Chapter 29: Six Stars at Twilight
By the time that Aurora and Future Libby got back to camp, the rain had abated. The clouds continued their lumbering march into the horizon, and the mountains bathed in the sunset's retreating light. Aurora’s walk was tired but determined as she and Libby arrived at the first of the metal huts.
Jimmy rushed over to meet them, relieved. “Aurora! Libby! Where have you been? We were starting to get worried.”
“Touching,” she said sarcastically, “but you shouldn’t be wasting your energy worrying about me. I just needed some down time.”
“Hmm. Battle fatigue?
“Something like that. Now, where is everyone?”
In response, Nav burst out of one of the tents, swerving and nearly tripping over his gray overcoat. April followed, and the other kids trailed behind her like ducklings.
“Aurora,” cried Nav, pulling on his hair, “they’ve fried my cerebral cortex! I mean…alternate universes? Megalomanium? Time dilation? ULTRALORD? This is killin’ me!”
Aurora crossed her arms and raised a tawny eyebrow. “Aha. I see April gave you a briefing.”
“Hardly!” he shot back. “There was nothing brief about it. This whole thing is ridiculous. I mean, every time I look down I see miniature versions of you and the Dictator scurrying underfoot! He's not too bad – he doesn’t look much like his older self. But you - it’s just plain creepy.”
Aurora clapped a hand over his mouth, hissing in his ear. “Shove a lid on it Nav, someone will hear! Are you really that dense? We’re trying to keep this whole ‘alternate universe’ thing under wraps, remember?”
Nav raised his shoulders in an exaggerated shrug. “Have you no faith in me? I’m wounded, Aurora. But never fear. That Lee character told the villagers that there’s a rogue boar rampaging on the far side of the lake.”
“’That Lee character?’” repeated April, planting a fist on one hip.
“Ya ya. Anyway, the whole camp’s gone out to search for the thing. Lee will make sure they KEEP searching for it for a couple more hours so we can get ourselves in order.”
“In that case,” said Aurora, “we should get down to business ASAP. Are you sure we’re the only ones here?”
“Positive, your majesty,” replied Nav, curtsying.
“As positive as you were the time you insisted that grenade was defused…you know, the one that took off your arm?”
Aurora turned away. “Anyway, before we digress even further, I left some things in the Desperado that I think we’ll need. April, you and I should take Tolly back to the shipyard and pick up everything, because I don’t think we’ll get another chance. Then I’ll need twenty minutes to plan. After that, we’ll meet up here at the fire pit. Take the time to clear your minds and focus yourselves. Every single one of us will need to be prepared if we’re going to make it out of this alive.”
“Aurora,” said Future Libby, “can I come with you an’ April back to the ship?”
“I don’t see why not. Nav, do you think you’re capable of watching the kids while we’re gone?”
“News flash,” said Cindy, “we don’t need to be 'watched'. We’ve taken care of ourselves just fine so far. We’re not infants, you know.”
“OK, let me rephrase. Kids, do you think you’re capable of watching Nav while we’re gone?”
Nav dragged a huge pelt of some kind from inside Bilka's hut and dumped it by the fire, then cast himself onto it with a sigh.
“No worries. I’m sure we’ll keep each other entertained. Maybe I’ll tell them about the time my ship blew up, and I survived by sealing myself inside the refrigerator…”
Aurora rolled her eyes. “God forbid. Let’s get out of here before we hear THAT one again.”
“Aww,” moped April, hanging back. “I kind of like that story…”
The Gorlock woman placed two fingers in her mouth and whistled loudly. An earsplitting shriek pierced the air, and a moment later dirt clods and shredded vegetation erupted from the jungle along with the scaled warthog. The ridge of bristles along its back stood on end, and it bared its yellowed fangs at the group in unrestrained hatred.
“Oh, chill out you stupid animal,” said Aurora, taking the reins.
The warthog bucked, and Aurora struggled to keep her grip. April slammed her fist into the creature’s head, and it quickly ceased its protests. She vaulted onto the animal’s back, and Aurora and Future Libby climbed up behind her.
April waved to Nav. “We will be back soon.”
She dug her heels into Tolly’s sides, and the beast streaked off into the jungle. Nav kicked off his boots, and they sailed through the air and crashed into a pile of kindling. The five kids turned to face the robotic man in unison, their synchronization broken only by the range of expressions crossing their faces. Sheen grinned wildly, Carl seemed distracted by a fly-like creature buzzing around his head. Cindy scanned him from bottom to top, openly and blatantly scornful. Unaware of their attention, Nav fumbled with a couple of screws near the top of his left arm, and it detached from his shoulder.
“Waaaaaahhhhhhh!” screeched Carl. “His arm fell off!”
“Relax, chubby lumpkins. It’s a back-scratcher. See?” He gripped the detached limb in his right hand and demonstrated. “Perfect for those hard-to-reach spots.”
Libby giggled. “You’re a real weirdo, ya know that?”
“I’ll say! You’re my kind of man!” Sheen leaped onto the unidentified pelt as Nav screwed his arm back into place. “You’re like the big brother I never had!”
Nav ruffled Sheen’s spiky hair. “And you’re like the hyperactive, obnoxious little brother that I never had!”
Cindy turned up her nose. “You’re related, all right.”
Nav grinned and patted her head. “Same old grumpy. You’re so cute.”
She closed one eye and squinted up at him with the other, grumbling under her breath.
“So,” said Nav, sitting up. “You’ve all managed to land yourselves in a very strange situation. A child genius with a robotic dog and his friends inadvertently launch themselves into an alternate universe and meet up with their future selves…now THAT’S a new one.”
The smile lines around his mouth receded, and his gray eyes grew sad. He rolled over onto his back and glanced at them, upside down. The firelight danced over his face, which suddenly seemed drawn and tired.
“You all have more power than you think. You kids are dangerous. Scary, isn’t it?”
The gang took half a step back in surprise, and Cindy’s startled expression gave way to a scowl.
“Look who’s talking. You’re the big-shot criminal here.”
“She's right,” said Jimmy. “What is your story anyway?”
“You want the whole thing?”
“Well, it’s a long and convoluted tale, but if you insist…Ahem. It all started 26 years ago on Numeria, when my parents were feeling especially romantic one night…”
Libby waved frantically. “OK! I don’t think we need to go THAT far back. How did you meet April an’ Aurora, and when did you become a…what was it called?”
“Samarkandi?” provided Jimmy.
“There we go.”
“Heh. About that. We met 6 years ago, but I didn’t become one of the Seven Samarkandi until I turned 21. It took some pretty outrageous heists to earn me that status, let me tell you…”
Nav rested his hand on his cheek, his face radiant with hidden thoughts. “Actually, I met Aurora first. The crazy chick blew up my ship after I siphoned off some of her fuel during a reconnaissance mission above some uninhabited planet. I don’t particularly remember the details, considering I was marginally stressed out over the complete and total vaporization of my personal property. But Aurora, being the caring and warm individual that she is, managed to fish me out of the wreckage and take me prisoner.” He laughed lightly before continuing. “Despite the rather hasty circumstances of our introduction, we quickly got to know each other. Well, she got to know me at any rate, considering her effective and rather inventive methods of interrogation. After it became clear to her that I wasn’t a threat, I was given free range of the ship…but was treated with cold indifference. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the so called 'uninhabited planet' had actually been the scene of a massacre just days before. The entire population had just vanished into thin air. Apparently the resistance gave Aurora the task of monitoring the place for the next couple of weeks. Man, I’ve never seen anybody so hell-bent on a mission before. It was intense.”
He shook his head, as if to rid himself of the memory. “At any rate, I found myself cooped up with a stern-eyed, pouty-lipped 15 year old, and being young and rather hormonally charged, I couldn’t help but be completely captivated by her. Her strength, her resolve, and that air of wistfulness that lay under all her actions…ah! She was almost mystical. And of course it didn’t help that she was practically the world’s most dangerous pilot. I was totally head over heels.”
He heaved a sigh, and Jimmy seized the opportunity to object. “Wait a second!...”
“No, no,” insisted Nav, stopping him in mid-protest. “Let me finish before you ask questions, or I’ll just have to repeat myself. Anyway, it soon became blindingly clear to me that Aurora was – how shall I put it – unavailable. Meaning she punched me full in the face when I tried to put a move on her. The only thing she cared about was her mission…her all-consuming desire for revenge. Even now, it's what motivates her. She won’t stop until she either kills him or she has him. It’s like the two of them are joined by some sort of twisted, mutually destructive bond. I just can’t understand it…”
His gaze wandered off into the distance. Finally he forced a smile. “Aurora was the one who introduced me to April. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight. When we first met, she was a lanky, oppositional teenager with a killer right hook and perpetual helmet-hair. Frankly, I didn’t know what to make of her. Yet, as time passed, I found myself spending more and more time with her. We consistently ran into each other on missions, and when I wasn’t stealing my weight in priceless artifacts, I was passing the time in her company. I could act like a total idiot around her, and she wouldn’t hold it against me. And when I got myself into more trouble than I could handle, she was the one who bailed me out. I came to rely on her in a way I had never relied on anyone. So I guess you could say that Aurora was the one who brought me into all of this, but April was the one who kept me here.”
Libby didn’t bother to hide her satisfied smile. “I thought there was somethin’ funny going on between you an’ Aurora.”
“Key word there: was. And it was always one-sided, so it doesn’t really matter. Still, don’t bring it up around April…the subject’s always been a bit touchy.”
April’s voice came out of nowhere. “Don’t bring up what around me?”
“That I think you should grow your hair out longer,” Nav answered smoothly.
April emerged from the foliage, leading Tolly by the reins. “Ugh, Nav, we’ve been over this. Long hair is a sign of rank; I can’t just grow it out anytime I please.”
“Then you’ll just have to kick some serious backside and rise up in the ranks.”
April smiled in response, and Future Libby jumped down from Tolly. Aurora followed, carrying dozens of papers, maps, logbooks and scrolls. She headed over to a flat rock beside the fire pit, and the others gathered around her.
“What are those?” asked Jimmy.
“What do they look like? They’re my case files…they contain all the information that I’ve collected on the Dictator over the past ten years. They’re the key to our battle strategy.”
He scratched his head. “If you don’t mind my asking…Why so primitive? This is the future. Shouldn’t all that data be categorized and put onto some high-tech hand held device so you can easily access the files? You know, criminal profile, fortress schematics…that kind of thing.”
She slammed the whole pile down onto the rock, then wiped the sweat off her forehead.“Nothing digital is safe. Anything that’s on a computer can be hacked. The second this stuff gets converted into binary, it's easy prey…it wouldn’t take more than a few minutes for DJ to zap every last 1 and 0...”
She trailed off, then dropped her face into her palm. “Oh God...now I'm saying it too...”
“Aha!” exulted Sheen. “Victory at last! The DJ revolution cannot be stopped!”
“Anyway,” she continued forcibly, “even if he didn't zap the data, somebody else could hack into the files and steal all the information that I've risked my life to obtain. These days, paper is a lot safer than computers. The things written here are for my eyes only. I have more accurate information about his habits, his past record, and his base than the Galactic Police and the Gorlock High Council combined.”
She leaned forward and rested her head in her hands. “Ugh, and now I’ve only got a few hours to cram ten years worth of notes into your heads.” She paused for a moment, then took a deep breath and began. “Dictator Jimmy’s fortress is located on P24-505, an uninhabited planet on the far edge of the spiral arm. The planet is covered in a shallow, warm ocean that extends across its entire surface. There are no land masses.”
Jimmy frowned. “But then how…”
“The Dictator’s fortress is under water. The structure is submerged 100 feet beneath the surface of the tropical sea. The water adds an extra layer of protection and makes infiltration difficult, since most spacecraft aren’t waterproof and few intelligent life-forms can breathe under water. It also protects against remote gunfire for those who actually manage to breach the global defense system.”
“Wow,” marveled Libby, “a fortress hidden under the water. Kind of like the lost city of Atlantis. Except, you know...evil.”
Aurora fiddled with the tiny communicator on her wrist, and a holographic image of the planet sprung to life. “This is a 3-D representation of P24-505 from the Galactic Planetary Database. As you can see, there are no moons, and the absence of a tide makes the ocean very different from Earth’s. Little is known about the creatures that live there…the only documented organisms are some phytoplankton, a few species of jellyfish, and a predatory animal that resembles a giant Planarian.”
“Pla-whatywhat?” said Sheen.
“Planarian…” corrected Jimmy. “It’s a microscopic organism found on Earth. But that’s not important. Please, go on…”
“There are two distinct levels of security surrounding the base. The first is the global – or orbital – defense system. As its name implies, the orbital system extends from the exosphere and out a million miles in all directions, completely surrounding the planet.” She chose a scroll from the pile and unfurled it. The diagram inside, which was sketched in red and blue pen, showed the outline of the planet and a mesh-like shield around it. “The mesh sphere you see represents the orbital defense. First off, there’s a tightly-packed, magnetized minefield which is designed to prevent large ships or fleets of ships from getting close. Interspersed in the mine field are dozens of artificially generated, miniature black holes. The Dictator controls them by partially shifting them into another dimension. They only suck in matter if their trans-dimensional generator is disabled – which happens when a spacecraft gets too close. The only way to get through the field is with a few very small ships and some intense maneuvering.”
She closed the scroll, then selected another one. This one contained a drawing of an odd machine shaped like the tip of an arrow. “As you make your way through the minefield, you have to deal with these little buggers. I call them seeker drones. They continually circle the planet in erratic orbits as they monitor the nearby space for any thermal or nuclear signatures that might indicate the presence of a ship. Once a drone detects an invader, it changes direction and heads for the source in exactly the same manner as a heat-seeking missile. If it hits you, it’s curtains for everybody.”
She tossed aside the diagram and fished out a piece of paper from one of the folders. She opened it, revealing a detailed depiction of an elegant, deadly-looking spaceship. “This is perhaps the most dangerous part of the orbital defense system. This is the Dictator’s personal spacecraft, the Half Life.”
“Half Life?” repeated Cindy.
Aurora nodded. “The name has a double meaning. It refers to the property of nuclear decay in radioactive isotopes, but at the same time hints at the untimely death of its victims. Some people have theorized that “Half Life” could be an ironic statement on the part of the Dictator about his own existence, but I doubt it. At any rate, the ship orbits the planet right near the exosphere and can pinpoint a speck of dust approaching if it needs to. The Half Life has destroyed whole planets, so it should be…interesting trying to slip by undetected.”
She replaced the drawing inside the folder, then paused to stretch her arms. “Any questions before we move on to the internal defense system?”
Her audience stared back at her in stunned silence.
“Good. Because the internal defense is infinitely more complex than the orbital.”
Jimmy let out a small moan. “You can’t be serious. How are we going to pull this off?”
“Can it, Neutron,” snapped Cindy. “It was your big brain that got everyone into this mess in the first place, and it’ll take your big brain to get us out again.”
Aurora removed a tattered sheet from among the others. It contained a messily-drawn schematic labeled with scribbled notes and mathematical symbols. The structure depicted vaguely resembled an asymmetrical, five-pointed snowflake.
“This is what the actual base looks like. Well, it’s an approximation at any rate. I had to draw it from memory, so it’s a bit incomplete. Let me explain the layout. The base consists of a central ‘hub’ with five self-contained arms branching off of it. The five arms are labeled sectors 1-5.” She indicated the uppermost point of the star-shaped building. “This is sector 1, and it contains the Dictator’s personal quarters and an extensive laboratory. Continuing clockwise around the base are sectors 2-5. Sector 2 has two levels. The lower level contains the prison, and the upper level contains a secondary lab for…live experimentation. Sector 3 was incomplete at the time I was held captive. I have no idea what it’s being used for now. Sector 4 consists of the armory and munitions bunker as well as extensive storage. Sector 5 was apparently part of some sort of large scale experiment at one point, but I think it’s since been shut down or converted. Then again, I could be wrong. I’ve never actually been to Sector 5 myself, so it’s anyone’s guess. The security seems to be most lax in this area, however, which will factor into our plan.”
“What exactly is our plan?” asked Cindy.
“Hold on, I’m getting to that. But first, a little more on internal security. Each sector can be remotely sealed off from the main control room and the other sectors, which prevents potential intruders from moving freely about the base. The only way to get into the main control room is with a DNA scan, retina scan, voice match, and password combination. Fortunately, our goal isn’t to infiltrate the main control room. All we have to do is get close enough to the Dictator to administer the antidote, and then get the heck out of there.”
“What ‘bout Sheen?” asked Future Libby. “Or Carl for that matter? And suppose there are other prisoners bein’ kept there? We can’t just leave them.”
“That does complicate things a little, but we’ll just have to figure that out as we go. The main problem is going to be surviving long enough to meet Dictator Jimmy in person. The base is crawling with robotic soldiers, programmed to kill anyone who might be a threat. There are gun turrets located around key entrances, and if our luck is bad, we might run into all sorts of other nasties. I have no idea what kind of new stuff he’s invented in the three years since my capture. He’s been fairly dormant lately in terms of attacks, so that can’t be good for us.”
Jimmy frowned again. “I don’t get it, Aurora. With that kind of security and no previous knowledge of the base, how on earth did you manage to escape the first time?”
Everyone looked at Aurora expectantly, and she sighed. “I promised I’d never tell anyone, in case word somehow got back to the Dictator, but I guess it can’t do much harm to tell you now. The truth is, I never could have gotten away by myself…it was Carl who helped me escape. If it weren’t for him, I’d still be in that prison, or worse.”
They all stared at her in surprise. Carl’s eyes seemed to twinkle as he looked up at her.
“Wow!” he exulted. “I’m a hero!”
Nav looked impressed. “Wow, and this whole time I thought he was just a spineless coward. Who knew.”
“It’s not important,” cut off Aurora. “We need to get back on topic…each of you has a vital role in the plan, and you need to know it. So here we go.”
The group leaned in, all eyes fixed on their leader.
“The first hurdle will be leaving Planet Gorlock undetected. Now that the Council knows of our plan, they’ll be carefully monitoring me to make sure we don’t try anything funny. That means we won’t be able to take the Desperado without arousing suspicion. Luckily, Nav has provided a solution.”
“I’m scheduled to leave tomorrow in my ship, the Shahada,” he said, “so its sudden departure won’t attract any attention. Granted, it’s a bit of a junk heap, but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it’s equipped with a hyperdrive, which we’ll need to get to the Dictator’s planet. Of course, it won’t do us much good after that, considering that the Dictator's entire defense was designed to prevent big ships like the Shahada from getting close. Luckily, I recently…how do I put this? ...'liberated' a few small fighter craft from their original owners, and they’re sitting in the cargo bay this very minute. We’ll leave the Shahada in distant orbit and hop into the fighters, then work our way through the orbital defense, through the atmosphere, and down to sea level. That is…provided we don’t get blown to smithereens by the mines, sucked into a black hole, pulverized by the seeker drones, or incinerated by the Half Life.”
“A comforting thought,” said Jimmy sarcastically. “Thanks.”
“Wait,” said Future Libby. “If the surface is all water, how are we gonna land? How are we gonna get into the base for that matter?”
“Actually,” said Aurora, “I was hoping Jimmy could help come up with a solution. Neutron?”
Sheen waved his hand around in the air. “Oh! Pick me! Over here! Right here! I HAVE AN IDEA!”
Aurora rubbed her temples. “All right Sheen, what is it…”
“OK, are you ready? Here it is…We’ll chew gum!!”
Before anyone could accuse Sheen of ultimate stupidity, Jimmy’s eyes lit up.
“No, wait! I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Sheen’s right! I completely forgot about my Neutronic Air Gum. When chewed, the gum temporarily allows you to breathe and speak underwater, as well as tolerate extreme pressure. It’s perfect for the sort of diving we’ll need to do to get down to the Dictator’s base.”
Cindy reeled back in shock. “Whoa, you mean…Sheen actually came up with a GOOD idea?”
Everyone gasped in unison.
“Wow,” beamed Libby, “if things keep goin’ like this, we might actually be able to pull this off!” She looked over at Sheen, who had picked up what appeared to be a shriveled raisin from the ground and was licking it tentatively. “…On second thought, we’re all doomed. “
“Yup,” agreed Cindy.
Jimmy nodded. “Pretty much.”
Aurora ignored the running commentary. “The seating arrangements in the fighters are as follows: I will pilot craft 1, and Jimmy and young Libby will accompany me in the back seats. April will pilot craft 2, and her passengers will be Cindy and my Libby. Nav will handle craft 3, and Sheen and Carl will go with him. Got it?”
“Once we've reached the surface of the ocean, we'll jump ship and swim down to the base. We’re not any bigger than the local aquatic life, and without generating any kind of EM signal, I don’t think his sensors will freak out when we get close.”
“Aurora,” said April, “how will we get into the base?”
“Ah, yes. Here comes the fun part. There are a series of water-filled ducts that run throughout the walls of the entire building. They’re designed to equalize the pressure between the interior and the surrounding ocean. There are three separate openings that suck water into the aqueducts and circulate it. We’ll split up into three groups and enter through the openings. Libby is coming with me. April and Nav will go together, and you kids will be the final group.”
“By ourselves?” asked Carl.
“I’m not going to make the mistake of underestimating you. I remember the kinds of things we used to pull off when we were kids. You’ve rescued your parents from aliens, defeated insane villains, saved the town from natural disasters…you can handle it.”
“I guess…” mumbled Cindy.
Aurora looked her straight in the eye. “Not only can you handle it, but you’ve GOT to handle it. You’re the trump card to this whole plan. The Dictator doesn’t know you exist, and he certainly won’t be expecting you. You also have another advantage: Jimmy’s mind…and his DNA. Jimmy, because your genetic code matches the Dictator’s, the weapons won’t fire on you, and you’ll probably be able to use most of his technology. It’ll be up to you to keep the others safe.”
Jimmy swallowed audibly.
“However, we still have one final problem, one glitch in the plan… Lady Jaya took the third vial of antidote, which means one group will have to go in without it. If the Dictator catches them, there won't be much they can do.”
“If I stayed up tonight, I could probably figure something out…” offered Jimmy.
“No. You haven’t slept in God knows how long. You need to be rested so you can focus tomorrow. There must be another way…”
“C-Can I help?” came a voice from somewhere nearby.
April immediately pulled out her gun. “Who’s there? Show yourself!”
Whimpers emanated from behind a pile of firewood, and Nav dove toward the sound. His foot caught on a stump and he crashed headfirst into the woodpile, sending logs and shards of bark flying in all directions. When the dust settled, he held a squirming Gorlock child in his arms.
“Let me go, please! I will not tell, I swear!”
“Wenna??” gasped Future Libby.
“I’m sorry!” cried the girl, tearing up. “I did not mean to listen! I did not want to go after that scary Warthog with the other villagers, so I hid here. I’m sorry! Please don’t hit me!”
Nav patted her head awkwardly, and April pointed the gun at her.
“Pathetic child! I should…”
Future Libby silenced April with a wave of her hand. She approached the young Gorlock with smiles and reassurances. “Wenna, it’s me, remember? I'm not angry at you, but you can’t tell anyone what you just heard, OK? Cause otherwise all of us will get really hurt, and I won’t be able to come back and see you again. OK? Promise?”
“I-I’m s-sorry!” Wenna sniffled. “I won’t tell! Promise!”
“There’s a good girl!”
A twig snapped in the woods nearby, and April whirled around and fired three shots into the night. Wenna covered her ears and buried her face against Nav’s chest.
Aurora lowered her voice. “April, what was it?”
“I cannot tell…but I think I see something moving…”
A figure walked out of the smoke cloud, the firelight glinting off her sharpened fangs. The sparks from the fire fluttered past her face, and their dancing reflections were the only indication of the triumph hidden in the shadow of her helmet.
“You may have convinced my weak-minded sister to keep her mouth shut,” proclaimed Nakki, “but will not be so easily silenced! I am going to Lady Jaya. I am going to tell everyone about your plan. Pathetic, ungrateful traitors! You will not go unpunished!”
She sprinted off toward the forest.
“Stop her!” shouted Aurora. “If she gets away, we’re as good as finished!”
April fired two shots into the canopy, and a huge branch crashed to the ground, cutting off Nakki’s escape route. Before Nakki had time to react, Nav materialized behind her and slipped one hand over her mouth. She kicked and squirmed violently, but he held her fast.
“Phew,” exhaled Nav. “That was a close one. Hey, what are you…?”
Nakki bit down hard on his hand, then yelped in pain.
“Won’t work, knucklehead,” he said, knocking on her cranium. “My hand isn’t real.”
Aurora stormed over and glared down at him angrily. “Nav, this is a disaster. I thought you said you checked the area!”
“I did! How was I supposed to know these two kids were hiding out in a woodpile?”
“Idiot! Now what are we going to do? It was bad enough when just Wenna knew about this, now this little brat too? We can’t count on her to keep her mouth shut!”
“Well don’t look at me!” he said defensively. “I’m not going to do it! I make a point of not hurting kids, remember? Especially girls!”
“Dammit Nav, your condescending morality really ticks me off sometimes! Fine…I'll do it!”
“Do what, Aurora?” asked Future Libby. “What are you talking about?”
“It’s standard Gorlock procedure,” she replied darkly. “Eavesdroppers have their tongues cut out. Obviously we can’t do that to a kid, so we’ll just have to burn her tongue so she can’t talk for a few weeks. It's no big deal; it'll heal eventually.”
“Aurora!” exclaimed Future Libby. “You can’t be serious! She’s just a child!”
“Well then what do you suggest we do? If she tells them before we leave, we’re done for, and so is our plan! I wouldn’t feel right about killing a kid, but short of that, rendering her unable to speak is the only other option!”
“Can’t we just tie them up or somethin’? You know, until after we’ve left?”
“And what if one of them escapes? Should the price of your compassion be all of our necks?”
“But if we go around hurtin’ kids, we’ll be no better than criminals ourselves!”
Aurora whirled to face her friend. “That’s just it - we ARE criminals! All three of us! Nav, April, and me. I’ve led a very different life from you, Libby. It’s us or them, kill or be killed. So unless you have a better idea, I’m going to stick to that credo!”
Future Libby looked distraught for a moment, then Jimmy stepped forward and gripped her arm.
“Aurora, this is wrong,” he said firmly. “If you stopped to think about it for a minute, you'd realize.”
Cindy nodded. “Granted, she’s a nasty little kid who probably deserves to get some sense beaten into her. But jeez, burning her tongue? You’re being a little bit radical here, even for me.”
“Listen,” offered Jimmy soothingly. “Goddard’s batteries are almost drained, but I think I have just enough juice to run a memory wipe on the two of them. They won’t remember anything that happened in the last twenty minutes. It's not foolproof, but at least it's humane.”
Aurora turned away, her expression savage. “Fine! Do whatever you want. I don’t care. Just do it quickly, and then get them out of my sight.”
She stalked off in a temper, and Sheen scuffled his feet against the ground. “...Now wouldn't be a good time to say that I really have to use the bathroom, would it?”
Twenty minutes later, Cindy, Libby, Carl, and Sheen were sitting around the campfire, each lost in the privacy of their own thoughts. Jimmy approached out of the night’s yawning darkness, and he heaved a tired sigh as he slumped down next to Libby.
“Well, that’s taken care of…” He stretched loudly to cover the silence that followed. “…So, uh…what’s everyone doing?”
“Just thinkin’ about stuff…” Libby’s gaze wandered skyward, and after a pause she pointed up at a patch of nameless stars twinkling through a break in the cloud cover. Their light played over her face, reaching her only now, after having traveled billions of years through the endlessness of space. “Look! Six stars! ...One for each of us, if you count Goddard.” Her words faded, and there was another pause. “So, uh…where is Goddard anyway?” asked Libby.
Jimmy shrugged. “Nav let me hook him up to a power outlet on the Shahada. His battery’s charging as we speak.”
“And where's Nav?” inquired Cindy.
Jimmy cleared his throat. “Um…I think he and April went off together somewhere…”
Grinning nastily, Sheen leaned over and elbowed Cindy. “I bet there’s gonna be a lot of Gorlockan trust-sealing tonight, eh? Eh?” He elbowed her some more, and she swatted his arm away.
“Get a grip, Sheen! This might be the last night they get to spend together. Show a little respect, will ya?”
Silence took hold again, and the group shifted uncomfortably. Jimmy gazed into the fire, and its its searing orange color reflected in his eyes.
“It’s kind of sobering, contemplating the possibility of your own death, isn’t it?”
Cindy and Libby looked up at Jimmy in surprise, but nobody answered. At last Cindy spoke.
“I guess it’s just…never mind.”
“Well, it’s just…we’ve never had to sit around and think about it before. All the other times we faced danger, we were always caught up in the heat of the moment. Things happened so fast, there wasn’t time to sit around and think about what might happen. It’s this waiting that’s the worst. I can’t stand it. I just want it to be over with.”
The flames spiraled lower, flickering as they performed their final dance over the embers.
Carl joined the conversation in a small voice. “Do you…do you really think something bad will happen tomorrow? …That one of us might…you know…?”
“You can’t think like that, Carl,” urged Libby. “It’ll just get you down. Whatever happens, happens. Sittin’ around thinkin’ about it won’t make it any better. So just concentrate on somethin’ else.”
“That’s easy to say, Libs,” countered Cindy. “But you know darn well we’re still gonna think about it anyway.”
Sheen poked the fire absently. “Do you think there’s Ultralord in heaven?”
Libby smiled. “For you Sheen, I’m sure there is. Video games too, and awesome music 24/7. And mountains of candy, and all the Purple Flurp you can drink…”
Sheen’s worried expression morphed into a grin. “Then what the heck are we waiting for? Who’s got some arsenic?”
“Sheen, that’s not funny,” said Jimmy sternly.
Jimmy looked lost for a moment. “You know,” he began pensively, “all my life I’ve subscribed to an orderly, logical, and scientific worldview. Science means everything to me. But at times like this, I almost wish…”
He swiveled his head to look away, but Cindy caught his gaze before he could turn.
“You almost wish what?”
“No, what do you wish?”
“I don’t know…that I could share Libby’s views on the afterlife, I guess.”
“Why?” asked Cindy. “What do you think happens when we die?”
“Well, to be honest…nothing.”
“Ya,” he said, shifting a little. “I mean, we’re just organisms like everything else. When we die, we biodegrade and then there’s just…nothing.”
“I don’t like your heaven too much Jimmy,” said Carl.
“It’s not heaven, Carl. It’s not anything.”
Libby looked skyward. “Well, I think there’s more to it than that. And if you ever need proof, just look up there – up at the night sky. What do you see?”
“Empty space interspersed with pockets of matter,” he answered dully.
“No, I mean, what do you see? When you think about all those countless stars...if you really stop to think about just how vast the universe is, you realize that we’re a part of somethin’ so much bigger, somethin’ so amazing and beautiful that we can’t even hope to understand it.”
Jimmy smiled sadly. “I hope you’re right, Libby.”
The silence seemed to stretch on for an eternity.
“Hey…guys?” said Carl at last. “Do you think that when, well, you know…when we die and everything…that we’ll end up somewhere where we can be together? Heaven just wouldn’t be heaven without all of you.”
Cindy, Libby, Sheen, and Jimmy did their best to hide the wide array of emotions that they felt at these words.
“Jeez…” muttered Cindy.
Jimmy rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. “Well, guys, whatever happens tomorrow, I just want you to know that…ah boy, how do I say this? Maybe there is something more to all of this, but if there isn’t, well…I’m glad I got to be here while I did.”
“Me too,” smiled Cindy.
The two of them beamed at each other, enmity temporarily forgotten.
“Wow,” said Libby, “I wish we had wine glasses or somethin’…an occasion like this calls for a toast. Maybe we could pretend?”
The others nodded, and they each wrapped their fingers around an imaginary glass. After some brief hesitation, Libby raised hers, and the others followed her example.
“I feel totally ridiculous…” grumbled Cindy.
“Shh!” said Jimmy.
Libby started the toast. “Ahem! Here’s to friends…”
“…and to all our adventures!” added Sheen.
“Here’s to new beginnings…” said Cindy.
“…and to getting home safe again,” finished Carl.
Jimmy raised his solemnly. “Here’s to whatever happens next…”
They ceremoniously drank the emptiness from imaginary cups, and lost themselves in a warm glow that real wine could never produce. Sadly, the moment was utterly ruined when Sheen burped loudly and tossed the pretend glass over his shoulder.
“Well,” he belted out, stretching, “that was the deepest conversation I’ve ever had. I feel a mother headache coming on. What I need right about now is a ten pound bag of sugar and twelve straight hours of video games. That’d get her done.”
Jimmy hung his head. “Maybe we should call it a night.”
“Here here,” said Cindy and Libby simultaneously.
One by one they stood, and Jimmy doused what was left of the fire. The tired group then shuffled into a waiting hut and – from the perspective of the faraway stars – disappeared forever.
-> Chapter 30
The adorable image above comes to you courtesy of Keirin!