How to Save the World
Fandom: Odyssey 5
Summary: "When all is over, we bequeath the world to its rightful death."
Kurt Mandell had always hated school when he was a kid. He remembered liking to read his science textbook when he was alone, enjoying math problems when he could wrestle with them late at night in his bedroom, devoting hours to the contemplation of dinosaurs and the fossil record. But school, the institution: that was a different story. Forcing himself to sit still, to calm the activity of his mind so that he could stay at the slow pace of a classroom lesson.
Being in jail was kind of like that.
He got ahold of things to do. Magazines, for example. US Weekly. People. Or, especially at first, he'd followed a workout regimen, done push-ups and crunches for hours on end. But he was slowly losing his grip in here, as restless and high-strung as the little kid Kurt had been a few years ago.
It wasn't so bad at first. Sarah Forbes had visited every day. They talked around and never about the two people on their minds - his one-time lover, her son. Kurt had thought Sarah was rather inconsequential when he first met her, pretty and useless, like he assumed most TV journalists must be - but he'd been learning how wrong he'd been with every step they'd taken since they witnessed the destruction of the Earth together.
Neil and Chuck Taggart came to visit once in awhile too; it was Sarah's job to be his friend, he realized, and the other two took it upon themselves to update Kurt on the aimless scrabbling inroads they were making on the problem of how to save the world.
Why don't you look for her, Kurt kept asking, and Chuck explained it rationally, and then snapped at Kurt, and finally just answered the question with a sympathetic look. They both knew that all possibilities to find Angela Perry had turned up nowhere, that there was urgent work to be done for all of humanity. There was a lead on the greater problem at hand - a hubbub of Sentient activity in a nearby suburb, which Neil was trying to pinpoint electronically - and to search for the woman they all knew was dead meant giving up valuable time on a greater quest.
He was going crazy.
"And then there were two," Chuck said ruefully, when Sarah suddenly left home with her son to join an experimental treatment program for cancer in New York, and began refusing all calls from the rest of the crew.
Kurt closed his eyes briefly, thought of Sarah, thought of the delicate silences that passed between them when they both succumbed to memory at the same time, thought of how her presence both sharpened and soothed his sense of loss - she made him remember Angela, and that alone still made him feel alive.
If he had a choice between saving the one person he loved and trying to save the rest of humanity, he'd have done the same as Sarah. He'd have done it in a fucking heartbeat.
But he couldn't, he was in here, and on the outside was Chuck Taggart, a man who had given up doing crazy things for love when Paige Taggart left this world. And so it was not through any of their efforts nor did it seem anything short of a miracle when, exactly thirteen months and four days having passed since Kurt last saw her, Angela Perry, rail-thin and straggle-haired and looking a decade older but upright and alive and oh very definitely Angela, walked down the hall to his cell and told him, "I'm home. You can go now."
"I woke up four weeks ago in Mexico," Angela began with visible efforts to steady herself, looking into the surface of her tea.
Chuck could barely stand to look at her. He was sitting across from her, with Neil next to him, at their old diner; they'd gathered almost immediately after Angela reappeared in their lives, as soon as Kurt walked free, and Angela had begun, haltingly, in a voice that didn't seem quite hers, to tell her story. She was stirring sugar into her tea with a wooden stick, and just where her newly bony wrists poked out from her sleeves he could see the crisscrossing of scars. It hurt him; but it wasn't just that, it was the lines across her face that hadn't been there, the hollows of her cheeks, the slow careful monotone of her speaking voice.
It hurt him.
"Where were you when you woke up?"
"I was in the hospital - I guess they told you where I'd been staying, a hospital in Tijuana. They'd found me in an alley, behind a Dumpster - I don't remember that, or how I got there." She was being very careful to tell the story simply, Chuck could see. To pass it off as if it were a police report. No telltale catch in the voice to betray what had really gone through her head; she was the woman he'd have raised a daughter to be, if he'd had one.
"I woke up and didn't even remember who I was at first," she said. "I was malnourished, they said - I didn't really wake up for another two weeks after that, they had me on such heavy painkillers - well, anyway, that's why I was there for awhile and you guys didn't hear from me."
"But what happened to you?" Neil asked. "I mean, before, when you were with - them."
"We need to know how they're operating, whatever you found out," Chuck said, relieved that Neil had broken the diplomatic silence to start pumping Angela for information. "Where did they have you? Why did they have you a year and do nothing-"
"I don't know, I don't remember anything," Angela broke out.
"Do you know where exactly you were found? The address? Nearby landmarks that we could check out? Anything?"
"No. It was mostly apartments, a couple convenience stores, things like that. They aren't sloppy operators, Chuck. They know what they're doing. I had marks on me... things like what they do at prison camps. When they want to get information out of you."
Kurt inhaled sharply and closed his eyes. Angela, who had long ago stopped chafing when Kurt came closer than other men were allowed to, did not seem to notice, but when she pulled up her sleeves briefly to show Chuck the scars from electrical cuffs, she didn't let Kurt see.
"I don't know why they didn't kill me," she said. "They obviously wanted information about us, about what we're up to - the five of us."
"Do you think you told them?" Chuck said.
"Dad," Neil murmured under his breath.
"We need to know. I know you've been through hell and back, Angela, but we need to know what you think you said."
"I'm alive," she said with a small sad shrug. "I suppose I said what they wanted."
"But it took them nearly a year to get it," Chuck said.
"And you don't remember any of it," Kurt said.
"No." Angela paused and said, looking up at Chuck, "I dream about it sometimes, but I don't know what's real memory and what comes from the things I imagine about what happened."
"The doctors wouldn't tell us the extent of your injuries," Chuck said. "What's your condition, as far as helping out when we start hunting for those bastards?"
"Dad!" Neil exclaimed. "Angela just got back! Can you take a break from being our commander for like, five minutes, and just be glad she's alive?"
"Angela Perry was a great astronaut before you started shaving," Chuck said. "And she's a hell of a lot more of one than either of you will ever be, so try to forget your put-upon routine for one fucking second and remember that we're trying to stop the world from being blown to pieces a second time."
Neil, livid, stirred the remains of his milkshake. "Dad, you go too far sometimes," he said.
"I'm okay," Angela said after a moment. "They had to remove my spleen... but I'll be back in shape within a couple of weeks. And nothing else is permanently affecting my fitness."
"Good," Chuck said.
She tried to hurry away after lunch, feeling a certain panic come on that she had never experienced before returning from her mysterious year away.
He caught up to her, though, caught her arm, his hand closing right where some of the worst scars were. "Angela."
"Kurt, don't follow me around," she said sharply. "I need to get to physical therapy. I'm going to be late as it is."
"Let me drive you."
"Don't start this again," she said. "There isn't time to lose anymore, there are only four of us, and you can't get distracted by whatever nostalgia's gotten hold of you again."
"We're all human," he retorted. "Do you think I thought about this mission while I was alone in a cell for twelve months? Do you think I pondered synths and sentients and the earth's explosion while I was staring at the wall of that prison?"
She extracted her wrist from his grip and faced him, impatient.
"It's not nostalgia," he said. "I thought of you, Angela. Every moment."
Angela shook her head, wearily. "Go home, Kurt," she said.
This time around, Cory cried more.
Sarah didn't know what to make of it; her boy who had been so confused and so patient and so preternaturally grave the first time she watched him die, now seemed to know better what was happening to him. He cried, heartbreakingly, during every trip to the doctor's office, every night before he went to bed; he had nightmares that woke him up screaming and eventually had to have her sleep in bed with him; and all of that was new, terrible, terrifying.
She wondered if her own knowledge, her own memories, had somehow been transmitted to him. A look, a tone of voice might have done the job, or something different, something only a mother could give to a child.
She didn't want him to know he was dying, but she began to believe that he did.
She and Paul got caller ID so she could avoid Chuck's near-constant calls. When Angela showed up Sarah had visited her at the hospital - once - but had returned that night, a four-hour drive, to be with Cory again. "There's no time to waste," a postcard had said, scrawled in red pen, probably by Chuck - no one else would use such a word, talking about a sick child. She tore the postcard into bits and sent it back to him, crying the whole time.
She didn't know why, something about the experimental treatments, the early detection, but whatever the reason, Cory was fighting with more success this time to keep his precious life. The extra time was a blur, insubstantial, inexplicable. Once the date came and went that had once taken him away from her, Sarah lived with the feeling that each day with him was stolen. What did it mean, she wondered, for his soul to have been in heaven one moment and snatched back to earth the next, to be required to endure this suffering all over again, to have to cross back and forth across such a terrible threshold?
She prayed, in the hospital chapel. She lay beside Cory all night with her silent tears soaking the pillowcase. She hung up on Chuck when he called from payphones. And sometimes she and Troy took off during lunch break to rent shady motel rooms and make love in dense desperate silence.
(She didn't pray about that.)
Neil went missing in early May, two weeks after Angela got back.
It happened like this: the other three left him behind because he had an AP Physics exam, which he needed to pass so that Harvard would still let him in, while they followed a news story about a dancer who had apparently committed suicide, but whose body was never found.
"This world is not enough to hold me here," the note had said which was pinned to the refrigerator when the dancer's husband came home one evening. "Do not seek meaning in the Earth's small sphere - destruction falls to those who stay behind, and I forge on to save myself in time."
Terry Lawrence, who had recently joined the Los Angeles Ballet, had not been a religious woman, as far as anyone knew. Her car was found parked near the Santa Monica Pier, although her body had not yet been recovered; when they saw the story in the paper it had in fact been Neil to say, "Doesn't that sound like a reference to, you know, destruction of the Earth?" Sort of a joke, but Chuck ran with it, because there hadn't been much to go on lately and the others were losing morale - especially Angela, who always so loathed inactivity.
But it had seemed to be nothing. They couldn't find any links in Terry Lawrence's life to the Cadre, to orbital physics, to Bright Sky, to Leviathan. On the way home, they stopped in the diner on the way but could not get ahold of Neil on his cell phone to invite him along. ("Has none of us considered the possibility that she might really have been suicidal," Kurt asked with withering sarcasm, waving around the typed copy of the suicide note that they'd been poring over, "and this is some kind of, you know, metaphor?" Angela and Chuck both rolled their eyes, but in the end they'd had to agree that that seemed the most likely scenario now.)
They paid the check after leisurely enjoying a couple coffees each - it had been a long travel day, and they were tired, particularly Angela who was still physically suffering from the effects of her captivity. Kurt flipped his sunglasses back over his eyes and said, "Angela, darling, get your things out of the other car. I'll take you home."
"It's out of your way," she said.
Kurt paid no attention to this objection. "Say good-bye to Chucky," he said, grabbing her waist a moment before she twisted away. "He needs to go see his prodigal son."
Chuck kissed Angela's cheek. "I'll see you tomorrow," he said. "Get some rest; you deserve it."
"I had four weeks of rest in the hospital," she said. "I'm fine."
Chuck gave her a look of grim approval but said only, "Take care of yourself."
He watched them go for a moment, already bickering about the lascivious glance with which Kurt had favored one of the waitresses, and then he went home by himself, playing an old Dylan CD in his car.
It was only when the clock struck three, waking him up from where he'd been sitting in the living room watching the evening news and waiting for Neil, that he realized there was a problem. Neil didn't go out this late without calling, and there had been no messages on the machine.
Kurt arrived ten minutes after Chuck called, slightly tipsy, his hair mussed. Chuck hadn't called Angela (though he knew she'd be angry later), wanting to give her a night of good sleep. "You know, he isn't actually seventeen," Kurt pointed out, irritable. "You can't expect him to follow some sort of curfew."
"No, but I can expect him to be a responsible adult and not disappear as if he were seventeen. Now are you going to argue with me, or are you going to help me look?"
"Where the hell would we look for him? At this time of night? He's probably at his girlfriend's house," Kurt said.
"We need to look for his datebook," Chuck insisted. "He isn't like this anymore, not normally."
They didn't find what they were looking for; Neil's wallet, datebook and cell phone were all missing even though his car was still in the driveway. What Kurt did find, after he'd hacked into Neil's computer only to find a boring set of high-school-boy documents with names like "Harvard Application Essay" and "French Composition," was a sheet of paper in the printer.
"Well, he printed something out before he went," he said, unfolding it. Chuck held out his hand, but Kurt looked at it himself and said, "Hmm, it's a - it's a - God damn."
"What?" Chuck said.
Kurt held out the piece of paper and said, "It's a poem."
"Seek within your own to find," Chuck read, "the chosen few in humankind. What the fuck is this?"
"Keep reading," Kurt said through tight lips.
"When all is over we bequeath/ The world to its rightful death."
Chuck folded the paper up.
"I think," he said after a long time, "you were wrong about Terry Lawrence."
He alit from the small plane into a baking-hot noontime sun without speaking to his companion, who strode slightly ahead of him with his eyes on the horizon. His skin felt crinkly from heat, and as they walked, he reached up every few seconds to wipe the sweat out of his eyes.
The walking lasted miles, and they didn't have water. Their hands swelled up and their skin got red and blotchy, and they didn't speak a word to each other. The first man had no idea where he was; he wanted to ask the second man if they were lost, but knew he shouldn't.
When they came upon the door the first man was barely alert enough to stop. If he'd been by himself he would have missed it; it was a trapdoor, set horizontally in the grass, and made of metal that looked rusted and old as the farmhouse they'd passed half a mile back.
"Here we are," said the second man, who had been leading him. "They'll have water for you, and a room."
The door creaked open, and they descended a wooden staircase that was slightly damp, but clean and solid beneath their feet.
At the bottom was another door, a sheet of metal with an electronic keypad beside it. The second man pressed his thumb to a sensor, then swiped a card he retrieved from his keychain, and a small green light flashed three times. The door slid open.
A guard in camouflage with was standing at attention at the entrance, holding an Uzi. When he saw the arrivals, he nodded to the second man, lowered his gun, and said to the first man, "Welcome, Neil Taggart."
"Did this happen, the first time around?" Kurt asked, folding up the newspaper, where over breakfast at the diner they had found another story on the tenth page about a professor at Pomona College disappearing, leaving a short verse that echoed the apocalyptic ones by Neil and Terry Lawrence.
"I seem to remember something about Terry Lawrence, but nothing about these notes," Angela said, examining the papers with a frown. "None of us would've paid attention to this guy, this George Stein, but if there had been some kind of spate of disappearances with poetry involved someone would've made the connection and made it into a bigger story."
"You're right," Kurt said. "We would have heard something."
"It must be something we caused somehow," Chuck said. "Assuming the disappearances themselves happened in the original timeline, what could we have done to cause them all to write poetry about the very thing we're trying to prevent?"
"Well, what if we assume it's the Cadre causing these people to disappear? Why would they make their reasons so obvious?"
"It's only obvious to us," Kurt said slowly. "No one else would really see the poetry as being about an exploding earth. More like metaphorical apocalypse."
"You're right," Chuck admitted, though he didn't like giving Kurt credit in general. "If they're trying to make themselves known, it's only to us."
"I think we should try to check out this George Stein," Angela said staunchly. "The best we can do is try to figure out where he went."
"We've tried that already with the first two," Chuck said. "We didn't find out a thing then, and going to Pomona would mean a plane flight, which would give away our movements to the Cadre."
"We can drive."
"That will leave the trail cold by the time we get there."
Angela turned to Kurt, who shrugged and, with his typical enjoyment of thwarting Chuck, said, "I think that's our best chance at figuring out what's going on here."
Overruled, he did not argue; he'd long ago abandoned the position of commander. It was better than sitting tight like lame ducks, anyway. They set off the next morning in Kurt's car, after Chuck had left a key under the doormat and pasted onto the fridge a note for Neil, in case, by some miraculous chance, he returned while they were chasing him.
They canvassed the Pomona campus for three days, pretending to be reporters. At noon on the third day, Angela got one of the migraines she'd been subject to since she returned.
Her face was pale, and Kurt was reminded of the way she'd looked when she first walked up to him where he'd been rotting away in prison. Her lips white, she accepted the hand he placed on her arm, and when he offered to take her back to their hotel room, she nodded mutely in agreement.
"I'm starting to think this needle-in-a-haystack idea wasn't such a good one after all," he said in the car, talking half to himself, since Angela's eyes kept fluttering closed. "Perhaps Neil has the right idea. Just disappear. Give up. Accept that the world is going to end. What's the difference anyway?"
"Not much," she said.
"Now, that's not the Angela Perry I remember," he said. "Your newfound cynicism is a bit worrisome, but also quite charming, I assure you."
"I'm not out to charm you, as it happens."
"Mission already accomplished, sweetheart."
"Kurt, I feel sick already," she answered drowsily. "Please don't make me throw up."
He laughed and didn't talk much the rest of the way back to the hotel room. Angela was breathing slowly, apparently counting under her breath to manage the pain; he passed the time listening to the soft sound of her inhalations and exhalations, not wishing to disturb her. It was only when they'd both returned to the hotel and he had, silently, tucked her into her bed after she sank onto it, that she mumbled, "Thanks."
He sat down for a second and pushed her hair back from her forehead. "Don't mention it."
The three of them had shared a room, for economy's sake; he had nowhere to work but here, so he sat at the desk, across the room from the sleeping Angela, and opened his computer, looking up various news stories and coverage of the George Stein story, and making no headway at all. At three, when he was so bored and inundated with seemingly useless information that he thought of giving up, Chuck sent him a terse text message on his Blackberry, telling him that he was waiting to speak to someone named Hannah van Ness, who had had a notorious affair with George Stein five years back that destroyed her marriage.
Kurt lifted his eyebrows and looked up van Ness on the faculty website.
"Nice," he murmured to himself. She was an expert on marine biology, and looked younger than her thirty-five years. A classy, slender brunette.
Angela stirred behind him, and he turned to see that he'd woken her up. "Hey," he said.
"Hey." She winced at the effort of speaking. "What time is it?"
"Three. I apologize if I woke you." He stood and came closer, bringing her a glass of water he'd had waiting on the desktop.
"No, I can never sleep long stretches when these come on." Gratefully she took the water and sipped it, then squinted at the screen, where the picture of Hannah van Ness was still up.
"Who's that?" Her voice was tense, suddenly.
"Chucky's going to pay her a little visit right about now. She slept with George Stein. Quite a scandal back when the news broke, apparently."
"I've seen her before," Angela said.
"She's a looker, isn't she?" he agreed gleefully.
"No, I'm serious, this is important." She rubbed her forehead, thinking. "It was... it was at the hospital," she said suddenly.
"The hospital in Nevada?"
"What would she be doing in Nevada?"
Angela looked up at him, her eyes wide. "I thought she was the nurse on night-shift."
It took him a few seconds to understand what this meant, and then he said, "Chuck has an appointment at her house."
"Call him," Angela said tersely, "and let's get in the car."
Chuck didn't answer, and they drove, tires squealing, to the house five miles away in about three and a half minutes. The address was on a quiet, pretty street lined with palm trees; the house itself was one story high but a comfortable size, and well-kept. Chuck's car was outside.
"We have to get in there, if he's still there," Angela said quietly.
"You can't go in there," Kurt said. "Those are the people who kidnapped you, if you're right. They know who you are, and they nearly killed you the first time."
"But they didn't."
"Angela, you can't go in there. You know it's too dangerous."
"I'm not sending you in alone, Kurt," she said.
He had learned long ago how to know when she meant what she said, and he said a little fretfully, "Okay, all right, fine. Fine! Have it your way, but you have to let me take the lead here, Angela. There's probably a back door, and if they take him anywhere that's where they'll have him. You go there, so that I can knock at the door and see if they'll let me in."
"Good luck," she said with a nod.
They each took a gun, hid it on their persons, and split up. Kurt hated doing things like this, and muttered curses to himself the whole way - he was a scientist, for God's sake, and if he saved the world he'd always assumed it would be with an equation, not with these deeds of derring-do, which made him feel not only frightened but slightly incongruous. Modern man, with his computers and calculators and escalators and Palm Pilots, Kurt thought fretfully as he rang the doorbell, modern man was not bred for physical bravery.
The door did not open, and Kurt tested the knob, hoping that no busybody neighboring housewives were around to see him do this and report it. The last thing they needed was the police; any arrest would alert the Cadre what they were up to.
The door was locked, but, looking around, he saw that a window was open. So much for an inconspicuous entry. He took a deep breath, sidled along the side of the house, and lifted himself inside.
The house echoed when he landed: he'd knocked over a few delicate china statuettes on a hallway table. Shit; if anyone was home they couldn't have missed that noise. For long, agonizing seconds he stood on edge, poised for flight, looking around to see if anyone came to investigate the source of the noise.
Half a minute passed, and no one came. Was the house empty? Why would Chuck's car still be here? He was shaking, and he kept his hand on his gun. Half of him wanted to get Angela, so he wouldn't have to navigate this ominous silence by himself. But that was ridiculous, there was no danger, he was probably all alone here anyway. Whatever they were going to do to Chuck they'd probably already-
He whirled around, trying to locate its source, which had sounded like it came from below him. There must be stairs to a basement somewhere...
Kurt walked down the hall, on tiptoe, trying to get his bearings and figure out where the hell he was going. How dearly he wished he had someone to pray to right now...
No doors in the kitchen. He sidled back along the way he'd come, and then turned left into a cute little living room. There was a cell phone sitting on the top of the TV, open, as if someone had hung up suddenly (maybe when Chuck came?) He pulled up the Recent Calls menu and committed the numbers to his nearly infallible memory.
Two numbers away from the end of the list, he was interrupted from his concentration by the sound of a door creaking.
He slipped across the room, pressed his back to the wall, and listened. Now there were footsteps, and they were definitely coming towards him. What was he supposed to do now? Pop out and reveal himself? What if nothing terrible was going on? What if Angela were too traumatized to remember faces properly (he hadn't even thought of this possibility before) and he was now to be ignominiously arrested for breaking and entering?
No, there was no time for doubts. He was trying to excuse his cold feet. Kurt, keeping his hand on his gun, peered slowly around the doorway - and came face to face with Angela.
"Shh," she whispered. "I couldn't wait out there any longer."
"Someone's downstairs, but I can't find the way to the basement," he mouthed.
"I know where it is," she said. "I saw it on the way in."
"Let me go."
"Okay. It's around the-"
She froze, and Kurt heard another set of footsteps. Angela glared at him to get back, and was in the process of turning around when Kurt heard a loud crack and saw Angela crumple to the ground.
Seconds later, the back door slammed, and Kurt knelt frantically by Angela's side. She'd been hit on the back of the head with something hard, a gun butt, probably - they still didn't want to kill her, he supposed - she was breathing, but unconscious, and bleeding a little bit.
He stood up to get to the cell phone and call 911, but on his way he caught sight of two people out the side window: Chuck, his hands tied and being prodded with a gun by Hannah van Ness herself down a driveway hidden by shrubbery from passing eyes. "Shit," Kurt murmured, abandoning the phone.
They got into a blue Mazda, license plate 6X1-7D3. He'd remember that in case it was ever useful.
There was only one thing to do now. He lifted Angela over his shoulder, ran out the front door, and got into the car, unceremoniously shoving Angela's limp, once-familiar body in first.
The car had a two-minute head start on him by now, but he'd seen the direction they'd gone, and, crossing his fingers, he headed off, with Angela unconscious in the passenger seat beside him.
Angela came to consciousness in fits and starts. She noticed first that she was being jostled, and then that her migraine was still here, but accompanied by a sharp pain in the back of her head. She groaned. "Where am I?"
"You're going north-by-northwest on Cobbler Farm Road," Kurt answered from beside her. "Do you remember what happened?"
"I'm in bed with a migraine..." she mumbled.
"We left to find Chuck, do you remember that?"
Angela struggled to clear the mist from her mind. "Vaguely...?"
"Are you feeling badly? Dizzy, nauseated? You probably have a concussion."
"I think I'm all right," she said groggily.
"I lost sight of the car Chuck is in a few miles back, but there haven't been any other roads, so we may still be able to catch up," Kurt said, squinting ahead of him. "We've been following them for thirty minutes now."
"Wait," Angela said, looking around her.
"What is it?"
"I've been here before," she said.
Kurt frowned. "I thought you said you'd never been to Pomona."
"I thought I hadn't," she said. "Kurt, it makes sense, though, doesn't it? That they would have brought me to the same place they're bringing Chuck."
He drew a deep breath. "Bingo. Please tell me you know where they're going."
Angela looked around, searching in her memory, which was slowly clearing. It felt a little like déja-vu, as if this had only happened in a dream. She had believed that year lost to her forever, but now...
"Here," she said suddenly, as they passed a small red farmhouse. "It's on this property, somewhere."
Angela met his eyes and said slowly, answering almost by instinct, for her lost memory seemed to be resurrecting itself piece by piece in response to her own demands, the way you remember a dream only when you see the next day the people who appeared in it, "The trapdoor."
"Mommy?" asked Cory one night. "Why does Daddy sleep in a different room?"
"Sometimes married people sleep better when they're separated," Sarah answered him after a long pause.
"How old do I have to be before I can get married?"
She choked up. "You have to be a grownup, sweetie. Maybe when you're... eighteen, if you find the right girl."
"I want to marry someone just like you," he said contentedly. "So when my son gets sick he'll have someone to take care of him."
"Oh," she gasped a little, as she crushed him in as tight a hug as he could physically stand. When she let go, his eyes were big and wide with pain, but he kept holding onto her, watching her cry for the girls he wouldn't love, the children he wouldn't have, the days to come that would dawn without seeing Cory grow a day older than five.
She stayed awake that night by his side, numb and exhausted by her long paroxysm of grief, her hand curled up in Cory's. Sleep could come later - there wasn't much time left to be with him and she couldn't waste another moment.
"Listen, pretend you don't know who I am."
Chuck, who'd been sitting in the corner of his cell fighting waves of blind pain in his broken nose and ribs, looked up when he heard his son's voice.
"Oh my God," he said softly.
He'd been here nearly 24 hours now. It wasn't so bad at first, he'd been fed water and oatmeal, but this morning - Well, his memory had already begun blurring over the remnants of this morning: a self-protection measure. He'd been questioned, he knew that much. They wanted to know, what was his relationship to George Stein, what was his real name, why had he been snooping around the disappearance? He hadn't answered and had suffered for it. These people were not normal human beings, the ones who'd been beating him up. They might even be synths, judging from their strength.
"They won't let me talk to you if they figure it out, but for now we have a few minutes of privacy," Neil said. "Only I'll have to make it look like I was questioning you."
"What the hell is going on?" Chuck snapped. "Why would you be part of this, Neil? They broke my goddamn nose and nearly killed Angela when she tried to come get me."
"It's the sentients, Dad," Neil said. "I've learned more about them in the past couple weeks. It turns out they're on our side."
"What? I got two broken ribs and a nose says they're not on my side," Chuck retorted. "What the hell are you doing cooperating with these people?"
"They're here to save us," Neil said stolidly. "I mean, not save. Preserve, is a better word. Basically they're a civilization that has developed good enough wormhole technology to travel all over the universe, uploading the consciousnesses of intelligent life anywhere it's developed in the cosmos. They follow radio waves, just like the Seeker, only they get here by connecting separate localities of space with wormholes and-"
"This doesn't make any sense!" Chuck interrupted. "What do you mean, upload consciousness? And wormholes? Have they brainwashed you already?"
"No! Everyone here - everyone but you I mean - has voluntarily left. I mean, we - all of us here - spend a couple hours a day being analyzed, so that our memories and personalities and knowledge and stuff - all the contents of our brain, our selves, basically - can be copied and brought back to be imprinted onto synthetic bodies back on the home planet."
"Jesus," Chuck said. "You sound like you're in a cult. And the sentients were created here on Earth. How can they be in communication with another planet?"
"As far as I can gather, whenever inorganic life forms become advanced enough in any civilization the Sentients from the home planet are able to communicate with them and give them instructions for opening a wormhole back home."
"But according to the Seeker, only organics could jump in time."
"Yeah, that's the thing. It's us human beings who jump in time. But these synths are able to travel through a wormhole, because it's only physical travel, in space. You never learned about theoretical wormholes in school, did you?"
"No, it's a bit beyond my time, but I've read about it since then," Chuck said with a brief return of dryness. "Edify me, please. I've got all the time in the world on my hands."
"Basically people have believed that it was possible - and the sentients know that it is - that the entire fabric of space is riddled with wormholes that are infinitely small and unstable. Well, these guys know how to expand them into macroscopic wormholes that they can travel through, so basically it connects two distant regions of space together."*
"So will you go through it?"
"No. Only the information about me will. Once we're all done with this, our human selves go back to normal lives, according to the sentients. But our new selves will also be recreated on the home planet, and those are immortal."
"Do you understand that you have no idea what they'll really do with that information? No way of guaranteeing you won't be cloned a million times over, or used as a slave in some kind of cosmic domination army?"
"Do you understand that dying might mean the end of me altogether, and this is a possible way to circumvent it?" Neil answered with a flash of his old rebelliousness. "I obviously won't be going where they told me I was going in Sunday School, and I don't want to just disappear."
"That doesn't mean you upload your consciousness to some unknown society at the other end of the universe!" Chuck nearly yelled. A couple of Neil's supervisors visibly perked up, looking for signs of trouble, so Chuck subsided, frustrated.
"Why not?" Neil said calmly. "Maybe I believe that living forever is worth it. What if we could've preserved, say, Einstein's consciousness forever? Or Shakespeare's? What if we'd gotten to read the end of Finnegan's Wake?"
"It won't still be you," Chuck said stubbornly. "It'll be your memories, but you'll still be here. You'll still have to get old and die someday."
"It will be me, old man. They both will, this body and the new Sentient. You're as stuck as you always are in your own narrow-minded view of the world, but if you'd just work with us you could be part of a greater race, too."
"And what about your brother, what about your mother if she'd lived? They wouldn't have been chosen, would they?" Chuck retorted.
He was thrown, but only for a second. "That's not fair, Dad. You can't give up opportunities to save yourself just because other people don't have the chance."
Chuck leaned his head against the bars. "It's not about them not having the chance," he said wearily. "It's about picking and choosing who's good enough to go."
"I didn't write the rules."
"You follow them." He looked up at his son, whom, he had finally realized, he barely knew, and had always underestimated. This was no precocious seventeen-year-old boy, but a man whose brilliance was matched by his capacity both for goodness and for a fatal hard hubris. A man who'd thought through the consequences of his actions and wasn't to be swayed. And yet he was still young enough that death seemed like the worst of all possible fates.
What if they kill me? he thought. Would it change his mind then?
Kurt and Angela camped three hundred meters from the trapdoor, the car parked a mile down the road, taking shifts staying awake and watching. From midnight to four it was Kurt's watch, and he sat a few feet from Angela as she slept atop the blanket they'd taken from his car. It was a warm, heady night, and he could see beads of sweat form on her forehead as she slept, could smell light musk coming from both their bodies.
At 2:38 she shook awake with a gasp; he'd been only a breath away from dozing off himself and he jumped to attention, pretending he'd been alert all along.
Angela lay on her back, rigid, looking up at the sky. "Nightmare."
"Do you remember last year at all, now that we're back here?" he asked, dreading the answer.
"Not really. Nothing helpful. Just enough for the mother of all bad dreams." She had already twisted her lips into a wry smile, but her voice was shaking.
Kurt slid over to sit by her side, brushing her damp hair back from her forehead. "Can I do anything?" he asked.
Angela leaned up and kissed him roughly, opening his lips for a brief bitterly sweet moment with her tongue. She tasted of sleep and salty sweat and Christ, it had been so long, he'd missed her so much - but when he recovered from his shock enough to kiss her back, she pulled her mouth away and leaned her forehead against his, stroking the side of his neck with one slender hand.
"I thought of you, too, while I was there," she said after a moment. "I do remember that."
Then she lay back down and closed her eyes; he stayed there, his hand lightly resting atop hers, as her uneven breath betrayed to him that she was unable to relax enough to fall back asleep, until he himself dozed off.
When he woke, morning had broke and Angela was sitting a short distance away, facing into the sun, towards the trapdoor. Three hours later, no movement had come from the trapdoor, but Kurt turned on his cell phone to check the messages and saw, with a dull shock, that Sarah Forbes had left him a voicemail.
"Hello?" Sarah said, as she picked up her phone with trembling hands. Tears filled her eyes when she heard Kurt's voice.
"Hey, darling. I got your voicemail, and I've got to tell you, we could really use your help. I mean, we could've used it before, since Neil's gone missing and now Chucky too, but don't worry, better late than never."
"Cory's dead," she said softly.
"Oh, Sarah," he said after a moment. "I'm so sorry."
"I'm coming to help you," she said steadily. "I'm ready now."
Kurt sighed. "Things aren't going well, Sarah," he said. "I don't know that there's any hope. They have Chuck and Neil underground somewhere, and we don't know why, or how to get in. I think it's the same people who had Angela before."
"Then maybe they won't kill the Taggarts either."
"Or maybe they were using her to get to them."
"Either way," she said. "Tell me where to find you."
He gave her directions to what sounded like the middle of nowhere, some farm in California. She hung up feeling drained and numb, and made her preparations automatically. Plane reservations, car rental, housesitting. It didn't seem to matter -- none of it did -- but she pushed those thoughts away, resolutely. Every action she took had to matter, if only to the eyes of God.
Miles away, NASA Flight Director Cynthia Hodge took off the headphones she'd been wearing and smiled slowly. Then she picked up the phone to dial Brian Perry and tell him they'd found Chuck Taggart.
The sun set, and Angela, who'd volunteered to drive back to town to pick up more food and supplies, returned with bread and peanut butter and - Kurt had to laugh when he saw them - an entire box of blueberry muffins, which they had often eaten for breakfast together on all those slow sleepy mornings-after, and which Kurt had an unabashed passion for.
They were working away at the muffins and cold sandwiches at sunset, when the first car all day rumbled past. Warily, they stayed low at first, till Kurt said, "That's Sarah. She said she'd be in a black Jeep."
A smile spread over Angela's face, and she stood up to wave. Kurt saved his enthusiasm for the food, although he had to admit he rather missed Sarah, who had been his only friend while Angela was gone, and who made such a wonderful foil for his little-boy's sense of humor.
"Don't be too overjoyed at a visitor, darling," Kurt said to Angela from his seat on the blanket, hiding his excitement. "Anyone would think you'd gotten bored with my company."
"God forbid," Angela sassed. "Look, she's stopping by the car, out on the road. Did you tell her where to look?"
"No, she's - oh, shit. Oh, shit," Kurt said.
He pointed. Sarah wasn't alone: another car had followed her, and stopped where she did.
"Should we go see what's up?"
Kurt shook his head. "Lay low," he murmured. "If we get caught, then Chuck and Neil are on their own down there."
"But if someone is out to get Sarah-"
"Then what can we do about it?" he said.
Angela bit her lip, but stayed where she was. They watched as Sarah, unconscious of having unwanted company, alit from her car and began walking towards them, as Kurt had told her on the phone; as the other car's front door opened and a solidly built red-headed man's figure emerged.
"Do we run?" Angela whispered.
Kurt shrugged. "Where would we go?"
"Good question," said an all-too-familiar voice from behind them.
They froze. "Oh, God," Angela murmured. "It's Hodge."
"I'll be damned," Kurt whispered, and he and Angela turned to face their director. "They've found us."
"Don't bother moving, by the way -- you're surrounded."
Kurt looked around and saw that this was unarguably true. He could count four in his peripheral vision to his left, and four on the right -- and there would be more in hiding.
"We've been monitoring Sentient activity in this area for quite awhile now. It's high in concentration all over this town, but when we heard where you all were, we figured we'd find it." Hodge's eyes were narrow, and she spoke evenly, her hand on her gun, sure of her advantage. "It's time for us all to come clean with each other. You might as well admit who you're working with, since I know what you're up to anyway."
"How do you know about us?" Kurt asked.
"It's not up to you to ask questions right now. Where is your headquarters?"
"Headquarters! There are only four of us. Five, with Sarah..."
He risked a glance behind him and saw that Sarah had already been accosted by the man in the car.
"Don't try to play games with me, Dr. Mandell," Hodge said icily. "No four-person unit would need that much electronic activity, and I personally have come into contact with at least six or seven individuals other than the four of you who--"
"I promise you, we would have noticed," Kurt interrupted sarcastically, "if there had been more than five of us alive on that ship."
Suddenly Angela said, "Kurt. They think we're working with the Sentients."
"Yeah. She's following us because she thinks we'll lead her to the Sentients. Because she thinks we're with them."
Hodge was watching both of them suspiciously. "I'm not that easy to fool with a bluff, Ms. Perry," she said icily.
Angela stared her down. "The Sentient headquarters appear to be down a trapdoor in this field," she said coolly. "Is that what you're asking for?"
"Yes. But I am going to assume that it's a trap, if you're giving it up so easily," Hodge said.
"We're working to protect the Earth from being destroyed by Sentients," Angela snapped. "Our friends are being held captive down there. We are not trying to trap you."
"Fine," Hodge said. "If there are Sentients down there, we have a warrant to use all necessary force to destroy them."
Angela gasped. "What? No! Chuck and Neil-"
"Would be unfortunate victims of the Sentient problem, just like so many others," Hodge filled in for her. "I'm going to make a few calls. I have the authority to arrest either of you if you move or obstruct me in any way."
Kurt reached out to restrain Angela before she could lunge, holding both her wrists in the grip of one hand. "She'll shoot you," he hissed. "For God's sake, have some control."
"Those are innocent people down there -- our friends -- Let me go, damn you! --and she's going to kill them both!"
"And you if you don't stay the hell away," he said, tightening his hold on her twisting, flailing arms.
The Cadre were gaining confidence now, he could see; more and more cars had shown up and were parked in various places on the field, most of them a couple hundred meters away. Even if he and Angela had wanted to prevent this, they had nowhere to go. Angela recognized this as quickly as he did, and, with a look of withering, cold fury, jerked out of his hold, turning away from him to watch in the direction of the trapdoor.
Silently the man from the first car approached, guiding Sarah. He had a machine gun on him, and Sarah, whose face still bore the traces of long days and nights of grief, walked steadily over to stand by Kurt and Angela. Out of the corner of his eye, Kurt could see her take hold of Angela's hand and squeeze it gently.
Hodge had gone slightly away from them to talk on a radio, and the strange man watched them all with a stoic, unreadable face. When Hodge returned, she said to him, "I've given the order and the coordinates. We need to be at least a kilometer away from ground zero. Let's go. You three - you're in the patrol car," she said, nodding at the one that was idling halfway between them and the farmhouse. "I'm not letting you go until we understand the full extent of your involvement here."
In the back of the car, as they were driving away from the trapdoor, Angela kept arguing with Hodge, her eyes filling with tears of frustration and her vocabulary growing fouler by the second. Kurt interjected a few sarcastic comments of his own to support her, but in the end he realized he was only making them look like co-conspirators.
He did hate to think he would never see that Chuck Taggart again, though, the tough old bastard.
Finally Angela gave up on Hodge and turned to him. "And you? You just want to sit back and be the peanut gallery, don't you, even if it's the two best men you've ever met getting slaughtered?"
"On the contrary, darling," Kurt said, hating that a mere word of Angela's could still carry such a sting, "I am in favor of action. I am in favor of cutting these damn Sentients down once and for all before they blow us all up."
Tears stood in her eyes, but she was silent after that.
They parked far enough away that the farmhouse was only a dark smudge against the moonlit field, and waited. He could feel Angela shaking next to him, and when he looked at Sarah, she was staring out the window and murmuring to herself. After all this time, he thought with grudging respect, after watching her son die twice, after losing everything, the woman still had the heart to pray.
Chuck woke from a comfortless sleep to the jangling of keys in the door.
His first instinct was fear, for in the last few days he'd learned to recognize the opening of the door as a herald of more pain to come. But when he saw that it was Neil, he couldn't be afraid. However corrupt he had become, his son wouldn't be part of this - would he?
"Dad, we've got to go," Neil whispered.
"No shit," he retorted, standing up and trying to ignore the screaming pain in every bone of his body. His skin was crusted all over with blood, and Neil paused a second, remorse clear in his eyes. "What convinced you?"
They slipped out of the cell together. Neil had managed to strangle the guard with a strip of T-shirt, and the burly man was sitting in his chair with his face blackened and a pool of piss spreading on the floor beneath him. Chuck averted his eyes. Neil whispered, "I've realized what this is really about, Dad. These guys are the ones who blew up in the original timeline. Their departure date? It's August 7, 2007. They told us we were just going to lead normal lives, but I think to reopen the wormhole they have to destroy the planet. They have to create some kind of singularity that will make the earth explode. I mean, right? That's the only reason for that kind of coincidence."
"I could've told you they were involved in that," Chuck griped, and then he fell silent as they slipped along the hallway. He was trying to listen for approaching footsteps, but he had to trust Neil to watch out for them, crippled as he was by days of torture.
They crept along for another moment and then Chuck said, "But what about the note you left?"
In the dimness of the underground hallway he could just see Neil turn around and give him a questioning look. "What note?"
"On the... Never mind. They must have been leaving clues." He shook his head. "They wanted to lure us in. To question whoever was working against them. Clever."
"OK," Neil said, sounding puzzled, "Well... anyway, we're at the door. Listen, though, Dad... when we open the door, the security system will go off, and we'll have to run. Can you make it?"
"I can try," he said. "But if something happens, you go on ahead, son. You know you can't fight the synths, you can only run."
"I know," Neil said. "But that means if something happens to me, you have to go on, too."
"Yeah," he grunted. But he had no intention of keeping his promise, and if Neil had an ounce of Paige's blood in him, he didn't either.
"All right," Neil said. "Ready - set -" he pushed the door open - "go."
"Be merciful to them, Lord," she was saying to herself. "Be merciful to Chuck Taggart, and to Neil Taggart; to my son, Cory; to all those people underground, to Angela, to Kurt. Be merciful to me."
She closed her eyes and whispered it over and over, waiting to hear the explosion.
The sound of the explosion roused her from her thoughts, and she opened her eyes to see the sky light up in orange and yellow. It was far enough away to seem unreal, like a movie viewed from the back row of the theater. Sarah mouthed the phrase once more. Be merciful to them.
She heard Angela's choked crying but could not join her friend in tears this time. The car, the radios, all were hushed in silence; and then suddenly Hodge said, "Someone's escaped. We need to apprehend them."
The Cadre members sprang into activity, getting ready to bring the survivors under control, but Sarah, whose faith was strong enough to make miracles seem possible, knew before they were close enough to identify that the two running figures could be none other than Chuck and Neil, hand in hand as they sprinted away from the inferno that had swallowed the synths.
It was eleven o'clock in the morning, three days later, when the Odyssey crew left the Cadre headquarters, having been questioned within an inch of their lives and finally allowed to go truly and completely free.
They met at the diner once more, to celebrate the end of the longest and hardest mission of their lives. Kurt had a Scotch, something good and strong and hot.
"I'll have a chocolate milkshake, seeing as it's not yet noon," Angela told the waitress, looking pointedly at Kurt. As the others nodded their agreements and their waitress wrote down their order, Kurt grinned at Angela, unrepentant.
"I can't help it, darling, it's really been too long since I got to indulge any of my vices."
Sarah groaned in protest. "Did you have to make that sound so sexual?"
Kurt covered a laugh. "Well, what are you going to do now that this is all over, Sarah?"
"Marry Troy," she said with a little smile, tinged with sadness. "Well -- first I guess I'll ask him."
General laughter, and Neil chimed in with, "I'm gonna run a marathon. I did that in the original timeline after senior year, and I kind of want to do it again."
"What about you, Chuck?" Kurt said. "Isn't it a bit tempting to spend the next few days -- hell, weeks -- smoking cigars, or downloading Internet porn, or getting deliciously, indulgently drunk, whatever suits your fancy?"
Chuck smiled. "I do have a plan for what I'll do now," he said. "I'm going to retire."
Kurt raised his eyebrows, and Angela said, with unmitigated shock, "Really!" His own feelings echoed the tone of her voice. It was hard to imagine Chuck apart from his career; it would be like a Sarah Forbes without God, or Julia Roberts without teeth. He was the kind of man who had to be working, climbing, aspiring: what would he do, once he agreed to remain earth-bound?
Even though no one asked it, Chuck answered the question. "I'll find things to amuse me," he said. "It's time for me to be with people again. Young men are the ones who should be out among the stars."
"I'm going back out someday," Neil said with satisfaction. "It'll be even easier to get through school this time around."
"You're a good astronaut, son," Chuck said. "Someday you'll be better than me, even."
"Flattering, Dad," said Neil. "Thanks a lot."
The discussion of Chuck's retirement, shocking news to all of them, lasted for the rest of their gathering. It was only after a couple hours, as the rest were laughing and chattering, that Kurt thought to ask Angela, "And what will you indulge yourself in, now that we're through?"
She gave him a small, genuine grin. "Now that I can be selfish again?"
He caught his breath.
"I'm sure I'll think of something."
The check came at that moment, and the interlude stayed in Kurt's mind as the five of them divided up the check and laughingly discussed whether they should tip the waitress extra for every time she'd flirted with Neil. Then it was time to split up, and Kurt, though he kissed Sarah good-bye and gave Neil a quick hug and slap on the back, would have left Chuck with merely a respectful nod if the other man hadn't gathered him into a brief but heartfelt embrace. "Good luck, Kurt," Chuck said.
"You too, Chuck," he said, manfully resisting 'Chucky.'
He waited while Angela hugged Chuck so tightly that someone's bones started cracking, and said quietly, "Ride home?"
"That would be nice," she said. Her hand slipped into his, and they walked with the other three out of the restaurant and into the summer day, lit by a distant sun in a flawlessly bright sky.