Chapter 43: Under the Same Sky
Aurora and Future Libby sat together on one of the sick bay beds, surrounded by Future Libby's three suitcases, newly fetched from storage on board the Shahada. The latter dug through one of them, pushing aside silk dresses, embroidered gloves, tangled jewelry, and little bottles of paint.
"I know it's in here somewhere…"
Aurora studied the ceiling, seemingly lost in thought, before dropping her head and rolling her eyes. "How hard can it be to find a brush and some scissors? Lord knows you packed enough toiletries to open your own salon." She paused. "Then again, when you have that much crap, I guess it's easy to lose track of things."
Future Libby dug furiously. "Ugh, I could've sworn I put the hairbrush in with the mandolin. Just a second more – Aha! Found you!"
She whipped out a pair of scissors along with an engraved fuchsia brush. Holding them aloft in victory, she tapped the suitcase with her hip, and the top fell shut with a whump.
"So, uh…what did you want me to do again?" asked Future Libby.
Aurora pulled off her ponytail holder, and her long blonde locks tumbled down over her shoulders. "I want you to give me a haircut. I think the back got singed during my fight with Neutron."
Future Libby circled around the bed to Aurora's back. "Hmm," she muttered, inspecting a section of hair. "I'd be happy to fix it up for you, but I don't have a spray bottle to mist your hair, and you're not supposed to cut it when it's dry…"
"Just do the best you can with what you have. I'm not looking for a flawless coiffure here. Usually I just get April to chop it off with a paring knife."
Future Libby glanced down hesitantly at the pair of scissors. "How much do you want me take off the bottom?"
"I want to feel different. Cut it all off."
"But Aurora!" protested Future Libby. "Your hair is so beautiful. I don't want to just hack it to pieces. Besides, you're too tall for a pixie cut. I can give you a trim around the edges, but I…"
"No," said Aurora firmly. "You can leave the front the way it is, if you'd like, but I want the back gone."
Future Libby slid her brush through the tangled strands. "Well you can forget about that. I'm not cuttin' it short, but I can at least even it out. The bottom's all different lengths."
"Who died and made you queen of my hair?"
"End of discussion!"
Aurora sighed, defeated, and Future Libby silently finished combing out the snarls. She set the brush down on the bed, then rested a hand on Aurora's shoulder.
"You were awful hard on everyone just now, Aurora," she said. "Especially April. I know you're always kind of, um…blunt, but to me it seemed like you were tryin' to push her away. Is there somethin' you wanna talk about?"
Future Libby snipped off a few golden inches without comment. She could not let the matter drop, however, and it wasn't long before she interjected again. "Look, I know you're not a fan of spillin' your guts, but I can tell that something's bothering you, and I…"
"Oh really, is that so?" snapped the pilot. "And what makes you the leading authority on me all of the sudden? Over the past ten years I've spent more time with my local arms dealer than I have with you. What gives you such unique insight into my state of mind?"
"Well, comments like that, for one," shot back Future Libby. "People don't change, Aurora – not fundamentally. And ever since we were kids, you've dealt with being upset by takin' it out on other people."
Aurora had no rebuttal to offer, so she shut her mouth.
Future Libby continued snipping. "How long will it be?" she asked, after a pause.
"Before we see each other again, I mean."
"Oh. Right." Aurora considered before answering. "At the earliest – four or five years."
Future Libby's grip tightened around the scissor handles. "It's not fair."
"You're a hero. They should be giving you a medal, not chasin' you halfway across the galaxy, calling you a traitor, tryin' to kill you…" Her voice broke, and she trailed off.
"Libby, I brought this on myself."
"No, no you didn't!" she stomped angrily.
Future Libby took off another section of split ends, her mouth sealed into a tight, angry line. After a minute or two of fuming, she redirected the conversation.
"Are you really OK with this, Aurora? With saying goodbye to me for five years, after we just found each other again a few days ago? An' what about Jimmy? He deleted your family, tortured Sheen, took decades off your life…and now you'll be livin' with him? Watchin' out for him? Doesn't that make you feel…I dunno, something?"
"It'll be all right. I can handle myself."
"I didn't ask if you could handle yourself! I asked you to tell me what's goin' on in your head!"
"You really want to know?" sighed Aurora. "The truth is, I don't know what I should be feeling. I don't know if I want to feel anything. My life has changed so much in the past few days… In my wildest dreams I never pictured the future that I'm now facing. I haven't really had a chance to process any of this yet, so you'll have to excuse me if I don't have a ready-made speech prepped for you."
"I'm sorry, Aurora. I didn't mean it like that."
Aurora fished for Libby's hand. "No, I'm sorry. I'm not mad at you. It's just..."
Future Libby trimmed off a few more strands, and Aurora looked down at her lap, toying with a severed yellow curl.
"Next time I visit, you'll probably have a whole mess of kids running around."
"No, I'm serious," grinned Aurora. "I'm counting on you to reproduce. The future of humanity is in your very capable hands…"
Future Libby swatted her chuckling friend on the shoulder. "Aurora!"
"Wh-ha-hat?" laughed the blonde.
"I'd like to remind you that I'm the one holding the pointy metal thing right now..."
Aurora pursed her lips in a restrained smile. "Sorry. I shouldn't be teasing you about something so serious..."
They both broke out giggling, and Future Libby set down the scissors. "Oh, Aurora. This is so hard. I know I shouldn't be grilling you when you don't want to talk about it, but…well, I guess I wanted you to feel the same way that I do, you know? Maybe I'm really the one who's got somethin' bothering her right now."
"It's just...it's funny. When I was a little girl, my Mom told me somethin' I've never forgotten. She said, 'Libs, whenever you're missin' me, just look up at the night sky. Then, wherever I am, I'll do the same thing, and you won't have to feel alone, 'cause we'll both be lookin' up at those same stars.'"
"Aurora, I'm tryin' to make a point here!"
"Then make it."
Future Libby quieted. "Well, if you think about it, people on Earth were always connected no matter where they went or how long they stayed there. But when you and I are apart, Aurora, it's different. We're not under the same sky. I can't gaze up at night and feel a connection to you. When you're gone, you're really gone – you're billions and billions of miles away, on some alien planet, looking up at alien stars, and in a thousand lifetimes I could never reach you..."
"Libby..." she sympathized.
"Sometimes I wonder if that is what life's about, you know?" went on Future Libby. "When you're born, you separate from your mother, and as you grow up, you separate from your childhood friends, and then from your family. The years go by, and all the while you become more and more of you and less and less of them, until you reach old age and everyone who made your life meaningful dies and leaves you alone. And then you die, and that's when you're the most separate of all..."
"Jeez Libby, stop being so depressing. Gloomy philosophy doesn't suit you."
"It's just...it's so unfair. I feel like I'm being made to choose between you and Sheen. Tuyen told me that I'd regain someone that I'd lost; she didn't mention that I'd have to give up someone else in exchange. It's not that I'm totally unhappy with the way things are turning out. It just seems like, no matter what we do or how we feel, somethin' always comes up to keep you and me apart. Even if we visit each other, we'll still be livin' our lives separately. All the day-to-day adventures, the silly jokes, and the ups-and-downs we could've shared...we'll miss out on all of them. How can we overcome somethin' like that, Aurora?"
"Remember what you said to me, Libby?" asked Aurora. "That you'd always be my friend, no matter what? Well I say, screw time, and screw distance. 'Always' is good enough for me. Life is what it is, so quit moping. After all, it's not like you're getting a bad deal. You get to go back to fancy buildings and gorgeous scenery and a whole butt-load of people who want to cater to your every whim. You'll have holidays and pretty clothes and tasty food and an even tastier crazy-ass mutant boyfriend to provide the perfect dessert for your sumptuous three-course dinner, if you know what I mean."
"Hey!" she admonished. "I'll have you know, Sheen's not even gettin' a KISS till he learns to control himself. So just keep your insinuations to yourself, thank you very much."
Aurora snickered, and Future Libby raised her chin with renewed optimism. "You're right. No use dwellin' on what can't be changed. I should be grateful that you didn't both die, since that easily could have happened."
Aurora patted Future Libby's hand twice. "That's the spirit. Now, if you're done trimming that nanometer off my hair, what do you say we go check on Neutron's progress?"
"Do you really think they've finished already?"
"Of course not. But that won't stop us from going to harass them."
"Actually…would it be OK if I went to check on Sheen?" asked Future Libby. "I left him sleeping there without explaining anythin', and who knows what the kids have been up to this whole time…"
Aurora chuckled. "OK, mother hen, you do what you need to do. I can take it from here."
Aurora stood and brushed hair clippings from her back and shoulders. Future Libby waited for her to finish, fiddling with her bracelets.
"You sure…you sure there's nothing else you want to talk about?" she repeated hopefully. "I'm a real good confidante. If there's anything botherin' you, anything at all..."
Aurora favored her friend with a sad but tender smile. "Thanks Libby, really. I love you and appreciate your support, but what's bothering me right now isn't something you can help me with. I'm afraid I'm on my own this time."
Elsewhere, Future Carl wandered the halls of the Half Life, replaying Aurora's comments over and over again to himself. He paced, only dimly aware of his location, footfall after footfall echoing through the winding corridors. Veering a little too sharply, he caught himself against the wall. A pain shot through his abdomen, and he clutched at it through his wrinkled white shirt.
"Ooowww, same old stomach ache... Can't eat, can't sleep, can't do anything but plod forward like a robot." He rested his head against his forearm and released a shaky breath. "Is this what's going to happen everywhere I go? Is this what people are going to see when they look at me? I'm so tired of this. So, so tired..." He pushed away from the wall and pressed onward in a shuffling gait. "I guess it serves me right. When was the last time I did anything? I can't even remember."
Future Carl was so preoccupied with his troubled thoughts that he didn't notice when a shadow stirred in an adjacent corridor. The inky figure emerged and began to follow him, synchronizing its footsteps with his. It drew nearer and nearer as Carl approached another bend in the hall, until at last it loomed directly behind him.
"I wish I were somewhere else. I wish I was someone else."
"How strange," said a voice. "I hear a conversation, and yet I only see one speaker. Tell me, Carl – do you always talk to yourself like this?"
Startled, he jumped around to find April lounging against the wall, catlike and self-assured. Her eyes gleamed, and Future Carl got the impression that he had somehow been caught in an ambush.
"April! I didn't see you there..."
"Of course you did not. You are oblivious to your surroundings. If you were lower on the food chain, I would have long since killed and eaten you."
He rubbed the back of his neck. "Err, well, I'm a bit distracted at the moment. I have some stuff on my mind, you see."
"I am certain you do. I, too, have some stuff on my mind. Perhaps we can help one another."
April's posture took on a sly, almost seductive character, and he felt a strong urge to flee.
"W-what do you mean?"
She paused, examining her fingernails. "Carl, do you desire my forgiveness?"
He retreated a few steps, foolishly glancing from side to side in the vain hope that someone else might happen upon them and come to his aid.
"Yes or no. It is not really that difficult a question to answer."
"I-I'm not sure I deserve it..."
She pushed away from the wall. "I am willing to forgive you for your part in this affair, on one condition: I need your help getting back to Planet Gorlock."
"How would I –"
She closed the gap between them, and he took another couple of steps backward.
"I have a plan," began April. "Your job will be to not ask questions, and to simply do as I request until we go our separate ways. Now be silent as I explain."
"Listen carefully: as soon as the Half Life drops out of Hyperspace, we will steal out of the cargo bay on board the Shahada. You will not tell anyone that we are leaving. You will not say any goodbyes. We will simply disappear."
"Disappear? But I –"
"Once we have broken away, we will fly to Mejair, the planet where Nav's younger sister lives. We will spend a day or so clearing the cockpit of Nav's stolen goods, and it will be up to you to make sure Laudya receives them. You will be the one to bring the news of Nav's fate to Laudya, and the two of you will be responsible for setting his affairs in order. I cannot do it; it is too near. Do you understand thus far?"
He found himself nodding before he even comprehended her words, and she continued.
"I will leave Mejair aboard the Shahada and return to Planet Gorlock alone, as if newly escaped, in order to lend credence to the idea that I was brought along on this venture against my will. Only then will I be allowed to have a moment's peace among my people, away from the memory of all this. As for you – stay on Mejair if you wish, or hop on board a freighter bound for somewhere far away. Do all of this for me, and you will be forgiven."
Future Carl bit his lip, mulling it over. "I don't know if it's a good idea for me to just leave without telling anyone. How about this: what if I helped you escape, but then stayed behind myself so that I could –"
"Let me make this perfectly clear, Carl. " She pulled out a gun from a holster at her side, and pressed the barrel against his stomach. "I do not need to play on your guilt to gain your cooperation. I presented the plan in this manner out of charity, nothing more. Make no mistake – you will cooperate, whether you want to or not. Now you can either do what I say out of your own free will, or you can accompany me as a hostage. You decide."
Future Carl instinctively put his hands in the air, shrinking away from the cold touch of the gun. "Look, I know you must be really upset right now, but is this really necessary? You have friends on this ship who could help you. Don't you want to say goodbye to Aurora, or –"
April pulled back the hammer until it clicked. "Watch yourself, my friend. You are digging your own grave. Now this is your last chance: will you help me voluntarily?"
"I don't understand! Why are you doing this? There has to be a better way..."
"Last chance, Carl. Yes or no?"
He looked down at the weapon, then back up at her. He nodded once, and April retracted the gun.
"Good," she said. "Now turn around slowly. Keep your hands where I can see them."
He did as he was told.
"Walk in the direction of the cargo bay," she ordered. "Keep your eyes facing forward, and do not stop moving. I will follow behind at a short distance. Do not get any light ideas about running off."
He stumbled forward. "Uh...do you mean, any 'bright' ideas?"
"That is correct. Bright ideas will not help you. I memorized the layout of the ship from the schematics Jimmy downloaded for us after we boarded. I will find you if you attempt to escape."
"I won't try to escape," he said glumly.
They walked in silence, Future Carl's eyes listless and unfocused. April turned this way and that, scanning the passageway.
"Always this," he muttered to himself. "Why always this?"
"What's that? You have something to say?"
The pair made their way into the cargo bay, where Nav's decrepit wreck of a ship awaited them. Future Carl strained to think of a way to turn the tables on her before it was too late, but nothing came to mind, and April forced him up the gangplank and through the main door. The homey, musty smell of the Shahada took him by surprise, and he almost forgot about her gun as he surveyed the interior of Nav's ship. He tripped over a pile of dirty laundry, and she seized his arm and directed him forward.
"Be quiet, and keep moving. The bridge is just ahead."
April flicked on the light as they entered, illuminating the mountains of loot scattered around the cockpit. Future Carl gazed in awe at the piles of disorganized splendor.
"He did all of this? Nav stole all of this?"
"Nav was the greatest thief who ever lived," she returned haughtily. "All the other Samarkandi were psychopaths, plain and simple. Nav was the only one who made it into their ranks on the basis of something more."
April settled into the pilot's chair. With a sidelong glance, she took out her weapon and proceeded to make a great show of polishing it. He merely stood there, staring at the ground while she lorded it over him. After several minutes of silence, Future Carl still hadn't moved. He showed not even the barest hint of emotion, neither in his eyes nor in his posture, and April's expression slowly scrunched up with contempt.
"Look at you. If I should come upon you in a crowded square, I would mistake you for a statue. What purpose do you serve, looking like that? What a waste." One of the wheels on the chair squeaked as she shifted her weight forward. "You know what I do not respect, Carl?"
Future Carl hesitated, unsure of whether or not to take the bait. After a pause, he replied. "What do you not respect?"
When April met his gaze again, she smiled crookedly and aimed the gun at him. "Weakness," she said. "Cowardice. Uselessness. I could kill you right now and not a single person in this whole universe would shed a tear. Your existence is without value, and yet you are alive, and Nav is not. How does this strike you?"
"If I could trade places with him, I would."
"You say that so flippantly, and yet you are part of the reason he is dead."
She sat there in the chair, spine curved forward, purple bangs hanging in her line of vision. "What a meaningless thing to say. You are pathetic."
His fists clenched involuntarily, and she laughed. "Do you have something to say for yourself, Carl? Care to offer some defense? Or will you stand there idly, as you have stood by for the past ten years, doing nothing?" When he didn't reply, she continued her barrage. "Pfft, I thought as much. You are worthless. Pathetic. A spineless lapdog who does whatever he is told in order to save his sorry hide."
"That's not true!" he interrupted. "That's not why I did it. Jimmy is my best friend, and I..."
"Hold your tongue! This pretense to loyalty is sickening. You aided and abetted the galaxy's worst criminal because you were too frightened to stand up and refuse your orders. I can tell from the way you are acting now. You are a gutless, good-for-nothing waste of sentient life."
Future Carl's eyes flashed. "Does it make you feel better, saying this stuff to me?"
"It is nothing you do not deserve," huffed April "You had ample opportunities to assert yourself while you were working for the Dictator, but you did not. You forfeited your worth as a living being. You are an outcast, wanted by no one. Utterly expendable."
"Then we're two of a kind, April. You're in the same position that I am right now."
"Ridiculous!" she scoffed. "As I recall, you are the one currently being held at gunpoint. Enlighten me, how are we in the same position?"
"We're both here, aren't we? There's a reason it's the two of us alone in this cockpit, and not Aurora and Libby, or Sheen and Libby, or any of the others. We're here because they got what they wanted, and now they don't need us anymore."
"You would do better to hold your tongue, Carl. You have no idea what you are talking about."
"I've worked with the Dictator for the past ten years," he said. "You think I don't know him by now? You think I don't know how little I matter?"
April looked away. "I fail to see how this in any way pertains to me."
"Aurora is your best friend...but are you hers? How long did it take Aurora to start ignoring you after she got Libby back?"
"How did you –?"
"You've been playing second fiddle for a long time. I know, because I'm in the same situation. I know what it's like to be around someone who would rather be with somebody else."
April gripped her gun tighter. "That is enough!"
"I bet Aurora wasn't the only person in your life who secretly saw you as a silver medal," he went on. "Who else treated you that way, I wonder? I guess it doesn't matter. That's just the kind of people we are."
"Stop saying 'we'!" she shouted. "This has nothing to do with me!"
"Anyone with half a brain can tell that Jimmy and Aurora only care about one thing...and we're not a part of that, April." He shrugged. "But you know what? It's OK. I stayed with the Dictator because somewhere, deep down, he was still my best friend, and I felt like I owed him something. In the name of that friendship, I did what I was told for ten years...sometimes unforgivable things. But again, that's why we're so alike."
"You keep saying that, and yet it continues to ring hollow! You have no basis for your claim. You and I could not be more different!"
"I've read Jimmy's data books on the Gorlock military and on the resistance. I know how you people do things. When have YOU ever disobeyed your orders, April? When have you ever thought for yourself?"
"You presume to judge me using information HE gathered while he was out committing mass murder?" she said, aghast. "How dare you compare your self-imposed slavery to my struggle! I am a warrior and a weapons specialist, and I fight bravely. When I slaughter my enemies, I know that the righteous cause is mine."
"You've been a soldier since you were a kid. Did you ever stop to think about whether that's what you really want? You bow your head to your superiors and do what's expected of you. How many people have you killed to rise through the ranks? Have you been keeping track?"
"That is immaterial!"
"Immaterial? Do you really feel nothing for all the lives you've taken? At least when I was helping Jimmy, I knew what I was doing was wrong. Now, the guilt and self-loathing are eating me alive. But you? I've read your file, and from what I can tell, you have no regret, no second thoughts, no sympathy at all for the people you murdered, war or no. Have you ever once reflected on your own life? Have you ever sat down and asked yourself, 'why am I doing this?' When it comes down to it, April, you and I have a lot in common. We do what we're told, and we don't matter. Like it or not, that's the truth. We're both just pawns in our own different ways. At least I realize what I am."
She jumped to her feet, and the pilot's chair lurched backward. "You think you are better than me because you feel REGRET? Because you suddenly had a change of heart? Pardon me if I cannot do the same! I do not believe in ideals, Carl, I believe in people; sadly, the people I believed in are now lost to me forever, all because of your master. How easy it must be for you to pass judgment, when you have lost nothing and have nothing to lose!"
Future Carl's voice trembled slightly, as if he was having trouble restraining himself. "I'm not judging you, I'm just trying to make a point. If there's one thing I learned from my years of watching Jimmy work, it's how to push people's buttons. I'm sorry if I'm doing it in a mean way, but I've had enough of you telling me that I'm worthless."
"Ha!" she choked. "You certainly pick a convenient time to grow a backbone. You lecture me on the way I have lived my life, and yet you are the greatest hypocrite I have ever laid eyes on. You are disgusting!"
"I know, and I hate myself. How do you feel about yourself? Or haven't you thought about it lately?"
"Enough!" She struck him on the jaw with the handle of her gun, and he toppled to the floor, losing his eyeglasses and tearing his shirtsleeve on one of the scrap heaps.
She leered down at him. "I need to keep you alive so that you can bring news of Nav's death to Laudya, but as I recall, that job does not require the use of arms or legs. Shall I break them for you?"
"Do you...do you feel any better yet?" He shivered, wiping blood off his lower lip.
April grabbed him by the hair. "No, but I will in a moment."
She slammed his forehead against the floor, then flung him onto his back. He writhed in pain, but she pinned him fast with her knee and touched the barrel of her gun to his neck. Wrenching his arm around, she grabbed his fingers and bent them nearly to their breaking point.
"Snap snap, Carl. First your fingers, then your arms."
"Is that really all you know how to do?" he laughed weakly. "Just fight and threaten and kill? How sad..."
She pushed his index finger back further, and the cartilage made a crunching noise.
"That's right," she snarled with bloodthirsty satisfaction, "cry out in pain! Show your true colors, coward. Beg me to stop!"
She cracked the next finger, and then the next, but to her utter bafflement, his cries of agony spiraled into bouts of hysterical laughter.
"AAAAAAAH! AAAHAHAHAAA! Hahahahaha! AhaHAHAHAHAAAAAAAA!"
Completely unprepared for this reaction, she jerked away, dropping his hand. "My God, what is WRONG with you?"
"You think this hurts?" he yelled wildly. "You think this HURTS? Ahahahahaha! I've lived with a noose around my neck for a decade now! I've HAD it, April! I'm done being treated like a pushover. From this moment on, I'm done being this person. So either put a bullet in my head, or get off me. Threats won't work anymore."
"I will not be deterred!"
"Neither will I. Now GET OFF ME!"
He shoved her away with all his might, and she stumbled back and plunked down onto the chair. He got to his feet, breathing heavily.
"I'm tired of everyone walking all over me," he panted. "I'm tired of the nightmares and the weakness and the running away. So let me make something very clear: I'm not coming with you because you threatened my life. I'm going to Mejair because I think it's the right thing to do. I admired Nav, and I will do whatever I can to make his passing less sad for his sister. I'll do it because I WANT to, not because someone stuck a gun in my face. Those days are over. Understand? Is that something you can respect?"
"I hate you," she seethed. "I hate you with every fiber of my being."
He brushed off his shirt. "That makes two of us."
"I hope you die a gruesome, excruciating death, Carl," she growled, baring her teeth. "I hope your wounds grow gangrenous, poisoning you and driving you to madness."
"And I wish you all the best. I hope you lead a long and happy life, and die surrounded by people who care about you."
"Tch. Go to hell."
April turned to face the control panel, and Future Carl's legs began to wobble. Now that the moment had passed, he slumped to his knees. Sniffling a little, he slid his hands over the floor, searching for his glasses.
"I am warming up the engines," informed April in a hostile tone, back still toward him. "I want to be ready to leave the second we drop out of hyperspace."
He replaced his glasses, and his features settled into their usual bland, expressionless state. "Sounds good to me," he said.