Aphelion Issue 230, Volume 22
July 2018
 
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Prologue

Casper Everhardt had long ago gone off the grid. It had started innocently enough in the early 70s when he neglected to pay his bill to Oklahoma Gas & Electric -- a modest $23.41 -- owing to a poor set of choices in marijuana dealers and an even poorer understanding of this particular dealer's feelings regarding imbalance of payments. By the time he had caught up with his pharmacological debt and switched to a friendlier supplier, he had also failed to deliver an additional $21.57 to OG&E, and the company, understandably, lost patience. Electrical service was terminated ten days later.

There were inconveniences, of course. The first bath in cold water had nearly robbed him of one of his favorite objects of affection, and cooking over a fire in the back yard was sometimes baffling to a man who had mostly eaten TV dinners for many years. Strangely enough, however, he found that fire-cooked food tasted better to him, tasted primal, tasted like he imagined the first meat to fall into flames must have tasted to the first Neanderthal. After a month, save for occasional moments of misery owing to an allergy aggravated by the kerosene lamps he'd purchased, he found that he didn't miss electricity at all.

And so, by degrees, the accouterments of modern civilization slipped away one by one. The green Chevy Vegas that he left by the side of the road after the last of fifteen breakdowns. The job he failed to get to owing to a lack of a car. The house due to the lack of income. The endless bureaucratic forms due to the lack of a permanent address.

As long as he was willing to cut some ethical corners occasionally, existence turned out to be surprisingly easy. If nothing else, he felt an inner and outer peace. Having nothing to lose, he, therefore, had nothing to worry about.

Now, decades later, he was riding comfortably in an empty boxcar he'd hopped on in Lincoln, Nebraska. A cold wind whipped through the open door, but he was relatively shielded in a corner at the front. He was propped up on his dark backpack and was wrapped in his dark and worn LL Bean coat. His hands in his pockets, Casper stared down at brown boot tips worn smooth by miles of walking on indifferently maintained roads and sharp rail ballast.

The train out of the hump yard in Lincoln had taken longer to leave than he'd expected, and he was a little irritated by this fact, but he also accepted this as an occupational hazard. Train hopping required patience, and frayed as he was at that moment, it was a feeling that would pass. Truth was he was lucky to be on the train in the first place. To get to the string of cars he'd needed, he had to spend more time than was strictly advisable by the side of the road, and the yard bull had spotted him. Union Pacific bulls in his experience were not very understanding (the friendliest had tended to work for Norfolk Southern), and they not only had legal jurisdiction to arrest you, but they also took pleasure in making sure you'd be 'accidentally' injured in the yard before being discovered.

This one, fortunately, had a strong affinity for New York City Diesel, and Casper happened to have five joints rolled up already and ready to go.

He smiled, pinking lips curling up above yellowing teeth, his mouth framed by a thick though adequately groomed crop of gray whiskers. Pulling his calloused right hand out of his pocket, he adjusted the rubber band holding his gray ponytail.

The yard crew confirmed that this train would be stopping to cut five cars at a yard in Kearney, and he knew Samantha Flower would be happy to see him, she always was, and she'd be happy to feed him and give him a place to crash for a few days.

His smile grew wider and he laughed long and hard, the laughter occasionally punctuated by coughing.

"You just wanna get laid, boy!" he sputtered between guffaws, and he reached into his pocket for one of the smokes he'd rolled from a stash of Northern Lights while he'd waited for the train to get underway. Samantha's got skills, he thought as he turned his face away from the wind and struck a match. And she don't expect too much. He hadn't seen her in nearly two years, but he was ready, and he started dreaming of her earthy brown curves as the first wisps of smoke passed through his lips and into his lungs.

Though he didn't know it yet, this would be the happiest moment in what was left of his life.

Through the cold, clear air, something approached the long line of freight cars passing through Inland, Nebraska, and as the something grew closer, it sensed the beings present on the train -- two in the strange mechanical thing at the front, two more riding just behind in a second behemoth, and, alone in a rolling container, a fifth ingesting something even more foreign than the rest of the world around it.

No, something said, not this. We are two, and this is but one?

Have you done this before? something else asked in a scolding tone. If you have, then you lead on! Chastened, and somewhat downtrodden, something withdrew into silence. It must be done carefully, something else continued. They appear so breakable. So worthlessly flimsy. What is the best way?

This one has never done it before! something replied, quite pleased with itself. You will have to learn for yourself.

Casper exhaled and furrowed his brow. Something had changed in the boxcar, and he looked around quickly. The car had been empty when he'd chosen it. No other stealthy rider had climbed aboard. Then again, the place seemed darker somehow, and he wondered if he'd gotten hold of a bad supply.

Suddenly, he found himself pinned at the shoulders, and as he tried with all of his might to raise his arms, something prevented them moving. Before he had a chance to even fathom what was happening, however, his world was transformed into one of utter terror. He flew out of the car into the train's slipstream, then into sky, then into someplace terrifyingly black and terrifyingly alone though he knew now he must not be alone. Before he could even cry out to ask what in the name of god had occurred, he felt its grip loosen, felt himself being torn away, felt himself falling towards the black emptiness.

Hold tighter, something else said, hold harder, you fool!

Any harder and it will break. They are weak things!

You are losing hold! Tighter!

"What are you?" Casper yelled in fright. Before an answer could be given, however, he broke free and began a long, endless fall into the void, his screams of terror fading into a distant echo, then into a silent, terrible absence.

That is not the way, something else chastised. It must be taken alive if we are to enter. Remember this!

Do not treat me like a child! something screamed. This one will not be told what to do! I have learned! I have seen how to do it now. This one will succeed!

Shall we two try again? something else asked with barely disguised glee. Shall we try with two this time?

Something signaled assent, and both slipped out of the darkness and into the light of the cold clear air. Again, they moved rapidly downward towards another string of rail cars. These, however, were different, They were shining, gleaming things full of windows, full of beings, and as they moved closer, they looked for two isolated from the rest, two who could be picked off easily without raising alarm and without raising suspicion.

There! something exclaimed.

Yes! something else responded. Hold tightly.

But not too tightly, something replied, for they are puny things. This one will take the one with the gray fur!

I'll take the smaller one, something else replied. These creatures are multi-gendered!

Now! something yelled as they passed through the metal of the California Zephyr just as it was clearing the outskirts of Hastings, Nebraska.

Hearing something approach, Dr. Simon Litchfield turned to see what had entered the car.


Nightwatch: Transit

by Jeff Williams

Nightwatch created by Jeff Williams

Developed by Jeff Williams and Robert Moriyama


I.

The first thing she noticed was the headache, the sort of blinding pain behind the eyes that signaled the worst migraines, and she rolled over to shield her closed eyes from the light above her. She clutched at her temples and curled up tightly on the grass, trying to calm the spinning inside. Then through her brain shot images she couldn't even begin to understand, visions of the inside of an Amtrak Superliner giving way to a dark horror, a black nothingness into which everything spun away, all the while her struggling frame being held firmly by...

Stephanie Keel bolted upright, eyes open despite the pain, arms and hands at the ready to fend off attack.

"Careful," Simon spoke quietly, and he sat stock-still as she spun towards him, ready to break his neck. Her eyes widened as she breathed deeply and centered herself on the reality around her. "Careful," he spoke again in a calm, soothing voice. "Hold on for a minute. I'm afraid it's not going to be fun."

"Wha..." Stephanie started to say, but she was cut off as an all-consuming sense of vertigo overtook her and as she began vomiting. Despite hopes of breaking out of it rapidly, she soon discerned that there was nothing left to do except ride it out, ride the waves of nausea until they calmed. It was unpleasant, and it was ugly, and as the last dry heave receded, she rolled onto her back and looked over at Simon as he finally moved closer.

"The same thing happened when I came to," he continued as he handed his handkerchief to her. Stephanie nodded as she wiped her mouth, not caring that the thin linen had obviously been used already. She swallowed hard.

"Did you feel them?" she asked quietly, swallowing again and closing her eyes as she pointed at her shoulder blades.

"The claws?" Simon asked. Stephanie nodded carefully, eyes still closed.

"Did you notice anything else?"

"There wasn't time," Simon continued. "Maybe fur, maybe talking of some kind. I didn't understand the words." He smiled ruefully. "To tell you the truth, I'm afraid I was too busy panicking."

"Me too," Stephanie added quietly. She sighed as she opened her eyes and started looking around. "I hate it, actually." She looked up and for the first time noticed that there was a sky. "Where is this?"

Simon shrugged as he leaned back and rested on his elbows. "Feels like grass," he said as he felt around on the ground with his scarred fingers. "Feels like air going in and out of my lungs. Looks like sky above. Looks blue enough. Looks bright enough."

"Only one problem," she said as she wearily raised her finger towards the emptiness above them.

"Yeah," Simon said plainly, "I asked myself a similar question when I didn't see the sun either."

"You think this place has a washing machine?" Stephanie asked as she reached into her shirt pocket and took out her cell phone. Simon rubbed his stomach and looked over the condition of both his clothes and Stephanie's.

"Any signal?" he asked as he reached into his jacket. Stephanie shook her head. Around them, under the blue, clear, sunless sky, was a large expanse of pleasantly green grass, and the blades slowly swayed in a gentle, lulling wind. Simon gazed at the reading on his phone. He shrugged his shoulders. "A nice breeze at least," he said, and after a full minute of silence, he added, "This could be my dream, your dream, both of our dreams." Stephanie snickered quietly,

"No, you'd be Johnny Depp circa Pirates of the Caribbean," she said, still laughing quietly.

Simon raised an eyebrow, and she began laughing harder.

"I can tell we've been doing this shit for too long," she continued. "We're riding Amtrak, minding our own damn business, and then we're dragged here by a big bad something!" She breathed deeply and slowly brought her laughter under control. "And I'm here thinking I'd jump Johnny Depp at the first opportunity. Have I gotten that jaded about the things we go through?"

Simon shook his head wearily and without smiling. "I'm not so much worried about this as what's happening on that train. I don't want to lose track of him. I mean, all this should have me terrified, but..." He looked over at the Nightwatch Institute's computer guru. "First lead in a long time, you know?" Simon laughed slightly and somewhat bitterly. "And you think you're jaded? Dragged off to God knows where..." His voice trailed as he pointed towards the horizon. "Is it me, or do you see something that way?"

Stephanie focused on the roughness just on the edge of their field of vision. "Maybe a clump of something that way. It's hard to tell without some kind of scale to judge by." She looked over at Simon and smiled. "Doc, unless you feel like lying here under a clear blue nothing..." She motioned towards the outcropping.

Simon triggered an app on his phone, a GPS coordinator. He sighed as coordinates and a map appeared, then changed, then changed again... "Well," he said quietly as he moved slowly to his feet, "I don't know why I'm surprised. According to this we are in Albania -- or Bora Bora -- or Zambia, possibly all at the same time." He put away the useless device and then helped Stephanie up from the ground. At roughly the same time, both of them leaned in to each other and tried not to give in to dizziness. "We need fluids. I think we've left most of ours pooled on the ground. I realize it's not exactly splendor in the grass, but..." He motioned towards the indistinct form in the distance

They walked on silently for several minutes, but their eyes moved constantly, scanning the world around them, taking in details, running them through senses honed by years of extracurricular work not normally associated with the Nightwatch Institute of Strategic and Economic Studies.

Simon rubbed at his stomach. "This gastric unpleasantness we've had to endure," he continued, "it seems familiar to me."

"It feels like the morning after too many shots of tequila," Stephanie said. She placed a hand on her stomach as well. "Maybe a tapioca pudding chaser with that," she continued as she made an unpleasant face. "Why?"

Simon breathed deeply and looked towards the sky. "The time machine," he said, and Stephanie looked over at him with both surprise and inquisitiveness.

"You've been getting downright chatty about that lately," she said.

Simon scratched his left arm. "Both ways through that thing, to 1939 and back," he made a spraying motion from his mouth with his hands. "Complete state of disequilibrium. Disorientation. Anxiety. You name it."

"We time traveled?" Stephanie asked with an arched eyebrow.

"I don't know," he said. "It's just an observation. Maybe this isn't time travel. Maybe it's just that we've been thrown out of the place where we belong."

"Well," Stephanie spoke, "we're definitely not in Kansas anymore."

Simon rubbed his left eye and flexed his hands and wrists. "Someone there said that I clearly didn't belong in 1939," he continued. "For whatever that's worth, anyway."

As they walked on, the shape and composition of the outcropping became more and more -- and disturbingly -- familiar.

"Wood?" Simon asked.

"Yeah. Cheap looking." She slowed as she concentrated on the shape of the building. "Simon, does that look like..."

"Yes," he said as he too slowed his stride. "It does. A shaved ice stand." They stopped.

"Why is it I'm getting scared again?" Stephanie said as a smiling gentlemen with red hair and a garish Hawaiian shirt beckoned them to come closer. Simon felt his khaki jacket and found that his Glock was still there. He was just getting ready to pull it out when the world seemed to blur around him, and as he glanced over at Stephanie and saw that she had noticed the same thing, he felt the sickening sensation of the world dropping out from beneath him.

Seconds later, they were flying through darkness, a vast territory of nothing. He could sense her there, however, and reached out, grabbing her sleeve, and they began to tumble wildly. He felt a second sensation, the feeling that both of them were being pulled sideways. Or was it up? Or was it down? The movement was certain, but the direction was indeterminate. He tried to speak, but the words seemed to float away from him. The sensation of movement became stronger, and just as he feared the forces at work around them were starting to pull them apart, he found that they were tumbling through the clear, cold skies of Nebraska.

####

Outside the window of roommette 1 on Superliner # 32025, the buildings of a town lolled dreamily along just before a passing Union Pacific freight shot by, making a 'wuh-wuh-wuh' noise as each car passed. The California Zephyr was slowing as the two tracks began drifting farther apart in distance.

Simon's hand reached up to one of the two blue chairs -- each facing the other -- and pulled himself up and onto the cushions. The nausea as before was present, but the urge to actually throw up stayed below the surface noise of his general discomfort. The upper berth was pulled down, and he could see Stephanie's arm draped over. He reached up and checked her pulse.

Satisfied that she was alive, he tried to work out where the train was. Looking over, he saw that the door to the roomette was open, and he slid it closed with his foot. The train was definitely slowing, and he suspected from the look of the buildings and the general character of the area that they were pulling into a station. His vision blurred, and he rubbed his eyes with his palms.

"I think I was more frightened coming back," Stephanie slurred from the bunk.

Simon froze, opening his eyes and staring up.

"Thanks," he said dryly.

Stephanie looked over the edge of the bunk and quickly closed her eyes to fight the dizziness.

As the train continued slowing, the station, a small brick and glass depot, came further into view, and Simon could finally make out the city name. "Holdrege," he spoke quietly as he reached over to the window and pulled a station listing from its holder. "50, maybe 60 miles since Hastings. We've been gone 45 minutes," he rubbed his face, "maybe an hour. I don't know how fast this thing goes along that stretch." He closed his eyes.

The California Zephyr he was on now was clean and comfortable, but it was still no match for the character of what he'd seen before. The last long distance train trip he'd taken had been in 1970 on the B&O Washington-Chicago Express, traveling to Chicago to visit his aunt Mathilda. As with most passenger trains, the ridership -- and by default the service -- had declined considerably, and in fact the railroads were only a year away from giving up on passenger trains entirely The cars were tattered from years of neglect, the ride rough on tracks worn out by deferred maintenance, but he had loved it nonetheless.

Even if they were only echoes of luxury, they were lovely echoes.

The cars. The dark blue engines. He dreamed of the shrimp cocktail, the one true luxury item he'd had in the dining car, served by an elderly African-American man, one of the final old-timers still hanging on to the vanishing way of life. Simon lifted the shrimp by its tail, dipped it into the glistening cocktail sauce...

"Wake up," Stephanie said, and he snapped to, breath moving in and out rapidly as he prepared to fight. She was standing in front of him and wearing clean clothes.

"Damn it," he murmured as he relaxed and stretched his legs and back, "I didn't get to see a thing." He smiled, and she couldn't stifle a giggle. "How long was I out?"

"Twenty minutes," she replied as she closed the door. "Before you worry about it, I checked. Wainwright's still on the train." Simon nodded and tried sitting up. "You know, we were near the lounge when we left. How did we end up back here?" He blinked and looked out the window at the passing countryside. The car shimmied as it passed over a rough patch of rail.

"That's a good question," he said. "If we weren't here, then why have we moved? Interesting. Is your stomach still holding up?" Stephanie nodded and reached into her pants pocket as she suddenly remembered what she'd gotten.

"Water," she said as she handed the bottle to him. "I was pretty dehydrated. And to answer your question, everything I brought back is still with me." Simon nodded as he unscrewed the cap and drank down half of the bottle. "I'd ask what you want to do, but I know the answer. Continue with the mission."

"Keep tracking Wainwright," Simon said before downing the rest of the water, "figure out what the hell he's up to, and deal with anything else as it comes." Simon rubbed his stomach, noticing as he did the evidence of the recent unpleasantness was clinging to the fabric. "All right," he said. "Unless you want to sit there with your eyes shut tight, I've got to change, so..." He waved twice with his hand towards the door.

With a smile and after a rather pointed hesitation, she finally opened the door and went out into the hall.

As Simon was sliding the door shut, however, he called, "Hey, don't go too far, okay?"

####

Gregg Wainwright sat at one of the tables in the dining car, his blue blazer clashing only slightly with his pale yellow shirt, his green eyes focused on the bright light outside the window. He reached up and scratched the barely perceptible gray stubble on his chin and ran his hand through his close cropped brown-grey hair.

"I liked it better when the train went through Nebraska in the middle of the night," he said in a deep, slightly gravelly voice. "Didn't have to endure the ugliness of Iowa and that terrain outside."

Stephanie sat across from him, faking a smile with all her might and trying to maintain a facade of interest in what he was saying. She grabbed a fork and then, beneath his line of sight, bent and straightened it five times until the metal grew hot.

"Well," she said hopefully, "it's Amtrak, right? They'll probably screw with the timetables again before long." Wainwright laughed lightly. Stephanie reached forward and drank from her tea glass. Grimacing slightly, she reached for another packet of Equal and poured it in.

"You must be a redneck," Wainwright spoke in a mock Southern accent. "Those North Carolinians just pour the sugar in. Can't figure it out." Stephanie stirred her tea and sweetener deliberately.

"Well, the ex, y'know," she said with a shrug. She hadn't planned on having an ex- in her story, but Wainwright was rapidly shredding her nerves, and she felt a strong need for a plausible reason for anger. "Didn't leave me with much other than a love of sweet tea." She drank a large swig and from the corner of her eye made sure that Simon was still there, still sitting at an adjacent table and dutifully chatting up a businesswoman from Omaha. She was older but very pretty, and this is what worried Stephanie. She needed Simon focused on the now, not a pleasant maybe.

Something else caught her attention in her peripheral vision, and she turned with a start but saw nothing there.

"You okay?" Wainwright asked as he took his Blackberry from his pocket and checked the time.

"Yeah," Stephanie rallied as he put it back, "just jumpy. Shouldn't drink so much caffeine. I hit the soda machine in the snack car way too much earlier." He looked down and grinned as he shook his head. The cars shook and were then filled with the sound of a passing Union Pacific intermodal freight. An ozone smell from the train's brakes wafted through momentarily. A woman in a white shirt and navy Amtrak vest approached and placed their lunches on the table -- a serviceable if unimpressive Angus steak burger for her and a Chipotle veggie burger for him. She eyed the suspicious looking sandwich as he picked it up and took the first bite. His clear enjoyment of it made her like him even less.

"So what are you on here for?" she asked as she poured A1 onto her burger. "Business or pleasure?"

"Business," he said between bites. "Always business. Trains are my only break. Never travel any other way. You've been on since Chicago?"

"Yep," she replied as she replaced the bun and took her first bite of the Angus beef. It had clearly been frozen, but it had been reheated with a modicum of skill and was not entirely without merit. For extra effect, she pushed on the bun enough to make a small amount of sauce spill out the other side. "EZ-PC sends me out all the time. I can't stand planes."

"You're lucky," he said, clear unease at the meat on her burger showing in his eyes. "I thought my employer was the only one with that level of flexibility."

"Most of the time it's Northeast Corridor," she said, remembering Simon's briefing about Amtrak and his boyish excitement at doing so. The man loves trains, she thought.

Across the aisle, Simon looked down into his cup of coffee and observed the proceedings out of the corner of his eye. His table companion, Hannah Benson -- insurance guru from Ottumwa, Iowa, mother of three, former wife of two (and searching), quilter and gun enthusiast, and extremely chatty and friendly woman -- had left momentarily to place a phone call to the main office in Omaha, leaving him with no one to talk to and nothing to distract him.

Overtly contacting their quarry was not an advisable action, he knew, and as he stared into the darkness of his black coffee, he wondered for the fifth time in three minutes if they had made a terrible mistake. We know nothing about this man, he thought as he looked up and through the length of the dining car. If he is Prometheus, there's every chance he might know us, and now we've given the game away.

He cursed inwardly at the word Prometheus.

Simon heard something behind him and spun around to see what it was but saw only the usual activity in the dining car, and he turned back to his coffee, swinging his vision past Stephanie's table in the process.

He looked over at Wainwright. Maybe you're the one, he thought. Maybe you'll be the magic door!

After he'd changed clothes, he and Stephanie had assessed the situation and realized that with whatever else was happening to them, the slow and steady method would have to be abandoned in favor of something more proactive, if more reckless.

"Maybe," he overheard Stephanie say, "we'll see, Gregg. We'll see." She stood up and made a show of letting her right hand drag slowly across the table before she left the car.

Gregg smiled and then turned back towards his sandwich as he wiggled his eyebrows.

Simon nearly choked on a gulp of coffee. When he was certain he had control of himself, he left enough money on the table to cover both his tab and Hannah's, and then he too left the car though not so swiftly as to appear to be following Stephanie out. They met finally in the lower vestibule of the two-level Superliner where their roomette was located.

"If I hadn't been so damn hungry," Stephanie spoke as Simon came down the stairs, "I would've thrown up on him. I hate that goo-goo eye flirty crap! You know that!"

"I know," Simon said sympathetically. "You also know I would've done it if I'd thought he was oriented in that direction. What did you find out?" Stephanie shot him a yeah, right expression and then shook her head.

"I'm not sure if I got anything of use," she said. "He acts like a businessman but won't discuss what he does. He's a little too loud to be trying to fit in, not like the way the CIA or some other normal intelligence agency trains its agents to act, so I don't think he's a professional in that sense. He does have some sort of disdain for the South, which could be a character failing or it could be a clue, something I might at least be able to use to get a better bead on who he is. Oh! And he's taken this trip several times before. He doesn't like the new timetable. If he travels as Gregg Wainwright and not under aliases, I should be able to track that as well." She reached over and banged her fist on the bulkhead. "This is bullshit! Complete bullshit! I hate doing this thing with him. Especially after..." She banged her fist again into the wall. "You know I've got to go flirt with him later, just to keep up the pretense of..."

They passed through the walls of the Superliner so quickly that they barely had time to register again the seeming impossibility of their having crossed through solid metal. Simon struggled at the paws -- they were definitely paws -- that gripped him tightly, and he was able to move his head enough to catch a glimpse of something just as they passed into the dreadful black void.

####

"Oh, gee, isn't this fun," Stephanie said as she slowly pushed herself off of the ground and prepared herself for the unpleasantness to follow. The nausea came on quickly, as expected, but the vomiting did not. "Well," she whispered as she noticed that Simon was also in relative control of himself, "aren't we a lucky pair to be getting so used to this." She coughed and clutched at her stomach as the waves of nausea peaked and began to recede.

"You feel like dancing?" Simon replied as his breathing regularized. "Because I really don't feel like dancing." She closed her eyes and sniffed.

"Are we near the shaved ice stand?"

"Don't see anything," he said. "I... I did get a bit of a look at another item of interest, though." Stephanie's eyes flew open, and she pushed herself upright.

"A look," she said after a long pause from him, "at what?" He took his hat off and laid it on the ground.

"It was just a few seconds before that blackness," he said. "I couldn't spin around, but I could turn my head." He rubbed his chin, which was just starting to show a gray stubble. "It was, I think, a wolf."

Stephanie shook her head. "A wolf," she said with a mixture of amusement and fear. "Like a 'where wolf, there wolf' wolf?"

Simon nodded. "That's as close a comparison as I can make. Red eyes, grey whiskers, black fur. Very smooth, not scraggly like a coyote's. I think," he motioned with his hands, "the snout may have been more elongated, the ears closer to the head or just more swept back." He shrugged. "It may just be my previous experience helping my memory fill in gaps. It was just a few seconds, but..."

"Okay, I'm not feeling so jaded now," she said as she lay down on her back and covered her eyes with her palms.

"At least we have something to go on. A very slender something," he said, again scratching his chin, "much like the woman approaching us, maybe 400 yards and closing."

Stephanie sat up quickly and faced the potential threat.

The figure looked very much like a woman, one with long black hair and a white dress with large black polka-dots. The dress stopped just above her knees. As she came closer, Simon noted her black high-heel shoes. She appeared to be holding a tray and two glasses full of some sort of liquid.

"Call me overly cautious," Simon muttered quietly as he pulled his gun from its holster.

"Not very wolf like," Stephanie added in a low if excited tone.

"Afternoon," Simon called out with a smile on his face and his gun clearly displayed, "lovely weather we're having, isn't it? Very clean air!"

The woman continued moving forward as she shifted the tray from one to both hands. "Could you settle a bet, by any chance? My friend and colleague here says we must be somewhere near the Baltic, and I keep saying she's crazy, that this is Mediterranean weather if I've ever seen it."

"Hello," she said in a pleasant, husky voice. She smiled politely, thin red lips over white teeth, beaming brown eyes looking sweetly at the two of them. "Would you care for a nonalcoholic beverage?"

"That depends on who's buying, don't you think?" Stephanie asked as she rose to her feet. The woman continued smiling and seemed to not hear the tone of Stephanie's voice.

"So, these drinks," Simon said, "what might they be, then?"

"Lemonade, sir," the woman replied, "non-alcoholic. I can get something stronger if you would prefer." She waited for a reply that never came and then smiled brightly. "Would you like for me to leave them here so that you may consume them in your own time?"

"I'm not interested," Stephanie said tersely.

"Speaking of our own time," Simon said pleasantly, "I'm more interested in where the hell I am. Now, I'll gladly take a tall glass of that information."

"I'm sorry," the woman replied, "but I'm here only to make sure that you're taken care of. I do not have the information you request. I must beg your leave, but someone will be along later to make sure that you are comfortable."

"I'm not certain I made myself entirely clear," Simon spoke as he switched off the safety with an audible click. "I apologize for so melodramatically brandishing this..." he held the weapon up so that it gleamed in the light, "...rather substantial gun, but this just hasn't been my day, and I'm not in the mood for games."

The woman nodded and smiled.

"Please enjoy your beverages," she said politely, "and please enjoy your stay." And with that, she turned and began walking away.

Simon looked over at Stephanie who looked over at him. Both were at a loss. Stephanie shrugged her shoulders. With an 'oh well' expression on his face, Simon raised his gun and fired at the ground near the woman's feet. A puff of dirt and grass flew into the air, but the woman never hesitated, never even jumped. With an exasperated growl, Stephanie motioned for Simon to lower the gun, and when he had, she ran towards the woman and prepared to bring her down. However, as Stephanie reached forward to put her into a rather painful and immobile position, the woman vanished, and Stephanie hit the ground hard as waves of nausea danced through yet again.

"Fuck!" she yelled as she banged her fist on the grass. The little blades failed to bend or even bruise, and she was overcome with a feeling of uselessness. Simon clicked the safety back on and replaced the gun as he walked towards her.

"I don't know about you," he said as he reached down for her hand, "but I don't think I'm leaving a tip." She waved him away as she maneuvered to lift herself up.

"I'm sick of this," she said through clinched teeth. "I'm sick of it. Two weeks of this lack of control. I thought we had a nice normal mission. A nice mission on our terms. And now..."

An all too familiar sensation began to descend as the world around them was once again shattered into dark terror.

II.

Interludes I

Stevie Nicks' "Nightbird" was blaring loudly from the radio in the kitchen of the White Rock Café as Stacy Davidman danced to the rhythm of the song.

"And when I call will you walk gently through my shadow," she sang in perfect time with the singer, "the ones who sing at night, the ones who sing at night." The mop she held glided easily over the greasy floor, the one that she could never hope to clean, but her boss Mr. Heinkel still insisted that it be done anyway. "Cry for the Nightbird," she warbled, trying her best to imitate Nicks' signature sound.

As she danced and mopped, she glanced towards the backdoor and remembered one or two tasks the other kitchen workers had neglected to take care of before they headed out into the night.

"Mr. Heinkel," she called over the music, "Johnny forgot to change the oil in the fryer. You want me to do it?" There was no answer, so she walked up to the counter and yelled in the direction of his office. "Mr. Heinkel, you want me to change the oil? Johnny spazzed out about it." Some of Stacy's permed and teased mousy brown hair danced in the swirling current from the creaking ceiling fan.

Bob Heinkel was a burly man and was intimidating under the best of conditions, but as he walked slowly out of his office into the dim lighting of the closed diner, he seemed particularly creepy, and Stacy began wishing she had just shut up and cleaned the thing.

"That cacophony," he said in a deep charcoal voice, "you find it pleasing?" Stacy found herself laughing despite the eeriness in his step.

"Where'd you learn that awesome college talk?" she said through the laughter, and Heinkel began to smile, which immediately made her feel better. She started cleaning again. "Yeah, I like her. I know you think this stuff sucks but, hey, you want me to change out the grease in the fryer? Johnny didn't do it, again." Heinkel leaned forward on the counter.

"Do you find satisfaction in those sounds you make, the ones using similar intonation to that cacophony?"

The mopping slowed as Stacy felt very nervous. If he'd been yelling like usual, or angry like usual, or making his daily pass at her like usual, she would have been much more comfortable, but the talking wasn't right for him.

"You okay, Mr. Heinkel?" Stacy asked as she looked down at the spot she'd already mopped over and around six times. "You, like, don't usually talk this much, you know?"

Heinkel slowly started moving from the counter to the small swinging door that led into the kitchen.

Stacy inched towards the back of the kitchen.

"I'm curious, young one, about why you chose to utter those strange vocal intonations. Is it," he asked with a slight turn of his head, "a ritual of some kind?"

Stacy continued mopping as she quickened her backwards pace. "I like Stevie Nicks," she said quietly. "Tell you what, Mr. Heinkel, I really..." She motioned towards the door. "Hope you don't mind, but..."

Heinkel moved quickly towards her, and with a slight slip on the wet floor, she dropped the mop and ran towards the door. When she reached it, she found that it was locked, so she reached into her pocket and pulled out the key, struggling to keep her hand steady enough to insert the key into the Yale lock.

Heinkel lost his footing on the wet floor but recovered just as she turned the doorknob.

"What is Stevie Nicks?" he asked as he practically lunged for her. His hands jammed into the door as she flung it open and ran out into the moonlit night. Heinkel recovered and shook his hands. In her haste to get away, she tripped over one of the garbage cans and fell hard onto the concrete and gravel of the back parking lot. As she turned to see where Heinkel was, small stones falling from fresh scrapes on her elbow, she saw, to her horror, that in the light of the moon, he looked like an animal, as if he were a giant wolf...

Interludes II

Avgust Iltchenko saw his own breath pulsing out in quick bursts from his mouth as he ran through the snow-covered trees and hills. It had been only minutes since his friend Fyodor had shot him without warning and in cold blood, and he was now desperate to get out of the forests and find someone from the militsiya. He knew it wasn't going to be an easy task given the total numbness of his left arm and a general and growing weakness. Avgust had no idea how much blood he had lost.

It was in this weakened condition that his escape began to go terribly wrong. Beginning with a clumsiness in his feet and progressing up to his legs, he found it harder and harder to successfully jump over, climb over, or maneuver around the snow covered branches, roots, and stumps. Finally, his limbs gave out on him completely, and he fell down hard upon his wounded arm, screaming in pain for anyone to hear and well and truly giving away his position.

As he struggled to extricate himself from the snow and debris with increasingly desperate and useless motions, and as he looked at the blood spilling out onto and freezing on the white ground, he slowly realized that someone was staring at him, and with a panicked breath jerked his head around to see.

Fyodor stood, silent and watchful, seemingly fascinated by Avgust's struggle. For his part, and to his shame, Avgust froze in fear. Fyodor, rifle in hand, moved closer and then crouched low to look directly into Avgust's eyes.

"Please," he said in a calm, cold manner that made Avgust certain that his friend had gone mad, "forgive this one. I understood the function but not the operation of this," he looked down at the gun, "this weapon. The chemical discharge was not intentional. Do not hold your companion responsible, for it had no control." Fyodor cocked his head to the side. "Yours is a fragile race. This one recommends extreme caution with these devices." Fyodor emptied the shell from the second barrel and then walked over to a tree and propped himself up against the trunk.

Avgust stared, totally at a loss for what to do next, and as the edges of his vision began blurring, he heard Fyodor take a deep breath.

"When did we come here, Avgust?" he asked, blinking his eyes as if he'd just woken up. Suddenly, he saw the condition of his friend. "My god!" he exclaimed as he ran over and began examining the arm injury. "What happened to you?"

Avgust was just about to explain when his eyes caught site of something in the snow. The tracks left by Fyodor as he had first approached did not look like the bottoms of their winter boots. Instead, they looked like animal paw prints, the marks of a large wolf. It was then that his consciousness decided that this was as good a time to give up, and Avgust passed out cold in the snow...

Interludes III

He scribbled furiously into a small notebook, his lead pencil leaving barely discernible marks on the page. What was visible was often illegible.

The abbot dropped the notebook onto the table and then stared into the dull yellow flame from the burning tallow. It had been less than an hour since his vision, and now, in the frosty night, he tried to reconcile what he had seen with what he knew through his faith. During Vespers, Brother Abelard had appeared before the abbot in the form of demon -- a dark black wolf -- who sang the Magnificat and thus mocked not only the abbot but also God Himself. It was only when he saw that none of the others noticed the transformation that the abbot knew that it must be a vision from the Almighty. But what did it mean? What was God intending for him to learn? What sin had he unknowingly committed?

The abbot's mind swirled, and he felt himself on the verge of swooning. Quickly, he dropped before the altar and began to pray, words in Latin whispered into the chilly air. Yet as he prayed fervently for guidance, understanding, and peace, all three failed to come.

The abbot had already missed dinner. Now, in the dark hours, he would soon be confronted with Complines. Perhaps, he thought, I can feign illness and remain here in solitude, to pray, to understand. What am I to learn? Just as quickly as the thoughts came through, though, he realized that he couldn't avoid his duty. Running away from the vision would be tantamount to running away from God, and that he could not do.

Slowly he stood.

Slowly he turned towards the door, stopping only to contemplate burning the pages in his book.

Slowly he shook his head and made himself turn the knob and open the door.

Slowly he felt consciousness leaving him just as he saw Brother Abelard on his knees outside the door...

III.

Stephanie puzzled over the information in front of her, information from websites she ordinarily would have never visited. As she cross-referenced the accounts, however, most of the major details seemed consistent, and she was also able to find some evidence that photos had been taken at the crime scenes of wolf-like prints

As she shuffled through more documents, Simon opened the door and reentered the roommette.

"So far, so good," he said. "Two hours without an incident, and two hours of Wainwright reading in his seat. Any luck tracking down more information about him?" Stephanie looked up and smirked.

"I still have a trace running," she replied. "Don't you think you're being a bit single-minded? It's not just one random trip to nowhere, now. That's twice we've been kidnapped, and I want to know what it is that's been doing it." Simon shook his head.

"We need to know," he agreed, "but that doesn't change anything about Wainwright. He's our only lead on Prometheus. Wainwright is here now."

"If he works for them," she argued. "We don't even know that for certain."

"PR next to the phone number," Simon countered. "That's pretty convincing to me, and he's heading for California, the same place Simmons came from." He placed his right hand on the bulkhead to steady himself as the train went over a bumpy section of track. "He thinks he carrying 'Light My Fire' to them, and this is our chance to get a better look into who they are."

"Multiple sets of theys here, Simon," she said. "If you saw one wolf, it means we have two on our trail doing god knows what to us. The trace is running!" She bent down to pick up her notebook, which had fallen as the car shook. "I am looking into who Wainwright is, but we need to know about these creatures, and I'm finding what I can!"

Simon smirked and snatched off his hat, glancing quickly at the screen on her laptop. "Pretty sketchy site, if you ask me," he murmured. "Found anything concrete?"

Stephanie closed her eyes for a moment and breathed deeply. "Yeah, I have," she said, eyes still closed. "Until a couple of hours ago I wouldn't have given it a second glance. But now, I think..." Her voice trailed off as she opened her eyes. "Three incidents, each with similar characteristics, each occurring at different points in time."

Stephanie pointed at some notes she'd taken. "This one, the Stacy Davidman incident, definitely occurred in some form. I found the police report. This guy, Ben Heinkel, raped her savagely. There's no doubt about it from the physical evidence. But," she locked eyes with Simon when she noticed the look of disinterest on his face, "but he claimed that he didn't do it, and this girl, Stacy, said during her evaluation and even during the trial that it didn't look like him. That it was something like a wolf."

"Trauma creates illusion sometimes," he said. "I'm surprised they were able to get a conviction with testimony like that."

She loudly dropped her hands onto the keyboard. "You're missing the point!" she hissed. "Okay, so some of these things might have come from crackpots and acid freaks, but what if just some of them are true? What if these creatures are the cause of all of those werewolf legends?"

"Those are just 'what if's,'" he replied. "Intriguing 'what if's. But Wainwright isn't a 'what if'. He's real, he's concrete, and he's right here on this train. He's our main concern! Not these wolves! We'll deal with whatever they are, but for now this mission is our priority!"

"Do you even hear yourself?" Stephanie asked in disbelief. "God, I wish Tom was here. Maybe he could talk some sense into you."

"Well, Tom is busy!" he snapped. "So it's just the two of us. That used to be enough!" With that, he stormed out of the roommette and up the corridor.

Left alone in the sudden quiet, she again closed her eyes and breathed deeply, all the while wondering if the man she'd known all these years was losing his mind.

####

Simon stared out one of the many windows of the lounge car. A little earlier, the California Zephyr had crossed into Colorado, and the next station would be Fort Morgan. Despite a general disdain for Wainwright, he found himself thinking the view was decidedly dull. In truth, though, the view wasn't anywhere near his main concern.

He sat in one of the pedestrian if comfortable chairs and swiveled to face the windows. I should be back with her, he thought as he tightened his hand on the armrest. How can I explain it? I don't know how to explain it. It doesn't even make sense to me.

He leaned back and looked up through the curved glass along the ceiling at the reflected glare of the sun. As he looked, a movement behind him caught his attention, and he spun around in the chair.

No one was there. Others were in the lounge as well, but none were nearby.

Simon cleared his throat and tried to make up his mind. Forward or back, he thought as he stood up. A woman and her little girl passed through the aisle, and he quickly tipped his hat to them then smirked at his sudden display of courtliness. Deciding to take his chances in the final three cars, Simon headed for the back of the train.

"I'm getting the feeling you're enjoying this," he said seemingly to no one as he passed quickly through the vestibules between the coaches. He crossed through into the next coach and walked along through the seats and past the roomettes. People were still around, and he smiled slightly to himself. Nothing appeared to be following him, but intuition told him otherwise. He moved through the next car and entered the final, and he quickly realized that he had chosen poorly.

The Superliner, at least the second floor of it, was empty.

Simon braced himself and tried to envision exactly how it would go down, and he processed as rapidly as he could all of the information about the layout of the interior and exterior fittings of the train car. Seconds later, he felt himself being dragged back and then through the metal of the Superliner.

However, just as he exited the walls of the rear car, he impulsively wrapped his arms around the rods of the safety barrier just outside the rear door. He felt himself being tugged and pulled, his legs dangling into the space behind the train, but he strengthened his grip, noticing the diminished wind and rail noise around him.

"You weren't expecting that one now, were you!" Simon yelled over his shoulder. "This could be my only accomplishment of the day, but damn I'm proud!"

"It must let go now!" a raspy near whisper of a voice said from behind Simon, and a claw dug deeper into his shoulder. "It doesn't realize how foolish it is, how it could have been fused into the metal of this primitive container! It would have been an excruciating death for such an insubstantial creature!"

"It has a name," Simon spoke calmly but firmly over his shoulder, "Dr. Simon Litchfield! If you're going to keep doing this, at least have the guts to speak to me!" The claws tightened further, causing pain in his shoulder and side, but the engineer did as much as he could to suppress any outward signs of distress

"This one has courage," the wolf said. "But that doesn't change its foolishness!"

The pulling subsided somewhat as Simon felt hot breath on the back of his neck.

"You could have been extinguished, perishing in agony, flimsy metal penetrating and poisoning your flimsy frame," the wolf spoke directly into Simon's right ear. "Remember that."

"That's twice you've told me, so I must've hit a nerve. You need me alive," he said. "Why else would you keep picking on the same people? There's something about us you've figured out, something that makes it easier for you. You might be out to get me, but I think you'll do everything you can to keep me from dying."

"Do you want to risk your life on a supposition, on a mere hypothesis?" the wolf replied as one of its claws tightened, broke through Simon's clothes, and drew blood, the engineer wincing visibly. "And, your companion is now alone, separated from you. Yes, Litchfield, yes! My friend has the female, over there. Do you wish to leave it there to suffer the agonies of being adrift without any other of its kind around?"

"Her name is Stephanie!" Simon said firmly. "You're very powerful. I can tell that. You've already pulled us out of my normal plane of existence. It's too quiet. The gravity's too weak. I can pass through solid walls. But you keep failing somehow, don't you. That's why Stephanie and I keep coming back here."

"This one is not weak!" the wolf bellowed, and its voice cascaded around the back of the train like a thunderclap. "This one could snap you in twain in an instant!"

"But you won't," Simon said with a disdainful laugh. "You need me alive! What are you doing here in the first place? What's your purpose?"

"Foolish and presumptive!" the wolf snapped as it pulled away slightly. "I have killed today already, sent one of your kind to die in the darkness of the In-Between. Its bones, its tissues, its worthless being scattered in all directions for eternity." The wolf leaned in again. "I could do the same to you. Would you like to discover if, as some say, consciousness can never die there? Would you like to relive your final, frightened moments, your fearful impressions of the darkness carried with you into infinity?" The wolf growled. "Are you even capable of contemplating such a concept?"

Simon tightened his grip on the metal bars.

"So what do you call yourself?" he asked, trying to deflect the creature's attention long enough for some sort of plan to magically appear.

"It does not matter," the creature spoke. "Release yourself, or this one will let you die regardless!"

"Tell me!" Simon insisted. "Or are you afraid to say it?"

"I fear nothing here," it said as it again pulled back. It loosened its grip somewhat on Simon's shoulder. "It would not make sense to you. This one can speak the true word, but your ears will not hear it, for you simply do not have the capacity to understand."

"Try me," the engineer spoke in a slightly mocking tone, "I've been told I'm a clever fellow, considering my apparent fragility."

"I can smell your fear!" the wolf spoke harshly. "And you hide it well, but I can sense your pain, the growing seeds of terror."

"Spoken like a true predator," Simon retorted. "Sense anything you like, but what do I call you?"

The wolf laughed a short husky laugh. "You have shown something like courage, old one."

Simon felt a further relaxing of the creature's grip.

"For all the hope you have of profiting from it, my name, my true and powerful name, the name with which this one honors all of our pasts and all of our futures, is..."

And the word was spoken, and Simon could hear that the word was indeed nothing like anything he'd ever heard or even felt before save for the few occasions when he'd been confronted with otherwordly things such as the creatures from the fairy stones in England or Karl Emit in the train station in 1939. Yet the true nature of the word escaped him, only to be replaced with a meaning so mundane that it made him laugh in spite of the predicament he was in.

"You couldn't comprehend," the wolf hissed. "You have no frame of reference. No room in your language. To even speak it to creatures of weakness is a waste of breath!"

"Something," Simon said bemusedly to the wolf. "Your name is Something!"

"It is the closest, apparently, your species can come to understanding the complexity and beauty and power of where this one originates. For you are weak and feeble minded, and..." Something suddenly let go of Simon's shoulders and then, with amazing speed, grabbed Simon's legs and yanked with such rapidity and strength that Simon found himself pulled from the train before he had a chance to even think about tightening his hold. As he flew into the sky, the last words he heard from Something before they disappeared into the void were, "and so easily distracted!"

IV.

The world spun around her in disturbingly tight circles, and Stephanie struggled to make sense of the jumble of information bombarding her nervous system. The trip this time had seemed very different to her, more violent, more disorienting, more terrifying in the sense that she felt as if she were being torn in a million directions at once. As she tried to fend off the nausea and the burning sensation deep within herself, she also tried to open at least one eye to see what kind of grassy knoll she'd managed to land upon this time.

When she managed in a moment of bravado to open both, she almost closed them back again out of self-defense.

"Sweet Jesus," she muttered as she sat up and clutched again at her stomach.

Above was the same sunless blue sky, but around her the formerly green grass of the wherever had been replaced by buildings, many many buildings, and her patch of ground appeared to be in a courtyard square between several of the structures. Each building stood three stories tall, and each was plastered on the outside in a yellowish stucco. Each floor had an exterior walkway, girded on the second and third floors by black railing. Multiple doors and windows also adorned the walkways. Stephanie smirked as she recognized the basic configuration of a lower end motel.

As soon as she was certain that her stomach was secure, she stood slowly, but as she did, Stephanie realized that in the midst of the suddenly abundant surroundings, someone in particular was missing.

"Simon!" she yelled. "You here?" She looked around, her nervous system on high alert. She crossed the courtyard and pushed herself up against the wall of one of the buildings. No one around her appeared to be moving. There were no sounds, no flutters behind the cheap, institutional looking curtains of the various rooms, just the flitter of a breeze blowing between the structures.

Stephanie, still close to the wall, moved cautiously, ducking under each window, and made it to the next corner. More buildings confronted her as well as another courtyard. This one, however, had three new additions -- a large outdoor table, a cabana covered bar, and a swimming pool.

Shifting forward, she fully turned the corner and continued on in the shadows cast by the building in the sunless light. She began to see that the bar while unattended appeared to be fully stocked with everything a good drunk could ever want, and she found herself fleetingly tempted to sample the supply, but she quickly decided it was too risky a proposition. She moved forward a little further, and as she did she spotted a man sitting at the table next to the bar.

"Simon," she said to him as she eyed the full square glass and the amber liquid within it. "I don't think I'd drink that if I were you. We don't know what it is." Simon eyed her, staring at her visage. As she moved closer, he smiled sadly and lifted the glass to his lips, taking a large swig of the contents.

"Tastes very much like Kentucky Bourbon to me," he spoke softly after a moment, gazing at her from beneath the brim of his khaki hat. "I haven't had it in quite awhile, and I miss it, very much." He took another large gulp as Stephanie sat down across from him.

"Well, if you like it so much," she said with a smile, "why don't you drink it back home instead of that Jack Daniel's crap you and Gillian like so much?" She laughed lightly, but as she did, some things about Simon slowly started to seem wrong. He was wearing a crisp, clean white shirt for one, and emerald cuff links uncharacteristically adorned the shirt sleeves. As he caught sight of her suddenly puzzled expression, he slowly lowered the glass. "Okay," she said with a hint of menace, "you'd better start talking, fast, or I'm going to leap across this table, and this time, you damn phantom or ghost or hologram or whatever the hell you are, I'm not going to let you vanish without breaking your neck first." Simon tugged at his navy tie, which was emblazoned with a logo for something called Nightwatch Archive.

"Stella," he spoke in a haunted voice, "I'm not..." His next words seemed to choke in his throat as he looked at her face and into her eyes. She shook her head slowly, laughing bitterly as she stood up.

"Whatever you want from me," she said as she began backing away, "you're not getting it, so enjoy your glass of random while I go find my friend!"

"Stella," he called, "I'm just as trapped as you, and I'm in just as great a danger."

She continued moving away.

"All right," he said, "I understand, but could I trouble you to remain?"

She paused and glanced over her shoulder to make sure the area was still clear.

"Just a moment, please, Stella?"

"It's Stephanie," she said quietly. "At least get my name right."

The man with Simon's face nodded sadly.

"Stay there, then," he replied as he removed his hat and revealed his slicked-back silver hair. "You've no reason to trust me, and that is an excellent quality to have. Also," he winced in pain as he picked up his blue herringbone jacket, "I very much need to field dress this wound, and I would appreciate your keeping watch over me while I do." With a grunt of pain, he moved his left leg, revealing a gunshot wound to his inner thigh. Stephanie inched closer.

"Small caliber?" she asked after a long pause as she watched him tearing strips from the coat. He shook his head and gritted his teeth.

"Rifle, I think," he growled in pain. "Just fired from a long distance, possibly with a scope. It had expended enough energy..." He closed his eyes and rested for a moment. "I won't know for certain until I can have the bullet extracted." He placed his right thumb and forefinger on the bridge of his nose. "At the moment, with the pain, I wish it had passed through cleanly. That was why I was drinking the bourbon." Stephanie cocked her head and smirked as she raised her right eyebrow. Simon smiled. "I must have enough similarity to your Simon for that last comment to ring false...quite properly."

"What do mean by my Simon?" she asked. "I'm still not convinced that you're not part of this place." He placed the first strips of material over the puncture.

"Skepticism is the right and proper attitude with which to face life," he replied. "However, Stel...Stephanie, we're in a great deal of trouble, in more ways than one. You and I are but two of many Simon and Stella counterparts populating Zone Zero."

"Keep going," she said as she scanned the area for any overt threats. "What's Zone Zero?"

"Here," he said as he used more strips to hold down the bandage, tying each one around his leg. "This is Zone Zero, the intersection between the multi-verses, or the cross-dimensional conjunction. Take your pick. No one could argue forcefully enough for either designation to stick, so we refer to it as Zone Zero." He glanced up at her and smiled knowingly. "When you feel comfortable doing so, look up into the sky, slowly, and carefully, paying less attention to what's in front of you and more to what is at the periphery." He returned his attention to the bullet hole. "If you can see it once, you'll be able to see it at will from now into perpetuity."

Cautiously -- and skeptically -- she slowly leaned back and stared at an arbitrary point in the clear blue sunless sky, thinking as she did of the old 3D picture craze of the 1990s. Back then, she'd found them to be both absurdly easy and completely inane, like colored Rorschach blots that with a modicum of effort gave way to insipid images of horses or smiley faces or...

She jumped with surprise despite her best intentions to remain calm and collected. Simon grinned even as he concentrated upon the dressing of his wound. As she looked from the periphery, she could make out dark skies filled with what appeared to be stars of nearly every color of the visible spectrum. However, as the images became clearer, she realized that they were more than just stars.

They were galaxies, and there were too many of them to count. When she moved her head even the slightest bit, however, the view would change to a different set of galaxies, and then another set and another set, each frame subtly different from the others.

"You've gotten my attention," she said breathlessly as she looked back at him.

"No, I didn't," he corrected as he looked disapprovingly at his bandaging job. "I just helped you to see what was always there. Whatever runs this place," Simon continued as the first flecks of red began popping up through the dressing, "apparently wants guests to feel at ease and tries to hide the vistas behind a veil of calm, blue sky. At least for us, anyway. We perceive what seems normal to us." He began tearing off more strips of cloth.

"Why do you think there are many of us here?" Stephanie asked as she sat down again. He stopped and looked up at her, the haunted look returning to his somewhat sweaty face.

"Stella Kellson -- my Stella -- died two years ago," he said quietly. "I never thought I'd see your like again. And yet..." He closed his eyes. "In any case, you were expecting to see me, to see your Simon." He looked down and opened his eyes as he felt more blood trickling onto his skin, and he furrowed his brow. "The wolves," he said with in a somewhat distracted manner, "committed a serious error, I think." Stephanie was getting ready to comment about the wolves when the hair rose up on the back of her neck, a feeling she'd once heard described as someone walking across your own grave.

"I'm dead in your world?" she asked, and Simon looked over and nodded. "What happened to me...to her?" Simon breathed deeply and mopped up some of the sweat with his sleeve. He looked down as he quickly tied more cloth around his leg.

"We were in Roanoke Rapids," he said as he concentrated on the task in front of him, "trying to recommission the dam. The Enclave was able to bring the city into the protected zone, but much work still needed to be done to connect it to our power grid." He stopped moving and stared at the ground. "All we were trying to do was to get the hydroelectric facilities back online. The people there had been without electricity for years. They should have been grateful." Simon closed his eyes and shook his head sadly. "Someone there rewarded us instead by planting an IED along the railtrans line." Simon shook lightly as signs of darker emotions began flickering through his facial expressions. "She took slivers of aluminium through the heart and lungs." He opened his eyes and looked down at his right hand. "She died instantly, yet I walked away with only a broken hand." He sighed. "It wasn't fair."

"I'm sorry," she said quietly, "in more ways than one." Thoughts of the California Zephyr racing through vast unguarded stretches of emptiness sent slight shivers down her spine. "What sort of destruction did you mean?"

"Stella," Simon spoke as he noted increasing amounts of blood flowing despite the presence of the bandages and the pressure being placed upon it, "I would gladly explain, but I think I understand why my assailant didn't follow to finish the job. I suspect the bullet," he said pointing to the red liquid oozing down his leg and onto the ground, "contained a poison designed to bleed me out. It isn't arterial bleeding... but it isn't stopping."

Stephanie stood and looked at the ineffective dressing.

"Start tying some of those into a single long strip," she said as she ran to the bar and began looking around on the counters and in drawers.

"What did you have in mind?" he said as he began to slump.

Stephanie tossed items onto the ground as she searched. Her face lit up as she grabbed a thick-handled disher and ran back to him.

"Tourniquet," she spoke brightly as she handed it to him.

After a nod of appreciation, he made a small loop in the larger strand and inserted the handle of the scoop. Then, as much as he could, he moved his bad leg until he could slip his foot through the larger loop and pull the entire contraption up above the bullet hole.

"Help me down," he requested politely but urgently, and Stephanie eased him off of the chair and onto the ground as he grunted and as his leg and its angry wound spasmed. He promptly leaned back onto the chair. "Here, tighten it for me. I'm not a coward, but..."

"You're not going to lose the leg," she reassured as she started tightening the tourniquet. He smiled but did not seem at ease.

"All right," he said, "I may not have much time if that doesn't work." She smiled reassuringly and looked down at the wound.

"Then tell me about the wolves," she said as the strips began constricting the blood flow.

"Your zone doesn't know about them?" he asked.

"I know that they're big and they're bad," she said, "and I knew they could huff and puff and blow my house down, but until this afternoon I didn't know that they were real."

"We've never been able to ascertain much about them," he continued. "Much of what I'm about to say is conjecture, really just educated guesses, but they seem to fit with observation."

He tapped his fingers on the ground. "They appear to be trans-universal beings, capable of moving between all of those universes you see above you." He grimaced as Stephanie's work began causing a pins and needles feeling in his injured limb. "They remove you from your home universe and deposit you here, and then the wolves slip in to and occupy the space that used to be yours. It seems likely that they actually take on your aura, if you will, so they appear to be you." He pulled up a blade of grass and began rolling it into a small green ball. "The transference or whatever you want to call it reverses after a day or so, give or take." He dropped the grass pellet and watched it try to straighten itself out again. "I wish we understood more. So much of what we've ascertained has had to come from suspect abductee accounts and a review of legend and myth."

"I was looking at the same things before I was pulled back again," Stephanie said as she made the last turn and then held the tension with the improvised handle. "I was thinking that some of the werewolf legends might have been inspired by these guys. Simon, my Simon, was angry at me for wasting time and not working on the mission." She waved a scolding finger at the Simon lying before her. "That was not nice of you -- of him -- at all. He and I had a big argument about it which is why were separated before the wolves came back for us again."

"If your relationship is anything like the one I had with Stella," Simon said, "it's not the first one you've had and will most assuredly not be the last."

Stephanie smiled. "So," she asked, "any ideas about what the wolves are doing?"

"There appear," he said, "to be three classifications: the knowledge seekers, the anarchists, and the youth." He looked at his leg. "Thank you, Stephanie. If that tourniquet does nothing else, at least it's making it go numb."

She patted him on the shoulder. "So," she said, "you have researchers just as interested in us as we are in them, and then you have the ones who come to rape and pillage and frighten, and then..." She cocked her head. "You think that last group is teenagers out on a joyride?"

"An apt description," he said as he closed his eyes. "To my mind, the children are the most dangerous, for they don't seem to fully understand whatever the process for taking us is, and they don't always seem fully prepared for what they might encounter." He grimaced. "Inexperience coupled with fear is a volatile mixture. Once I saw you, I knew immediately that one or more immature wolves were at work."

Out of the corner of her eye, Stephanie saw movement behind one of the windows. For a moment she glimpsed a familiar looking woman's face. Quickly, the curtains were drawn.

"They must have become frustrated, like a child not getting the toy or the cookie that it wants," Simon continued. "My conjecture is that the wolves grabbed their victims but didn't understand the process well enough to do it correctly. Their victims kept returning too soon, so this time they tried really, really hard." He looked at Stephanie and then at all of the buildings around them. "Too hard. They drew all of us to Zone Zero, and now an infinite number of Simons and infinite number of Stellas -- or Stephanies -- are here. I can't imagine this realm being able to easily contain infinity. The effort being expended to keep us reasonably comfortable must be enormous."

"If they took two of us from one world," she asked, "wouldn't that mean that two of us from every Earth would have been drawn here?"

Simon looked at her and smiled with appreciation.

"Who took my place from your home -- as your partner in the field, I mean?" Stephanie asked.

"Somewhere around here," he said, "Paula must be absolutely fuming! Nothing frightens her, but she grows angry at the drop of a pin."

"Paula Mankiller?" she said incredulously. "What are you doing with her?"

"Quite a lot actually," he replied without missing a beat and with a wry grin, "and often! She's my mate under law."

"You married Paula Mankiller?" she whispered as she shook her head.

"That was her family surname," he said he looked at Stephanie. "You must've had some interaction with her counterpart, I see. You'd be surprised, I think, by what goes on beneath the facade. And besides," he smiled sadly, "my original preference was no longer living."

She blushed and was momentarily rendered speechless, and it took a great deal of effort to refocus on the matter before them. "If she's anything like the Dr. Mankiller back home..." She laughed. "Anyway, you're absolutely right about the circumstances. This is the third time today those wolves have taken me." Simon cocked his head and licked his lips.

"Do me a favor," he said. "Check your pockets for a key."

Stephanie began examining all of the many pockets on both her vest and her cargo pants but came up with nothing that shouldn't have been located in them.

"No key? No receipt of some kind?"

"No," she replied as he started breathing a little heavier. "What am I looking for?" He reached over and fished around in one of his coat pockets and pulled out a silver key.

"Something like this," he said, "a simple key for a simple Yale lock. Your room key." He closed his eyes and scratched his chin. "The absence of said key with you is very interesting, don't you think?" Simon smiled at her. "Stephanie, I very much suspect that you're patient zero in this affair. You say you've actually interacted with the wolves today. I've merely been drawn here." Simon shivered. "I think I may have a way for you to get us all back to where we belong." He groaned slightly, and Stephanie reached forward and placed a hand on his belly, looking up at him a moment later with concerned eyes.

"Is that tender?" she asked. Simon mustered a slight smile as he nodded. His belly was definitely somewhat swollen. "So, what is this plan of yours?" He coughed lightly, and as he did, flecks of blood flew out onto his white shirt.

"Find your hotel room," he said, "the one you should have been assigned. If you're not occupying it, then I suspect, somehow, the wolves are. If they're there, it's possible that you may be able to disrupt them. I doubt they can fully disconnect from the zone at the best of times, and with all of us here..." He winced and grunted. She felt his belly again, and while she applied no pressure to it, she could feel that it had swollen even more.

"Simon," she spoke as she rubbed her lips with her free hand, "I can't say for certain, but..." Simon nodded.

"I know," he said with a degree of sadness. "Whatever was released by that bullet..." He closed his eyes and winced again, but he managed a grin nonetheless. "But let's keep trying, shall we?"

"Hey! Anyone!" Stephanie yelled, "Is there a doctor in the house?" She looked over at Simon, and despite their situation, both of them laughed, but both also noticed the additional blood that emerged as he did. Suddenly, he tensed up and balled his fists again, his eyes shut tight as he growled his way through a spasm of pain.

Stephanie, her expression falling with the realization of what was occurring, looked down.

"Damn!" Simon said. "That must be the peritoneum." With his right hand, he grabbed the table leg. With his left, he reached for Stephanie's free hand, taking it in his and squeezing. "I may need to ask a favor of you if this pain gets any worse. I know it's a lot to ask of a stranger, but..."

Stephanie held his hand closer to her as she nodded her head slightly.

"I don't know if I can do that," she said as she looked over at the tourniquet. She glanced up and scanned the area for any activity. "If there are so many of us here, why isn't anyone coming to help?"

"Some are probably still unconscious," he replied, "some are probably frightened, and some," he looked down at the wound, "some just don't care." He leaned back gingerly and rested. "So, tell me about what the two of you were doing when the wolves decided to bite."

"You sure you don't want to talk about something else?" she asked.

He shook his head.

"I'm not a spiritual man," he replied with a smile. "Tell me, please."

After a long pause, Stephanie nodded and held his hand tighter.

Simon's breathing became more rapid and shallower, and his color began to pale.

"We were tracking someone," she said, "a man named Gregg Wainwright. About two weeks ago, we'd discovered a scientist who'd developed a series of nanobots. Some of them could alter or even control your actions and your behaviors. Just before Dr. Xu died, we found out that she had been funded partially by some outside party."

"What did this entity want?" Simon spoke with a genuine sense of curiosity. He reached up to wipe some blood away from the corners of his mouth.

"They wanted a type of bot that would convert a human body into a bomb," she continued. "We found a contact number in her purse, so Callow, Simon, and I worked out a plan."

"As the chief archivist for the Columbia Enclave," he said, "I've had to deal with an unpleasant functionary named Callow."

Stephanie smiled sadly. "I'm sorry. Please continue."

"We were able to suppress the news of Xu's death," she said. "The details of the drop were such that she was only required to leave the vial of nanobots in a locker in Union Station. We had her, um, assistant Eric make the call, and he also was the one to place the vial in the locker." She touched Simon's visibly distending stomach. "We spotted Wainwright picking it up."

"Who is he working for?" Simon asked.

"We haven't been able to find out exactly who," she said with a worried tone, "but the number we had Eric call traced to an answering system at SETI in California. We have reason to believe that an organization called Prometheus has some connection to SETI, and from that we've inferred Wainwright is working for them. At least, that's what my Simon inferred." She squeezed his hand. "We lost track of him for a few tense hours but finally found that he'd taken the train to Chicago. We were able to catch up with him there, and we've been riding on the California Zephyr since. We assume he's taking trains because he doesn't want to run the risk of the vial tripping any airport security." She looked up at the sky. "Then this whole business with the wolves started." She shook her head. "You know that my Simon, even after being dragged here twice, was still more interested in Wainwright than in our predicament?"

"California," he said somewhat dreamily. "I've heard the weather there is phenomenal. I've never been, unfortunately." He looked weakly at Stephanie. "I envy him, your Simon. I've never been able to travel that much. My family was one of the last out before Angleland collapsed into anarchy. The Columbia Enclave has always been rather stable, but outside of that..." He cast his eyes up to the table. "Once, as a young man, I was able to travel to Kentucky before the Lexington Confederation lost control." He sighed wistfully. "Oh, Stephanie, that Kentucky Bourbon! Nectar of the divinities."

"Simon," she spoke, "why are things so bad for you back home? What happened?" Simon shrugged, but the pain that shot through his body quickly indicated that any movement was a mistake.

"You're asking a question that every sociologist in every rational part of Earth has been asking since the war," he said quietly. "The nuclear attacks on Dresden and Berlin, the German counter-attacks on London and Paris, all of them unleashed elements in society bent on restoring some sort of dogmatic order to the world. Even the war's end after the Asian Archipelago campaigns of '46 and '47..." Simon grabbed his chest and doubled over, blood spraying out of his mouth with each breath. He moaned as he sat back, blood running from the corners of his eyes. "It's time for a moment of decision," he whispered as he gasped for breath. "I can linger like a dying scream, or we can take care of this much more quickly." He looked down at the tourniquet. Stephanie blinked fast and looked at her hand, which was still keeping the tourniquet taut.

"Are you sure?" she asked. Simon nodded slowly. After a long pause, released her grip on the tourniquet, and as the pressure was lifted, blood began flowing again from the gunshot wound, first slowly, then much more rapidly, spilling on the ground around his legs. Stephanie, still holding his hand, moved closer to him. "I would've enjoyed getting to know you." She struggled to keep from crying, and she berated herself inwardly.

"Just remember," he said as the color drained even more from his face, "I'm not your Simon." He rubbed his thumb over the top of her hand. "And you're not my Stella. But, my dear, it was nice to see something of her reflected in you." He blinked as he felt himself growing weaker. "Don't stay with me after I lose consciousness," he said in a whisper. "Find him...find your..." He closed his eyes, and his grip on Stephanie's hand began to weaken. "If he loves you anything like the way I loved you, he'll be devastated. Devastated men don't always..." He coughed more blood as his head lowered. "If you see Paula," he said with great effort, "go the other way. She's going to be pretty angry about...about..." His hand dropped, and as it did, she put an arm around him and buried her head in his shoulder, her body shaking as the unwelcome tears began to flow.

V.

Simon the Jaguar looked into his doppleganger's eyes and smiled widely. Dr. Simon Litchfield, tied to a cheap looking and poorly upholstered burgundy chair, did not reciprocate.

"Well now," the Jaguar said with a pronounced British working-class accent, "aren't we a pair of monkeys in a cage, then." He stood straight and moved backwards towards the door. The shades were drawn, and the room was dark save for the light cast from a weak yellow bulb in a plastic lamp. "Maybe this is where we start throwing our shit at each other, eh?" He laughed a thick phlegmatic laugh, the end result of the brown and foul smelling cigarette he held in his left hand.

"Glad to accommodate," Litchfield replied. "If you'll just untie me so we can get down to business..." The Jaguar laughed harder, spittle flying out of his mouth and onto a carpet already littered with ash-burns.

"I like this one!" he said to the figure lying on the bed. She polished her jackknife so that the blade glowed silver and strong even in the weak light. "Shall we give 'im a sporting chance, love?" The beams of reflected light bounced off of the woman's mirrored sunglasses, causing her eyes to appear to glow with white hot energy.

"Later," she whispered, "if he talks, and if we like the words he speaks." She folded the knife and put it into one of the many sheaths adorning her brown leather coat.

"And my Steffi knows her words," the Jaguar said. He moved forward again. "Wouldn't you agree the lass has such a sharp tongue?" He grinned. "She's talked her way out of many a scrape, I promise." Litchfield glanced over at her.

"And to think all I wanted was directions and a cup of sugar when I knocked on this door," Litchfield said. "I wasn't expecting theater as well." The Jaguar slowly turned and pulled up another shabby chair. He adjusted the leather cords tied around his wrists, and he pushed back slightly the sleeves on his tan leather jacket before sitting down.

"You'd like a performance, would you?" he said, and Steffi pulled a filleting knife from another sheath. She expertly twirled it around in her right hand while she picked fabric pills from her dark purple shirt. "Perhaps a demo of the gal's cutlery skills?" He put his cigarette into the brown glass ashtray and reached over and picked up his rifle, pulling the bar and opening the chamber for a shell. "Perhaps you'd like to see my sharpshooting skills?" He pulled a bluish-white shell from an ammunition belt sewn onto the outside of his black shirt. "Believe me, sonny boy, you don't want a taste of what this beauty pumps out to your bloodstream."

"I'm losing patience," Litchfield replied. "If there's some point to this, can we get to it?" The Jaguar loaded the gun, clicked off the safety, and then leaned back.

"So far," he said, "I've gutted one of you fellas. Housekeeping's not going to like me when they see the bathroom." He picked up his cigarette. "Probably puke up a lung when she drops in."

"Or he," Steffi said as she idly twirled the knife. "Don't be a sexist boor!"

"Sorry, love," the Jaguar replied, and he looked at Litchfield and shrugged. "Anyway, where were we? Oh, yes, I've shot one of you, and if there's any humor in this place, he's floating face down in a blood-filled swimming pool. Steffi there went for a little walk and came back with a dainty little pinkie finger in her purse. The lass and I have had our fun, but now it's brass tacks time." He took a long drag from the cigarette. "So, now, this is where you tell us what the hell is going on! We were happily stalking Caesar Valerianus, had 'im in the cross hairs, even. Just one little squeeze of the trigger away." He placed the cigarette in his mouth and then held up his hand, his thumb and forefinger separated by a one-inch gap. "This close to a million solidi payment from certain interested parties in the Roman Senate. This fragging close!" Ashes fell down onto his shirt and jacket as he spoke. "One of these little Bloodletters in the stomach, bang!, one public death under the New Arch of Constantine, and Steffi and I become the official state assassins. Rich beyond anything!"

"I had to cut up a couple of passing me's," Steffi said matter-of-factly. "It was the only sensible way to vent my frustrations."

Litchfield winced, but told himself that his Stephanie would have handled herself better than that. 'Steffi' certainly wouldn't have emerged unscathed from a dance with a krav maga expert.

"Well said, lass," the Jaguar continued. "So, as you can understand," he grabbed the cigarette, "old bean, old chum, dear chap, we want out of here! I don't need to tell you which song I want you to sing." Simon shook his head.

"I wish I could help," Litchfield spoke. "I don't know how the wolves do it any more than you."

"Wolves!" the Jaguar exclaimed. "Now, there's something new! Let's us hear more about them." Litchfield fidgeted in the chair, grimacing as he moved his arms slightly, apparently trying to keep the circulation going in them.

"I'm not sure what I can tell you," he said with a grunt, "since I don't know much about them myself. All I know is they seem to be extraterrestrial, and they seem to be able to pull us to this lovely land of cheap hotels."

"So, you really mean wolves?" Steffi asked as the knife stilled in her hand, the blade pointing directly at Litchfield. "Like a 'Where wolf?' 'There wolf!' wolf?"

Litchfield nodded, momentarily surprised. If he had been asked to guess what things two divergent realities might have in common, he would not have picked Young Frankenstein.

Seconds later, the Jaguar was growling and shaking his head.

"You'd better watch him," Litchfield said as he nodded towards his counterpart, "sounds like he's rabid."

The Jaguar stood slowly and walked towards his prisoner.

"Where," he said as he leaned down to look Litchfield in the eye, "is this place?" He took another drag from the cigarette, held the smoke in his lungs for several seconds, and then slowly blew the noxious cloud into the prisoner's face. "More important, squire, is how...do we...get out...of this home for tourist rubbish?"

"I...have no...idea," Litchfield replied, mimicking the rhythm of the Jaguar's question. "I'm still not even certain how all of us got here in first place. I only know that the wolves are responsible."

"Steffi," the Jaguar said, and she slid from one end of the bed to the other and turned onto her stomach, propping her head up with her left hand while holding the knife in her right.

"So, love," she said, "have you ever had sushi? Have you ever seen the way..." She smiled, the smile of a child burning ants with a magnifying lens. "...The way a really good itamae slices layers of fish -- for instance tuna -- so thin you can literally see through?" She slowly licked the blade, and Litchfield smiled wryly.

"I can do that, too." She rolled over, still smiling, and slowly stroked the lapel of her jacket. "With tuna, with eel, and," she rolled onto her stomach again, "with you. One little layer of you at a time. Oh, the exquisite pain, as the same nerves are sliced again, and again, and again."

"She can do that to you, my friend," the Jaguar said as he too smiled. "I've seen it! One little square sliced down to bare muscle. And then another. And then, laddie..."

"I get the picture," Litchfield said rapidly. He took a deep breath. "And I'm telling you, as much as I'd hate to deny her the pleasure, there's nothing I can say. I'm sure, if she does, I'll think of something, some lie to get you to stop, but then that's torture for you. You learn everything or nothing and never know the difference."

The Jaguar took his cigarette and stabbed it out on Litchfield's hand. The prisoner winced.

"Have at 'im, lass," the Jaguar said after a long pause. He turned and walked back to his chair. "Even if he knows nothin', fun is fun."

Litchfield shook his head in surprise. He hadn't realized just how different the Jaguar was, how much the man enjoyed causing pain... "Um, well," he said as Steffi stood slowly and took off her coat of knives and laid it on the bed. "Couldn't we, y'know, consider the other options available to us? Perhaps I could..."

Steffi approached and leaned in and kissed Litchfield's ear. "Why...why don't we pursue that avenue a bit more?" Quicker than the blink an eye, she sliced open a two inch gash on his left hand, and he let out a cry of pain.

"Ah, for a pint about now," the Jaguar said with a sigh. Second later, the window behind him shattered, and the door blew off of its hinges, splinters flying into the room. Fortunately, thanks to her position in front of him, Steffi shielded Litchfield from most of them.

"Villainous knaves!" yelled a man in a khaki uniform with Nightwatch emblazoned across it. "You shall all be vanquished by and by!" The Jaguar rolled on the floor, moaning in pain and wincing as shards of glass and splinters from the door pushed in to his skin. The man smiled an amazingly white smile and adjusted his khaki eye mask.

"Indeed, Commander Nightwatch," said a woman in a black skintight outfit covered nonetheless with many pockets. A blood-red 'S' bordered in silver was on her right breast pocket. Her curly dark hair was pulled behind in a ponytail, and her eyes were covered with a blood red mask. She rushed forward and handcuffed the still stunned Steffi. "One torturing tart subdued!"

"You've got to be kidding me," Litchfield whispered as he rolled his eyes.

"Excellent work, Semiconductor," Commander Nightwatch intoned as he punched the Jaguar and knocked him out cold. "You see, before you, proof positive of the weakness of e-vil." Semiconductor took a zip tie from one of her pockets and bound Steffi's legs at the ankles.

"The resemblances, Commander, are striking, are they not?" Semiconductor said. "But the variances in their character are stunning!"

"Undoubtedly the variances predicted by quantum theory," Commander Nightwatch over-enunciated. "Every action, every decision, produces a new universe!"

"Oh, however did you find me, Commander?" Litchfield stated flatly as he appeared to catch on to the probable protocol expected from him.

"My super-intuition told me that one of my fellow Simons was in trouble," the Commander said as he looked to the side and revealed his strangely chiseled profile.

"After that," Semiconductor added, "using this, the distress hormone detector," she pulled a small black device from another pocket, "we were able to zero in on you."

"Several of the downstairs neighbors told us of the acts of horror they'd witnessed these two," he kicked the unconscious Jaguar, "people perpetrating today, and we knew this had...to be...your location."

Litchfield smiled and cleared his throat. Amazing how a sadistic psychopath and a melodramatic superhero-type could share the same speech pattern... God, what if I have it too? "Would one of you care to...?" He nodded towards his bound hands.

With great fanfare of movement, Commander Nightwatch knelt down and with a flourish untied each of Litchfield's hands. He grabbed Litchfield's injured hand and looked at the wound. The Commander pulled a tube from a slot on his khaki belt and sprayed something onto the cut. A few seconds later, the gash was covered with a flesh-colored mesh.

"Nightwatch skin," he said. "It will remove itself when the underlying tissues have had a chance to heal. Be sure to wash the affected area daily with clean, cold water!" Pausing only to knock Steffi unconscious as well, the hero stood and looked around the room, again making sure to show off his bizarrely handsome profile. "Come Semiconductor. Others of us may be in trouble, and we are duty sworn to protect all! By the power of Rembrandt, away!" The two ran out of the room seemingly in the span of a sparrow's chirp, leaving Litchfield with his two freshly subdued tormentors.

He stood and walked to the chaotic debris field around the door and window. Reaching down with exquisite care, he pulled the rifle from glassy rubble and admired it.

"Simon!" Stephanie cried as she stepped into the shattered doorway. She held her cell phone and looked around at the destruction in the room. "I leave you alone for one lousy moment..." Litchfield smiled, but his expression turned to one of worry as he caught sight of the blood on Stephanie's vest.

"Are you okay?" he asked as he moved closer to her. For a moment, she felt herself close to tears, but she fought through the emotions and forced a smile.

"I held one of you as you died," she said quietly. As she looked at the gun, a sickening feeling pulsed through her as she put the pieces together. "I'm thinking they're the ones who shot him!"

"Assassins," he said quietly and plainly, "and, it's taking everything in me to not give them a bit of their own treatment." He gazed at the still unconscious Jaguar. A bell rang in a back corner of the room, startling both of them. With great caution, Stephanie walked to where the sound came from. A bright yellow button glowed above a large rectangular slot, and she reached forward and pushed it. The slot opened, revealing a tray sitting on a dumbwaiter device. She pulled it out. A glass of reisling, a glass of whiskey, and two steaks, both medium rare and both apparently cooked perfectly were arrayed upon the tray.

"Let's get out of here," she said as she looked down at her counterpart on the floor. She started for the door, but not before making sure she stepped on Steffi's now exposed foot.

The two of them emerged onto the walkway and noticed other versions of themselves in various states of well-being and in various forms of dress walking around in the courtyard, talking to each other about both the predicament they were in and about the feats of Commander Nightwatch.

"How did you find me?" Litchfield asked just before he laughed at the sight of a bald Simon carrying on an animated conversation with a bald Stephanie.

"I remembered an app Mel put on this last time he upgraded it," she said as she held up her phone. "Even if it isn't receiving a signal, it can still find your phone's GPS chip, at least at short range. My thinking was that our chips would in all likelihood be unique to our universe." Litchfield smiled.

"Remind me to yell at him when we get back," he said playfully. "He didn't give me that app."

Stephanie laughed.

"So, now that we've found each other, do you have a plan?" Litchfield asked. He flexed his wounded hand, impressed in spite of himself at how well the 'Nightwatch skin' seemed to hold the gash closed without seeming to interfere with movement. "I'll be honest with you, I haven't a clue about how to proceed."

Stephanie nodded and then pointed at the blood stain on her vest. "One of you did," she said. "Find the room that should have been ours. He had a room key. These guys around us had keys, but we don't. I'm not sure what we'll find when we get there, but it's the only plan I have." Litchfield looked at her quizzically as he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a room key.

"Actually," he said with a mixture of confusion and sadness, "I do have a room. It's just a couple of buildings over," he motioned slowly with his hand, "back that way." The two of them stared at each other, and Stephanie felt the sick feeling rising again.

"Simon," she said, "have you seen the wolves today?"

Litchfield looked down at the crowd of counterparts and shook his head slowly. "No," he said quietly. "I take it that you have?"

Stephanie sighed and closed her eyes, banging her hand on the railing.

"I don't think our GPS chips are as different as you'd hoped," Litchfield said.

At almost the same moment, her cell phone began to vibrate, and she held it up to look at the touch screen. Another locator signal had appeared, apparently originating from one of the Simons down below. Outside of superficial resemblances, none of them looked like her Simon.

"I'm sorry," he said as he leaned back on the rail and stared at the white stucco walls, "for both of us."

"It's not going off for all of them," Stephanie replied. "I guess this thing can at least help me narrow the field a bit." He opened the chamber of the rifle and pulled out the whitish metal of the Bloodletter, noticing in the process the small perforations around the tip of the projectile. He threw the rifle over the railing, and it slammed into the ground with an audible thud.

"Good luck, Ms. Kelso," he said as he waved and turned to walk away, in the process putting the silvery bullet into his pocket. "It's square one for both of us, and I need to find my partner."

"I hate square one. And it's Keel, not Kelso," she muttered as she moved quickly in the opposite direction and headed for the nearest stairway.

####
*

"I hate square one," Stevie said as she stared at the chess board on the white table in front of her.

"I prefer it," Cassandra March replied as she also stared at the black and white pattern. "It's the one time in life where I feel like I have all possible options." Stevie slowly twirled one strand of her short purple hair. Cassandra, a fourteen year old girl with light acne, slowly tapped her finger on the table.

"This is more soothing than trying to contemplate where we are," Stevie spoke. "At least chess has rules I know and makes some kind of sense." Sitting nearby, scrolling through options on his phone, Dr. Simon Litchfield listened to the conversation and tried to decide if he would drink any more of his glass of Jack Daniel's. He had no doubt that it wasn't harmful, but he also had no doubt that whatever it was, it was probably not actual whiskey.

"Do I seem familiar to you?" Simon asked Cassandra. She nodded as she continued her tapping.

"Sure," she replied as she stared at Stevie still staring at the board. Stevie reached forward and moved her queen's rook's pawn forward two spaces. "I love this game, but this one part makes me sad." With little hesitation, Cassandra moved her queen's bishop's pawn forward one space. "When she moved her pawn, a whole bunch of little possibilities died." Simon smiled, but he was uneasy. Actually, two things were troubling him. First, he had the feeling that Mel Squibb had installed something on his phone that would help him in his current predicament, but he couldn't quite remember what it was. Second, Cassandra was troubling him. In his mind he knew it shouldn't matter. Whatever place Cassandra was from, and whatever Simon was there, was in the end not his concern. Still, she was fourteen, and some of the possible implications lodged uncomfortably in his thoughts.

Stevie concentrated on the board as she touched three different pieces one after the other, paused to decide which one to move next, and then repeated the process.

"You don't know me?" Cassandra asked as she started tapping again, her eyes still on the pieces before her. Up above them on a second floor walkway, a black-suited Simon smoked a large and expensive smelling cigar.

"Not that I recall," Dr. Simon Litchfield said. "I don't think there's any analog of you in my life."

"I'm feeling like chopped liver here," Stevie said just before moving her queen's rook forward two spaces. "You know me?"

"Longer hair," he said, "no eyebrow or nose piercings." He looked at the black T-shirt and purple skirt Stevie was wearing. "Somewhat more practical choices of clothes. But, yes, I do know someone like you. Stephanie Keel." Simon continued scrolling, pausing only to look at Cassandra again. "Cassandra," he said with a somewhat uncomfortable tone, "how, exactly, do you know me?"Cassandra's tapping stopped, and she then moved her queen's knight forward and to the right.

"Are you my daddy, that kind of thing?" Cassandra asked.

"No," Stevie said as she repeated her chess piece ritual from the previous move, "he wants to know if he's your daddy."

Cassandra stopped tapping again and stared over at him. "You some kind of perv," she asked, "or are you just scared?"

Simon gazed up at the sunless sky, and a strong feeling of embarrassment came over him. Even though Cassandra's Simon wasn't him, the thought that any version of him could be that sick did scare him.

"I'm very frightened," he replied as he looked down and returned Cassandra's gaze. "I've seen a wolf today, a big bad wolf, and he dragged me here earlier." He reflexively touched the hole in the shoulder of his jacket. "And now, I see he's dragged all of us here, and that's a level of power I don't want to contemplate."

"That's not what I meant," Cassandra replied. Stevie moved the king's rook's pawn forward two spaces.

"I know," he said. "I keep telling myself that the different mes here aren't necessarily reflections of who I could've become. But, there are these nagging doubts." He looked back down as he scrolled to a page of apps. "I don't like thinking that any possible me could do something like..."

"He's my high school tutor," Cassandra interjected quickly, "and he's my chess teacher. And he's my friend too." She contemplated her next move and started tapping again. "Any guy any age tries something like that, and he'd kill him..." She rolled her eyes. "...Which will not help at all when I find a guy I really want to try something like that."

Simon breathed in very slowly. "It shouldn't matter," he said, "but you have no idea how much better I feel knowing that." He looked over the apps, and his eyes widened as he saw the one he'd been looking for. Switching it on, he initiated the emergency program that searched for and locked onto the short distance signal being sent out by Stephanie's GPS on her phone. Almost immediately, he picked up such a signal from Stevie.

"Damnit," he said under his breath. Stevie looked over at him but said nothing. All right, he thought, at least some of the phones here are similar, but I'm not being overwhelmed with signals either. "Good luck, ladies," Simon said as he tipped his hat at them. "I've got to try and find my Stephanie. My guess is that your Simons will be along shortly."

"Mine can rot," Stevie replied without anger. "You were worried about the wrong one, sweetie. Cassandra's may be a nice guy, but mine can't seem to stay away from the bottle...or me. He's probably passed out drunk already." She reached for her queen's pawn.

"If you do that," Cassandra said, "I'll have you in checkmate in four moves."

Stevie laughed lightly. "I don't know if I like your Simon either," she said as Simon walked away.

His head was swimming with simultaneous wonder and fear. Something about the presence of variation after variation of both himself and Stephanie (and apparently, other analogs as well) disturbed him to his very core, offended him even, and he was eager to leave as quickly as possible. And then there was the matter of Gregg Wainwright and the California Zephyr. Something and its friend had the potential to disturb the whole plan, and the thought of losing the lead was the most frightening thought of all to him.

His phone began vibrating as it picked up a familiar GPS signal, and he looked around in the immediate vicinity. Several Stephanies were there, as were several other women who did not look familiar at all. Shaking his head, he moved as several of them looked him over and found him to be someone other than the Simon they were looking for.

As he walked, he began ruminating again on his dopplegangers. In his life, he enjoyed being an iconoclast, a unique figure walking through the lives of so many. It wasn't that he felt somehow special or above them. In his line of work, he had often come across others who were far more remarkable than he felt he could ever be even if he could reveal his life's extracurricular eccentricities. True, he thought, he was probably one of the few people in the world to have a kit-built Saturn VUE, put together with the help of Stephanie and Tom over several months, but then this activity, he realized, did not separate him from the Mozarts and Feynmans in life.

What he liked, simply, was the thought that in the world there was no other Simon Litchfield, Ph.D in Engineering. There was no other Simon Litchfield who had built and rebuilt six different model railroad layouts, nor was there another Simon Litchfield who had enjoyed an evening of conversation and lobster bisque with Gillian Eckleberry in the Cannon Moon Café.

But in this phantom zone in which he found himself, he could no longer say this was true. At least some of them had had many of the same experiences, and given the seemingly unending numbers and varieties of himself that seemed to be there, chances were that at least one if not more had been through identical experiences.

Simon paused to shake the thoughts out of his mind and concentrate on the task at hand. I don't have time for an existentialist moment, he reminded himself. The phone began vibrating again, and he looked up, expecting to see either a purple Martian version or an LSD hallucination variant of Stephanie Keel standing near him. Instead, he saw a Stephanie staring back at him, a cell phone vibrating in her hands.

"What's your last name?" he asked her.

"Keel," she replied as she studied his features. "Yours?"

"Litchfield," he said. "Have you physically seen a wolf today?"

"Dragged me here with its own two grubby hands," she replied, smiling slightly. "Yourself?" He nodded and returned the smile. "Do you have a key to one of these hotel rooms?" Simon smiled widely.

"Not a one," he said.

"What," Stephanie asked, "did you and Tom use as a code word when you were dealing with your duplicate from the mirror?"

"Periwinkle," he said with a slight laugh, and they ran forward and hugged each other close.

"I don't like feeling this alone with so many people around," she said as she backed up and looked somewhat embarrassed by their display. "Is your shoulder okay?" she asked as she noticed the hole in his coat.

"Hurts like hell," Simon said, "but I can live with it." Simon turned his phone off and returned it to his pocket. "Why did you ask if I had a room key?" He raised one eyebrow, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

Yep, that's him, she thought.

"Everyone else seems to have a room," she said, "at least everyone I've talked to here. One of you thought that we should find that room."

He scratched his lower lip and took off his hat.

"Did he mean that the wolves still have some sort of connection to this place?"

Stephanie nodded and was just about to explain what she'd learned when the ground beneath them began to shake. At about the same time, the blue sunless sky switched abruptly to a night-time sky, albeit one filled with a myriad of stars, galaxies, nebulae, comets, and seemingly all possible kinds of celestial sightings.

About that same point, a Simon who had been sitting on the edge of a third-floor railing watching the scene as he was finishing his tenth beer lost his balance and plummeted to the ground. Simon turned and saw the man, motionless and bloody, lying awkwardly on the grass.

A quarter second after he turned his head, Stephanie responded to the same sound. Amazingly, this Simon had survived the fall, and he lifted himself and started staggering towards the stairs.

Simon ran forward and grabbed the dead man's hand, finding that there was no pulse. From his vantage point, this Simon had died from a broken neck.

"Have you ever seen anything like that?" Stephanie asked with wonder as the drunken Simon began weaving his way up the stairs. "I guess he was too drunk to remember he should have died!"

"That's not funny," Simon said as he closed the dead man's eyes. "And you say I'm too callous about death?"

Stephanie looked down at him as she pointed to the stairs.

"You don't think it's funny that he fell and then walked away without a scratch?"

Simon seemed to let go of thin air as he stood.

"There's a dead man down there," he replied angrily, pointing.

Stephanie's eyes followed Simon's finger to an empty spot on the lawn. "There's no one there," she insisted. "But there is someone climbing up the stairs!"

Simon looked up at the empty staircase,then back at the dead man, then up again.

They stared at each other, their expressions shifting quickly from anger to confusion to comprehension.

"I must have looked just a fraction of a second earlier," Simon said quietly. "I froze him in the dead state. But you..."

Stephanie held up her hand and closed her eyes.

"We just proved Schroedinger's Cat," she said with a tone of disbelief. "But it's not supposed to work that way. You saw him first, and you should have locked him into that history."

Simon looked up at the multiplicity of vistas in the sky.

"I think we're in bigger trouble than I thought," he said. "Instead of branching off into separate universes, it seems that diverging timelines co-exist here..." Looking back at Stephanie, he blinked and then moved closer, noticing for the first time the blood on her vest. "Okay, you'd better tell me from the beginning what you've found out about this place. I really think it's time for us to stop being the rabbits and start being the hunters in this game."

VI.

Room 445980, Building ?, Quad T, was dark, and this distinguished it from every other room which could be seen from Simon and Stephanie's vantage point. Since there were no exterior lights on any of the buildings, it was an extremely simple task to see even the dimmest light from lit candles or flickering televisions.

Stephanie lowered the flashlight she held, putting the building identification back into darkness. She placed the flashlight into a leather bag emblazoned with the image of a jaguar pouncing on its prey.

"Do you think we can get to it?" Stephanie said quietly.

"We have to," Simon replied. "I can't think of any other way to get at them from the inside." He shrugged. "Assuming that will work any better than a frontal assault. We just have to hope we can find the entrance." He smirked. "Assuming there is one, anyway."

"We don't really know anything, do we?" she said. "Not that this is the first time we've been in that situation."

Three hours earlier when they had begun their journey in search of this room, they had taken a few moments to backtrack along Stephanie's path, a task made quite difficult by the darkness into which their world had been thrown. Fortunately, though, she had moved along a relatively straight path, so she was still able to locate the Jaguar's room, As she'd hoped, he'd managed to bring along a bag of goodies on his journey, goodies that went beyond the Bloodletters the assassin had been so fond of. With the bag in hand, and with the somewhat damaged rifle recovered from the grounds, they began their search in earnest.

"I'd feel better if either of us could be more certain about these things," Simon said as he held one of the Bloodletters. It shone in the light of the flashlight, its whitish colored metal gleaming.

"Right now I'm more worried about that," Stephanie said as she looked at the row of lighted windows on the third floor. "It's not severe, but I can tell that the building is warping slightly, like..."

"...like the whole system is curving in itself," Simon continued. "It's why we can't wait for things to switch back on their own. I don't think this place is going to last much longer."

"Would you care for any refreshments?" a man's voice called out of the darkness, and Simon spun around, flashlight in hand. An older, balding man in a tuxedo stood with a drinks trolley in front of him. "I have beverages based on your desire, nutritional need, and relative metabolic requirements." The man flickered, and seconds later he appeared to be a Viking, then a strange spider-like creature, then a matador, then a parking lot attendant.

"Make up your mind," Stephanie said blandly.

"I apologize for the disruptions," the parking lot attendant said. "We appear to be experiencing some difficulties with the local conditions." He faded again, only to reappear in the guise of large white canary-like bird. "Drink?" it asked in a high-pitched chirp.

"Can't handle infinity?" Simon asked as he walked over and picked up a half-full ice bucket.

"Do some of us really look like birds?" Stephanie asked. The bird shrugged its wings and started grooming its feathers. A moment later, it used its beak to move the trolley on towards other potential customers. "Why the ice bucket?" Simon walked slowly towards the door of the only hotel room with no lights on at all.

"I just want to confirm that we have to do this the hard way," he replied, and he grabbed a handful of crushed crystals. He stopped ten feet away from the door, and then Simon reached back and threw the ice as hard as he could. The crystals instantly melted in a blazing sizzle of electrical arcing. Simon dropped the bucket as he rubbed his eyes and tried to get some of his night vision back. Stephanie stepped over and grabbed his arm.

"This way, doc," she said as she pulled him towards the wall. She waved in the air around them, trying to clear away some of the ozone from the reaction.

"I suppose it was too much to hope that they'd be more like Wile E. Coyote," he said as he blinked and regained his view. As they traced the wall, they finally came to a clay-colored door, Stephanie tried the handle and found that it was locked. Fishing into the bag, she removed two paper clips and straightened them out, and then she inserted the ends into the Yale lock. Moments later, she was able to open the door, and then they slowly descended a narrow and unlit staircase, heading towards an illuminated room.

The basement ran the length of the building but was quite narrow. At intervals, metallic columns rose upwards towards the rooms above. They walked slowly along until they reached a column with the numbers 440582, 440581, 440580 written on the outside. Both of them stopped and looked and felt around the column to no avail, and with a nod towards Simon, Stephanie opened the bag of tricks and pulled out a pair of heavy cutting shears. With a heave, she jammed the points through what appeared to be the thin aluminum of the column. She repeated this action four times until a sufficient starting point had been created. Then, she maneuvered the shears to begin cutting horizontally.

As she did so, Simon walked along examining the floor. "Don't slice your arms up doing that," he said as he looked at a series of cracks running along at various angles along the cement. He followed several of them until he found that many were intersecting each other. Looking up, he noticed several more running along the walls towards the structure above.

"Just another minute at most," Stephanie spoke as she changed the position of the shears again and began cutting down.

"Good," he replied as he noticed a fine dust falling from the ceiling. Quickly, he ran calculations in his head. "If this stuff acts anything like the way it does back home..." He jumped to the side as a large chunk of masonry fell to the floor near him. "If we're going to die, I'd rather do it fighting them," he said to Stephanie, wishing for her to complete the job

"We're in," she said as she pulled the aluminum out of the way, revealing the trays of the dumbwaiter system. "Looks like we can do it manually," Simon walked over and reached into the bag, removing three cylindrical devices and placing them on one of the trays.

"This looks like pretty strong stuff," he said as he adjusted the timers on each of them. "I'd hate to think what those two were doing with these." Stephanie shrugged.

"At least their stuff hadn't been taken before we made it back there," she said as more dust fell from the ceiling. "I wonder what actually happened to the two of them?"

"I don't even want to contemplate that," he replied as he stepped back from tray. "Okay, raise it up." Slowly, Stephanie cranked the mechanism upwards, the whole system clicking as the chain system turned link after link. After a few seconds, however, the system jammed. Moving in to inspect, Simon glanced up.

"Okay," he said as he began jiggling the chains and trays. "Give me a second. The column's bending. I think I can clear it."

"Not to worry you," Stephanie said, "but the clock is ticking."

"All the time in the world, my dear," Simon muttered without conviction. Another chunk of ceiling fell in a cascade of stone and dust. The clank of metal echoed through the basement. "Was that rebar?"

"Looks like it," Stephanie said as she looked towards the wreckage. Simon ran through more calculations. If the building was buckling that severely, the explosion might cause more damage than they intended, and for a moment he wished for more time to evacuate the rooms around 445980.

"Try it now," he said as pulled part of the mechanism away from the side of the column, and the dumbwaiter clicked its way up and past the obstruction.

Simon silently counted the clicks, his lower lip moving as the numbers went by in his head. He motioned for Stephanie to stop.

"Let's get the hell out of here," Stephanie said after locking down the mechanism. "With the way this place is falling apart, we might take down this whole part of the building." The two of them ran up the stairs and out into the night air. "I wish I was more sure about this."

"I can't think of anything better," he replied. "Can you?"

"No," she said after a long pause. Simon looked down at his watch and shook his head.

"There just isn't enough time for an evac..." The windows of the hotel room lit up with fire and fury, and he was just able to push Stephanie down before the glass of the hotel room shattered and the door flew off its hinges as the pressure waves from the second and third blasts did their work. The rooms around 445980 emptied rapidly. One of the Simon's ran to ground wearing only a shower cap. A few seconds after the fire settled and debris settled, both of them stood up and ran towards the open door, stopping only for Simon to pick up the rifle.

"This may be the dumbest thing we've ever done!" Simon yelled as they swooped through the remains of the door into the flames of the hotel room.

####

The feeling of burning alive was nearly overwhelming, and while some part of him knew that he was intact and relatively undamaged, Simon still awoke to visions of fire, to feelings of being crushed and collapsing into a point of infinity. Worse still were sensations of being devoured by a small animal with too tiny a mouth to do the job quickly. He looked around through flashing colors and nonsensical images of leaves and carpenter ants and oceans of light and reached forward to the first thing that he perceived to be solid. He coughed as smoke filled his lungs, and his arm seemed to move forward slowly like a series of ever progressing still images arranged in a zoetrope.

His hand touched a warm, living thing, and slowly his brain sent forth a likely name for who it was.

"Ms. Keel," he said in a series of echoes that reverberated not only around him but also within his own body. He felt on the verge of being swallowed by a cloak of madness, and part of him was screaming at him, willing him to let go and float with the pulsating vibrancy that was all around. Fighting hard to focus, he stared intently at the place where he believed this mysterious 'Ms. Keel' to be. The cacophony and the color storm began to coalesce, began to settle into a single set of color choices. "Focus on me!" he yelled to her as the world echoed again. "Focus on me!" he shouted again though this time he wasn't sure if he was speaking to her or to himself.

"What are you?" she asked in a childlike, frightened voice. She recoiled away from his touch. As she did, the world began scrambling again for him, and he lunged forward and grabbed her, but his tenuous grasp on reality had slipped, and he didn't know why he needed so badly for her to be still. In response to his desperation, Stephanie began kicking at him, but he moved until they were staring at each other's faces.

"I don't know who you are anymore," he said forcefully, "so don't move until I remember again!" He closed his eyes and tried to mine his recent thoughts, but all was confusion again. The frustration grated at his soul.

"Do I want to know you?" she asked with a mixture of fear and curiosity.

Simon blinked as he tried to decide upon the correct answer. All around him the world spun on in new colors, but Stephanie was in complete focus, and he tried to decide if he loved her or loathed her or even if he loved or loathed himself.

"You do," he bluffed, "but I think you hate me sometimes." She smiled a child-like smile as Something nearby slowly stroked her hair.

"How did they come here?" a deep tremolo voice asked Something. The voice echoed in a synesthetic display of reds and oranges and blues.

"This one," Something said as it pointed a claw at Simon, "is unusually persistent."

"It is weak and feeble," the voice replied.

"Are we in love?" she asked, and again Simon felt himself stymied by the question. Something caught his attention, but the colors surrounding the wolf drowned out the significance, and he was far too focused on the conundrum of the attractive stranger who slowly held his hand.

A second wolf stared down at Simon, its fangs in view. Stephanie just caught a glimpse, but her mind refused to process the image in any detail. The figure in front of her, she was sure, had died, and she nearly panicked with the fear that she must be dead too.

"We're dead!" she whispered in the child-like voice

"He is weak and feeble," Something corrected. "The other, the female, is weaker."

"She," Simon corrected forcefully, but then he looked around wondering why he spoke that word. He turned back to face Stephanie. "I don't think so," he said to her as he glanced around and tried to understand why he was starting to feel alarmed. "We're not in love, but I think I wish that we were. Or at least having sex."

She moved closer to him and touched his face.

"There's a word for you," she said happily as the fear dissipated and as Something looked over her shoulder. "I'm trying to remember it. It's like I'm in a meadow."

Simon saw Something again, and he felt more and more desperate for Stephanie to speak the word.

"This may be amusing to you," Something said as a distant horn blew and as a rapid 'ding-ding-ding-ding' sound came and went. "Speak your name to them. Your true and powerful name."

"They would never understand," the wolf's companion replied.

"What is in the meadow?" Simon asked as more colors surrounded him and as a vision of a clanging old-fashioned alarm clock danced around his head. "Is it a tree? Is it an insect?"

"Speak it into his ear," Something urged his friend. The second wolf leaned forward and spoke the name.

"So," it asked, "weak, puny thing, what is my name?"

"Something Else," Simon replied, immediately looking around as if trying to grasp the significance.

Stephanie squeezed his hand as Something Else stood and laughed quietly.

"I think I remember!" she said brightly.

"Pathetic!" Something Else said with laughing condescension.

"Foxglove!" Stephanie yelled.

Simon felt his mood collapse as Something shook its head. After his attention was drawn again to the wolves, Simon felt for and pulled close the rifle even though up until that second he'd forgotten it was there, and almost immediately both the gun and the wolves left his thoughts again.

"No, no, no," he said with a twinge of desperation in his voice. "Try again! Please! I know it was a silly word, but it has to be the right one!"

Stephanie, looking downtrodden, rubbed her lip and squeezed Simon's hand. The colors swirled around her in such pleasant patterns that she felt herself drifting off with them.

"You are like a twig caught in fur," Something said to Simon though the engineer paid no attention to the words, "burrowing closer and closer to the flesh until it becomes quite irritating." Something Else gave a disgusted look to Something.

"It is weak and puny and not worthy of direct address!" Something raised its paws towards Something Else.

"This one did not seek your view on the matter," it spoke in a low growl. "The male has shown courage, futile though it may be. Do not forget I am older than you!" Something Else growled, but it visibly lowered itself as its ears flattened closer to its head.

"Verbena?" Stephanie asked, the child-like tone in her voice growing more pronounced.

Something Else shivered as if it found the name itself to be disgusting.

"Think harder," Simon implored.

"Unlike that used by inferior creatures," Something said, "ours is a sophisticated language, capable of expressing beauty and grandeur those such as these can never grasp. This one," it said as it looked at Simon, "cannot harm with words alone."

"These creatures are unworthy of our language!" Something Else hissed. "This one may have been only third among siblings, but..." He moved to strike Simon.

"Do not move above your station," Something yelled, "or this one will strike! I fear nothing!"

"I don't feel the train moving," Stephanie said in an absent tone to Simon.

"What train?" he asked though the distant sound of a horn made him blink and look around through the swirls around him. I love trains! he thought. I love shrimp cocktail.

"You are occupying side-space," Something said as it lowered its body and stared towards Simon's face, the wolf's blood red eyes trying to bore straight through Simon's skull, "and it is not the place for your tiny species. It is our domain by right! You cannot even perceive beyond three dimensions. Why are you here?"

Another figure came into view, and it slowly approached Something Else.

"Kill them," Something Else spoke lowly, and Something turned again and bared its fangs. "Cease your wanton use of words. The creatures are unworthy of explanation, cannot hope to even benefit from it."

"Hey, beautiful," Gregg Wainwright spoke to Something Else. "You told me you'd meet me this evening in the lounge, and I'm not the kind of guy who likes being stood up." He looked over at Something and smirked. "Why'd you change your mind?"

Something else slitted its eyes.

"So, who's the old man?"

"Leave here, now, sir," Something growled as it stood up to its full height of six and half feet. Something Else looked at the human.

"I'll be there shortly, sir," it said. "I needed a moment with my father's father, to discuss his elder status."

Wainwright breathed deeply and unbuttoned his coat.

"You often travel on business with your grandpa?" Wainwright asked skeptically. Simon noticed Wainwright, and the engineer's expression fell.

"Keep trying," he implored Stephanie.

"Um, calliopsis?" she said with great hesitation.

"Return to the forward car," Something Else said forcefully, "immediately."

Wainwright swiftly reached under his coat and pulled out a small pistol already fitted with a silencer.

"Nothing about this smells right to me," Wainwright said with a slight smile to Something. "I've got this nagging feeling, understand?" He pointed at his ears. "They warned me, see, during the briefing, just routine crap that I never pay attention to normally, but it must've sunk in a little anyway." He smiled wider more malevolently.

"You've got to hurry," Simon spoke urgently. "I don't know what it is I'm supposed to do, but I need to do it now!"

"Dr. Simon Litchfield and Stephanie Keel from the Nightwatch Institute." He shook his head and made a 'tsk tsk' sound. "I really should've known," he said to Something Else. "No one's ever tried to pick me up on a train before. I knew it was too good to be true. After all these years, I've never made love on train."

"Leave," Something Else whispered as it crouched lower.

"The question is, what am I going to do with you two?" Wainwright began to look uncertain. "I've never actually killed anyone. I always knew it was a possibility, but..." He waved the gun. "Move to the back of the car. Now!"

"Clementine," Stephanie said as she groped for words, "ash, giant blazing star, stargazer..."

"You are interested in it, aren't you?" Something asked Simon. "I can smell your frustration, but why?" Something looked back at Wainwright. "It is even weaker and punier than most."

"Hey!" Wainwright shouted. "I'm the one with the gun here, okay. And talking to empty seats isn't going to do you any good. Now, do what I tell you!"

"Leave now!" Something Else yelled. Wainwright pulled the trigger, and a bullet entered the wolf's leg. Something Else regarded the wound as if a bird had defecated on its fur. "Foolish human," it spoke, and a split second later, Something Else had its left paw wrapped around Wainwright's throat.

"No!" Simon yelled.

Something Else turned to look at him as it smiled a wolfish smile. With seemingly no effort at all, it snapped Wainwright's neck. The sound reverberated through the room in colors of purple and green.

"I think I have it," Stephanie said, oblivious to the carnage.

Wainwright's twitching body dropped to the floor, the gun still in his hand, the Blackberry bouncing out of his pocket and under one of the empty seats.

"I will kill this one too," Something Else said as it moved towards Simon.

"You will leave him," Something said. "We must know how he came to be here!"

"Periwinkle!" she shouted, and an instant later, Simon held the rifle in his hand. Both Something and Something Else chuckled.

"It is weak and feeble and so old, and it learns nothing!" Something Else said as it pointed a yellow claw at Simon. "The other firearm did nothing to me, but it will not see! It should be put out of its miserable existence." Something Else prepared to lunge, and as it did, a shot rang out from Simon's rifle. The bullet pierced the wolf's left side, and as it did, Something Else looked up at Something and smiled. "It learns nothing. Your projectiles cannot harm this one. Even the poisons I feel seeping from it are weak and puny and..." Something Else caught its breath, and it slowly felt at the bullet hole. The wolf started to shake,

"What?" Simon asked. "I thought I was too weak and feeble to hurt you, Something Else." Simon discharged the empty shell, and he placed a second bullet into the chamber.

"Get it out of me," Something Else said quietly to Something. Something cocked its head to the side.

"It is nothing," it said as it reached for the other wolf.

"It is unclean!" Something Else yelled as it stumbled towards the floor. "Get it out of me!" it shrieked, and it began to howl as it pawed at the wound, trying to work its claws into the hole. "Unclean, foul!" A moment later, it was howling in pain and gasping for breath as Something knelt down and felt around the wound. In a flurry of movement, the bullet came out. Something held it but then quickly dropped the projectile as if it was burning hot. Shaking and shivering and writhing, Something Else disappeared.

Stephanie felt as if she was fired from a slingshot, flying back through the void, through the terror of the darkness, and just as she felt as if she would fall away and dissolve into particles of terror, she shot back again, emerging into the cold night air and falling through the walls of the nearly empty Superliner at the end of the California Zephyr. She landed on the floor in the position formerly occupied by Something Else. Though Simon appeared to kneeling over her, she scurried out of the way just as Something's fist hit the floor.

"One down," she said under her breath. Something prepared to leap onto her.

"Don't even try it!" Simon yelled from side-space as he raised the rifle. "I couldn't tell for sure if those bullets were made out of what I thought they were, or even if they would work," he smiled, "but I can see that they did."

"Is the other one dead?" Stephanie asked as she looked at the Simon-wolf.

"This one does not know," he said angrily. "Something Else is my litter-mate, and this one will strike you down," it hissed at Simon.

"I've got another one all loaded up and ready to go," Simon spoke. "I don't see another one of your kind waiting around to pull a silver bullet out of you." Simon grinned. "Not bad for a weak and feeble and easily distracted old man even if I do say so myself."

Something stared at him with blood red eyes and stood, fangs bared, arms raised as if it planned to attack.

"This one fears nothing!" it yelled, and it snarled mightily though it made no move towards Simon.

"You should," Stephanie said. "You have no idea what you've done back in Zone Zero or phantom space or la la land or whatever you want to call it. When you captured me last time, you captured all of me, from every dimension. The whole place is collapsing!"

"It lies," Something growled at her.

"How would weak humans know to even lie about something like that?" Simon asked. "Until a few hours ago, neither of us even knew that your kind existed, much less that fantasy land where you stashed us away!"

"You are overstating your position, human," the wolf growled, but it slowly moved back. "What would you have me do?"

"Leave here," he replied. "Go back there, undo whatever it was that you did, let those people go before that place tears itself apart. Whatever else I might think of you at this moment, I can't believe you're not smart enough to see that what's happening there can't be good for your kind or for anyone else." He aimed the rifle so that it was pointed at a spot on Something's forehead. "You really want to find out what it feels like to be the rabbit instead of the dog?"

"I will come back for you," the wolf snarled. "I will take you and drop you into the void and watch you writhe in agony and despair until your flesh is rendered into atoms of screaming pain!"

"No you won't," Simon replied. "I have a feeling that once your people find out what you did, they won't let you anywhere near this or any other universe ever again. Before you go, though," he cocked his head towards Wainwright's body, "pick him up. Take him with you, dispose of the body in that void you keep talking about." Simon's jaw clenched as he tried to contain his emotions. "You've cost me more than you can comprehend, you son-of-a-bitch, and I'm not going to let you saddle me with his death."

Something looked at Wainwright's inert form, then back at Simon. After a long pause, Something nodded slowly and then bent down to pick up the body. After a long, angry final stare at Simon, the wolf and his cargo disappeared in a flash of yellows and greens. Seconds later, the engineer had completed his journey back into the real world, but not before tossing the gun into the depths of the darkness of the void.

The passenger car was empty save for the two of them, and they paused together in the aisle.

"You were right about the bullets," Simon said after a minute's silence.

"We had no way to be sure," she said in a tired, somewhat hollow voice. "We took a big risk. You saw what it did to..." She closed her eyes and put her hand onto his shoulder. "Sorry, I know how much..."

Simon closed his eyes and nodded. A moment later, however, he laughed slightly.

"You don't know just how much of a chance it really was," he said. "I felt the firing pin spring give just after the first shot." He opened eyes and looked down at Stephanie, reaching over and grabbing her hand in the process. "What the hell is it with periwinkle, anyway?" he asked in a tone of forced amusement. "I don't even know what it looks like in the first place. It was just some term Tom plucked out of the ether."

"Doc," she said before leaning in to his chest, "I don't know, but I'm going to find some of it, and I'm going to put it on my desk." Pulling back, she squeezed his hand. "If the wolves left my computer alone, we should have some idea about who Wainwright was. That'll give us something, at least."

"Don't forget this," he said as he slid back and retrieved the Blackberry. Stephanie smiled widely as he handed it to her.

"Do me a big favor," Simon said sternly though Stephanie still saw the sorrow he was trying to hide. "Say 'periwinkle' all you want, but please don't say 'something' the rest of the trip, okay?" Stephanie smiled and nodded.

"We'd better call Callow," she said as they stood and moved to the forward vestibule. She reached up and punched the door opener. The car shook as it passed over a rough section of track. "When someone works out that Wainwright is missing, we're going to need all of our ducks in a row."

"And then," Simon said as they passed through the door, "I want to sleep, I think. I've never taken LSD, but I have a feeling side-space must be like..." The doors between the cars closed, leaving the Superliner empty once again. Through the rear window, a pair of red, burning eyes stared through, but seconds later they had faded away to nothingness.

THE END


© 2010 - 2011 Jeff Williams

Bio: Jeff Williams was the Aphelion Serials Editor (in charge of all fiction longer than 7,500 words) for most of this webzine's remarkably long life, as well as a contributing author of stories, interviews, and poetry. He created the Nightwatch series in 2004, with some assistance from the current Short stories Editor, wrote a number of the eighteen tales in the series (including this one) and has served as editor and guiding hand for all the other Nightwatch authors.

E-mail: Jeff Williams

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