 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 starts to blow up in our faces, those two," she said, nodding at the pair on the couch, "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," Shashina said. "The point is that they can get out. There's a near one hundred percent chance that I can too. That leaves you. And you can't 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 herself — being the least experienced, being the most vulnerable, being the weak link in the chain. She didn't like it, and she was pretty sure Bryan didn't either.

"Listen, Bryan. 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."

Shashina gave him a half-smile. "I'm not a cold-hearted bitch, Bryan, 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, she shook her head. "I'm not sure how far downstream that car of yours is going to get. If it's been found, Elsa is probably going to believe you're dead. Waltzing in the front door like nothing happened probably isn't the best idea in that case. Too many questions."

She looked back at the map and absently traced the rooms outlined in red as she continued. "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 a lot of those — explanations, I mean — but I don't know what they would be on this version of Earth in the current year. And it might depend on location, too. Expending all your fuel is probably the lowest common denominator that doesn't involve the police."

She stared off into space again for a few seconds, trying to coordinate the activities of four individuals. This is exactly why I work alone, she thought to herself. This is like doing quantum mathematics in my head.

Finally, she shook herself from her reverie and began studying the map in earnest.

"Still need to get the human from here to there in a timely fashion," she muttered to herself.

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 before she was born, had carried an incredible amount of information. The ship itself had been named for a deity of the Earth's ancient Greek civilization, so Shashina knew exactly what a pegasus was, and also knew that no one would be able to ignore a winged horse flying across their skies. There were the giant winged lizards on a planet whose name she never learned — the human inhabitants had called them dragons and considered them a good omen when they flew overhead. But no one would be able to ignore a giant flying lizard with wings either.

"Shia?"

"Duncan?" she said without looking up from the map.

"There's a way to get Bryan out safely."

"Hmm?" What Duncan said didn't really 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."

Shashina looked up at him and frowned. "What are you talking about, Duncan?"

"I can bring Bryan with me."

The shapeshifter just stared, not quite comprehending. Menolly, on the other hand, blinked and then exclaimed, "You can??!?"

Duncan nodded and focused on the younger Messenger for a moment.

"It's a rare ability in some families." He smiled ruefully at her. "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 Shashina, and probably — if counted linearly in Earth years — younger than Bryan. It was also clear that she was disappointed.

"Um, but you are proficient at this, right?" Shashina asked skeptically.

"As much as any of us can be, yes. It takes considerably more energy than moving as we usually 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 "Vulcan stare" that she'd learned from her T'Kuhtian friend, Ni-Sha.

Duncan looked at Bryan sheepishly. "It might be unpleasant."

"Define unpleasant," Shashina 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 some slight disorientation. The whole lot of you Travelers are laws unto yourselves, you know."

Shashina grunted. "Right." She paused. "Have I mentioned that the lot of you freak me out?"

"Not in the last half hour, no."

"Smartass." She turned to look at Bryan again. "I'll make a sweep down the river and see if I spot your car. We can talk about what the next step is 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 that Messengers use aren't going to be purposely heaped on your head.

Duncan cleared his throat, causing Shashina to once again roll her eyes and sigh.

"Now what?" she asked Duncan.

"While I know it will be faster than the 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."

Shashina handed the map to Menolly then rubbed her temples.

"Get out of here, Duncan." Then she pointed a finger at Bryan as she glared at the Messenger. "Don't kill him."

Then 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 how, 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." She followed them outside and watched as they started down the trail toward a nearby open spot among the trees.

"Be careful. See you both soon." Once they disappear, she stared at the spot where they had been for nearly a minute.

"You're worried."

She turned to the younger Messenger, who was perched on the railing of the stairs into the cabin.

"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 at Falcon's question. "He doesn't know everything, Shia." Still, Menolly did look 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 used. Well, maybe she could.

"Do you think they found this place the same way you did — by getting the witches of Cottman furious at 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. And 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 survive the effects of gravity as their body came through the passage at a speed I'm used to? The only reason I managed to survive both times is that I default to True Form when I get injured that badly. Although 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 woman sighed with frustration. "Tech."

The childlike Messenger 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."

The Traveler and Messenger merely looked at one another for several minutes.

"God, I have that fucking guy."

Menolly shrugged one shoulder. "We all do. But what do we do now, though?"

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 atmosphere always reminded her of home.

"Well, we scope out the base more thoroughly as a first step. I'll do that while you keep a lookout for Duncan and Bryan.

"Then we rescue Bryan's people. Get rid of the infestation. 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 transferred over here, right? What worries me about that nearby passage is that the kid who actually opened it from his world into this one even managed to tap into it in the first place."

"Could it be more unstable than most? None of the passages the Cottman witches rip into space-time are ever quite right."

"True. And 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 again. "Can't be. What about Fauna, Castor, and Ard?"

Menolly said nothing for a while; Falcon waited patiently. Finally, the Messenger 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 rather 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 that clearing I showed you." Falcon paused again, remembering her night across from the compound, waiting for Bryan to emerge again. "I don't remember a huge amount 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, I guess deer do eat meat on occasion, but they're not predators."

Falcon shifted to one of her namesake birds, this time the peregrine falcon, and winged up to a nearby tree branch.

Although she averted her eyes when Falcon actually 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 had chosen, because trees obscured many of the roadways below, Falcon wasn't able to 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 not as far downstream as she had anticipated. Diving downward at over two hundred miles per hour was pure joy. If a bird could have smiled, she definitely would have. It took mere seconds to confirm that the car was fully submerged and caught on a jagged rock beneath the surface. As she regained altitude, she pondered the likelihood of the car becoming dislodged in the near future. If the currents of the river moved just right, it could be on its way toward the lake where the river ended. More realistically, however, it would probably take runoff from the nearby mountains after a winter of heavy snow to get that thing moving again.

This was very good.

The winds were tricky in this area — some currents swept off the nearby slopes, some swelled off the ocean. At times, they would just slide over and under one another, causing updrafts and downdrafts that Falcon merely 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. A peregrine falcon wasn't common in this area — at least if this world was anything like the other versions of Earth she had 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 had expected, the field had no effect.

Menolly had been right, however. If she had 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 tickled a little — it reminded her of the gamma storms back home. All the youngsters loved them, and because they were rare enough, adults were generally indulgent about allowing time away from the busy work usually assigned to children.

Falcon's first thought as she drifted down toward the building was that it seemed a lot smaller and considerably more drab than it had looked just yesterday. And it was downright dilapidated when compared to Bryan's memories of it. The grounds were not nearly as expansive, and although the lawn had recently been mowed, it was patchy and already sprouting dandelions and clover. There were no gardens; thorny hedges encircled the property.

Ahrimana must have been using the illusion projection around the whole place and not just the dirt and gravel driveway — seen from this side, there were very few trees between the house and the road. The house itself was in desperate need of a paint job. At one time, it might have been a charmingly bright shade of blue. Now it was just washed out and sad looking.

Falcon could sense four... no, five people inside. Four of them seemed to be no different than any of the other humans she had encountered since arriving here. The odd one, then, must be Ahrimana — the woman Bryan had known as Elsa. Yeah, definitely Diaspora Human. If Falcon had to guess, her homeworld might originally have been the Vega colony or the Caldos colony — both of which had slightly lower than Earth-normal gravity — as the woman wore a light exoskeleton to compensate. Rather than the complex Lieber system used by the Elaysians, Ahrimana's probably 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 occupied. The fourth man was as far away from them as he could be while remaining on the same level. All five of them were on the first floor of the building.

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 that level, so she made a mental note to check it out later. In True Form, she would have missed entirely the hidden spaces he had marked on his map.

The basement, on the other hand, was a different story entirely! There was equipment drawing massive amounts of power. The largest of those was likely the stasis chamber Menolly had noted earlier. Interestingly, there was a moderate amount of power being 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 material was somewhat painful, but soaking into this planet's crust was always a treat no matter which Multiverse she was in. Granted, her movement was slower than it was in the gaseous atmosphere, but Falcon used that to her advantage. She could study the foundation, the alien technology, and specifically the power source for all of it as she circled the building.

It was alarming, 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. Nabob would. Well, 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 first floor of the building, starting with the rooms Bryan had marked as being perpetually locked. If she had been in a form with eyes, she would have blinked them in surprise. Neither room had much of a floor — the stasis chamber was tall enough to protrude into this level — and there were only two walkways, one that ran around the perimeter of the room and the other that cross the room where the wall had once been. All manner of lights and gauges — as well as things Falcon had never seen before — nearly covered the top of the unit. She wondered how old this thing was, then decided that it didn't really matter.

She'd never met anyone but another Dalad 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 just looked like a disaster area. Actually, it looked a lot like the disaster areas her 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 had he called it again? Ah! Canasta! They 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. They had projectile weapons — some sort of guns — that could severely damage or even kill Bryan. They'd need to watch out for that; definitely keep the thugs away from Bryan.

In the next room over, the kitchen... this must be Elsa. No, this was Ahrimana taking on the part of someone named Elsa. Falcon would recognize her stench anywhere. She was pacing back and forth across the room, occasionally looking at a clock on the wall.

What was she waiting for? Or maybe the question should be, who was she waiting for? After about five minutes of watching, Ahrimana opened the refrigerator and took out a bottle of... orange juice? If so, that would point to her home planet being Caldos. Humans had adapted to the slightly lower pH as well as the slightly lower gravity than Earth's. She watched Ahrimana drink down an entire liter of juice, rinse out the bottle, and toss it in a bin marked "Recycling."

It was all too ordinary. So, of course, that made Falcon suspicious.

Ahrimana stabbed at a button on 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 found out 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 the direction of this Max individual. Bryan was much more ambivalent about Max if I was reading him right. Maybe there's a reason for it.

She found an older man in a suit sitting in a lawn chair at 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 third closest to the house; a sensible black sedan was parked in the middle third; the far third was used for storage of... Well, all sorts of things, as far as Falcon could tell. There were some lawn care tools tossed in a corner on top of car parts and crates. She had to wonder where Bryan had left his car when he was here. True, the underground garage was a false memory. It was possible that the motorcycles were in the spot he usually used.

As she drifted closer to Max, she could hear him softly crying.

This was strange.

She waited a few minutes longer, but he didn't say anything. Menolly was waiting for her. Duncan and Bryan would get to the glade soon. But there was something about this man that reminded Falcon of someone, even though she couldn't remember who it was or which of her many personas had known the person.

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. Duncan and Bryan hadn't appeared 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 just shrugged. "Duncan is doing something I didn't know he could do. I hope he gets here soon." She looked up at Shashina. "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. He should still be able to make use of those if it comes down to that."

"And the stasis chamber?"

Falcon closed her eyes and rubbed her temples, the latter a thoroughly human gesture.

"She's using a fusion reactor to power it. And there was some other piece of equipment on the first level that I didn't recognize that's also drawing a good amount of power. It was near the front entry."

Menolly looked almost crestfallen. "I'm sorry I didn't mention that. It didn't seem as important as the stasis chamber."

"Hey, don't worry about, kiddo. No harm, no foul." She 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 wrong memories. I haven't actually seen one before, but the Commander made sure I read about them. It can work both ways — either it implants false memories, or it pulls 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 and 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 fighting. I got a look at Ahrimana. I'm fairly sure she's from Caldos. And she's anxious about getting Bryan back."

"Why?"

Stepping back to lean against a tree, Falcon's brows drew together with a puzzled expression. "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.

"And then there was the fourth man, Max, the one with some connection to the others in the stasis chamber. Ahrimana told him to get more information about my amalgam form that I took when I first wound up here, in addition to searching for Bryan. I found him in the garage, as far away from Ahrimana as a person could get and still be indoors."

Falcon paused. "He was crying."

Menolly turned from her surveillance of the road and looked sharply at Falcon.

"That's not typical human male behavior, Shia. Even I know that much."

"I know. But it's not entirely atypical either. If I had to guess at his emotional state based on posture and facial expression, and especially the fact 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 even think I have enough data to speculate.

That was when the sky darkened ominously.

Traveler and Messenger looked up at the dark gray disc hovering above the house Falcon had just inspected. Menolly shook with fear; Falcon started swearing.

Duncan arrived with Bryan — the former looking ashen and the latter shivering and looking nearly frozen before he fell to his hands and knees and began to vomit. 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. But you two might have blipped on his radar."

"Illtyd doesn't believe he has that technology," Duncan insisted.

"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 Headquarters. It's most of a continent away, but once we get out of Ahrimana's sphere of influence, we shouldn't have any 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 one of the atmospheric missile launchers. She had seen him 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 said. "Other than to taunt Ahrimana. Maybe."

"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."

"He's just going to kill everyone in that building because Ahrimana hasn't recovered Bryan?" The Messenger sounded downright surprised.

"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, Duncan. 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 just nodded.

"Bryan will never make it out of the kill zone in time. Menolly and I can leave; 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. But no. I can't protect him. 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?"

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's going to react to be towed through a Passage or what we're going to find on the other side. If I get injured, I can always shift to True Form. He's human!"

Duncan looked at Bryan, who was now curled in a fetal position and moaning. Then he looked at Nabob's ship. The missile door was about three-quarters open. Then he looked 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 watched the ship. "Run away to fight another day," she murmured. "Damn it, Duncan!" She looked at the elder Messenger, her eyes glistening like amber lights. "We're leaving hundreds, if not thousands, of people to die because of that rat bastard."

Duncan's gaze didn't waver from hers. "I know."

"Well, how can you stand it?"

He shook his head very slightly. "I can't," he whispered. "But we keep going to fight another day."

Shia of Daled blinked away the tears. First Form was one of her more empathic 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 said.

Falcon shifted from First Form to Damien's form — 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 — they had less than five minutes now — Duncan and Menolly disappeared, and 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'm going to 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 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.

"NOW!!"

Falcon jumped feet-first into the shimmering pool of energy, holding tightly to Brian. No two trips through one of the Passage was ever the same. This one was more sensory deprivation than anything else, but there was also a strange vibration to it.

He only realized they had exited the Passage when he stumbled as he touched the ground. Surprisingly, the drop had only been a few inches. Also surprisingly, he was alone.

"Shit."

Shifting to True Form, Falcon searched in ever-widening spirals for Bryan's energy signature.

Nothing.

Well, not 'nothing' — just no Bryan.

At the edge of a highway, Falcon shifted back to First Form. "SHIT!!"

That's when she took in her surroundings. The constellations in the clear night sky almost guaranteed she was still on Earth, or at least one of the many variants 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, somewhere on this gods-forsaken planet. Hopefully, all in one piece. Hopefully, in the same damn Multiverse.

In this particular case, the old song, Two Out of Three Ain't Bad really wouldn't be good enough. Bryan was going to have to hit the trifecta. And Falcon was going to have to find him.

"Shit."

© Kelly Naylor and TruthSeeker