Time passed. How it passed, when it passed, where it passed, I didn't know. I felt it flowing around me like a gentle stream. I could spread my fingers and feel centuries seep past me. Seconds, minutes, hours and days trickled by, spilling over my skin, following the lines of my fingers. Now and then, I tried to grasp it, but I always came up empty.
Wherever I was, it was dark. It was darker than any place I had ever been. The sky above me was pitch black and empty. Even Shamanís light didnít reach the place I had come to. I was lost. For the first time that I could remember, I was lost. I didnít know where I was. I couldnít tell one compass point from another. All I had that gave me any sense of direction at all was the flow of time under my hands. It moved past me rather than towards me or around me or through me. And for the first time in years, I was genuinely afraid.
I didnít think that I had died again. I would have known where I was if I had died. I wouldnít have been afraid. But I couldnít think of what might have happened. I barely remembered anything that had happened. No matter how hard I tired to recall it, it just wasnít there. All I really knew for sure was that I wasnít where I had been before.
I listened to the chimes and the gong. They were far away. I have a vivid memory from my childhood of walking down a long road at night and hearing conversation and laughter from an inn somewhere in the hills that surrounded me. The chimes and the gong were like that, tucked away in shadows.
All I could do was wait. Something had to happen eventually. I had to wake up at some point. I had to get back to my daughter.
Eventually, my surroundings began to feel more solid. The invisible stream of time turned into cool, crisp sheets and itchy wool blankets. I could feel the coils of the bed in my back. I heard footsteps. They walked up to me, then away from me. They drifted past. Smells came and went. Blood, bandages, perfume and tears, one at a time or all at once or in various combinations. I started to figure out that I was in some kind of hospital and that I was fucked up pretty bad. Cherry was there. Dylan was there. Occasionally, Danel was there. And at least two other people I couldnít identify. A doctor and a nurse maybe. Every time someone came near me, I tried to open my eyes or speak, but I was completely paralyzed. I didnít know if they thought I was dead, and I had no way to tell them I wasnít.
Then the wind chimes and the gong were closer. I smelled some kind of incense; something oily and earthy, strong enough to be noticed but not strong enough to be unpleasant. I felt a cool, wrinkled hand brush my forehead. I wanted to open my eyes. I didnít try. I was convinced Iíd never open my eyes again. When I suddenly saw the face of an old man leaning over me, I was surprised. He smiled. "Welcome back," he said. "Youíve been missed."
I had a thousand questions to ask, but nothing came out.
"Youíre still in Pilon," the old man said. "My name is Ika. You could call me a doctor. Others might call me a practitioner of magic. Although certainly nothing like a healer witch. But at any rate, youíve been in my care for quite a while now. Nearly a month. It seems youíre mostly healed, but it will be some time before you get your full strength back. You have some very special friends. They refused to let me give up on you even when I couldnít hear your heart beating. Of course, I was quite surprised to discover why I couldnít hear it beat. You donít see many things like that these days. Just rest. If youíre feeling a little stronger later, I will bring you something to eat. Ah, I hear your friends are here. I will tell them youíre awake now."
Ika stood up and shuffled off before I could figure out how to open my mouth to ask what the hell had happened to me. I heard him talking in a low voice. Cherry shrieked happily, and I heard her running towards me. She stopped in the doorway with her hands clamped over her mouth. Tears welled up in her eyes.
I lifted my left arm a little and waved to her.
She came into the room cautiously and gently entwined her fingers with mine. "Are you really here?" she asked.
I opened my mouth to speak, but I seemed to have forgotten how. I nodded.
"Goddamn, I missed you." She leaned down and kissed me. I felt better after that, more solid, more fully in reality. I didnít want to stop touching her for fear I would lose that connection.
"Even half dead, you still get all the girls," Dylan said from the doorway.
We spent a few minutes silently getting reacquainted and congratulating each other for surviving whatever mess weíd gotten into, at least for the time being. I had a feeling it wasnít over. Not by a long shot.
After a while, Ika ran them off so I could rest more. But I had been out for a month. I didnít want any more rest. He fed me a nasty tasting soup that made me feel better once I got it down, but getting it down was the hard part. In a few days, I was able to have a long talk with Dylan about what had happened.
Dylan didnít have to do any searching to find Cherry. She showed up where weíd landed the Brechttarian ship not long after Iíd been taken away. She brought him to Ika, but he was already mostly healed. Cherry had found Kaylan back at Boom. She didnít trust him and insisted that he take her to talk to Danel. But Danel was already a step ahead. He knew where I was being held and that Blackstone was on her way to interrogate me. Shane and Leysa were long gone, and Blackstone was in a real foul mood. I was going to end up taking the brunt of her anger no matter what, which meant sheíd probably hand me a death sentence. So Danel got some explosives and helped Dylan and Cherry blow me out of jail. Unfortunately, they were just a few seconds too late. The explosion prevented the generalís shot from going straight through my head. It went through my neck instead at such an angle as to get lodged in my jaw. They brought me to Ika and kept pressing him to help me even after heíd given me up for dead. Cherry could tell that my brain was still working. As long as my brain was alive, my body could be saved. It took a while, but Ika saved me. And no one anticipated how long I would be unconscious.
In the meantime, Blackstone had decided to go public with her war against Irial. She claimed that Irial had allowed me and Shane to escape and had been protecting both of us as well as several other conspirators involved with the attempt on her life. Not wanting to get involved, a lot of the other senators were concentrating even harder on other issues, including the merchant guild, and it seemed that some understanding was going to be reached soon. There were meetings, both public and private, and things were progressing towards a more logical conclusion than the one Shane had anticipated. Danel and Kaylan were at a loss to locate Shane, and Irial was busy trying to figure out how he could shut Blackstone up and still have the case come to some just conclusion. Also of note, Hern Szigeti was said to be headed for Valewind. I about broke my neck trying to get out of bed, find my clothes, get dressed and find a way to Valewind before Hern got there. But Dylan told me that Hiram had taken Regan and Anala to Parable long before Hern had any idea they were on Valewind. On Parable, Hiram left them with Andrea Journey who piloted a garbage transport called The Sphinx. From there, Andrea had taken them to Brandenburg, which was the Wallace family home planet. Loretta Louisa Wallace, who was a friend of Irialís and who knew my mom, was taking care of them. Anala had wanted to come back to Gehgal, but Regan didnít want to be left alone and Dylan managed to convince her it was safer to stay away.
We needed to come up with some kind of plan, but I was too tired to think. The core of it was simple. Find Shane, rough him up a bit then turn him over to Irial. The problem was how to do that while avoiding the packs of dogs Blackstone was sending after me and Shane. And on top of that, I hadn't seen Regan in over a month. That was killing me.
Regan's hair was in pigtails. It was longer than I remembered it. She was wearing a little white sundress. I'd never seen my daughter in a dress. She held a little bunch of blue and yellow flowers in one hand. I'd never seen her holding flowers either. It occurred to me that I never thought of Regan as a girl. She never asked for dresses or dolls because she didn't know about them. But eventually, she was going to become a woman. I would never be ready for that.
Regan was sitting on a high wooden bench in a garden that was just starting to bloom. She swung her feet. "Are you dead, Daddy?" she asked.
"No. Did someone tell you I was?"
"No one knew. They didn't wanna tell me."
"I'm fine. How 'bout you?"
"I'm bored. I wanna be out in space with you."
"We'll be back to normal soon."
"That's what you said last time!"
"I know, but -- "
"Daddy, the demon can't hurt us."
"I saw it. It didn't do anything. It just looked at me. But it can't do anything, so don't worry. And Firefly says you should follow Shaman to find Shane."
I didn't ask who Firefly was. I didnít need to.
"Regan, do you like to wear dresses?"
"I did at first. I thought they were pretty. But it kinda feels like something's not where it should be. You know?"
"No, I've never worn a dress."
Regan giggled. "You're funny, Daddy."
"Regan, am I dreaming?"
"Are you sleeping?"
"I don't know."
"I can always talk to you when you're awake. So you can't be dreaming."
"Do you have a fever?"
"Uh-huh. Just a little one."
"Anala says you shouldn't talk like that in front of children."
"If you don't hear it from me, you'll hear it from someone else. I gotta go now, baby. I love you."
"Okay, bye. I love you, too."
I opened my eyes. Ika was sitting beside me smiling wisely. "It's quite unusual for one so young to be so strong. Guard her with your life," he said.
"That'd be a hell of a lot easier if I was with her."
"You will be. Give yourself one more week."
"I don't have one more week."
"If you push it, you won't have anything at all."
I had to admit, he had a point. Even though I hated waiting, it gave us a little time. Danel found out that Shane had been seen briefly on Lore attempting to purchase a ship. After that, he was spotted on two different planets at the same time. Unless he'd cloned himself, those were unreliable reports. I thought he probably paid a few people to say they'd seen him. He knew he wasn't going to fool me. He was terrified of me.
"I need a ship," I told Danel one night as we stood outside looking up at the sky.
"Well, I didn't think you'd grow wings and fly after him," Danel said. "It's ready when you are."
"If you do manage to get Shane, Irial will be willing to clear you of all charges, even the ones you are guilty of."
"You make it sound so horrible."
"Talon, you have a child. Don't you think it might be time to grow up?"
"If there's ever a time to be less of a grown up, it's when you have a kid."
"There is one thing that worries me, though."
"And that would be?"
"How are you going to find him?"
I pointed up to the sky. "I'm going to follow my star."
Danel craned his neck and squinted. "Which?"
"You must have been dropped on your head when you were born."
"Is that what causes psychic powers?"
"I'm going back inside. Are you coming?"
"In a minute."
I didnít like what I was about to do. I knew that as soon as I figured out to use my ability, Iíd no longer be in a position to deny what I was. From there, all my secrets would end up being laid bare, including the fact that my daughter was psychic as well. Our lives would be turned upside down. People would think we were evil demons or that we were plotting to take over the world. They would stare at us like we had horns growing out of our heads. They would slam their doors in our faces. If they found out I was the kidnapped Falkenberg kid, they might find out that Danel was psychic. That could lead to genocide. Then they might find out that my heart and my lungs were cybernetic. That was bad only in that there were no other people in the whole universe like that. Cybernetics had been outlawed for centuries after a small group of military cyborgs had gone haywire and slaughtered a few small villages on Azimov before they were killed. But I wasnít wired for anything other than normal functions. Still, it was like the psychic powers. Anything that wasnít wholly natural was bad. The only way the healer witches got away with what they did was church sanction. "God" granted them their powers. That wasnít the case with psychics or cybernetics. But at that point, I couldnít continue to let my power use me. It was time to flip the script.
I fixed my eyes on Shaman and concentrated as hard as I could. I had no idea what I was doing. After a while, I started to feel the cold spiders creeping up and down my spine and out over my arms. The stars I was looking at grew dim until the only one I could see was Shaman. It seemed to be prodding me. I didnít know what to do. Then all at once, I realized that I had to give it more information. So I concentrated on Shane. I felt myself swaying on my feet. I closed my eyes. If I had hit the ground, I wouldnít have known it. I felt the stream of time flowing around my outstretched fingers. Show me where he is, I thought.
In the blackness before my eyes, I saw Shane in the cockpit of a tiny shuttle. He had lost power and managed to put down somewhere that seemed relatively safe. The inside of the shuttle was dark except for the red glow of a warning light, and even that was fading out. Shaneís face was pale and sweaty. He was afraid of something. A noise in the little cargo bay. A shuffle, a crunch, a shift. He was convinced it was going to kill him. He had no weapons. He didnít want to get off the ship because he knew Blackstoneís bounty hunters would be waiting somewhere for him. Or worse, I would be waiting for him. But if he remained on board, he was going to be eaten by a vicious noise. Rats.
That was good. I knew he was on a ship on a planet. But which planet?
I closed my fingers slowly around the flow of time. I tried to pull out the thread of it that would tell me what I needed to know. I heard voices murmuring around my head and the wind chimes. Tell me what planet heís on, I thought. Look up at the stars.
The crunching noise came from overhead. Shane looked up. Behind the shadow of the cat-sized rat that had jumped onto the windshield, I saw the sky. I saw more stars than I ever saw in any other sky. I saw the swirled disks of distant galaxies. I saw the bright spots of suns gone super nova and the misshapen blobs of nebulae. Bands of milky purple fanned out across the blackness like long sensual fingers. There was only one planet that could be. The voices whispered it in my head, and I heard myself say it: "Saint Dominic."
I opened my eyes. I was still standing. I went back inside. The others were waiting for me. "I know where he is," I said.
Dylan stood up. "Then letís go get the son of a bitch," he said.