Chapter 46: Raison
d'être

Aurora and DJ by Mara S.

Back on board the Half Life, Future Jimmy wandered onto the bridge to discover Aurora still face-down at the control console, blue suit gleaming in the light of Earth's sun. The children, meanwhile, stood mute in their circle, hands clasped and eyes downcast, like mourners at a funeral. Goddard, standing close at heel, whimpered, and the kids swung toward the sound. Aurora unfurled slowly, her chair creaking as she swiveled round to face Future Jimmy. Her beauty was a stab wound, and it took all his strength to stroll forward with a scientific air.

"I have devised a solution to the problem," he announced. The kids blinked at him dumbly, and he shook his head, catching himself. "What I mean to say is, I have discovered a method for cross-universe transportation. I know how to send you home."

Cindy stepped away from the others and planted a hand on her hip. "Did you finally manage to replicate that stupid triangle? I hope you toned it down a bit, 'cause I'm not exactly looking forward to getting sucked down the cosmic drain again."

"No cosmic drains will be involved, you have my word. Then again, neither will the triangle."

He opened his hand, revealing a scaled-down version of Jimmy's matter-compressing invention, the Hypercube.

"Is that what I think it is?" asked Jimmy.

"Yes. This is the Hypercube 2.0, an improved version of its predecessor, and the best storage device I've ever built."

Future Jimmy closed his eyes for a moment, as if willing the invention to obey his thoughts. Evidently it did, because five tiny metal discs popped out into his waiting hand.

Cindy moved in for a closer look. "Wait a minute...I recognize those heinous disco buttons. Aren't those the memory processing kernels you just used to zap our brains back in your lab?"

"...You did what to them, Neutron?" demanded Aurora in a slow, threatening voice.

Cindy waved away Aurora's tirade before she could make it. "Never mind, it doesn't matter. Let's focus on the question at hand. Pretending for a second that I would ever voluntarily use one of those brain suckers again, how on God's green earth would they help us get back to our universe?"

"Do you want the abridged version, or the full scientific explanation?"

Before the others could stop him, Jimmy chimed in with an answer. "The full scientific explanation, please. "

"No!" shouted Cindy and Sheen in unison.

"Sweet cankles of Robofiend, our sanity is on the line! Have mercy!"

Future Jimmy's eyebrows shot up ever so slightly. "Mercy, you say? Very well, the shortened version it is – although I will attempt to give you some background first." He straightened his collar in the manner of a professor about to give a complex lecture. "As you may imagine, the physics of travel through the multiverse are immensely difficult to understand. For the purpose of our discussion, we need only focus on the number one problem preventing your easy return home: the randomness of the jumps between universes. It's actually quite simple to travel through the multiverse, but choosing a specific destination is another matter."

"Clarify?" said Jimmy.

"You ended up in this reality entirely by chance," Future Jimmy explained. "Even if I were to exactly replicate the invention that brought you here, there is no guarantee that it would return you to your point of origin. It could send you to any one of a nearly infinite number of universes where the necessary atoms for building a human body are extant."

"So," began Libby, "if you just zapped us with Jimmy's triangle again, we could end up literally anywhere?"

"Thank you for paraphrasing what I just said."

Libby glared at the former Dictator. "Look, I'm runnin' real low on patience here. We all know you've figured out a genius solution, so just save-the-drama-for-yo-mama and tell us what it is! I wanna go home!"

"I must make a note to eradicate that phrase from existence once you're gone," frowned Future Jimmy. "I think the entire universe would benefit from its absence."

Aurora snickered a little, but Libby continued to glare.

"Have it your way, then," he said. "The 'genius solution' boils down to this: while it's practically impossible to send your physical body to a deliberate destination within the multiverse, it is possible to transport your consciousness using your memories as a map."

"Wait, what?" blurted Cindy. "How the heck did you figure that out?"

Libby made a face. "Cin, don't encourage him!"

"Sorry! I couldn't help it!"

"Over the years I've conducted a fair amount of research relating to what I like to call 'the science of sentience'. I've worked with dream technology, out-of-body transport, artificial intelligence, memory alteration – you name it. Approximately three years ago, I began an intensive experiment on lucid dreaming. My official reason for beginning the research was to maximize invention output – after all, think how much productivity would increase if I could maintain full conscious control while asleep. On a more personal level, I was also suffering from some…unpleasant nocturnal hallucinations at the time and wanted to find a way to banish them."

"You were having nightmares?" frowned Aurora. "About what?"

"The content of my dreams is not up for discussion."

She seemed puzzled, and he didn't elaborate.

"The experiment was a failure," he went on, "but my research didn't end there. When I realized that I could not completely control my sleeping brain, my curiosity took over, and I turned my attention to the nature of dreams themselves. What you might not realize, is that there is a constant blurring of the lines between all the realities that exist in the multiverse. The brain has evolved to filter this out, so that we only perceive that which resides in our immediate dimension. However, during REM sleep – and in the brains of individuals who suffer from disorders like schizophrenia – the filter stops functioning at full power. What you see when you dream is actually the product of your subconscious coming into contact with the different realities of the multiverse. Your brain tries to make sense of the bits and pieces, resulting in the strange and disjointed world of dreams."

"Wow," exclaimed Carl, "no wonder I saw killer lima beans!"

Everyone present gave the redhead a strange look, and he shuffled back out of sight.

"At any rate," continued Future Jimmy, "I created several inventions that allow a person to temporarily send their sleeping mind to whichever universe it wants to inhabit. The destination is selected using positive brain wave patterns, but in your case I would substitute memory data and make the transfer permanent..."

"Wait a minute," broke in Jimmy, "do you really expect me to believe that a person's sense of self exists independently of their physical brain? You do realize that you're advocating something akin to the concept of a soul. That's ludicrous and contradicts everything we know about evolutionary psychology!"

He shrugged. "The brain is a versatile organ. It is capable of detecting and inhabiting the myriad of universes all around us. I will use the memory processing kernels to download everything that happened in the moments before you first used the triangle on Cindy. Using those memories, I will locate your universe or one nearly identical to it. I will then override your minds in that universe with the current configuration of your brains, thus "transferring" your current set of memories and experiences into your old bodies. If you want to equate the mobility of sentience to "soul", then that's your choice."

"Wait, I'm confused," said Carl, "Why are you sending us back to before Jimmy used the triangle on Cindy? Why can't you send us back to just...now?"

"Don't be obtuse, Carl," huffed Cindy. "If the transport relies on memory, he can't send us back to any point after we initially left."

"...Why?"

"Because we wouldn't have been around to remember it, moron!"

"Precisely," nodded the former Dictator. "Furthermore, if I were to send you to any point in time after Jimmy used the triangle on Cindy, it would result in a repeat of her fate. Therefore, the best option is to return you to the moments immediately preceding her initial exposure."

"Hold on..." said Jimmy. "If you return us to our universe before I used the triangle on Cindy, and I choose not to use it this time, then we'd be re-writing history. Won't that affect events in this universe? If I don't send Cindy out to the flagpole, then we never get dragged here. If we never show up, we never meet Aurora, and the antidote plan never exists. The council goes ahead with the battle as planned, and you and Aurora are right back where you started, trying to kill each other. We can't let that happen!"

"It won't happen," assured Future Jimmy. "Assuming my reasoning is correct, and I'm 99.9% certain that it is, paradoxes do not carry across universes. By sending you kids back to the point in time before Jimmy used the triangle on Cindy, you will be in effect changing one of your choices, thus creating a whole new universe. The reason that Aurora's and my universe won't be affected is that somewhere, your original universe – the one where you used the triangle and never came back – will continue to exist."

"That's no good... what about our friends and families in our original universe? They'll be heartbroken if we just vanish forever!"

"There are countless universes, including billions where you have died or were never even born at all. Are you going to worry about all of them as well? The only reality that matters is the one you inhabit; you cannot concern yourself with the rest, or you will go insane."

"This conversation has me halfway there already," despaired Cindy. "I think my head's about to explode."

Jimmy rubbed his eyebrows. "Mine too, if that makes you feel any better."

"It does. There's one thing I don't get, though: if you're just transporting our consciousnesses back to our home universe, what will happen to our bodies here?"

"They will return to their original state as a mere assemblage of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, and trace elements," replied Future Jimmy. "To put it in plain terms, you'll disintegrate into your component atoms. Ashes to ashes, if you will."

Carl shrunk away. "I don't know if I like the idea of my body turning into dust..."

"Happens to all of us sooner or later," shrugged Future Jimmy.

"OK," said Libby, "I've been thrown some curve-balls during my crazy adventures with you guys, but this is just too much. Ain't no way I'm cool with crumblin' away into a human cat-box!"

"I suggest you don't worry about it too much, since it won't actually affect you. The important parts – your awareness and self-identity – won't be harmed. I wouldn't even have told you if Cindy here hadn't asked point blank."

Libby shivered. "I wish you hadn't told us. Major TMI."

"Come on, Libby," said Sheen, "it's not so bad. Think of the perks! After we've been zapped back to our universe, DJ and Aurora can make sandcastles out of our dust! Speaking of which, can I make a request? I'd like you to make a Sheen-shaped sculpture from my ashes, but give me beefy arms and a bushy dingo tail. Think you can you do that?"

Future Jimmy threw Aurora a stricken look, and she intervened on his behalf.

"OK, this conversation has officially jumped the shark. We need to get a move on here. There's no sense sitting around discussing the mechanics of the thing if you're not going to do it." She caught herself, and her expression fell. "If Nav were here right now, that definitely would've earned me a 'that's what she said'."

The kids exchanged uncomfortable glances, unsure whether to be sad or amused. Future Jimmy had by that time regained enough mastery over himself to limit his reaction to subdued contrition. Dropping his gaze, he busied himself with adjusting the settings on the kernels. Jimmy, keenly aware of the sudden awkwardness, tried to break the silence.

"Well, um, time's a-wasting, so...let's start the memory extraction, shall we?"

"Right. Stand still."

Future Jimmy leaned forward and affixed the first of the memory extraction kernels to Jimmy's temple. He repeated the action with Carl, then with Sheen, who flashed his freckled friend a grin and an exaggerated thumbs-up. Cindy snatched the fourth kernel from Future Jimmy's grip before he could press it against her forehead.

"I can put it on myself, thanks."

"Apologies. I forgot about your planet-sized sense of autonomy."

Cindy merely scowled in response, and Future Jimmy approached Libby last of all. She clenched her jaw as he placed the device on her forehead, and even after he turned away, her arms continued to quiver. Noticing, Cindy leaned in to whisper to her friend.

"What's up, Libs? Care to tell me what's got you so miffed?"

Libby bit her lip. "It's him, Cin."

"His royal evilness, you mean? Ya, he's kind of a tool."

"No, I'm serious. He really wigs me out. I don't care if he's 'reformed' or whatever, he still stares like a creeper, and I don't like the idea of leavin' him alone with Aurora. I kinda wish April were here, she was pretty darn solid..."

"Listen, Libs, like him or not, he's our ticket out of here. There's nothing more we can do about any of this madness. It's out of our hands, so just take a deep breath and try not to worry about it, OK?"

"Whatever you say, girl..."

Future Jimmy cleared his throat. "Memory download commencing..."

The memory kernels stared to whir, and Jimmy's eyes flashed worriedly as an idea occurred to him. "This won't be loaded into some sort of shared memory bank, will it? When we did this back in your lab, you could see our memories. The others won't be able to see mine, will they?"

"Everyone's memories will remain separate during this phase of the process," reassured Future Jimmy. "Now, for the second phase..."

He tweaked the Hypercube again, and a spherical device materialized above his outstretched hand. It floated in the air of its own accord, rotating and emitting pulses of light at regular intervals.

"This is the Somnium, the consciousness teleporter I mentioned earlier," he explained. "Normally it hovers over your head while you dream, but with some minor modifications I can use it to send all five of your waking minds back to your home universe. I will combine your memories with Goddard's, which I downloaded earlier, inside its core. Using this information, the Somnium will determine a destination."

The kernels pinged in unison, signaling that they'd completed their task. Future Jimmy collected the kernels, then commenced his usual incomprehensible techno-fiddling. Moments later, the flashing orb Somnium reversed direction and began to glow a constant electric blue.

"All set. If you will gather together in a group just over there, I will prep Somnium for the transfer..."

"No, wait..." said Jimmy. "Hold on a second. We're not ready to go just yet."

"We're not?" questioned Carl.

The boy genius waved his friends over to him. "Come here, you guys..."

Huddling into a circle, they traded hushed words, heads packed close together. Future Jimmy and Aurora exchanged glances, but left the members of the group to their private discussion. Eventually Jimmy nodded, and all five of the kids straightened and looked Aurora's way.

"Listen," said Jimmy, "we've talked it over, and we all agree: we have some things to say to Aurora before we go. Cindy?"

The blonde stepped forward. "We just want to thank you for everything you've done for us. If we hadn't run into you back on that desert planet, well... I don't want to think what would've happened to us."

"You've fed us, and kept us safe, and brought us all over space and stuff," added Carl. "I know you're just a messed up future version of Cindy, but I'm glad we met you."

"It's hard to believe that we're never gonna see you again," said Libby. "These last couple of days, you've been like a mom to us. Even though you're kinda crazy..."

"...and mean..." added Sheen.

"...and completely devoid of maternal warmth –"

"All right," growled Cindy, "she gets it."

"...even despite all those things," continued Libby, "we couldn't imagine anyone we'd rather have protecting us..."

"...except Ultralord..."

"...and we wanted to tell you how much we're goin' to miss you. We'll never forget you."

"No matter what," finished Jimmy.

"Group hug!"

Sheen dive-tackled the pilot, and the others followed suit. They crowded around Aurora, embracing her from all angles, and she went stiff as a board. Squirming in the abruptness of their affection, she patted each of them on the head, her face the color of a ripe tomato.

"Aww, she's blushing!" squealed Carl. "She must really like us!"

Aurora's discomfort was so evident, and her reaction so charmingly awkward, that Future Jimmy had to hide a smile. He scuffed the sole of his shoe against the floor, trying to make sense of Aurora's ability to shoot an enemy in cold blood one day, and earn the admiration of children the next.

"There, there..." patted Aurora, "Ya, OK, I'll miss you too..."

One by one, the kids released their grip and stepped away – except Carl, who missed the cue and had to be pried off by the others.

Aurora dusted off her arms, as if specks of affection might still be clinging to her. "Well, now that you've got that out of your system, I think we can get down to business. Neutron?"

"Ready when they are," he replied, still holding the Somnium.

Wordlessly, Jimmy, Cindy, Carl, Sheen, Libby, and Goddard bunched together. Cindy threw Aurora a salute, which the pilot returned respectfully. Carl's 'secret-llama-friends bye-bye wave' was less well received. With a nod from his younger self, Future Jimmy pushed his palm upward, and the Somnium lifted gently, floating like a balloon into the air above their heads.

"You guys...stay out of trouble, OK?" said Aurora. "Try not to screw up our futures too much. Think before you do something stupid, and whatever you do, don't take anything you have for granted. You never know when it all might come crashing down."

Her audience nodded solemnly, and Future Jimmy pointed up toward the revolving orb. "I've started the transfer. Take care of yourselves, everybody."

The Somnium picked up speed, and as it did, it began to emit a swarm of particles, which sprinkled earthward like holographic fairy dust. Jimmy extended his hands, frowning as one pixel after another alighted on his palms.

"Is this...digital precipitation?"

The particles grew progressively larger, and the kids gazed up at the device in wonder. The pixels caught in their eyelashes like snowflakes, and Sheen opened his mouth to collect a few on his tongue. Libby took a gander at her arms, which were becoming increasingly encrusted in glitter.

"This ain't no precipitation," she declared. "We're being Bedazzled, that's what's goin' on."

As more pixels snowed down, something odd started to happen. The light melted into their skin, their clothes, their hair, and wherever it sank in, it leeched the color from their bodies. Square by square, they changed from living color to black-and-white.

Sheen looked over his friends with a grin. "Whoa, I wish you guys could see yourselves! You're turning into the pictures in my Grandma's attic!"

The glowing flakes piled up until they had eaten away the last patches of color. As the kids faded to grayscale, their energy started to fade along with it. Eyelids drooping lower, the travelers entered into a pleasant torpor, somewhere between sleeping and waking.

"I can't keep my eyes open,” yawned Libby.

Carl's lids flickered shut. "Me...neither..."

After a gentle sigh, their heads lolled forward, and Jimmy, Cindy, Libby, Carl, Sheen, and Goddard fell silent. Their stillness solidified, and for several moments they could have easily be mistaken for statues. Then their feet and fingers began to crumble. Chunks fell, rock-like, from their extremities, only to burst into powder-fine dust upon impact with the ground. Aurora swallowed nervously as the disintegration spread to their cores.

"I hope you know what you're doing, Neutron."

"If this part of the transfer unsettles you, it might behoove you to look away."

"You should know better than anyone that it takes a lot more than this to make me look away."

Their heads crumbled last of of all, and Aurora had to force herself to watch. Future Jimmy studied her expression as the last fragments hit the ground. Without taking her eyes off the remains, she knelt down slowly, then scooped up a handful and sifted it through her fingers.

"Heh. I never thought I'd have so much in common with a pile of dust." She exhaled shakily, then got back to her feet. "Clean up this mess, will you? The last thing we need is a bunch of sand getting into the electronics."

Future Jimmy waved his hand over the Hypercube, and it pulled everything back in – the memory kernels, the Somnium, and the ashes on the floor all vanished in a quick burst of light. Rolling the Hypercube over in his palm, Future Jimmy proceeded to the front of the cockpit. He placed the invention on the dashboard, then turned to face Aurora again, folding his hands behind his back.

"So. We're alone now."

Aurora nodded once to acknowledge his statement, then folded her hands behind her back as well. She strolled toward the observation deck, and he followed her with his eyes. As she stepped onto the glass, the windows multiplied her reflection, cascading her image out row upon row upon row. He took in the sight without a word, then meandered over to join her. Aurora and Future Jimmy stood side by side on the deck, gazing down at the mute blue Earth far below. It was a long while before either of them ventured a comment.

"It looks exactly the same, doesn't it?" observed Aurora. "Same expanse of water, same bands of green and brown, same drifting wisps of cloud..."

"That's how all habitable planets look from this altitude," he said blandly. "Landmasses, liquid bodies, atmospheric phenomena. It's nothing remarkable."

"That's not quite what I meant."

"I know what you meant. You meant that, looking down like this, it's easy to imagine that everything is exactly as we left it. It's easy to imagine streets and cities teeming with people – people who are simply too far away for us to see. I know how easy it is, because I've spent the last ten years just like this, looking out at reality from the wrong end of a telescope. The tragedies of individual beings are invisible from this height."

There was a pause.

"I don't know if anyone's ever told you this,” she said, “but you have a real penchant for monologuing."

"And you have a penchant for snide remarks in lieu of substantive conversation," he shot back.

Aurora turned to face him. "What's this? Has your snark generator recovered already? And here I was, thinking I'd have to wait a couple of days for your old sense of humor to return..."

"Yes, how fortunate that my unpleasant demeanor survived the transformation. You must be thrilled."

"Is that self-deprecating humor I detect? My, we are feeling saucy today, aren't we Neutron?"

He continued to appraise the window with a grim expression on his face, as if choosing his next words carefully. "Aurora, now that they've all gone, there's a matter I've been meaning to bring up. I have an offer to make you, and I would like you to consider it seriously."

"Oh? Go on."

He met her eyes, and she drew her shoulders up a little tighter, as if bracing herself against his gaze.

"Pretend that you have no obligations, no plans, nothing holding you back. All you have to do is snap your fingers, and you can attain whatever you want, go wherever you desire. A number of unfulfilled wishes must spring to mind. Care to tell me what they are?"

"Is there a reason you're trying to sell me a hypothetical vacation package?" she asked warily.

"It doesn't have to be hypothetical," he said. "In ten minutes time I could create a new identity for you, and within twenty-four hours you could be anywhere in the galaxy, with a brand new spacecraft, ample funds, and a clean slate. There is no need for you to continue playing with the cards you've been dealt. Name a destination, any destination, and I will ship you there."

"I'm sorry, back up a sec...let me see if I heard you correctly. Did you just say that you want to 'ship me' somewhere? Am I a FedEx package now? I hope you can explain where this genius idea came from, because aside from referring to me like an inanimate object, it sounds an awful lot like you're trying to buy me off."

"Back in the sick bay you said that you intended to make sure I atoned for my actions, and I agree that I need to spend the rest of my life trying to undo the damage I've done. But why should your name be dragged through the mud in the process? I cannot allow you to become involved in fighting my demons if it means the destruction of your reputation and the surrender of your freedom."

Her eyebrows snapped down, transforming her expression into a livid glare. "News flash, Neutron: I'm already involved, so you can take your new-found concern for my welfare and shove it."

He returned her gaze coldly. "You prideful woman. Do you think I am unaware of what you've sacrificed in the past 24 hours alone? Nothing that happens aboard this ship escapes my attention. I know that April took Carl away on the Shahada as soon as we dropped out of hyperspace. I put a trace on their projected destination, but the trajectory leads to empty space. April's hiding her tracks by breaking the jump into pieces, and I know why. I know what happened between you and April back on my base, and I am keenly aware of the part I played in it."

"So I knocked her lights out. So what? I did the same to you, and Libby did the same to Sheen. It was a product of the situation, nothing more. Do yourself a favor and stop over-analyzing everything."

"I'm not over-analyzing, I am simply adding another item to my already prodigious list of transgressions. If you stopped and reflected for a moment, you would see my point. Forget the decade's worth of anonymous victims that I murdered simply for the thrill of power...My crimes against you personally would be enough to put me away for life. Frankly, I do not understand how can you endure being in the same room with me. Doesn't it make your skin crawl?"

"Guess I'm just a glutton for punishment," she shrugged.

"That's not funny."

"Sure it is. Give it a couple of days."

"Continue to hide behind humor if you want," he glowered. "It won't change the reality of our situation. I have examined the issue from every angle, and there's only one logical course of action: we need to go our separate ways. I've been dictating the terms of your existence for far too long. It's time for you to live your own life."

For a second her eyes flashed wide in terror, then she grabbed him by the collar. "Don't you DARE patronize me like that! I thought that maybe, with everything that's happened, your ego would've shrunk down to a more manageable size, but clearly I was wrong."

"Well, pardon my sudden humanity," he scowled. "Shall I go back to gloating and locking you in prison cells for weeks on end? I would be happy to oblige your predilection for torture, if that's what you'd like."

"Don't give me that! You're not concerned with my well-being – you're protecting yourself from the guilt you feel every time you lay eyes on me. Well I've got news for you, pal. If you turn away from me, you will never truly confront what you did. Don't resolve with me, and you will never reach any resolution at all. So go ahead and hate yourself for your crimes, wrestle with the tough questions, search for ways to cope. Do whatever you have to do, but do not shut me out."

"I am not trying to shut you out," said Future Jimmy. "I am trying to improve your prospects for the future."

"Screw you! Do you realize what a jackass you're being right now? If you think you can get rid of me that easily, then you are sorely mistaken. I want you to face me fully, look me in the eye, and deal with everything that you feel. The only way we can come to terms with any of this is if we first come to terms with each other."

He looked her up and down, thoughtfully silent, and Aurora's bold words became deserters on her tongue. She shoved him away in a jolt of fear, and he skidded to a stop beside the largest of the observation windows. She retreated a few paces, unnerved.

"M-my point is, if you're going to stare out at reality from the wrong end of a telescope, I'd better be the one calibrating the damn settings. You'd have to be an idiot to think it could be otherwise."

He sensed her sudden vulnerability, and it took all his self control not to act on it. He let his gaze fall to the side. "I still cannot comprehend why you insist on this course of action."

"Then let me explain it to you, buddy."

She backed him up to the window, and the glass squeaked as his shoulder blades pressed against it. Aurora leaned over him, their bodies silhouetted as one shape against the vast oceans and sweeping plains down below.

"Are you certain you wish to test me like this, Aurora?" A blaze broke out over the surface of his suit, and lukewarm flames rose up from his chest and slithered around Aurora. "I could easily burn a hole through this window and send myself tumbling into oblivion."

"If you break this window, then I'll fall with you. Is that what you want?"

"Is that what YOU want?"

Aurora rolled her eyes. "Enough already. I'm staying with you, and that's all there is to it. And don't look at me like I'm some kind of martyr, because my motivation hasn't changed. Only my method has."

"And what motivation would that be?"

She grinned, showing a few too many teeth. "Revenge. I'm pursuing this course of action for one reason only, and that's to torment you. If you were to pursue atonement alone, you might someday find peace of mind...but as long as I'm around, you'll never be able to escape from what you did." She traced her finger down his jawline. "Now, when you sit alone in a room, whether you stare blankly ahead or shut your eyes, it'll be my face that you see. I'll be in the air you breathe and the water you drink. Like the suit you wear, I'll be the one ingrained into your skin. How's that for poetic justice, my self-professed raison d'être?"

He seized her by the shoulders, and fear once again splashed over her like ice water. Before she could pull away, he swung her round and slammed her back against the glass. The air fled her lungs, and she felt her control slipping as the warmth from his body bled into her.

"I'm not without an appreciation for irony, but if you're really trying to punish me, then I think you might be making a serious miscalculation. What happens if our relationship becomes more than just a dialectic of guilt and obligation?"

A trace of their old rivalry gleamed in his eye, and elation surged through Aurora. "All the greater the torment!" she said wildly.

He yanked her off the window and shoved her away from him, and she stumbled back with a triumphant laugh.

"Do you finally get it? You can't win this one, Neutron. For the first time in our lives, I truly have the upper hand. This is checkmate, my oh-too-clever friend. I own you now, and there's nothing you can do about it, because you know darn well that you deserve it. So stop treating me like a freaking victim, because that's not what I am. I'm self-centered, and I'm vengeful, and I'm going to make your life a living hell from this day forth."

This time it was his turn to chuckle as he pushed away from the glass. "I clearly underestimated your capacity for guile, Aurora. If this is indeed your revenge strategy, then... well, my options are limited. You've cornered me masterfully, and you were right: I do deserve it."

Blush crept onto her cheeks, and she clenched her fists, furious at herself for reacting to his praise.

"But," he went on, "just to avoid any confusion, perhaps we should set some ground rules."

"Meaning?"

"Years ago, you tried to convince me to draw up an official 'friendship contract' with you. I thought it was an unforgivably stupid idea at the time, but I'd like to resurrect that treaty now."

"I don't see anything wrong with setting some boundaries. All right, I'll start." She cleared her throat. "Our relationship must remain professional. Any information about my past that I do not volunteer is off limits, and my emotional life is none of your business. You are never to comment on my appearance, and barring a life-or-death situation, you are not allowed to use physically or mentally intrusive technology on me. You will also kindly remember that we are in this together and that macho grandstanding could get us both killed. Agreed?"

"Agreed. Now, for my requirement."

Ice-blue light trickled into his cupped palms, and without thinking, Aurora automatically planted her feet and prepared to kindle fires of her own. He looked up at her from underneath his bangs, and her pulse quickened.

"Aurora. Don't forget what I'm capable of. I am the 1st Samarkandi – I exterminated our species, and I burnt the worlds of half a dozen galaxies to the ground. I could kill you faster than I could threaten to kill you. No matter what transpires between us in the future, you must promise that you will never, ever forget what I could do to you. Can you promise me that?"

Not to be outdone, Aurora ramped up her energy output, sending tendrils of flame swirling into the space between them. Her suit's energy mingled with his, and the blue and green tongues coiled around each other in a dazzling inferno.

"And don't you forget what I'm capable of. I'm the infamous rebel in the silver mask. I can fly circles around the best and hold my own against even the most hardened criminals. In the end, nobody can stand in my way, because I can lose everything and still find the will to go on."

His flames went out, and Aurora eased up hers as well. The light died down, and she and Future Jimmy settled into a mutually intelligible silence.

"Well, I guess we understand one another, then," he said.

"Ya. I guess we do."

Returning to the cockpit, he fetched the Hypercube off the dashboard and, cupping it in his open palm, shifted his weight back and forth from one foot to the other. He grinned at her with all the bashful charm of a schoolboy, and for the upteenth time that day Aurora had to reevaluate her opinion of him.

"I was hoping you wouldn't be too stubborn to see reason, but just in case you insisted on staying with me, I made you a present."

"A present?"

"Indeed. See?"

He tapped the Hypercube, and two silver rectangles popped out and dropped down into his waiting hand. Unable to contain her curiosity, Aurora wandered over for a closer look.

"What are they?" she asked.

He flipped the devices open, revealing a pair of keypads, microphones, and two tiny monitors.

"They look like...cell phones. Or really high-tech walkie-talkies."

"More or less," he confirmed. "It was obvious that you would be upset about leaving your best friend behind, so I made these. They are equipped with subspace transmitters that allow calls to travel over vast distances, and they charge kinetically, so they'll never run out of power." He shook them a couple of times to demonstrate. "Even better, they are quadruple encrypted and only capable of dialing one another, so there's little security risk. Of course, even with my unprecedented technical genius, there will still be a bit of lag time between when you talk and when Libby hears it. Subspace technology has its limits, after all..."

"Wait... what are you saying?"

He waved one of them in her face. "Intergalactic cell phones, Aurora. I'm going to teleport this one right into the heart of Shangri Llama, and its built-in flare will ensure that it gets noticed. I will give the other one to you – " he laid the phone in her hand and closed her fingers over it "– and then you and Libby will be able to call each other whenever you want. No long distance charges apply."

Aurora looked down at it incredulously, then back up at him.

"Well?" he prompted.

She burst out laughing, and he took half a step back. Aurora clapped him on the shoulder. "How come I didn't think of something like this? I must've gotten one too many concussions over the years." She tossed the phone up and then snapped it out of the air, grinning hard. "You really outdid yourself this time, Neutron. I don't know how to thank you."

"It was the least I could –"

"No, I mean I actually don't know how to thank you. I don't think I've ever had a reason to thank you before."

He shrugged. "I believe normal social protocol calls for a hug at this juncture, but in our case..."

"Probably not a good idea."

"Right."

"A handshake, then?" she suggested. "Given in the same spirit that the gift was given?"

"Deal."

They hastily shook hands, and Aurora retreated back to the control panel and away from his kindness. She fiddled with the settings, conscious of his eyes on her back and the weight of the phone in her hand.

"Hey Neutron?"

"Yes?"

"We probably shouldn't hang around here too much longer. I have a course set and a destination all picked out. Hurry up and teleport that phone."

"On it."

She watched his reflection in the window as he approached and went about the business of activating the teleporter. After some extensive fidgeting, Aurora could no longer contain herself.

"Neutron?"

He swung around to look at her, though his hands never left the controls. "Yes?"

"Those nightmares you mentioned earlier...the ones that started three years ago...what were they about?"

"New provision of our friendship contract: you are not allowed to interrogate me about what goes on in the privacy of my own mind."

"Oh, that's hilarious. This coming from the guy who brain-probes a couple of eleven-year-olds the second my back is turned."

"Why the sudden interest in my dreams, might I ask? Does the knowledge of my fallibility intrigue you? Or perhaps you're simply looking for an excuse to play twenty questions. Here, I'll provide you with your first hint: the subject of my nightmares is bigger than a breadbox, but smaller than a type Ia supernova..."

Aurora studied her cuticles. "I played twenty questions with a prisoner once...or maybe it was ten questions. Or ten fingers. Yes, I believe that was it. Ten fingers. Though, by the end of the interrogation, the game had to be retitled 'zero fingers'..."

"I'll tell you what, Aurora: if you find a way to tie me down and permanently sever all ten of my digits, I swear that I will tell you anything you want to know. How is that for a sporting deal?”

"You know I love a challenge."

He threw her a wry sidelong glance before tapping the final key on the teleporter. The phones vaporized right out of their hands, but they barely noticed. Aurora leaned against the dashboard, tilting her head to the side.

"All this talk of nightmares and persuasion tactics..." she mused. "I'm beginning to think that you and I may have graduated from the same charm school."

"Well, in light of that consideration, perhaps you should drop the subject of nightmares and engage the hyperdrive, before you encounter the kind of charm my education has afforded me."

"Congrats, Neutron," she snorted derisively, "I think I just shat a brick. Way to put the fear of God in me."

He stepped back from the control panel. "At least award me points for originality. I doubt anyone else has threatened you with charm before."

"Hmm, good point. You are the first."

He motioned for her to start the engines, and she sighed.

"All right, hyperdrive it is." She disabled the external initial dampeners, then grabbed hold of the throttle. "Buckle up, Neutron. We're out of here."




-> Chapter 47 ->

Under New Management by Mara