Falling into Memories, Chapter 1

"Cthulhu cactus." That was what she remembered them being called. She had to dredge a bit deeper to come up with the plant's other name: ocotillo. The long, slender branches, like tentacles rising from the plateau's floor, stood in stark contrast to the rainbow hues of the sunset. She'd been riding most of the day, trying to put distance between herself and ... no, she wasn't going to dwell on it.

Gerd had given her a home when she needed one, a place to pull herself together, do something useful, and get her feet under herself. Now, Gerd was gone, murdered by those damned underdwellers, and nothing she could do would bring her back. Without the collar that sent her back to the Lifenet pods, Gerd would never be back. She could curse the fates all she wanted, and nothing would change.

The sun passed the ocotillo and flashed into her eyes. She raised a hand to block it, and another memory flashed through her mind: sunset. Time to make camp. There were things out there in the night – things that made what had killed Gerd seem tame by comparison. She scanned the horizon, and found a rock outcrop, maybe a hundred yards to the north. Probably already taken by something hostile, but it wouldn't hurt to check it out. She wheeled her horse around and set it trotting toward the rock.

The rock rose from the middle of a wash, with a good ten yards between it and either bank. The inner side of the rock had a shallow cut at the base, level with the floor of the wash. A memory rose, driving down a road, past a sign warning against rising water. She studied the rock, and saw a line, about ten feet above the cut, where the color of the rock changed from mud to limestone. Damn. Can't use that.

She started to turn away, when a flash of light caught her eye, another five feet up from the water line. What the hell? She found a cut in the bank and rode down, dismounted at the base of the rock, and began climbing. It was only about twenty feet, but what little trail there was, was covered with rock splinters, and every foot involved sweeping the bits of rock out of the way before putting down a hand or foot. By the time she reached the spot where she'd seen the flash of light, she was relying on the moon to guide her.

The body had obviously been there for months, if not years. It was nothing more than leather stretched over dry bones, resting against a bright red nylon pack crammed into a depression in the wall of the hole behind it. The hole was maybe three feet high and varied from five to ten feet wide, but it ran straight through the rock, from one side to the other. She decided investigating it was worth the risk of using her flashlight. When she lit it, she discovered the source of the flash: hanging from a fine chain around the body's neck was a sheet of metal, about the size of her hand, one side polished to a mirror finish, the other side painted a garish shade of orange, with a tiny hole punched through the center.

She looked back down the rock to where she had left her horse, then at the body, and decided that the risk of losing the horse was low enough to make bedding down in the hole worth it. She could search the body in the morning. For now, it was obvious that there weren't any obvious hostiles or scavengers in the immediate area, and if any did show up, the hole was defensible. She scrambled back down the rock to retrieve her saddle bags. After another trip down and up, the horse was contentedly nibbling on some palo verde shoots it had found on the shady side of the rock, and she had her bedroll opened in the middle of the hole. She knew some people might call it a cave, but she had trouble thinking of it that way, given its size and openness. Laying her knives within easy reach, she curled up on her bedroll and fell asleep.


"You're quite the hand with a wrench," Gerd said from the barn door. "Gunnar used to keep those machines running, but he's gone now, rest his soul, and it's been quite a chore keeping the farm going without him."

"It's the least I can do," she said, sitting back and wiping the back of a greasy hand across her forehead. "When I woke up in that old Lifenet station out there, instead of in South Burb, I was a bit lost."

"A bit?" Gerd laughed. "Hon, you were so lost you couldn't have found your own backside with both hands and a map. I couldn't just leave you to wander around like that. You'd have been eaten by a prairie chicken or something."

"Heh," she said. "I guess you're right." She looked at the machine she'd been working on. It had started life as a tractor, been converted to a road vehicle somewhere down the line, and then back to a tractor again. The different parts that had been grafted onto it over the years made it a chore to keep running, but they needed it if they were going to bring the crops in. "I should have this ready to run by tonight. We can start harvesting in the morning."

"Good," Gerd said. "I have some stew on the stove. You clean up a bit and get some lunch before you go back to working on that."

"Yes'm," she said, smiling warmly at Gerd. "And I'll remember to wash behind my ears, too."

"You do that," Gerd laughed, then turned and walked back to the house.

She put her tools back into Gunnar's old tool box and walked around the back of the barn to where the stock tank overflowed. A windmill meant they had plenty of water, as long as you liked it cold, but with some of Gerd's good soap and plenty of water, even engine grease ultimately had to admit defeat.

She was just picking up her towel, when she heard the screams. They weren't Gerd's usual screams of anger, like when the coyote had got into the chickens a couple weeks earlier. These were screams that had her running for the house, grabbing the 2" open-end wrench as she passed the toolbox.

She had just made it five feet from the barn door, when they saw her.

"Underdwellers?" she thought, frozen for a moment in shock. "Elena said they come from caves and tunnels under the earth. What the hell are they doing up here?"

The thought had barely flashed through her mind when one of them saw her. It let out a strange screech, and all of them turned toward her. She barely made it back to the barn in time to slam the door in the closest one's face. It let out a shriek of rage that barely covered the screams still coming from the house.

She backed away from the door, then turned, remembering the back door, by the stock tank. Too late – one of them had found it, and was stalking her, waving what looked like a fence post – still embedded in its concrete anchor – around like a child with its first burning stick. Damn. If it keeps making noise, it's going to lure the others in. She leaped across the barn toward the creature, swinging her wrench with both hands, aiming it at the side of its head where the neck was exposed. The neck made a satisfying crunch when the wrench impacted, and the creature dropped, its whole body spasming as if she had plugged it directly into the tractor's coil.

Seeing the creature spasm, she felt a mental wrench, as memories flooded her. For an instant, she staggered under the burden, then felt her perspective shift. She mentally counted the number of underdwellers she had seen outside, while scanning the barn's interior for useful weapons. After rejecting most of what she saw – too unwieldy – she grabbed a coil of cable and ran for the tractor. Urged to speed by the sound of clubs pounding away at the door, she bolted one end of the cable to the spare terminal on the coil, draped a chain over the tow bar, and wrapped the other end of the cable around one end of her wrench, then fixed it in place with several wraps of duct tape. Splinters of wood were beginning to appear on the inside of the door as she hit the starter. The tractor coughed, choked, then caught, and the engine roared to life. She pulled the throttle to full, jammed her hands into a pair of welding gloves, and dropped into a ready stance, just as the door came apart and the first of the creatures tore the boards away from the opening.

The creatures charged, and her fear and uncertainty vanished. She moved, catching the wild swing of its post on her wrench. There was a loud crack, and the motor slowed briefly, then roared back to full, while the creature fell, its body arched in a great convulsion. Meanwhile another had made its way through the door, only to meet her sweeping foot. An instant after it landed on the floor, she buried her heel in its throat with a satisfying crunch. Her body moved fluidly from one to the next, the wrench shocking one into unconsciousness, an elbow, foot, or hand crushing a vital part of the next. The last of the creatures charged her, shrieking with rage and waving its post wildly. She dropped, planted her feet in its belly, and let its momentum carry it up and over her, impaling itself on the blade of a scythe that was leaning against one of the barn's support posts.

She made sure each of the creatures was dead, before creeping to the opening where the door had been and scanning the yard between the barn and the house. With the tractor's motor creating enough noise to cover any sounds she might make, she quickly crossed the yard and pressed her back against the wall beside the kitchen door. After waiting a full minute, to allow anything inside a chance to poke its head out and investigate the noise, she reached out to turn the knob. When nothing wrenched it away from her, she slowly pushed the door open—

—and sat up, both hands over her mouth to hold in a scream. She scanned the hole, then crawled to the opening so she could look down at her horse. With a heavy sigh, she crawled back to her bedroll and settled back down to try and get some more sleep. That dream was the bane of her nights, interrupting her sleep every time she lay down. At least this time she had been able to awaken before seeing Gerd, as the creatures had left her. That would have kept her awake the rest of the night.

"Damn it!" She thought, while angrily punching up her bedroll. "I'm a Kinsman! Those things were nothing compared to Scylla! I should have been able to kill them all in time to save Gerd!" She curled up in her bedroll and whispered, her voice filled with bitter longing, "I wish Ben and Eve were here." Tears trickled between closed eyelids, a sign of the aching in her heart, the longing for those she loved.


Morning saw the sun flood the cave with light. She woke when the first rays fell on her face, and silently packed her bedroll. That done, she crouched in front of the dead man and gently lifted the mirror from around his neck. Setting that aside, she examined his clothing. A screamingly bright green vest – lime green down vest, is what her memories told her – was over a brown turtleneck, that felt as if it would tear, or crumble to powder, if she tried to remove it. While examining the vest, she realized that it was tailored for a woman, rather than a man.

"So our mummy is a woman's is it?" she thought, while gently working the vest off the corpse. "If there's a settlement anywhere near here, this should bring a good price. Too damned loud to wear, though."

Working her way down the body, she found thin denim pants that were faded to a light charcoal gray, and suede hiking boots that were stiff enough she had to work some fat into them in order to soften the leather so she could remove them from the mummy's feet. Even though the shirt and pants weren't good enough to keep, the boots would either fit her or go into the bag with that hideous vest. While she waited for the fat to soften up the boots, she moved the body aside and pulled the pack out. Since the body had, mostly, protected it from the sun, it was still a brilliant crimson. She studied it for a moment, then shook her head. As useful as the extra bag space would be, that color was guaranteed to attract every mobile predator for at least a half mile in all directions. She shoved the bag deeper into the cave, then opened it to examine its contents.

After only two minutes of examination, the one thing she was absolutely certain of was that "Lewis, Marcia" had been woefully unprepared for a trip into the wilderness, way back in 2052. Aside from the prescription bottles in the bottom of the pack, there had been one empty canteen, a couple changes of underwear, a cel phone with a dead battery, and a torn Slim Jim wrapper. She examined the bra and panties, then folded them and set them aside to go into her pack beside the vest and boots. Even though they were made of the same slick material as the vest, they were several sizes too large. The canteen, at least, looked as if it were still usable.

Once she had packed what she intended to salvage, and the boots had finally softened enough for her to get them off the body, she worked her way back down the rock to her horse, which was grazing on a clump of nopales it had found about twenty feet away. She fixed her pack into place across the back of her saddle, between the saddle bags, then swung up into position and urged the horse into motion. As she rode down the wash, she looked back, fixing the location of the rock in her memory. It never hurt to have another bolthole, and her memories told her that having a bolthole had meant the difference between life and death, back in her pre-clone days.


The sun was setting when she rode into town, such as it was. She had never seen people living in such squalor before, though – not even when she had taken jobs in Africa and the Middle East. People were living next to piles of garbage and junk, in buildings that had been damaged by age, by fire – even, in a couple places, buildings looked as if they had been attacked by axe-wielding madmen – and in a cluster of tents and Quonset huts off in the distance. On a hill overlooking town was a cluster of buildings that looked inspired by Japanese architecture, complete to a pagoda at the highest point of the hill. She dismounted in front of the old bank building and stopped to talk to someone wearing an old postal uniform. Where he had laid hands on a postal uniform, she didn't know, but there it was. It wasn't until she was close enough to read the patches on it that she saw the "Franklin's Riders" where she expected to see "United States Postal Service".

"Welcome to North Burb," the Rider said. "Just passing through, or are you interested in directions?"

"I was going to ask where I could find a secondhand shop," she said, "but it looks as if that's all I'll find around here."

"Odd," the Rider said, "you talk like someone who just came out of the regen chamber for the first time."

"Pretend I did," she said. "What would you tell me, then?"

"That you'd probably want to go back into the LifeNet facility and talk to the tech there," the Rider said, "before you do anything else. Just to make sure you didn't miss anything, you know?"

"That sounds like a good idea," she said. "Where would I find it?"

"Out back," he said. "They put it behind the bank."

"Gotta admit," she said, "no one would lose it there."

"Why don't you come back and chat after you're done with them?" the Rider suggested. "There's plenty of work around here for a clone, if you're interested."

"I'll do that, thanks," she said. "See you later."


She sat on a bench the Lightbringers had obligingly set up overlooking the town, eating some grilled chicken while mulling over the information she'd gathered in the last few hours. Giant spiders were carrying off animals, and, if the fears of some people were correct, a few people. Note to self: find out if anyone around here can scan mana levels. Giant insects can't exist without some kind of unnatural support, given their internal structure. Scavengers were stealing what little could be salvaged from the trash in town, and the locals didn't have enough guards to keep them away. That's something I can fix up in just a few minutes. They didn't specify how dead they wanted the scavengers, so I'll assume that "room temperature" is a good start. Some kind of plague was sweeping through the population, starting with the farmers. Could it be poison, rather than disease? I'll have to investigate further. Some group of degenerates calling themselves Blade Dancers had set up camp on the other side of town from the scavengers. "Room temperature" for them, too, most likely. Giant ants were approaching the town from the south. No hostilities from them yet, but it was just a matter of time. That pretty much confirms the mana level must still be rising. Even Svarna never mentioned anything about giant insects from any previous cycles.

She looked down at her hands, and saw she had torn what was left of her chicken into shreds. With a soft sigh, she offered it to one of the ubiquitous stray dogs. No, wait, that's a coyote. They're not nearly as skittish as I remember. Almost tame, even. And these people haven't had the sense to realize how useful they'd be as guard dogs. She let the coyote lick her hands clean, patted its head, then stood. Time for me to get started, then. She looked down at the coyote, which was sitting at her feet, thumping its tail on the ground, and shook her head, smiling, while running her fingers through its fur.

"Too bad you're not as smart as Coyote," she commented. "I could really use his help right now. Come to think of it …." She looked up at the sky and yelled, "Raven! Where the frak are you, damn it? How could you let this happen?"

"Miss?" one of the Lightbringers asked – Brother Pete, if she remembered right. "Are you all right? Who are you yelling at?"

"A friend of mine," she said. "He called himself Fred MacManus, but his name was Raven."

"That sounds confusing," Brother Pete said. "His name was Raven?"

"Yeah," she said. "You know, steals the sun, teaches humans how to make fire, pick berries, all that kind of thing? He was my friend," she gestured at her collar, "before this."

"I … see," Brother Pete said. "And you say that he called himself Fred MacManus?"

"That's right," she said. "You see, when he was born as a human, he forgot who he was, until he was …," she smacked her forehead with the heel of one hand, sat down on the bench abruptly, and hissed, "Of course! How could I have not seen it?"

"Not seen what?" Brother Pete asked, while surreptitiously gesturing at a couple wandering Protectors.

"Don't worry," she said. "You won't need them. I never attack my clients. It's bad for business. Even if I don't plan to ever come back to this world, once I get home." She looked down at her wrist and whispered, "Even if I don't know how they're going to find me, without Chiun."

Now that she understood her predicament, she realized what had been nagging at the back of her mind ever since she woke up, way back in Hoover Dam. Chiun was missing. The DSS sorcerers had somehow managed to separate her from him with the spell that had thrown her into this world, and without Chiun, the Network had no way to get a fix on her. She would have to find another way to create a signal they could lock onto, and a library or other nexus that would ease their passage into this world. Eve would be able to pinpoint her mental frequency, once she was close enough, but she had to find a way to help her get close enough.

"You don't ever plan to come back to this world?" Brother Pete asked, while the Protectors quietly moved to flanking positions.

"That's right," she said. "Once I get home, with my husband and wife, and my friends, I intend to make very certain that I stay there."

"Once you get home," Brother Pete said, his tone one of open disbelief. "Why don't you tell me about your home?"

"Sure," she said, reaching to scritch behind the coyote's ears, then looking up with an amused smile. "Would you rather your friends sit down to listen, or would you rather they lay down?"

"Would I rather …?" Brother Pete asked, confused.

"I'd rather they sat," she said. "I don't like hurting people who are just trying to protect others. Since I've agreed to help with some of the messes around here, I'd rather think of them as colleagues, if not friends. That's something that just can't happen if I have to knock them out." She noticed the Protectors tensing, and sighed. "Let me guess: this world doesn't have a Kinsman family."

"Who?" Brother Pete asked.

"I guess that confirms it," she said. "Why don't you sit down while I tell you my story?"

"… all right," Brother Pete said, gesturing to the Protectors to back off, while he approached the bench. "Do you mind if I sit with you?"

"Not as long as Coyote doesn't object," she said, chuckling and sliding over to make room on the bench. "I suppose I should start with introductions. My name is Diana Kinsman. Back in my world, I am married, to Ben and Eve Berkeley. The three of us are members of the royal guard of the Principality of Laputa – a group known as the Knights in Tarnished Armor. We've been at war with America since 1995, after they attempted to invade us. Every so often, the Department of State Security manages to dredge up a sorcerer who can either cast a banishing spell or a dimensional gate spell, and sends him into Laputa to try to eliminate Fred."

"And why do they do that?" Brother Pete asked, his voice in that steady tone Diana recognized as the one she used when dealing with dangerously insane people.

"He is Prince Frederick I," Diana said, shrugging. "Given that America has been a dictatorship since June of 1995, after twenty years of ever-increasing 'State Security Acts', they seem to be under the mistaken notion that if they take out Fred, the rest of us will be at a loss, and easy for them to invade and control. That's a very big mistake on their parts, but they seem to be incapable of learning."

"And this relates to why you are here?" Brother Pete asked.

"Apparently, I was caught in one of their banishings," Diana said. She looked around and sighed. "It's the only way I can explain why I'm here, instead of home where I belong. Shiva would have never happened in my world. Between Gryphon and Svarna, the virus would have been neutralized as soon as we learned of it. And the nukes? They would have gone into Fred's spare parts bin before they had a chance to detonate."

"Into Fred's spare parts bin?" Brother Pete asked, the look of disbelief on his face almost comical.

"Yeah," Diana said, then laughed. "He's not just the Prince of Laputa, he's the Mad who built it, too. Nukes are just spare parts to him. Unless they're aimed at innocent civilians. Then they're reason for him to get very, very angry, and pay a personal visit to whoever was responsible for ordering them launched."

"So," Brother Pete said, gamely trying to keep Diana talking. She had to give him credit for not folding up under what must have seemed to him to be sheer insanity. "You come from another world, where you live in Laputa, a country that was built by its Prince, and you're part of the prince's royal guard, along with your husband and wife. And you ended up here because you were caught in a banishing spell that was intended for the Prince?"

"That pretty much sums it up," Diana said. "It would be a lot easier to prove what I'm saying if Chiun were with me. A minute or two of Ung Poetry would be enough to convince you of almost anything, as long as it got him to shut up. Not that I'd allow him to recite any at you, except in a dire emergency. There are some measures I'm just not willing to take."

"Wait," Brother Pete said. "Who is Chiun?"

"He would probably tell you," Diana said, "that he is my guide, my mentor, my light on the path to illumination. Either that or he'll tell you he's my babysitter. Depends on what mood he's in, and how recently he's pissed me off enough to cut off his access to his soap operas. In reality, though, he's my watch."

"Your ... watch," Brother Pete said, glancing at the Protectors with a worried expression.

"Yup," Diana said. "My watch. See, Fred builds computers. You know how LifeNet is controlled by an AI? Well, that's its drawback, as David would say. It's only artificially intelligent. Fred's computers are alive. As in, they have souls. In fact, some of them, we've been able to confirm exactly which soul reincarnated into them. Fred's wife's fighter, for instance, is the reincarnation of Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen. And he still has a thing for the color red. No one knows why, not even him." She shook her head. "Anyway, Chiun is a living computer. He's been with me for the last ten years, and if he were here now, it would definitely prove what I'm claiming."

"Yes, it definitely would," Brother Pete said. "But, since he's not here, you can see that we have a problem."

"Not really," Diana said. "I'm not a danger to myself, or to you. Especially not to any of the people in this sad little town. I've agreed to help protect them. I keep my word. Always." She looked down at the coyote with a smile as it shoved its nose into her side. "Yes, you. I'll get you some noms in a bit. Greedy gut." She chuckled and looked back at Brother Pete. "Ever notice how coyotes always seem to have a bottomless stomach?"

"You have to admit," Brother Pete said, "we are in a bit of a quandry."

"Not really," Diana said. "How am I any more strange than, say, that Cleric of Gates down the road, or that Open Book recruiter?"

"You have a point there," Brother Pete said, pursing his lips thoughtfully. "All right. We'll see how things go."

"That's all I ask," Diana said. "Meanwhile, I need to go hunt down some prairie chickens, while I decide how best to tackle the jobs I've been asked to do." She rose to her feet and patted the side of her leg. "Come on, greedy gut. Let's go find you some noms."