Download the original attachment

Book I: The Milky-Way 

Part Three - Departure 

Chapter 16

19:30 November 19, 5211309, Universal Time

Space Station Juciper, 300 km Earth Altitude 

      Jessi could feel the adrenaline growing inside of her as she clutched the rails of this tiny, featureless room.  Beside her, also suited up in a Manned Manoeuvring Unit, was her father, almost as excited as she was.  Her mother had opted out of the endeavour, but Jessi couldn’t wait to experience it again.

      She looked at her father and smiled, then looked past him to see the instructor standing beside Bob Drady, who was fully harnessed to the rail.  A sense of uneasiness crept over her, but her father took her hand to reassure her.  The instructor shouted a command, and in an instant the outer wall disappeared, revealing the vacuum of space beyond.  Jessi and her father were immediately pulled out into the void, their hands broken apart by the force of the suction.

      Jessi used her thrust pack to spin herself around in every direction, silently laughing with delight.  There was no experience comparable to this.  Being un-harnessed in empty space, floating through the void inspired a feeling unlike any other.  Jessi pointed herself towards the earth and stared at it, that magnificent blue sphere which had given birth to the race that now occupied the entire galaxy.

      She looked at her father in front of her, also staring at the planet.  Her father, who was such a famous and important man, looked so tiny now against the backdrop of the planet and the billions of stars which stretched off to unimaginable distances.  Jessi realised then just how small people were in the grand scheme of things—that even though humans had spread to the far corners of the galaxy, the universe was still mostly indifferent to them.  Although people now lived for about two centuries, this was still only a blink of an eye when measured against the time scale of the universe.  Even her father, who had been around for five million years, had really only existed for a moment.

      Arnold turned himself around and pointed himself back towards her.  Jessi began to laugh again as her father began thrusting towards her with a playful look in his eyes.  He slammed into her and knocked her back the other way.  She used her thrust pack to stop herself and slam right back, but the force of her smaller body did not push him back as far.  She smiled to think how she’d just learned about Newton’s laws in school and now she was a living demonstration.  Her father thrust himself back towards her at a comfortable rate, and when they met he put his arms around her and they squeezed each other tightly.

      Holding each other closely, they took another look at the big blue ball below them.  Jessi thought about what her father must think of the planet, as he was always trying to get away from it.  But Jessi loved the Earth.  She loved it more than any other planet or moon she’d lived on, and she never wanted to leave.

      Still holding on to Jessi, Arnold thrust with his left jet and sent them both spinning around together.  For the rest of the spacewalk they couldn’t stop laughing.  When they felt they’d had enough, Arnold thrust them safely back into the airlock of the Space Station.  Once they were inside and the outer wall had closed again, they finally began to hear their each others’ laughter.  Once they had removed their suits, the inside wall opened and Jessi’s mother was there, smiling at both of them.

      “Did you have a good time?” Lauren asked.

      “It was fantastic,” said Arnold.  “Best space walk I’ve ever been on, even better than in Andromeda.”

      “I don’t think I need to ask why,” said Lauren.  “So what do my two favourite people want to do now?”

      “Arcade!” Jessi shouted.

      “You were in there all morning,” said Arnold.  “We can play computer games at home.”

      “Not as good as these,” said Jessi.  “Besides, you don’t have to come.  I’ll just hang out there myself for awhile and meet you guys back at the room.”

      “I wouldn’t mind having Arnold to myself for a little while,” said Lauren.  “Sure, just come back when you’re done.  If it’s early enough we’ll go to theatre and see the band.”

      “It’s a sklar-revival band,” said Jessi.  “Who wants to see that?”

      “We don’t have to do that,” said Lauren.  “But don’t be too long.  We’re going home tomorrow and I think we should do something special tonight.”

      “No problem,” said Jessi.

      Arnold put his hand on her daughter’s head and messed up her hair.  “You have fun, little princess,” he said.

      “Don’t call me that, dad,” Jessi said.  Her father smiled and walked off towards the suite with her mother.  Bob Drady followed behind them. 

      Jason Floyd couldn’t believe he was back on Space Station Gateway.  It had been five million years and the place had hardly changed at all.  There were a few extra rooms and the name had been changed, but for some reason as he walked through the hallways he felt as though he’d been there only yesterday, with the crew of the Andromeda as they spent a day on the station before heading to Ring Station 4 and finally off to Andromeda.

      But aside from these memories, one thought was dominating his mind—he had to find Jessi.  When he’d arrived on the station posing as Steve Larry, he had asked if it was true that Arnold Juciper was on board.  The receptionist was actually a fairly nice lady, who said they were not supposed to spread the news around but just between the two of them, he was on board, though she could not reveal his room number.

      Jason first went to the spacewalk training centre and inquired about available slots to go out on a spacewalk.  He was handed a schedule on which to sign his name into one of the groups, and noticed that the 19:30 time slot was blocked out, with only the word, “Private” written.  Jason pretended to change his mind about the spacewalk and leave.  Then, at that time he waited in the nearest bathroom to the airlock, hoping to hear something.  After about twenty minutes of sitting fully clothed on a toilet, he finally heard them outside, and was able to discern that they were splitting up.  This was the chance he had been waiting for.

      He left the bathroom a few minutes later and walked across the hall to the arcade.  But with each step he took, his anxiety grew until he was shaking so badly that he could barely stand.  When he reached the door to the arcade, his knees almost gave out.  He put his back against the wall and took a few deep breaths.

      A couple of elderly people walked by and the man stopped when he saw Jason.  “Are you all right?” he asked.

      “Yes, I’m fine,” said Jason.  “Just…uh…sometimes I…uh…lose my breath for no reason.”

      The man shot Jason a curious look and said no more as he walked away.  Jason regained his composure and stared at the door.

      Jessi was in there.  He could feel it.  He hadn’t seen her for a month, but she was in there, just through that door.  The real, actual Jessi.  Not the one in his mind that he had been painting with his imagination.  The actual person was in there.  The one who could talk to him.  The one who could hurt him.

      A feeling of uneasiness stronger than any he’d ever had came over Jason as he walked through the door and spotted her.  There she was, sitting at one of the arcade consoles, completely absorbed in whatever simulation was going on.  She looked so happy, so content with life, so beautiful.  The idea came over Jason that it would be best to just leave her there, to get back in his ship right then and blast away forever with nothing more than the comfort of this image, an image of beauty and innocence.  To let her go and live her own life, free from any worry about his sorry self.

      But Jason had a strong feeling that he couldn’t do this.  Not that he was incapable but that there was simply no other way it could happen.  An extreme sense of de ja vu took hold of Jason and he froze, chilled to the core by the strangest sensation that this had all happened before, that the choices he was making were not actually his, that some powerful force beyond his comprehension was directing his actions, pushing him forward towards an end that would destroy him completely.

      The sensation ended abruptly when Jessi turned her head and spotted him.  He thought he must look awful, with a fire in his eyes and a chill in his heart that would scare anybody.  But Jessi’s face only brightened when she saw him, a smile immediately forming on her face.  Beauty so intense that Jason felt like his head was going to explode. Yet he simply smiled back and waved.

      Jessi put out her finger and beckoned him to come sit next to her.  As the synapses in his brain burst apart and a storm of emotions began to tear through his body, Jason could do nothing but look as calm as possible on the surface, to walk right up to her and say what he had been planning to say for so long, and to finish things off right.

      “Hey Jessi,” he said as he sat next to her, completely shocked by the calmness of his own voice.

      “Jason Floyd,” said Jessi.  “What on earth are you doing here?”

      “I came to see you,” said Jason.  “You weren’t at school yesterday.”

      Jessi’s reaction puzzled him.  She just smiled again, looking more beautiful than ever.  “So you had to see me so bad that you couldn’t wait through the weekend?”

      “I didn’t think I would have a chance after this weekend,” said Jason.  “I know your father is afraid of me.  He’s afraid that I want to hurt you, but nothing could be further from the truth.”

      “He does get a little psycho when it comes to you,” said Jessi.  She was taking this so light-heartedly, when for Jason it was the most difficult thing in the world.

      “I don’t want you to have the wrong idea about me,” said Jason.  “I need to talk to you…privately.”

      “What’s wrong with right here?” asked Jessi.

      As soon as she said that, a couple of STAR Security guards walked into the room and stood at the door.  Jason immediately froze in terror, held together only by the fact that his back was to them.  “As soon as your father finds out I’m on this station, I’m a dead man,” said Jason.  “And all I’m trying to do is tie up some loose ends before I leave forever.”

      “You’re shaking, Jason,” Jessi pointed out.  “What’s the matter?”

      “I need you to do me a favour,” said Jason.  “Just come to my ship.  It’s in docking bay C36.  Just buzz and I’ll let you in.  I just want to talk to you and then get out of here as quickly as I can.”

      “Why can’t we talk here?” Jessi asked, for the first time showing signs of apprehension.

      “Your father,” Jason said again.  “We can’t be seen together.  Look, I’ve got to go.  Just please, please come to my ship as soon as you can.  I promise it won’t take more than five minutes, but I need to talk to you alone.”  Jason saw that she was nervous.  “Don’t worry, Jessi,” he said.  “Nothing is going to happen to you.  I’m the only one in any danger here.  You have to trust me.  Your sister would tell you the same thing, I’m sure of it.  Just…please.  I’m leaving the human race behind forever.  This is my last wish.  I’ll understand if you don’t come, it’s completely up to you.”  Then he added, “But if you don’t come, you’ll be leaving a wound that I don’t think could ever heal.”

      Jessi seemed to give him a slight nod, and with that Jason picked himself up and walked through the back entrance to the room, hoping with every ounce of his soul that this had not been their last meeting. 
 

Chapter 17

20:00 November 19, 5211309, Universal Time

Space Station Juciper, 300 km Earth Altitude 

      When Jason returned to his ship a few minutes after that fateful meeting with Jessi, he never expected that I would be waiting there for him.  He boarded his ship at the precise moment he was supposed to, and quickly made his way to the computer console in his living quarters to put on some music to help him through these difficult few minutes.  I had another idea.

      Jason played Wish You Were Here and took deep breaths in an effort to slow his racing pulse.  He closed his eyes and swivelled the chair around, humming along with the music.  When he opened his eyes, nothing could have prepared him for the start he had upon seeing me.

      “Hello, Jason,” I said.

      He screamed and thrust his chair back so quickly that it collided with the computer console and made the music skip.

      “Don’t be afraid, Jason,” I said to him.  “I’m here to help you.”

      “But…but….but….” he began.  It was clear that his brain had no idea how to process what was going on.  It would be impossible to blame him, of course.  He was being confronted by the image of a friend he had seen die years earlier.

      “It’s okay.  There’s no need to be nervous,” I said again in the calmest voice I could muster.

      “But this is impossible!” he exclaimed.  “You’re dead!  I saw you eject yourself from the garbage chute in the Andromeda years ago!”

      “Yes, I know,” I said.  “I remember it well.  I did it to save Lily.  Imagine my disappointment when I came to know that she died anyway.”

      Perhaps I was saying the wrong things.  It’s difficult when you have no experience in your memory to draw from when making such an encounter.  I was breaking what Jason still assumed was a fundamental law of the universe—that the dead were dead and could not return.  To compound the confusion, there were a million other things on Jason’s mind at the moment I chose to appear to him, and in spite of all I know I could not be certain how he would react.

      “You’re….you’re dead.  You’re dead,” Jason said, beginning to calm down but still overwhelmed by the situation.  “You’re dead so I must be going crazy.  It’s finally happening.  I’ve lost my fucking mind!  I can’t be sure of anything anymore.  You’re not real.  What else isn’t real?  Is this ship real?  Am I really here on this space-station?  Maybe I’m dead….”

      “I assure you that you’re very much alive and all of this is very real.  At least according to your perceptions of what is real and what isn’t.  I’m here and you can see me and experience me.  I exist and so do you.  We’re just on different planes of existence.”

      “Then…” Jason began.  “Then the universe…”

      “Is far more complicated than you can possibly comprehend,” I said.  “But you’ll understand if you become what I am now.”

      “But…well, I’m sorry.  I’m sorry,” Jason stumbled.  “I just find it impossible to believe that Elliot Larken is standing in front of me, talking to me.”

      “Would it help if I told you I’m not Elliot Larken and I’m only appearing to you in his form?”

      Jason only stared at me with a look of such utter incomprehension and helplessness that I knew I had to start giving him some answers.

      “I was Elliot Larken, that’s true,” I said.  “But that was an extremely long time ago from my point of view.  Now I’m something much different.  I can’t tell you exactly what happens when you die but I’ve already revealed that it’s not the end.  Your essence will continue in another form—one much less constrained by the laws of the physical universe than in your current state of existence.”

      “I’m completely insane,” said Jason.

      “Perhaps you are,” I offered him.  “In which case you have nothing to worry about and it won’t make any difference whether or not you pay attention to what I have to say.  But I am here for a reason—on a very important mission that I intend to carry out no matter how it affects me, you, or the space-time-continuum.”

      “Why do I get the feeling this has to do with Jessi?” Jason said.

      “Because right now, everything in your mind has to do with Jessi,” I said, and carefully observed Jason’s reaction.  His disbelief was at last fading into curiosity.  All I had to do was mention his obsession.  Perhaps I should have done that sooner.  “And you’re right, of course.  I chose to appear to you now, and now has everything to do with Jessi.  I’m here just as much for her as I am for you.”

      “I think I’m going to faint,” Jason said.  “I’m sorry, I….I just….this is too much.”

      “That’s a risk I was willing to take.  But I know for a fact that you want to hear what I have to say.  You must hear it.”

      “Then tell me already!” Jason shouted.

      “You know, I’ve been watching you for so long.  I’ve had just about every opinion regarding you that an entity such as I am can have.  But sometimes you really bother me.  Sometimes I genuinely despise you.”

      Jason’s eyes widened in disbelief yet again, and he took a deep breath to drown the anger I knew was rising inside of him.  “What do you want from me?” he asked.  “You exist as nothing but a crushing horrible memory for all these years and then you suddenly appear during the most emotionally frustrating moment of my life to tell me that you hate me?  Can you just fucking tell me what’s going on?  Jessi could come any minute!”

      “Of course,” I said.  “You’re worried that she’ll come to you while I’m here and everything will be ruined.  Well you don’t need to worry about that.  I know exactly when she’ll come and I promise I’ll be gone without a trace before that happens.  But your meeting with her is why I came to you.  I want to warn you.”

      “Then she is coming!?” Jason exclaimed.  For a moment he forgot everything about the impossible situation at hand and focussed only on the happiness that this news had brought him.  For a moment I felt nothing but pity for the poor creature.

      “Listen to me,” I said.  “The dead don’t just randomly appear to the living like this.  Advanced entities usually stay in their own space-times and don’t hop across dimensions like this in an attempt to change the course of events in the universe.  My reasons are personal, and while I can’t explain why I’ve chosen to do this, you should understand that you must take what I say very seriously.  If you don’t, I guarantee you—and I say this with as much seriousness as I can convey—that you will regret it for a long, long time.”

      “So what is it?” Jason asked.  “Warn me already.  What am I supposed to do?”

      “That’s precisely it,” I said.  “You’re not supposed to do anything.  You’ve been feeling as though you’re being guided along by an invisible force, as though you’re being pulled in one direction by a string and that there is only one path for you to take and one possible outcome.  You believe that you have no choice.”

      “I’ve been struggling with a choice for so long I can’t even stand it anymore.  If you mean to tell me that you know the future, then for the love of god please tell me what choice I should make.”

      “The one choice that you are not prepared to make,” I said.

      Jason sighed heavily and looked around the ship.  “Leave now and never return?  Leave before Jessi even gets here?”

      “Precisely,” I said, a new feeling of hope growing inside me.  I confess that I hadn’t expected him to reach this conclusion so easily.

      “I can’t do that,” Jason said.

      Immediately I felt my hopes plummet.  I knew when I began this that I might not succeed.  And I knew that there were limits to what I could reveal to Jason.  But until I had reached the limits of what would be acceptable to reveal to him, I had to continue.  This was more important to me than Jason could possibly understand.

 “You must,” I said.  “If you stay here and wait for her, I promise that you will regret it more than you have ever regretted anything.  You’ll be condemning yourself to the worst kind of torture a soul can endure.”

      Jason was silent.  Here he was at the crossroads of his life, ready to take the biggest step he had ever taken before, and now a vision was telling him to forget about his love and leave it behind.  This was the one thing he was incapable of doing.

      I knew it well, and I knew that convincing him to break his resolve may be beyond my capabilities.  But I knew that I would never forgive myself if I didn’t try.  “You think that waiting for Jessi is imperative.  You think that this hopeless cause defines you as a person and that by abandoning it before it is resolved you will be abandoning yourself.  That you will not be able to live with yourself, always wondering what could have been.  But I’m here to tell you that you don’t want to know.”

      “But you won’t tell me why!” Jason shouted.

      “I can’t tell you why,” I said.  “I can’t reveal the future to you right now because it hasn’t been written yet.  That’s the point I’m trying to make.  It’s too late for me.  The choices I made in my lifetime are done and I can’t undo them.  But for you, this moment is the present, and the future hinges on the decision you make now.  You think that there is only one possible decision.  One possible outcome.  But you’re wrong.  You have the power to change it now.  From where you are right now.  All you have to do is let it go.”

      Jason rubbed his eyes and shook his head, trying desperately to bring his brain to some sort of reasonable grasp of reality.  But his emotions took over long before any progress could be made.  “I can’t just let it go,” he said.  “That’s not who I am.  I can’t do that.”

      “Then make it who you are,” I said.  “You don’t have to let your past define your future.  The present is the only thing that determines the future, and for you the future doesn’t exist yet.  You have the power to change yourself if you just believe it to be possible.  If you just believe that you can change.  That you’re not bound by a doom that can not be avoided.”

      “But doesn’t your being here prove that whatever is going to happen will happen?  You seem to know how everything turns out if I go through with my plan as I’ve imagined it.  So if I do change my mind, wouldn’t you cease to exist?”

      “Your perception of the universe is far too simple,” I said.  “You’re not the only Jason Floyd in existence, you know.  This is not the only universe in existence.  Maybe there are Jason Floyds in other universes who have made the mistake you’re about to make, and maybe there are some who choose to listen to me and do the right thing.  What you need to realise is that it’s entirely up to you to choose which Jason you want to be, and to choose which universe you want to experience.”

      “Did I accidentally take some sort of hallucinogen without realising it?” Jason said.  “Maybe this is some sort of flashback.”

      I almost laughed.  “Jason, listen to me,” I said, now speaking in the gravest possible tone.  “Every sentient entity shapes the universe through the choices it makes.  Each choice, no matter how small or insignificant, will permanently affect the course of the entire universe for as long as that particular universe exists.  I am affecting this universe now through my decision to speak to you.  I can only hope that it has the desired effect.  But the only person who can truly change the course of this universe, who has the power to make things turn out differently, to make the events unfold in a manner other than the one I’m familiar with is you.  And the time for the decision is now.  I promise you that you will not have another chance.”

      “The manner you’re familiar with?” Jason repeated.  “So you only know of one possible outcome?  You only know what happens if I stay here and wait for Jessi.  You don’t know what happens if I leave now?”

      “That’s right.  But I can tell you with the utmost certainty that you do not want to experience the consequences of staying.”  It was then that I began to realise the futility of my mission.  Jason was not doomed, but would doom himself.  He had to.

      “How do you know?  You only know what happens if I stay.  So maybe Jessi comes and she says what I’m hoping she’ll say.  That she does have feelings for me and I’m welcome to come back to her when I’m older.  Then somewhere down the line something bad happens and I’ll look back on your warning and regret it.  I’m sorry, but that’s a risk I’ve got to take.  And what if she rejects me?  I’ll let her go and be on my way.  Maybe you think that will be too much pain for me to handle.  Well, I’m sorry, but that’s a risk I’m also willing to take.  What I’m not willing to do is turn my back on love and disappear forever to wonder what might have been for the rest of my life.  Especially when I know that I turned away at the last minute because of a vision that I can’t even be sure isn’t just a figment of my imagination.  That is a future I don’t believe I can handle.  That is something I will regret for a long, long time.  You admit that you don’t even know what that future is like.  Well, I’m sorry but I’m going to choose to stay and wait for her and let the future unfold as it will.”

      The sigh I breathed now was one so overwhelmed with despair that even Jason could feel it from across the gap of cosmic dimensions.  If only I could really make him understand the gravity of his error.  If only I had the power to change the outcome of this situation.  Unfortunately Jason is the only one who had that power, and he relinquished it.

      “I’m sorry, Jason,” I said.  “One day you will understand, and you will understand just how sorry I am.  I’ve failed you.  You’ve failed yourself.”

      Jason blinked, and I was gone without a trace.  He looked around the room with a great sense of confusion.  He was viscerally aware—as anyone would be—that something of great magnitude had just happened.  But he had no idea what it was.  The fabric of reality had returned to its normal state, and our encounter was buried in an unreachable chamber of his mind.  All Jason knew was that something very important was going on.  More than ever he felt the sense that the next few moments were going to determine the course of the rest of his life.  He did not realise that they would also determine the fate of the entire universe as well.

      The song playing on the computer came to an end, and a light flashed above the entry hatch of Jason’s ship.  Jessi had arrived. 
 

Chapter 17

20:30 November 19, 5211309, Universal Time

Space Station Juciper, 300 km Earth Altitude 

      Shortly before, when Jason had left Jessi at the arcade, she’d spent a little time struggling with a decision of her own.  Jason had never made her as uncomfortable as he had then, and her father’s warnings were still fresh in her mind.  He had told her that he would explain why she should stay away from Jason during their time this weekend, but the topic was yet to be raised.  And now Jason had asked her—had pleaded with her—to come meet him on his ship.

      She could easily go back to the suite and tell her parents what had happened.  That would definitely be the safest thing and probably the right thing to do, but she knew that if she did this she would almost certainly never see Jason again.  Could she live with that?  Knowing that the last thing he wanted to do before leaving the human race behind forever was talk to her, and she had denied him that?  He probably would never forgive her.  She might be able to just forget about him, but perhaps she would always carry some feeling of guilt with her.

      It was too confusing and she really didn’t want to think about it very much.  Jason just wanted to talk for a few minutes and then it would be over.  He’d probably tell her that he loved her or something and then say goodbye.  And that would be the end of it and she could go on with her life, not mentioning anything to her father, satisfied that she hadn’t caused him any suffering and content with how the situation resolved itself.  Just five minutes and she would never have to think about it again.

      Still, she couldn’t shake the nervous feeling.  So she went up to the STAR Security guards at the door and told them she was going to the bathroom, and if she wasn’t back in ten minutes to tell her father.  They agreed, and she walked out of the room and towards the spacecraft docking bays.  She found bay C36 and pressed the button next to the door.  Nothing happened.  She pressed it again, and the door slid open.

      She got her first view of Jason’s ship, and was struck by how small it was.  Her father’s ship was at least five times the size.  But her father’s ship was meant for a family and Jason’s needed only to be big enough for one person.  The entrance hatch opened and a boarding ramp slid down to the docking bay floor.  Jessi took a deep breath to prepare herself for what was likely to be a very uncomfortable situation, and walked into Jason’s ship.

      She was a bit startled when she saw him sitting there in the living quarters by his computer console.  She had just seen him a few minutes ago, and he had looked distraught then, but it was nothing compared to this.  He looked so frazzled and confused that for a moment she thought about turning and running away right then.  But before she could move he began to speak, in a surprisingly calm and friendly tone.

      “Hi Jessi,” he said.  “I can’t tell you how happy I am that you decided to come.  This means more to me than you could ever know.”

      “Hi, Jason,” said Jessi.  She didn’t know what else to say.  “Nice ship.”

      “Thanks,” said Jason.  “This is my home for the rest of my life.  In just a few minutes I’ll have the station open that docking bay hatch and fly out of here.  And I don’t plan on ever coming back.  Not here and not to earth.  Not even the Milky Way if I can help it.  I’m going to disappear forever, unless…”

      Jessi remained silent as Jason trailed off.  Whatever he wanted to say, she just wished he would say it so she could get out of there and let him disappear.

      When Jason saw that she wasn’t going to make this any easier for him, he must have realised that the time had come to finally put it all on the line.  “I guess I’ll just come right out and say it.  I love you, Jessi.”

      She blushed as Jason’s face turned completely red, clearly overwhelmed by his feelings.  Jessi knew instinctively that there was more emotion there than she had ever dealt with before.  This wasn’t just another boy from high school with a crush on her.  This guy was really serious.  What could she say?  There was only one thing she could think to say.  “I know,” she said.

      She was taken aback as Jason’s eyes widened, his breath was knocked out of him, and he closed his eyes so tight that she could only guess at the inner struggle going on in his brain.  Then, he surprised her once again by smiling.  Then laughing.

      “Why are you laughing?” she asked.

      “It’s nothing…” Jason said, still giggling.  “It’s just that…well…that’s exactly what your mother said when I told her I loved her.  I go to so much trouble to hide my feelings when the whole time they’re so obvious and plain to see that it’s useless trying to cover them.  Now that I don’t have to hide this anymore…well, it’s a relief.”

      “That’s nice,” Jessi said, allowing herself a little smile as well.  The tension in the room seemed to be greatly relieved now.  Her discomfort level dropped considerably.

      “So anyway,” said Jason.  “I didn’t ask you to come here just to tell you that.  I told you that I’m going to leave forever unless.”

      “Unless what?” Jessi asked.  She could tell by the look on his face that this is the question he’d been waiting for.

      “Unless you don’t want me to,” said Jason, with an air of finality.  “I love you, Jessi.  But I hate this place.  I hate this time.  I hate this galaxy full of people who don’t understand me and never will.  I know I’ve got to get out.  I’ve got to leave and never come back.  But the only thing that could keep me here is you.  I know it’s a lot to ask you, and I’m sorry for dumping it on you so suddenly like this, but there was no other way.  I had to tell you in person and this was the only way I could meet you face to face.  But if you just say the word I’ll come back.  I’ll go away and come back in a few years when you’re older and maybe your father won’t be so quick to forbid you to see me.  I’ll only be a little older but you’ll be a lot older.  I’ll keep coming back until we’re the same age.  Until it’s possible for us to be together.  But only if you say so.”

      Now Jessi was less comfortable than she’d been when the conversation began.  In fact, she may have been more uncomfortable than she’d ever been in her life.  Did Jason realise what he was asking?  Even Jessi couldn’t fully comprehend it.  This was more than she knew how to handle.  “Jason, I…” she began.  But she couldn’t find the words.  She didn’t want to hurt Jason but he wasn’t giving her any choice.  She just wanted this to be over.  To leave the ship and let Jason disappear and never force so much emotion in her direction again.  She never asked for this.

      “What’s wrong?” asked Jason with genuine concern.  “I’m sorry, I realise this must be hard for you, but you have to understand that it’s something I had to do.  If there is any possibility that we could ever be together, I can’t just blast away and never return.  I’ll always wonder what might have happened if I stayed.  I’ve never loved you like I love anyone else.  It doesn’t make sense why I love you, but I do.  And I know that it’s wrong and I shouldn’t because you’re so young, but that can change.  All it will take is time, and time is under my control.  If you think that maybe you could love me, tell me.  But if you think it’s impossible and you’ll never love me, I need you to tell me that too.  Don’t worry about hurting me.  I chose to take that risk.  But I’d much rather have you let me down now than wonder about it for the rest of my life.”

      While Jessi still felt unbelievably anxious, she was now much less confused. It was clear what she had to do.  What Jason wanted her to do.  He had given her a choice but there was no decision to be made.  Jason himself had already made that decision.  “I’m sorry, Jason,” she said.  “I think you’re a great guy and I think you deserve to be loved, but I’m not the person to do it.”

      She relaxed a little as Jason breathed a heavy sigh.  “Thank you,” he said.  “Thank you for being honest with me and for giving me a straight answer.  That’s all I needed.”

      “I’m sorry,” Jessi said again.

      “Don’t be sorry,” said Jason.  “You have nothing to apologise for.  I’m sorry to you for putting you through this.  I just had to know.  And now that I know I’ll never have to doubt.  I’ll know that I did what I could and that it wasn’t enough, so I was right to leave.”

      “You’re not leaving because of me, are you?” Jessi asked.

      “No, of course not,” said Jason.  “Don’t think that.  My problems are my own and you have nothing to do with it.  You just had the misfortune of becoming my last...obsession.”

      Jessi winced at the word, but didn’t say anything.  When was Jason going to let her go?

      “Now I can see more clearly than ever that obsession is all it is.  Not love.  Just a cruel trick that my mind plays on me.  Focus all of my emotions on a beautiful girl and let it torture me.  Well that’s all over now.  Nobody will ever have to be the victim of my obsession again.  Thank you.”

      A new feeling rose in Jessi now—one of overwhelming pity.  She now understood how her mother must have felt when Jason admitted his love to her. On the one hand she was afraid of what all that emotion could cause a man to do, while on the other hand she couldn’t help feeling bad that she was the source of all that pain and couldn’t do anything to about it.  “Aw, Jason,” she said.  “You’re a very nice person and I’ll miss you.”

      When she saw the look in Jason’s eyes she nearly cried.  The only thing she could think to do was walk towards him with open arms.  When he stood up to embrace her, she saw his face brighten to indicate a level of bliss she could only imagine.  And when he took her in his arms she felt a love stronger than anything she had ever known.  It scared her, but it also warmed her to think that her gesture was what was making him so happy.  Letting him down gently was the best thing she could do for him; perhaps the best thing anyone could ever do.

      The moment was so perfect that Jessi forgot everything else and just lost herself in the embrace.  This was a man saying goodbye to everything he had ever known, and her presence was making it complete.  She could actually feel that deep inside of him, Jason had never felt so perfect or so at peace with life as he did right then.

      And then the moment came to sudden, ominous end. 

      Shortly before, Arnold and Lauren Juciper were lying in their bed in the presidential suite together, reminiscing about the past.  Being aboard this space station was always a strange experience for them, as it brought back memories of the first time they’d been here together.  Before the Andromeda mission, before they fell in love.

      “I’ve been thinking of Elliot Larken a lot for some reason,” said Lauren.  “Ever since we got here I’ve been remembering things.  And right now Elliot is popping into my mind and I can’t seem to get him out.”

      “That’s strange of you to say,” said Arnold.  “I was just thinking of Elliot too.  Thinking of how he died.  It’s not something I like to think about but it’s something I can never get over.”

      “He had a good death, I think,” said Lauren.  “He died to save Lily’s life.”

      “But she died anyway,” said Arnold with a sigh.  “So much useless death.  They could have been happy with each other, I think.  It could just as easily have been them who made it back to Earth and started a family.  But instead they’re both dead and we’re alive and I don’t know what to make of it.”

      “It’s just something you have to live with,” said Lauren.

      “But if David had chosen to kill us first…” Arnold began.

      “But he didn’t and that’s what happened,” said Lauren.  “It can’t be changed.  You couldn’t save Elliot or Lily or Todd or anyone.”

      “Todd was a different story,” said Arnold.

      “But I know he still tears you up inside.  All of those deaths are still haunting you.  I wish there was something I could say to make it easier, but…”

      “…it’s just something I have to live with.” Arnold concluded.

      “Excuse me,” came a cold voice from the doorway.  “I would not have interrupted but it is important.”

      Arnold Juciper gave a short grunt to express his annoyance, then climbed out of bed.  “What is it, Drady?”

      Bob Drady held up his Control Pad which allowed communication with every other member of STAR Security in the galaxy (among many other things) and pointed to the message on the display screen.  “Jessica is missing.”

      Arnold was instantly struck with a feeling of apprehension stronger than anything he’d ever felt.  Lauren bolted upright in bed.  Bob Drady tossed Arnold a shirt and went out to wait in entrance area of the suite.  “Lauren, wait here,” Arnold said.  “I’m sure this is nothing.  She probably just wandered off.  We’ll head down to the security control room and locate her.”

      “I’m coming with you,” said Lauren.

      “There’s really no need…” Arnold began.

      “I’m coming,” Lauren insisted.

      A few moments later, the Jucipers along with Bob Drady and the top security personnel for Space Station Juciper were in the control room checking all of the security camera footage.

      “We called after ten minutes had gone by,” explained one of the station’s security guards.

      “Why did you not alert me immediately?” Bob Drady asked with more than a hint of displeasure.

      “She just said she was going to the bathroom,” said the guard.  “We did not think it was worth bothering you over.”

      “I ordered you to the arcade to specifically watch over the Juciper girl!” Drady shouted.  “If she went to the bathroom you should have followed her!”

      “Those were not our orders,” said the worker.

      “You incompetent fool!” shouted Drady.  “You are discharged!  Now get the hell out of my sight!”

      Arnold was growing impatient.  “Why can’t we find her?” he said.  “Shouldn’t the cameras show us where she was going?”

      “This station has over a hundred cameras,” the director of station security explained while sitting at the console and cycling through all the camera displays.  “Since we do not know where she went it could take awhile to look through all of them.”

      “But she’s only been gone for ten minutes!” Arnold exclaimed.

      “And ten minutes times a hundred cameras is a very long time,” said the security director.  “Do you have any idea where she might have gone?”

      Arnold winced.  “I have a feeling I might know what’s going on here,” he said, and looked at Lauren.

      “No,” said Lauren.  “You don’t think…?”

      “How else would you explain it?” Arnold challenged.  “He’s here.”

      “Who is here?” asked the director.

      “But Jason wouldn’t…” Lauren began.

      “Wouldn’t he?” said Arnold.  “I think you’re about to find out that you’ve been wrong about him the whole time.  He’s here.  I can smell it.”

      “You are referring to Jason Floyd?” asked Drady.  “You believe he is responsible?”

      “That’s the best guess I can come up with.  Jessi wouldn’t just disappear like that without telling anyone.”

      “This station was given specific instructions not to let him aboard,” said Drady.

      The security guard who had just been discharged spoke up.  “I did see her talking with an older man just a few minutes before she left.  He got up and went away.  I assumed it was just someone looking for an autograph and she turned him down.”

      “You imbossil!” shouted Drady.  “That is exactly the kind of thing you are supposed to report!”

      “Are you going to fire me again?” asked the security worker.

      “I will do something far worse to you once I think of it,” said Drady.  “But right now we must find Jason Floyd.  I want you to cycle through every docking bay camera you have.  Arnold, I assume you know what his ship looks like?”

      “I only know the name,” said Arnold.  “It’s the Comfortably Numb, after some Pink Floyd song.”

      “What is Pink Floyd?” asked Drady.

      “It doesn’t matter,” said Arnold.  “Can’t you check the ships that are registered here for that name?”

      “He probably would have used a fake name,” said Drady.  “If he is here he must have used a fake name to make the booking.”

      “I still don’t think he would have…” Lauren began.

      “Got it!” the head of Station Security exclaimed.  “I looked up the registration codes for the Comfortably Numb and it matches one of the ships currently docked here.  Bay C36.”  He hit a few keys and instantly the screen showed footage of the ship’s entry hatch opening and Jessi walking inside.

      “Oh my god,” Arnold said, completely chilled to the core.

      “She’s going of her own free will,” Lauren commented, clearly having no idea what to make of this.

      “What the fuck are we waiting for?!” Arnold shouted.

      Bob Drady took out his Control Pad and hit a few buttons.  “Attention all security personnel.  This is Bob Drady.”  As he spoke his voice boomed over the station’s loudspeaker.  “All Level 1 officers proceed to docking bay C36.  I will meet you there momentarily with further instructions.  That docking bay is to be sealed.  The ship inside does not leave this station under any circumstances.”

      For the first time in years, Arnold looked at Bob Drady with something other than disdain.  For the first time since Drady became his acting bodyguard, Arnold was grateful to have him there.

      “Let’s go,” said Drady.  Arnold, Lauren, and two armed security officers followed him as he took off down the hallway. 
 

Chapter 18

20:40 November 19, 5211309, Universal Time

Space Station Juciper, 300 km Earth Altitude 

      Jason and Jessi were in the midst of their final embrace when the announcement came over the loudspeaker.  A dark sense of foreboding unlike Jason had ever known struck him when he heard the words.  STAR Security was after him.  All of his plans were about to be shattered.  He let Jessi out of his arms and stood, petrified, his mind racing with a million thoughts every second, knowing that he had to think of something to do but unable to concentrate long enough on a single train of thought in order to figure it out.

      “Jason, what’s going on?” asked Jessi.

      “How did they know?” At the sound of her voice, Jason put that nagging question to words.  “How did they find me?”  Jessi opened her mouth to begin to say something, but Jason spoke before she had a chance.  Jason was beginning to overcome the initial panic and start thinking clearly, with the part of his brain geared for survival.  “Well, one thing is for certain.  We’ve got to get you out of here.  Otherwise they’ll think I’ve kidnapped you.  You have to go and explain to them what happened.”

      Jason turned back to his computer console and began entering the commands to open the entry hatch to let Jessi out, but before he could do anything, a flashing light above the hatch indicated that someone was opening the entry to his docking bay.  If he opened his entry hatch it would allow the security guards to board his ship, and they would most certainly arrest Jason long before he would have the chance to give any explanations.  “Sorry, Jessi,” he said.  “Looks like we’ll have to do our explaining from here.  But I’m sure once they understand what’s going on I can let you off and get my ship out of here.”

      “Jason…” Jessi began, but she had no idea what to say.

      “Don’t worry.” Jason said it more to himself than to her.  “This will all be over soon.”

      Just then he heard a noise coming from his cockpit.  STAR Security was in the docking bay and they were hailing him.  Jason turned on the communications console and immediately heard a voice over his ship’s speakers.

      “Jason Floyd, this is STAR Security officer Bob Drady,” said the deep, powerful voice.  “You have taken the daughter of Arnold Juciper and we demand that you open your hatch immediately and return her.”

      Was this really happening, Jason wondered, or was this all some horrible nightmare?  It didn’t matter.  He couldn’t afford to hesitate.  “Jessi is on my ship and she’s perfectly safe.  I was just about to let her off when you barged in here.  She came of her own free will and I was about to let her go of my own free will and fly out of here.”

      “We will determine your motives at a proper hearing,” said Drady.  “Right now we demand that you open your hatch and allow yourself to be taken into custody.”

      It was getting harder for Jason to believe this was actually happening.  He looked over at Jessi, the look of terror in her eyes striking him with such a force that it nearly broke his soul in half.  Still, he had to hold himself together.  There was a solution to this problem that would allow Jessi to leave and for him to keep his freedom.  The last thing he wanted was to be arrested.  There was no guarantee that they would let him go.  He’d already broken the law just by coming to the space-station.  And known criminals usually weren’t allowed to have spaceships, especially with ICT.  If he allowed himself to be arrested now, all of his plans would be shattered.

      “Mr. Floyd, you have sixty seconds to comply or we will force our way in,” said Drady.

      Jason body froze as his mind tripled its effort to find a solution.  It was clear that before he could think of anything, he would have to buy time.  But how could he do that?  His mind jumped to the obvious conclusion, but the idea was so horrific that he felt he must think of something else.  “Um…I’d be glad to do that, I really would.  I want to let Jessi go and get back to her parents.  But I don’t want to be arrested.  If we could make some sort of deal?”

      “STAR Security does not make deals, Mr. Floyd,” said Drady.  “You have forty-five seconds.” 

      Outside the ship, Bob Drady stood holding his Control Pad in one hand and a laser pistol in the other.  Ten guards, also equipped with weapons, stood ready to fire on the ship and force the hatch open.  Next to Drady stood Arnold Juciper, anxious to blast Jason’s ship open and drag him away.  Beside him stood Lauren, feeling almost as distraught as she had been when Arnold was nearly swallowed by the black hole on the Andromeda mission.

      “Arnold, this isn’t right,” she said, remembering how Jason had saved his life then.  “He’s not a kidnapper.  He wants to let Jessi go.  Just let him give her back and let him go.”

      “Never!” Arnold shouted.  “I told that creep to stay away from my daughter.  He went behind my back and sent her webmail.  I took her to this space-station to get away from him, gave specific instructions to STAR not to let him aboard, and he came here anyway and now she’s on his ship.  How much is it going to take for you to finally lose your misguided sympathy for this monster?”

      “I’ll admit that at the moment my sympathy is waning thin,” said Lauren.  “But look at it from his point of view.  If he thinks we’re going to arrest him he won’t let her go.”

      “Twenty seconds,” announced Drady.

      “Why don’t we just let him go?” Lauren suggested.  “Let him open the hatch, let Jessi come back, then open the docking bay so he can get out.  I don’t think he plans on returning.”

      “Why let him go?” asked Arnold.  “Why the fuck should we let him go?  We’ll just blast our way on and take her back.  We get our daughter and Jason finally gets put behind bars where he belongs.”

      “Ten seconds,” announced Drady.  “Nine, eight, seven…”

      “Stop!” Jason’s voice shouted through the speakers on Drady’s Control Pad.  “I’ve, uh…taken Jessi hostage.  As long as you don’t enter my ship forcefully, she won’t be harmed.”

      Lauren was horrified.  She couldn’t believe what she was hearing.  How could he do that?  How could he threaten to harm her daughter?  Yet his voice betrayed him.  “He’s bluffing,” she said.  “He would never hurt Jessi.”

      “You want to take that chance!?” Arnold shouted.  “The guy is insane, don’t you remember?  He’s not right.  He could snap at any minute!”

      “You sound like you’re about to snap yourself,” said Lauren.  “But Jason has never hurt anyone.”

      Bob Drady interrupted.  “What do you want me to do, Arnold?”

      “Just a minute, Bob,” said Arnold.  “Lauren, don’t you remember what happened on the Andromeda?  Remember when he totally lost control and nearly beat David O’Brian to death?”

      “That was…different,” Lauren said, now becoming less sure of herself.  “He did it because David pushed Maria into hurting me.  But he loved me and he never laid a hand on me.  I don’t think he’d do any harm to our daughter.”

      “You don’t think,” Arnold challenged, “but how can you be sure?”

      “I can’t be sure, but…” Lauren began.

      “Drady,” Arnold turned away from her.  “I want you to assume he’s not bluffing.  Hold off on forcing your way in unless it becomes necessary.  We’ll see if we can trick him into releasing her peacefully. “ 

      Back on the ship, Jason was pacing around and trying to figure out how to get out of this.  It should have been simple.  Arnold and Lauren wanted their daughter back, and he wanted to give her to them.  But not if it meant spending the rest of his life in disgrace behind bars.  He just wanted to get away from humanity forever.  Now, for the first time in his life, they weren’t willing to let him go.

      “Jason, what’s going on?” Jessi was on the verge of tears.  “I want to get out of here.”

      “And I want to let you get out of here,” said Jason, fighting through a pain in his gut too strong to describe.  “But I don’t want to go to jail.  There’s got to be a way to satisfy everyone in this situation.  I’m coming up with a plan now.”

      “Taking me hostage?” asked Jessi.

      “I’m so sorry about that,” Jason said.  “But I had to buy some time or they would have forced their way in here.  I have to bluff and pretend that I’m willing to harm you, but trust me.  I would never do that.  I’d rather go to prison that hurt you in any way, but I think there’s a way to get out of this without me going to prison.”

      Just then a new voice came through the communicator.  “Jessi, this is your father,” said Arnold.  “Everything is going to be fine.  Jason, let her go.”

      Jason froze.  He looked at Jessi, then back at the communicator.  He made sure the microphone was switched off.  “Jessi, do you think you’re up for this?  You look like you’re going to cry.  Oh god, I’m so sorry.  But do you think you could talk to your parents and explain everything?”

      “I…” Jessi sniffled, “I think so.”

      Jason nodded and switched the microphone back on.  “Arnold, this is Jason.  I have Jessi here and she wants to talk to you and explain what happened.  Let’s just get this whole thing cleared up right now.”

      “Put her on, Jason,” said Arnold with more than a hint of hostility.

      Jason handed the microphone to Jessi.  “Daddy,” she began.  “Hi daddy, I’m okay.”

      “Oh sweetie,” Arnold said, his voice immediately switching to a much gentler, more fragile tone.  “Sweetie, I’m so sorry.  Daddy should never have left you alone like that.  We’ll get you back safely, I promise.”

      Jason felt like tearing his own eyes out of their sockets and crushing them under his shoes.  Anything to temporarily dull the pain of the ever-growing feeling of guilt inside of him.  “Tell him, Jessi.  Please.”

      “Daddy, everything’s okay,” she said.  “Jason doesn’t want to hurt me.  He never did.  He just wanted to tell me how he felt about me and say goodbye.  That’s all.  I was about to leave when you came in here.”

      “I believe you, sweetie,” said Arnold.  “I didn’t know that.  Tell Jason that if he just lets you out of there, we’ll let him go.”

      Jason knew this was a lie.  How he wished he could believe it.  But it was so obviously a lie.  What could he do?  “Jessi, he needs to know why you came here and what I’m doing.  He needs to know that I just want to let you go and then leave the galaxy forever.  Then everybody’s problems are solved.”

      Jessi was about to speak but instead she broke down.  It was too much tension for her.  The situation was too much for her to handle.  She began to cry, the sound pouring through the microphone and out into the docking bay for her parents to hear. 

      When Arnold Juciper heard the sound of his daughter crying, he almost flipped out completely.  “That son of a bitch!” he shouted louder than ever before.  “I can’t believe that piece of fucking shit!  How could he fucking do this!  I swear to god I’ll make him pay for this!”

      “Arnold,” Lauren grabbed him.  “Arnold, please.  Please, just…please…”

      When he saw that his wife was about to burst into tears herself, Arnold came to his senses.  He could not afford to lose control now.  His wife and daughter were counting on him.

      “Arnold, this is Jason,” the voice came through the control pad.

      Arnold despised the sound to the core of his soul.  Thoughts of strangling Jason Floyd leapt to the front of his brain.  “What is it, Floyd?”

      “Arnold, please,” Jason pleaded.  “I know you’re probably more angry right now than you’ve ever been.  And you have every right to be.  If I were in your position I would want my head on a platter too.  But you have to understand that this is all just an unfortunate accident.”

      “An accident!” Arnold shouted.  “I forbid you from seeing my daughter, I ban you from this space-station while my daughter is here, and now I find you here on this space-station with my daughter on your ship!  How is that an accident?”

      “She came of her own free will,” said Jason.  “She was telling you the truth.  Look, I’ll admit that what I did is wrong.  I should have just left without saying goodbye to her and then everything would be fine.  But I couldn’t live with that.  I just couldn’t.  I had to tell her how I felt about her.  I love her.  I really love her.”  His voice trailed.  Arnold felt no sympathy.  “But she doesn’t love me and now that I’ve talked to her face to face I can accept that and move on.  I was about to leave the space-station and blast away at such a high time-scale that your lives will be over before I can blink.  I still want to do that.  I want to give you back your daughter and then get out of here.  You can monitor my ship.  I’ll move at a thousand years per second.  You’ll have every guarantee that I’m out of your life and your daughter’s life forever.”

      Arnold stood in silence, staring at Jason’s ship with fire in his eyes.  His wife put her hand on his shoulder.  “He’s telling the truth, Arnold,” she said.  “Maybe we should just let him go.”

      “You don’t want to see him pay for what he did?” Arnold challenged.

      Lauren sighed.  “I’d rather just let him go than risk the consequences if we don’t.  He wants to give us Jessi back.  That’s more important than making him pay, isn’t it?”

      Arnold shook his head in confusion.  Then a new thought occurred to him.  “Why don’t you talk to him?  He’s obsessed with you.  He’ll do whatever you say.”

      “I don’t think he’s…” Lauren began.

      “Will you do it?” asked Arnold.

      Lauren was clearly uncomfortable with this, but she knew what was at stake.  “Okay, I’ll talk to him.” 

      “Jason, it’s me, Lauren,” a new voice came through the speakers in the cockpit.  Jason nearly fainted.  He’d been sitting there figuring out what to do while Jessi was off crying by herself on the bed in the back of the ship.  He was struggling with extreme difficulty to maintain self-control, though part of him wished he would just drop dead.

      “Lauren,” Jason said.  It was all he could think to say.

      “Jason, I know you don’t mean to harm Jessi,” said Lauren.  “I know that you’re not an evil person and that you just wanted to tell her how you felt.  I believe you.  Please just let her go.”

      “But…” Jason was on the verge of mental collapse.  The woman he’d loved longer than anyone in his life was pleading with him to release the girl he loved now.  “I want to, Lauren.  Oh god I want to.  I just want this to be over.”

      “Then let it end,” said Lauren.  “Let her go.”

      “But it won’t be over then,” said Jason.  “STAR Security won’t just let me go.  And your husband won’t let me go either.”

      “Jason, if you give us back our daughter I can’t guarantee that they’ll let you go,” Lauren admitted.  “But I promise that I will do everything I can to have the charges against you dropped.”  Jason heard a shout of defiance from someone, most likely Arnold.  But Lauren continued.  “Jason, please.  I’m asking you as your friend.  Please just do this for me.”

      Jason felt his eyes begin to water.  The ever-growing pain in the pit of his stomach was now so unbearable that he could hardly think straight.  Jessi had reached her breaking point.  Now he was at his.  Lauren was asking him as a friend to let her daughter go.  Couldn’t he just do it for her?  At least while sitting in prison he would know that he did the right thing.  That he did it for Lauren.  “Okay,” he said.  “Okay, I’ll…”

      But the reality hit him too suddenly.  Whatever the justification, Jason was not prepared to doom himself like that.  Even if he could get out of prison he could never get out of the galaxy.  That was the prison he had to escape.  He couldn’t give up that easily, especially now that he’d developed a plan.  “No,” he said.  “I’m sorry, Lauren.  I would do anything for you, and I will give you your daughter back.  But I can’t do it here.” 

      “What’s he saying?” Arnold asked, his heart pounding faster than ever before.  “What does he mean, ‘not here’?”

      Bob Drady stepped in and asked for the Control Pad back.  Lauren handed it over.  “What are you suggesting?” asked Drady.

      “Is this Bob Drady again?” asked Jason.

      “Yes,” answered Drady.  “What did you mean by your last comment?”

      “I want to give Jessi back,” said Jason.  “But I also want to be allowed to leave the galaxy.  Since you’re all unwilling to just let that happen, I have to make it happen.  God knows how much I don’t want to do this but you’re not giving me any choice.  I want you to open the docking bay and let me out.  You can monitor my ship the whole time.  I’ll take Jessi to a random location on the moon and drop her off.  You’ll be able to pick her up within five minutes.  By then I’ll have blasted away at a time scale rate so large that you’ll know I can’t return.  Lauren gets her daughter back.  I get my freedom.  Everybody is happy.”

      “You can’t let him do that,” Arnold said.  “Bob, you’re not going to listen to…”

      “Shut up, Arnold!” shouted Drady in a voice that turned Arnold’s blood cold.  Arnold had no choice but to obey.  The message was clear.  Bob Drady was no longer acting as his bodyguard, and Arnold Juciper no longer had any authority.

      “Let me explain,” said Drady.  “It is not in our best interest to let this man take your daughter.  And it is certainly not in our best interest to let him go free.  It will not be long before the entire galaxy hears of this event, and in order for STAR to maintain things, there can only be one possible outcome.  You get your daughter back and Mr. Floyd faces the ultimate penalty.  I will make sure this happens.  Mr. Floyd is giving us a chance here.  I want you to head to the docking bay and get your ship ready.  I will organize a plan with STAR Security and meet you there momentarily.”

      “What do you plan…?”

      “Just do it, Arnold,” said Drady, and Arnold obeyed.

      Lauren began to follow.  “No,” said Arnold.  “I don’t want you involved in this.”

      “I’m coming,” Lauren insisted.

      “Not this time!” Arnold pressed.

      “You should listen to him,” said Bob Drady to Lauren.  “This situation can become rather unpredictable.  His ship has ICT.”

      Lauren was horrified by the implications.  “Well maybe we should just forcefully enter the ship now?” she suggested.  “He’s definitely not going to hurt Jessi.  We don’t know what he’ll do if we let this go any further.  Just take him now.”

      “That is an unnecessary risk,” Drady explained.  “This is no longer a personal matter.  It is a matter of STAR Security and we will follow protocol.  Do you understand?”

      Lauren sighed heavily and looked at her husband.  “Don’t you dare let this get out of control,” she warned him.

      “I promise, honey.  I promise we’ll have Jessi back as soon as possible,” Arnold tried to assure her, but he couldn’t be sure of anything himself now.  The matter of his daughter was out of his hands, and he was overwhelmed with frustration.

      “I just hope that’s soon enough,” said Lauren.

      “I love you, honey,” Arnold said.

      “Go now, Arnold!” Drady shouted.

      “I love you too, Arnold,” said Lauren.  She watched as her husband walked away, followed by five of the armed security guards.

      “Attention Station Control,” Drady spoke into his Control Pad, his voice once again booming over the loudspeaker.  “Once it is secure, I want you to open docking Bay C36 and give the ship departure clearance.”  He pressed a few more keys and spoke again.  “Mr. Floyd, since you cannot trust that we will not arrest you if you open your ship here, you may depart and set a course for Earth’s moon.  There you may drop off the girl and leave the galaxy as you wish.  Our concern is only for the girl’s safety.  But be warned that if you try to escape the galaxy with her in your possession you will be pursued.”

      “I understand that,” said Jason.  “And I have no intention of keeping her.  Just leave me alone while I drop her off and everything will be fine.”

      “Very well,” said Drady, and switched his Control Pad to another frequency.  He motioned to the guards to follow him out.

      Once they had all left the docking bay, Lauren called out to him as he made his way down the hallway toward Arnold’s ship.  “Please bring my daughter back safely,” she cried.  Bob Drady ignored her and continued walking.  
 

Chapter 19

21:00 November 19, 5211309, Universal Time

Privateer Ship Comfortably Numb, Earth Orbit 

      What have I done?  What am I doing?  Only two thoughts dominated Jason’s mind as he put his ship on a trajectory with Earth’s moon.  His plan had been so simple, but the situation had now become vastly more complicated.  If only he hadn’t come to Space Station Juciper.  If only he had just left the galaxy before anyone said anything.  Nobody would have missed him.  Now they weren’t willing to let him leave.  All because Jessica…

      She sat in the chair beside Jason, her legs curled into her body, eyes closed and gently crying.  The sight of her made Jason’s stomach twist and turn into knots so painful he that he felt as though he would puke at any moment.  How could he be responsible for such beauty in such pain?  How could he have forced her into such a frightening situation?

      “Jessi,” said Jason.  “Jessi, please stop crying.  Everything’s going to be fine.  Nobody’s going to hurt you.  They might hurt me, but everyone has your best interests in mind here.”

      She said nothing, but opened her eyes which were buried under layers of tears.  Jason felt his own eyes water up, and at once a wave of violent self-hatred overtook him.  He clenched his fists and punched himself in the face so hard that he shouted in surprise at the level of pain he caused himself.  Then he hit himself again, and a third time, each impact somehow transforming the emotional pain into physical pain.

      “What are you doing?” Jessi’s voice entered his ears.  Jason stopped and turned to find that she was now looking at him.

      “I should never have put you through this,” said Jason. 

      Jessi turned away.  But a moment later she turned back and looked into Jason’s eyes, as if trying to work something out in her head.  They stared at each other in silence for a moment, then she softly spoke.  “It’s not your fault,” she said.

      Jason couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  “What?  Of course it’s my fault.  I should never have asked you to meet me on my ship.  I don’t know what I was thinking.”

      “I’m old enough to make my own decisions,” she said.  “I knew how you felt about me but I didn’t think there was any reason to be scared of you.”

      These words tore at Jason’s heart, and he didn’t know whether to feel joy at them or extreme agony.  This girl was even more kind-hearted than he’d imagined.  He just kidnapped her and she was ready to forgive him?  She wasn’t even blaming him!  “Can you really be that wonderful?” Jason asked, more to himself than to her.

      Jessi clenched her eyebrows and let out a gentle “aw” which made Jason want to die immediately.  Her sympathy for him was too much.  He felt like a sinner blessed with God’s mercy.  He sighed heavily and looked at her, certain now of only one thing: he had to get rid of her.  He didn’t even deserve to be in her presence.  She had to be free to do as she pleased, free to enjoy the life she deserved, free of Jason and his knots of pain to tie her down, the only thing he had to offer.

      “I’m gonna get you out of here, Jessi,” said Jason.  “Don’t you worry about that.  You’ll be back with your dad having dinner in no time.”

      “I know you will,” said Jessi.

      Jason sat back up and focussed again on the controls.  The moon was getting closer.  Now it was just a matter of finding a proper landing site and letting Jessi go, once and for all. 

      “Can you figure out where he’s planning to land yet?” asked Arnold Juciper.  He was in the cockpit of his family’s spaceship, the Commander, hovering over Bob Drady as he ran a continuous analysis of the trajectory of Jason’s ship.

      “It is too early to tell,” Drady answered.  “So far the Comfortably Numb has just been coasting but in a minute he will have to break course and initiate a landing sequence.  Once that kicks into effect we will be able to determine exactly where his ship will touch down on the moon’s surface.”

      “I don’t like this,” said Arnold.  “I don’t like this at all.”

      “Neither do I, Juciper,” Drady said in a harsher-than-normal tone.  “But this is not the first time STAR has dealt with this type of situation and we are very good at handling it.  There are already two STAR Security ships in lunar orbit.  The instant your daughter is on the lunar surface, they will strike the Comfortably Numb and completely disable it.”

      “Do you really think he’s going to let her go?” Arnold asked hopefully.

      “Of course he will,” Drady answered.  “He has no intention of harming the hostage.”

      “How do you know…” Arnold began.

      “Would you calm down?” Drady shouted.  After a brief pause, he explained.  “The Comfortably Numb has ICT.  If Mr. Floyd wanted to hurt your daughter he could have already blasted himself out of the galaxy.  Instead he is heading to the moon to drop her off.  It seems that he wants her to get out of this just as much as you do.”

      Arnold didn’t know how to react to that.  Did these mean it was all his fault?  Would Jason have just let Jessi go had he not interfered?  “You don’t think it would be better to just leave him alone and let him go, do you?”

      “Of course not,” said Drady.  “It would have been better if we had never been involved, but now that we are success is imperative.  Mr. Floyd is already guilty of kidnapping.  If he is allowed to escape the galaxy it would set a dangerous example to the rest of the galaxy.  If one person is allowed to escape justice, many more will get the idea that they can successfully go against STAR as well.  It could lead to the collapse of the entire empire.  And that cannot be allowed to happen.”

      “I know all that, but couldn’t we just keep it under wraps?  Not too many people know about it now,” Arnold suggested.

      “I am surprised you would make such a suggestion,” Drady responded.  “Do you not want to see Mr. Floyd brought to justice?”

      “More than anything,” said Arnold.  “But not if it means losing my daughter.”

      Bob Drady scowled and turned back to the screen.  “He is getting ready to land.  I am transferring the coordinates of his projected landing site to the security ships.  Now it is time to clean up this mess.” 

      “We’ll be on the surface in just a few minutes,” said Jason.  “I’ve got to get you into a spacesuit so I can drop you off.  Then I’ll let your father know where you are and he can come pick you up.”

      “They already know where you are,” said Jessi.

      This struck Jason, as he immediately discerned that she was right.  They weren’t just going to let him go without keeping an eye on his every move.  They could tell exactly where he was going to land.  And once he landed, they might be able to trap him.

      Jason turned back to the computer and pulled up the radar, which gave him all the confirmation he needed.  As soon as he had begun his landing sequence, two STAR security ships in lunar orbit had broken from their course and were now converging on his position.  “Damn it!” he shouted.  “Why can’t they just let me let you go?  Your father is a reasonable man.  He may hate my guts but not enough to put your life at risk by going after me!”

      “My life?” asked Jessi, suddenly becoming nervous.

      “That’s not what I mean,” said Jason.  “You know I wouldn’t hurt you.  I just wish your father knew that too.  We could discuss this like adults, I could give you back to him, and go on my way.  No harm done.”

      “You’re a criminal,” Jessi explained.  “They won’t let you go.”

      “Who’s they?” asked Jason.  “STAR?”

      “Exactly,” said Jessi.  “STAR can’t let anyone commit a crime and get away with it.  I’ve heard my dad talk about this before.  Nobody ever gets away with anything.”

      “So why does STAR have to know anything about it?” asked Jason.  “I could just make a deal with your father.  Nobody else has to know.”

      “My father doesn’t do anything that STAR doesn’t know about,” said Jessi.

      Now Jason was confused.  There were clearly a lot of mysteries about the Juciper family that made the situation even more complicated.  It was becoming clearer by the second that if he was going to get out of this situation, he needed answers.  “Please tell me what you mean,” Jason pleaded.

      “All I know is that STAR knows everything my dad does,” said Jessi.

      “Because of that bodyguard?” Jason asked.  “Does Bob Drady report everything to STAR?”

      “I think so,” Jessi said, becoming increasingly anxious about the situation.  “But every time I ask questions about him my dad tells me not to worry about it.  He says that it’s better for me if I don’t know.”

      Jason’s mind raced with confusion, the various pieces of the puzzle swarming around his head as he tried to make sense of them.  In the midst of this torrent of thoughts, a new idea occurred to him, and it struck him cold.  He thought back to his meeting with Jack on Pluto, and realised exactly what was going on.  Suddenly, all of the pieces fell into place.

      The situation was far worse than Jason had imagined.  He was not merely up against one concerned parent.  He was up against the governing force of the entire galaxy.  Bob Drady was Brian Davis. 

      “What is he doing?” Arnold Juciper asked his bodyguard—who also happened to be the real C.E.O. of the STAR Corporation—from the cockpit of the Commander.  Jason’s blip on the map had shifted course and was now heading away from the moon.

      “It could be he found out about the trap,” answered Drady.  “Or it may be he never had any intention of letting her go in the first place.”

      “God damn him!” Arnold shouted.  “Open a channel to him!”

      “Juciper, I suggest you just try to relax.  STAR has everything under control.  We always do.”

      “You can’t ask me to relax when my daughter’s life is at stake!”

      Bob Drady turned and stared at Arnold Juciper with a look so intense it forced the man to back down.  Drady loathed Juciper with an intensity that he held for few others.  To Drady, Juciper was an ungrateful spoiled child sent from the fourth millennium by a company of fools to a time period that neither wanted nor needed him.  Of course his return made him, by default, the most famous man in the galaxy.  Five million years and it was just Brian Davis’s luck that this useless relic from mankind’s infancy was to become his responsibility.

      Davis could have simply had the Andromeda destroyed before it even completed its mission.  Even afterwards he could have had Juciper and the rest of the crew killed and replaced by actors sworn to secrecy and loyal to STAR.  But instead he chose to take the less risky course and let the galaxy have the genuine article as its championed celebrity.  He let the Andromeda return unscathed from its historic voyage and even treated its crew to a glamorous ceremony, bestowing important-sounding but meaningless awards upon every one of them.

      And what thanks did STAR receive from them?  Their obsolete political ideals, as all of Davis’s people had warned, had immediately put them at odds with the status quo, a way of life that STAR had been tirelessly protecting for millions of years.  Jack Peskie had tried to start a rebellion.  Jason Floyd was now trying to get away with breaking the law.  And Arnold Juciper insisted on parading around the galaxy and telling the people exactly what things were like five million years ago.  Once word began to spread about his secret plans to attack the other extra-terrestrial species in the galaxy, Brian Davis had had no choice but to fake his own death.  And rather than trust the job to anyone else, he took it upon himself to follow the Jucipers in cognito and make sure Arnold was not using his power of celebrity to disturb the established order.

      As Bob Drady, Davis could have killed the Jucipers at any time.  He certainly wanted to.  He couldn’t stand Arnold’s self-righteousness, or Lauren’s blind supportiveness.  And their horrible daughters.  Rachael, who had wanted Davis’s job so badly and was so vocal about it that the people all but demanded it.  Davis wanted her killed, but his people warned that it was far too risky—he couldn’t make enemies of the Jucipers—and that the most reasonable thing to do would be to allow her to take over the position as a figurehead, a C.E.O. that the people would love and support.

      Then there was Jessica, whom he had known and hated since she was a baby.  He had hated her for no other reason than she was a Juciper.  When Brian Davis became Bob Drady, she thought he was just a simple bodyguard and tried to be friendly with him.  But he hated the little brat and found it torturous to pretend otherwise.  One day, when she was ten years old, she grabbed him from behind to give him a hug, and he picked her up and flung her across the room to make it clear that she was to steer clear of him.  That little incident sent Arnold into a rage that nearly destroyed the entire arrangement, but Arnold knew that he could not retaliate.  Arnold Juciper was aware that his entire family, as long as they lived their high profile lives, were merely hanging by a thread around the tip of Davis’s finger.

      And now, once again thanks to Arnold’s little brat, that thread was ready to snap.  Bob Drady knew that things were about to fly way out of control as soon as Jason’s ship broke off from his landing trajectory.  The next few seconds would determine the fate of the Jucipers forever.  As Drady opened a channel to the Comfortably Numb he considered how much power was now in the hands of Jason Floyd, who had never even wanted it nor asked for it.

      “Mr. Floyd, this is Bob Drady aboard the Commander,” he announced.  “Our radar shows that you have broken course.  What are your intentions?”

      The response was swift.  “You never had any intention of letting me drop her off and escape, Drady.”  Floyd sounded like he was on the verge of breaking down in hysterics.

      “What makes you think that, Mr. Floyd?” Drady said with a fierce calmness.

      “I saw your ships converging on my position,” said Floyd.  “STAR isn’t going to let me get away.”

      “Mr. Floyd, I assure you those ships were only there to pick the girl up safely once you deposited her on the lunar surface.”  Drady was uneasy.  There was something very insidious about Jason’s last comment.  “As for STAR, we are fully prepared to let you go.  We have orders from C.E.O. Rachael Juciper.  She wants to see this end peacefully just as much as you do.”

      There was a pause.  Drady looked back at Arnold.  His last comment was strategic, but not in the way Juciper thought.  If Drady’s suspicions were correct, things were going to get very ugly very quickly.  It would all depend on Jason Floyd’s next response. 

      “Somehow I doubt that you take orders from Rachael.”

      “Oh shit,” Arnold Juciper said, taking the seat next to Drady.  “Jason, you stupid moron.”

      Bob Drady turned to Arnold.  “I do not like what I am hearing, Juciper,” he said.  “It sounds like he knows more than he should.  Perhaps your daughter has told him something she should not have.”

      Drady could not help but take pleasure at the horrified look on Arnold’s face.  “No,” he protested.  “I never told her anything.  Jason must have just figured it out on his own.”

      “It does not matter how he knows,” said Drady.  “If he knows it means he is dangerous and he must be stopped.  Saving your daughter is no longer our top priority.”

      “You can’t!” Arnold shouted.  “If you destroy Jason’s ship with my daughter inside it’s going to cause a hell of a lot more problems than it solves.”

      Drady wanted badly to order his ships to destroy the Comfortably Numb and rid himself of Jason and Jessica in one blow.  Of course he would then have to rid himself of Arnold, which would be even more of a pleasure.  But beyond that he would also have to take care of Lauren and Rachael.  Unfortunately none of this could be accomplished easily, as the Jucipers were known throughout galaxy.  As much as Drady hated it, Arnold was right.  As long as there was a chance of getting Jessica back and simply eliminating Jason, he had to take it for the good of the STAR Corporation.

      “This is Bob Drady to all STAR Security vessels within range.  The Comfortably Numb has broken its landing course and is now heading away from the lunar surface.  Break your course to intercept.  I will do the same.  Once we have him surrounded we can disable his vessel.”

      Drady had the ship’s computer calculate a course and speed that would allow him to come within a kilometer of Jason’s ship within just a few seconds.  He engaged the thrust, leaping across space faster than any ship would usually go within planetary space.  A few seconds into the burn, he watched as Jason’s ship changed course and began thrusting away at an even higher rate of acceleration.

      “Drady to Jason Floyd,” he shouted.  “Hold your position or risk being destroyed!”

      But it was too late.  At the moment Drady would have been close enough to fire, Jason had engaged his time-scale and blasted off on a course away from the solar system, moving at a time-scale of one minute per second. 
 

Chapter 20

November 5211309, Universal Time

Privateer Ship Comfortably Numb, Interstellar Space 

      “What are you doing!?” Jessica shouted at Jason.

      “I don’t know anymore!” Jason yelled back in desperation.  It was true.  He had panicked and put the ship on full thrust, speeding up the time-scale enough to blast out of the solar system in a matter of minutes.  He had, however, restrained himself from engaging the ICT to even a fraction of its full potential, still believing he might be able to get Jessi out of the situation.  But even now he was doing her irreparable harm, as every second that ticked by on the ship took one minute to the rest of the galaxy.

      He had to think of a new plan.  Take her to some dead planet far away, drop her off and get the hell out of there.

      “Just let me go!” she shouted.  “I want to go back to my daddy!”

      “I’m trying to,” Jason yelled, and just then he noticed a ship approaching from behind him.  The Commander was in pursuit, matching his time-scale rate of one minute per second.  Though both ships were travelling at just below the speed of light, the Commander was just a bit more powerful and its top speed was slightly closer to C than the Comfortably Numb, so it was gradually gaining on it.

      “Jason, this is Arnold,” said the voice over the com-link.  “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

      “Goddamn it!” Jason shouted.  He looked over at Jessi, who was once again in a state of near-panic, on the verge of tears.  “Arnold, for the love of God,” Jason answered.  “This has already gone too far.  All I want to do is give you your daughter back and be on my way.”

      “Even if I wanted to let you go, Jason, I couldn’t,” said Arnold.  “It’s out of my hands now.”

      “You have to let me go!” Jason shouted in frustration.  “I have ICT!  I can blast away from the galaxy at any second, but I won’t.  Instead I’m going to find somewhere to drop Jessi off and be on my way.  The sooner you leave me alone the sooner I can get her back to you.”  And before Arnold could respond, Jason cranked up the time-scale to one hour per second, darting further ahead of the Commander.

      “Stop!” Jessi shouted.  “Please, Jason!”

      Jason was overwhelmed with rage.  He no longer had any idea what he was doing or how he could possibly resolve this situation.  Now every second that ticked by took an hour away from Jessi’s life.  Her family and friends were aging by the day while she aged only minutes.

      Calm down, Jason thought to himself.  There’s no time.  The longer I sit here without a solid plan, the more harm I do to Jessi.  Immediately he began the work of scanning for the nearest star with planetary bodies in orbit.  But before his computer was able to locate it, the Commander appeared on his radar screen.  It had matched his time-scale rate once again and would easily overtake him once Jason had to slow down to approach a planet.

      Arnold’s voice again blasted through his ship’s speakers.  “Jason!  Stop it, for God’s sake!  Stop!  Do you think I don’t have ICT?  This ship can go just as fast as you.  And you don’t know me if you don’t think I won’t follow you to the edge of the whole goddamn universe to get my daughter back!”

      Jason believed him. 

      On board the Commander, Arnold Juciper was losing control.  Just a little over an hour ago he’d been on Space Station Juciper, enjoying a space-walk with his daughter.  Now he was light-years from home and weeks into the future pursuing a ship that could potentially cross billions of light-years in a split second.

      “There are ten security ships which are able to intercept him,” said Bob Drady in a cold, calm tone of voice.  “He can not run very far or for very long before we surround him.”

      “Then what?” asked Arnold.  “Ten ships isn’t enough!  He’ll crank it from an hour a second to a year per second and be half-way to the edge of the galaxy before we can blink an eye!”

      “Not before at least one of those ships can fire upon him,” said Drady.  “We can disable his thrusters and he will not be able to approach even light speed.”

      Arnold took a deep breath and tried to believe that there was some way this could turn out all right.  Then his ship received a transmission from Earth. 

      Lauren and Rachael Juciper were in the main control room of the STAR Corporation building back on Tallahassee.  They had practically taken up residence there, the only place where ships moving at interstellar speeds could be accurately monitored for long periods of time.

      Several days ago they had sent a message to the Commander, and today they were expecting the reply.  There had been much discussion and many tears before they had sent their message, but in the end both had agreed it was the right thing to do.

      “This message is for my Dad,” Rachael had begun.  “We understand the situation you’ve found yourself in.  Jason’s ship can blast out of the galaxy at any moment and we know you would follow him.”

      “But you can’t do that,” Lauren cut in.  “Arnold, honey, I can’t bear the thought of never seeing you again.  You have to break your pursuit and come back to us before we’re forced to spend the rest of our lives without you.”

      “I know it goes against all of your instincts,” said Rachael.  “But please, Dad.  We need you.  I followed you from the fourth millennium all the way here because it was the only way I knew I could keep you in my life.  I refused to lose you then and I’m willing to sacrifice anything not to lose you now…” Rachael’s next words hurt her to say them, “…even my sister.”

      “But we won’t have to do that,” Lauren broke in again.  “If you just break off your pursuit I’m sure Jason will let her go somewhere and we’ll receive a transmission soon enough telling us where to find her.  We can all be a family again.  But that’s not going to happen unless you let him go.  Please, honey.  Please just let them go and come back to us.”

      Their transmission should have reached the Commander just a couple of days ago and depending on how long it took for Arnold to respond, they could expect an answer within the next few days.

      “What do you think is gonna happen, Lauren?” asked Rachael.

      “I don’t know, sweetie,” answered Lauren.  “I just know I have a very bad feeling about this.  I’m trying not to think about what will happen if this goes badly.  It took so long for me to finally get the life I wanted and now it might be over.”

      Suddenly the communications console came to life.  Rachael leapt to her feet as the reply from her father came over the speakers.

      “Rachael,” her father sounded weak.  “Lauren.  My God, I didn’t want any of this to happen.  None of us did.  But now it’s too late and I can’t break pursuit.  We’re trying to surround Jason and force him to give up.  Maybe if you sent a transmission to him it would help.”

      Both Rachael and Lauren’s hearts sank.  If the situation was going to be resolved it was going to take at least a few more weeks. 

      Back on the Comfortably Numb, the situation was unravelling from second to second.  Jason had located a planetary system and had changed course to head for the star.  The Commander, of course, had followed.

      “Jason,” an unexpected voice came through his ship’s speakers.

      Jessi sat up straight with her eyes wide.  “That’s my sister!” she exclaimed.

      “Yes,” Jason said.  “She’s sending us a transmission.”

      “Jason, this is Rachael.  I’m here at STAR Headquarters with Lauren.”

      “Hello Jason,” Lauren’s voice came.  Jason’s blood froze, and again he felt as though his head was about to explode.  “You have to listen to me,” Lauren continued.  “Please slow your ship down and give yourself up,” she said.  “Please…for my sake.  I don’t want to lose my family.  Please.  I can’t lose my family.”

      This plea from the woman Jason had loved longer than any other person in the world was like a jagged dagger shoved into his chest.  He was not only hurting Jessi but Lauren as well.  And Rachael…

      “Please Jason,” Rachael’s voice pleaded.  “We’ve asked my dad to let you go but he can’t.  Bob Drady is calling the shots now.  Look, I know you just want to give Jessi back and leave the galaxy but you have to understand that’s not an option.  I know I’m asking you to give up your life.  But can you really go on living if you know you ruined our family?”

      “Jason,” said Lauren.  “You put your life at risk to save Arnold all those years ago on the Andromeda.  You did that for me.  Do this for me now.  Do it for Jessi.  I know you love her.  Please put her interests ahead of yours.”

      Jason felt as though every molecule in his head was being violently torn apart.

      Rachael’s voice returned.  “I always thought highly of you, Jason,” she said.  “If you make this last sacrifice I’ll always remember you with love and respect.”

      “But listen, Jason,” Lauren broke in again, in a tone that Jason had never heard from her.  “This will probably be the last thing I ever say to you so listen to me carefully.  If you don’t give yourself up and let my daughter go—if I end up losing my family because of you—I will never forgive you.  Do you understand?  I will curse you until the day I die.  I will get pleasure from picturing you in agony.  There will nobody in this universe who has ever been hated as much as you will be hated by me.  So stop what you are doing right now and give me my daughter back!

      The transmission ended.  Jason was frozen to his chair.  No combination of words is capable of describing with any accuracy what Jason felt in that instant. 

      Perhaps things would have turned out very differently if Lauren had not been so harsh.  In another state of mind Jason would probably have understood that his only option was suicide, and he might have slowed his ship down to one second per second, perhaps taken the cyanide pill he kept in storage, and let STAR board his ship so that Jessi could be returned to her family.

      But the emotional turmoil Jason was in eventually boiled into nothing more than blind anger.  He was angry at Lauren for being so cold to him.  He was angry at Arnold for his stubbornness.  He was angry at Rachael for betraying him.  He was angry at STAR for trapping him in this impossible situation in the first place!  The only person he was not angry with at all was poor, innocent Jessi.

      Jessi, who just sat there crying, unable to make sense of anything that was happening around her.  Suddenly it wasn’t Jason who was the victim in all this.  It was Jessi.  Somebody had to pay for those tears.  And who held the most blame in all of this?  None other than the STAR Corporation itself.

      If it had merely been a matter of Jason Floyd’s conflict with Arnold Juciper, it would have ended with each of them getting what they wanted and going their separate ways.  Jessi would be back with her family and Jason would be soaring through distant galaxies by then.  But because STAR felt it had to control every aspect of everything that happened in the galaxy, it could not let its own self-serving interests be compromised for the sake a few relatively insignificant people.

      Yes, Jason was to blame.  As was Arnold to some extent.  But the real villain in Jason’s mind was STAR.  And it just so happened that he had the means to deal a blow to the very heart of the massive, evil Corporation.  It had wronged him. It had wronged the Jucipers.  And it had also wronged Jack Peskie, who had given Jason the tool he needed in order to retaliate for the wrongdoings done to all of them—Jessi in particular.

      So without a word or conflicting thought, Jason pulled the data-cube Jack had given him from its secret place in his ship’s storage locker, and inserted it into his ship’s computer.  He copied all of the information into a data-stream that could be broadcast into space faster than light in all directions.  All he had to do was press a button, and inhabited worlds for light-years in all directions would learn of the atrocities committed by the company that controlled them.  STAR may be able to stop the transmission from reaching the entire galaxy, but the damage done may turn out to be irreparable.

      He was just about to press the button when he noticed that he was approaching the planetary system where he had planned to drop Jessi off.  Although the system contained no inhabited planets, he detected ten STAR Security ships throughout the system, no doubt strategically arranged to allow them to intercept him long before he could safely land on a surface and deploy Jessi there.

      Still full of rage, Jason turned and blasted his ship away from the star, cranking the time scale up to one day per second. 

      “No!” Arnold yelled in horror.  “Shit!  This is not fucking happening!” he cursed Drady, who sat next to him, still so calm and collected.  Arnold loathed the man more than he had ever loathed anybody, including David O’Brian and Jason Floyd.  While he still hated Jason with every neuron in his brain, at least Jason was clearly just as frustrated by all this as he was.  But Bob Drady just sat there calmly, pushing the time-scale up to match Jason’s at one day per second, not concerned in the least that Arnold was now missing an entire day of his family’s life with every second that passed.

      “Calm yourself, Juciper,” said Drady.  “He may be able to run forever but we can chase him forever as well.  And the longer he runs the more ships we will gather to pursue him.  We are bound to get him eventually.”

      For a moment the only thought in Arnold’s head was how much pleasure he would get from punching Drady in the nose with all the force he could muster.  Then he suddenly realised that Drady was actually enjoying this situation.  A cold rage built up inside Arnold as it occurred to him that Jason was actually solving Drady’s problems for him.  If Jason moved fast enough for a long enough period of time, eventually Rachael and Lauren would simply die of old age and Arnold and Jessi would fade from people’s minds.  At that point, they could both be quietly eliminated with no questions asked.

      Before Arnold could continue along that train of thought, the Commander began receiving two transmissions simultaneously.  One was from the Jucipers on Earth, and the other was from Jason.  Naturally, Drady chose to hear Jason’s first.

      “Listen, Drady,” Jason’s voice had no hint of the frustration it had held earlier.  “This has gone on for long enough.  You are going to call your ships off and you are going to break pursuit.  You will let me drop Jessi off and escape the galaxy.”

      “Or what?” Drady challenged him, amused that Jason might presume to give him orders.

      “I’m sending you a data transfer,” Jason replied.  “If I choose I can transmit this data in all directions to anyone who might pick it up.  Just take a look at the data and I’m sure you’ll understand that you can’t afford to risk it.”

      Bob Drady’s amusement came to an abrupt halt as he pulled up the data on one of the Commander’s computer screens.  “No,” he said to himself in horror.

      Arnold Juciper looked over his shoulders and was struck with a terrifying chill.  He knew what this was.  Though he had never seen it himself he was aware of its existence.  Jack had told him about it before he had mysteriously disappeared.  This was the documentation of STAR’s extermination of every form of extra-terrestrial life in the galaxy it had come across, as well as the plans to exterminate the last two intelligent species in the galaxy.

      Arnold felt as though all of the blood had been instantly drained from his body.  He felt his legs give out beneath him and collapsed in the seat next to Drady.  How could Jason be so reckless?  Didn’t he realise that he had just made himself the prime target of the entire STAR Corporation?  Couldn’t he understand that his elimination and the destruction of his ship along with the information aboard was now the top priority of the entire human empire?  Hadn’t he realised at all that Jessi’s life was nothing compared to the damage that information could do, and he had just completely sacrificed her safety?  That he had ruined the Juciper family forever?

      As if it had been sent just to taunt him, the transmission sent from Earth now came through his ship’s speakers.

      “Dad, this is Rachael,” came his daughter’s voice.  She already sounded older.  “We’ve noticed that you’re moving faster now and that there’s nothing we can do until the situation is resolved.  Just please respond when you get this.  If you keep sending transmissions we might be able to hear from you at least every few months.  If that’s how our family has to stay together for awhile then that’s what we have to do.  I still think this can end well.  Lauren and I will be waiting for you whenever you come back.”

      While Arnold listened to his daughter’s transmission, Drady sent orders to all STAR Security ships in range.  Now every ship in the galaxy capable of intercepting the Comfortably Numb was on its way.  And in an act that paralysed Arnold’s heart with fear, Drady sent an order to STAR Headquarters on Earth to keep the rest of the Juciper family under guard, just in case. 

      Jason Floyd knew that he might have just made the biggest mistake of his life.  He knew that saving Jessi’s life was no longer a priority for STAR.  He also knew that it had been his only option—the only way to make it possible for him to let Jessi go and make his escape.  As long as he held on to that data, he held the upper hand.  No STAR Security ship would dare to fire on him because they would risk his transmitting the information.  Now he just had to find a planet, drop Jessi off, and get the hell out of there.

      And just before he would blast away forever he would press that button and let the whole galaxy know what crimes their governing force was guilty of, and the horrors that they planned to commit in the future.  He would pay STAR back for everything they’d done to him, to his fellow Andromeda astronauts, and to Jessi.

      Another transmission from Earth came to him.  “Jason, this is Rachael.  I’m being held in an underground bunker.  Lauren is in the next room.  I’m being allowed to send you this transmission because they think it might make you come to your senses.  Whatever you do, Jason.  Do not press that button.  If you do, the first order Drady will give is to kill us, both me and Lauren.  Then they’ll kill my dad, and they’ll destroy you and Jessi.  Please, Jason.  Whatever you do, just don’t transmit that data!”

      That was all.  Jason was horrified.  And when he glanced at his radar screen to see not ten, but hundreds of STAR Security ships merging with the trajectory his ship and the Commander were on, his horror intensified tenfold. 

      Arnold Juciper knew that time was running out.  He knew that he no longer had any good options.  No matter what happened now, things were going to end badly.  Hundreds of STAR Security ships were on their way, and as soon as Drady gave the order they would not hesitate to start firing on Jason’s ship.  His daughter would be vaporised.

      Jason must have thought that they wouldn’t fire if he had his finger on the button.  What he hadn’t thought of was that the file he was threatening to broadcast contained an enormous amount of information.  Even if he pressed the button now, it would take several minutes before all of it was sent out into space.  As long as his ship was destroyed early enough, the information picked up by other planets and ships in space would be incomplete at best.  A few fragments would not be nearly enough to damage the STAR Corporation.  Jason’s plan was hopeless.

      And it became more hopeless with every second.  If he had begun the transmission without a word, he might have dispersed all of the data by then.  But with every second he waited, the amount of information he could transmit before his destruction shrank.  Soon enough the fleet of STAR Security ships would have him surrounded and Drady would order them to fire whether Jason had his finger on the button or not.

      There was only one thing Arnold could do.  While Drady was busy coordinating the attack, he began hitting keys on his ship’s main console.

      “What are you doing?” Drady shouted, and turned towards Arnold.  Drady held his laser pistol in his hand, and Arnold could tell he was seriously considering whether or not to fire it.

      “I’m just adjusting the view,” said Arnold.  This was true, as he had indeed brought up a closer view of the approaching security ships with the Commander’s telescope.

      “Of course,” said Drady.  He decided not to shoot Arnold.  “Do not worry.  As you can see we have assembled a large enough fleet to disable Floyd’s ship no matter what he does.  We will have your daughter back in a matter of minutes.”

      Arnold felt a rage like none he had ever known.  Drady should have shot him already, but the man was too sadistic.  He wanted Arnold to watch in horror as his daughter died.  Drady would then probably make him watch as Lauren and Rachael were killed as well.  Only then would he eliminate Arnold.

      The hatred he felt was so intense that it frightened him.  Suddenly a flash of a memory from long ago shot to the surface of his mind.  He remembered the last tortured expression on David O’Brian’s face just before he fell to his death in the black hole at the galactic core.  David had held Arnold responsible for the loss of his own family, which ignited a rage that never died, even until the very end.  That image still haunted Arnold’s nightmares.  Now he felt the same rage inside himself when he thought of Bob Drady.  At that moment Arnold Juciper abandoned all thoughts and hopes except for one.  Drady had to die.

      Arnold put both of his hands to work on the console in front of him, focussing every ounce of mental energy into the task at hand.  Drady turned to see that new views were popping up on the screens left and right.  He let Arnold go on hitting keys, believing he was only trying to obtain a good view of the confrontation that was about to take place.   Drady must have wanted Arnold to have the best view possible for the death of his daughter and the end of his family. 

      Arnold knew that he had to act quickly, as the ships were now entering weapons range of the Comfortably Numb and the final moment had come. 

      Jason Floyd was completely surrounded.  “All right, Bob Drady,” he said, trying to sound confident.  “You have refused to call off your dogs and now you’ve got a fleet surrounding me.  I guess you think I’m bluffing.  Call off your ships or I will begin transmitting.”

      Jason waited for a reply, but none came.  The security ships drew closer.  “Drady!” he shouted.  “Goddamn it!  Brian Davis, you son of a bitch!  Respond!”

      Nothing.  The ships drew closer.

      “We’re gonna die,” Jessi said weakly from the seat next to him.

      Jason knew she was right.  What had he done?  He’d killed her.  He had only wanted to tell her he loved her.  And he had ended up killing her.  “Davis you fucking shit!!!  Answer me now!!!”

      His blood froze as his sensors began picking up increased energy from the space surrounding him.  The security ships were charging their weapons. 

      One last transmission came through to the Commander.  It was Rachael.  “Dad, it’s been two years now since you’ve left and Lauren and I have been kept in this bunker for most of it.  Now it doesn’t look like any of us are going to get out of this alive.”

      “We know you didn’t mean for this to happen,” said Lauren.  “Just know that I forgive you for everything and I love you.”

      Arnold Juciper’s mind was ready to snap, but he was still busy trying to focus on what he was doing.  His wife’s final words to him came dangerously close to making him break out in tears.  They might have ruined everything.

      “Most of my life has been miserable,” said Lauren.  “But thanks to you I was able to know true happiness for awhile.  The time I spent with you has made my whole life worth it.  Thank you, Arnold.  I’ll always love you.”

      “Dad,” said Rachael, and Arnold nearly fainted.  He knew that this would be the last time he would ever hear her voice.  “I’ll never regret following you to this time period.  Even though this world is a lot different and a lot worse than the one we left behind, it was all worth it because we were together,” Rachael’s voice cracked and she began to cry.  Through the tears, her final words were sent hurtling across space and directly to the most vulnerable spot in Arnold’s mind.  “Somehow I think that in some way…we’ll always be together.  Bye, dad.  I love you.”

      The transmission ended.  Arnold had to stop what he was doing as the dam broke and tears began to stream from his eyes.  All he had done was now in ruins.  The legacy he’d created.  The family he’d put together.  All of his accomplishments and all of his love would be wiped from the universe forever.  Sorry, Rachael.  We won’t always be together.  We’ll never be together again.

      “Can I say goodbye to them?” Arnold asked weakly.

      Drady just shook his head.  His full concentration was now on the energy readouts from the security ships.  “Your weapons will be fully charged in three seconds.”

      “Can I at least say a quick good-bye to Jessi?” Arnold asked, only because he had to ask.

      “All right, aim your weapons,” Drady shouted.  “Fire on my command.”

      Arnold Juciper had reached the end.  His mind flashed himself back to his childhood, growing up with a father who was constantly flying off on space missions and a mother who did not remain loyal to him.  He had tried to remain loyal to his family, and all it had brought him was ruin.

      “Fire in five…” Drady began.

      Now Arnold’s life began to flash before his eyes in reverse order.  Pursuing Jason after he’d kidnapped his daughter.  Bringing his family to Space Station Juciper.  Deciding to remain on Earth while his daughter went through high school.  Travelling the solar system and giving lectures.

      “Four…”

      Embracing Rachael when she returned from the second Andromeda mission.  Marrying Lauren.  Returning from Andromeda to a grand welcome ceremony given by Brian Davis, the man who was now about to destroy him.

      “Three…”

      Almost being sucked into the black hole at the galaxy’s core.  Struggling with David O’Brian.  Losing Todd in an EVA accident in the middle of Andromeda.  Losing Elliot as he sacrificed himself to save Lily.  The deaths of Mark and Craig.  Being in the first ship to break free of the Milky-Way.

      “Two…”

      Talking to Jason Floyd aboard Ring Station 4 about the true meaning of the distance they were about to travel…

      They had gone that distance and more, but now the journey was over.  The keys Arnold had been striking with his left hand had given him a view of Jason’s ship and the security vessels surrounding it.  The keys he had been striking with his right hand had set up his ship’s self destruct sequence.  He had only one more button to press.

      “One…” said Drady.  He opened his lips one last time to give the command to fire. 

      Jason Floyd could not believe his eyes as the screen giving him a clear view of the Commander now showed an explosion and bits of debris flying outward.  What had happened?  How…?

      Jason deduced the answer immediately, and it shocked him to paralysis.  There was only one possible explanation.  Brian Davis was about to order his ships to fire, and Arnold Juciper had somehow managed to engage his ship’s self-destruct.  He had been trying to save his daughter, and in doing so he had also saved Jason.

      But at best this would only buy him a few seconds.  The security ships would not wait forever for the order to come from Davis’s mouth.  Once it became clear that Davis was gone…

      Jason’s ship was hit with a blast from one of the security ships, which knocked his shield strength down to 57%.  It wouldn’t be long before the other ships followed suit.  Jason changed his heading just as another blast rocked through his shields and reduced them to a mere 4%.

      There was no more time.  As countless other destructive energy beams were sent flying towards his ship, he burst out of the fray in one flash of light so fast that it seemed to the other ships as though he had just disappeared.  Before any of the security ships could process what had happened, the Comfortably Numb was long gone.

      Jason Floyd and Jessica Juciper were heading at the unfathomable rate of 10,000 years per second towards the Andromeda galaxy.