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Book I: The Milky-Way 

Part Two - First Sight 

Chapter 7

2:00 p.m. October 3, 5211309 Eastern Time

STAR Corporation Headquarters, Tallahassee, Earth 

      Rachael Juciper could not remember the last time she’d been so busy.  The spaceship which had been sent to D-3655 was due to return in two days, and almost as many preparations had to be made for the return as for the departure.  The astronauts had been gone for twelve years, and STAR was responsible for the preservation of their property until their return. The amount of paperwork that went into this was staggering.  And as the new C.E.O. of the STAR Corporation, Rachael was amazed by how much of the responsibility belonged directly to her.

      Sitting at Brian Davis’s old desk, she pulled up file after file and filled out pages upon pages of forms regarding the personal belongings and finances of the four astronauts who had sacrificed twelve years of standard time in order for STAR to gain a bit more information about supernova explosions.  Every form needed her signature in order to be official, and she had to carefully examine each form before signing to make sure all of the information was accurate.  This was by no means difficult work, but it was extremely tedious and time-consuming.

      She was now working on the housing form for the commander.  Her signature would officially transfer ownership of the property from STAR back to him.  She was now checking property values on-line to make sure STAR’s figures corresponded with those of the Central Bank.  She was almost finished when her intercom buzzed.

      “Ms. Juciper, you have a call,” her secretary informed her.  “He says he knows you.”

      “I’m pretty busy right now,” she said.  “Who is it?”

      “Somebody named Floyd,” the secretary responded.

      Rachael froze.  Could it be?  Of course!  Jason had gone to D-3655 as well.  It made perfect sense that he would return around the same time as the astronauts.  What she couldn’t believe was that he had actually kept his promise to contact her when he arrived.

      “I’ll tell him to call next week,” the secretary offered.

      “No!” Rachael shouted.  “No, I’ll take the call.  Transfer him.”

      “One moment,” said the secretary, and the phone on Rachael’s desk began to ring.

      “Jason?” she said.

      “Rachael!” shouted the voice from the other end of the line.  “How the hell are you?”

      “This isn’t Jason,” said Rachael.  “Who’s playing a trick on me?”

      “No, it’s really me,” he said.  “I said I’d contact you as soon as I got back, and I just established orbit with Earth so I figured I’d give you a call.”

      “You sound way too happy to be Jason,” Rachael said playfully.

      “Let’s just say my mission was a complete success,” he continued.  “I feel like a new man.”

      Rachael smiled.  “Wow, that’s great to hear.  I can’t tell you how happy I am that you’re well.”

      “And I can’t tell you how surprised I am to find out that little Rachael Juciper is the C.E.O. of STAR!” said Jason.  “When did that happen?”

      “A few years ago,” Rachael answered.  “Brian Davis died and I got his job.  I was just as surprised myself.”

      “Well congratulations,” said Jason.  “So you’re the most powerful person in the galaxy now…”

      “Sort of,” said Rachael, not really wanting to go into the specific details of her job arrangement.  “But right now I might just be the busiest person in the galaxy.  So as much as I’d love to talk I really should use work time to do work.”

      “Say no more, I understand,” said Jason.

      “But why don’t you come by for dinner tonight?” Rachael offered absent-mindedly.

      “That sounds good.  Same house as before?” asked Jason.

      “Yeah,” said Rachael.  “And this’ll give you a chance to catch up with the whole family too.”

      There was a very awkward pause now, and Rachael bit her lip, hoping she hadn’t just made a mistake.  When Jason spoke again it was in a completely different tone.  “Your parents are back?  Arnold and Lauren are visiting?”

      “Actually they’re living here again,” said Rachael, quickly becoming aware of a deep anxiety forming in the pit of her stomach.  “But listen, I can’t really talk now.  Why don’t you come by the house around six?”

      “Um…okay,” said Jason.  “I’ll see you then.  Bye.”

      “Bye,” said Rachael, and she put down the phone.  What had just happened?  Did she just invite Jason Floyd to dinner at her house, with her family?  That was a stupid move.  The last person in the universe her father had any desire to see was Jason Floyd.  And she couldn’t imagine Lauren would be very excited about it either.  But it was too late, and now there was only one thing she could do.

      Rachael picked up the phone again and called her house.  Her father answered.  “Hello?”

      “Hey, it’s me,” Rachael said.

      “Hi, honey,” said Arnold warmly.  “What’s up?”

      “Um…I don’t know quite how to tell you this, but Jason Floyd is coming over for dinner,” said Rachael.

      As she expected, her father was silent for a long time.  “Really?” he finally said.  “So he has come back?”

      “Yeah, it just came out of nowhere.  He called me and wanted to talk but I was too busy, then before I could think about what I was doing I invited him to come over at six.  I hope that’s okay.”

      Again, Arnold was silent for awhile before speaking.  “Well, yeah I don’t see why not.  It’s been almost fifteen years since we saw him.  He’s probably changed a little, even if it’s only been a couple of years to him.”

      Rachael breathed a sigh of relief.  “Yeah, and he sounds really good actually.  I didn’t even think it was him when he called because he sounded so happy.”

      “Well that’s good news,” said Arnold.  “Maybe he’s changed.”

      “Anything’s possible.  So you’ll let everyone know we’re having company?  Have the chef cook enough for one more person?”

      “Of course,” Arnold said.  “What time will you be home?”

      “I’ll be back before six, don’t worry,” said Rachael.

      “Okay, I’ll see you later, sweetie,” said Arnold.  “Bye bye.”

      “Bye,” Rachael said, and hung up the phone again.  She turned back to the computer screen but her mind was now racing too quickly to concentrate on the work in front of her.  She was going to see Jason Floyd tonight.  In just a few hours, she would see him and talk to him again.  It had been twelve long years since their last meeting, and she had grown up significantly, but he would be the same Jason.  What would it be like?  Would she still feel the same way about him?

      Rachael had never been in love, and she had never dated much.  She was too young before the Andromeda mission and the people in the world were a lot different when she came back.  Everyone lived such commonplace lives, and never had anything worthwhile to talk about.  The only man whom she found the least bit interesting was Jason Floyd.

      But Jason had always been too old for her.  He had been in his early thirties when she knew him before the Andromeda missions, when she was only in her teens.  After the mission, when she was twenty, he was in his late thirties.  But now she was thirty-two and he was still in his late thirties.  It was almost as though destiny was trying to bring them together.

      Rachael had never really felt love, so she didn’t know what it was like, but she doubted what she felt for Jason was anything like love.  She found him interesting but not attractive, and while she cared about him and felt driven to help him somehow, she could not imagine spending her life with him.  She did have feelings for him, but she could not find a word to accurately describe those feelings.

      She had told her father about this several times, but Arnold was always very uncomfortable when discussing it.  He would just tell her to be careful, that Jason was mentally unstable and potentially dangerous.  Rachael did not believer her father’s resentment of Jason was justified, but she understood that he was just looking out for her.  Still, she feared that her father would never speak to her again if she ever decided to start a relationship with Jason.

      As for Lauren, she wouldn’t care.  As uncomfortable as Jason made her, she felt that he was harmless.  She didn’t have much of an opinion one way or another as to Rachael’s feelings for Jason.  Rachael suspected that if she got together with Jason, Lauren might actually be happy about it, relieved that he would have someone other than her as the focus of his emotions.

      But now Rachael had invited Jason back into their house, and there was no telling how things would go.  There was nothing to do now but wait and see. 

      Jason Floyd had immediately gone from blissfully calm to painfully anxious in only seconds.  He had been excited to see Rachael again, and became even more excited when he found out she was STAR’s new C.E.O.  But he had never expected this.  After two years with her completely absent from his life, he was going to see Lauren again.  Not only that, but he would be seeing a much older Lauren than the one he’d known two years ago.  How had she changed in all that time?  Would he still feel the same way about her?  Would she still feel nervous around him?

      He could do nothing now but wait, and the wait was sheer torture.  He considered cranking up the time scale a little just to bring 6 o’clock around sooner, but that idea just seemed too absurd, even for Jason.  So he just sat and listened to music, checking the web to catch up on all the news from the twelve years he’d missed, as boring as the news was.  The only interesting story was about the mysterious death of Brian Davis and the selection of Rachael Juciper to replace him.  He couldn’t believe that a woman from the fourth millennium was now in charge of the human race in the year five million.  Yet there it was.  Believable or not, it was true.

      Finally, Jason took control of the Comfortably Numb and obtained landing clearance in the lot outside of STAR Headquarters.  He touched down, feeling a strange sense of comfort at returning once again to the planet of his birth, and called a taxi.  In several minutes he was picked up and driven to the Juciper residence.

      And once again he made his way up the walkway, once again feeling his anxiety grow with each step.  Just beyond that door was her.  Love was waiting for him inside that house, ready to pounce on him once again and tear at his soul.  He had done his best to escape from love, and just yesterday he had watched a star explode and come to the conclusion that he didn’t even need it.  Would his resolution be torn down so quickly?  Would that feeling of complete satisfaction with life and the drive to improve it be wiped away already?

      He reached the front door and looked at his watch.  It was only five-thirty.  He was early.  But now he couldn’t turn back.  Love was right on the other side of the door.  All he had to do was ring the bell.

      The nerves in Jason’s stomach were so twisted and strained that he felt as though he would vomit.  He was dizzy and light-headed.  His legs felt like rubber beneath him.  As he raised his finger to the bell, he saw his hand shaking wildly.  Finally, he just took a deep breath and pressed the button.

      He heard the ringing, and immediately sensed the movement taking place inside the house.  Someone was coming to the door, and coming quickly.  For an instant Jason contemplated turning and running away, but before he knew it, the person was at the door, and it swung open.

      Jason Floyd was stunned.  There was no air in his lungs, no motion in his body, not a single thought in his head.  He had not expected to see Lauren, but he had never expected this.  Standing in the doorway was a young girl he had never seen before, but immediately Jason knew who she was.  Her hair colour and facial features were vaguely similar to Arnold’s, but her eyes…her eyes were unmistakably Lauren’s.

      “Hi, you must be Jason,” the girl said, and Jason nearly fainted.  “I’m Jessica.  It’s nice to finally meet you.”

      They had a daughter.  Arnold and Lauren had a daughter.  This was the daughter of Arnold and Lauren.  Jason could not move.  He could hardly think.  The shock was too great.  He didn’t know how to handle it.  He didn’t know if he would be able to handle it.  He was only sure of one thing: from this moment on his universe would no longer revolve around Lauren.  This girl was, without a doubt, the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. 
 

Chapter 8

18:45 August 3, 5211309 Universal Time

Morton University Auditorium, Cassini, Titan 

      “And once we had splashed down off the Florida coast and felt the warm Earth water rising all around us, we knew we were home.”  Two months prior to Jason’s visit, Arnold Juciper was just finishing a speech to an audience at Morton University on Titan.  “That concludes the lecture portion of my speech.  For the next fifteen minutes I’ll be happy to take your questions.”

      As usual, nearly every hand in the room shot up simultaneously.  Arnold now had the difficult task of selecting people who would ask him questions that were intelligent, but not too intelligent.  He picked a well-dressed student in the front row.

      “Mr. Juciper, first of all I would just like to thank you for coming here,” said the student.  “The opportunity to speak to you is truly incredible.  We all have a tremendous amount of respect for you and your accomplishment and would just like to thank you so much for sharing your time with us.”

      Another brown-nose.  Arnold had somewhat enjoyed the ass-kissing at first, but after thousands of comments just like this, he no longer had any patience for them.  Nevertheless he maintained his trademark smile and gave his standard response, “Well, it’s not like I’m doing this for free,” to which the audience laughed as usual.  “Do you have a question?”

      “Yes.  Why was the Andromeda ship never recovered?” asked the student.  “According to everything I have read it is still at the bottom of the ocean off the coast of Florida.  It should be in a museum!”

      This was not a new question.  Arnold had the response memorised.  “That’s what I thought at first, but then I realised it’s right where it should be.  The mission came to its end in those waters and that’s where the ship remains.  It hasn’t been moved since it was last moved by its pilot, Lauren.”

      The hands shot up again, and Arnold picked a woman sitting off to the side.  “Mr. Juciper, thank you for being here.  I would like to know more about how the crew for your ship was selected.  It has always been said that STAR picked only their best astronauts, but why would they send their best people away for five million years on a mission where very little man-power was required in the first place?  And if they did pick only the best astronauts, how did someone as under-qualified as Craig Malls get the position of Science Officer?”

      Once again, Arnold had underestimated the intelligence of the person he had called on.  Luckily, he also had a standard response to this one.  “Everyone on the crew of the Andromeda was the best in their field.  Craig Malls was the only exception.  He was chosen to boost crew morale, as he was by far the most enthusiastic about our objective.  Unfortunately, he died too early in the mission to help us later when we really could have used some enthusiasm.”

      Actually, Craig had been allowed on the mission because his rich family had provided a large portion of the funding, but Arnold had found that this answer almost always led to more difficult questions.  Now he decided to call on the dumbest-looking person he could find.  “Mr. Juciper, what was the food like on your ship?  Did you ever get tired of eating the same thing over and…”

      He had picked correctly, and was just about to answer the stupid question at length when a booming voice from the back of the room interrupted the speaker.

      “Mr. Juciper,” said a tall man standing in the aisle, “speaking of the death of Craig Malls, would you care to remind us exactly how it happened?”

      Here we go again, thought Arnold, cursing himself for the transmission he made all those millions of years ago.  “He got into a fight with the other Science Officer, Mark Staff.  Mark broke something of his and when they apologised to each other and went to throw it out of the garbage chute, the chute malfunctioned and they were both sucked out of the ship.  It was just a freak accident, but stuff like that happened all the time on old spaceships.  We had more trouble with that garbage chute than I care to remember.”

      “Is that how it happened?” asked the tall man.

      “Yes.  Next question,” Arnold said, but the man continued.

      “Are you sure Mark did not murder Craig and then kill himself because you had kicked him off the crew for fighting?” he asked.

      How many times was this going to happen?  It seemed there was no escape.  Jason’s book may not have been too popular, but there were enough people out there who had read it to pursue Arnold to his grave.  “I assure you that is not how it happened.  Mark Staff was a very sane, very competent scientist.  He did have a fight with Craig, but it didn’t end in murder.  If you are getting this idea from Mr. Floyd’s book, even he would admit that a large amount of what he wrote is fiction.  He invented all sorts of exciting events which never happened in order to more easily sell his story.”

      “So what exactly in his book is true and what isn’t?” the man asked again.

      “I think we need to give other people their chance to ask questions,” said Arnold.  “I’m not here to talk about Jason’s book.”

      “Is it true that psychedelic drugs were taken during the mission?”

      “No.”

      “Is it true that David O’Brian killed several people aboard your ship including Elliot Larken, Lily Zaw, and Ronald Stark?”

      “Elliot killed himself.  But yes, it is true that O’Brian was responsible for the deaths of Zaw and Stark. Now if you wouldn’t mind…”

      “Is it true that Todd Blankens died as a result of your negligence?”

      “That was an accident!” Arnold shouted.

      “Whose bodies are in your ship, Mr. Juciper?”

      “What are you talking about?  Bodies!”

      “There were two bodies in the engine room of your spaceship.  Divers have found their remains and we know the heart has been removed from one of them.  Whose heart did Ronald Stark put in Lily Zaw before David O’Brian sabotaged the operation?”

      “Elliot’s!” Arnold shouted.  “Elliot sacrificed himself to save Lily.  He gave up his heart…”

      “Even when he had the disease himself?” the man asked.  “Is it not true that it was Craig’s heart you used—that he did not go out the garbage chute at all?”

      “It’s Ronald’s body!” shouted Arnold.  “Those bodies belong to Ronald Stark and Lily Zaw, as I’ve said many times.  These divers you’ve spoken to are mistaken.  We kept Ronald and Lily frozen in the engine room.  The rest of the deceased went out through the garbage chute.  Elliot did not have the disease, but he sacrificed himself to save Lily and requested his body be thrown out of the chute.  Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to go.  I hope you’re happy that you wasted everyone’s time with these ridiculous accusations.”

      Arnold stormed off the stage to a thin, confused applause.  How many times was this going to happen?  His one little lie about the deaths of Mark and Craig from so long ago kept coming back to haunt him.  If only Jason hadn’t written that damned book full of lies.  It was mostly lies.  But there was no denying the truth behind how Mark and Craig really died.  It had been Arnold’s foolhardiness in kicking Mark off the crew for striking Craig.  Such a move was standard protocol for STAR missions, but back then most STAR missions took only a few weeks.  Arnold had only been trying to do things by the book, but he had not fully considered just how devastating it was for Mark to be kicked off the crew before the ship even reached Andromeda.

      It had been a terrible command decision, and it had cost two lives.  During the first transmission to STAR, Arnold lied about what happened in order to keep his image clean in the history books.  Now he regretted it.  If he had just told the truth back then he wouldn’t be under so much scrutiny from these amateur detectives today.

      “You could have handled that better,” a deep, familiar voice said to Arnold as he walked off stage.  It belonged to Bob Drady, a high-ranking STAR Security officer and Arnold’s official bodyguard.

      “You try dealing with that at half the speeches you make,” Arnold responded.  “I swear it’s been getting worse every year.  Could you believe this guy?  Divers!  Who would have thought?”

      “He is bluffing,” said Drady.  “He lives on Titan—he does not know any divers.  And there are no bodies on your ship.  If anyone were to dive into the wreckage they would find nothing.  We made sure of that.”

      “You mean STAR Security actually went down there to destroy evidence?” asked Arnold.  “Why wouldn’t you just use it against me now that you know I lied?”

      “STAR does not care about your insignificant lie from three and a half million years ago.  We care about your reputation.  You are a very important man.  We would not want the greatest hero in the history of our company to have a tainted reputation, would we?”

      “Then why don’t you guys burn every copy of Jason’s book you can find?” asked Arnold.

      “That would be too much of an overt display of our power,” said Drady.  “But I would not worry if I were you.  We have made sure that nobody takes that book seriously.”

      “Thank God for that,” said Arnold.

      “No,” said Drady, “thank STAR.  We are the only God that humanity needs anymore.”

      Arnold looked into Bob Drady’s eyes and winced at what he knew was behind them.  The man had not left his side for five years now, and he grew to hate him more with each day.  But he knew he had no choice.  As long as Bob Drady was with him, he was invincible.  The power of the entire STAR Corporation was behind him.

      “Are we finished here?” asked Drady.

      “Yes, Bob,” said Arnold.  “You can take me home now.” 

      Two hours later, Arnold’s ship touched down on the other side of Titan, where his family had been residing for the past six months.  Before coming to this heavily populated moon of Saturn, they had lived on Europa, and before that several other planets and moons of the solar system.  Though at first Arnold had planned on living in other star systems as well, he decided to stay in the solar system to avoid using the time-scale while his daughter Rachael remained on Earth.  Using the time-scale to reach another star system would mean missing years of his daughter’s life, and as much as Arnold wanted to explore, she had sacrificed so much to remain in his life that he knew it wouldn’t be fair to leave her in that manner.  On top of that, Lauren did not feel it was fair to separate Jessica from her sister.

      Arnold wheeled his ship into the airlock on the side of his house, and entered the main living area.  Bob Drady and the other STAR Security officers who accompanied him went their separate ways, to their own living quarters in the house.  Arnold made his way to the kitchen and found his wife and daughter waiting for him.

      “Hi, Daddy!” Jessi called from the kitchen table.  She had her homework spread out on the table and appeared to be doing math problems.  “How did the speech go today?”

      “It went fine, sweetie,” Arnold responded, and gave his daughter a kiss on the cheek.  He moved towards Lauren, who was standing at the counter with her back to him, and embraced her from behind.

      “Hi, honey,” she said.  “Dinner should be ready in a few minutes.”

      “Great, I’m starving,” he said and kissed his wife below her right ear.  “How was your day?”

      “As boring as usual,” Lauren answered, “nothing but yellow skies from sunrise to sunset.”

      “I thought you liked yellow,” said Arnold, hoping this was not going to turn into the same argument they’d been having for the last fifteen years.  “I thought you liked how Saturn looks through the yellow haze of the atmosphere.”

      “I did,” answered Lauren.  “But it gets old very quickly.  I miss blue skies.  I miss being able to walk out in the fresh air.”

      Here it comes again.  Arnold let go of his wife and sat down at the table.  “Well, if you’re tired of yellow we’ll just go somewhere else for awhile.  There are plenty of places with artificial atmospheres identical to Earth.”

      “Since you mention it,” said Lauren, “There’s a place with an atmosphere identical to Earth that I’d really like to live.  It’s called Earth.”

      “Dinner is ready,” called the chef from the other room.

      “Finally!” exclaimed Jessica, rising from her seat.  “Come on, let’s eat.”

      “You go ahead, Jessi honey,” said Lauren.  “I want to talk to your father in private for a few minutes.  We’ll join you in a second.”

      “Okay,” Jessi smiled and darted off towards the dining room.

      Arnold remained seated at the table.  When his daughter was gone, he buried his face in his hands and let out a huge sigh.  “This talk again?”

      “Yes,” said Lauren, taking a seat next to Arnold.  “This talk again.”

      “I thought we agreed…” Arnold began.

      “We agreed fifteen years ago that if I wasn’t happy with how things were going with your touring plan that we would go back to Earth immediately.  As soon as I had Jessi I told you I wanted to go back.  Travelling around from planet to planet every few months is no way to bring up a child.”

      “She’s fine,” Arnold protested.  “She’s smart and outgoing.  The other students love her everywhere she goes.”

      “And she loves them,” said Lauren.  “But then we take her away from them and they never see her again.  She’s never had a single friendship that’s lasted more than a year.  Don’t you see anything wrong with that?”

      “She doesn’t complain,” said Arnold.

      “Not to you.  She worships you, Arnold.  That’s why she’s gone along with you in every decision.  But she confides in me.  She’s frustrated.  She doesn’t know any other life besides this one of constantly moving around.  How is a child supposed to develop normally without a single place to call home?  When somebody asks her where she’s from, what is she going to say?  She has no identity other than being Arnold Juciper’s daughter.  She has no lifelong friends other than the two of us and Rachael.”

      Arnold sighed again.  “So what do you suggest?”

      “Let’s go back to Earth, Arnold,” said Lauren.  “Jessi is almost in high school.  Those are very crucial years in a young girl’s life.  I don’t want her to spend them in ten different schools.  She doesn’t want to do it either, but she’ll go along with you if it’s what you want.  But I’ve talked to her and what she really wants is to go back to Tallahassee and spend four years in one school.  To be closer to her sister.  To make some friends that might last a lifetime instead of a few weeks.”

      Now Lauren had Arnold’s hands in hers.  She was looking directly into his eyes, pleading with him.  His wife seemed to possess an incredible power in her eyes.  Whenever their eyes met, he would be overwhelmed by her beauty and could not bring himself to look away.  Now he saw the desperation in her face that he had been trying to ignore, but this time he couldn’t.  Lauren was not simply complaining about their situation, she was tortured by it.  She loved her daughter more than anything, even more than him, and Arnold realised at that moment that if he did not take her seriously, he risked losing both of them.

      “So you want to go back to Tallahassee for four years?” Arnold asked in a tone of voice that indicated he was considering it.

      Immediately Lauren’s face brightened.  “Yes, just for four years.  By then Jessi will be old enough to go to college on her own.  Then I swear you can take me anywhere and I won’t complain.  But for Jessi’s sake, please just consider it.”

      Arnold closed his eyes and nodded.  He thought back to the speech he had just given, and realised that perhaps a break would not be such a bad idea.  As much as he loved travelling around and experiencing new planets and cities all the time, he was getting fed up with the lectures and the questions he had to answer over and over again.  Perhaps four years off was exactly what he needed.  “All right,” he said.

      Now Lauren was smiling brighter than he’d seen her smile in years.  It made his heart melt, and he leaned over to kiss her, but she pulled back.  “So that’s it?  No more lectures here?  You talk to Bob Drady tomorrow and get everything set up to return to our home in Tallahassee?”

      “As of right now, I am on a hiatus,” said Arnold.  “No lectures for four years.  I’ll call Rachael tomorrow and let her know.  We’ll be back on Earth by the end of the week.”

      Now Lauren leaned forward and gave him a passionate kiss.  He couldn’t remember the last time his wife had seemed so happy.  “I love you,” she said when it was over.

      “I love you too, Daddy!” Jessi yelled from the entrance to the kitchen, and ran up to give her father the tightest hug she’d ever given him.  She’d been eavesdropping on the entire conversation.  “You really mean it?  We’re going to Earth for four years?”

      “Yes, honey,” he said, and knew right away from the look in his daughter’s eyes that he was doing the right thing. 
 

Chapter 9

5:30 p.m. October 3, 5211309 Eastern Time

Juciper Residence, 76 Glenn Drive, Tallahassee, Earth 

      “Hi, you must be Jason.  I’m Jessica.  It’s nice to finally meet you.”  Arnold Juciper heard his daughter greet their visitor at the door.  He quickly moved to the entrance to see him, and was taken aback.  There was Jason Floyd, just as he remembered him from all those years ago aboard the Andromeda, even down to the same crazy look in his eyes that he’d had during his mental breakdown.  It gave Arnold a chill, and he cursed Rachael for having invited this man back to his house.

      “Jason Floyd,” said Arnold, very skilfully hiding his true feelings, “it’s so good to see you again.  This is my daughter Jessi.”

      Arnold watched as Jason moved his eyes from his daughter to him, and immediately changed expression.  “Arnold, hi,” he said.  “You’ve aged very well.”

      “Uh…thanks,” said Arnold.

      “I didn’t know you and Lauren had a daughter,” said Jason, turning his eyes back to Jessica.

      “You’ve been gone for twelve years,” Arnold said.  “Jessi is fourteen.”

      “But my birthday is next month,” said Jessi.

      “Fourteen?” Jason repeated with a small trace of horror in his voice.  “Wow.”

      There was an awkward pause, then Arnold said, “Yes, well why don’t you come inside?”

      Jason entered the house and Arnold brought him to the dining room, where Lauren sat reading a book.  When Jason entered she set it down and looked up at him.  Arnold’s stomach nerves twisted as he saw the expression in his wife’s face.  She looked surprised, an extremely rare expression for his wife to wear.  He looked at Jason and was equally stunned to find nearly the same look on his face.  Jason had been obsessed with his wife for most of his life, but he had never seen him look at her this way.  He must have been shaken by seeing her so much older than he remembered.

      “Hi Jason,” said Lauren, setting down her book.  “It’s nice to see you.”

      Arnold raised an eyebrow.  He had never heard Lauren use such a warm tone of voice with Jason.  She almost seemed comfortable with his presence, something she had never been before.  Perhaps she had made more peace with Jason in his absence than he had.

      “Hello, Lauren,” said Jason.  “Wow, I never thought I’d see you again.”

      “I thought the same about you,” said Lauren.  “But here we are again.  Have a seat.  Rachael should be home any minute.”

      Jason sat down, his eyes not leaving Lauren’s face.  “I’m sorry, I…”

      “Don’t be sorry, Jason,” said Lauren.  “You’ve got nothing to be sorry about.  We’re the ones who should be sorry, keeping you out of our lives the way we did.”

      “What?” Jason exclaimed, just as Arnold was about to say the same.

      “Don’t worry about it,” said Lauren.  “All that matters is that all of that is in the past and we’ve moved on, haven’t we?”

      “Yes,” Jason answered.  “Yes I think we have.”

      “Good,” said Lauren, who then turned to Arnold.  “Well are you just going to stand there or are you going to have a seat?”

      Arnold sat down across from Jason and his daughter took the seat between him and Lauren.  He sat trying to figure out what had just taken place.  The silence that followed was the most awkward in Arnold’s memory.  When was Rachael going to arrive?

      It was Jessi who broke the silence.  “So Jason, I hear you’ve been off watching that star explode.  Was it cool?”

      Jason turned to Jessi and his face changed once again.  “It was probably the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”

      “We watched it on the telescope last week,” Jessi continued.  “It was pretty cool, but it must have been really awesome up close.”

      Arnold noticed that Lauren was looking at him with an indecipherable look on her face.  It was clear that something was going on here that he wasn’t quite registering in his mind.  Before he could say anything, he heard the front door open and his older daughter announcing her presence.

      “Hey, I’m home,” called Rachael.  “Is Jason here yet?”  As soon as she walked into the room she saw him.

      Jason stood up to greet her.  “Rachael, hi.  Wow, you’ve….you’ve certainly changed.”

      “I’m almost twice as old as I was when you last saw me,” said Rachael.  Her voice was slow.  She was studying Jason, no doubt experiencing the same weird feeling of seeing him exactly as he existed in her memory.  “It’s good to see you again.”

      “It’s great to see you,” said Jason, and he awkwardly put out his hand.

      Arnold watched as his daughter pushed Jason’s hand away and gave him a hug.  He found that he had to look away to keep the anger down.  What did Rachael see in the guy anyway?

      “Hi Rachael,” Jessi said.  “How was work?”

      “Not too much fun,” Rachael answered.  “How was school?”

      “Sucked,” Jessi answered.

      Rachael smiled and took the seat next to Jason, clearly feeling the uncomfortable atmosphere around her.  “So Jason, how was your trip?”

      “I was just telling your sister it was the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen,” said Jason, who turned once again to look at Jessi.  As soon as he did this, Lauren looked at Arnold, who looked at Rachael, who was still looking at Jason.  “It felt like an enlightening experience for me.  Did STAR learn anything interesting from their mission?”

      “Nothing more than lots of evidence to support what we already know,” said Rachael, “which is the best kind of evidence, I suppose.”

      As Jason processed this information, Jessi asked him another question.  “How old are you, Jason?”

      Jason looked back at Jessi, his eye twitching slightly.  This time Arnold looked at Lauren who looked back at him with a look of serious concern on her face.  He began to get the picture.

      “Um…” Jason began.  “That’s a good question.  I’m not really sure.  I’d have to think about it.”

      “How old do you think you are?” asked Jessi.

      “I’ve spent so much of my life using the time-scale that it’s hard to tell.  I know I’m somewhere in my thirties but sometimes I feel millions of years old.  And sometimes, like right now, I feel like I’m still in my early twenties.”

      Jessi smiled and looked at Rachael, who looked at Arnold, who looked at Lauren, who was now looking at Jason.

      “Arnold,” a voice called from another room.  Bob Drady appeared at the door.  “Arnold, you have a phone call.  And the chef wanted me to tell you that dinner is ready.”

      Arnold got up to take the call and Lauren rose from her seat to help the chef bring dinner from the kitchen to the table. 

      A few minutes later, they were all back in the dining room enjoying their meal.  Rachael kept glancing back and forth between Jason and her father, whose glance was now darting back and forth between Jason and Jessi, who were the only two speaking.

      “So you’ve grown up in how many different places?” Jason asked.

      “Fifteen different cities in the last fourteen years,” Jessi answered, “but only eleven different planets and moons.”

      “And this is your first time on Earth?” asked Jason.

      “We’ve visited a lot but never lived here,” said Jessi.

      “And what would you say is your favourite place that you’ve lived?” asked Jason.

      “Definitely Earth!”  Jessi replied.

      “Besides Earth,” said Jason.

      Jessi thought for a moment.  “Probably Jupiter colony,” she said.

      “You’ve lived on Jupiter colony?” Jason repeated with surprise.  “The same colony established by Elliot Larken in the fourth millennium?”

      “Yeah, it was cool living underground like that, and we would take a lot of trips out to the mountains and stuff.  It was really beautiful.”  Jessi smiled.

      “The colony has grown quite a bit from the way it was when Elliot lived there,” Rachael put in.  “It’s expanded from that one little crater to a network of tunnels spanning beneath the surface of the entire core.”

      “I’ve always wanted to go there,” Jason said, still looking at Jessi.  “Are the people a lot different from planet to planet?”

      “Not really,” Jessi answered.  “Everybody is pretty much the same wherever we go.”

      “There are subtle differences,” said Lauren.  “People on Jupiter seem to keep to themselves a bit more than other places like Mars with all its big cities.  But people on Earth seem to be a little more cheerful than most places.”

      Jason turned to look at Lauren, but then immediately turned back to Jessi.  “So you really think Earth is the best the place to live?”

      “Definitely,” said Jessi.  “I want to live here permanently when I grow up.”

      “Can I ask why?” Jason asked.

      “I don’t know,” Jessi answered.  “I just like it.”

      “Sorry,” said Jason.  “I’m asking a lot of questions.  It’s just that I’ve only done one thing in the last twelve years and you guys have been through so much.  All the catching up has to be done on my part.”

      “Well you’ve pretty much got it all now anyway,” Arnold broke in.  “We had Jessi on Mars and moved around for fourteen years until we decided it would be best for her to spend her high-school years on Earth, so we moved back.”

      “What about Jack?” Jason asked Arnold.  “Do you know how he’s doing?”

      Immediately the atmosphere changed once again.  Rachael noticed her father looking to her for some help, so she stepped up to field the question.  “Nobody knows where he is,” she said.

      “What!?” Jason exclaimed.  “Is he dead?”

      “Maybe,” said Rachael.  “We don’t really know.”

      “What happened?” asked Jason, now growing visibly upset.

      “You remember how he told you about his new wife Rebecca?” Rachael explained.  “Well they moved to California and had a son.  About six years ago he came home to find his wife and son murdered.  Then he disappeared.”

      “Murdered?” Jason asked.  “There are still murders happening in this Utopian paradise?”

      “It’s rare but it happens,” said Rachael.  “His family was killed and then he took off, either to find the killers or escape before they found him.”

      “This is depressing,” said Jessi.  “Could we talk about something else?”

      Arnold gave his daughter a look, but Jason spoke before he could.  “Of course, we don’t have to talk about this now.”

      Rachael exchanged glances with her father and looked back at Jason.  The same question in her father’s mind was now in hers.  What did she see in this man?  He wasn’t particularly attractive, and he may have an intriguing personality, but what was really behind it?  Was her father right?  Was Jason Floyd really as dangerous as Arnold had always insisted?  No, Rachael still believed that deep down he was just a sad and lonely man.  For an instant, her heart went out to him again.

      “Do you still keep in touch with any of the people you’ve met on other planets?” Jason asked Jessi.

      “Nope,” said Jessi.  “I’ve tried to keep in touch with some people but it never lasts for very long.”

      “But hopefully now that you’ll be staying on Earth you could make some lasting friends, right?”

      “Yeah,” said Jessi.

      “Jason,” Lauren cut in.  “What are your plans now?  Are you going to skip off for another decade or will you be around for awhile?”

      “I don’t really have any plans just yet,” said Jason, turning to face Lauren without changing his expression.  “In fact I have no idea what I’m going to do tomorrow.”

      “Well do you still want to be a privateer or do you plan on taking up residence here on Earth again?” asked Lauren.

      “I don’t know,” said Jason.  “I’m open to suggestions.  I really have no idea what I’m going to do now.”

      “You should live here!” Jessi exclaimed.

      “Jessi!” Arnold shouted.

      “Not in our house, Daddy,” Jessi said.  “But here on Earth.  Maybe you could get a job at STAR and work for my sister.”

      Rachael smiled at her sister very briefly.  “I could always use an assistant, Jason.”

      Jason turned to look Rachael in the eyes again.  She felt her heart stir, and became even more confused.  What were these feelings about?  She didn’t love him.  Why did he have this affect on her?

      “I suppose…” Jason began.  “I’ll think about it.”

      “Great!” Jessi exclaimed.  “Why leave when you just got here, right?”

      Rachael looked at her father to show him the confusion in her eyes.  Arnold nodded at her, then finished his drink and stood up.  “I’m going to help the chef clean this mess up.  Lauren, would you like to join me?”

      “But Daddy, you never help…” Jessi began, but stopped when she saw the look on her father’s face.  Lauren rose from her seat and went to join her husband in the kitchen. 

      “What do you think?” asked Arnold.  “You know I’m bad at this.  I can’t tell what all of you are thinking.  What’s going on here?”

      “Jason’s changed,” Lauren answered with a distant look in her eyes.  “I can’t believe it.”

      “What do you mean?” asked Arnold, his frustration only growing.  “How has he changed?  He seems exactly the same to me.”

      Lauren looked at her husband now with a very serious expression.  “I’ve known Jason all my life,” she said.  “And he’s always looked at me with the same eyes.  There was always something behind his eyes which made me uncomfortable.  The way he looked at me, I just knew….”

      Arnold waited as Lauren trailed off.  Why did this have to be so difficult?  He was aware that half of the conversation in the dining room had been subliminal, and if he had been better at reading people, he might have picked up on it and figured out just exactly what was going on.  It was clear that his wife, who was an expert at seeing inside people, knew something that he didn’t.  “What?” he asked.  “What did you know?”

      “It’s almost like there’s a dam in his eyes, holding back a flood of emotion,” Lauren explained.  “Like he was living inside a wall and only showing others the outside.  Whenever he looked at me, it was like I could feel the river behind the dam.  A river of suppressed emotions so intense that…it was just scary.  And I knew that those emotions were directed right at me.  That at any moment the dam could burst and I would be swallowed up.”

      “You knew he loved you, I understand that.”

      “No, you don’t understand this,” Lauren told him.  “This is something other than love.  It’s like every emotion together at once and at its most intense.  It’s all bottled up and for the longest time, it was all directed at me.”

      Memories of the incidents aboard the Andromeda flooded back to Arnold.  He remembered Jack telling him of Jason’s psychological problems.  His whole identity was wrapped in his emotions, and his emotions revolved around Lauren.  “What do you mean, was?” asked Arnold.

      “That’s what I’m saying,” Lauren answered.  “He’s changed.  Today he looked at me like I’ve never seen him look at me before.  He still has feelings for me, but all of that explosive emotion wasn’t behind it.  At first I thought it was because I’m older and he finally didn’t find me attractive anymore, but then…”

      “Then what?” asked Arnold.

      “Well, you saw the way he was looking at Jessi.”

      “I knew it!” Arnold exclaimed.  “I knew he was acting a little too interested in her!”

      “He wasn’t doing a very good job hiding it,” said Lauren.  “Even you were able to pick up on that.”

      “So…” Arnold was trying to put it all together in his mind.  “So now he…he’s in love with Jessica?”

      “Yes,” said Lauren.  “All of the emotion that he was directing at me, he’s now directing at her.”

      Now that Arnold’s suspicions were confirmed, he nearly exploded with anxiety.  He began pacing around the kitchen, trying to form coherent thoughts.  “That sick fucking bastard!  She’s fourteen goddamn years old!”

      “I know,” said Lauren.  “But he can’t help it.”

      “I don’t give a damn!” Arnold shouted.

      “Please keep your voice down, Arnold,” Lauren cautioned.  “He has no control over his emotions.  If he could choose his feelings he would have gotten over me a long time ago.  It seems the only way for him to get over someone is to find someone else.”

      “This is bad,” said Arnold.  “This is really bad.  Now he’s going to be stalking Jessi like he’s been stalking you!”

      Lauren showed a trace of annoyance.  “Stalking?  Is that what you would call it?  You remember how he dealt with me.  Avoiding me most of the time, occasionally trying to start a conversation but leaving me alone when he sensed my discomfort.  And then blasting away for years assuming never to see me again.  If that’s how Jason stalks people I don’t think Jessi has anything to worry about.”

      “Lauren,” Arnold looked her in the eyes, “do you really think Jason would have gone on the Andromeda mission if you hadn’t gone?  Would he even have gone into STAR?”

      Lauren’s expression changed to one of incredible surprise.  “You don’t really believe that, do you?  The fact that we both pursued careers at STAR was just a coincidence.”

      “Can you really be sure of that?” Arnold asked.

      “You knew him before the Andromeda mission,” said Lauren.  “You were close friends.  If I was the reason he came to STAR, don’t you think he would have told you?  Besides, you know about his past.  He had just as many reasons to want to escape from that world as I did.”

      Arnold stopped and took a few deep breaths, bringing his mind back to the matter at hand.  “This is bad,” he said again.

      “What are you going to do?” asked Lauren.

      “I’ll deal with him,” said Arnold.  “Let’s just go back to the dining room.  I don’t want to leave him alone with my daughters for too long.” 

      Not long afterwards, the conversation was finished and Arnold invited Jason into the kitchen for a private word.  Jessi went upstairs to do homework while Rachael and Lauren found a place of their own to talk.  Jason followed Arnold into the kitchen and waited for him to speak first.

      “Jason, I…” Arnold began, but couldn’t continue.  He was having an impossible time trying to figure out what to say.  Finally he just blurted it out.  “Are you in love with my daughter?”

      “Um…” Jason started.  “No, sorry.  I think Rachael is great and I’m glad she considers me a friend, but I’m not in love…”

      “Not Rachael,” Arnold interrupted.  “Jessi.  We all saw the way you were looking at her.”

      “Jessi!” Jason exclaimed.  “No no no no no.  Arnold, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but….I mean, she’s only fourteen.”

      “You were talking to her like there was no one else in the room,” Arnold accused.

      “She’s interesting,” said Jason.  “I’ve never met anyone like her.  Growing up in so many different places and everything.  Not to mention she’s the daughter of two people from the fourth millennium born in this time period.  I’m interested in whether she gets most of her personality from you or from the people around her.  If she’s more like a fourth millennium person than a person from today.”

      Arnold just stared into Jason’s eyes, wishing he could tell whether what he assumed to be a lie really was.

      “Look, Arnold…” Jason began.

      “No, you look,” Arnold interrupted.  His years of animosity towards Jason were finally rising to the surface.  “I want you to stay away from my daughter.  Do you understand?  I don’t want you talking to her ever again.  Just leave her alone!”

      “But…” Jason protested.

      “I don’t want to hear it, Jason!  You’ve caused me nothing but problems ever since the Andromeda mission.  You came along to get closer to Lauren and got jealous when I got together with her.  Then you turned the crew against me…”

      “What are you talking about!?” Jason yelled.  “I didn’t go on the mission because of Lauren!  I almost withdrew from the crew when I found out she was the pilot.  And I never turned anyone against you!  Is that really what you think happened?”

      “Even when the mission was over you wouldn’t leave us alone.  You couldn’t just let Lauren go.”

      She invited me over during that first year!  When she stopped inviting me I stopped coming.”

      “You wrote your little book and we decided it would be best to cut you out of our lives.  I still think that was the right decision, but apparently Rachael disagrees.  Do you have any idea how much trouble your damned book has caused me?”

      Jason shook his head, a perplexed look in his eyes.

      “You think I’m making stuff up?” Arnold asked.

      “I think your perception of past events may be somewhat warped by your animosity towards me,” Jason said calmly.

      Arnold lost it.  “My perception is warped!?  I’m the one who doesn’t remember correctly!?  No Jason, it’s your mind that’s warped.  You’re a fucking crazy man!  You’ve always been crazy.  Sometimes you can hide it, but I know what’s inside of you.  You’re a ticking time bomb, just waiting for the moment to destroy me!”

      “Arnold, I can’t believe what you’re saying,” said Jason.  “You used to be my closest friend...my only friend.”

      “That’s ancient history!  Now you’re just a thorn in my side, and I want you out!  I want you out of my house and I don’t want you to ever come back!”

      “But, Rachael…”

      “Your business with Rachael is of no concern to me.  I don’t know what she sees in you, but I can’t stop her from wanting to be your friend.  Jessi, on the other hand, I can.  And I will make sure you never see her again.  Do you hear me, Jason?  You do not go near my daughter if you know what’s good for you!”

      Jason was at a loss.  “Arnold, I think you’re overreacting…”

      “Don’t fucking tell me I’m overreacting.  We’re finished, do you understand?  Get the fuck out of my house!”

      Jason nodded, took an extremely deep breath, and headed towards the door.

      “Stay away from Jessi, understand?” Arnold called after him.  “You just fucking stay away from her!”

      Arnold showed Jason the door, and slammed it behind him. 
 

Chapter 10

12:00 p.m. October 4, 5211309 Eastern Time

STAR Corporation Headquarters, Tallahassee, Earth 

      Jason knew he would not be able to get Jessi out of his mind.  The previous evening had brought him to an emotional extreme he hadn’t known in years.  When he laid his eyes on her for the first time, he knew immediately that he was in love.  When he saw Lauren again, he could hardly believe his eyes.  She was still beautiful, but there was something missing in her eyes.  They didn’t seem to glow as brightly as they once had, and he was shocked to realise that he was no longer in love with her.  He was also fairly certain that she knew the same thing, as her uncharacteristic kindness towards him indicated.  She had actually apologized for cutting him out of their lives.  It had been mind-boggling.

      But for the rest of the night, Jason could not break his focus on Jessi.  He knew he may have been talking to her and looking at her too much, but he could not help himself.  The desire that had once been directed completely at Lauren had now shifted to another girl, and his mind was clouded by a deep, insurmountable yearning to possess her.  The only thoughts in his mind were of how remarkable it would feel to hold her in his arms, and how marvellous it would be to kiss her.

      These thoughts cycled endlessly through his brain once he left, and they continued to assault him throughout that night, even to the point where they prevented him from being able to sleep.  The worst of these torturous thoughts was of their age difference.  Jason had done some calculations that night, and determined that his biological age was thirty-seven.  Jessi was fourteen.  Jason had been around for millions of years, and Jessi had been alive for only fourteen.  This fact alone precluded Jason from having any hope of a relationship with her, let alone the stern warnings of her father.

      What did he want with her anyway?  He hardly knew her or anything about her, other than the fact that she was the daughter of Arnold and Lauren, and the basic details of her life.  But she was only a child.  Old enough to be physically mature, but nowhere near the mental level that Jason was on.  The deep connection that he had been looking for in a woman could clearly not be established with Jessi.  He had believed for most of his life that he could form such a connection with Lauren, because he could tell she understood pain and suffering.  But Jessi was the daughter of the richest, most famous man in the galaxy, and had been given everything she wanted all her life.  She was young and spoiled, and had less than nothing in common with Jason.  The only thing that connected them was the Juciper family, and the head of the family wanted to break that connection.

      So Jason really didn’t know what he was doing when he went to visit Rachael at STAR Headquarters the following day.  He had no plan, nor even a clue as to what he hoped could come of this.  He only knew that he could not leave it alone.

      He knocked on the door of Rachael’s office and she beckoned him inside.  “Hi, Rachael,” he said.

      “How’s it going, Jason?” Rachael answered, and invited him to sit at her comfortable chair.

      Jason declined and took the seat in front of the desk.  Rachael was eating lunch, and she offered him some juice, which he also declined.

      “So why did you want to see me today?” asked Rachael.  Her first phone call of the morning had been from Jason, asking for some time to speak with her privately.

      “I’m sure you can guess,” said Jason.

      Rachael sighed.  “Is it about my sister?”

      Jason sighed more heavily, and gave a solemn nod as a clear expression of his regret for bothering Rachael about the matter.

      “Dad talked to me about it last night,” Rachael said.  “He told me about what he said to you last night, and that he didn’t want you near our family.  He even asked me to stay away from you, but I told him I wouldn’t do it.”

      A pain shot through Jason’s heart.  “I’m sorry, Rachael,” he said.

      “Why should you be sorry?” asked Rachael.  “You haven’t done anything wrong.  Arnold is just being over-protective.  He gets insane sometimes with stuff like that.”

      “No, I’m sorry to put you through this.  It must be a really awkward position, you know?”

      “It doesn’t matter, Jason,” Rachael insisted.  “I can handle my dad.  It’s really no problem.”

      “But it is a problem,” said Jason.  “I…I just don’t know…”

      Rachael put up her hand to stop him.  “Just one question.  How do you really feel about my sister?”

      Jason studied Rachael’s eyes for a moment, and was shocked to see that she actually cared about the answer to this question, not out of curiosity but for her own emotional reasons.  Was Rachael actually interested in him?  Could it actually be that she really felt for him?  That there was more to her kindness than pity?  He would have to answer her question delicately.  “I think she’s great,” he said.

      But Rachael was not satisfied with this response.  “Do you have feelings for her?”

      There was a long, uncomfortable pause.  Finally, Jason said, “Yes.”

      Rachael nodded and gave the heaviest sigh yet.  “How bad is it?” she asked.  “Is it anything like what you felt for Lauren?”

      Felt?  How did Rachael know he had gotten over Lauren?  Had they already talked about it?  “In some ways it’s not as strong as my love for Lauren was.  But in many ways it’s stronger.”

      Rachael shook her head.  “I don’t get it,” she said.  “How?  Why?  You don’t even know her!”

      “I didn’t know Lauren either when I fell in love with her,” said Jason.  “I still hardly know anything about what goes on inside her head, even after spending a year on a small spaceship with her.”

      “But you at least knew a little.  And you could tell she was depressed, just like you wrote.  You thought you could connect with her.  You don’t honestly believe…”

      “No,” Jason interrupted.  “I don’t believe I can form any sort of meaningful connection with Jessi. I believe it’s absolutely hopeless and even downright wrong to be interested in a fourteen-year-old girl.  I believe that my best course of action would be to leave forever immediately and never see her again.  But that’s just my brain.  You know?”

      Rachael gave a weak smile.  “Yeah, I know.  So you’re attraction is purely physical?”

      Is that what she was worried about?  Not that he was infatuated with her little sister, but that this infatuation was based on nothing but looks?  That Jason may be a shallower person than she’d always thought?  “I don’t know, Rachael,” he said.  “It seems that way, doesn’t it?  I fell in love with her the second I laid my eyes on her.  But if the attraction is purely physical, then wouldn’t it be a sexual thing?”

      “It’s not?” asked Rachael.

      “No.  It’s never been sexual when it comes to this thing, whatever it is.  I call it love because it’s the easiest word to use, but it’s not love or sexual attraction.  It’s just a deep, painful desire to have her.  But not sexually.  She’s too young.  I wouldn’t even dream of doing that to her.”

      “I’m confused,” Rachael said.  “Any attraction to any member of the opposite sex must be connected to something sexual.  That’s just how nature works, right?”

      “Maybe it is,” said Jason.  “But in my mind I’ve severed all connection between the emotion that I feel and sexual desire.  I’ve seen thousands of women that I’ve been sexually attracted to.  But the way I feel about Jessi I’ve only felt about two other women in my entire life.  It may be connected to sexual desire, but it’s not at the root of it.  It’s something much deeper and stronger than that.”

      “But it’s based on absolutely nothing?” asked Rachael.  “You can fall head-over heals for someone, become completely obsessed with them in your mind, and still know nothing about them other than what they look like?”

      “I can’t explain it,” said Jason.  “I only know it’s true.”

      A long silence followed.  The two of them stared at one another, trying to figure each other out but not getting very far.  The only thing they were clear on is that their desires were very different.

      The silence was interrupted by a knock at the door.  Rachael told the person outside to come in, and a tall grey-haired man in a black suit entered the room.  “Rachael, I need to see you when you are finished,” he said.

      “Okay, I’ll come find you when my lunch break is over,” said Rachael.  The man nodded and left.

      “Who was that?” asked Jason.  “I saw him in your house last night.”

      “That’s Bob Drady,” Rachael answered.  “He’s my dad’s bodyguard, but he works for STAR Security and spends a lot of time in Headquarters.”

      Jason nodded, and the awkward silence set it again.  “Look, Rachael,” Jason began, “I didn’t come here just to talk about your sister.  I understand that you would be just as wary of my interest in Jessi as your father is.  I don’t want to break apart your family.  I don’t want to ruin anybody’s lives.  I just have a hard time with my emotions and bringing myself to do what I’ve know I have to do will be very difficult.  But I guess it’s clear that I have no choice.”

      “What are you talking about?” asked Rachael.

      “You’re the head of STAR now so it’s you I have to ask.  I want to equip my ship with Infinite-Capacity Thrust so I can blast myself away from the Milky-Way forever.”

      Rachael stared at Jason as though he’d just asked her to euthanize him.  “You want to do what?

      “Remember the last time we met here twelve years ago?  The reason I was even in the building was to ask Brian Davis to equip me with ICT.  He refused to do it, and I was just about to leave when you found me.  But now you’re in charge and you can authorise it.  You know I don’t pose any risk to STAR.  You can trust me.  So if you allow me to have ICT I’ll just take off and your family will never have to worry about me again.”

      The look in Rachael’s eyes was indecipherable to Jason now.  “It’s not that simple,” she said in a surprisingly solemn voice.

      “But you’re the head of the company,” said Jason.  “You can do whatever you want.”

      “That’s not always true.”

      “But I thought the C.E.O. could just…”

      “Policies have changed slightly since you’ve been gone,” Rachael said, the tone of her voice completely unfamiliar to Jason.  “But don’t worry.  I think there’s a good chance I can do it.  But do you really want that?  Why not stay here?  You can work as my assistant like Jessi suggested.  You can even see her again if you want.”

      Jason was taken aback.  “What are you saying?”

      “I’m offering you a job with me,” said Rachael.  “Instead of blasting away to the edge of the universe all alone, you can live comfortably on Earth and help me run the company.  If you want to go out exploring you can help me by travelling around and taking care of some of our business on other planets, like an ambassador.  And if you work here with me, you can keep in touch with Jessi all you want.”

      What was going on?  Jason tried to figure out what Rachael was thinking but he was too confused.  All he knew is that she was offering him a chance to get closer to Jessi, and no matter how vehemently his brain told him it was the wrong thing to do, he had no choice but to accept the offer.  “I…um…okay?”

      “I can give you some time to think about it,” Rachael suggested.

      “Yeah, I’ll probably need some time,” said Jason, knowing that no matter how long he thought about it he would only reach the same decision.

      “Good,” said Rachael, and immediately took out a piece of paper and scribbled something down on it.  “In the mean-time, I’m going to give you my sister’s webmail address.  You can write to her, and I’m sure she’d appreciate it.  I’ve told her a lot about you so she’s already got a positive opinion.  Dad and Lauren never talked about you so she won’t be afraid.  Just promise me you won’t…” her voice trailed off.

      “I won’t what?” asked Jason.

      “You know…take advantage…” said Rachael.

      “Of course not!” Jason exclaimed.  “I would never do that.  You know me better than anyone, Rachael.  I don’t know how, but you do.  And you know I would never want to hurt anyone, especially someone I have feelings for like that.”

      Rachael nodded and handed Jason the piece of paper containing Jessi’s webmail address.

      “Thank you,” said Jason.  “Really.  I can’t thank you enough.  This is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.”

      “I’m glad I could help,” said Rachael half-heartedly.  “But now my lunch break is over and Bob Drady is waiting for me.”

      “Of course.  I’ll let you get back to work,” said Jason.  He was about to get up and leave when something stopped him.  “Are you still going to help me try to get my ship equipped with ICT?  Just in case something goes wrong and I really feel like I do need to get out of here?”

      Rachael nodded.  “Yeah, I’ll take care of that.”

      “Great.  You’re the best,” said Jason, and he left Rachael’s office once again. 
 

Chapter 11

7:00 p.m. October 4, 5211309 Eastern Time

Juciper Residence, 76 Glenn Drive, Tallahassee, Earth 

      When she finished her dinner, Jessica Juciper made her way to her bedroom and turned on the computer.  She still had some homework to do, but she had no desire to start working on it.  They were math problems, and the math curriculum at her high-school was far more advanced than any of the other places she’d lived.  It had only been a month since she began school, but already she felt in danger of failing.

      But this didn’t worry her too much, as she knew her schoolwork hardly mattered at all in the long run.  She was the daughter of Arnold Juciper, and as such she could do anything with her life that she wanted.  Her father had always given her everything she needed, and probably always would.  But while she enjoyed getting her way all the time, as any young girl would, she was beginning to wish that she wasn’t so spoiled, and that she could have a chance to earn her own success in life instead of having it simply handed to her.

      These feelings had not begun to occur to her until very recently, and she didn’t pay them much heed.  As far as she was concerned, she was Arnold Juciper’s daughter and that was a good thing to be.  Until moving to Earth it hadn’t bothered her at all that this was her only identity.  The thought had hardly crossed her mind.  She enjoyed people treating her as special wherever she went, constantly being asked to talk about her famous father.

      But now she was starting to think differently.  She was beginning to desire a chance to be her own person, instead of just a member of the Juciper family; to have people look at her as an individual rather than just the offspring of an important man.  She was beginning to make friends in school that might last longer than she’d ever known anyone, and she wanted them to think of her as who she was and not just where she came from.

      Jessi opened her webmail account and saw that she had a few messages from her new best friend Lindsay, some scattered messages from random psychos who somehow found her webmail address and wanted to tell her she was beautiful, and one message from Jason Floyd.  After deleting the messages from the psychos, she opened Jason’s webmail. 

Hi Jessi,

This is Jason Floyd.  We met last night at dinner, obviously.  Your sister gave me your webmail address so I figured I’d write to you.  I think you’re a very interesting person and I’d like to know more about you if you wouldn’t mind writing to me.  I know your father doesn’t want us talking, so if you don’t write back I’ll understand.  But I’d really like to get to know you if that’s at all possible.  Tell me about school and your friends and what your impressions are of Earth now that you’re living here for the first time.  Most of all I’m curious about what you think of other people.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed how different the rest of your family is from everyone else in the galaxy, but people like us from the fourth millennium kind of stick out here.  What are your impressions of other people in the world as opposed to your family?  Anyway, I guess that’s all.  If you don’t write back I want you to know that I sincerely hope you live a long, happy life.

--Jason 

      The message was surprising to say the least.  Why would Jason be interested in talking to her?  And why on Earth would her father not want her talking to Jason?  She’d always heard good things about him from Rachael, and last night he’d seemed like a nice, normal guy.  But as Rachael said, he was lonely.  Probably just trying to make any friends he could.

      Jessi printed out the webmail and took it downstairs to the living room where her parents were sitting and discussing something with Bob Drady.  “Can I talk to you guys for a second?” she asked.

      “Can it wait, dear?” Arnold responded.  “We’re talking to Bob right now.”

      Lauren rolled her eyes.  “Bob can wait.  Mr. Drady, would you excuse us for a moment?”

      Drady’s expression was one of annoyance as he rose from his seat and left the room.  As Jessi watched him leave, she had that familiar bad feeling about him.  For a bodyguard, he seemed to have a little too much to say to her parents.  He was always taking her father somewhere to discuss something in private.  What did he have to say?

      “What is it, honey?” Lauren asked her.

      “I just got a webmail from Jason,” said Jessi.  She studied her father’s face carefully as it immediately twisted into an ugly expression and then reverted back.  “He says you don’t want him talking to me.  Why?”

      Neither of her parents said anything for a moment, and through the thick silence Jessi could swear that she heard the sound of teeth grinding.  Finally her father spoke, but more to himself than to her.  “I can’t believe the nerve of that guy…”

      “What?” asked Jessi.  “What’s wrong with him?  I don’t understand.”

      Arnold beckoned her over and she took a seat beside him on the sofa.  He put his arm around her and kissed her head.  “Honey, I love you very much.  I don’t want to see you get hurt, and Jason will only hurt you.”

      “Why?” asked Jessi, wondering why her father was acting so affectionate.

      “Because Jason Floyd is not mentally stable,” said Arnold.  “I know what you’ve heard from Rachael, but she doesn’t know him like your mother and I do.  She thinks she does because she read his book, but we know the truth.  He’s a ticking time bomb waiting to go off, and when he does it’s going to be very bad for anyone around him.  I don’t want you to be around him when it happens.”

      “What are you talking about?” Jessi asked, now beginning to get frustrated.  “Does this have something to do with him being in love with Mom?”

      “Yes…but…” Arnold began.  “Look, it’s difficult to explain.  But some people are just dangerous and you need to stay away from them. Jason is one of those people.  You need to take my word for it.  Don’t go near him.  Don’t talk to him and don’t ever, under any circumstances, ever meet him.  Okay?  Do you understand?”

      “Not really,” said Jessi.  “All I know is that you’re afraid of him for some reason and you won’t tell me.”  Jessi knew she was frustrating her father.  In a way she enjoyed it, though she wasn’t sure why.

      “Look,” Arnold said, no longer masking his agitation, “You don’t talk to Jason.  It’s as simple as that.  I won’t allow you to.  It’s forbidden.  Understand?”

      Now Jessi was very aggravated.  She threw her father’s arm from her shoulder and stood up to turn and face him.  “No.  How many times do I have to tell you, I don’t understand.  You’re not telling me anything.  You’re just making up rules and not telling me why.”

      “Don’t use that tone with me, young lady,” Arnold said.

      “Don’t you use that tone with me,” Jessi shot back.  Sometimes her father really got on her nerves, especially when he got authoritative.  “You’re not the commander of my life, Dad!  You can’t tell me what to do!”

      “I’m your father and it’s my job to tell you what to do!” Arnold was on the verge of shouting.  “You are not to talk to Jason Floyd.  And for being such a brat right now, you’re grounded.  Go to your room right now, young lady!”

      “I hate you!” she shouted, and marched angrily back up to her room, leaving the printout of Jason’s webmail on the table. 

      “Have you lost your mind?” Lauren asked her husband once Jessi was gone.  She’d remained silent the whole time because she hadn’t wanted the situation to get out of hand.

      Arnold turned to her with an “Et tu, Brute?” look in his eyes.  “What are you talking about?”

      “What was that?” asked Lauren.  “You didn’t have to flip out at her like that.  She just wanted to know why you were forbidding her from talking to someone.  You could have at least explained yourself.”

      “And said what?  He wants to rape you?  I don’t want to talk to my daughter like that.”

      “Jason does not want to rape anybody,” Lauren said.  “You don’t understand him.”

      “Or maybe I’m the only one who can see him for what he really is!” Arnold challenged.  “He’s a monster!”

      Lauren shook her head and looked at the piece of paper on the table.  She picked it up and saw that it was Jason’s webmail.  “Well, why don’t we see just how big of a monster he is?”

      Arnold shook his head and stood up.  “I don’t want to read that.  It’ll only make me angrier.  I can’t believe that son of a bitch went behind my back and wrote to my daughter when I warned him so clearly to stay away.  I ought to do something…”

      “You’re not going to kill him, are you?” asked Lauren, not entirely sure that her husband was incapable of such a thing.

      “If he tries anything I’ll chop off his scrotum,” said Arnold.  “Now if you’ll excuse me I’ve had just about enough of this Jason Floyd business.  I’m going to find Drady and finish our discussion.”  He stormed out of the room.

      Lauren sat and read through the webmail twice, not really knowing how to feel about it.  To some extent, her heart went out to poor Jason.  She couldn’t help but feel slightly guilty about how she’d handled him all those years.  There was no doubt that her ignoring him since high-school had a lasting impact on his mind.  If she had just been more open with him and willing to let him into her life, he might not have turned out so desperate.

      On the other hand, her maternal instincts warned her about him, and she understood why Arnold was so wary of Jason having anything to do with their daughter.  After all, she was only fourteen, and Jason had no business being interested in her at that age.  What if he did finally lose control of himself and do something drastic?

       But Lauren thought back to all of her past encounters with Jason, and could see no danger.  She could read people like books, and she saw no violence in him.  He was just sad and desperate, certainly not disturbed enough to rape a girl just because he couldn’t have her.  He’d never even touched Lauren of his own free will, and hardly even spoke to her.  He was in love with his desire, not the object of his desire.  Now he desired her daughter, but she couldn’t see him ever acting on it inappropriately.  Unless she had completely misjudged him—which was unlikely because his emotions were so transparent—he was harmless.

      So she went upstairs to Jessi’s room and knocked on the door.  “Jessi, it’s Mom.  Can I come in?”

      “Yeah,” her daughter responded.

      Lauren opened the door and entered the room.  Jessi was sitting on her bed with notebooks spread out, apparently making an attempt at her math homework.  Her anger was more than apparent in her expression.  Lauren sat on the edge of the bed facing her daughter.  “You’re not grounded, honey,” Lauren told her.  “I’ll talk to your father about that.  He was wrong to punish you out of his own fears.”

      “What’s he afraid of?” asked Jessi.

      “He’s afraid that Jason may be interested in you for more than just friendship,” Lauren told her.

      “He thinks Jason likes me?”

      “Yes,” said Lauren.  “I think he does too.  But it’s nothing to worry about.  He liked me for most of my life and never did anything to me.  Now it seems he’s interested in you.”

      Jessi had a look of mild surprise.  “Wow,” she said.

      “Well, we know he has good taste in women,” Lauren joked.

      Jessi chuckled.  “Did you read the webmail he sent me?”

      “Yes, I did,” said Lauren.  “I think he just wants to be friends with you.  He knows he can’t have you, but he wants to be close to you.  It’s up to you whether or not you want to let him.”

      “According to Dad, it’s not up to me,” said Jessi.

      “It’s up to you no matter what your Dad says,” Lauren told her.  “He can’t stop you from writing to him.  I don’t care if you write to him.  We just won’t tell your father.”

      Jessi gave a wide smile.  “You’re the best, Mom.”

      Lauren grinned and gave her daughter a kiss on the forehead.  “But if he ever asks you to meet him, I want you to let me know immediately, okay?”

      “Sure,” said Jessi, and looked at her homework, indicating that her mind was already wandering from the topic of conversation.

      “I’ll let you finish up here,” said Lauren.  She got up and began walking towards the door.

      “I just have one question,” said Jessi.  “Why is Dad so afraid of him?”

      “He would never admit it in a million years, but I think it’s just jealousy,” said Lauren.  “Whenever a man sees that another man has his eye on something of his, he gets incredibly jealous and it clouds his thinking.  Even though your father knew that there was no chance of me leaving him for Jason, he always feared it.  And now he’s afraid Jason might take you away from him, and he would never let that happen.”

      “Even if I wanted to?” Jessi asked.

      This question made Lauren uneasy.  “What do you mean?  You want him to?”

      “No, not at all,” Jessi said.  “But even if I wanted to meet him, Daddy wouldn’t let me?”

      Lauren sighed.  “I don’t think we need to be worrying about that right now.  You should be worrying about your homework.”

      “Right,” Jessi said sarcastically, and the two of them laughed.

      Lauren smiled at her daughter one last time and opened the door.

      “I love you, Mom,” she said.

      Lauren almost broke into tears, overjoyed that she had raised such a sweet girl.  “I love you too, honey,” she said.  After fully absorbing the beauty of the moment, she left her daughter’s room. 
 

Chapter 12

2:00 p.m. November 9, 5211309 Eastern Time

Privateer Ship Comfortably Numb, Tallahassee, Earth 

      Jason Floyd knew he had a decision to make.  For the past month, he had been webmailing Jessi back and forth and getting to know her far more than he had ever expected would be possible.  For the first time in his life, someone he loved was actually kind to him and willing to be his friend.  Jessi was not afraid of him and did not see him as an inferior person.  She actually seemed to enjoy writing to him.  For over the hundredth time, Jason re-read the first webmail she’d sent to him. 

hey jason,

thanx for the webmail, i was suprised to here from you but im glad you think im interesting i think your intersting too. no i dont think theres much difference between my family and everyone else i usually look for things that are the same with people and not what makes them diffrent. people think im different but i dont think i am just cuz my dad is famous. well i gotta go finish my homework now but write back soon i look forward to talking to you more.

Always and Forever,

Jessi 

      One thing was abundantly clear: Jessi was too young for him.  Not only did his attraction violate a deep-seated social more, but it was completely hopeless.  What Jason wanted was to connect with someone, and it was obvious he could not form any sort of meaningful connection with this girl.

      But the more he learned about her, the deeper in love with her he fell.  She was actually a very insightful young woman, which was undoubtedly the result of moving around and seeing so much at a young age.  In her extremely short lifetime she had actually lived many shorter lives, each one adding to her experience of how things were in the world.  She had known so many different people that she seemed to know more about people that most adults, including Jason himself.

      Yet in spite of this, she was still just a little girl, and she thought little about the meaning behind any of it.  When Jason had asked her what she thought about why people were here, she just said because they used to be monkeys.  When he asked her if she thought life had a purpose, she only said she didn’t know.  Clearly, she also didn’t care.  These were questions she just never spent any time considering, whereas Jason couldn’t stop thinking about them.

      So it was obvious they were no match.  And after only a month, their friendship was already beginning to fade as they ran out of things to say to each other.  Jessi’s webmails were coming more infrequently and getting shorter each time.  Jason knew that it couldn’t last very long if he were unable to ever see her, and seeing her was virtually impossible due to her father.

      Jason reread Jessi’s last webmail. 

hey sorry i havent wrote in awhile ive been really busy and almost got in trouble for failing a math test. my friend mike asked me out yestrday but i dont like him i like another kid named sean. well i gotta go now so bye. xoxo

always,

jessi 

      When Jason first read it, his initial reaction was of extreme jealousy towards this Sean kid, whoever he might be.  He also felt a great deal of sympathy for Mike, as though he could imagine what the poor kid was going through.  He had recently befriended this beautiful girl who just moved to town and she was extremely nice to him.  He fell madly in love with her but she just wasn’t interested, so he had to go on being friends with her, hoping that one day she would change her mind and he’d have his chance.  Jason wanted to go meet this kid and tell him what he knew—that this was a useless hope, and if he kept his mind focussed on it for too long it would destroy him.

      Then again, he knew he could easily be wrong.  Perhaps Mike was just another ignorant asshole of a kid, driven only by his hormones and not out of any genuinely deep feelings for Jessi.  Maybe he wasn’t so emotionally fragile and being rejected by Jessi had no effect on him.  Perhaps he just laughed and took it in stride like a normal person, scratching another name off the list of possibilities and continuing the friendship with Jessi by making light of his attraction to her.

      Jason wasn’t capable of that.  When he fell in love, there was no making light of it.  When he experienced rejection he couldn’t just absorb it and move on.  It destroyed him, tearing at him to the core, reaching down to that long repressed portion of his life where the woman who took care of him despised him, thought him worthless, and instilled in him an insurmountable self-loathing which he continued to struggle with every day.

      He believed that everyone was the master of their own destiny, but there were always limitations to freedom.  Aside from the physical laws of the universe, the past was the greatest of these factors.  How can a person overcome the events in their life which shaped their very identity?  As much as Jason had the will to change, to become a person he could respect, it seemed his brain had a will of its own; its desired ends different from those of Jason himself.

      His love for Jessi was the latest act of treachery on the part of Jason’s mind.  There was nothing noble or respectable about such an intense infatuation with a little girl, and Jessi was still very much in that phase of her life.  Jason knew that there was nothing he could do to stop loving her—he had failed in this numerous times when it came to Lauren—but the fact that he had pursued his desires and written to her only intensified his self-hatred.  He had no business talking to her at all, but because he couldn’t turn his back on his desires, he had done something he saw as detestable, and pursued a love that not only couldn’t work, but would only cause unnecessary strife and complications in the lives of those affected by it.

      Once again, Jason found himself with the same old decision—to stay or go.  He had been avoiding Rachael’s job offer for awhile, but he could not hold out forever.  In the mean-time, she had equipped his ship with ICT and Jason was free to launch himself towards the farthest reaches of the universe at any time.  Had it not been for Jessi, he would have been gone already.

      But now there was yet another option.  In the old days, such a drastic age difference would have been insurmountable.  A thirty-seven-year-old man would just have to accept that there was no way he could ever have a meaningful relationship with a fourteen-year-old girl.  But with the time-scale, such a thing was possible.  It was well within the realm of possibility for Jason to simply blast himself fifteen more years into the future and return when Jessi was thirty.

      When this first occurred to Jason, he reacted immediately and had his ship ready to take off.  But at the last minute he’d realised the many possible complications that could arise.  First and foremost was the fact that it was extremely likely that by the time Jessi was old enough for him, she would have already found a husband and settled down to a married life of her own, thus making Jason’s efforts completely futile.

      Second was the off-chance that something unforeseen would happen and Jessi would be dead when he returned.  And if that would be the case, it would crush Jason beyond the point of wanting to live anymore.  Forget blasting away from the galaxy forever.  Such a thing would be so tragic that he would simply want to die.  In spite of the fact that she would be dead anyway the second he took off, he wouldn’t want to live with the knowledge that she had died young and had he stayed, he might have been able to save her.

      It was obvious to Jason what had to be done.  He had to tell Jessi the whole truth, confess his love to her and see how she reacted.  If she had any interest in Jason, he could blast away and periodically return, perhaps once a year to see her again.  Eventually her age would get close enough to his where a relationship would not be so absurd.  And hopefully by that point Arnold would have softened his heart to Jason as well, knowing that he meant no harm to his daughter.

      Above all, this was what Jason wanted to happen.  If that ridiculous plan could actually work, then he could consider his life a success.  He spent a lot of time imagining him returning to meet Jessi every year, her arms outstretched to him with that magical smile on her face.  Older and wiser with each year until finally she was ready to be with him forever.  Then they would buy a house and start a family, and Jason could be happy for the rest of his days.

      It wasn’t too long, however, before his brain forced him to think realistically.  The idea that Jessi would wait for him for so long was just not reasonable.  And what right did he have anyway to expect her to wait for him?  To deny her the experience of her own young romances was something Jason knew was wrong.  She should be living a normal life—at least as normal as life could be for the daughter of the most famous man in the galaxy.  What right did he have to step in and say, “Don’t date anybody because I’ll be waiting for you to get old enough to marry me”?  There was hardly any chance of that working anyway, as even if Jessi did like the idea at first, over the years she would most certainly develop a resentment towards Jason for claiming her so young and making her wait for so long.  She would date other men anyway, and it was highly probable that eventually she would choose another man over Jason.

      And so he knew he had to ask her how she felt.  She would probably tell him that she wasn’t interested, but at least then he could leave forever with the peace of mind that he had tried, and that there was no chance of anything ever working out between them.  He had to ask her.

      But he had to ask her in person.  The idea of asking such a serious question, something that would determine the course of the rest of his life, through a webmail was absurd.  The thought of sitting there for days waiting for her response, which would most likely come in a few short sentences with spelling errors, sounded awful.  To read that webmail and know that he would be reading it again and again for the rest of his life, memorizing and brooding over it until the day he died, would be torture.  It would be far better, far more real and human, to actually talk to her face to face about the issue, hear everything she wanted to say about it and make sure she heard everything he wanted to say.  And not only that, but to see her face one last time—and carry that with him to the ends of the universe—that would be a memory Jason could treasure.  A final goodbye, perhaps ending with a hug and a kiss on the cheek—that would be the perfect farewell to Jason’s hope of finding love, and the perfect beginning to the rest of his life alone.

      So Jason composed a new webmail which was guaranteed to shape the outcome of the rest of his life. 

Dear Jessi,

I’ve been making some very tough decisions recently about what to do with my life from now on, and I’ve decided not to take that job with your sister.  I’m going to go away, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever come back.  But before I do, I’d like to talk to you in person.  There are some things I want to discuss with you but not by webmail.  If there’s any way we could meet, please let me know.  Maybe I could wait outside your school one day and we could talk there before you go home.  I would only need a few minutes, and it’ll probably be the last time you see me.  Let me know if this is possible.

Your Friend,

Jason 

      He went over the webmail at least fifty times before sending it, each time changing a word here and there or rearranging a sentence.  Finally he reminded himself that it didn’t have to be perfect and he shouldn’t make such a big deal of it.  At last he sent the message, and immediately the anxiety exploded within him.

      It was only a matter of time before he would leave the galaxy forever.  And short of a miracle, this was the plan: Jessi would politely reject him, and then he would leave.  She would be the last person he would talk to before leaving the human race behind entirely.  There was just one more thing he had to do before his departure.  Jason powered up his ship’s engines and took off, setting a course for the edge of the solar system. 
 

Chapter 13

16:20 November 13, 5211309, Universal Time

Larry’s Supply Depot, Northwest Quadrant, Pluto 

      En route to Pluto, Jason received a webmail from Jessi indicating that she wouldn’t mind meeting him after school one day, and he only needed to name the day and she would be there.  Jason wrote back and said he would meet her on Friday the 17th at the entrance to her school.  So the date was set, and Jason was already beginning to feel nervous about it.  But he managed to put it out of his mind for awhile, as he walked into the old familiar supply shop on Pluto.

      “Well look who’s back!” yelled a familiar voice from the counter.  “And not a day older, either!”

      Jason smiled and moved up to the counter, surprised to find nobody else at all in the store.  “How are you, Steve?  I’m glad you’re still here.”

      “I’ve never had anywhere else to be,” said Steve.  “So how was the supernova?”

      “The what?  Oh yeah, that.  It was pretty great,” Jason said.  “I’m surprised you remember what I was doing.”

      “You’d be surprised by a lot of the things I know,” Steve replied.  “So how the hell are you?”

      “Great, actually,” said Jason, truly meaning it.  “I’ve never really been better, to tell you the truth.”  He was going to see Jessi in four days.  He really did feel as though he’d never been better.  “How’s business?”

      “Same old shit,” said Steve.  “Kind of slow today, but we had a few customers yesterday, so it all evens out.  But I tell you, if all of my customers could make their supplies last as long as you, I’d be out of business.”

      “Twelve years is a long time for one box,” Jason admitted.

      “Got any new destinations in mind?” asked Steve.

      “I’m thinking of spending a weekend in the exact centre of the universe,” said Jason.  “What do you think?”

      “I’d say it’s a great plan, if it weren’t for the fact that there is no exact centre of the universe, and even if there was you’d still never reach it.”

      “There’s nothing I can’t reach now,” said Jason.  “I’ve got ICT.”

      “No shit!” Steve exclaimed, slapping his hand on the counter.  “You actually found someone out there to equip you?”

      “Yeah, her name is Rachael Juciper,” said Jason.

      “No fucking way!” said Steve.  “I should have known.  Of course you can get ICT, you’re a friend of the C.E.O.  Well good for you.  I guess now you’re actually planning on blasting away to the edge of the universe this time, huh?”

      “There’s a ninety-nine percent chance of that.”

      “Ah hah!” said Steve.  “Well either way I’m sure you’ll be needing some supplies.”

      “I certainly will.  Loads of them.”

      “How much are you looking to spend?”

      “I’ve got about twenty thousand credits to my name right now.  That should be more than enough for a lifetime supply of everything I need.”

      “I take back what I just said” said Steve.  “You just became my best customer!”

      Jason smiled.  “I’m just glad I can help.” He handed Steve the list of items he required, and Steve looked it over.

      “This will actually get you about three lifetimes worth of supplies,” said Steve.  “Maybe you want a little more variety?  I can throw in some drugs if you like.  Some psychedelics might come in handy way out there.”

      “No, but thanks,” said Jason.  “After what happened last time I have no desire to do any psychedelic drugs ever again.”

      “Are you positive?” asked Steve.  “Nobody really knows what’s out there.  It could be really dull and boring.  Nothing like drugs to make the journey more interesting.”

      “It’s tempting, but please don’t twist my arm,” said Jason.  “But you do make a good point.  If I don’t find anything out there, I might go a little crazy.  Do you have any suicide pills, just in case?”

      “They’re not exactly my best-selling item, but I do have a few,” said Steve.  “I’ll toss in a cyanide capsule just in case.”

      “Thanks,” said Jason, experiencing a strange sensation at the idea that he may have just purchased the means for his own eventual death.

      “It’ll take me awhile to assemble this order,” said Steve.  “Do you have any plans for the immediate future, or can you hang around a bit?”

      “How long will it take?” asked Jason.

      “No, I mean hang around on Pluto for a bit,” said Steve.  “I’m inviting you over to where I live.  There’s somebody there I think you might like to talk to, who I know would want to talk to you.”

      “Really?” asked Jason, surprised.  “Who is it?”

      “I can’t tell you,” said Steve.  “But I bet you can guess.  If you leave now though, you’ll never know.  What do you think, can you spare a few hours of your busy life before taking off to infinity?”

      Jason was shocked, as he had already guessed who the person was.  “I’ll definitely stick around.  I’m in no hurry at all.”

      “Great.  In about an hour I’ll close the store and take you back with me,” said Steve, and he got to work assembling Jason’s supplies. 

      Jason sat next to Steve in his tiny ship, flying a short distance from the shop to a small residential complex near Pluto’s equator.  He touched down and pulled into the docking bay, and the two of them got out.  Along the way, Jason had told Steve about nearly everything going on in his life regarding STAR, Rachael and the Jucipers, only leaving out the minor detail of his infatuation with Jessi.  Steve had listened with great interest, and sympathised with everything he said.

      Now he led Jason through the corridors of his residential complex.  “There are only ten pads here.  Mine, my family, and some friends.  We’re a real tight-knit group, as you can imagine.  We party together all the time.  There are probably people in his pad right now.”

      Soon they arrived at the door.  Steve hit the button on the side, and a voice came through the intercom.  “Who’s there?”

      “It’s me,” said Steve.  “And someone else.  You’re gonna shit your pants when you see who I’ve brought.”

      “She’d better be the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen, Steve,” said the voice.  Steve laughed and the door swung open.

      Immediately, a pungent smoke billowed out into the hallway.  Steve and Jason stepped inside and looked around.  They were in a large, circular room which appeared to be a living room, dining room, and kitchen.  All around the room, large and presumably psycho-active plants were growing.  There were a few couches all assembled into a circle so everyone was facing the middle of the room.  Three people were already seated in the couches—a man and a woman whom Jason didn’t recognise, and one man whom he did.

      “Holy shit, Steve!” yelled Jack Peskie as he leapt from the couch and darted for the doorway.  “Look who you found!”

      “Hi Jack,” said Jason.  “It’s good to see you.”

      “Jason goddamn motherfucking Floyd!” Jack yelled.  “Of all the people I never expected to see again!  How the fuck are you?”  He put his arms around Jason and nearly squeezed the air out of him.

      “Wow, Jack.  Easy,” said Jason, and Jack loosened his grip.  “I never expected to see you again either.  They told me you were missing.  I assumed you were dead.”

      “Good.  The more people who assume I’m dead the better,” said Jack in an uncharacteristically serious tone.

      “What happened?  I heard that…” Jason began.

      “…I’ll explain everything, Jason, don’t worry,” Jack interrupted.  “First let’s have a seat and do some smoking.  Do you have any objections to that?”

      “I don’t see why not,” said Jason.

      Jack took a seat and grabbed a large glass bong on the coffee table, packed it up with shavings from one of the plants in the room, and handed it to Jason.  Jack struck a match and held it to the bong for Jason, who inhaled the smoke so quickly that he instantly erupted into a fit of coughing.  The others laughed, and Steve handed Jason a glass of water which he drank from furiously.  In a few minutes, everyone in the room was stoned.  Jack—who shared Jason’s affinity for 20th century rock music—put on a Pink Floyd album, Animals, to make Jason feel at home.

      “So Jack…” Jason broke the silence.  “How did you end up here?”

      “It’s such a long story,” said Jack, “but you of all people should hear it, because you’re as unfamiliar with the way things work in this time period as I was before it all happened.  Just as long as I can trust you not to tell anyone else that I’m alive and that I’m here.”

      “You know you can trust me, Jack,” said Jason.  “You knew about my love for Lauren before the Andromeda mission even launched, but you kept it a secret.  I’d never tell anyone about you, and on top of that I don’t have anyone to tell.”

      “The fact that I’m alive is dangerous enough for you know,” said Jack.  “STAR wants me dead.  They want what I have.  They’re willing to kill for it.”

      Jason raised an eyebrow.  “I guess that’s what’s confusing me.  Your family dies and you disappear, and nobody can figure out the reason.  At least the Jucipers can’t.”

      “They know the reason,” said Jack.  “They know everything except, hopefully, my location.  How are they, by the way?  I haven’t talked to them in so long.  I haven’t been able to.”

      “They’re doing well,” said Jason.

      “Arnold and Lauren had a daughter, right?” asked Jack.  “What’s she like?”

      “She’s um…she’s nice,” said Jason.  “But never mind about that.  What do the Jucipers know?  Why does STAR want you dead?”

      Jack looked around the room.  Steve was paying close attention while his other two guests were talking quietly to each other.  He turned back to Jason.  “I guess I’ll just start at the beginning.  STAR has been in complete control of the human race for the last five million years.  They run everything, from the captains of the STAR Security ships to the lowest guard on some prison moon.  They have absolute power.  How did they get that way?”

      “Easy enough,” Jason answered.  “It happened naturally.  As the human race grew, so did they.”

      “But why was there nothing standing in their way?” asked Jack.

      “What do you mean?”

      “STAR is in control of the human race.  What would be outside of their control?”

      “Non-humans?” Jason offered.

      “Exactly,” said Jack.  “Extra-terrestrial life.  Specifically intelligent life.  STAR has no jurisdiction over extra-terrestrials and never has.  No species would be willing to totally submit to another.  They’ll cooperate, but they won’t give up their sovereignty.”

      “Well there were only three other intelligent species in the galaxy,” said Jason.  “The Bahzrans, the Altairites, and the Denebites.  But the Denebites were destroyed in the counter-attack that was launched against them after they invaded.  Now there are only two other species in the galaxy.”

      “You’re half right,” said Jack.  “Now there are only two other intelligent extra-terrestrial species in the Milky Way.  But here’s where it gets shocking—there used to be more.  A lot more.”

      Jason understood instantly.  “Shit,” he said.  “I know STAR is evil, but it can’t be that evil.”

      “It is,” Jack said gravely.  “It turns out that life arises naturally a lot more than scientists in our time believed.  We always thought that life is a very rare and fragile thing—that conditions need to be just perfect for it to thrive.  But apparently life is a lot more versatile than we imagined.  As humans explored the galaxy deeper and deeper while we were away, they found a lot more than they ever expected.”

      “Intelligent life?” asked Jason.

      “We didn’t find that for awhile.  But other life forms were everywhere.  The Milky-Way was full of life.  Nearly every system with planets had at least a few forms of life somewhere.”

      “So why keep that secret?”

      “That’s anybody’s guess, but it makes sense.  STAR knew with so much life everywhere, the probability of extra-terrestrial intelligence existing in our galaxy became a lot greater, and they didn’t want people to fear alien invasions.  I’ve heard some wild theories; some people even believe that STAR was in contact with the Denebites before we even left for Andromeda, keeping their presence secret from the people while they were abducted and studied in preparation for the Denebite invasion.  Keeping knowledge of extra-terrestrial intelligence secret may have always been the policy of STAR.”

      “Then why reveal the discovery of the other two intelligent species?” asked Jason.

      “This is all speculation, but it seems that once STAR realised it could no longer prevent the Denebites from attacking, it needed outside help for its own survival.   They knew of one species, the Bahzrans, who had fought them off, who could help us to repel their attack.  I think that STAR had already known about the Bahzrans for some time, but once we needed their help, we staged a fake mission in which we “discovered” their civilisation.  Just in the nick of time too, because we were attacked just a few years later.  If we hadn’t needed the Bahzrans to help us fight our war, they wouldn’t be around today.”

      Jason shook his head in disbelief.  “I can’t believe this.  STAR has been keeping secrets from the people for millions of years….well maybe that’s not so hard to believe.  But still, it’s incredible.  You’re saying that we’ve found lots of extra-terrestrial species in the galaxy, but we’ve killed them all off?”

      “Exactly,” said Jack.  “Those with power seek only more power.  The ultimate goal is human hegemony.  The entire galaxy united under one central system of control.  That system would be STAR.  Whenever we discovered a planet with life, we’d exterminate it.  It turns out that most intelligent life out there was actually less intelligent than us, if you can believe it.  Only the Denebites were farther advanced than we were.  But they took too long to attack us, and by the time they struck we were already capable of defeating them.”

      “But the Denebites must have had the same idea as us, right?” asked Jason.  “To destroy all other species and conquer them?”

      “Basically yes,” said Jack.  “But they also had a compulsion to study things before destroying them. They wanted to know everything they could about the galaxy as it existed before they turned it into a creation of their own.  And they were skilled creators.  It took us several million years before our terra-forming abilities came close to what theirs were.  You know about the solid core on Jupiter, right?  And the layer of thin, almost breathable atmosphere surrounding it?”

      “Of course.  The Denebites did that!?” Jason’s head was spinning.  “That explains everything!”  It was the answer to all of the mysteries that had surrounded Jupiter since its core was discovered and explored by Elliot Larken years before the Andromeda mission.

      “Exactly.  That type of environment couldn’t exist naturally, but with the right tools for the manipulation of matter and forces, life can even exist at the core of a gas giant.”

      “That’s amazing,” said Jason.  “But how do you know all this?”

      Jack sighed heavily.  He reached for the bong on the table, packed it up, took a deep pull, and handed it to Jason who did the same.  As Jason handed the bong to Steve, Jack continued.

      “I was approached by someone who was trying to expose the truth,” said Jack.  “A tall, grey-haired man with a deep voice.  Honestly, he gave me the creeps.  But I couldn’t ignore what he was telling me.  He came to me because I was a celebrity, and he figured I might be able to get the word out there.  Unfortunately he was wrong.”

      “Why didn’t he go to the Jucipers?” asked Jason.  “Arnold is a much bigger celebrity than anyone.”

      “He did go to them first, but Arnold wasn’t willing to listen.  So he approached me and told me everything I’ve just told you.  He wanted me to do something, write a book, go on television, anything to spread the word and let people know what’s been going on and what still might happen.”

      “But why did you believe him?  How did you know he was telling you the truth?” asked Jason.

      Jack stood up and walked to the corner of the room where his desk and computer were.  He opened a drawer and removed a small safe.  He fiddled with the dial until it was the right combination, and removed a data cube.  He tossed it to Jason and sat back down on the couch.  “You’re holding in your hand absolute proof that what I just told you is true.  All of the records of every species we’ve ever discovered and how they were exterminated.  It’s horrible.  Millions of global genocides.  And those who performed the exterminations were eliminated too.  Poor unwitting soldiers who thought they were getting rid of a threat to humanity when the only threat was humanity itself.  Once their highly classified missions were finished, they met with unfortunate accidents to eliminate the risk of word spreading.”

      “All of that is on this cube?” said Jason.  “This cube could bring down STAR itself?”

      “I doubt anything can bring down STAR at this point,” said Jack.  “But you could certainly do a lot of damage if people were to find out that their governing force was responsible for so much evil.  And you could definitely hurt their chances of finishing the job.”

      “Finishing?” asked Jason.  “You mean…”

      “…this is why that man came to me and why STAR wanted me dead.  The cube not only contains records of past genocides but plans for future genocide.  The elimination of the only other two species in the galaxy—the Bahzrans and the Altairites.”

      “No fucking way!” Jason yelled.

      “Pretty fucked up, isn’t it?” said the other guy in the room, whom Jason had just noticed had been paying attention.  The guy had taken a bong rip and he was exhaling the smoke as he spoke.  He then passed the bong to the woman, who was probably his wife or girlfriend, and continued.  “I didn’t believe it at first, but Jack showed me the data cube.  It turns out the master plan isn’t finished yet.”

      Now Steve spoke again.  “The Bahzrans were kept alive for so long because of their help with destroying the Denebites.  The Altairites because they spoke English and were friendly to us right off the bat.  They were among the first extra-terrestrial species we discovered.  Back then, STAR thought those kinds of friends could come in handy.  Once STAR had grown large enough, it no longer needed allies, but it couldn’t easily destroy the species people already knew about.”

      “Humans loved them,” said the woman, who figured it was time for her to speak now that everyone was joining the conversation.  “Especially the Altairites.  Cute little grey men speaking English.  STAR would never have gotten away with destroying them.”

      “But they’re planning to anyway?” asked Jason.

      “Brian Davis wanted to pick up where STAR had left off after secretly destroying the last extra-terrestrial species in the galaxy,” said Jack.  “He formulated all sorts of plans about staging an attack on Earth and blaming it on the other species.  He would use it as an excuse to send STAR Security after them and eliminate them, thus making human life the only form of intelligent life in the galaxy.”

      “And those plans are on this cube?” asked Jason.

      “It’s all on the cube, man,” said the guy whose name Jason didn’t know.  “That’s the most dangerous cube in the galaxy.  STAR would kill for it.”

      Again, Jason shook his head and took a deep breath, trying to process all of this incredible information.  “So I guess that’s why you’re living in exile?” he asked Jack.

      “Yeah,” said Jack.  “I made the mistake of underestimating the lengths that Brian Davis would go to protect his secret.  I wrote a few articles from my California home about these conspiracies and the next thing I knew, I was receiving death threats from STAR.  At first they only drove me further, because I knew I was on to something and this information gave me a certain amount of power.  It was a huge mistake though.  I wrote another article mentioning the threats, thinking that if they killed me to silence the truth it would only cause others to start looking.  The next threat…the next threat was the death of my wife and son.”

      “Oh my god, Jack,” said Jason.  “That’s…beyond horrible.”

      “I know, I know,” Jack said, shaking his head in sorrow.  “Will somebody pass me that fucking bong?  Is there anything left in it?”  The woman who had taken the last hit shoved some more of the plant into the bong and handed it to Jack, who took a very long, very huge hit.

      “So what happened to Brian Davis?” asked Jason.

      “If he hadn’t disappeared I would have killed him,” said Jack as he exhaled the smoke.  “I know he killed my family.  If I ever get the chance I’ll fucking kill him.”

      “I thought he died,” said Jason.

      “You thought I was dead too,” said Jack.  “But no, he disappeared after those articles were published.  But he did it much more smoothly than I did.  With all his resources he was able to stage an elaborate death hoax.  There was a funeral and everything.  But he’s still out there somewhere.  Probably with so much plastic surgery you would never recognise him.”

      “Why fake his death, though?” asked Jason.  “He still had all his power.  A few articles in a California newspaper wouldn’t have hurt too much.”

      “My only guess is that people were beginning to question him.  Maybe even a few of his allies threatened to expose him.  But he’s gone now, and if he still controls anything it’s only indirectly.  I’d like to believe that I was responsible for that, but I’m sure there are other factors I don’t know about.”

      “So where is this tall grey-haired guy who gave you all the information anyway?” asked Jason.

      “As far as we know, he’s dead,” said Jack.  “He must have been a mole working inside the corporation.  We heard that they got to him.”

      “You’d be surprised how much secret information comes to my little supply shop,” Steve put in.

      “And what about the Jucipers?” asked Jason.  “You said he spoke to them.  That they know all about it.”

      “I called them right after the guy came to me,” said Jack.  “Arnold just warned me about exposing the truth.  He said I should just keep my mouth shut like he was doing.  He said he didn’t want to risk losing his family over something political.  I wish I’d felt the same way and took his warning.”

      “Well I think you did the right thing,” said Jason.  “If someone doesn’t expose these people, two species are going to go extinct.  Billions of lives will be lost if STAR’s plans are allowed to go ahead.  You may have single-handedly stopped them, at least for a few generations until all is forgotten.”

      “Here here!” said Steve, and the other two people in the room expressed their agreement.

      “Aw, you guys are too much,” said Jack in a funny voice.  For once, Jason was reminded of the old Jack—the one he had known on the Andromeda mission.  The man sitting before him now was a lot different.  He was fifteen years older than when he’d last seen him, he’d been through a lot more, and he was stoned.  “I don’t know what I would do without you.”

      “So why’d you come here?” asked Jason.

      “Because these are some of the only people in this god-forsaken galaxy I can stand,” said Jack.  “I was here to pick up some supplies a few times and I met Steve.  When I told him about my situation he offered me a place here.  Said nobody would ever find me.  And so far no one has.  As long as you don’t go blabbing about it…”

      “That definitely won’t happen,” said Jason.

      “That’s right,” Steve put in.  “Jason here has got ICT.  He’s gonna blast away to the edge of the universe real soon.  He won’t even be able to tell anyone anything.”

      “No shit?” said Jack.  “How’d you get ICT?”

      “Rachael,” Jason answered.

      “Ah.” said Jack.  “Of course.  I keep forgetting she’s the C.E.O. now.  Let me ask you—don’t you find that odd?”

      Jason nodded.  “I do think it’s extremely weird.  Why would they let a woman from the fourth millennium hold the most powerful position in the galaxy?”

      “I have no idea, but I’m positive it’s got something do with the conspiracy,” said Jack.

      “You think she’s in on it?” Jason joked.  “You think maybe she’s in a secret relationship with Brian Davis and they’re going to destroy the extra-terrestrials together?”

      “Maybe she is Brian Davis!” Jack suggested.  This drew laughter from everyone in the room. “So Jason, seriously, why do you want to go blasting away to never-land?  Why don’t you stay here and live with us?”

      “That is temping,” said Jason, thoroughly enjoying his high.  He hadn’t smoked in years, but it was not a habit he wanted to get back into.  Otherwise, he might have accepted Jack’s offer.  “But I really feel like I’ve got to keep moving.  I want to see as much of the universe as I possibly can, you know?”  A crazy idea popped into Jason’s mind.  “Why don’t you come with me?”

      Jack laughed.  “You don’t really believe you’d be able to put up with me on a spaceship for the rest of your life, do you?”

      “You’re probably the only person I think I could put up with in that situation,” said Jason.  “Except of course…” he let his voice trail.

      “Lauren, right?” said Jack.  “Are you still into her?  What’s she like nowadays anyway?”

      “I’m happy to say I’ve finally gotten over Lauren,” Jason reported.  “But she’s still beautiful.  Just a little grey in her hair and a few subtle lines on her face.  As far as her personality goes, she seems a lot happier and more open.”

      “So she’s finally comfortable talking to you?” asked Jack.

      “As comfortable as she can be, considering,” said Jason.

      Jack nodded.  “Well, as much as I love the idea of flying around the universe at ridiculous speeds for the rest of my life, I think I’ve finally reached the point where I’m content to just be settled where I am,” said Jack.  “I’ll stay right here, but I definitely appreciate the offer.”

      “No problem, Jack,” said Jason.  “And if you reconsider, I’ll be around at least until Friday, maybe a few days more.  And there’s a small chance I won’t even leave forever, so I might see you again.  But I wouldn’t count on it.  This is probably our last meeting.”

      “Well don’t get all sentimental,” Jack said.  “I might start crying, and that would be embarrassing.”

      “I wouldn’t do that to you, Jack,” said Jason.  “But I guess I should be going now anyway.”

      “But you just got here,” Jack protested.  The others in the room made sounds expressing their agreement.  “You haven’t even told me about what’s been going on in your life.  Steve told me you went to see a star explode.  I guess that’s why you still look exactly like I remember you from the Andromeda mission.  How was that?”

      “It was awesome,” Jason said.  “But I really don’t have much to say about my life.  I’m extremely lonely and I hate the human race and I’d just like to get as far away from it as I can.”

      “Humanity sucks, I’ll give you that.” said Jack.  “But that doesn’t mean all humans suck.  These guys here,” he said motioning to the couple on the opposite couch, “are some of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet.  You wouldn’t know that just from watching them sit on their asses and smoke themselves into a stupor like they’re doing now, but they’re great people.  There are lots of great people around.  My wife was a great person.  There’s got to be someone out there for you.”

      “If there is, I’ll never find her,” said Jason.  “How many women are there in the galaxy?  Quadrillions?  Quintillions?  Even with those numbers the odds are still pretty low that one of them would actually be interested in me.”

      “Aw,” said the woman with the boyfriend.  “That can’t be true.”

      “It’s true enough,” Jason said.  “Even if there’s one, I could spend my whole life searching and never find her.  I’d rather just accept my isolation and live with it.”

      “You haven’t changed at all, have you?” said Jack.  “You could have a woman if you wanted one.  You’re just so adamant about not being able to find one that you do everything you can to make sure you don’t.”

      “Maybe,” said Jason, sighing heavily.  “But seriously, I don’t like talking about myself and there’s nothing more to tell anyway.  Now I’d like to get my ship back en route to Earth before I go to sleep.”

      “And I’ve got to take him back,” said Steve.  “If he doesn’t want to spend the night I’d like to get that done as soon as possible.”

      Jack nodded.  “Well I guess that’s it then.”

      “I guess so,” said Jason.  “Thanks for all of the interesting information you’ve told me.”

      “It’s dangerous information,” said Jack.  “You probably shouldn’t thank me for giving it to you.”

      “I don’t think it’ll cause me any trouble,” said Jason.  “In fact, if you wouldn’t mind making a copy of this cube I’m dying of curiosity as to what’s on it.  It would provide me with some interesting reading material while I’m gone.”

      Jack’s eyes widened.  “I could do that, but I should seriously warn you against it.  If you get caught with something like this, you’re dead.”

      Jason laughed.  “Oh no, wouldn’t want that!” he said with as much sarcasm as he could muster.

      “You are one sad son of a bitch, Jason Floyd,” said Jack.  “I don’t know why, but I like you.”

      Jason laughed and handed Jack the cube.  He inserted it into his computer, and placed a blank cube into another drive.  In a matter of seconds, Jack was tossing him the fresh data cube.  “Thanks a lot,” said Jason.

      “No problem,” Jack answered.  “If you need any more, you know where to find me.”

      Jason laughed.  When Steve stood up, he realised it was finally time to say goodbye.  “So this is it?” he said.

      “I knew you weren’t going to leave without making me want to cry,” said Jack, who walked up to Jason and gave him another very tight hug.  When he let go, Jason could see that he actually did have tears in his eyes.  This brought a lump to Jason’s throat, and before either one knew it, they were hugging again, both of their eyes wet with tears.

      “You take care now, all right?” said Jack.

      “Don’t worry about me,” said Jason.  “When it’s over, my life is going to be something to be envied, not pitied.”

      “That’s the right attitude!” Jack exclaimed.  “Good luck with everything, seriously.”

      “Same to you.”  They hugged one last time and Steve led Jason out the door.

      Jack yelled out to Jason before the door closed behind him, “When you reach the edge of the universe, spit off the edge for me!” 
 

Chapter 14

3:00 p.m. November 18, 5211309, Eastern Time

Arthur Romband High School, Tallahassee, Earth 

      The nerves in Jason’s stomach had never been more twisted and strained.  He had almost decided not to go through with it, thinking that if Jessi had this much of an effect on him, it would probably be best to just keep away from her.  However, he felt as though he’d been waiting his entire life for this meeting, and he wasn’t about to miss it because he was nervous.

      He’d walked all the way from his ship to the school, which was not too far from STAR Headquarters.  Now, he was seated on a bench outside the entrance, waiting for the bell to ring and the students to begin pouring out.  Although the bench was slightly off to the side of the school, there was a clear view of the entrance from which Jessi should be able to spot him immediately, even if she’d forgotten about the meeting and wasn’t looking for him.

      As soon as the bell rang Jason’s heart began to race.  Any minute now, and he would see her walking through those doors.  The most beautiful thing he’d ever laid his eyes on—but only once—and this would in all likelihood be the last time.  He’d played this scenario out dozens of times in his head already, imagining just about every possible version of the conversation that could take place.  But he knew that this was useless, as things in his life never happened as he imagined, as if fate itself was deliberately trying to prove him wrong at every chance.

      The doors swung open and Jason saw the first wave of students leave the building and head towards the busses.  After scanning the crowd for a minute, he determined that Jessi was not among them.  But more than a few students noticed him, and he received many curious looks which greatly enhanced his discomfort.  At that particular moment he was extremely glad for his lack of fame, as he could scarcely imagine the horror of dealing with any student who might have recognised him.

      At one point a group of girls emerged from the building, and Jason thought for a moment that one of them might be her, but she was not.  The girls looked over at Jason and made a few comments to each other, then began to laugh.  They were too far away for Jason to know what they were saying, but it was easy to imagine that they were laughing at him.  This brought him to a sudden flashback of high school, and a new feeling of overwhelming revulsion swept over him.

      Those girls were beautiful.  He watched them walk away towards the busses and his heart ached while his mind pounded in frustration.  He was right back in high school, staring at the girls and feeling that same horrible sense of repulsiveness.  He was surrounded yet again by goddesses of beauty that he could never have had because he had been a ‘loser’.  Now he couldn’t have them because he was too old…and still essentially a loser.  But there was one key difference which Jason was aware of and disgusted by.  Back then his attraction to these girls was normal and acceptable.  Now it was unhealthy and morally wrong.  He still found beauty in the same type of woman, only now he wasn’t supposed to.

      As he watched girl after young beautiful girl walk by, his heart raced faster and faster until he was in a state of near panic.  What was he doing there?  A middle-aged man sitting outside of a high school and watching the teenage girls walk by—he was a sick man, a dirty pederast, the scum of the human race.  How could he justify something like this?  He didn’t belong there.  Even worse was that his reason for being there was to tell one of these young beauties that he loved her.  There was no doubt about it, Jason realised, that he had reached an all-time low.

      But he didn’t get up.  Jason remained seated and watched the entire school empty out, waiting for Jessi to show up to just have the matter over with and fly away from all the shame and humiliation.  To leave this high school and escape the high school in his mind in which he was still imprisoned.  The reason these girls tortured him so much was because he’d never satisfied his longing for them.  In high school the desire had formed, and it was never filled.  He’d always felt that young romance must be the best kind, when it all happened out of natural desire and love, before it became a game to both people, each move coldly calculated from years of experience as to what they wanted and what they wanted to avoid.  Jason had never known young romance and never would, though the desire was as strong as ever.

      But this was not a justification, as he understood all too well while sitting on that bench and cursing himself for his loathsome behaviour.  Eventually one just has to accept things and move on.  He missed out on his chance for young love, and there was nothing he could do about it.  If he kept on pursuing it, only negative consequences could arise.  Although Jason did not believe there was any moral code that made it wrong for a middle-aged man to have a love affair with a teenage girl, but he knew that this could only lead to suffering on both ends, and Jason tried to avoid being the cause of suffering as much as he could.

      But he knew that he was violating that principle now, and the guilt was almost too much to bear.  Why couldn’t Jessi just come out of the building already and talk to him so he could leave this all behind?  The busses were leaving.  Where was she?

      It was a full ten minutes later before Jason accepted that something must have gone wrong.  The busses had gone and nobody was coming out of the school anymore.  Jason sat and wondered what had happened.  Had she decided not to come?  Had her father discovered her plans and kept her home from school?  Had her mother explained to her what Jason’s intentions might be and scared her away?

      Jason didn’t know, but with each passing moment it became clearer that Jessi was not going to show up.  He cursed himself for not imagining this possibility, as if it might not have happened if he had thought of it.  He’d imagined just about every scenario in which they spoke, so naturally what took place is that they did not speak at all.

      He stayed there for a half hour before finally leaving.  He’d never felt worse about himself than he did at that moment, but he knew one thing for sure.  This wasn’t over. 

      The day beforehand, Arnold Juciper had been doing some afternoon reading in his living room when his wife came up to him with a piece of paper in her hand.  There was a serious look on her face, and he knew immediately that he wasn’t going to like what she had to tell him.  He breathed a heavy sigh and put his book down.  “What’s the matter, honey?” he asked.

      Lauren sat down next to him and handed him the piece of paper.  “Jessi’s been webmailing Jason,” she said.  “She plans to meet him tomorrow after school.”

      Arnold didn’t even read what was on the paper, as the anger which shot through him at that instant made him crumple it up and throw it across the room.  He bit his lip and took very deep breaths, trying to withhold the tsunami of rage which was rising inside of him.

      “Before you get mad at her,” Lauren continued, “you should know that I told her it was okay to talk to him.  I told her that if he ever asked to meet her that she tell me immediately.  She just told me, and I don’t know what to think about it.  I decided that you had a right to know about this.”

      Arnold hadn’t been prepared for this.  The shock was too great.  Normally he would be pacing around the room and shouting, but he was too shocked now to even raise his voice.  He looked at his wife with such a look of betrayal that she would have to feel guilty about it.  “You told her,” he said very slowly and carefully, “that she could talk to Jason even after I specifically forbade it?”

      “She would have done it anyway,” said Lauren.  “You can’t prevent her from exchanging webmail with someone.  I told her it was okay to tell me about it so I could make sure it never went any further than that.”

      “But now he wants to take it further,” said Arnold.

      “She’s already agreed to meet him,” Lauren explained.  “He’ll be waiting for her outside the school tomorrow.”

      “Will he?” asked Arnold, still trying to process all of this.  “Lauren, why do I keep getting the feeling that all of the women in my life are conspiring against me?”

      Lauren put her hand on his shoulder.  “What are you going to do, Arnold?” she asked.

      Arnold didn’t know what he was going to do, but he was certain that Jessi would not be meeting Jason tomorrow.  “I’m going to do everything I can to make sure my daughter stays out of that monster’s reach forever.”

      “But why, Arnold?” asked Lauren.  “If you’d just read his webmail you’d know that he’s about to do your work for you.  He just wants to talk to Jessi in person, tell her how he feels, and then leave it behind forever.  I think even he is disgusted by himself.  He just wants to put this matter to rest and then blast away with his ICT.”

      “No,” said Arnold.  “He won’t do that.  He would never do me that favour.  How many times have I thought we were finally rid of him?  And he’s always come back.  He’s obsessed with you and now he’s obsessed with my daughter.  He’ll never let either of you go.”

      “I think you’re wrong about that,” said Lauren.  “I think he wants to let us go.”

      “Damn it, Lauren!” Arnold shouted.  “The only way to get him out of our lives is to make it impossible for him to reach us.  I’m talking to Bob Drady tomorrow.  We’re moving off of this planet and resuming my lecture tours.”

      Lauren’s eyes widened and she moved back from her husband.  “What!?”

      “Jason didn’t bother us when we were moving around.  It was only when we came back here.  If we get out of here and go somewhere very far away, he’ll never catch up to us.  We’ll be done with him once and for all!”  Arnold stood up and began to pace the room.

      “Arnold, you can’t just move the whole family because you want to get away from one person who bothers you,” said Lauren.  “What about Jessi?  I thought you agreed that she should stay in the same high school for four years.”

      “Not if she’s going to be stalked by that…that pedophile!” said Arnold.  “We’ll take her to another planet and she can go to school there for four years.  Just somewhere that Jason can’t find us.  Bob Drady can make that happen.”

      “Arnold!” Lauren shouted.  “Come over here and sit down.”

      Arnold stopped and looked at his wife, dumbfounded.  He had never heard her speak in that tone before, nor had he ever seen that look in her eyes.  He didn’t know what it meant, but he knew that it couldn’t be good.  “What is it, honey?” he asked like a frightened little boy.

      “Just sit down,” Lauren said.  “There’s something I need to tell you.”

      Arnold’s eyes expressed his confusion, but he did as he was told and sat back down on the sofa next to his wife.  “What?”

      Lauren slid as close to her husband as possible, and put her hand on his lap.  As she spoke, she looked directly into his eyes.  “Do you remember the night fifteen years ago when Jason and Jack came over for dinner and you announced your plans to do the lecture tours?”

      “Yes,” Arnold said, bracing himself for whatever horrible revelation his wife was moving towards.  Immediately, his mind jumped to the worst possible conclusion. 

      “Remember how Jessi was conceived that night even though I was taking birth control?” asked Lauren.

      “You’re not going to tell me that Jason is Jessi’s real father, are you?” Arnold asked with horror in his voice.

      “Of course not,” said Lauren, and immediately a great deal of tension escaped from Arnold.  “You’re Jessi’s father.  But you didn’t expect to have a daughter.”

      Arnold was beginning to get the picture.  “You were taking birth control.  It was a one in a thousand chance.  She was an accident.”

      Lauren shook her head.  “She was no accident, Arnold.  I’d stopped taking the pills a week beforehand.  I wanted to have a child.  And I thought that maybe if we had a baby you would decide not to go through with your plans and we could stay on Earth and raise it together.  But when Jessi was born you had already decided to keep going. Nothing I could say would sway you, until finally you agreed to move back here a few months ago.  And now you want to move away again.”

      Arnold was absolutely dumbfounded.  He stared at his wife as though she were a total stranger, wondering how she could have been so treacherous.  How she could have lied to him all those years.  “But...what…why are you telling me this?”

      “I just want you to know how important it is to me that we stay here,” said Lauren.  “How badly I’ve wanted to just settle down and live here for the past fifteen years.  But Arnold, I went along with you because I love you so much.  I’ve hated the way we’ve been living for so long, but my love of Jessi and my love of you has made it bearable.  Now we’re back here and everything is almost perfect.  Now you want to take it all away again because of something as insignificant as Jason Floyd.”

      Arnold couldn’t move.  The shock he’d received at the beginning of this conversation was nothing compared to what he felt now.  “I’m…” he began, “I’m going to need some time to think about this.”

      “Of course, honey,” said Lauren.  “Just promise me that we can stay here.  Whatever you decide to do about Jason just promise that you won’t move the family again.”

      Arnold stared once again into his wife’s eyes, and knew he couldn’t refuse.  If she was willing to betray him so deeply by having a child he hadn’t wanted, then she was much more strong-willed than he’d ever imagined.  And if he were to act against her will and insist on moving again, he might very well lose everything.  “Yes, Lauren.  I promise we’ll stay right here.”

      Lauren gave a very faint smile, which melted Arnold’s heart for the one split second necessary for him to let her lean over and plant another passionate kiss onto his mouth. 

      Jessi was working on an English paper when her father knocked on the door.  She wondered if her mother had told him about Jason, and if she was about to be punished.  But she trusted that if her mother did tell him, she would have made sure that Arnold didn’t take it out on her.

      She opened the door and was surprised to find that the first thing her father did was give her a very tight hug.  “I love you, honey,” he said to her.

      “I love you too, daddy,” Jessi said, “but what’s with the affection all of a sudden?”

      Arnold sighed and sat himself down on the edge of Jessi’s bed.  “Nothing.  Your mother and I just…nothing.”

      Now Jessi was beginning to grow uneasy.  She’d never seen her father look at her in the way he was doing now.  “What’s wrong, dad?”

      “Nothing,” Arnold said again.

      “Then why do you look so troubled?” she asked.  She decided to sit on her bed next to him and press her head to his arm.  “Are you okay, daddy?”

      Another heavy sigh, and her father finally got to the point.  “You’ve been talking to Jason, haven’t you?”

      Jessi took her face from her father’s arm and sat back.  “Yeah,” she said.  “Are you mad at me?”

      “No,” said Arnold.  “No, of course not.  I’m not mad at you.  You’re my little angel.  I’m mad at your mother for keeping secrets from me, and I’m mad at Jason for trying to take advantage of you.”

      “He’s not trying to take advantage of me, dad,” said Jessi.  “He’s just a nice man who’s lonely and likes talking to me.”

      “Let’s not argue about this right now,” said Arnold.  “I don’t want to get into a fight with you or anything.”

      “So you know that I’m going to see him tomorrow?” Jessi asked, hoping that Lauren had finally brought him around and that he would let her be friends with Jason.

      “I know you were planning to,” said Arnold.  “But I’ve made some better plans.  How would you like to go to Space Station Juciper for the weekend?”

      Jessi’s eyes widened.  “Really!  I’d love to go!  We haven’t been there in years!”

      Arnold smiled faintly.  “I’ve already made reservations.  We’re going tomorrow.”

      “But tomorrow’s Friday,” said Jessi.  “I’ve got to hand in my English paper.”

      “I wouldn’t worry about that,” said Arnold.  “I’ll write a note for your English teacher that you can give to her on Monday.”

      “And what about Jason?’ asked Jessi.

      “We’ll talk about him some other time,” said Arnold.  “I haven’t decided what to do about this yet.”

      “You mean you still won’t let him talk to me?” asked Jessi.

      “I still don’t want him anywhere near you,” Arnold explained, “but I don’t think I’ve explained to you why.  We’ll have plenty of time to talk about it this weekend.  Right now I need to get all of the arrangements made with STAR Security.  You should pack your bags as soon as you get a chance.  We’re leaving bright and early tomorrow morning.”

      “Awesome!” Jessi exclaimed. “I can’t wait!”

      “Great,” Arnold said.  He leaned over to kiss his daughter on the forehead, then stood up and walked away.  Jessi immediately started packing, so excited that she forgot all about Jason. 
 

Chapter 15

8:00 a.m. November 19, 5211309, Eastern Time

Privateer Ship Comfortably Numb, Tallahassee, Earth 

      Jason had not slept so terribly since the night aboard the Andromeda when he’d seen Arnold and Lauren walking out of the cockpit together holding hands.  For most of the night he had remained glued to his computer, checking and rechecking his webmail account nearly every twenty minutes, hoping for a message from Jessi explaining why she hadn’t shown up outside her school.  No such message came, and at four in the morning Jason gave up and attempted to go to sleep.  What little sleep he got was haunted by nightmares of Jessi running away from him or Arnold running after him.

      Finally, when his clock read eight in the morning, he knew he could no longer handle the uncertainty.  If Jessi wasn’t going to mail him, he could only figure out what had happened through Rachael, and because it was Saturday she would not be at work.  Jason would have to call the Jucipers’ house—something he was terrified to do.

      To make matters worse, it was 8:00 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday, and if he called the house now he would risk waking Arnold up.  Arnold would most likely be the person to answer the phone, and there was no telling what would go through his mind upon hearing Jason’s voice at the other end of the line.  If Arnold knew out about Jessi’s plan to meet him after school the previous day, he would certainly suspect the worst.  But Jason figured he could simply explain that he was trying to get in touch with Rachael to tell her he was declining her job offer and that he would never see any of them again.  Arnold would certainly be happy to hear that.

      Jason sat and stared at the phone for a solid ten minutes, contemplating the call and trying to figure out every possible result of such an action.  Occasionally, a burst of adrenaline would come over him and he would pick up and begin to dial, but before pressing the final number he would always lose his nerve and hang up.  What if Jessi were to pick up the phone?  What if Lauren were to pick it up?  What would he say?

      Finally, after convincing himself that any result of the phone call could not be worse than sitting there and worrying about it, he picked up the phone and dialled all eight numbers.  He listened to it ring, and immediately felt panic.  The phone was ringing in their house.  Because of his own action, a sound was now being produced in the Juciper home which she was hearing.  He nearly hung up the phone as soon as the ringing began, but after only two rings, a tired voice came from the other end of the line.  Jason couldn’t have been more relieved, as he was able to tell at once that the voice belonged to Rachael.

      “Hello,” said Rachael, “who is this?”

      “Rachael, it’s Jason,” he said.  “I’m sorry to call so early.  I hope I didn’t wake you up.”

      “Jason!” the voice exclaimed.  “No, it’s fine.  I like to get up early anyway.”  Rachael was clearly very sleepy and Jason immediately regretted that his weakness had caused him to bother her.  “Just…can you give me a minute?  I promise I’ll call you back in like five or ten minutes.  Okay?”

      Jason didn’t know what else to say but, “okay.”  Rachael hung up and Jason sat and stared at the phone again, forced once again to consider what he was doing, the reasons for his actions, and whether he was capable of doing things differently.  Finally, after twenty minutes Rachael called him back.

      “So what is it?” asked Rachael.  “I haven’t heard from you in weeks.  If I didn’t know you’ve been talking to my sister I would have thought you were already gone.”

      “Well I’m practically gone already,” said Jason.  “Did Jessi tell you?”

      “Of course,” said Rachael.  “She told me you’d decided not to work for STAR and you were going to leave the solar system but you aren’t sure if you’re coming back.  Where did you have in mind?”

      “I’ve got nothing in mind right now,” Jason said, “except your sister.”  He could clearly hear the frustrated sigh on the other end of the line.

      “Right,” said Rachael.  “Well I’m sure you know by now what’s going on.”

      “Actually, that’s what I’m calling about,” Jason said.  “I have no clue what’s going on.”

      “She didn’t webmail you?” asked Rachael.

      “No.  I haven’t heard from her in days.  We were supposed to meet yesterday afternoon but she wasn’t there and I got no explanation.”

      “Huh,” Rachael remarked.  “Well, that’s my sister for you.  When she gets excited she tends to lose some of her short-term memory.”

      “Excited about what?” asked Jason.  “Where is she?”

      “She’s not here,” said Rachael.  “When dad found out she was planning on meeting you he made some plans of his own.  He took mom and Jessi to Space Station Juciper.”

      “You mean Gateway?” asked Jason, suddenly overwhelmed once again with anxiety.  “They’re on Space Station Gateway?”

      “Yeah,” said Rachael.  “He didn’t want her to meet you so he took her out of school yesterday and now they’re spending the weekend there.  He plans to convince her once and for all to cut you off.”

      The anxiety turned to anger, which transformed back to fear, and finally desperation.  Jason knew this was bad.  Arnold would end everything before he even had a chance to begin.  All he wanted was to tell her how he felt, to say goodbye to her, and to end things with closure so that he could blast away from the galaxy with a little peace of mind.  Why couldn’t Arnold just let him do that?  Why did the whole universe seem to be operating with a secret agenda to fuck Jason over whenever and however possible?

      “Jason, if I were you I’d give up,” said Rachael.  “I know it’s not what you want to hear, but seriously.  Arnold is never going to let you have her.  He’s a powerful man, Jason.  He’s got more power than you know, and he will use it against you.  This is a hopeless cause you’re pursuing.”

      Jason’s cells were quaking with anger now.  His face went completely blank, his eyes dead with rage.  A storm was tearing at his insides while on the outside he was as stiff as a rock.  When he spoke, there was nothing but a cold distance in his voice, his mind miles away from his words.  “I’ve been pursuing a hopeless cause all my life.”

      “Why don’t you reach for something within your grasp, Jason?” asked Rachael.  “Why don’t you search for something you can actually find?”

      Every word from Rachael’s mouth felt like an electrical shock to Jason’s stomach. He took deep breaths and remained motionless, knowing that he could erupt at any moment.  His mind searched in vain for a response to the question.  “Because…” he began, but had no idea what could follow.

      “Jason?” Rachael asked.  “Jason, are you okay?”

      “I’m fine,” he said, surprised at how his own lie affected him, sending waves of guilt through his bloodstream and causing his fists to involuntarily clench and unclench.

      “You don’t sound fine,” said Rachael.  “Look, if you want to talk about this, I’m here for you.  I’ve got the house to myself all weekend.  Why don’t you come over here and talk to me?  Just get it all out.  I know it would make you feel better.”

      Now Jason couldn’t hold it in any longer.  He kicked his chair out from under him, causing it to slide several meters across the smooth floor of his ship.  He collapsed to the ground, holding the phone to his ear the whole time, despising himself for the pain he was causing, which was now hurting Rachael.  He couldn’t go over and talk to her.  He was more certain of that than anything. 
 “No, Rachael,” he said, his voice cracking.  “I can’t do that to you.  Arnold is right about me.  You should all just stay as far away from me as you can.”

      “No, Jason,” Rachael said firmly.  “You can’t solve everything by isolating yourself.  You can’t keep focussing your attention on people you can’t have.  All you’re doing is guaranteeing that you’ll never have to let anyone close to you because you’re afraid of what’s inside.  You can’t just blast away from humanity forever.  I know you think that’s the solution, but it’s not.  You need other people.  Everyone does.  And you need someone who can understand and help you.  My little sister can’t do that.  Please, Jason.  I’m begging you, as a friend, don’t do anything drastic.  Just come over here and we’ll work this whole thing out.”

      Tears were now streaming from Jason’s eyes.  She was right about almost everything, but not what was most important.  “You’re wrong, Rachael,” he said, with no effort to hide the darkness enshrouding his mind.  “You can’t help me.  Nobody can.  I can only hurt others.  And the only solution is to isolate myself.  But not before I put this Jessi thing to rest.”

      “Jason, please,” said Rachael, now practically begging him.  “You have to just let it go.  Don’t try to find her—you’ll be making a big mistake.  Just please, you have to let me try and help you.  You have to at least let me try.”

      Jason suddenly understood that the longer he let this conversation go on, the more pain he would be causing her.  “I’m sorry, Rachael.  I’m really, truly sorry.”  And with that he hung up the phone, closing himself off from her forever. 

      A few minutes later, after a hysterical fit, Jason was able to pull himself off of the floor.  Once again, he knew, the same awful decision was before him.

      “Okay okay, what do I do?  What do I do?” Jason asked himself.  “Jessi is on Space Station Gateway.  Space Station Juciper.  Whatever…same fucking thing.  She’s there with her fucking father and her fucking mother and they’re all having a great fucking time and she’s not fucking thinking about me and I should just get the fuck out of this fucking galaxy and forget about the whole fucking situation.

      “But I fucking can’t do that because I’m a fucking obsessive fucking paedophile piece of fucking shit.  I have to fucking go there and fucking find her!  There’s no other goddamned way.  I fucking have to go.  I’ll never calm down unless I go.  I have to fucking talk to her.  I just want to fucking talk to her!!!

      “Is that so much to ask, God?  Do you even exist?  If you do I’ll bet you’re up there right now laughing at me, you piece of shit!  Fuck you!  I know your whole fucking plan.  You want to destroy me, don’t you?  You want to put me through the worst kind of shit possible, right?  Is that why I’m here?  Is that why you never let me know my father?  Why you killed my fucking mother?  Why you kept making me fall in love with girl after girl after impossible girl.  Why you made it fucking impossible to get over anyone until I’d fallen for an even more impossible girl?  Why you’re doing this to me now?  Of course it is.  You just love to watch me suffer, right?  Well, guess what, God?  I’ve got all the time in the universe to find you and if you do exist, I’m going to make you suffer, you fucking omnipotent piece of shit!”

      Jason punched and kicked the walls of his spaceship, screaming so loud that he was worried people in STAR Headquarters would hear him.  Finally, when his energy was drained, he sat down in the chair and resumed his one-man conversation.

      “Okay, well I know what I have to do,” he began.  “I have to find Jessi.  Jessi, I have to find you.  I have to fucking talk to you and tell you how I feel so I can get the fuck out of here.  I’ll go to Space Station Gateway Juciper whatever-the-fuck and find you, and talk to you, and say goodbye, maybe give you a hug…” his mind trailed off for a moment as this beautiful picture softened his heart for a second.  “But whatever fucking happens, I’m not leaving until I see you one more time.  And not Arnold or God himself is going to stop me!”

      Jason slid his chair over to the computer and violently pounded the keys until he reached the website for Space Station Juciper.  He then slid back to the phone and dialled the number, taking a few deep breaths and hoping he wouldn’t sound psychotic to the person on the other end of the line.

      “Space Station Juciper, how may I help you?” said a woman’s voice.

      “Yes, hi, I’d like to book a room for tonight,” said Jason.

      “We are completely sold out of rooms this weekend,” said the receptionist, “but we still have a few docking bays available if you would not mind sleeping on your ship.”

      “That should be just fine,” said Jason.

      “Very well,” said the receptionist.  “I will just need your name and your ship’s serial number.” the woman asked.

      Jason gave her the information, and listened while she typed it into the computer.  “Could you please hold for one moment?”  She said, and before he could say anything, Jason was on hold, a feeling of great uneasiness coming over him.  In about two minutes, the receptionist came back on the line.

      “What’s the matter?” Jason asked.

      “I am very sorry,” she said.  “But there are orders from STAR Security not to let you on the station this weekend. But you are welcome to come any other time.  Would you like me to reserve you a room for next weekend?”

      Jason involuntarily pounded his fist on the desk next to the phone.  “No, no thank you.  Goodbye.”  He shoved the phone back into its receiver so quickly that it nearly broke.

      Jason sat back and stared up at the ceiling of his ship.  “Hah!  I’ll bet you thought that was really funny, didn’t you?  You fucking bastard.  Well, you’re a pretty sorry excuse for a God if you think I’m giving up that easily.”  In a few moments, Jason was on the phone again, making an off-world call to Pluto.

      “Larry’s Supply Depot,” said the voice on the other end.  “This is Steve Larry, can I help you?”

      “Steve, it’s Jason,” said Jason.

      “Hey, buddy!  I didn’t expect to hear from you again for a long time,” said Steve.  “What’s up?”

      “I need you to do something for me,” said Jason.  “Just a quick favour if you could.”

      “Sure, buddy, I’d be happy to,” said Steve.  “You sound kind of upset, is everything okay?

      “Everything’s fine, Steve,” said Jason.  “I just need you to call Space Station Juciper and reserve a docking bay for tonight.”

      “Um….that’s pretty long-distance, Jason.”

      “The call is free and reservations are free.  I’ll pay for everything when I get there.  But I just need you to make the reservations.”

      “Just out of curiosity, why can’t you do it yourself?” asked Steve.

      “I don’t have time to explain,” Jason shouted.  “But they’re almost booked already so I don’t have much time.  Please just call them right away for me, would you?  I’ll call you back in ten minutes to explain everything, all right?”

      “This doesn’t have anything to do with…you know what…does it?” asked Steve.  “I don’t want anyone coming here looking for me.”

      “Trust me, it has absolutely nothing to do with that,” said Jason, realising why Steve would be reluctant to help him.  If this had anything to do with the data-cube that Jack had given him, he was putting his life in danger.  But Jason was telling the truth, as this had absolutely nothing to do with Jack, Brian Davis, or alien conspiracies.

      “All right, Jason,” said Steve.  “Because you’re such a good customer and I trust you, I’ll do this.”

      “Thank you, Steve,” said Jason.  “I can’t thank you enough.  You have my eternal, undying appreciation.”

      “All right, buddy,” said Steve.  “I’ll talk to you soon.”

      “Thanks.  Bye.”  Jason hung up the phone, and immediately slid himself over to the controls of his ship.  He wasn’t going to call Steve again.  He couldn’t explain this to anybody, hardly even himself.  He only felt that he was being guided by some unseen force.  Reason was now an enemy.  He had a mission, and no matter how insane or wrong it might be, he was going to go through with it.

      It barely even occurred to Jason as he slid his ship onto the runway and took off into orbit that he would never return to his home planet again.