“And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
Fingers interlocked, James and Cynthia strolled down the moonlit street. Even after all Cindy had been through that night, after discovering that her parents were getting divorced and wondering if she might be forced to move, nothing but joy shone in her eyes.
For James, however, peaceful thoughts were fading with each new step. He knew that it was time to take yet another plunge – to ensure that he and Cindy never lost the progress they had just made. It was time for one last admission. “Cindy?” he shakily asked.
He steeled his resolve and squeezed her hand tight. “No matter what happens, just never doubt how much you mean to me.”
They both froze, and James stared deep into Cindy’s eyes. Shock gave way to fear, which morphed into steadfast resolve as she tenderly asked, “Neutron?”
Jimmy swallowed hard at the new fire swirling in her pupils. This wasn’t the usual licks of rage – something else seemed to be smoldering inside her. It chilled him to his core, but it seemed to beckon him. Cindy delicately placed her free hand on his shoulder and leaned her head an inch closer to his. “Vortex?” he shakily whispered.
“I,” Cindy hesitated and desperately squeezed his shoulder. “I don’t want to be the one to do this. I’m worried about my parents and I can’t,” Cindy shook her head and quietly added, “start this. I’ll regret if I do. So if you want this, then you have to be the one -“
For once, James acted without thinking. He lunged forward and crashed his lips onto hers. The awkwardness of this clumsy advance melted under the heat of Cindy pressing herself against him. As they began to melt together, James held her as close as he’d always dreamed and feared to.
Both versions of Jimmy Neutron wished that this moment would last forever. For one, it would seem to. For another, it ended in a painful flash – a perfect world purged from existence.
The burst of light slowly faded to reveal the dimly lit control room inside Jimmy’s lab. The boy genius clumsily pulled a heavy steel helmet off of his head and caught sight of how derelict his surroundings had become. Sticky cans of Purple Flurp and protein bar wrappers littered the floor, and the sofa in the lounge was in shambles from the few hours of fitful sleep he’d managed over the past two days. Despite the rundown appearance of his second home, Jimmy’s smile barely faltered. “Pure,” he whispered with a relieved grin. “Purely happy.”
As James set the helmet down on the keyboard before him, he caught sight of his reflection in the polished steel. A deflated puddle of unkempt brown hair sat atop a sea of weary features. Most disconcerting were the cerulean eyes that seemed unnaturally fluorescent against the dark bags beneath. James studied his frighteningly unkempt appearance before staring up at his lab’s main monitor.
Three columns of hash marks filled his screen. Fifty-two on the left, twenty-three in the middle, and nine on the right. James managed to keep his tired smile alive for a few more seconds as he clearly enunciated, “Vox, add tally to ‘Pure’ column.”
A new mark faded into existence in the left-most column. Jimmy nodded to himself and leaned back inside his leather chair. He realized a second too late that he was succumbing to unconsciousness. Two days with four hours of sleep had left him exhausted, but the stories behind those hash marks were what had ripped any remnants of strength away. The last thing Jimmy heard was Goddard’s approaching footsteps as he managed a few seconds of peaceful respite.
“I never thought I’d see the day,” Cindy loudly proclaimed with more than a hint of sarcasm. She shook her head in wry amazement from her seat at the bottom of Lindbergh Elementary’s front steps.
James deactivated his jetpack and suavely fell to the ground. “I’m ignoring you,” he shot back while carefully crossing the puddle-riddled cement and reaching the stairs.
“What?” Cindy asked in mock disbelief. James sighed and crossed his arms while halting before her. “I just never could have imaged that Jimmy Neutron would fail to blow up on the way to school, let alone show up early.”
“I only exploded 1.67% of the time this year, Vortex. And you know it.” Their morning ritual of exchanged barbs over, both children’s features softened. “Where are Libby and the guys?”
Cindy hoisted a thumb over her shoulder, past the school’s double doors. “Scrambling to finish their book reports.”
Jimmy nodded and headed up the stairs. “Guess I’ll see if they need a hand.”
“Actually,” Cindy’s voice carried from behind him, “could we talk?”
“Bark bark!” Goddard’s feverish cry echoed throughout the lab.
Neutron’s eyes snapped awake and his hazy mind struggled to focus on Goddard standing attentively before his feet. As soon as Jimmy’s vision steadied, Goddard flipped open his chest monitor. It immediately brightened with life and revealed Mrs. Neutron standing inside her son’s bedroom.
“Jimmy,” her nervous voice spasmed with fury as she spoke into his computer. “Unlock that door NOW! Your father and I need to know that you’re alri-”
Jimmy’s hand lashed out and snapped Goddard’s monitor closed. “I told you,” he growled with uncharacteristic rage, “we need to stay focused!” As Goddard whimpered in shock, Jimmy’s face fell. “I’m sorry!” Jimmy instantly apologized. He launched himself out of his chair and swept Goddard into his arms. “I’m sorry, boy. I didn’t mean it.”
As Goddard nestled into his embrace, James clenched his eyes shut. It did nothing to shield him from his greatest fear; those nine hash marks stayed emblazoned on his eyelids. I’m not those nine, he desperately told himself. But over the past two days each new tally, no matter the column, had eroded Jimmy’s confidence in who he truly was.
“So last night,” Cindy began as Jimmy hopped onto the stone banister beside her. “Libby was staying late with her grandma, and you and the guys were stuck in your lab. So I was just hanging out in my room.”
“You could have come over,” Jimmy quietly offered.
Cindy hesitated before glancing down and grinning. “Thanks,” she whispered. An awkward silence hung between them until she cleared her throat and continued her story. “Anyway, um, it was raining and I was alone so I figured I would look up creepy stuff online. After a while, I read a scary story about parallel universes. It was interesting, so I started reading about the science behind it.”
“The many worlds interpretation,” Jimmy chimed in.
“Yeah,” Cindy agreed. “So I wanted to ask you,” she measured her words before adding, “as a scientist -“
Jimmy smiled as the warning bull cut off her compliment. Both kids craned their necks at the school and frowned at the same time. “Never mind,” Cindy dejectedly finished while rising to her feet. “It was stu -“
“I’ve wondered if it’s true too,” Jimmy interjected. Cindy stared at him as Jimmy started heading inside. “Maybe…we could talk more about this later?”
A grateful grin spread over Cindy’s features. “Candy Bar? After my t’ai chi lesson?”
“I’ll be there,” Jimmy promised.
Jimmy forced his eyes open and found Goddard staring up at the monitor before them. Jimmy followed suit, once more noticed the hash marks, and instantly did the math. Seventy-five out of eighty-four. 89.3%. “It’s not enough,” Jimmy struggled to steady his voice. “I’m still less than 90% benevolent.” He glanced at the helmet and instinctively narrowed his eyes. In the beginning, when had seen the first hints at what he might become…
“Get out,” James growled. “I want nothing to do with you, Vortex.”
If his words were noticed by Cindy, she gave no indication. Her eyes simply drifted away from him and towards his latest invention. She strode out of his lab’s doorway and towards the device. Her actions were laced with a nauseating confidence, bolstered by the non-chalantness with which she twirled the strand of his hair that had served as her key.
Eyes narrowing with fury, Jimmy mirrored her movements. He supposed that deep down, he had always known that he and Cindy would one day collide. He’d just never expected it to end like this.
As the distance between them closed and his arms rose, Jimmy thought he could see a smile flicker across Cindy’s lips. Foolish, he thought, realizing she misinterpreted his action as a call to embrace. He ended her naiveté with a violent shove.
…James had told himself that they were errant flukes. Surely these abominations were merely the consequence of infinitesimal possibilities. After all, James had told himself, no one is completely incorruptible. Not even Jimmy Neutron was superman.
James had barely taken his usual seat in the Candy Bar when Sam approached. The rotund owner plucked a pencil from behind his ear, opened a notepad, and halted angrily before the boy genius. “Well, what’ll it be?”
“I’ll have -“
“Yeah,” Sam interrupted.
Jimmy blinked twice in slow succession before continuing his order. “Two chocolate shakes and a medium fry.”
“Two shakes?” Sam asked with an inappropriate amount of skepticism.
“I’m expecting company,” Jimmy shot back. Before Sam could fire another angry retort, the Candy Bar’s double doors swung open to reveal an incredibly sweaty and disheveled Cindy. She quickly scanned the restaurant and smiled once after spotting James.
“Hmm, yeah,” Sam muttered while scribbling the order down and walking away.
Cindy sat down just as Sam left their earshot. “So listen, Neutron,” she growled. James pulled back in surprise, and Cindy smiled playfully. She abruptly changed her tone and went on, “I wanted to thank you. For talking to me about this.”
Jimmy couldn’t hide his pleasure; it wasn’t often he received a compliment and a sincere thank you from Cindy in the same day. “No problem, Vortex,” he responded. “Like I said, the topic’s piqued my interest as well.”
“So you think it’s possible there are other worlds out there?” Cindy asked.
Jimmy took in a slow breath before answering, “It’s feasible. There are some flaws in Everette’s design, not the least of which is the violation of conservation of energy. But still – I’ve proven that many previous assumptions regarding quantum mechanics were ill-conceived. So who’s to say that Everett is wrong?”
“Maybe you are,” Cindy shot back. She took in a deep breath and said, “I know I rag on you a lot, Neutron. But we’ve done some incredible things thanks to you. I mean, I know you’ve been to the past and the future. If it does exist, do you think you could go,” Cindy shrugged and asked, “sideways?”
Jimmy soaked in the question before nodding his head.
But as new and horrible possibilities had sprung up, Jimmy had begun to realize that the abominations were more than statistical outliers. They were the minority to be sure, but they were growing in proportion. James had always relied on numbers to make sense of a senseless world, so he gave himself a rule. As long as less than 5% of the possibilities were lost, then he could still trust himself. 95% was a firm A. And if he earned an A in not being a monster, then surely that meant he wasn’t one.
But as the numbers kept rising, it wasn’t long before he was chalking universes where he died…
Strapped by the wrists, ankles, and neck to a metal table, James knew that he had no hope of escape. On the contrary, the idea of leaving this prison was the last thing on his mind. With each step that Calamitous took, with each inch he raised the pistol, James became grateful that his torment would soon end. A pull of the trigger, a flash of light, was all that separated him from seeing Cindy again. From paying the righteous price for having brought her into this. He closed his eyes and braced himself as his nemesis asked, “Any last words?”
…Where those he loved experienced untold suffering…
“You murdered her!” James screamed with raw fury. Hands trembling, sweat pouring over his brows and searing his eyes, he stared daggers through the video monitor’s camera at the billions of Yolkians beyond. “She was a child!” He motioned at his seven friends standing beside him in the gunship’s lounge and desperately hoped that his audience could see them.
“We’re children!” Tears welled in his eyes; rage and anxiety choked his voice. The full weight of his journey, of all that he had been through, of the fact that the fate of two worlds rested on his shoulders, bore into him. “You kidnapped our parents, the adults who raised and loved us. Your king, your adored ruler, brought us here to torture us, to kill us!”
Jimmy stared at his friends, turned back to the camera, and gave a quivering sigh. “We’re children,” he whispered.
…as mere bittersweet universes. Despite all the agony he and his friends had endured, despite seeing those he loved fall, that was nothing compared to seeing what James himself might become. It wasn’t long before he was lowering his standards. Ninety percent, he had told himself. If I’m not malevolent ninety percent of the time then that’s enough. Isn’t it?
Jimmy didn’t want to ponder that question for another moment. He tucked the helmet under his arm and headed to the fridge in the control room’s lounge with Goddard in tow. He grabbed another Purple Flurp; he doubted he could stay standing another ten minutes without the sugar. He popped the tab, took a deep drag, and all but collapsed onto the sofa. He allowed himself the simple pleasure of stretching his body along the furniture while slipping the helmet on. Goddard nervously barked, but Jimmy raised a hand to ward off his concern.
Yet again, he promised them both, “Just one more.” He closed his eyes and activated the helmet a second before he would have fallen asleep.
Standing amid the dark night, lit only by the shimmering stars and cloud-blanked moon above, Jimmy and Cindy both stared at the ground. Battered, bruised, and bloody, James wanted nothing more than to pull off his crimson cowl and reveal to Cindy that it was he who had saved the day. That he hadn’t abandoned Retroville. That he hadn’t abandoned her.
Seeming to sense his thoughts, Cindy reached a tentative hand towards his mask.
“No,” Jimmy protested while taking a step back and raising an arm to stop her.
“Why?” Cindy pleaded. “If you’re giving up being Dyno Lad, then why not just let me know who you are?”
Jimmy swallowed hard and stared Cindy straight in the eyes. “Because if,” he hesitated and bridged the gap between them, “when we meet again, I need to know something.”
Cindy lifted her right palm, let it hover over Dyno Lad’s chest, and gently placed it down. “What?”
“I need to be sure that whatever it is you feel for me,” both of their hands met; neither know who reached out to whom. “It’s not for who I might have been. It’s for who I am.”
Cindy stared up at the stars, and Dyno Lad followed her gaze. As they stared at the infinite beauty high above, she whispered, “Can I tell Dyno Lad one last thing?”
They glanced at each other, and James nodded. “What?”
She reached two trembling hands towards his cowl, and this time James didn’t pull away. Hands on his cheeks, Cindy gently pulled James into their first kiss.
“Ah-roo?” Goddard whimpered.
Jimmy silently pulled off the helmet and lay it on his lap. Eyes still closed, he savored the feeling of Cindy’s soft fingers on his skin; the sizzling sensation of her lips on his. “Pure,” he spoke aloud, and a new tally mark appeared on the distant screen.
James opened his eyes and saw Goddard staring at him. “One more,” he told his dog. As prepared to activate the device, Goddard extended his neck and gently locked his jaw around James’ arm.
“Bark-roh!” Goddard struggled to plead while pulling his arm away.
Jimmy yanked out of the creature’s grasp. “I can’t stop, Goddard! Not yet. I have to reach ninety.”
“Roh bark bark!” Goddard yelped while jerking his head at his own chest.
Jimmy’s entire soul chilled to ice. “No!” he scrambled to his feet and held the helmet out of Goddard’s reach. The dog lowered his body to the ground and whined. Jimmy forced himself to breathe and his voice to steady as he explained, “You can’t do it for me.”
“Awwrrr?” Goddard quietly asked.
Jimmy closed his eyes, leaned against the wall behind him, and slid to the floor. “Because if you saw what I’ve seen, you could never look at me the same way again.”
“Woof woof bark?” Goddard inquired.
Jimmy set the helmet on the floor and hugged his knees close. “I know because…I can’t.”
After more than a year of self-imposed isolation, after abruptly leaving all those he had loved behind, James returned to Retroville. Cloaked by a field of shimmering energy that reflected all light, he stood amidst the wet grass and blowing leaves of the cemetery. With soulless eyes, he appraised those who could not see him. He studied them all as they stared at the empty coffin lying in the ground. Standing at his own funeral, James Neutron was less than a ghost.
He watched his mother sob uncontrollably. His eyes shifted imperceptibly to the right, allowing James to observe his father struggle to comfort her. It only took a moment for him to break down worse than she. Another shift of his pupils revealed those whom he had once called friends. Sheen stared blankly into the gaping chasm in the ground, Libby’s hand resting on his shoulder. Carl stared longingly at a photograph in his hand. James stepped closer and noticed it was of him, Carl, and Sheen, taken at their first night at Retroland. The young Jimmy’s Cerulean eyes, seemingly bursting with wonder and excitement, seemed entirely alien to him.
The genius strolled to the opposite end of the grave, where Cindy stood by herself. He watched her the longest, taking note of her every imperfection. The slight asymmetry in her eyes, the truly vapid expression on her face, the way several hairs were frizzled in her ponytail. Was it too much to ask that she look presentable at his funeral?
She stood there, silent and unwavering, as the crowed thinned. One by one, the ocean of people shimmered away. Then, without warning, Cindy spoke.
“I think I loved you once too.”
Jimmy’s expression didn’t falter, but he took a step closer to Cindy. He watched her face suddenly splinter; the river of tears racing from her ears carved unseen canyons in her flesh. Motionless and emotionless, James watched her break down. Her friends and his old family eventually made their way towards her, but she raised a shaky palm. They stayed on their side of the grave, and Cindy tensed every muscle in her body.
“But I don’t anymore,” she snarled at the coffin before joining the others.
As the last mourners walked away, James let out a quiet sigh. He had abandoned everyone he had ever known. He had cut all of his friends and family deeper than they could have imagined. He was, at long last, utterly and completely alone.
Finally, he smiled.
As he walked away from those he’d once loved, the ghost appraised himself. James Neutron was impenetrable, stoic, and above all, a genius. What more did he need? Nothing and no one.
As though reflections of one another, James and Cindy sucked the last drags from their chocolate shakes and reached for the final fry on the plate between them.
“So when do you think it will be ready?” Cindy asked while yanking her hand back.
James’ eyes flitted to the tray. “Tomorrow night, most likely,” he answered before pushing the food towards her. Cindy shook her head in disbelief before popping the fry into her mouth. She chewed slowly; to Jimmy it seemed as though each bite cast her mind further away from him. After watching her swallow and still stare blankly past him, he finally asked, “Cindy?”
“Just thinking, is all. About how crazy this is.”
Jimmy puffed his chest and stared deliberately at his knuckles. “You mean about the speed of which I can skirt the laws of quantum physics?”
Cindy rolled her eyes, but her gaze had softened by the time they turned a full circle. “No. At how,” her lip’s twitched before settling on a smile, “nice this is.”
Goddard laid down next to his master, who stared forlornly into the helmet’s polished steel. His own haggard reflection greeted him once more. James let out a deep sigh and remembered all that he had seen the past two days; of the dozens of universes he had witnessed blossom into existence.
He had watched himself form friendships he could never have imagined…
Jimmy took the last sip of his shake, spun his stool around, and faced Nick. “It sounds like you have that person you need, who lets you know you can handle anything. But if there’s ever a time when Ike or Betty aren’t around,” Jimmy hesitated before offering Nick a sincere smile, “we could always grab another shake.
Nick considered the offer for nary a second before huffing in amusement. “You know Neutron, it’s a shame you’re so lame. Because you can be pretty cool.”
He had seen beauty in the face of immeasurable sadness…
James glanced away from the crumpled letter in his hands. He braced one arm against the spaceship’s chrome wall and leaned his glistening eyes against it. Jimmy had just left his parents, his home, and his entire world behind. He should have been distraught over them. Or, he should have been excited over his prospects. Here he was, barreling out of the galaxy, on a journey coveted by thousands to aid billions. Yet, the only thing on his mind was his one regret – the woman he was realizing he shouldn’t have abandoned.
James took a shaky breath and read the last lines of the letter.
Because you will never be alone, no matter how hard your path becomes. I have given you everything I can; every piece of me I’ve bared to you over the past twelve hours. But I pray that these words may serve as a final gift. Let them embolden you and give you strength as you traverse the stars. If they can do that, then I’ll have the strength to lie awake tonight, and all the nights to come, waiting for the moment you come back to me.
But oh Jimmy, sometimes, the night is so long.
He had witnessed the joyful…
As Libby’s abrupt stint as a DJ began and a slow song filled the auditorium, Jimmy Neutron crossed the dance floor. He stared up at the ceiling, which had been transformed into an ocean of stars by his most recent invention. He watched in awe as a blazing white comet, as real as though it were truly ten feet overhead, darted away in slow motion. Its path led straight over Cindy’s head, and James looked down to find her similarly enamored with this celestial body.
After turning from the comet, she met his gaze. He asked her to dance, and she accepted with ease. As one hand grabbed her palm and the other wrapped around her waist, James felt nothing but serenity. He thought of the question that had plagued him since their journey to Yolkus. Was Cindy the girl he loved to hate, or hated to love?
Now, dancing happily under stars they had helped to create together, the answer was so simple. Maybe, just maybe, love and hate didn’t need each other to thrive. The former was powerful enough to exist on its own.
“So you don’t find out if the servant got the bride or the tiger?” Libby asked in disbelief. She and James leaned against the back wall of Ms. Robert’s classroom, each nursing a cup of cola.
“Nope,” Jimmy explained. “The author stopped there.”
“Well,” Libby argued while hopping up on the desk beside her. “I’d say that’s the about the second dumbest thing I’ve heard all day.”
Jimmy was about to ask what the first was, but he figured it out after following Libby’s gaze towards the front of the room. Cindy and Nick, still clad in their Romeo and Juliet costumes, stood near the refreshment table. Cindy chuckled at some unheard joke and flirtatiously stroked his arm. To James and Libby, they seemed just as annoyingly in love as their poorly fated doppelgangers.
Jimmy took a slow sip from his drink while eyeing the couple. “Well, I don’t need the ending spelled out for me. If you really lo-” Jimmy swallowed hard as he felt Libby’s gaze return to him. “If you care about someone, you’d do anything to make them happy. Even if meant watching them be with someone else.”
“You’re a good guy, Jim,” Libby whispered. She swung her legs and playfully kicked James. He stared at her, and she offered a devastatingly sincere smile. “Not many people would have given Cindy the bride.”
Jimmy sighed and managed a tired half-grin back. “Thanks, Libs.” He set the cup down and stared at his friend. “I just wish I hadn’t gotten the tiger.”
…and the absurd.
“That takes care of them!” the deep voice growled as a dozen tribesmen scampered out of the clearing and back into the depths of the rainforest. Four paws pattered the ground as the menacing tiger spun around and walked towards the five children. The creature quickly realized that all save the shortest human had their mouths agape.
“How in the heck,” Cindy managed to stutter, “did that tiger just talk?”
“I gave Sheer-Khan a pill that rapidly stimulated Broca’s area of the brain,” Jimmy quickly explained.
“Yay!” Carl cheered. “Now we have a tiger on our side!”
He had stared into the greatness of god…
“But when I look at this,” Cindy stood up from her seat in the Strato XL and motioned at Venus’ surface 300,000 miles below. “When I see that every planet is so different and so beautiful, I notice something amazing. I see an artist better than Picasso. I see an inventor greater than da Vinci. I see someone, or something, more brilliant than Einstein,” her gaze shifted to Jimmy and became something playful, “or you.”
…and he had undone it all. Jimmy Neutron hadn’t just met the devil…
The hand creeping around the edge of Cindy’s locker pushed the door closed, revealing a surprisingly familiar-looking boy. He wiped a few long, dark bangs from his eyes and outstretched his palm. “The name’s Cipher,” he offered while casting Cindy a disconcerting smile.
“But you can call me Lou.”
Each one of these worlds, the pure and bittersweet ones, had been beautiful. In spite of all the suffering and pain that served as their foundations, they still held a spark of the divine. No matter the struggles that he and those he loved had faced, no matter the losses they had encountered, they came out stronger for them. These universes were all precious.
But they weren’t the only ones out there.
Jimmy rose up, the helmet dangling from his right hand. He crossed the lab, eyes honing on the monitor. His gaze locked onto the right-most column, the one displaying the universes where all hope had been lost. He stared with unyielding and hatred at the most recent hash mark.
No, Jimmy Neutron hadn’t just met the devil. He had become him.
“We were too scared,” Aurora explained to the crowd of children before her, “to stop him. The Dictator…you,” Aurora glanced at Jimmy, who shirked under her contemptible gaze, “declared himself Emperor of Retroville. That was enough, but not for long.”
James swallowed, dreading to hear what he had done next after being exposed to the megalomanium he’d foolishly created.
“You started a campaign,” Aurora quietly explained. “It was small…at first. One neighboring town, then a few more. You asked us to help, and for a while we did. After all, those first ventures were bloodless. You promised that your inventions and your rule; your,” the future version of Cindy hesitated before quoting, “infinite wisdom would better the lives of those you usurped.
But, as all conquered people do, they rose up. And you squashed them. After that, after the first bodies fell,” Jimmy cringed as Aurora’s gaze fell away from the children. “That was when you truly became the Dictator.
You accelerated the reach and violence of your campaign. We all spoke out, we all said that we had seen enough. We all tried to stop you,” Aurora explained. “But it was me you began to truly hate.
“Aurora,” James began, although he had no idea what to say.
“You came to my house one day,” Aurora went on. “You promised me that I would suffer so much that I’d wish I had never been born. And then,” Aurora’s neck twitched and clenched her teeth with a savage fury, “then you kept your word.”
“That’s enough,” the younger version of Cindy cried out. She motioned at Jimmy, who teetered on the verge of tears. “He doesn’t need to know -“
“He asked!” Aurora snapped back. “After all he’s done, he can’t hear it?”
“That wasn’t him!” Cindy protested. “This isn’t the Dictator, it’s just Jimmy!”
“Cindy,” Jimmy weakly lowed Cindy’s raised arm. He stifled his tears and worries to stare Aurora in her blazing eyes. “I need to hear it.” He cast a pitiful stare at Aurora, whose fists trembled with rage and sorrow. “And she needs to say it.”
Cindy looked into her friend’s eyes before shaking her head. “It wasn’t you,” she whispered.
“You,” Aurora closed her eyes as her neck twitched once more, “the Dictator…he revitalized the nano-bots. This time, the ones they deleted weren’t sent to some recycling bin. They were just…gone. It started with my parents; one at a time.” Jimmy winced in dismay, but Aurora went on.
“Then our teachers, our friends, everyone in town. Then the state, then the country, and the world. Within a month,” Aurora motioned at the five children, “we were the only ones left.”
Silence filled the cockpit where they stood. Aurora closed her eyes as and finished her tale. “He came to me after that. I was out on the street, just listening to how empty it was. I didn’t even hear your footsteps. I turned around and he was there…staring blankly. We just looked at each other…and then you walked away. Without a word.”
To James, Aurora’s words hung in the air and clung to him. They coated his skin, clogged every opening and pore, and suffocated him. He was on the verge of losing consciousness when he finally managed to croak out, “I killed everyone on Earth?”
Aurora turned away from the children and left the cockpit. “Earth was just the start.”
James was still glaring at the monitor when a shrill alarm suddenly screamed from every inch of his lab. “Intruder alert!” Vox screeched over an ear-splitting siren. “Intru -” Vox’s voice was cut off mid-warning, and the alarms died out seconds later.
For several seconds, James could only blink and stare around the lab. As his gaze settled on the control room’s entrance, the door slid open to reveal a panting and sweating blonde-haired girl.
“Vortex?” Jimmy slurred. The only thing he could think to say was, “How’d you get in here?”
Cindy let out a few deep exhalations while ripping a pair of safety goggles off of her eyes. “Well let’s see,” she viciously snapped while tossing the goggles over her shoulder. “Strands of your hair from Carl,” she pulled a sandwich bag from her pocket and hurled it at his face. “Blowtorch didn’t hurt.” She threw the tool in her hand into the floor with all her might, leaving an enormous dent in the floor. Jimmy pulled back in shock, so Cindy added, “And the last bits of Special Girl powder you never knew I kept. My turn for a question.” Cindy snarled across the lab and shouted, “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Jimmy cringed at those words, but Cindy didn’t notice as she stormed across the control room. “We’re all worried sick up there,” she jerked her head at the surface high above the ceiling. “Last time we talked, you were working on an invention that could rip apart the time-space continuum!” Cindy rapped her knuckles against Jimmy’s sweaty temple, taking care not to harm him with her super strength. “Can you see why you ignoring all our calls might have freaked us out?”
James didn’t answer, and Cindy slowly realized the state of both his lab and the boy before her. “Jimmy,” she asked much more gently, “what’s wrong with you?”
James found no clear answer except the obvious. “Everything.”
Cindy stared in concern at the genius before noticing the tally marks on the monitor above him. She cocked her head in confusion, then observed the helmet resting atop the keyboard. Her eyes darted between the invention and screen before scanning the ramshackle lab once more.
It all clicked at once. “The machine,” Cindy gasped. “It worked?” Jimmy managed a weary nod and nothing else. Cindy studied him and waited before ultimately before asking, “What’s out there?”
James whispered, “More than you can imagine.”
For a moment, Cindy was torn between helping her clearly distraught friend and getting more answers. At last, she reached for the helmet. “Just let me see.”
As Cindy’s fingers stretched for the device, Jimmy leapt into action. With the last of his strength, he spun around, grabbed the helmet, and slammed it onto the floor as hard as he could. The machine splintered into a hundred pieces, and Jimmy roared at Vortex, “No!”
“I mean,” Cindy explained while pushing the empty tray of fries towards the edge of the table, “when was the last time we had this? Just sitting here, having peaceful a conversation?”
Jimmy deeply considered the query. “Just the two of us?” Cindy nodded, so he racked his brain further. “I think it was after Intergalactic Showdown. When we signed that contract.”
Jimmy thought back to that afternoon a mere two months ago. He remembered how close they had come to kissing, and a glance at Cindy let him know that they were reflections once more. As they locked eyes and then awkwardly shifted gazes, Jimmy realized how pointless this dance was.
It had nearly nine months since Yolkus, since Cindy had brought him back from the brink in that cell. For months they had repeatedly straddled the edge of the abyss, of that great unknown which stood after the boundary of their love-hate relationship. Closer and closer they had come to crossing that line, until last week when they had kissed. It was such a spur of the moment decision, to take her hand and clash his lips onto hers in that alley. He had assumed that that act would cement them as more than rivals, more than friends. Yet here they still sat, bathing in awkwardness and uncertainty.
Would he ever find out what he and Cindy truly were? As James considered this query and the conversation he was now part of, he realized his latest invention might be more use to him than Cindy. Maybe, he thought, just maybe, this invention can tell us what we might be.
James had already been past the point of collapse, and his most recent act cemented the inevitable. As he stared at the broken invention, as he thought of all he could never unsee, as he realized that he had not reached 90%, he fell to the ground.
“Jimmy?” Cindy cried out in concern as she closed the gap between them. James landed hard on his knees, and he dug his trembling nails into the cement floor. “Jimmy, look at me.”
Cindy’s tone left no room for debate, so he lifted his gaze towards her. “I don’t know what you saw. But whatever has scared you so bad,” Cindy studied Jimmy and saw no reaction. Each of her next words came out slowly as she gauged his response. “Whatever you saw yourself do,” James cringed, and Cindy quickly added, “that wasn’t you.”
Jimmy had no idea what to say, so he kept silent. Cindy stood up and held out her hand. “Let’s get you out of here,” she explained. “Back to the Candy Bar. My treat. And when you’re ready,” she swallowed and added, “we’ll talk about what you saw.” James glanced at her hand, and she advanced towards him. “Come on.”
He grabbed her palm and was besieged by a barrage of memories that weren’t his own.
Kneeling on the barren orange rock, Cindy rested a hand on her friend’s shoulder. “James,” she swallowed hard and leaned her forehead against his, “I’m always with you.” They both exhaled at the same time, and they pressed their heads firmer together. Lips nearly touching, Cindy promised, “You will never be alone.”
Both children leaned back against the Strato XL, settled into the lunar surface beneath them, and stared out at their home planet hundreds of thousands of miles away. James loathed each second of the silence that lingered between them, cursed himself for ever speaking as Cindy took longer and longer to form her response. Then, at last, she simply whispered, “I want you to kiss me.”
James clutched his journal tighter to his chest leaned his forward against Cindy’s. Neither he nor his two dozen classmates had to wait long for Cindy to reciprocate his confession. Her eyes glowed with exhilarated relief as she confidently uttered, “And I love you, James.”
Jimmy was hoisted to his feet, but he couldn’t be pulled out of his thoughts. Those three perfect worlds reverberated through his mind, as did an echo of Cindy’s words. But whatever you saw yourself do, that wasn’t you.
She spoke to him as they crossed the control room; more empty phrases that rang hollow with false promises. Dozens of alien memories clashed with his own; he could no longer be sure which were which. More troubling, he could never know which version of himself James would become. Would he lead a pure life? A bittersweet one?
Or, he calmly wondered, am I destined to become the tenth hash mark?
Jimmy glanced at his and Cindy’s cupped palms. He couldn’t shake the concern that the lack of any electric shock, any pleasuring chill, or indeed any sensation at all was his answer.
James followed Cindy out of the control room, and the double doors slammed shut behind them.
Author’s Note: This is the first of two chapters in this story. The second chapter can be viewed on this blog HERE or at fanfiction.net HERE. If you enjoyed this story or have constructive criticism, please leave a review on this blog or fanfiction.net.