The crusty, stooped alien landlord lead the way down the alley; two figures, swathed head to toe in bulky Numerian traveling robes, followed close behind him. The rain fell in dreary curtains all around the trio as they approached the end of the street. A vermin of some kind scurried past their feet and disappeared into an open manhole, and a curdling stench rose from the sewers to greet them. Grays, browns, and greens smeared the sky, and the alleyway shared similar hues. The landlord and his two companions passed the twisted remains of a lamppost, but even without its light they could see in front of them a row of decrepit housing units, as ugly and deteriorated as the cobblestones beneath their feet.
"Wull, it urrn't much," said the alien, "but it's the chuppest we 'uve."
The group stopped in front of a cracked door. An unreadable number hung askew from a peg in the center. The landlord pulled out a key ring and removed a pair of bronze keys, which he handed to his new tenants.
The taller of the two, a black haired, sad-faced man, smiled in return. "Thank you."
"Not used turr Numurrians stayin' hurr. Don't go makin turrble. Things urr udgy enough ullruddy."
The other traveler threw back her hood, revealing a cascade of tumbling auburn hair, which escaped here and there from her cloak like wisps of cumulus cloud. She smiled disarmingly as she turned the key in the lock.
"We know when to keep quiet. No need to worry about us."
The alien squinted at her, then huffed grumpily and shuffled away, muttering to himself. "Uhfull forwurd furr a Numurrian wummun…"
The woman pushed open the door, and she and her companion entered their new dwelling. Shutting the door firmly behind them, they surveyed their surroundings in silence. The main room was unfurnished except for a tattered sofa in the center and a stained futon in the far corner. The peeling, whitewashed walls were bare, except for the odd nail here and there. Beyond the main room was a small kitchen, complete with an old refrigerator, a washtub, and a jerry-rigged stove-microwave combo.
"Is it safe to change?" whispered the man.
The woman stole a glance out of the room's only window, drew the curtain, then nodded.
"Yes. We're alone."
Aurora and Future Jimmy flicked off their appearance generators, and their Numerian disguises faded away. Their metallic space suits looked starkly out of place next to their rundown surroundings.
"Thank God," grumbled Aurora. "That stupid hologram was driving me nuts."
Future Jimmy dragged himself over to the sofa and collapsed onto it, draping one arm over his eyes. He lay in silence as Aurora poked around the room.
"Ugh, who knew finding an apartment on this rock could be such a hassle?" she said. "I thought this was supposed to be a criminal paradise, not a poverty-stricken hellhole."
She chucked her suitcase across the room, and it landed on the futon, kicking up a cloud of dust. Future Jimmy heaved a sigh.
"The two are often one and the same. …Aurora, I'm still not convinced that we made the right choice by coming here. We are effectively throwing ourselves headlong into the worst crime hotspot in the whole spiral arm. Wouldn't it be more sensible to start small and work our way up?"
She shrugged. "Not the way I see it. From what I can tell, this is the perfect hiding place. The local authorities are so corrupt that folks with a mind for justice won't come within a million miles – as long as we're here, the good guys can't touch us. Besides, like I told you before, we have a job to do. And, what better place to start our work than on the most nefarious, morally-bankrupt backwater in the whole galaxy? Granted, it won't be a life of luxury, but we have to start somewhere. And, with your appearance generators, we can play dirty without giving ourselves away."
He stared over at her from his spot on the couch. His blue eyes made her uneasy, and she turned away. This wasn't the first time she'd caught him watching her like this, and though she hadn't the faintest idea what his thoughts might be, she could not abide any of the possibilities. Exhaling to steady herself, she invented an excuse to get rid of him.
"I bet those so-called appliances in the kitchen aren't working."
"Easily remedied," he replied. "Shall I go fix them?"
He removed the Hypercube from a compartment inside his watch, then hoisted himself up off the couch.
"I know you're not the type of person to pack a normal suitcase," she began, "but I wish you wouldn't store everything in the Hypercube. That thing makes me nervous. What if you inadvertently materialize the Half Life right in the middle of our apartment?"
"Aurora, the Hypercube responds to explicit mental commands. If my brain cannot distinguish between a wrench and a spaceship, then our cover deserves to be blown."
Closing his hand over the device, he turned and disappeared into the adjoining room. As soon as he was out of sight, Aurora went limp with relief. She mopped the hair out of her eyes, massaging her eyebrows.
"How...How's it look in there?" she asked.
His response sounded muffled coming from the other room. "I have never seen such a disgraceful lack of rudimentary hygiene. I don't know who the previous tenants were, but their cleaning habits suggest a level of 'dense' not seen since the discovery of osmium."
"We'll have one of your robots scrub it down it later. Just...stay in the other room and keep working."
"At least I can harvest the cockroaches and put them to good use. Roach brains contain toxins that work superbly as antibiotics, thanks to the millions of years they spent evolving in filthy conditions. I could start synthesizing some basic medicines as soon as I..."
She stopped listening, overwhelmed by his company and the thought of their future mission on this gray and miserable planet. Wandering over to the window, she rested an arm against the wall and peered out. As she looked through the streaked, grimy glass, an acute feeling of loss swept over Aurora. She thought back to her childhood while staring into the middle distance. She recalled the faces of smiling friends, remembered the way the light glinted off the family portrait that hung on the living room wall. She saw the four corners of her bedroom which, once upon a time, had been covered in pink wallpaper and colorful posters. Then, like a page from a photo album, the pictures fell to the side as new ones rolled in to take their place.
Future Jimmy appeared in the doorway. "Aurora?"
Aurora didn't hear him. Chin in hand, she leaned against the window frame, watching the raindrops shatter into ripples on the broken cobblestones. Where had the years gone? Outwardly impassive, she tried to recall her mother's voice, but found the sound hopelessly faint with the passage of time. The weight of this realization hung like lead on her shoulders. Swallowing to quell the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, she thought back over the years spent with April – the struggles, the battles, and the friendship, now lost to her. Nav's laughter echoed in her thoughts, and she closed her eyes, wishing with all her heart to forget. Finally, she saw Future Libby standing alone by the shores of that red lake, arms outstretched, inviting her to see the world anew. Aurora placed a hand to her chest, filled with a deep, incurable sadness.
"Aurora? Are you all right?"
Feeling eons older than her 21 years, she turned back to face the man who had taken it all away, yet who was, paradoxically, the only one who could give it back again. He gazed at her from the other side of the room, concern etched into his face. They stood motionless, the distance between them amplified by their private loneliness and sorrow. At last Aurora reached out to him across the expanse– and for the briefest of moments, a glimmer shone in her somber eyes.
"This is our chance, Neutron," she said. "Let's take it."