Chapter 44: Mad Science
(this chapter brought to you by Shirtless Future Sheen!)

Future Sheen by Mara S.

"Welcome to the neuro-sim lab." Future Jimmy spread his arms to indicate their destination.

Cindy, Jimmy, and Goddard stood at the entrance, gawking. The room looked more like a warehouse than a laboratory, complete with workstations, storage areas, and apparatuses whose functions the kids couldn't even begin to guess.

Future Jimmy beckoned them forward. "This way."

"So..." said Cindy, looking around, "this is the proverbial mad scientist's laboratory, huh? How long do you suppose we'll be providing you with slave labor?"

Her direct address left him at a loss for words, so he turned around, folded his hands behind his back, and kept on walking. "I'm confident that, once I understand how you got here, it will take me no more than three hours to devise a way to send you home." He paused. "Oh, and Cindy? Fair warning: many of the inventions here are DNA-coded to electrocute anyone other than me, so you might want to refrain from touching anything."

Cindy cast a glance over her shoulder. "Pfft. Good thing Sheen isn't here."

They made their way through the laboratory, with Future Jimmy in the lead. An atmosphere of cold precision permeated the dark spaces between lab benches and consoles, while the room's haphazard setup struck the kids as being the result of idiosyncratic organization rather than untidiness. Cindy and Jimmy avoided close scrutiny of the cruel-looking inventions scattered about the workstations. As they neared the back of the room, the trio passed by a raised platform situated beneath a cluster of globe-shaped holo-projectors. The kids craned their necks to stare up at the projectors, which returned their gaze like so many unblinking eyes. Cindy shivered, and Future Jimmy pointed up at them.

"I see you've noticed the simulator that gives this lab its name. By simulating inventions before I build them, I am able to circumvent much of the trial-and-error process. But that's not where we're headed quite yet."

They came to a stop beside the furthest lab bench, and Future Jimmy began fiddling with his suit's integrated multipurpose watch. He unclipped a small component, which grew larger after being removed. He repeated the motion with his other wrist, then picked up a data pad of some sort. Once it became clear that the former Dictator did not intend to explain his actions, Jimmy turned away and examined some of the other inventions on the table, while Cindy absent-mindedly patted Goddard's head. After a moment, Future Jimmy set down his data pad and displayed his palm, revealing two small metal discs rimmed in pulsing green lights.

Cindy wrinkled her nose. "What're those? Did your evil Dictator disco-costume lose a couple of buttons?"

"It's a memory extraction and processing kernel," he frowned, irritated by her jibe. "It will allow me to directly access and assess all memories pertaining to your journey to this universe. I just attach it to your left temple, and then..."

Holding the device between his thumb and forefinger, he reached out to affix it to Cindy's head. She jerked back, batting his hand away.

"What do you think you're doing?"

Future Jimmy blinked in confusion, then blushed, suddenly awkward. "Sorry. I'm not used to explaining my actions to others. To be honest, it's been a long time since I've engaged in protracted socializing."

"So you're a nerd," she shrugged. "That still doesn't explain why you're sticking the technological equivalent of a brain worm in my face."

"I already described the purpose of the device, and I'm certain you understood my meaning – "

"I know what you're doing," she cut in, "but what makes you think I'll just sit back and twiddle my thumbs while you probe my brain for information? No way I'm letting anyone invade my privacy like that. How would you feel if I read your thoughts like a tabloid?"

"Pardon my bluntness," he began haughtily, "but I doubt you would be able to comprehend my thoughts. Secondly, I programmed the kernels to avoid privacy violation. The search parameters I will be using are very specific, and the device is only capable of downloading memories less than a week old. Any information that is not relevant, such as emotional data or sleep filler, will be encrypted and discarded."

"Oh, and I'm supposed to take your word for that?"

"Relax, Cindy," intervened Jimmy. "He's not trying to rob your memory bank. I think he wants to get an exact picture of how we got here, so that he can figure out a way to backtrack us to our point of origin. He's just using technology to expedite the process. Is that correct?"

Future Jimmy nodded.

"You see?"

Cindy crossed her arms. "Not good enough, Neutron."

"Come on," pleaded Jimmy, "it's not that big of a deal. I mean, it's not like I've never used brain-altering technology on you before..."

"And THAT'S supposed to convince me?" she shot back.

He stuck his nose in the air. "Don't be paranoid, Vortex. The sooner we assemble the pertinent data, the sooner he can help us get back home. If we don't give him access to our memories, then how do you expect him to understand everything that's happened?"

"Hello!" she shouted, smacking her head. "That's what CONVERSATIONS are for! You don't need brain-zapping mumbo-jumbo to exchange information, genius. Why can't we just tell him what happened?"

"That would take time, Cindy, and time's a luxury we can't afford right now. You don't have to agree to the extraction if you don't want to, but I'm not afraid." He turned to face his future self, leaving Cindy to glare at him in profile. "Proceed."

Future Jimmy nodded once and attached the disc to the boy's cranium, then attached its twin to his own temple. They both stood silent but for the whir of the memory extraction kernels. After nearly a minute of sustained quiet, Cindy heard a pinging sound, and Future Jimmy snapped back to attention.

"The memory exchange is complete. Please let me process for a few seconds."

"My God," said Cindy, "you are such a robot it's not even funny."

Future Jimmy surprised Cindy by laughing lightly.

"What?" she demanded.

"There are some pretty entertaining visuals in the data," he chuckled. "I wish you could have seen your face when Jimmy teleported you out to the top of that flagpole..."

"You didn't even see it!"

Future Jimmy smirked. "That doesn't decrease the entertainment value."

Jimmy removed the disc and handed it back to his future self, before folding his arms over his chest. "I'd be laughing too," he grumbled, "except for one minor detail: that stunt ended up getting us sucked into another universe, remember? Catastrophic failure of that magnitude tends to put a damper on my amusement."

"Well," said Future Jimmy, "based on the memories I've just gained, I see no reason to regret your mistake. If you hadn't pulled that prank on Cindy, you never would have come here, and I give you ten to one odds that neither Aurora nor I would have survived to see our next birthdays. Not that my passing would have caused the citizens of this universe any heartache..."

Future Jimmy fell silent. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, then risked a quick peek at Cindy before returning his gaze to his younger self. He smiled faintly.

"Just between the two of us, I must say, your youthful intelligence is refreshing. I can see where I get my incomparable genius."

"Why thank you," said Jimmy. "It's reassuring to know that, as I age, I won't lose my ability to recognize quality when I see it."

Cindy slammed herself into Jimmy, and he stumbled over Goddard, who broke out into a series of frantic barks.

"Ow!" Jimmy rubbed his bruised arm. "What was that for?"

Cindy's hand flew to her mouth, affecting surprise. "I'm so sorry! I must have been pulled in by the rogue gravitational forces that were created when your egos grew so large that they collapsed in on themselves."

Jimmy shot her a belligerently stupefied look. "...Huh?"

She retreated a few paces, pouting. "You act like all the credit here belongs to you, when my contributions were just as vital. If you two are going to go all chummy and self-congratulatory on me, then...well, you need your horizons expanded. I guess I'll have to take one for the team and let him read my mind too."

"But you just said –"

"I know what I said," she interrupted, "and I'm still uncomfortable with the whole idea, but I also don't want him to only get one side of the story. Nothing inside that freakish head of yours is going to come as any surprise to him, Neutron. Maybe my perspective will shake things up a bit."

"Are you sure?" asked Future Jimmy.

"Are you deaf?" she retorted. "Just stick on the stupid button and get it over with!"

He positioned the device on Cindy's forehead, then straightened before activating the transfer. A little apprehensive about the exchange, Jimmy monitored Cindy's expression, looking for any sign of distress. To Jimmy's surprise, Cindy was not the one who reacted. About 30 seconds into the swap, the former Dictator inhaled sharply and yanked the device off his temple. He stumbled back a couple of steps, his breathing quickened.

Cindy opened her eyes. "What happened? Are you OK?"

It only took Future Jimmy a couple seconds to get himself under control, but by the time he did, his body language had changed. His shoulders rose and fell markedly with each breath, and strands of hair hung in his line of vision. No longer arrogant or bashful, his expression flickered between bewilderment and cold anger.

"What's the matter?" asked Jimmy. "Did something go wrong with the transfer?"

Future Jimmy remained stock-still. Only his eyes moved in response to Jimmy's query. They slowly shifted in their sockets until they fixed themselves on the kids, two unearthly blue circles peering out from within the shadows on his face.

Cindy took hold of Jimmy's arm. "Um...should we be worried?"

"Not sure."

The former Dictator advanced on them, and Cindy took a small step behind Jimmy, her grip tightening on his arm.

"Good God, Jimmy," she whispered, "tell your future self to tone down the creepy before I bolt."

Future Jimmy pushed the boy genius out of the way and grabbed Cindy by the wrist. He yanked her off balance and, leaning forward, assailed her with an intense, prying stare.

"Explain to me what happened between Aurora and April back on my base. Now."

Jimmy elbowed his way back in between Cindy and the former Dictator, shielding her from the cold-eyed man.

"What's the matter with you? Leave her alone!"

Grateful for Jimmy's interference, Cindy hung back, trying to gather her discombobulated thoughts. Fear prickled over her skin like ants, followed by a medley of other emotions – antagonism, confusion, guilt – all transferred to her from Future Jimmy. Deeply shaken, she covered it up with nonchalance.

"Whoa there, down boy. What's this about April and Aurora?"

Future Jimmy backed off a little, but the look of near madness in his expression did not diminish. His gaze was far more intrusive than any mind-reading device, and Cindy had to fight the urge to shrink away.

"Don't keep secrets from me, little girl," he said in a low voice. "I just saw something that definitely wasn't in Jimmy's memory banks. I saw Aurora betray April after our fight."

"Aurora, betray April?" repeated Jimmy, baffled. "What are you talking about?"

Cindy snapped her fingers. "Oh. Now I get it. Neither of you were there, were you? Cause you were unconscious, and you were out trying to save Goddard..."

"There for what?" said Jimmy. "Can somebody please explain what we're talking about here?"

Cindy sighed. "It was before you and skinny Carl made it to the main control room. The place was literally falling apart around us when April showed up. Aurora was happy to see her, but April was...well, the whole thing with Nav..." She broke off temporarily. "Anyway, April tried to kill the Dictator, but Aurora stopped her. She said protecting him was the only course of action left, and that she'd kill anyone who got in the way...including April."

"Aurora said that?"

"Yeah, and April didn't take it very well. She used Aurora as a punching bag until Aurora finally knocked her out, and that's right about when you came in, Neutron."

"Wow...I can't believe it."

Future Jimmy grabbed Cindy by the shoulders, startling both kids. "Enough exposition. Tell me why she did it."

Cindy wrenched away. "How should I know? I'm not Aurora, remember? If you really want to find out, why don't you ask her?"

He withdrew into cold silence, glaring down at her from out of the corner of his eye. Cindy found his anger easier to withstand than his scrutiny, and she favored him with a scowl of her own.

"I don't get it," she said. "Why are you flipping out over this? I mean, sure, it's kind of upsetting, but you know what Aurora's like. She isn't the kind of chick who lets other people get in the way of her goals, and she's especially single-minded when it comes to you. She even stood her ground against the Gorlock High Council when they refused to get on board with the antidote plan. Given her history, what happened with April back on the base shouldn't come as too much of a shock to you. Besides, it's not like she had much choice. April was hysterical. Aurora had resort to desperate measures to get us all out of there in one piece."

Jimmy was surprised to see contempt in his future self's expression.

"Please," scoffed Future Jimmy. "It's one thing to defy the orders of inflexible superiors. It's another thing entirely to treat your closest companion so callously after she just lost the man she loves. Especially when that betrayal is motivated by a desire to protect the villain who throttled you to within an inch of your life. There is something very, very wrong with that."

Jimmy considered for a moment. "Upsetting as Aurora's actions may be, I think you owe Cindy an apology. You're not the Dictator anymore. You can't use intimidation tactics on kids just because you're a little shaken up."

"And I still don't see why you are," pressed Cindy. "You have no right to be mad at Aurora after everything she's gone through. She made a snap decision because she had to, not because–"

She broke off when she realized that Future Jimmy was no longer listening. He hopped up onto the simulator platform and activated one of the holo-spheres, which projected a console into the air in front of him. He entered a lengthy password into the holographic keypad, and the screen emitted a beam that scanned his retinas and checked his facial biometrics.

"Access granted. D-Code_Platform initiated."

Identity confirmed, dozens of projection units activated, and a ring of holo-screens descended from the ceiling and dropped into place around him. Jimmy and Cindy turned a slow circle, marveling at the luminescent display.

"Um...nice light show and all," said Cindy after a pause, "but I'm still waiting for an apology."

"Then I hope you cope well with disappointment," he replied tersely. "I'm not interested in discussing the matter further with you. In fact, your presence here hampers my concentration. Both of you will leave, and then Goddard and I will get to work."

Jimmy opened his mouth to protest. "But Aurora said – "

"I don't care what Aurora said. I'll be done in two hours. Now get out."

One look at his expression convinced the kids to flee into the corridor. As soon as the automatic doors shut behind them, Cindy slumped with her back against the wall and slid down to the floor. Jimmy took a seat next to her, sighing as he settled into cross-legged repose.

"I wish I knew what that was about..." he muttered.

She tossed her hair. "He's just mad at himself for being a jerk and is freaking out because Aurora is stupid enough to care about him."

"Ah. I see. Stupid."

Jimmy kicked his feet out from under him and transferred his weight back onto his hands, then tilted his chin up toward the ceiling. "You know," he began, "I never really got the chance to thank you for comforting me. After what happened with alternate Goddard, I mean."

"How could I not? You looked so miserable, and I, well..." She tapped the tips of her index fingers together. "I guess I should be thanking you too, for coming to my rescue in there. As much as I hate to admit it, I was scared stiff when he started interrogating me."

"Me too."

Cindy lowered her voice just enough for it to be construed as flirtation. "I'm glad you're not like that, Jimmy."

"Me too."

"Is that all you know how to say?" she glowered.

"Me too."

She swatted him, and he chuckled. "Sorry, I couldn't resist. My maturity level seems to be a cosine function these days."

"OK," she grinned, "that was pretty funny."

She relaxed, settling into the same pose as Jimmy, and he shut his eyes.

"I cannot wait to get out of here. This whole adventure has been one gigantic train wreck after another. If one more thing goes wrong, I swear on Einstein's hair tufts that I will go ballistic."

"I know what you mean," she said. "If I were you, I'd build a therapy robot as soon as we get home, and then charge all of us to use it. You'd make a killing."

He snorted. "It would have to be a robot. No human counselor could handle the kind of stuff we'd want to discuss. Can you picture it? 'Excuse me, Mr. therapist...I just got back from an alternate universe where I got lost in a maze that caused me to become massively attracted to all my male friends and my dog. Advice, please?'"

She laughed. "Ya, if I were a therapist, I wouldn't touch that with a ten foot pole. Yet another reason why I prefer option number two: never speak of it again as long as we live." She paused, then grinned mischievously. "Well, except for that part where you stuck out your rear-end and started monologuing about being youthfully rubicund and obstetrically capacious. You do realize that makes no sense for a guy, right?"

"Pfft, who cares? You were so strung out on love potion that I could've said anything, and you still would've been all over me like a hobo on a ham sandwich."

"Like a hobo on a ham sandwich? Really? That's the simile you're choosing?"

"Would you prefer 'like a fat kid on cake'?" he asked.

Cindy gasped with fake indignation. "Neutron, don't drag Carl into this! What kind of friend are you?"

He let his head fall back as he laughed. "You're awful!" His smile faded, and he dropped his chin, meeting her eyes with a question in his own. "Why is it always like this with you? At school, you're a nightmare, but as soon as we get out here, in some crazy situation, you're the first person I want to talk to. You're witty, and insightful, and you have the most scathing sense of humor..." She looked to the side, and he stared at her until she made eye contact again. "I know we swore not to discuss what happened in the emotion rooms, but did you really mean what you said? That you sometimes imagine what it'd be like if the two of us never left that island?"

She fidgeted. "Well, sometimes..."

"What do you imagine, exactly?"

She slid her foot over the ground, tracing patterns with her toes. "I don't know...having conversations like this, I guess. Not having to worry about what other people might think if they saw us smiling at each other, or holding hands..." She reached for his hand, then stopped herself. "But it's like you said back in Shangri Llama – the whole universe is against us. You and I aren't meant to be together."

"Well," he admitted, "maybe I was wrong. In life, you can't expect everything to just magically fall into place. Maybe there are no ready-made islands, if you catch my drift...maybe you have to make your own island, wherever you are, whatever the circumstances."

"God, Neutron, could you get any cornier? You're triggering my gag reflex here."

"What? It was a perfectly valid metaphor!"

"Valid doesn't necessarily mean good."

He threw his hands in the air. "Well excuse me for not being a poet! Here I am pouring my heart out, and you're worried about semantics!" Suddenly animated with anger, he jumped to his feet. "Ugh, you drive me nuts, you know that? Why do you have to be so confusing and aggravating all the time? You're rude, and you criticize me, and then suddenly you turn around and do something smart and funny...I hate it!"

"Well, maybe if you didn't constantly act like you're better than me, I wouldn't feel the need to cut you down to size! Maybe if you treated me like an equal –"

"Don't blame your nasty attitude on me!" he shouted. "You're in charge of your own actions. It's a choice, Cindy, a conscious choice. You could choose to be nice to me if you wanted to, but you don't. So if I hate you, how can you blame anyone but yourself?"

"You don't really hate me, do you?" she asked softly.

Sighing, he flopped down next to her. "No, but sometimes I wish I did. It would be so much easier to hate you if I didn't like you so much."

She snickered, and he glared at her. "See? Now you're making fun of me again!"

"I'm not, I swear!" She smoothed a few strands of hair away from her face, then looked down, ashamed. "I know I ream you out when I shouldn't. But to be honest, half the time I can't think of any other way to get your attention. You get all up on your high horse, and then I'm not good enough for you anymore, and you ignore me."

He closed his eyes. "Cindy, I couldn't ignore you if I wanted to. That's what scares me so much."

She stuck her nose in the air. "Well, it serves you right. Everything was hunky-dory before I met you. I was the smartest kid in class, and I had a nice normal life in a nice normal town. Then, bang! You swoop in with your junky tin rocket, and the next thing I know, my parents are being captured by aliens and Ms. Fowl is fifty feet tall."

"Well," he chuckled, "when you put it like that..."

"But you know what?" she continued. "When I try to picture life without you, well... it's pretty darn boring. The truth of the matter is, I like being around you. And I can say that with impunity, having spent so much, um...quality time in your company."

"Quality time, huh? Like when we switched minds, you mean?"

"Yeesh," she huffed, rolling her eyes. "Don't remind me."

" ...How was that, by the way?"

"Um, yeah, I've pretty much filed that whole experience into the 'never speak of this again' folder." She swung around to face him. "Do you know that I held my pee for 18 hours straight so I wouldn't have to see anything that might scar me for life?"

"That's nothing. Your crazy mom insisted that I bathe before bed, so I had to turn off all the lights and take a shower in the dark. I almost slipped on strawberry shampoo and died."

She burst out laughing. "Are you serious? You never told me!"

"Ya, because you would've killed me if you knew. You can't just saunter up to a girl and say 'hey guess what, I just got naked in your body and splashed some sudsy water on myself'. That sort of statement tends to elicit a negative reaction."

Cindy guffawed. "Oh my God! I can't believe you just said that!"

"Me neither. Let's stop talking about this."

"Good idea."

There was a long moment of silence, and Jimmy cleared his throat. "So, um...what now?"

She heaved a tired sigh, then scooted closer and rested her head against his shoulder. "I don't know. I don't care. Just be a good headrest and shut up."

They remained like that for awhile, content to sit quietly in one another's company. After a time, a scream in the distance broke their reverie, and Cindy perked up.

"What was that?"

"Not sure..."

Rapid footsteps approached, and Future Libby peeled out around the corner, with Future Sheen hot on her heels. Panic overtook Cindy, and she jumped to her feet. Stepping in front of Jimmy, she assumed an aggressive karate stance, only to drop her block when she realized that Future Libby was laughing.

"No...hahaha! Stay back!"

Future Sheen lumbered after her in a stiff-legged march, arms extended like the Frankenstein monster. He groaned and threw his head from side to side in a cheesy imitation of his earlier struggle to control himself.

"Oh no!" he wailed with mock drama. "I'm no longer the master of my own limbs! I'm coming to get you! Raaaaawr!"

Future Libby teeheed and batted his hand away. "Eek! Save me!"

"There's no hope!" he gushed with exaggerated anguish. "You can't possibly escape from my freakish muscly insanity!” She giggled as he reached out and snagged her by the back of the dress. "NOOO! What am I doing? You'll never date me if I manhandle you like this! Curse you Jimmyyyyyyyyy..."

Cindy's jaw dropped at the spectacle. " God."

"In all of my years," said Jimmy, wide-eyed, "I've never witnessed anything so indescribably..."

"...Horrifying?" supplied Cindy.

"Ya. That's the one."

Realizing that they were not alone, Future Libby and Future Sheen dropped their charade.

"Oh, uh...hi guys," said Future Libby as nonchalantly as she could.

Cindy blinked, stunned. "Hi. Say, you two wouldn't happen to have any brain bleach on you, would you?"

Future Libby adjusted her rumpled dress, looking abashed. "Sorry about that. We were just, um...uh..."

"We were looking for Aurora," finished Future Sheen.

"Right. Lookin' for Aurora. Have you seen her?"

Cindy massaged her forehead in annoyance. "I thought she was with you."

"Well, she was, but she told me she was comin' here."

Jimmy gestured as the closed door next to him. "Well, I suppose she could've gone into the sim-lab after we left, but I'm not going back in there to find out." He paused. "By the way, where are Carl, Libby, and Sheen? Are they still in the cockpit?"

"As far as I know," said Future Libby. "I had to put 'em on mini-house arrest after they drew mutton chops and unibrows on the faces of everyone present, and Carl started breakin' out in hives from contact with the ink."

"How am I not surprised?" Cindy exhaled in exasperation. "Nerdbomb and I are still waiting for the resident mad scientist to finish up in there – he kicked us out a little while ago because we were 'distracting him' or something."

Future Libby planted a hand on her hip. "Seriously? Someone needs to make a 'teamwork' pill and shove it down that guy's throat."

Cindy warmed to the theme. "I know, right? I was just telling Neutron here..."

Jimmy's mind drifted as Cindy and Future Libby continued conversing – that is, until he caught sight of Future Sheen, who had receded into the background. Jimmy took his first good look at the tall man, who in addition to being tattooed with strange numbers and markings, was still shirtless and in apparent need of a bath. Future Sheen leaned against the wall for support, covering his left eye and dragging in labored breaths.

Concerned, Jimmy nodded in his direction. "Hey Sheen, you OK?"

Future Libby glanced behind her to check on him, and Future Sheen instantly resumed a carefree stance. He grinned benignly, and Future Libby cocked her head to the side.

"No worries, Libs. I just had a massive itch on my back, and I couldn't reach it for the life of me."

"Ugh, I hate it when that happens," she sympathized. "Want me to scratch it for you?"

"Much as I hate to turn down a free back-scratching, I uh...I already took care of it. Thanks though."

Future Libby turned back to Cindy, none the wiser, and Future Sheen slumped with the effort of his lie. Jimmy frowned, wondering what could have prompted the cover-up.

"Hey Neutron, I'm talking to you here!"

Cindy elbowed him a little too roughly, and he jumped.

"Wha–? Huh?"

"I said, we're going back to the cockpit to pick up Libs and the two house-apes and see if we can rustle up some grub. You coming?"

"Um..." Jimmy stole another glance at Future Sheen, then shook his head. "No thanks. I have some...things I'd like to investigate."

"Suit yourself.”

They set off, and Jimmy waited until they had rounded the corner before he dashed off in the opposite direction.

"I bet the bio-chem lab's the best place to look," he muttered to himself. "If I remember the ship schematics correctly, it should be right –" He turned left and almost charged past a doorway labeled Biochemistry Laboratory. "– here."

He skidded to a stop and backtracked to the entrance. He held up a piece of his hair to the DNA scanner, but before it recognized the match, the doors slid open of their own accord. Jimmy found himself face-to-face with Aurora, who held a holo-pad tucked under her arm.

"What the – Aurora?"

"Oh, good," she said, without missing a beat. "You've saved me the trouble of finding you."

He tried to peer past her into the laboratory, but the lighting proved too dim. "What are you doing snooping around inside the bio-chem lab? How did you even get in there?"

"I'm doing what we in the biz like to call 'recon'," she replied. "Since the Half Life is for all intents and purposes my ship now, I need to familiarize myself with every aspect of her operation. And if, during the process of said familiarization, I happen to do some digging using the passcodes you gave us, then all the better. You, on the other hand, are snooping. I hope you're not planning to inspect his inventions so you can replicate them when you get back home."

"Come on, Aurora, you know me better than that. I'm not going to draw inspiration from evil-ville. I came here to see if I could uncover any information on Future Sheen. He was behaving strangely earlier, and I suspect there's more to the incident than meets the eye."

"My, great minds really do think alike. Here."

Aurora handed Jimmy the holo-pad, and something about her expression made the tiny computer feel heavy in his grasp.

"What's this?" he asked.

"There's one thing in particular I was investigating, and I've downloaded all the data I could find into the pad. Have a look."

She tapped one corner of the holo-pad, and the screen switched on. A 3-D rendering of Future Sheen blinked and rotated twice, then shrunk down, making room for a directory of folders.

"Experiment 21-12?" frowned Jimmy.

She nodded grimly. "The Dictator performed some pretty appalling experiments on Sheen over the last ten years, Jimmy. I'm trying to get a handle on the extent of the damage. I've had a look through the records, but to be honest, the science is beyond me. That's why I want you to scrutinize the experimental data and let me know what we're dealing with here."

"Wouldn't it make more sense to ask my future self about this? He is the one who did the experiments, after all."

"Are you kidding me? The man's a mess. You couldn't pay me to trust his judgment right now."

"Well that's reassuring to hear," said Jimmy sarcastically. "You know, since he's currently building the contraption that will send us across universes. Or scatter our atoms. Whichever. Boy, I sure am glad you left the crazy guy in charge of our return trip..."

"I'm not doubting his technical competence. I'm talking about his emotional stability. He'd feel too much guilt about what he did to Sheen to examine the data objectively. No, I want you to do it."

Jimmy selected a folder and began to peruse its contents, a bit unsettled by this new responsibility. "OK, I'll have a look at the files, but I'm not quite sure what you expect me to conclude."

"Sheen attacked Libby back on the base," said Aurora gravely, "and he probably would have killed her if not for some quick thinking on her part and an Everest-sized mountain of luck. I already know he's a basket case, but the question is, can he be fixed? Just figure out whether he poses a permanent danger to himself and others. Tell me if there's anything you can do to reverse what those experiments did to him."

"And what if I conclude that the damage is irreparable? What then?"

Her cold eyes gave him the answer. "Libby is my best friend, Neutron. I don't care how she feels about Sheen – if he's a threat to her safety in any way, I won't give him the chance to hurt her. I will eliminate the threat."

Jimmy's eyes widened. "You're going to kill him if he's too messed up? You've got to be kidding me. You can't do that, Aurora!"

"I didn't say kill. I'm not completely uncivilized. I'll just put him into cold sleep, or drop him off on a habitable planet somewhere..."

"After everything he's been through? Aurora, that's too cold-blooded! I won't allow it!"

"I guess you'd better find a way to fix him then, huh?"

"And what's to stop me from lying?" He glared at her. "Now that I know what you intend to do if I give you a negative report, I could easily skew the facts to protect him."

She waved a hand airily as she walked away. "You won't. I know you. The burden of Libby's safety is now on your shoulders. If you realize that Sheen's a genuine threat, you'll have to speak up, or risk her life, and you're too much of a goody-goody for that. Isn't it great? Your own morality will compel you to do what I say."

He shouted after her retreating figure, livid. "You...YOU! You're positively medieval, Aurora!"

"Sticks and stones, Neutron. I have my priorities. If you don't like it, find a way to outsmart me. In the meantime, have fun analyzing the data."

With that pronouncement, she vanished around the corner, leaving Jimmy to fume into the data pad. Several choice words later, he reigned himself in enough to take a closer look at the files. As he pored over the documents, his angry expression gradually transformed into one of grim understanding. His eyes flew over the words, the diagrams, the numbers, absorbing everything at lightning speed. All the while, his brow contracted into an ever-increasing frown.

"This is..." When he looked up at last, it was with the dismayed determination of someone ready to battle the most awful of diagnoses. "You can't do this to me, Aurora." He took off down the hallway at a brisk pace, heading after Future Sheen and Future Libby. "I'll take care of this, and I'll do it my way. If you don't like it, then have fun outsmarting me."

It didn't take long for the boy genius to catch up with the others. They strolled at a relaxed pace, laughing and chattering amongst themselves. Jimmy approached the trio with a self-conscious clearing of his throat. Cindy was the first to notice his presence, and she planted a hand on her hip with a smug grin.

"Couldn't stay away from me, eh Neutron?"

Jimmy didn't waste energy on a snappy retort. "Sheen, can I talk to you for a sec?"

"Sure, I guess," said Future Sheen. "What about?"

Future Libby looked on curiously, and Jimmy rubbed his arm. "Um, I think we should probably discuss this in private..."

The adults exchanged glances, and Future Sheen folded his arms. "Whatever it is, you can darn well say it in front of – "

Future Libby interrupted. "No, no, it's OK Sheen. Cindy and I will go on ahead. If Jimmy says he needs to talk to you alone, then he needs to talk to you alone." Her gaze traveled from Future Sheen to the boy genius, and she smiled. "I'll see you boys back in the cockpit, 'kay? Come on, Cindy..."

She bowed before leaving, and Jimmy shook his head as she disappeared down the hall with a quizzical Cindy in tow.

"I still get weirded out when she does that."

Future Sheen shrugged. "Meh, I think the bowing's kinda hot."

"You think EVERYTHING she does is hot."

"What's your point?"

Jimmy raked his fingers through his hair, exhaling apprehensively. "Never mind that. Sheen, there's something I need to discuss with you, and I don't think you're going to like it."

Future Sheen stiffened.

"I've had a look at the data from the experiments that were performed on you," explained Jimmy, "and it doesn't look good. What the Dictator did to you...I can't just snap my fingers and reverse it. And that's not all."

Future Sheen shut his mismatched eyes, an action which accentuated the dark circles beneath them. He forced himself to unclench his fingers before speaking. "What's not all?" he bit out the words. "What else?"

Jimmy backed up a step. "This is the part you're not going to like..."

-> Chapter 45 ->