Chapter 42: Live Through
Future Jimmy drifted on the edge of consciousness, lost in a haze of shifting shadows and gray pain. A female voice resounded in the emptiness, and he found himself reaching out toward it. Dazed, he floated forward through the fog. Somewhere ahead, the gray changed to white, and he broke the surface, gasping for air…
Future Jimmy blinked, and for a moment the world flashed to life in a panorama of blinding light. His vision faded, and he blinked again; this time, the room swam into view as a collection of fuzzy, jumbled shapes. Fighting nausea and a splitting headache, he tried unsuccessfully to make sense of his thoughts. Numbers, words, images, sounds, and emotions tumbled together in his mind, joining together and breaking apart in meaningless disarray. He attempted to speak, but no words came, so he propped himself up on one elbow and peered out at his surroundings. He was lying on a small hospital bed in what appeared to be a sick bay of some kind. His gaze wandered past the rows of monitors, medical equipment, and empty beds, and stopped when it reached a row of huge windows on the opposite side of the room.
Beyond the glass, a massive star burned with an intensity half divine. Silhouetted against the celestial backdrop was the form of a woman. She stirred at the sound of his movement and turned around to face him, and he felt her hidden stare. At last she stepped forward, and light washed the blackness from her features. He found himself locked in Aurora's gaze, and in an instant all his memories came rushing back to him.
"You're awake…" she commented.
He slumped forward, burying his head in his hands. His eyes strained down through the gaps in his fingers, unseeing, as all the sights and sounds of the past decade overran him. The pleas of his victims echoed in his ears; he could feel their hands seizing him, grabbing for his throat, pulling him down. In a burst of white light, the universe unfolded in his mind – stars, planets, cities, people – and his memories fell through it like rain, each one dealing a blow more excruciating than the last. Open-mouthed, he drew his knees to his chest as unspeakable horror coursed through his veins.
"I…I killed all those people.”
Aurora didn't respond. After a pause she moved forward, her footsteps echoing into space as she cleared the distance between them. She came to a stop next to his bedside and stood there, motionless. He looked up, and she found herself staring into bottomless, haunted eyes, the torment within them bordering on madness.
"I destroyed all those lives. I murdered my own family… Oh my God…" He covered his face again, his entire body clenched in turmoil. Suddenly his eyes snapped open, and he straightened and whirled to face Aurora. "I killed your parents, took away everything you ever knew. I stole your best friend and left you to die. I captured you on your eighteenth birthday and chained you up like an animal in a cell, and then I…Oh God…"
She regarded him coolly, scanning him from bottom to top. He stared back, lips trembling, his expression panicked.
When she didn't respond, he sprung up, offering his wrists. "What are you waiting for? Kill me! Please, you have to be the one to do it!"
"Calm down. You've been in a coma for the past 12 hours. The feelings of shock and agitation are normal."
He gaped at her. "Normal? What are you talking about? How can you stand there and speak to me so calmly? After what I did to you, you should torture me, humiliate me, make me pay…"
Aurora looked him square in the eye. "I didn't kill you before, and I won't kill you now. I didn't risk my life and sacrifice my career to save you just so you could die on me now. I have a different kind of justice in mind for you."
"You're…protecting me? Aurora! You can't! I have to die. I have to pay for what I did. All those people…they need justice!"
"I'm not protecting you. Calm down and I'll explain."
He backed away from her. "No...This is wrong!"
"Don't try anything stupid, Neutron…" she said warily.
"No…this isn't right…I can't get off this easily…" Future Jimmy's gaze shifted over to the tray of sharp medical implements on the nightstand next to the bed. "An existence as depraved as mine cannot be allowed to continue!"
He lunged for the scalpel sitting on the tray, but she anticipated his action and intercepted him. The tray clattered to the floor, and killing shards of silver clinked against the tile and spun off into the far corners of the room. Aurora crashed onto the bed as she wrestled him for control of the scalpel. After a long, soundless struggle, she wrenched it free and slammed him against the headboard, pinning his body beneath hers. She raised the scalpel threateningly, every muscle quaking as she tightened her other hand around his throat.
"Kill me," he urged. "Do it now!"
She bit her lip, expression unbearable.
"Kill me!" he shouted.
Aurora shoved him violently against the headboard for a second time, then grabbed him by his suit-collar and hoisted him upright. She held his face inches away from hers, expression twisted in anger.
"Are you such a coward that you're going to take the easy way out?" she asked. "Just kill yourself rather than face up to what you've done?"
"After what I've done, I don't deserve to live! And if you won't deal me justice, then I will. You can't stop me!"
In response, he raised a finger and put it against the side of his head. "This suit's power is every bit as good as a gun. And if I purposely inflict damage, my healing abilities won't activate. One shot and it'll all be over."
Aurora swung her free arm down, holding the scalpel against her own throat. She stared down at him wildly, a desperate challenge written on her face. "If you shoot yourself, I'll kill myself too. Look into my eyes. I'll do it. You know I will. Do you really want another death on your conscience? MY death?"
They stared fiercely at one another, each waiting for the other to back down. At last Future Jimmy's expression changed, and he lowered his hand. As his desperation drained away, his features sank into puzzled resignation.
"Why are you doing this?" he muttered weakly. "I don't understand…"
She threw him back against the headboard, still leering down at him. "I told you I wasn't going to let you die, and I meant it," she said coldly. "Justice will be served, but not by your death. You're going to live – and you're going to atone for what you've done. You're going to rebuild what you've destroyed and fix what you've broken. For every life you've taken, you're going to make sure one is saved. For every crime you've committed, you're going to stop one from happening. Only you can reverse the damage you've done, Neutron. And I'm going to make sure that you spend every waking moment, from now until the day you die, making the universe a better place for everyone. I don't care who or what gets in our way – I won't stop until we've evened the score. Got it?"
He held the spot on his throat where her hand had been. She leaned forward, fist clenched threateningly, and repeated her words.
He shrank back with a nod. Several moments passed before he spoke again. "You're…right," he said gradually. "Suicide would be taking the easy way out. I should have to live with what I've done. I can never fully make amends, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't try."
She relaxed, then eased herself off him and sat back on her heels. He traced his finger along a crease in the blankets, avoiding eye contact. At last he spoke in a small voice.
"What should I do, Aurora? How can I even begin?"
"You're going to start by explaining something to me," she said. "I've got the right to know. Why me, Jimmy? Why was I your target? There HAS to be a reason. Don't give me any of that crap about testing your limitations and purging your weaknesses. It's much more personal than that. So tell me, Neutron, why did you come after me? That day, back on Earth…that day, in the prison cell…why?"
"I…I don't know if I can explain."
He looked away. "Being controlled by the megalomanium was…I don't know how to put it into words. It was like…there were two of me, living in the same body. Well, to be more precise, there was me, and then there was him."
Aurora watched him, the lines of her face thrown into sharp relief by the filtered blue light of the sun.
"He had complete and total control," continued Future Jimmy. "I was an observer in my own body – locked in a cage and unable to act. At first, when I was initially exposed to the Megalomanium, I tried to fight back. That day in Retroville, when I came to see you…you remember, right? I tried to overpower him. That was a mistake. He reacted much more strongly than I'd expected – and after that, the real me was completely sealed away. He left you to languish and die on Earth, and I became a prisoner in my own mind, confined by an enemy who was and yet wasn't me. I was paralyzed, forced to witness my own transformation into something I abhorred."
He paused to bury his head against his knees.
"It took nearly two years before he let his guard down enough for me to regain any hold over my own actions. But my time in silence wasn't wasted. I may not have been able to act during those two years, but I watched intently. I came to understand his motivations, the way he thought and the way he behaved. I knew I couldn't challenge him directly – if I did, he'd simply shut me down again. So, instead, I set out on the slow, systematic process of manipulating my other side. The deceit had to be sustained perfectly at all times. Even one unguarded thought could ruin everything. When your enemy is inside your mind with you, when your enemy is you, every second of every day…I can't even describe it. It's like being locked in a never-ending game of chess with an unbeatable opponent who knows what you're going to do before you do it."
He took a deep breath.
"The only way to manipulate him was to become him, to tell him only what he wanted to hear. I asked to watch him work, to observe as he committed atrocities. I watched myself perpetrate unthinkable crimes. I forced myself to let the thrill of power wash over me, to drink in the adrenaline rush. To breathe in the screams like oxygen. It took every ounce of willpower and focus I possessed not to recoil in horror at what I saw – or worse yet, succumb to its allure. For years I kept it up, slowly testing his boundaries, finding new ways to influence my own actions. Subtly, covertly, I worked toward implementing my plan."
"Your plan?" echoed Aurora.
He nodded. "Through sadism, I was able to achieve some measure of autonomy. I whispered to him, told him to keep you alive. I described all the ways that we could make you suffer. And he loved it. He thrived on the power dynamic between you and I. Watching you struggle, utterly powerless…it was so exhilarating."
The lines of Aurora's mouth drew tighter, but she remained silent.
"But I had a different motivation," he went on. "You may find this difficult to believe, but it was ME who captured you on your eighteenth birthday, and it was me who allowed you to escape. In the prison cell…that was me too. It was horrible and unforgivable, but I needed to make you suffer. I had to. I used what I knew about you; I used you. I needed to make you hate me…because I needed you to kill me. I couldn't beat him from within myself, so I picked the person who stood the best chance of being able to. That was my plan from the very beginning…through each action, I worked to bring the two of us closer. It's the reason I've pitted myself against you all these years. I thought that, in the end, you'd be the one to kill me."
He laughed weakly. "It figures that the one thing I counted on, the one thing I took for granted, would prove to be the one thing that didn't happen. You were right back on the planet when you said I'd miscalculated. It never even occurred to me that you wouldn't try to kill me."
"I'm so sorry about Nav,” he said after a remorseful pause. “I wanted to stop myself from killing him, I really did. But if I had interfered, he would have silenced me again. It was a calculated sacrifice. I needed to be there during our fight to make sure that the Dictator went after you. The Dictator would have killed Libby and Sheen on the spot if I hadn't been feeding him all the reasons to make it into a game – to hurt you, to pull you apart, to watch you bleed. The Dictator would have killed all of you. There's no way he would have made the mistakes that he did had I not been bombarding his senses from within. I was so close to succeeding, too. The element of surprise was on my side…I was going to attack him at the last minute, when I had taken you back to the cell and we were alone together. I had it all figured out – what I would have to do to provoke you into firing the kind of shot that would be irreparable. I knew the mental struggle would only last a few minutes, but that would have given you more than enough time to strike the final blow. It would have worked. It should have worked. I should be dead."
Neither of them moved for a moment.
"So…it wasn't really you who was responsible for the Dictator's crimes?" hesitated Aurora. "You were a victim too?"
"No," he insisted. "I was responsible. You don't understand. I've described the situation as if it were a duel between two separate consciousnesses, but in reality, it was much more complicated than that. It's an impossible concept to adequately explain in words. He is me, and I am him. He's still here…only now, since coming in contact with the antidote, we've switched positions. Now I'm the one in control, and he's the one in the cage. But he's still here. I can feel it. And as long as that's the case, I'm a danger to everyone around me."
Aurora gradually turned her face away from him. "Everyone has evil inside them, Neutron," she said quietly. "It's that little voice that whispers into your ear when you're afraid. It tells you to pick on the kid with glasses, or to lie to your parents, or cheat on a test. It's the voice that laughs at other people's pain; it's the rationale that convinces you to turn your back on someone in need. It's the force that squeezes your finger on the trigger. It makes you bloodthirsty, and it turns your own blood cold. It makes it so you don't care about anyone or anything. It steals away your heart and soul and then inhabits the empty places where they once were, until it becomes such a part of you that you can't live without it."
She examined her hands. "Can I tell you something? Once, when I was sixteen, I killed an alien in a bar. I can't even remember why I did it. When I shot him, everyone was running and screaming. I just stood there, covered in his warm blood, waiting to feel something. But I didn't. I killed another sentient being and felt absolutely nothing at all."
She looked up again, and they stared into each other's eyes. "I wasn't arrested because I was part of the resistance. I abused my position and used it to get away with murder. And that's nothing compared to the kinds of things I used to do while I was under orders. After a battle, our squad leader used to line up the captives, and I would walk along the column and shoot them all in the back of the head. Mercenaries, I told myself. Aliens. Their lives don't matter. But that doesn't change the fact that I was killing people. So tell me, Neutron…how are you and I any different? All these years that I've been on this crusade, I've been no better than you. I've only cared about one thing: getting revenge. In my mind, the end always justified the means – and I committed so many crimes with that rationalization in mind."
He shook his head adamantly. "No. Even if you made some mistakes, you were doing the right thing. You had to stop me, Aurora. You were fighting for justice."
"Maybe," she shrugged. "I try to tell myself that sometimes. Still, I can't help feeling like I was fighting for my own personal vendetta. If it hadn't been YOU I was up against…if some random alien had been the one committing acts of genocide across the galaxy, would I have lifted a finger? No. My goal was never to promote the greater good. Like you said, this was about you. It's always been about you."
Her lips broke into a slow grin, and his mouth went dry.
"You know what's funny?" she mused. "You ruin my life, kill billions of people, destroy half the galaxy, and in the end you still turn out to be a better person than me."
She shifted her weight forward and slunk toward him on all fours. He inched away from her, until he was pressed up against the headboard.
"H-h-how am I better than you?"
She didn't answer the question, but merely smiled harder at his reaction. "How does it feel, Neutron? When I was your prisoner, you could do anything you wanted to me. Now the shoe's on the other foot. How does it feel to be completely helpless, to be completely in MY power? Now I control everything that happens to you. I control whether you live or die. Isn't it exhilarating?"
Her words dripped with sarcasm, but underneath there was a glimmer of genuine satisfaction. She laughed as beads of sweat coalesced on his face and neck.
"What's the matter, Neutron? You seem nervous. Power trips aren't quite as much fun when you're not the one enjoying them, are they?"
She slid her hand up the front of his chest, and he looked down at it, open-mouthed. He instinctively grabbed her waist to throw her off, and this reciprocity drove home the sensuality of their situation. Aurora's smile vanished, and she sat up abruptly. Without a word, she extracted herself from her compromising position and swung her feet over the side of the bed. Rising clumsily, she turned her back to him. She yanked off her hair tie and held it in her mouth while she rearranged her ponytail. Future Jimmy stared at the blankets, cheeks burning furiously. Neither dared to speak, and the moment dragged out into a painfully long silence. The tension was broken at long last by a soft knock at the door, and Aurora answered it with relief:
Jimmy poked in his oversized head, and Goddard scurried into the room.
Future Jimmy's eyes widened at the sight. "So I wasn't hallucinating back at the base! I remembered seeing younger versions of us before, but then I assumed it was some sort of psychological after-effect of the antidote. Who is that child? What is he doing here?"
"It's a long story," sighed Aurora, "and one that I'll tell you in detail at a later date. In short, he's a version of you from another universe – a universe where you were never exposed to the megalomanium. The antidote was his idea. Truth be told, you never miscalculated. It never would have occurred to me not to kill you either."
The two geniuses gawked at each other, separated less by distance than by a thousand unspoken deeds. Aurora wasted no time getting right to the point. She put a hand on one hip and leaned against the wall.
"What's this about, Neutron?"
Jimmy shook his head to break the spell. "Uh, right. Goddard woke me up about an hour ago, when he picked up a series of TV broadcasts from a planet at the edge of the system we're currently occupying."
"There's an inhabited planet in this system?" she asked. "How did we miss that?"
Jimmy fidgeted. "Err, we didn't bother to check. I think everyone was too tired. We all just sort of conked out after we made the hyper jump from P24-505."
She looked angry for a moment, then waved it away. "Go on."
"It seems that the entire Galactic Cable Network is abuzz with reports about…well, about us. Lady Jaya must have informed the press about the antidote plan, because now every talk show host and live news anchor in the spiral arm is talking nonstop about it. The media has inflated this into the biggest scandal since…well, I don't even know what. Practically everyone in the entire quadrant with a ship is out looking for us. The Galactic Police are up to their ears in tip calls and sightings. The public is outraged – not because the Dictator once again got off scot-free, but because you were the one who helped him do it."
Aurora pointed at herself. "Me?"
"Yes, you! Anyone with a cable hookup knows about you and the other resistance fighters, Aurora. As we saw back in that repair shop, you're pretty famous. The people thought you were on their side. For the past eight years you've fought for them – and now that you've apparently changed sides, they all feel betrayed. I mean, the story is so sensational, of course the media is having a heyday. They've made you into the traitor of the century. The public wants blood, and they want it now. And I think it would be stating the obvious to say that an angry populace is one of the worst enemies to have in our situation. We might be inside the Half Life, but since we're the good guys now, we can't go around shooting civilians. We're at a tremendous disadvantage."
Aurora showed little reaction, and Jimmy continued. "Goddard, play broadcast 5."
Goddard gave two answering barks, then opened his mouth and projected a video into the air. A female news anchor glowered back from the footage; she was recognizable as a member of Meldar's race.
"We have just received confirmation that the bounty on Aurora Vortex, human female and former ally of the resistance, has been set at 90 trillion debakles," began the alien anchor. A fuzzy picture of Aurora flashed on the upper right hand corner of the screen. "This officially promotes her to the rank of 7th Samarkandi, which was formerly occupied by Numerian master thief Nav Aksha'at, who is valued at 75 trillion. This marks the first time in Galactic history that a female has been counted among the Samarkandi. The decision to add Aurora to the list of the seven most wanted criminals was made after a tribunal of high-ranking officials determined that, in light of her uniquely dangerous abilities, access to deadly technology, and connections to underworld criminal organizations, she poses more of a threat to society than the former 7th Samarkandi. We here at Grebb News Channel 8,765,033 will keep you posted on the situation as it develops. Please stay tuned after these messages…"
Goddard clamped his jaw shut, ending the video. Jimmy again waited for some sort of reaction, and when she merely met his eyes levelly, he stepped forward in entreaty.
"Well?" he prompted. "Aren't you upset?"
"It was not entirely unexpected."
"What do you mean, 'not entirely unexpected'? Don't you realize what this means? The lives of everyone aboard this ship are now in jeopardy! We can't stay here, Aurora, and you have nowhere that will take you in! Don't you understand? You're going to spend the rest of your life on the run! You'll never be able to stop looking over your shoulder, never be able let your guard down. You'll never have a home again!"
He punctuated this insensitive outburst with a sweeping gesture. Future Jimmy cringed in the background, but Aurora remained unaffected.
"You're overreacting," she remarked. "I haven't had a home in years, Neutron. Besides, I knew something like this was going to happen from the very beginning. It's the price I'll have to pay for acting according to my own convictions – haha, or rather, your convictions. Either way, don't pity me because of the choices I've made in my life. I deserve whatever comes my way."
Jimmy bit his lip, close to tears. "Aurora…"
Her expression softened a little, and she leaned forward and placed her hands on his shoulders. For the first time since they met, she spoke to him with genuine kindness in her voice.
"Don't feel bad, Jimmy. If it weren't for you, I never would have been reunited with Libby at all. The Dictator and I probably would've killed one another, and there's no telling what would have happened to April and Nav. I could never have brought myself to say this before, but thank you. You've given me a second chance."
"It just seems so unfair, you know? I mean, you just found Libby after all these years, and now you're going to lose her again! And April? What's going to happen between the two of you?"
She retracted her hands and settled back against the wall, breaking eye contact. "I don't know, Neutron. I don't know the answers. I can't figure it all out at once."
Jimmy missed the cue that she had emotionally withdrawn herself from the conversation, and he continued babbling on. "The way I see it, we need to get older Libby and Sheen back to Shangri Llama, April back to Planet Gorlock, and my friends and me back to our home universe. No idea where skinny Carl wants to go, but we have him to consider too. And then there's the matter of Nav's sister, since I assume she's the one who stands to inherit his ship full of contraband..."
Future Jimmy addressed his younger self. "I know this is rather sudden, but if you'll let me, I'd like to help you find a way back to your universe. It's the least I can do. The logistics of travel in the multiverse are a tad complex, however, so we should probably get started as soon as possible."
"Whoa, whoa," broke in Aurora, "let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet, OK? Plus, 'a tad complex'? Seriously? Talk about the understatement of the century."
Jimmy attempted a defense. "I think he meant that –"
"Never mind," she interrupted. "You two will have plenty of opportunity to play mad physicist once we've held a meeting with everyone else. I know you genius types like to run off and do your own thing without informing anyone, but now isn't the time for recklessness. If what you say is true, and citizens across the galaxy have declared open season on this ship, then we need to make some decisions. After we've made a plan, then you guys can get to work on implementing it."
Jimmy and the former Dictator exchanged glances.
"You know," grinned Jimmy. "I don't think I've ever told you this Aurora, but you're kind of awesome. Of course, I'm one step ahead of you. I figured you'd want to fill the others in on what's been happening, so before coming here I told everyone to assemble in the cockpit. Shall we?"
Aurora cuffed him on the head, and he protested with a laugh. "Hey! That's child abuse, you know!"
"Quiet, Thing One," she chastised. "Having you and Thing Two in a room together is just too damn weird. Let's clear out of here before my sense of reality gets any more warped."...
Meanwhile, inside her quarters aboard the Shahada, April sat huddled on her bed with blankets drawn tightly around her. The only source of light in the room was the small laptop that rested on the bedspread just in front of her. The subspace connection light flickered green; Lee's face gazed out at her sympathetically from the rectangular confines of the screen. The voice that issued from the speakers failed to sync with the choppy, low resolution movements of his mouth, but the sentiment contained within it was plain to hear. Lee's eyes grew glassy as she finished up the sad tale of the past 16 hours.
"I am so sorry, April. I am so sorry about Nav."
April buried her face against her knees. "It all happened so fast. Everything has fallen apart. Oh, Lee. I am so lost. I do not know what to do."
"I am so sorry, April. I wish I could remove your suffering and take it upon myself."
"How shameful," she sniffled, wiping her eyes forcefully. "I cannot stop crying. I have not cried since I was an infant. I am sorry you have to see me like this."
"April, you know I would never judge you," he said gently.
She drew her knees tighter against herself. "All of my life, I have been a soldier. I have survived countless battles, seen countless comrades die. So why does this hurt so badly?"
"You have never lost someone so close to you. You loved him, April. There is nothing worse than losing the people you love."
"He was just so…alive, you know? One minute he was there, laughing and cracking jokes, and the next…" She pushed her knuckles hard against her eyes to curtail the renewed flow of tears. She shook, anguish and rage and exhaustion all churning within her. When she spoke again, a snarl danced on the edge of her voice. "I am so angry, Lee. I feel so…betrayed. I know it is not as simple as that. As I told you before, I know that Aurora did what she had to do. I understand why she stopped me from avenging Nav's death – but it does not matter. It does not change the way I feel. I will never be able to look at her the same way again. Why does it have to be that way? After everything we have been through together?"
"Do not feel guilty, April. Your anger and sense of betrayal are perfectly justifiable. You are hurting."
"I just cannot stand the thought of her protecting him. I feel like she chose the Dictator – the man who made her life a living hell – over me, her closest friend. Why did she do that, Lee?"
A fresh stream of tears erupted, and she angrily brushed them away. Lee's sorrowful eyes stared back at her from the other side of the computer screen.
"I feel so discarded, so unimportant. I wish none of this had ever happened. Aurora should have killed him, like we originally planned. Then Nav would still be alive, and the three of us would be being honored as war heroes right now, not hiding out in this patch of nameless space. I am light years away from a home that I cannot return to, on a ship that moment by moment reminds me of everything I have lost. What am I going to do, Lee?"
"You must not despair, April. I have not told you my side of the story yet."
"Wenna and I were able to clear your name."
"What? Wenna? What are you talking about?"
"It is a rather complicated story, but I will attempt to summarize. Lady Jaya learned of your departure shortly after you left, but with Wenna's help I was able to delay the ensuing search long enough to buy you some time. While the guards were occupied, I planted fake evidence to prove that you had been taken by Aurora and the others against your will. I then sabotaged the communications relay in the airship control tower, grounding all ships on our system. By the time the problem was discovered and repaired, you had enough of a head start to guarantee your safe escape."
April sat in shocked silence. Lee held up a bandaged arm and laughed nervously.
"There were a few…incidents along the way," he said, "but it was worth it. I am glad that you are safe."
Her surprise did not abate. "You mean that you…that I will not be held responsible for this? I can…come home?"
"That is precisely what I mean. I staged it so that your father – who as we both know is a highly decorated General and friend of Lady Jaya's – would confirm your innocence. I suggest that you do not worry about the particulars. Let it suffice to say that there is no doubt in his mind or in Lady Jaya's that you are completely innocent. You have been cleared of all charges. You can return home at any time."
"It was the least I could do for you, April. You are my very best friend in the whole world. I would not be able to live with myself if something happened to you."
Her eyes began to water again, but this time with tears of gratitude. "Oh Lee… I will never be able to thank you enough. You do not understand what this means to me. I…I just want to come home. For the first time in my life, I do not want to fight anymore. I just want to come home."
Someone knocked on the door, filling the stillness with a soft rat-a-tat-tat. April threw off the covers, swiftly wiped her eyes, and strengthened her posture before responding.
The door creaked open half an inch, and Future Carl peeked inside. "Um…sorry to bother you but…um…we're having a sort of meeting in the cockpit."
April favored him with a steely glare, and he lowered his gaze.
"I'm sorry about what happened. I hope you can forgive me for the part I played in it."
He shut the door swiftly, and April turned back to the computer screen.
"What is happening?" asked Lee.
"I am not sure. But it seems Aurora is gathering everyone together. Perhaps the Dictator has woken up."
Lee's eyes flashed a little, and April glanced nervously over her shoulder.
"Lee, would you…would it be all right if I brought you with me? It may mean that I am weak, but I cannot abide the thought of going through this alone."
"By all means! Take the computer with you. If anyone so much as threatens one hair on your head, I will hunt them down, rip them limb from limb, and feed their carcass to Tolly."
April smiled a little in spite of her sadness. "You would not last two minutes in a fight against any of them, and you know it. You are an appalling warrior."
"Fair enough," he laughed. "But the sentiment is true nonetheless."
She smiled down at him gratefully. "I know, and I appreciate it, Lee. Thank you."
He rubbed the back of his neck as she scooped up the computer and carried it with her out of the room. She exited the Shahada and made her way out of the cargo bay. April traversed the long passageway to the Half Life's cockpit with as much dignity as she could, holding her head high, dried blood still caked around the gash on her forehead. As she approached the sliding doors that lead into the bridge, she gradually slowed to a halt.
"Go inside," encouraged Lee. "I will be right there with you the whole time."
Taking a deep breath, April stepped in front of the door, and it glided open. She stepped boldly into the room and was greeted by Cindy, Libby, Sheen, and Carl. She breathed a sigh of relief and walked into the center of the cockpit. Future Libby, garbed in a new red chrysanthemum dress, beamed at April from her seat against the far wall. Future Sheen's head rested on her lap, and his sleeping breaths rose and fell peacefully. Future Carl sat by himself in the pilot's chair, looking down at his feet. April glanced around, frowning a little in confusion before setting her laptop down on the control panel.
"So…what is the purpose of this meeting? Is the Dictator not awake after all?"
"I dunno," yawned Libby. "Jimmy called this meetin'. He went to go get Aurora a minute ago. Cindy, Sheen, Carl, an' I just woke up, so we have no idea what's goin' on."
The patter of footsteps echoed from out in the corridor, and April stiffened. She turned to face the door, which slid open a moment later to reveal three harrowing figures. Jimmy strode in first, face tight and determined, with Goddard at his heels. Aurora and Future Jimmy followed behind him. Future Jimmy shuffled forward listlessly, one arm slung around Aurora for support, barely able to carry his own weight. His expression was feeble and drawn, and there were dark circles under both of his downcast eyes. The occupants gaped at him, gripped by a mixture of fear, pity, and fascination. Aurora helped him out into their midst, and they all drew back as if a plague had entered the room. Ignoring their stares, Aurora led Future Jimmy toward the pilot's chair. Future Carl hopped up, clearing the way for the man who had up until twelve hours ago been his sole commander. She eased the former Dictator into the chair, where he slumped into sullen silence.
"I can't believe that's you," whispered Cindy to Jimmy. "He doesn't look anything like you. He's almost... I don't know, pretty. In a creepy, sleep-deprived, sociopathic genius kind of way."
"Well," replied the boy, "ten years of being evil can do that to a – hey, wait a minute. Do I detect an insult in there?"
Cindy crossed her arms. "I'm sorry, Jimmy, did I offend you? Do you want me to tell you that you're pretty too?"
"Err, no, that's not the adjective I would use, but..."
Sheen rested his elbow on Jimmy's shoulder, picking at a piece of food stuck in between his two front teeth. "Don't worry about her, Jimmy. Carl and I think you're pretty – don't we, Carl?"
"H...hwhat –?" guffawed the redhead.
Jimmy smacked his forehead, and Cindy sniggered.
"That's right, Neutron, we're all here for you. Just say the word, and we'll praise you for being the dainty princess that you are."
He jabbed his index finger in her face. "Hey! You're the one who used such an absurd term to describe the Dictator in the first place! That would be like if I turned to you and said "wow, isn't Aurora handsome? She looks nothing like you!" Stop using your idiotic word choice to make fun of me!"
"Haha," chuckled Libby, "he's got you there, Cin."
Cindy's cheeks colored, and Jimmy looked off into space.
"Anyway," he said, "I don't know about you guys, but I've had it with this madness. I want to go back home, where things make sense. Back to where Cindy doesn't shoot flames, Sheen doesn't have tats, Libby wears pants, and Carl is fat."
"Wow" said Cindy, "that is a...surprisingly accurate summation."
Aurora's voice rang out, loud and authoritative, and the kids looked over in her direction. "Circle up, people!" she called. "We have some important items of business to attend to!"
"Her majesty doth summon," winked Cindy. "Come on, you guys. We can argue about stupid stuff later."
They traveled as a group to the center of the room, where Aurora waited, tapping her foot impatiently. Future Libby eased Future Sheen's head off her lap and made her way over to her friend, leaving him to slumber against the wall. Future Carl slunk toward the assembly, and when no one objected to his presence, took a seat next to Future Libby. After a moment he realized that no one else was sitting, and he awkwardly got to his feet again. April joined last of all. She chose the spot next to Future Carl, maintaining a two person buffer between herself and Aurora. Only Future Jimmy remained where he was, doggedly keeping his gaze off the blonde. She ignored his absence and regarded her audience with an expression of wry amusement.
"So,” she said, “fun news everybody: tons of people are trying to kill us! The threat isn't imminent, but it does put us in a bit of a quandary. The way I see it –"
"Come on, chica!" interrupted Sheen. "You can't tell me you're afraid of people trying to kill us when we're on board this mother. Have you seen this ship? It's the Half Life for crying out loud! It's like…BWAHH!"
"Ya, you know! Super huge and powerful! If a bad guy shows up, we can be all like 'Bang zap kaboom' and bingo! No more bad guy." He cupped a hand to his mouth to whisper. "Actually, while we're on the subject, I've been meaning to ask – you think I could get my hands on a couple of those guns? You know, just test 'em out on an asteroid or a small moon or something…"
"Out of the question," was Aurora's clipped reply. "And as far as fighting is concerned, it's not really an option. There are bound to be civilians among our hunters, and since the whole point of stopping the Dictator was to prevent more civvies from being slaughtered, we can't go around blasting our attackers out of the sky."
"This ship has a hyperdrive, doesn't it?" asked Cindy. "Why don't we just jump to safety whenever a threat approaches?"
"That's what we're currently doing, Cindy."
"Then what's the problem?"
"We can't all stay cooped up on the Half Life forever," she answered. "We have lives to get back to. And the sooner we get all of you back to those lives and away from this ship, the better." Their attention heightened, she continued. "Think of what I'm about to tell you as...tying up loose ends. We have quite a few things left to resolve, and not a lot of time left to do it in. So let's cut to the chase, people. First thing's first: we're taking Sheen and Libby back to Shangri-Llama."
"But Aurora, I –" Future Libby broke off. She looked over at Future Sheen where he dozed by the wall, then back at Aurora, and she lowered the finger she had raised in protest.
"As soon as that's taken care of," went on Aurora, "we can turn to item number two – April." Aurora tilted her face to the side and spoke with callous bluntness. "You should probably figure out where you want to go, and what you're going to do with Nav's stuff."
April widened her stance and clenched her fists, and the savagery of her countenance matched Aurora's coldness. "That is fine with me. I have a course of action worked out already. You need not concern yourself with my well-being."
"Don't worry, April," replied Aurora icily. "I know you can take care of yourself."
"Aurora," whispered Future Libby, tugging on her arm, "try to show a little more tact! Why are you being so blasé about this? She just lost her fiancé...there's no need to be cruel."
The blonde disregarded her friend's intervention. "Lastly, and most obviously, we need to figure out how the heck to get you kids back where you came from. Fortunately, we have not one, but two geniuses at our disposal to work out a solution. Here's what I'm thinking..."
As this whole discussion was going on, Future Jimmy remained off to one side, absorbed in his own thoughts. After a time, he noticed the laptop next to him on the control panel. It took a minute for him to realize that the Gorlock face staring back at him from the monitor was actually watching him. Lee and Future Jimmy made eye contact, and the strangeness of the whole situation compelled them both to say something.
"So…" began Future Jimmy.
"So…uh…hi there," replied Lee.
There was a moment of awkward silence. Future Jimmy stared down at his hands, and Lee looked off-screen, fidgeting uncomfortably.
Future Jimmy seized onto the first conversation starter that popped into his head. "So uh…how was your day?"
"Oh, you know," shrugged Lee. "My true love just called me up crying because you killed her true love two months before the wedding. Now I am trying to figure out what to do."
"Oh. I see."
"I feel so selfish for being in love with her…for wishing her to feel the same way that I do. The last thing I want to do is express romantic intentions at a time like this. I need to be there for her, but I cannot change my feelings, even if Nav is dead. I do not know how to act."
"Sorry. I wish I could help."
'So, uh…how about you?" asked Lee.
"Today I woke up to discover that I'm an evil despot and mass murderer responsible for the death of billions, including my own family. Shortly after receiving the news, the woman who has been trying to kill me for the past ten years stopped me from committing suicide and then threw herself on top of me in bed."
"You must be a bit confused."
A shadow fell over Future Jimmy's legs, and he looked up, startled to find Aurora standing immediately in front of him.
" – hear that?"
"Huh? What?" he sputtered.
"I said, did you hear that? Have you even been listening?"
He lowered his eyes, and Aurora surprised him by leaning forward and placing both her hands on his knees. She shifted her weight into her arms, and he snapped to attention, noting the messy hair which slid over her shoulders as she bent closer. With some difficulty he suppressed his historical inclination, which was to retaliate, incapacitate her, and then gloat.
"Hey jackass," she challenged, "let me fill you in on a little secret: I seriously dislike repeating myself. Now do I have your attention, or don't I?"
"Err – I imagine it would be impossible for you to not have it, seeing as you are taking up my entire field of vision."
Only Future Carl was taken aback by this new development. The rest, who by this point were accustomed to Aurora's outbursts, merely waited for the episode to pass.
"Good," she said. "Now repeat after me: 'I will work with Jimmy and Cindy to come up with a way to get the kids back home. I will not rest until I put that gigantic evil brain of mine to good use'."
"Jimmy and Cindy?" he repeated. "Why both? All I need are a few pieces of basic information from the younger me, and I can get to work making a –"
"As I recall, the two of them are responsible for dragging everyone to this universe in the first place, so they'll both have to figure out how to get back home again."
"But I am confident I can do it on my own if I –"
She tightened her grip on his knees. "Enough with the grandstanding, Neutron! Did it ever occur to you that other people might actually know more than you? I know it's a revolutionary concept, but try to let it sink in."
She pushed off his legs and straightened, then turned heel and headed back over to the rest of the group. Lee raised an eyebrow at him, and Future Jimmy motioned toward Aurora.
"See what I mean?" whispered Future Jimmy.
"Oh yes," nodded Lee, "I see it."
As Aurora rejoined the others, Future Carl raised a timid hand. "Um...what about me? You didn't mention me at all in your instructions. What should I do?"
"Gee, I don't know," replied Aurora nastily, "why don't you try asking Neutron? You seem to be very good at that. I'm sure he'd be more than happy to tell you what to do with the rest of your life."
"That's not true! I mean I... well, I just...I've never really thought about it before. What do you think I should do?"
"What do I look like, a bloody career counselor? I don't care what happens to you, Carl. It's not my job to dig you out of your ditch. Figure it out yourself."
"Aurora!" chastised Future Libby.
"If he's got something to say to me, let him say it!" she shot back. "If Carl doesn't like the way I address him, he can very well stand up for himself. Care to give it a go, Carl?"
The redhead didn't respond, and Aurora shrugged to Future Libby.
"See? What's the use of being nice to someone who doesn't have a shred of self-respect? It's a waste of energy."
The young Carl squirmed uncomfortably, and Jimmy reassured him with a couple pats to the back. Future Jimmy got up from his chair, and the kids automatically took a few steps away. He approached the control console, and Lee looked on with interest as he input some information and tweaked a setting or two. He turned to look back at the others, who were watching him quizzically.
"At this distance, it will take several hours to get back to earth," he explained. "I adjusted our course to the shortest one possible."
"Good thinking," said Aurora. "I'm glad someone's being proactive around here. Well, there's no use standing around talking further. Dismissed!"
April wasted no time in clearing out. With military briskness, she strode past the former Dictator and snatched her laptop off the control panel, giving him a dirty look as she did. She headed for the exit with the computer cradled in her arms.
"He did not say anything to upset you, did he, Lee?" she checked.
She cast a parting glance at Aurora, only to discover that the blonde had turned to Future Libby and was engaged in a quiet conversation with her. Glaring, April stalked through the automatic doors, which shut behind her with an air of finality. Cindy felt a twinge of sympathy as she watched her leave, but was unable to offer any words of commiseration.
"Are your hands fixed up, Libs?"
Aurora inspected Future Libby's palms which, except for several faded scars, were fully healed.
"As good as new," smiled Future Libby, "thanks to that speed-healing gizmo in the sick bay. I tell ya – of all the junk Jimmy has invented over the years, that quick fix has gotta be the most useful."
"No kidding. I probably wouldn't even be able to walk right now if it weren't for that thing."
"Are you sure you're OK now? I mean, you really pushed yourself to the limit back on the planet, and I –"
"I'm fine," interrupted Aurora. "Although…do you think we could go somewhere and talk? It'll be a couple hours before we get back to Shangri Llama anyway, and I have a small request to make in the meantime…"
Breathing a sigh of relief, Aurora swiveled to see the others blinking at her like a herd of dimwitted pack animals.
"What is everyone standing around for?" she demanded. "Cindy, Jimmy and…well, Jimmy, head for the lab and get to work! Miraculous solutions to impossible scientific conundrums don't happen on their own, you know."
Cindy and Jimmy exchanged glances. They hung back, then at last beckoned to Aurora covertly.
"Aurora, are you sure going with him is, well, safe?" questioned Jimmy. "Less than twenty four hours ago he was murdering people!"
"Oh, for the love of – Neutron! You're not going to go all Son of Sam on them, right?"
Future Jimmy stood stiff as a pole, reddening.
"See that?" gestured Aurora. "Does that look like a child-killer to you? The only person you should be afraid of here is me. Now get out of here before I lose what's left of my patience!"
Cindy, Jimmy, and Goddard scrambled for the exit, and Future Jimmy followed in their wake, turning a small circle around himself to study Aurora one last time. Once they had gone, she exhaled in exasperation and rubbed her forehead.
"Oy, I tell ya…"
"Um, Aurora?" prompted Carl. "What about us? What're Sheen, Libby and I supposed to do?"
"Is it really that hard to bug-off until you're needed? Entertain yourselves! Jeez!" She grabbed Future Libby by the arm. "Come on, Libs, we're outta here."
Future Libby shrugged at them apologetically before following her friend out of the cockpit. The doors swished closed behind the pair, and the remaining kids appraised one another.
"So," said Libby, "what do you want to do?"
Sheen picked at his teeth again. "I dunno, what do you want to do?"
"Um…older me?" said Carl. "Do you want to hang out?"
Future Carl, who was still standing in the corner, rubbed the back of his neck with a half smile. "Heh, thanks, but I think I'm going to go for a little walk…" He backed toward the exit, grinning ruefully. "But thanks for asking…"
He too disappeared into the hallway outside, and the kids were left alone. After a moment of silence, Sheen placed a conspiratorial arm around Libby and Carl. "So…future me is still asleep in the corner. You wanna go draw weird stuff on his face?"
There was a long pause, then Libby shrugged.