It was hard for Nick to tell if where he was was just darkness or if it was nothingness. He didn't think he was dead. Death would have felt familiar. He was in alien territory, lost in some kind of in between. He imagined it was very much like at least one of the planes Ghostshadow slid through. In fact, if he looked hard enough, he could see the white blur of the Slider's afterimage racing through. Ghostshadow's hell wasn't the Garden of Ink he had murmured about in Nick's ear. It was a perpetual slide over which he had no control. Nick could almost imagine the assault of fractured worlds on Ghostshadow's awareness, and for a little while, he wished he hadn't killed Ghostshadow. He hadn't intended torture, but he wasn't responsible for the sentence passed, only for sending the soul to be judged.
After what seemed like a very long time, Nick became aware that the darkness wasn't entirely empty nor was it devoid of all sensory input. He could feel something slithering past his fingers. It felt like a stream of spider webs, and it sounded like a distant waterfall. After an even longer while, he realized he could close his fingers around it. The first time he did and the visions flashed across the blankness, he had to let go after only a few seconds. It hurt and left a dull ache behind his eyes. When the ache faded, he tried again. He watched Ghostshadow's aura of void spilt apart when the blue light from the sword touched it. He watched Lash tenderly caring for his wounded body as Leviathan lumbered towards Lore. He watched Kitsune making a mad dash away from the Esterhazy compound and safely reaching Walden City. He saw a lot of other things he couldn't really make sense of, people he didn't know and places he had never been. It didn't take him long to figure out how to find the things and people he was concerned about. They carried familiar vibrations and auras in comfortable hues. He practiced his visions. It worked well while he was unconscious. He wasn't so sure it would when he finally woke up. He tried to figure out how to tell time in the space he was in, but he had no reliable starting point, so the hours and days he measured meant little. It all added up to a long time, much longer than he wanted to wait. But he couldn't wake up. So he watched and waited.
Gaston and Aaron arrived on Walden City almost a full month after the Shikkongou had been stolen. They had spent most of that time looking into Esterhazy's companies and not finding much. All of the smaller companies were clean. The financial records checked out, and there was no evidence of any kind of illegal activity. The one time they almost found something of interest, they ended up running into a brick wall.
Pavel had not been pleasant to deal with the whole time. Shortly after their first visit, someone had gotten into Pavel's office and destroyed his computer. The data had been backed up elsewhere, but Pavel took it as a personal slight that his office had been tampered with that way. And since the computer had been completely destroyed, they couldn't tell if anything on the machine had been messed with.
Zero had apparently become ill shortly after Pavel's computer had been blown up and was being kept in a suspended state until Esterhazy's doctors could figure out what was wrong and what to do with him. Or at least that's what Gaston and Aaron were being told. Chaos had taken an indefinite leave of absence and gone back home to Roselawn to be with his mother after the sudden death of his father. Or at least that's what Gaston and Aaron were being told.
They got a warrant for all the security recordings from that night, but it seemed that Chaos had had more than enough time to wipe out the hours in question. When they contacted Chaos to ask him about the recordings, they discovered that his father had died. Of course, if they had looked into that further, they would have discovered that the circumstances of his death were questionable at best. Chaos knew nothing about the recordings being altered, and out of respect and a little bit of shame, Gaston and Aaron didn't press the issue.
Nick had effectively vanished. The crew of a grappler ship called Reifujin Hagane claimed that he had fallen on the windshield of their ship and died. Afterwards, when he miraculously began to breath again, a healer claiming to be Nick's boyfriend had come to his rescue. The pilot and the engineer had helped the healer take Nick to an apartment. Gaston and Aaron discovered that the apartment had been rented to a Slider named Robyn Chartrand who worked for Esterhazy. Later, they were able to positively identify the Slider found at the site of the angel aurora as Chartrand. But they had to do that by photographs taken of the body. Three days after he had been found, Chartrand's body had vanished.
The blood samples taken from the site matched up with Chartrand's DNA and with Nick's, but no one had seen Nick since before the fight. No one had seen Lash Larabie either.
The angel aurora continued to create a big stir across the universe. Psychics and religious fanatics claimed the phenomenon indicated the existence of a new angel star, but science was at a loss to explain what had happened. It was big enough and interesting enough that people stopped talking about the theft of the Shikkongou. They still got calls from people claiming to have spotted Nick and Kitsune, just not as many. But that was fine with them. It gave them a chance to try to work the case in relative peace.
The hard evidence on Kitsune's whereabouts came from a hotel manager who had gotten nervous about her late night comings and goings. They decided to check it out themselves, hoping that maybe Nick was with her and they could end the case all at once. They spent a few days watching her and following her. They saw no evidence that she wasn't alone, and they were pretty sure that she knew they were there.
They should have expected a hard time when they finally decided to confront her, but since she had done nothing while they were watching, they figured she would be easy to capture.
Kitsune smiled at them when they walked into High Spirits, then she leaned over the bar to say something to the bartender. Jack reached under the bar then handed her a shotgun. The whole bar froze when she cocked it. An errant billiard ball clacked into a pocket. The crowd parted, and Gaston and Aaron were standing directly in the line of fire.
"I'll pay for damages, Jack," Kitsune said.
"Uh-huh," Jack said.
She fired the shotgun. The shell plowed into the floor at Aaron's feet. "Can't stay to chat, boys," she said. "Gotta run." She darted out the back door, and the crowd went back to drinking and milling about.
Gaston and Aaron fought their way to the back door. Only when they pulled their guns and showed their badges did they get a clear line to the back door, but by that time, Kitsune was long gone. They thought about questioning the bar flies, but it was obvious to them that everyone in that place would stick up for Kitsune.
When they got outside, they headed for the hotel she had been staying in. She hadn't gone there. She probably figured they would and had gone somewhere else to lay low until they decided to leave her alone. So they let themselves in and waited. She would have to go back there eventually. When she did, she wasn't nearly as surprised as they would have thought she would be, and she didn't try to run.
"We just wanna talk, Greyson," Gaston said.
"How the fuck do you know that name?" Kitsune asked.
"You left a hair in the airshaft at the Museum of Antiquities," Aaron said. "We had it analyzed. Turned out it wasn't human. It was a species of fox found only on Commonwealth. You were the only one who survived the experiments that were done in the lab there, and it was a fox they were using. It was easy to figure out really."
"Wow. Smart cops. Who woulda thought?"
"You should have figured someone would notice something like the Shikkongou being stolen."
"Oh, we knew. We weren't given a choice. I see by the look on your faces that you hadn't figured that part out yet. Maybe you're not so smart after all. Archer Esterhazy forced us to steal it for him. He wants the jewel to try to live longer. He's decomposing because his DNA isn't stable."
"Where is the jewel?" Gaston asked.
Kitsune shrugged. "Haven't you got that part figured out too?"
"I don't know."
"He's got the jewel, right?"
"I don't really know that either."
"What about Lash Larabie?"
"The bounty hunter? Is there a bounty on us? Other than the BII's reward, I mean."
"Rumor has it he was hired to help you two out."
"Oh, yeah? Ain't that sweet."
"We really don't want to do this the hard way," Aaron said.
"I haven't seen Nick or the jewel since we left Lyric. Esterhazy sent a psycho Slider after Nick. He came after me, too, and he tried to rape me. God only knows what he did to Nick. If you want to take Esterhazy down, I can help you."
"So it was you."
Kitsune smiled. "You like my work, huh?"
"A lot more than some people did. Mr. Falkenberg was a bit upset."
"That fucking prick deserved it. He's the one who told Esterhazy about me and Nick. And you know why? Because he knew Nick wouldn't give the jewel back to Esterhazy and was hoping that Nick would get killed just so he could get their father's money."
"We're not interested in Falkenberg family politics. We want to return the Shikkongou to the museum."
"Sorry. We took it apart. Esterhazy only wanted the jewel. Are you gonna arrest me now?"
"No, actually we're not. If we did that, we'd never get Nick. He'll go straight to Talon with the jewel, and he'll be out of our reach. So what we thought we'd do is put a bug on you and wait until Nick shows up. Then we'll know exactly when to come and get both of you and the jewel and put everything back where it belongs."
"Um, fuck no."
"It's either that or you go now and you'll never see him again."
Kitsune bit her lip and considered her options. She didn't see that she really had any. She could have run. They wouldn't have been able to catch her. But they wouldn't go away if she did that. And they made a very good point about her not seeing Nick. It had been way too long already. "All right fine," she said.
After they put the bug in her ear and left, she lay down on the bed and cried.
"Time to wake up," Lash said with a sigh. He removed the i.v. from Nick's arm and emptied the rest of the fluid into the toilet. They were two days out from Lore. Evelyn had kept him supplied with the latest news slates and made sure no one entered the cabin. She had brought in fresh sheets herself and helped Lash change the bed. She brought him meals and even watched over Nick a few times when Lash had to get out and walk around before his limbs began to atrophy. He hadn't bothered to ask her why she was helping them out, and she hadn't offered an explanation. He figured it had something to do with whatever conversation she had had with Nick on the pilgrimage. And he was still convinced that Ryan had talked to her at some point.
He watched a thin rim of blue spread under Nick's eyelids. He had seen that glow too many times for his liking in the last month. He wondered about Nick's dreams and visions. Would Nick remember them when he woke up, or were they just like normal dreams, fleeting blips of brain wave activity without any true meaning? Or were they nightmarish recollections of falling and the days spent helpless on Ghostshadow's bed? Whatever they were, Nick would never share them with anyone. The glow faded. It would be a few hours before Nick woke up, so Lash went out into the corridor and leaned up against the window, watching space go by.
Evelyn came down the corridor after he had been standing there for maybe ten minutes. "Everything okay?" she asked.
"Yeah," Lash said. "I took the i.v. out. He'll be awake in a few hours."
"I bet you're looking forward to that."
"I'm hoping he'll still be dopey enough not to try to kill me just yet."
"What about his injuries?"
"He's past the worst of it. He'll need another month or more for a complete recovery, even with a talented healer. Ghostshadow really fucked him up bad. I think his healing did as much damage as the fight."
"That wouldn't surprise me. He wasn't a natural healer."
"Thanks for all your help. I wish there was some way I could repay you, but this isn't quite over yet. And I don't know what's gonna happen when it does finally end."
"It's no big deal. I owed it to him."
"Why do you say that?"
"It wouldn't have done any harm for him to get to Lost Tree, but my job was to remove psychics from the pilgrimage as soon as I could spot them. He just had questions that needed to be answered. I wondered for a long time if maybe I had kept him from something important."
"Well, I think he's got the answers now. Or at least enough of them to be dangerous."
"I can arrange transportation from Lore to wherever you want to go."
"I need to head to Teatree. He needs to go to Walden City."
"Are you sure you want to leave him alone?"
"He'll be okay. Kitsune's waiting for him there."
"All right. I'll have something for you by the time we pull into port."
Evelyn smiled, put her hand on his shoulder then walked away. Lash smiled back at her and went back to staring out the window.
He lost track of time, hypnotized by the deep blackness in front of him and weary from looking after Nick. He realized it had been many more than a few minutes when he heard the cabin door hiss open and Nick said, "Lash, I can't move my arms very well right now, but as soon as I can, I'm going to strangle you."
Lash turned away from the window and dashed across the corridor. "You shouldn't even be standing up right now," he said.
Nick was leaning up against the side of the door, clutching a blanket around his shoulders with hands that looked more like gnarled claws than the hands of a thief. "I'm not really," he said.
"Get back inside. Lay down." Lash took hold of Nick's arms and pushed him gently back into the cabin.
"I've been laying down for more than a month now, Lash. I don't want to lay down any more."
"Well, I'll tell you the same thing I told you before we got on board. If you can get up and move around on your own, please do."
Nick said nothing. He sat down on the bed where Lash guided him. Then he smiled. "Fuck you," he said.
"Yeah, that's what I thought. I'm sorry, but I had to. You needed the time to heal. You wouldn't have made it to Walden City alive after that."
"I suppose not. I don't mean to sound ungrateful."
"I know. You're worried about her. You miss her."
"This was all my fault."
"I wouldn't say all of it is your fault."
"If I hadn't stolen the Shikkongou in the first place, it wouldn't have been there for Esterhazy to want."
Lash raised one eyebrow. "Excuse me?"
"Oh. You didn't know."
"Nick, what are you talking about?"
"Nothing. I'll have to explain it later anyway. It can wait."
"All right. I'm letting that go this time because I'm assuming I'll be there to hear this explanation."
"We'll be on Lore in two days. Evelyn's getting us passage out. I'll meet you on Teatree."
"Yeah, she's the security officer."
"What? She's been helping us out. She's not gonna turn you in."
"Who paid her off? You or Ryan?"
"Wasn't me. I'd guess Ryan had something to do with it, but I haven't seen him since we left Lyric."
"I guess it's a little too late to worry about it."
"Yeah, it kinda is."
"Is Ghostshadow really dead?"
"Um ... he was when his body was found."
"You sound uncertain."
"I don't know a lot about Sliders."
"Neither does anyone else."
"His body disappeared three days later. There seems to be speculation that Sliders do that because they're made to come apart. It's just a slide with no real destination."
"His soul is already doing that. I wonder if he can put himself back together somehow."
"God, I hope not."
"Next time will be different. I'll know what to do."
"What exactly did you do? They got a picture of your angel from space."
"I thought that would happen. I don't know what I did. I think the light gems in the blade were picking up my aura rather than the color of my clothes."
"So you ... you cut his aura in half with yours?"
"I think that's how it worked. I wasn't quite all there."
"I'm sure you'll have plenty of chances to figure it out later when you are all there."
"Do you think the jewel had anything to do with it?"
"I don't know. I suppose it could have."
For the next two days, Lash made sure that Nick ate as much as he could and stretched and exercised his muscles back into working condition. Two days wasn't nearly enough, and Nick was still a little stiff and slow and way too thin. But he insisted he was well enough to travel to Walden City, and Lash had to believe him.
Evelyn had gotten Lash passage to Teatree on a liner called The Orient Express, but it was on its way out just as Leviathan was coming in. Lash didn't really have time to worry about Nick, and it was better that way. He had already worried too much for one job.
Evelyn led Nick by the arm to dock ten where a cruiser called Sweet Thang was just starting to load a few crates of perfume oils. Walking made Nick feel dizzy and sick to his stomach, so he didn't recognize the smiling pilot who came out to greet them.
"Good morning, Ruslan," Evelyn said. "This is the package I told you about that needs to get to Walden City."
Ruslan Volchenkov looked Nick up and down. "It's looking a little fragile," he said.
Nick blinked a few times. He wanted to just lie down on the ramp and fall asleep. He looked at the ship. "It's not Ingénue," he said, remembering slowly. When Evelyn had tossed him off the pilgrimage on Frontier, she had commissioned Ruslan and a small, very old cruiser called Ingénue to take Nick back to Walden City. Nick had talked Ruslan into taking him to Lost Tree anyway.
"No," Ruslan said. "I finally had to junk her last month. Sold her for scrap on Junket. That kid who runs the place can do some amazing things with junk."
"Yes, he can."
"Take care of this package, Ruslan," Evelyn said. "He's got to get to Walden City in tact. And if you can get him to Teatree after that, that would be even better."
"I can do that," Ruslan said.
"Thank you, Evelyn," Nick said.
"Don't mention it," she said. Tentatively, she let go of Nick's arm. When she was sure he wouldn't fall over, she left. Nick thought about waving to her, but he wasn't sure he could keep his balance.
"What the hell happened to you, kid?" Ruslan asked.
"I wouldn't know where to start," Nick said.
"You look like you've been in a fight or two."
"It felt more like a hundred."
"It's probably a good thing I don't read the news, isn't it?"
"A very good thing."
"Are you finding those answers you needed?"
"Yeah. And more. And of course, more questions. But it's a start."
Ruslan led Nick onto the ship and got him comfortable in the captain's quarters, and Nick was asleep before Sweet Thang took off. If he dreamed at all on the way to Walden City, he didn't remember.
Nick walked in the back door of High Spirits and looked around. It was still early, and the bar was mostly empty. The regulars hadn't arrived yet, and the ones who were there paid him no mind. He wished he had time for a game of pool. The two men playing were throwing around a lot of cash, and he knew he could beat them. But Kitsune was close, and he had to get to her.
Jack had his face in a book as usual. He hadn't looked up when Nick walked in. Nick wasn't the only one who came and went through the back door. When Nick sat down at the bar, Jack lowered his book and then dropped it. "Oh my god you're alive," he said.
Nick laughed. "Did you think I'd die easily?" he asked.
"I didn't think I'd ever see you again."
"It was touch and go there for a while, but I'm mostly okay. There are a few loose ends to tie up."
Jack pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to Nick. Nick unfolded it. He recognized Kitsune's handwriting and almost forgot to read what she had written. It was the address and room number of the hotel she was staying in. "She's been putting on a good show, but it's killing her that you're not with her," Jack said.
"I tried not to fall in love with her," Nick said.
Nick shrugged. "It didn't seem like something I needed."
"Wrong answer, Nicky. Need it or not, you got it. Now go get it."
Nick hesitated. The memory of Ghostshadow's touch began to creep into his mind. He pushed it away and headed for the hotel.
Kitsune hadn't bothered to lock the door. She was lying on the bed when he walked in. She jumped up when she heard the door close. She took one look at him and stopped. Tears welled up in her eyes. "You look like shit," she said.
"You should have seen me a month ago," he said. He held his arms out to her, and she fell into them, sobbing. He ran his hands through her hair and kissed the top of her head. His fingers caressed her ear, and he noticed the bug the cops had put there. He held her tightly until she stopped crying.
She wiped away her tears and looked up at him. "I have so much I need to tell you," she said.
He shook his head. "I saw everything," he said.
"Well, then you have a lot to tell me."
"I do. But later. I ... I ... "
She smiled. She took his hand and led him over to the bed. Gently, she pushed him down onto the bed and straddled his hips. He put his hands on her thighs. He still felt like he should say something. He started to open his mouth. She pressed her fingers to his lips. "Let me show you this," she whispered. He closed his eyes. She leaned over him and kissed him. It was awkward at first, but he figured it out quickly. She was a little surprised. She thought he would have at least had plenty of kissing experience if nothing else. It was also more exciting than she had expected and she soon forgot about her plans to take it slow. She wanted him so badly it almost hurt, and he was more than a little eager to learn. Soon they were both naked, and she was riding, totally oblivious to the problems they had yet to face. They came together, and she cried. He pulled her down to him and wrapped his arms around her.
After a while, she laughed.
"What?" he asked.
"The detectives just heard all that," she said.
He felt blood rush to his cheeks. "Well, I hoped they enjoyed it as much as I did." He reached into her ear and pulled the bug out. "We'll catch up to them at the ball."
They got up and got dressed. Nick flushed the bug down the toilet. Then they ran for the docks where Ruslan and Sweet Thang were waiting to take them to Teatree.