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Book III: Andromeda 

Part One - No Destination 
 

      The experience of making a nearly instantaneous leap from a relatively low rate of passing time to one of such extreme proportions as 10,000 years per second is one of such intensity that words can not begin to adequately describe it.  Naturally, the mind can imagine a vague picture of what it might be like.  One moment you are staring at a static universe, with each star remaining in a fixed position against the gentle pale blue backdrop of the Milky-Way.  The next moment those stars are flinging themselves around one another as you dart past them with barely enough time for your eyes to focus.  The Milky-Way, in which the luminosity of hundreds of millions of stars had blended together into one silky band of light, is now erupting with motion as the arm of this gargantuan spiral flies around the core.  Out of the haze come hundreds of thousands of stars you had never seen before, whipping past you faster than your eyes can focus on them.  The Milky-Way’s thick haze grows thinner and thinner until there is nothing before you but an empty void filled with dim patches of light, each a galaxy of its own.

      To imagine what it must look like is one thing, but to actually experience it is a phenomenon of an entirely different nature.  Granted you can imagine the sight of all those stars flying by you, but the feeling is altogether indescribable.  For Jason Floyd it immediately became the most intense moment of his life, and not merely because of the emotion involved in the events immediately preceding the leap.  It was as though everything that had just happened was instantly forgotten—the destruction of Arnold’s ship and the attack on his own by the fleet of STAR Security vessels—all of that seemed to lose its sense of reality the moment after the leap was made.  The phenomenon of experiencing the universe at such a radically different pace of time simply dwarfed each and every one of Jason’s past experiences.

       Even the launch of the Andromeda spaceship five million years beforehand could not compare to it.  Then, Jason and a crew of eleven others had made a sudden (yet far more gradual) leap to 70 days per second.  Although they had all been moving at a rate of time far faster than they were used to (just over six million times faster), they were still moving at a somewhat comprehensible speed.  They would pass a handful of stars every second.  Every couple of minutes represented an average human lifetime.  While it would not be accurate to say that no intense feeling had been experienced by any of them, it certainly did not compare to the leap now being made by Jason.  Jason’s rate of time was now three hundred billion times faster than normal.  He passed thousands of stars every second, and the average human lifetime lasted for one hundredth of a second.  For every second that Jason experienced, one hundred generations passed away.  The mind was incapable of comprehending it.

      However, Jason’s mind was human, and a human mind can never remain in such a deep state of consciousness for very long.  The first “normal” thought that entered his brain after the sudden leap came to him when his ship was half-way to Andromeda, only a few minutes into the journey.  He turned and looked at Jessi, whom he had nearly forgotten was still with him.  All of a sudden the reality of the situation crashed back into his mind.

      Jessi was in a state of shock, clearly unable to process the magnitude of the experience that had just been forced upon her.  She had never even dreamed of the possibility of moving at these speeds—never contemplated journeying this far from anywhere she had ever called home.  Moving at this rate of time was simply too much for her brain to handle, and when Jason looked into her eyes he could tell there was no consciousness behind them.  Although she was still alive, there was not a single thought in her mind.  There was only a dim awareness that the world around her had suddenly undergone a drastic shift in its nature.

      A pain unlike any Jason had ever known suddenly seized hold of him as he realised the enormity of the crime he had just committed against her.  He had torn her away from her family, from her life, from the only world she had ever known or ever wished to know.  The intensity of the experience of the time-scale leap was something Jason had been dreaming of for ages, but Jessi had never wanted it.  For all Jason knew, she hadn’t even been aware that such a thing was possible.

      Before she even made so much as a sound or a move, Jason exploded in tears.  He began to sob so uncontrollably that he nearly passed out from lack of breath.  How could he have done this?  Though he could not even begin to understand why, he loved this girl passionately, and he had just inflicted a harm upon her which in a way was just as brutal as rape or murder.  He had taken her life from her and thrust her into an existence that she was not the least bit prepared for.  In that way, he had killed her.  And now he had what he had most desired but never expected, as he now had her all to himself.  In that way, he had raped her.

      The pain worsened when Jason thought of her father.  Arnold Juciper, who had once been a genuine friend, had lost his life because of his reckless actions.  Arnold destroyed himself in order to take the head of the STAR Corporation with him and give his daughter a slight chance to escape certain doom.  Over the years Jason had grown to hate his former friend, thinking him arrogant and self-centred.  Now he was forced to re-examine his opinions and consider the likelihood that their entire feud had been his own fault.  After all, it had arisen out of Jason’s own feelings of jealousy on board the Andromeda.  Arnold had not known of Jason’s love for Lauren…

      Lauren!  Jason’s agony reached its climax in the moment he thought of poor Lauren and Rachael.  His actions had forced them underground at the mercy of STAR Security for years.  What had become of them when he blasted away?  Did STAR let them go on living out the rest of their lives, or had they murdered them just in case they decided to turn against them as Arnold had?  Was there any way Jason could ever find out, or would this be a mystery he would carry with him for the rest of his days?

      But what difference did the length of their lives really make?  Whether they had been executed by STAR immediately following the incident or they had been allowed to live for a few more decades with the pain of their loss was now completely inconsequential as far as Jason was concerned.  He had destroyed their family.  Had they been executed he would have killed them just as he had killed Arnold.  Had they been let go he still would have killed them in the same sense that he had killed Jessi.  Their lives would never be the same, and their new lives would forever be scarred by wounds incapable of healing.

      Jason had killed them all.  His dark obsession had swallowed their entire family.  And to think he had called it “Love”!  His absurd desire for the innocent little girl sitting next to him had ruined the lives of four people.  Arnold may not have been the kindest and most understanding soul in the universe, but his final action now made it impossible to deny that he was essentially a good man.  Rachael had not only tolerated but actually liked Jason.  She was a genuinely good person in all the ways that mattered.  If Jason had been only a little more mature and level-headed, he may even have ended up with her, a person who could love and understand him.  They might have lived a long happy life together in friendship with the rest of the family.  Lauren had her problems with Jason but she had sincerely tried to put her fear behind her and treat him with kindness and respect.  Jason had repaid her by taking her only daughter and the love of her life from her.  Rachael was Arnold’s daughter and Jessi’s sister.  There was no longer any blood-bond between Rachael and Lauren.  Jason had severed their only real connections to each other.  The family was completely destroyed.

      Suddenly Jason became aware of himself.  With a violent jerk of his entire body and mind, Jason stopped crying and leapt to his feet.  How dare he lie there and cry after what he had just done?  He had no right to let it pour out like that.  Those tears represented his guilt and his pain and the more he let drop, the more of that pain he was releasing.  But he had no right to let his pain diminish.  Jason resolved never to let himself shed another tear over the horrible crime he had committed.  He would keep it bottled inside and let it torture him as he deserved to be tortured.  That guilt must forever remain a part of him, whatever was to come.  He would never allow himself to experience true happiness.  He could never let himself feel free of his past and the horrible thing he had done.  If there was to be any justice in the universe, Jason had to be punished for his act, and since there was nobody else to inflict that punishment, he had to inflict it upon himself.

      Altogether Jason’s emotional breakdown had lasted about a million years.  Thousands of generations had been born and passed away while a man in a spaceship far away was lamenting an event that was all but forgotten by the rest of them ages ago.  The emotional storm in Jason’s mind had begun in the immense gap of void and dark matter between the Milky-Way and its sister galaxy, and ended just on the edge of the closest luminescent spiral of Andromeda.

      While most of the matter in both the Milky-Way and Andromeda surrounded the galaxies in a dark matter halo made up mostly of dust and gas particles, the “official border” of a galaxy was generally considered the orbital path of the furthest star circling the galaxy.  During the Andromeda mission, had programmed the ship’s computer to identify this star, trace its path, and beep when the ship crossed it.  In preparation for his travels through the universe, he had programmed the computer of the Comfortably Numb to do the same.

      The main console let out a gentle “beep” and a chill ran down Jason’s spine.  He opened the time-scale controls once again and gradually slowed the passing of time by reducing his time ratio by half every few seconds.  The stars in the window which had been flinging themselves around at incredible speeds began to move slower and slower.  The turbulent cloud of the rest of the galaxy began to settle.  Eventually Jason brought his ship to 1 second per second again.  The cloud was now a static purplish haze; the stars once again settled into fixed positions all around him, only that cloud and those stars now belonged to a different galaxy.  In the span of only twenty minutes, Jason had journeyed two and a half million light-years, a distance only he and a handful of others in human history had ever traversed.  Now he was in an entirely different galaxy, a place that only his and a handful of other human eyes had ever seen.

      The memories of that journey long ago came flooding back to Jason, and his spine began to tingle as the incredible nature of his accomplishment suddenly dawned on him.  “I’m back,” he said aloud, his first words spoken since his departure.  Jason Floyd had become the only human being ever to journey to another galaxy twice.  Andromeda, though, had aged five million years since his last visit.  Jason had aged as well.  It was not the same galaxy, and he was not the same person. 

* * * * * * * 

      “What…what happened?” Jessi spoke at last.  The shock had subsided and now she seemed to be regaining her lucidity.

      Jason tried to prepare himself for the emotional struggle that was about to ensue, but he knew there was not much he could do.  He had to tell Jessi the whole truth of what had happened, and she was going to have to endure the worst pain she had ever known.

      “Where are we?” she turned and looked at Jason, who was staring out of the window.  He could not bring himself to look her in the eyes.  “What happened to my dad?  What’s going on?”

      Jason breathed the heaviest sight he had ever taken, and opened his mouth to try to answer her questions, but the words would not come out immediately.  He struggled to force them out, but his brain could not seem to find them, and only nonsense syllables came pouring out of his mouth like the babbling of an infant.

      “Jason!” Jessi shouted.  “Jason, what’s wrong?  Where’s my dad?  Where are we?”

      A violent spasm shook Jason as he wrenched a few words from his vocabulary and thrust them out of his mouth as though he were inducing himself to vomit.  “We’re in Andromeda…” he began.

      “What!?” she exclaimed.  “How…why…what?”

      “They were going to kill us,” Jason managed to say.  It slowly became easier for him to speak, though it was no less painful.  “STAR Security.  They were going to destroy my ship and kill both of us.  I blasted us out of the galaxy.”

      “My dad!” Jessi shouted.  “Where is he?  What happened to him?”

      Jason remained silent.  His eye began to twitch uncontrollably.  He opened his mouth to try and speak the words, but again only nonsense came out.

      “Jason!” now Jessi was nearing hysteria.  “Jason, talk to me!  What happened to my dad?”

      “He’s dead!” he finally forced the confession out of himself, and it stung.  “He destroyed his own ship to kill Bob Drady before he could give the order to destroy us.  He sacrificed himself to save your life.”

      “W…wha…what?” Jessi managed.  She was starting to shake.  “He’s…my dad is…he’s gone?”

      “Yes,” Jason felt like he was stabbing himself with a rusty dagger.  That old familiar suicidal urge was taking hold of him once again.  He realised that the longer he took to clarify the situation, the worse he was making it for both of them.  So with an extreme force of effort he continued.  “Your dad is dead.  So are your mother and your sister.  It’s been only twenty minutes since we left the Milky-Way, but because we’ve been travelling so fast, millions of years have gone by.  Everyone you’ve ever known or cared about is dead.”  And with that, Jason brought his forehead down with force onto the edge of his ship’s console, trying to turn some of the unspeakable emotional pain into physical pain.

      Jessi was stunned.  She tried to open her mouth to ask another question, but only a horrified sound escaped her lips.  It was a sound so full of shock and horror that it pierced through Jason’s skull like a bullet, completely overwhelming the physical pain of the self-inflicted blow to his forehead.

      Jason forced himself to watch Jessi’s face as her eyes grew wider and her skin turned redder as her mind began to grasp the situation.  The pace of her breathing began to accelerate rapidly as water flooded into her bewildered eyes.  Finally, the most horrible sound Jason had ever heard escaped from her mouth in the form of a bewildered wail.  At last she began to cry.  Now Jason closed his eyes and tried to drown out the sound.  He tried to force himself into a meditative state, retreating inside of himself and blocking the reality of the situation from taking hold.  But it was no use, and he knew that it wasn’t fair to try and block it.  So he forced himself again to complete lucidity, not only hearing but feeling every sob and whimper that came from the poor girl beside him.  The girl he loved.  The girl he had raped and murdered.

      The pain was so overwhelming that Jason felt there was at least some justice taking place.  At least her pain was not hers alone.  This was part of his punishment.  He had to experience her pain just as much as her and more.  With a flash of self-hatred Jason forced himself to turn and look at her.

      Her face was as red as blood, and soaked with tears.  Mucous poured from her nose as she sobbed and snivelled and whimpered and howled in agony.  She had never lost anybody before.  Now she had suddenly lost everyone.  Jason’s self-hatred was momentarily squashed by a feeling of intense pity and compassion.  He felt an overwhelming desire to hold her in his arms and let her bury her face into his shoulder.  Let her muffle her tears and wipe all that mucous onto his shirt.

      But he couldn’t do that.  He was the reason for her pain.  He could not be her shoulder to cry on no matter how badly he wanted to.  So he rose from his seat and moved to the back of the ship where his bed was.  He tore the mattress off and dragged it to the floor by the cockpit seats.  Without a word he put his hand on Jessi’s shoulder, gently bringing her to her feet and a few steps back before her legs gave out and she collapsed on the mattress, burying her face into it.  He almost opened his mouth to say “I’m sorry,” but realised that would be a request for forgiveness.  Jason knew that he did not deserve her forgiveness.  She should never forgive him.

      He sat back down in his seat and stared at the poor creature on the mattress at his feet.  He let the pain sink deeper and deeper into him, slicing up his insides and destroying every remaining shred of pride that he had ever had.  For what seemed like hours he sat in silence and let her cry.  Dozens…perhaps hundreds of times over the course of these long moments Jason nearly erupted into tears himself, but each time he forced them back, burying the pain so deeply that he would never be able to release it, sentencing himself to a lifetime of the worst guilt imaginable.  The only punishment available to him.

      And so the Comfortably Numb crawled along at just below the speed of light through the vast Andromedan landscape, its two inhabitants endured an emotional torture almost impossible to imagine.  As Jason sat and stared at his victim, he could not remember ever hating himself quite so much as he did at that moment—all of his previous years of self-loathing seemed merely a delusion compared to the utterly genuine hatred he currently felt for himself.  And as he forced his eyes to remain fixed on the sobbing girl on the mattress, he could not remember loving her quite as much as he did at that moment.  She was enduring a pain that Jason could only begin to imagine.  In all of the time she had existed his life or in his imagination, she had never been so beautiful. 

* * * * * * * 

      The next few days were torture for both of them.  Jessi cried continuously through the first day.  Occasionally the sobbing would subside and she would sit up to look through the window.  Jason had the ship moving at the slow pace of 60 days per second, the time-scale by which the original Andromeda spaceship had moved through the galaxy on its return trajectory to earth.  The sight was undeniably beautiful.  As a generation of humans came into existence and passed away every few minutes, the ship would fly by a few dozen stars in the same amount of time.  The beauty of the alien galaxy was enough to mesmerise them both—Jessi because she had never seen it before and Jason because he could hardly believe he was seeing it again.

      But these periods of silent meditation would come to an end quickly enough as the reality of their hopeless situation inevitably returned to Jessi’s mind and she would break into a fit of tears once again.  Jason did his best to provide her with water, which she accepted, and food, which she refused.

      Occasionally it would seem as though she was on the verge of speaking, but she was far too angry.  In a way this pleased Jason, as he knew he could not handle anything resembling words of forgiveness from her when he had harmed her so deeply.  He never spoke a word to her, but merely laid the food and water at the foot of the mattress, which she herself had dragged back to the bed in the rear corner of the ship to be as far away from Jason as was possible.

      The interior of the Comfortably Numb was rather small, altogether about the size of the cockpit of the Andromeda.  The cockpit window stretched from above the control console to the ceiling and between both walls, which were lined with computer screens displaying various images from the different views of the ship’s exterior cameras to streams of information about the status of the ship’s systems as well as data from the sensors about the ship’s surroundings.  The two seats in front of the controls were the only chairs on board, and the bed in the right rear corner the only comfortable place to lie down.  The bathroom was through a door in the right rear corner next to the bed, the only truly separate room on the ship.  The kitchen area and laundry machine took up the left rear corner, and the left wall stretching from the kitchen to the controls was occupied by the storage lockers containing food and supplies.  The right wall was bare with the exception of the airlock through which Jessi had entered the ship during that critical moment aboard Space Station Juciper.  This tiny living space constituted the entire world for Jason and Jessi, as it mostly likely would for the rest of their lives.

      As Jessi cried and Jason stared out into space, he struggled to decide what his next move would be.  His first thought had been to simply turn the ship around and take Jessi back to the Milky-Way where he might be able to find a nice family willing to take her in.  But he quickly rejected this idea for a slew of reasons, the most obvious being that his ship was almost certainly marked by STAR, and it was very likely they would find him and destroy him the moment he returned.  But danger or no danger, Jason simply had no desire to return to that awful galaxy.  As far as he was concerned, he had left the Milky-Way behind forever and the thought of returning even for only a few hours or days made him literally sick to his stomach.  Finally, and more abstractly, he knew that simply unloading Jessi with another group of strangers and then taking off would be a way of escaping his guilt and punishment, which he did not deserve to do.  With her gone he might be able to forget about his crime and imagine that it had never happened.  But as long as she was with him, he would be suffering. 

      It was quite the opposite scenario than the one he’d envisioned in his fantasies—the two of them exploring the universe as a loving couple who cared about each other.  While she had and would always have his love, he only had her hatred.  This, he knew, was appropriate, though it did not serve to reduce the pain.  He had imagined her company would be a joy.  Instead, because she was with him against her will, her presence was a curse.

      Yet Jason knew that he could not simply sit in that chair and stare out at Andromeda in misery and regret for the rest of his life.  He had gone through all the trouble of obtaining ICT and leaving everything behind in order to explore the universe and experience firsthand its nature on the grandest of scales, and to hopefully learn something about the deeper nature of existence as a whole.  He still had so many questions.  There was still so much he wanted to see.  Although he knew that he did not deserve any of the experiences he was longing for, he felt that it simply would not be right to squander the resource he had at his disposal—a ship with technology that opened up an entire universe with infinity upon infinity of possible experiences.

      Nor would it be fair to Jessi to remain sedentary and silent.  Since she was along for the ride in any case, Jason might as well do his best to make the ride somewhat interesting.  He had no idea how much interest Jessi really had in science and deeper natures of things, but there were some things in the universe simply too spectacular not to be appreciated, even if the opportunity to see them came about through tragedy.

      Jason’s mind had no shortage of ideas as to what he would do once his journey began.  He’d had a very long time to think about it and had come up with several things to do that he simply could not resist.  So on the third day after leaving the Milky-Way, Jason took the controls, located a nearby dense nebula, and set a course for it.  Raising the time scale to 100 years per second, the ship once again leapt to incredible speeds and flew by hundreds of star systems every second.

      From behind him, he heard the crying stop as Jessi noticed that they were moving faster.  She said nothing, and Jason did not look at her, but he could feel her gaze upon him as she wondered what he was doing.

      Now, he felt, was as appropriate a time as any for him to break his silence towards her.  He was not asking for forgiveness but merely doing her the courtesy of letting her know what was happening.  “Jessi, I don’t expect you to find this experience worth the pain of losing your family, but it should be pretty incredible if you want to come up here and watch.”

      He had hoped for some sort of reply, but was not upset when he received none.  Of course he didn’t deserve a reply.  And if she wanted to remain as far away from him as she could get, she had more than every right to do so.  If she had wanted to tear his eyes out and shove them down his throat, she had every right to do that as well.  She didn’t ask what it was that Jason was intending to do, so he just told her.

      “I’m going to watch the formation of a solar system,” he said.  “The nebula we’re heading towards is condensing and new stars are going to be forming over the next few hundred million years.  We’ll actually be able to watch the whole process.  We may even see the formation of a few planets, maybe even one that can support life.”

      There was no reply. 

* * * * * * * 

      The nebula was undeniably beautiful.  As Jason fixed his ship on a trajectory that would take him continuously around the giant cloud of gas and dust, rich in heavy elements from the debris of dead stars from which it was mostly composed, he pondered what it meant for something to be beautiful.

      He understood the intricate physical processes that were going on inside the nebula—gravity was pulling the cloud apart as clumps of gas began to form and grow denser.  Every now and then a clump of gas would become so dense and hot that it would ignite, signalling the birth of a new star.  Jason understood how this process worked, but he hadn’t the faintest idea what it was that made it beautiful.

      He had pondered such things before, but never with as much depth and confusion as now.  Before he had always tacitly accepted that the natural world on any scale contained in it some sort of intrinsic beauty.  From something as tiny as a tree to as massive as a galaxy—nature itself was simply beautiful.  No objections could be raised so questions needed to be asked.

      But how could anything be beautiful unless it was beautiful to somebody?  There could be no objective beauty.  By itself the nebula before Jason was essentially the same thing as a tree or a galaxy—merely collections of particles assembling themselves in various forms in accordance with the laws of physics.  Yet in Jason’s mind it was so much more than that.  It couldn’t merely be the fact that it looked spectacular.  It had to be the ideas associated with it.  Gas and dust by itself was nothing but gas and dust, but when Jason considered that over the course of billions of years all this dust might result in the formation of an entire solar system—possibly of a planet with life—that was what made it beautiful.

      Most of the confusion, however, had to do with the girl sitting on the bed behind him.  As he stared at the nebula in front of him, whizzing about at 100 years per second, condensing and illuminating with the light from the birth of new stars, he imagined her face and tried to hold up that image of beauty in his mind with that of the scene before him.  What commonalities were there?  Was the concept of beauty essentially the same thing when applied to spectacular cosmic events as to the face of one girl?

      Such a thought seemed absurd.  Though he found both the nebula and the girl beautiful, comparing the two seemed impossible.  He could not discern whether the nebula or the girl was more beautiful because he seemed to be dealing with two entirely different concepts.  Perhaps the confusion was merely the result of a flaw in the language—perhaps the word “beauty” had too broad a definition.  Maybe the beauty in the natural world was an entirely different phenomenon than the beauty a human being might see in another human being.

      And if that were the case, would not the beauty a human sees in another human have something to do with sexuality?  This is the thought that disturbed Jason the most, because he wanted his love for Jessi to be more like his love of the cosmos.  It disturbed him to think that it might merely be a trick of the mind due to decades of sexual repression and psychological torment.

      Yet at the moment it was hard to deny that there wasn’t some concrete difference between the pure beauty of the spectacular scene in the window from the frustrating and confusing sort of beauty that Jason saw in Jessi.  With the nebula it was simply an appreciation of what exists.  With Jessi it was an intense, unquenchable desire to possess her.  The nebula made him feel a sense of peace and completeness, while Jessi only seemed to fill him with a feeling of emptiness and longing.  She was a hole inside of him that could never be filled, even with all of the gas and dust in the universe.

      And yet his love for her was undeniably real, whatever its cause might be.  Even if it was just a product of the chaotic world within Jason’s skull—a world of misconnected neurons and chemical imbalances—the love was there.  That same inner world was somehow simultaneously home to the reverence of the universe’s natural beauty and the tumultuous desire for the beauty of a human female.

      The answer must have something to do with species, Jason concluded.  The subjectivity of beauty—and it could only be subjective—must be a matter of relativity.  If Jason could find another intelligent species of beings of a far different appearance than himself and his companion, he was almost certain they would not find her beautiful. But he was almost equally certain that they would think the nebula before him was beautiful.

      Perhaps it was the same fundamental concept, he thought.  Although his love of Jessi was inextricably tied to his own biology, his love of the cosmos could just as easily result from the fact that he was himself a part of them.  The particles in the nebula—which was now less of a cloud of gas than a cluster of bright new stars—were obeying the same physical principles as the particles in Jason’s own mind.  Perhaps beings from another universe which went by radically different physical laws would find such things as stars and galaxies ugly.

      So the difference between the beauty in the natural universe and the beauty in another human being might be far simpler than two completely separate concepts.  It could be the same thing but on radically different scales.  When Jason was appreciating the beauty of the cosmos he was appreciating the beauty of something he was only an infinitesimally small part of.  Something that was already doing for him everything it could—allowing him to exist and appreciate it.  But Jessi was the same size as Jason, and outside of him.  They were separate beings, neither a part of one another.

      Was this the reason Jason felt no stinging sense of desire when confronted with the cosmos while he could not escape it when thinking of her?  Was it because he was already as much a part of the universe as he had ever been or could be, while he could never be a part of Jessi?

      No, Jason thought, desire is always an element of beauty.  His urge to go out and explore every corner of the universe was just as great as his urge to somehow be one with Jessi.  He wanted to know the universe, and to know Jessi, more intimately than any other being could ever know.  Was it possible that his passion for exploration was, at its core, nothing more than an ugly primeval desire to possess the universe?  To be God?  Was his love for Jessi merely a different manifestation of this same fundamental force?

      Before Jason had time to figure anything out, the nebula was gone.  Before him now was a cluster of new star systems, each enveloped in a haze of particles that were themselves condensing as they spun around their respective suns.  These new clumps of matter were sweeping away the debris in each system and forming planets, moons, asteroids and comets.  Jason chose the system with the most excess matter and brought his ship in closer to it, reducing the time-scale by half.

      There he would wait as the planets formed, hopefully one at a distance from its sun that would make it possible for life to thrive.  He would watch the entire evolutionary process unfold, which he hoped would result in the birth of a new intelligent species.  Then perhaps Jason could introduce himself to them, explain to them all he knew of the universe both he and they had sprang from, and ask them what they found beautiful. 

* * * * * * * 

      It would take several hundred million years for the primordial stellar soup to condense into a planetary system, so Jason would have to remain there for longer than he had so far existed in the universe.  Finding a comfortable speed had been difficult.  If Jason had wanted to orbit the star within only a light-year and have the process finished in a matter of days, he would have had to circle the star thousands of times per second, which quite simply would have made him far too dizzy.  So he fixed himself at a radius of 100 light-years from the star and kept the time scale at 100 years per second.  At this rate it would be several months before the formation of the system was complete, but the objects in the window would not be moving too quickly for his mind to process.

      During this time, Jason made sure to monitor not just the star he was orbiting but nine other nearby star systems also undergoing formation.  He realised that life in the universe might not be so common as to allow for the very first system he examined to yield results.  But with ten separate systems it was somewhat likely that a planet suitable for life would form in at least one of them.  If he remembered his conversation with Jack Peskie correctly, life in the universe was far more common than the STAR Corporation had led people to believe.  In the Milky-Way at the time of Jason’s departure there had been only three intelligent species, but this was because humans had the good fortune of being among the first to evolve technologically, and they had systematically wiped out all of their potential competitors.  Hopefully, Jason thought, Andromeda was not suffering the same fate.

      Already he had concluded that a species like humanity had not taken over the entire galaxy as it had in the Milky-Way.  If such a species existed they would no doubt have located and confronted him already.  It was, however, quite possible that several vast stellar empires already existed within Andromeda, but if this was the case they did not inhabit the 100 light-year radius that Jason was currently monitoring.  Andromeda was 200,000 light-years across, twice the size of the Milky-Way.  There was plenty of room for interstellar civilizations to arise and spread for millennia without ever encountering one another.

      Of course, Jason was moving so quickly that it was also possible that intelligent life had crossed his path numerous times without him noticing.  If a ship moving at a normal rate of time came within inches of his own, stayed for a few days, and then flew away, it would have happened so quickly relative to Jason’s perception that he would not have noticed.  The only way they could possibly grab his attention would be to accelerate to 100 years per second themselves, which Jason figured only a few select individuals in the entire universe would be willing to do.

      Jason, of course, was perfectly willing to let time spiral away at an incredible rate.  Moving at his speed, he was not only orbiting the star system once every six seconds, but he was actually orbiting the galactic core of Andromeda, 90,000 light years away, once every 90 minutes.  Needless, to say, this made for an incredibly spectacular view from the cockpit window, as absolutely nothing remained static.

      As the days flew by and Jason’s star systems condensed, he passed the time by doing almost exactly what he had done before going on the journey.  He listened to music, read, ate, and slept.  He had no worries about running out of food, as he had stocked himself with enough for two people for more than a lifetime, and his computer contained no shortage of music or reading material.  The only difference, of course, was the presence of Jessi.

      There was no sense of night and day on the ship.  Jessi slept whenever she got tired and remained on the bed virtually all the time, getting up only to use the bathroom or feed herself.  Jason had learned quickly that she would not eat anything he brought to her, but after showing her how to prepare meals she would at least feed herself.  Jason spent most of his time in his seat at the cockpit.  When he was tired he would sleep on the hard and uncomfortable floor.  He was perfectly content to do this for the rest of his life—just one of the many punishments he felt it was only proper for him to endure.

      But forcing himself to feel the guilt of his crimes every moment of every day had quickly proved to be impossible.  Though Jessi still would not speak to him, the satisfaction he derived from simply enduring the constant pain began to evaporate.  He still took time every day to look at her and consider what he’d done, but every day it seemed to grow less painful, and he found it ever more difficult to remain focussed on his guilt.

      Some days, however, it would all come crashing back and hurt him just as much as it had in those first few moments.  Sometimes he would look in her eyes and the hatred he saw in them would instantly remind him what a despicable creature he was.  Other times she would merely be staring into space, seemingly without a thought in her head, and he would barely feel the pain at all.  But the worst was when the look in her eyes betrayed not anger but a profound sadness.  As time went on he seemed to develop an ability to sense what she was thinking, and when she was thinking of her past and how the rest of her life would be this miserable form of existence, he felt the pain most keenly.

      One day, when he could tell that she was struggling harder than she ever had before, wrestling with the reality of the situation and trying to figure out whether she had the strength to endure it, he could not help but break the silence.  She really needed someone to talk to—but he knew that for talking to really help it had to be with anybody but Jason.  Unfortunately, Jason was the only person available.  Talking would probably not make things any better, but from where she was right then it could not possibly make things worse.

      “I’m so sorry,” Jason managed weakly.  “I’m not asking for forgiveness.  I know I don’t deserve it.  But I just have to tell you that I know you’re suffering and I’m responsible and…” this was a lot harder than he’d imagined.  “Is there anything you’d like to say?  I mean, I know talking to me is probably not gonna help at all but maybe just talking could at least do something for you.  Pretend I’m somebody else.  Or yell at me and take out all your anger.  I’ll even let you beat the shit out of me if you want.  Just…you can’t just keep sitting there on that bed and drowning in negative thoughts.  I don’t deserve your company but you don’t deserve to be alone.  So somehow we’ve got to work this out.”

      Jessi was looking him in the eyes now, considering what he had said.  But she didn’t respond to him.  He knew why, and it was a damn good reason.  She wouldn’t respond because he wanted her to, and she didn’t want to give him anything he wanted—anything at all—even if it would help her.

      When he thought it through, the dilemma was actually rather simple.  Jason knew that she really should talk, because it would be helpful to her to let all that pent-up frustration out.  However, it would also inadvertently help Jason by removing some of the awful tension that had been torturing him.  So the question was whether it would be better to let Jessi suffer in order to continue his own suffering, or to alleviate some of his own suffering in order to alleviate some of Jessi’s.  The solution was as simple as the dilemma—if some of Jason’s suffering was inadvertently alleviated by Jessi’s talking, he would still suffer in a way because some of his suffering was unjustly alleviated.  He could feel guilty about feeling less guilty.  So no matter what, he would be hurting himself.

      How could he possibly explain all that to Jessi?  Slowly the right words came to him.  “Look, I’m going to feel awful whether you talk to me or not.  But there’s no reason you should feel awful just to spite me.  In fact what you say might even make me feel more awful than I already do.  And that would be good, right?”

      Finally, Jessi spoke.  “You’re fucked up,” she said.

      “I know,” Jason said, with one of the oddest feelings he’d ever known washing over him.  He was relieved and happy that she’d said something, but also hurt by the simple fact that the girl he loved had insulted him.  “I know I am.  I’m horrible.  Anything else?  Whatever you’ve been holding back, just let it out.”

      But apparently that was it for her.  She did not speak to him again for the rest of the day, but an important barrier had been broken.  Over the course of the next few weeks, every now and then she would open her mouth to hurl an insult at him.  Each time Jason experienced the same strange mix of pleasure and pain.  She was slowly burying the wound that Jason had inflicted on her by repeatedly wounding him.  Though on the surface it always hurt to be hatefully admonished by a loved one, on a deeper level it was satisfying because he felt he was getting what he deserved.  The burden of self-hatred was not quite so heavy when she hated him too.

      On one occasion, she erupted into a fit of shouting and yelling.  As soon as this happened, Jason took a heavy wrench from his storage locker and handed it to her, clearly hoping she would take out some of her anger by physically assaulting him.  But as soon as he gave her the tool she stopped yelling and returned to her regular posture of silence and contempt.  He had only succeeded in demonstrating that by hurting him, she was actually helping him.  And she was not prepared to give him as much help as a savage beating with a wrench would provide.

      About a month into the journey, when the stellar clouds Jason was monitoring were finally beginning to clump together into the forms they would eventually take as planets, Jessi said something to Jason which he had never expected to hear and which he had no idea how to feel about.

      In a tone of bitter spitefulness that nevertheless contained the slightest trace of compassion, she turned to Jason and said, “It’s hard to really hate you when you hate yourself so much.” 

* * * * * * * 

      Much to Jason’s disappointment, the star he’d been orbiting for over two hundred million years did not seem to be forming planets in the right places.  In each solar system, there was a narrow window of distance from the sun in which water could exist as a liquid (though certain exceptions were possible in the moons of gas giants).  In the system onto which Jason had directed most of his focus, there was nothing in that area but an enormous gas giant at the outer edge.  It was not impossible that life of some form could develop on such a planet, but it would not be any form of life that Jason was familiar with.  He had his heart set on finding a terrestrial planet like Earth, and a species somewhat similar to his own.

      So he broke orbit with that system and shifted his focus to the next most promising star system, in which several small rocky planets were forming close enough to the sun for life to develop.  He used his powerful telescope to monitor the two planets that were forming at the proper distances, but this time there were other problems.  The closer planet was not rotating as it revolved around the sun, so one half of the planet was permanently facing the sun while the other faced the dark.  Again, this did not render life impossible, but merely improbable.  The farther planet, conversely, was wobbling along in its rotation so that there was absolutely no regularity between night and day.

      Jason checked each of the remaining eight systems and found similar problems with nearly all of them.  Either no planets had formed in the proper area, or the planets that did form were gas giants or rocks with orbits too irregular for life.  Only in one system did he find exactly what he was looking for.  The closest planet to this orange star was only slightly smaller than Earth, and had a moon about half the size of Mars which stabilized its rotation.  This world could not have been a more perfect candidate for life.

      So Jason established himself in a high but decaying orbit of that star, and set his time-scale to slowly decrease as the orbit decayed.  In this way, he would gradually get closer and closer to the planet as time slowed down.  He had set it up so that once he was close enough to actually break orbit with the star and establish an orbit around the planet, the system would be relatively free of debris, the planet would be ripe and ready for life, and he would be moving at a normal rate of time.

      Jason spent the next two months watching his pet planet go though its humble beginnings as a burning wasteland of rock and lava, enduring a constant barrage of stellar debris as it swept out its portion of the solar system.  Eventually it cooled and the heavier elements sunk to the bottom while the lighter elements rose to the surface and formed the planet’s atmosphere.  Not long after that, oceans appeared, clouds began forming, and rain began falling.  By the time Jason was ready to break his orbit of the star and rendezvous with the planet, he believed it was not only possible but likely that life had already begun there.

      But he refused to use his telescope to make the determination.  He wanted to look at it up close, and this is what he did.  To him it had been several months since he’d first arrived at the nebula from which this planet and its stars had formed.  To the universe it had been nearly a billion years.  It might take another billion years for intelligent life to evolve, and Jason was more than willing to wait it out, but not before studying the planet and its life-forms at their most primitive level.  It was the next best thing to travelling back in time to when life was at its earliest stages on earth.  Such an opportunity would have been a scientist’s dream-come-true back in the time period Jason was originally from.

      Watching the planet grow in the cockpit window as he approached it was a surreal experience.  He’d been studying the planet through his telescopes for months, but there was a profound psychological difference between seeing an object projected onto his cockpit window by a telescope and actually seeing it through the window with no magnification.  The planet looked so much like Earth it was uncanny, with its clouds, oceans and continents, and even down to the white and heavily cratered moon circling around it.  The sight must have sparked something in Jessi, because for the first time ever she actually got up off of the bed and walked right up to the cockpit window to gaze at the beautiful new world.

      Smiling, Jason turned to her and said, “I think it’s about time we pull this ship over and stretch our legs for awhile.” 

* * * * * * * 

      Landing the ship on the planet was easy.  The spacecraft itself had the technology which enabled the ship to land almost by itself.  The sensors could determine the planet’s gravity as well as the density of its atmosphere.  Jason needed only to pick a landing site and let the ship do the rest.  So he picked a good spot between a mountain range and an ocean, and sat back as the Comfortably Numb took itself into the atmosphere to perform a perfect landing.  Only Lauren could do the job better, thought Jason, and immediately wished he hadn’t thought of her.

      But he quickly pushed her out of his mind as the ship entered the atmosphere.  During the descent, he was able to make out patches of green fuzz scattered across the ground, and he wondered if they might be a form of vegetation.  By the time the ship landed, Jason was so excited that he’d almost completely forgotten the pain and guilt which had not yet let go of him for a moment.  As the landing gear made contact with the ground, an unexpectedly profound feeling took hold of him, as he realised he’d just performed another first for mankind.  As far as he knew, no human being had ever landed on a planetary body in Andromeda before.

      And now Jason could barely contain his excitement at the prospect of another, much more incredible first—to be the first human to discover life in another galaxy.  He rushed to his ship’s storage compartment and quickly found a hand-held sensor that had come with his ship.  Like the ship, it was top-of-the-line technology, and so easy to use that a child could handle it.

      Now it was time for the big moment.  Jason hit a button on the wall and for the first time since that fateful moment on Space Station Juciper, he opened his ship’s hatch.

      Jessi, who had been sitting at the seat next to Jason during the descent, could hardly believe it.  She’d been trapped in this tiny box for months, slowly but surely resigning herself to the awful fate that had befallen her.  Now all of a sudden, the door was open and she could actually go outside.  The atmosphere, Jason had told her during the landing, was completely breathable, and they could get out and walk around for as long as they liked.

       Jason made his way to the hatch and began walking down the ramp out of the ship.  The scene outside was so amazing that he had to stop and turn around.  Whatever Jessi felt about him, she had to see this.  He turned to her and said, “Come on out, Jessi.  I can’t imagine you’d want to stay here.”

      Jessi didn’t answer him, clearly trying to work something out in her head.  The idea of getting out and exploring a new world with Jason just seemed too much like exactly the kind of thing he wanted, and she had resolved to avoid doing anything that might make him the least bit happy.  Nevertheless, he had a point.  For the past few months she had been dying to get off the ship.  So without a word she rose to her feet and followed Jason onto the ramp and out into the unbelievably refreshing air of the planet.

      The scene outside could not have been more picturesque.  They had landed in the late evening, so the orange sun was now setting over the ocean.  Behind them, a giant yellow moon, about six times the size of the moon as seen from Earth, was making its way over the mountains.  All along the rocky shore were patches of green fuzz, which almost seemed to be glowing from the reflection of the dimming sunlight.

      Jason reached the bottom of the ramp and stopped.  As much as he wanted to get at that green fuzz and find out what it was, an irresistible idea had occurred to him.  This next step was a big one.  Like Neil Armstrong’s first steps onto the moon, this was a rather incredible moment.  He couldn’t help but think that even if she didn’t appreciate it, he would want Jessi to have the honour of being the first human being to set foot on a planet in another galaxy.

      He turned back around to look at Jessi, still quite unsure of herself but clearly taken by the natural beauty of the world they found themselves on.  “Would you like to do the honours?” he offered.

      At first she didn’t seem to know what he was talking about.

      “As far as I know, we’re the first people ever to land on a planet outside of the Milky-Way,” he explained.  “How would you like to be the first person to ever set foot on the surface?”

      Jessi mumbled something which might have been, “I don’t care,” but Jason could barely make it out.

      “Your father is traditionally seen as the first person to enter Andromeda.  I think it might be fitting if his daughter was the first person to set foot on a planet in Andromeda.”  Jason knew it might have been a mistake to mention her father, but he felt he had a good reason.  “I think he’d be proud that you were following in his footsteps, even if you didn’t ask for it.  Anyway, it’s the least I can do after what he did for me…for us.”

      The look in Jessi’s eyes was difficult to read, but Jason knew he had reached her.  There was no gratitude in them, and that familiar hatred was easy to discern, but there was something else.  Perhaps it was confusion—uncertainty on her part as to what to think of Jason.  Either way, she took a deep breath and walked slowly down the ramp, taking the last step very slowly.  As though she did understand the significance of what she was doing, she let her foot hover over the alien ground for a brief moment before setting it down on the surface.

      Jason also didn’t know how to feel, but the sight had moved him nonetheless.  “Congratulations,” he told her.  “You’re now officially a pioneer.”

      Jessi looked back at him, her eyes once again returning to their normal expression of unbridled contempt.  Perhaps she’d expected to feel something profound when she took that step, and realised when it was over that it was just another step.  Nothing had changed at all.  She turned away from him again and began to walk casually towards the ocean.

      Jason breathed a heavy sigh and decided to get on with it.  He moved to the nearest patch of green fuzz and set to work on scanning it.  It was no form of vegetation like Jason had ever seen, but his heart leapt when the sensor confirmed that it was in fact organic matter.  It was composed of an extremely primitive type of single-celled organism, the likes of which had never been recorded before.  Jason had already discovered a new form of life!  What made it even more incredible was that this life and the planet on which it was growing had not even existed when Jason had first re-entered Andromeda.  It was made of the same particles that had been floating around that nebula Jason had been tracking months ago.  Now, a billion years later, it was beginning to come alive.

      Jason walked up to the ocean and dipped his scanner beneath the surface.  Unbelievable!  The oceans were swarming with single-celled creatures, very similar in structure to the fuzz on the land.  That green fuzz had no doubt evolved from the organisms in the ocean.  Jason wondered what else might be in those oceans.  Perhaps multi-celled organisms were already forming and evolving.

      Jason was overwhelmed with a feeling of awe at what he was seeing.  This was the very genesis of life on a planet!  It was like being on the ancient earth during its first years after formation.  What had once been only stardust was now forming into a pattern that could replicate itself—organic matter.  With enough time this self-replicating matter would eventually evolve into structures that could not only reproduce but think.  The dust would become conscious.  It was the very process by which the universe became aware of itself.

      The excitement was completely taking hold of Jason, and he turned to see if he might be able to explain to Jessi just how incredible all of this was.  But when he turned around to speak to her, the feeling vanished immediately.  She was already a hundred meters away, running away from him towards the mountains. 

* * * * * * * 

      She had not been planning to flee from Jason—until a moment ago she had thought escape would be impossible unless her family came to rescue her.  And when she was suddenly struck with the idea, she did not stop and take time to consider it.  It was merely a sudden impulse which she could not help but act upon.  They were outside, his back was turned, and something inside her just screamed run.

      So Jessi ran as fast as her legs could carry her, away from Jason and that horrible ship and up the foothills towards the mountains.  She knew she couldn’t waste any time or Jason would surely catch her, so she didn’t stop for a split second, not even to turn around and see how far her kidnapper was behind her.  She knew he was chasing her—he would never let her go.  And she also knew that she had no real hope of escape, that eventually he was going to catch her, but she didn’t care.  She had to run, even if it was just to show him how much she couldn’t stand being around him.

      After about a kilometre up the first foothill she began to feel the fatigue catching up with her.  So far she’d been running on pure adrenaline but it was starting to give way.  Her lungs were begging for breath and her muscles ached for her to stop.  She began to feel as though she might throw up.  But she pressed on, fuelled only by her desire to put as much distance as possible between her and her captor.  If she could just reach the first peak…

      She reached the top and in spite of the feeling that she was about to collapse, she continued on down the hill towards the vast mountain range beyond.  By now it was really getting dark, but because the moon was so large it reflected more than enough light onto the ground around her.  So on she ran, reaching the bottom of the first foothill and finding a little winding crevasse to follow around the next mountain.

      For several kilometres she continued to run, though her pace slowed significantly.  She realised that she could not keep this up for much longer, and now she had to hide.  Looking around, she was able to spot a few openings in the mountains here and there, and ran off to a cave in the back of the mountain she had just run around.  This seemed a reasonable choice as the opening of the cave was not visible from the direction she’d come.  Jason would only be able to find her if he turned around and looked for her inside of it.

      When she was safely inside the cave, she allowed herself to collapse on the ground and regain her breath.  As she lay there, she was startled by a horrible sound echoing through the cavern walls.  It took a few seconds for her to realise that this was the sound of her own tears.  She hadn’t even noticed that she had started to cry.

      She sat up and put her back against the wall, trying to stop the tears, but she couldn’t.  All of the thoughts that she’d been suppressing as she ran came flooding back to her and with full force.  This was the first time she’d really been alone since she came aboard Jason’s ship.  For some reason this allowed the tears to flow easier—knowing that nobody was listening to them.

      So she let herself cry for a little while longer, remembering her daddy and how he’d tried to save her.  She thought about the last moments they’d spent together, space-walking outside Space Station Juciper.  Everything had been so wonderful and perfect at that moment.  Now it was all gone.  Her dad, her mom, and her sister were probably all dead, and she was a gazillion light-years from home.  Even if they were alive and trying to rescue her, they would probably never find her.  She must be the unluckiest girl in the universe.  All because some old crazy guy had a crush on her.

      Why couldn’t she have listened to her dad?  He had warned her about Jason, but she just hadn’t seen the danger.  When he asked her to come aboard his ship, she had felt sorry for him and decided to go.  She didn’t even tell her parents before she went—how could she have been so stupid?  It was the worst mistake of her life.  Now her family was dead and it was her fault.

      But she knew that even if it was her fault, she didn’t deserve this.  To be trapped in another galaxy with a crazy man…no girl deserved that.  She knew she had to get away from him.  She could tell how badly he wanted her.  His desire was like a fog in the air of the spaceship that grew thicker with every passing day.  He hadn’t touched her yet, but she knew that sooner or later he wouldn’t be able to stop himself.  She was the only girl around and he wanted her.  She was surprised that he’d been able to resist for so long, but he couldn’t keep it up forever.  Jessi was certain that eventually he would rape her.

      But now she had slipped through his fingers.  This was a big mountain range—she’d seen it during the landing.  If she kept moving every day it would be impossible for him to find her.  He would have to give up eventually and go away.  Then she’d at least be free of him.  She would just have to find some way to survive on her own on this planet.  There didn’t seem to be any plants or animals around.  She just hoped that the green fuzzy stuff was edible.

      She sat in the darkness of the cave, alone with her thoughts, hoping to fall asleep.  But although she was getting very tired she couldn’t get to sleep.  The sun had been down for awhile now and it was really beginning to get cold.  She now began to worry that she might have made a huge mistake.  How cold was it going to get?  As she sat and shivered she became afraid that she might freeze to death.  She had nothing with which to keep warm but the clothes she was wearing, and even if she knew how to make fire there was no wood on this planet.

      To make matters worse, she was hungry and thirsty.  All that running had dehydrated her and burned off quite a few calories which her body wanted to replenish.  She had no idea where to find fresh water and the only option for food was that green stuff.  But even if that stuff was edible it was nowhere to be found.  She’d only seen it on the shore, and she didn’t want to risk going back there.

      Why hadn’t she thought ahead?  Before running away she could have quietly walked back onto the ship and taken some supplies with her.  A blanket to keep warm and just a little bit of bread and water would have allowed her to last long enough to elude Jason for enough time for him to give up and fly away.  Then she could move safely about and try to figure out how to live on this world.  But now she was shivering out of control and her stomach was growling so loudly that it echoed through the walls of the cave.

      She almost broke down in tears again, but then froze in silence.  She could hear something outside.  The sound was getting louder and louder.  Footsteps!  It was unmistakably footsteps, coming from the ground above the cave.  It had to be Jason.  Who else could it be?  How had he found her so quickly?

      The footsteps got louder and louder until Jessi could tell that he was directly above her.  They moved a few more paces and then stopped.  She wanted to yell and shout and scream in frustration but her fear kept her paralysed and silent.  Then, all of a sudden, something fell to the ground at the opening of the cave.  It fell with a dull thud rather than a crash, but it was too dark for Jessi to see what it was.  Then something else was dropped, and the footsteps began moving in the opposite direction.

      Jessi listened in total confusion as the sound got further and further and eventually died away completely.  It had to be Jason.  Why hadn’t he come in and grabbed her?  Did he not realise she was inside?  What was it he’d dropped at the mouth of the cave?

      She got up and carefully crept to where the items had fallen.  When she realised what they were she could hardly believe it.  The first item was a bag of food.  There was bread and fruit enough to last for days, as well as a canteen of water.  The second item was much bigger—it felt like a blanket.  Jessi’s heart leapt with excitement as she realised what it was.  It was a solo-habitat.  She’d used one a few times on camping trips with her family.  It was like a sleeping bag that sealed completely and inflated itself with warm, clean air.  Inside was a pillow.

      For a moment Jessi was so confused that she didn’t know what to do.  Jason had found her but he hadn’t taken her back.  Instead he’d provided her with exactly what she needed to survive the night and make it through the next few days.  Why?  Didn’t he want her back?

      She was suddenly overwhelmed with anger, though she wasn’t exactly sure why.  There was just something enraging about the fact that Jason would help her like that.  He was supposed to be the bad guy.  He was supposed to be chasing her and trying to catch her again—not providing her with the means to stay away from him.

      At first she refused to use either of the items Jason had left for her.  It was what he wanted and she didn’t want to give him anything he wanted.  She would rather starve to death, she thought, than eat the food he had brought her.  She would rather freeze to death, she believed, than sleep in the habitat he had provided.  But that resolve died away very quickly as she started shivering uncontrollably again and her stomach resumed its torturous growling.

      So reluctantly she crawled inside the habitat with the bag of food and sealed the opening.  Instantly the habitat inflated with warm—wonderfully warm—air.  The feeling was so good that Jessi forgot all about Jason for a moment.  She opened the canteen and took a long, satisfying drink of cold, delicious water.  She opened the bag of food and devoured a few pieces of bread and some berries.  Soon enough her hunger was satisfied, she was no longer cold, and all the fatigue from the long night came back to her as she was overwhelmed with sleepiness.  As she curled herself up and buried her face in the warm, soft pillow, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt so comfortable. 

* * * * * * * 

      Jason was sitting on his ship’s foremost landing pad, watching the skies grow brighter as the sun rose behind him over the mountains.  He’d been there for most of the night, just looking out at the stars over the ocean, pondering life.  The sea had receded a great distance during the night, revealing an extra hundred metres or so of the organic green fuzz.  The tidal forces on this planet were a lot stronger than those on Earth, Jason had realised, because the moon was much larger.

      Jason reflected on the idea that the atoms which made up his body had once probably been something like the green goo on this planet.  All of humanity had arisen from similar stuff ages ago.  Now here he was, millions of light-years from his origin and free to explore and ponder the entire universe.  Yet wherever his mind might wander, it would invariably come back to the girl whose life he’d ruined.

      When he’d seen her running the previous evening his initial reaction was to go after her, but he hadn’t taken two steps before deciding that it would be best to just let her go.  She desperately needed to get away from him so he figured he might as well let her.  There were no dangerous animals out there which could get her and the planet’s temperature wasn’t going to drop low enough to kill her.

      He even considered letting her stay there and just taking off and leaving.  Allowing her to be free of him forever, which he knew was what she wanted.  But he analysed the green fuzz a little further, the only source of food available on the planet, and realised that although it was edible it probably shouldn’t be eaten.  The chemistry of the single-celled organisms that composed it just weren’t compatible with the human body.  Not only would it not provide the proper nutrition, but it might even make a person violently ill.  Too much would probably kill you. 
 No, to leave her alone would be condemning her to death.  And by the time he reached this conclusion it was already very dark and very cold.  He figured that wherever she was she must be freezing, hungry, and thirsty.  So he had taken his scanner and some supplies up into the mountains in search of his missing “companion.”

      Because she was the only living thing in the entire mountain range, it was not difficult at all for his scanner to locate her.  When he found that he was standing directly above her and realised that she was in a cave beneath his feet, he’d simply dropped the supplies down there and walked away.  There was no need to implore her to return to him—she would come back eventually.  And if he had to keep going off and finding her every few days to keep her supplied, he was more than willing to do that.  It was the least he could do.

      Now as he sat staring at the sky as it grew bluer and the stars grew fainter, he tried to think of the situation from her point of view.  He realised that he had really only been thinking of himself so far.  He’d been dealing with her according to his own personal feelings of guilt, without much regard to what she might be thinking or feeling.  He rarely spoke to her because he felt he didn’t have a right to speak to her, even though it might have at least made it more bearable for her if he did.  One of his reasons for not going back to the Milky-Way and dropping her off on a planet inhabited by humans was because he felt he didn’t deserve to let her go.  But if she really wanted to get away that badly it would have been far better for her to escape from him on a planet with other people than a barren world like this one.

      Of course he still couldn’t go back to the Milky-Way.  If STAR was still in control—and although it had been a billion years since his departure there was no reason to believe that it was not—his ship was being tracked and he would almost certainly be destroyed upon his return.  Even if he could manage to discreetly drop her off somewhere, when STAR found her they might decide to kill her just in case she started saying things they didn’t want her to say.  The protection that her celebrity status as a Juciper had provided her had long since dried up.  Now although she had done nothing wrong, they were both equally outcast from the human race.

      Jason wondered why STAR hadn’t pursued him to Andromeda in the first place.  STAR Security had their ships equipped with ICT for this very contingency—so that nobody could ever commit a crime and escape unpunished.  Even after the confusion that had invariably ensued after Brian Davis’s death, someone else would have stepped up to give the order to track down Jason’s ship and destroy it.  Jason would not even have been out of the Milky-Way by then.

      Perhaps they had simply decided that it wasn’t worth it. To catch up to Jason they would have had to move at 10,000 years per second and it was not difficult to imagine that nobody wanted to do that.  They might have felt that Jason could do no harm as long as he was gone, and all they had to do was keep an eye on his ship to make sure it didn’t return.  Still…Jason felt uneasy about the whole situation.  From what he knew of STAR he didn’t think they would really have a problem sending a crew of their security agents on a course that would blast them billions of years into the future.  But if they had, such a ship would have almost certainly caught up to him by now.

      Jason’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of light footsteps approaching from behind him.  He did not turn around or even make a slight movement.  He just continued staring at the horizon.  In spite of his feelings about Jessi and his worries about STAR, there was something about the planet’s atmosphere that seemed to make him feel a profound sense of peacefulness.  He was able to see his crime and the guilt and paranoia it instilled in him as relatively insignificant aspects of a grand and infinite existence.

      Still, his heart leapt inside of him as Jessi trudged up beside him, dropping the solo-habitat and bag of food at his feet.  She didn’t say a word and he didn’t look at her, but just the feeling of her presence sparked that inexplicable and unavoidable feeling of overwhelming love inside of him.  Whatever horrible thing that love had caused him to do, the feeling itself—the bare emotion—was as pure and beautiful as the ocean and the sky before him.

      “Good morning,” Jason said without turning his head.

      “Good morning,” she answered him.

      The sound of her voice nearly made his heart stop, though on the outside he betrayed no emotion.  There was something different about her voice—there was a lot less animosity in it than usual.  This instinctively made Jason feel good, and a warm feeling shot instantly from his brain through the rest of his body.  Still, he made sure to remind himself that he didn’t deserve anything less than her complete hatred—that any forgiveness on her part would be an injustice.

      “Why didn’t you come after me?” she finally asked.  “You knew where I was.  Why didn’t you take me back to the ship?”

      “You deserved some time alone,” Jason answered, still not allowing himself to look her in the eyes.  “I figured you might be able to appreciate that time a little more if you were comfortable, so I brought you some supplies.”

      “Thank…you,” Jessi said.  This politeness seemed to escape from her mouth involuntarily, and Jason could tell she regretted it as soon as she said it.

      “Please, Jessi,” he said, “Don’t ever feel like you ever have to thank me for anything.  I’ll be in your debt for the rest of my life and beyond.  Nothing I could ever do for you could possibly make up for what I’ve done to you.”

      “I know you’re sorry,” she said, clearly having a difficult time with this conversation.  “I just…I just don’t know how to feel.  I’m so angry with you.  I hate you so much I want to kill you.  I just…I just can’t…”

      Now Jason finally turned to look at her, and saw that she was about to burst into tears.  She was just standing there so helpless, caught in a situation that no teenage girl could really begin to grasp, and the only person she could turn to in the entire universe was the person responsible for bringing her into the awful situation in the first place.  A lump in Jason’s throat formed so quickly that it caught him off guard.  His eyes immediately watered up and he had to rub them with his hands to prevent a tear from falling.  “I know, I know,” he said.  “I’m so sorry.  I’m just so fucking sorry.”

      Then she erupted into tears herself, and all of her resolve was drowned in a torrent of confused emotion.  Jason could tell that her need to hold another human being was torturing her, and he weakly patted the ground beside him.  It was enough.

      She took his cue and sat down beside him, resting her head on his shoulder as he put his right arm around her.  There she sat and wept as Jason struggled with the torrent of conflicting emotions in his own mind.

      It was the strangest moment of Jason’s life.  There he was with the girl he loved, who hated him so much that she couldn’t bear to be with him.  Yet there she was, crying into his arms.  The horrible thing was that it felt so good.  He was sharing a tender moment with the person he loved.  He was comforting her in a time of emotional distress.  This was the sort of thing Jason had always dreamed of doing…but not like this.  He was the cause of the emotional distress she was feeling.  She was crying into his shoulder, but he was the reason for her tears.

      Between tears, Jessi was trying to squeeze out a few words.  Jason listened but couldn’t make them out.  Then he heard them, and felt both a stinging pain and a strange sense of relief as all the pleasure of the moment drained away.

      She was whispering, “I hate you.  Oh god I fucking hate you so much…”  The only other sound was that of the waves crashing against the shore. 

* * * * * * * 

      They were back in orbit again, flying around the planet’s star system at a rate of 50 years per second as the green goo from the oceans slowly transformed into numerous and far more complex organisms.  Jason used his telescope to watch the magic unfold, every day slowing his ship to one second per second for awhile and studying all the new forms of life that were rising up and passing away.  He kept a log in which he described all of the new creatures and kept a tally on how long each one lasted before being wiped away either through their own evolution or complete annihilation by predators.  For him it was an incredibly fascinating experience, and within a couple of weeks he was so absorbed in it that he almost seemed to forget about his guilt over Jessi.

      Of course this was never entirely absent from his mind, and not a day went by that he wasn’t reminded of his crime by the presence of Jessi herself, who also couldn’t help but be interested in all the new forms of life that were appearing on the planet.  When Jason was using the telescope she would usually come to the cockpit and sit in the seat next to him to get a good view.  Sometimes they would exchange a few words, while mostly the time would pass in silence.  But those hours were always an emotionally trying time for Jason, to whom Jessi’s presence was more than just a distraction.

      One day, a conversation took place between them that would stand out in Jason’s memory for the rest of his life.  He was trying to work at the computer as Jessi sat in the seat next to him and began to study his face.  He tried to ignore it and pretend he didn’t notice, but he could tell that something was bothering her. “What’s the matter?” he asked, ceasing to type in his log and turning directly to her.  He was immediately struck by the sensation of staring directly into her eyes as she stared into his.  He could not remember the last time this had happened.

      She did not take her eyes off of him, but did not say a word either.  She just continued to stare as though she were trying to figure something out.

      “Jessi, what’s wrong?” Jason repeated his question.  “Whatever it is, you should tell me.  I’m the only person you can tell, and getting it off your chest can only help, even if it is to me.”

      Jessi’s eyes moved for a moment, indicating that she was thinking about it.  Jason knew without a doubt that there was something she wanted to say or ask but she was having a hard time deciding whether or not she should.

      “Look, Jessi,” he said, “whatever it is that’s bothering you, just get it out in the open and we’ll talk about it.  Don’t worry about me.  You know I would never hurt you.”

      “That’s just it,” Jessi said suddenly.  “I don’t know that you’re not gonna hurt me.”

      Of course, Jason thought.  She was worried that eventually he was going to lose control and hurt her, possibly rape her.  It was a completely natural worry and Jason should have realised that these thoughts had been bothering her for awhile.  The thought of doing her any harm was so far from his mind that he hadn’t even considered that it was such a strong fear of hers.

      “Jessi, I’ve already hurt you more than I could ever hurt anyone,” Jason explained, somewhat surprised at the ease with which his words were coming, “and it’s caused me more guilt than I’ll ever be able to handle.  I could never bring myself to hurt you again.”

      “But I see how you look at me,” said Jessi.  “You even told me yourself that you love me.  Now I’m the only girl you’ll ever see for the rest of your life.  I don’t know…”

      Jason felt so much love for her in that moment that he became slightly faint.  She was afraid of him.  The thought of actually asking these questions had been terrifying her, but apparently she wasn’t so afraid that she couldn’t ask them.  That must have been what she was trying to work out in her head…whether asking Jason about hurting her would provoke him to hurt her.  The fact that she’d decided to take the risk meant a great deal.

      “I do love you, Jessi,” Jason said with sincere compassion.  “And that means I love you mind, body and soul.  I do everything I can not to think of you sexually, but I confess that…yeah I want you.  But not just your body.  Not unless I can have your mind and soul too, and I’ll never have those.  I’ve already taken your body.  You’re here with me now.  So in a way I’ve already raped you.  But as long as you keep hating me I’ll never have your mind or your soul.  And to…um…have you sexually wouldn’t mean anything if it’s just your body and not the other things.  It would just be satisfying a primal desire that I’ve been perfectly willing to go my entire life without satisfying.”

      Jessi continued to stare at him, trying to figure out whether she could believe him.  She seemed to know that he believed in what he was saying, but she still hated him so much that it was difficult for her to trust him in spite of that.  To her he must be a monster.  How could she believe he was telling the truth?  “You haven’t really gone your whole life without…having sex, have you?”

      “You’re looking at the oldest virgin in the universe,” said Jason, surprised at the sound of his own voice.  He almost sounded proud of it, when for most of his life it had been an ever-present source of shame.  “I’ve been in existence for over a billion years and I’ve barely ever touched a woman.  The last time I kissed a girl I wasn’t much older than you.”

      “I have a hard time believing that,” Jessi said with a noticeable change in tone.  Her nervousness seemed to be dissipating.

      “How could it possibly be hard to believe?” Jason asked.  “I’m ugly, I hate myself, and I’m crazy.  Not really a winning combination.”  Jason couldn’t believe his eyes as Jessi nearly smiled at this.  This was the closest thing to a “friendly conversation” the two of them had had since the night they first met.

      “But you could have paid for it, couldn’t you?” she asked.  “Or found a slut somewhere.  There are always plenty of sluts around.”

      “I was never interested in sluts and I refuse to pay for sex,” Jason answered, a strange sort of exhilarating feeling rising in him at the idea that he and Jessi were actually speaking like two normal people having a normal talk.  He wasn’t particularly comfortable with the topic, but if it was what she wanted to know about it was what he was going to talk about.  Anything to help calm her fears.  “A whore is having sex for business.  It’s completely empty and meaningless.  A rape victim is being forced.  There’s no love or compassion in either case.  It’s empty.  I have no interest in that.”

      “But you have a biological urge.” Jessi pressed, tensing up again.  Clearly she was still trying to relax her fears rather than have a conversation.

      “Of course I do,” Jason answered with a hint of frustration.  “I wish I didn’t but I can’t get rid of it.  But there are ways of satisfying that urge without actually having sex.  And I’ve never had sex because I refuse to have it unless there’s love involved and nobody has ever loved me.  And nobody ever will, so that’s that.”

      “Well, I never will,” Jessi stated with deliberate hostility.  “I’ve heard stories of girls falling in love with their kidnappers and that sort of thing but I won’t do that.  So you’d better not expect me to.”

      A curious emotion took hold of Jason, and he smiled.  “You know it feels good that we’re being so open right now,” he said to her.  “Because this is actually something I’ve been worrying about myself.  I’ve thought about what might happen if you somehow fell in love with me for whatever reason, and I can only tell you that I wouldn’t have sex with you even if you wanted me to.”

      Clearly, Jessi didn’t believe this.  “No way,” she said.  “If I ever wanted you, which I never will, you wouldn’t be able to resist.”

      “I hope you’re wrong, Jessi, I really hope you’re wrong.”  Jason wasn’t quite so sure of himself, but he was glad to actually be talking about this and getting it off his chest.  “You may be right, I don’t know.  I can’t deny that it would be incredibly hard to resist, but I’ve already promised myself I won’t touch you no matter what.  If you fell in love with me because of some psychological fluke, it would be the worst thing that could happen.  But luckily we’re not going to have to worry about that because you’ll always hate me and find me revolting, won’t you?”

      “God, you’re fucking weird,” Jessi disdainfully replied.  “You say you love me but you want me to hate you.  Well, I do hate you.”  Suddenly Jessi’s voice became very firm, as all of the anger she’d seemed to have forgotten for the last five minutes instantly returned to her mind.  “I hate you more than anything.”

      Jason was caught off guard by the sudden change in her tone, and the idea that when she said this, she meant it truthfully and with all of her being, brought about a sudden and very intense pain.

      Jessi looked away now and closed her eyes, probably picturing her mother and father.  At this point at least, the pain was still fresh.

      Jason’s mind was wrenched with emotional confusion. Was he pleased because her hatred of him meant that he wouldn’t have to worry about the possibility of being forgiven?  Or deep inside, did he really want her to forgive him?  Could he really deny that if it came down to it, he wouldn’t accept the injustice stand and have her love him?

      “God, Jessi, this is so fucked up,” he cried.  “All we have is each other but we can’t let ourselves be friends.  You can’t forgive me for what I’ve done and I can’t let you forgive me.  Please don’t ever forgive me.  Because right now I have to tell you that I want you to forgive me more than anything in the world.  You have no idea how much it hurts to have you hate me so much.  But I deserve the pain.  I know I deserve it, but part of pain is that you want it to end.  And part of desire is that you want it fulfilled.  That’s why you can never forgive me, okay?  You can never like me or be nice to me or worst of all love me.  If you do, and I get what I want most of all in my life because other people had to die and your life had to be ruined, I couldn’t live with myself.  That kind of injustice…to profit so much from such an ugly and thoughtless act…it would just make me the worst kind of villain in the universe.  I barely feel as though I have a right to explore the universe as it is.  But I figure I’m paying for the privilege with all of the pain that your hatred causes me. If that hatred turned to love then my world would be a fundamentally unjust place and I couldn’t live in it any longer.”

      Jessi turned and stared directly into Jason’s eyes again as he finished what he had to say.  “Don’t ever be afraid that I’m going to give in to my desire and rape you.  I would much sooner kill myself than harm you any further.  But the worst possible thing that could happen is you forgiving me.  Promise me you never will,” Jason finished, his eyes still locked with hers.

      Jessi’s response came purely through her eyes.  Her expression was not one of hatred, but of reluctant sympathy.  She had really been listening to the words Jason was saying, and they affected her.  Her eyes warned that somewhere inside of her, there was a part of her that could forgive him.  Her mouth said, “I promise.  I’ll never forgive you.”

      Then Jessi stood up and walked back to the bed to bury herself in the sheets as she always did whenever she wanted to make sure Jason couldn’t look at her.  Jason turned his seat back around and stared out of the window, trying to figure out whether her mouth or her eyes had been telling the truth, and which of their messages he wanted to be true.  

* * * * * * * 

      Awhile later, Jessi was sitting up on the bed with her back against the wall, struggling with conflicting emotions of her own.  As much as she hated the plight she was in, for which Jason was mostly responsible, she was finding it harder and harder to hate the man.  She still loathed him for what he had done, but deep down there was a feeling that she’d been trying hard to ignore but which was becoming impossible not to recognise—that Jason was not actually an evil person.

      She stared at him while he slept, lying on the hard floor of the ship without a blanket or pillow, just as he’d been doing the entire time.  If he’d wanted the bed he could have easily taken it from her.  But he knew he didn’t deserve it and he was punishing himself by sacrificing that comfort so that she could have it.  He never slept well or for very long, and though he never complained of any pain she could tell how tired and sore he always was.  He was doing this for her, and it was just one of the many reasons she found it so difficult to despise him.

      As she’d done thousands of times since this awful journey began, she went over those final events before they’d blasted away from the galaxy and her mind had blanked out on her.  Jason had been trying up until the last moment to return her to her father, but STAR had made that impossible.  Kidnapping her had been a mistake—one which he clearly regretted.  So even hating him for that was a difficult matter.

      Of course, he could have given himself up and gone to jail before things got out of hand.  If he didn’t want to go to prison he could have killed himself and let them board his ship to take her away.  So it wasn’t as though she couldn’t blame him at all.  But to save her he would have had to sacrifice himself or his future, and in his shoes Jessi couldn’t be sure that she wouldn’t have done the same thing.

      She almost wished she was incapable of feeling compassion, but that was always the kind of person she was.  Her mother and her sister had instilled that in her from the time she was born.  She’d lived on many different worlds and known so many different people, and the only way she was able to handle it was by developing compassion and understanding for everyone, even people she didn’t like.  Being good and kind to everyone was how she’d been able to make friends so easily, and it was a hard thing to unlearn.

      Jessi wished she could change that about herself now, because she really didn’t want to feel any sympathy for her captor but it was hard not to.  Ever since that night on the planet when he’d brought her those supplies, she’d been forced to think about him differently and she hated the confusion it caused.  She found herself hating Jason for being so hard to hate, a feeling which she knew was ridiculous.

      So she had to check herself whenever she found that her hatred of Jason was wavering.  She was frequently struck with feelings of empathy, which she’d been forcing herself to push out of her mind as quickly as they entered it.  She would make herself think of her family and how they were ruined because of him.  Her dad had been killed long before his time, and whatever had happened to her mom and sister couldn’t have been good.  Jason had hurt them too and for that she could never allow herself to forgive him.

      Yet she still couldn’t ignore the fact that he was the only person she had, and he really wasn’t as horrible as he could be.  The situation, she was well aware, could be far worse for her.  He could have beaten or raped her whenever he wanted—she wouldn’t have been able to overpower him.  And if her presence disturbed him as much as it seemed to, he could have easily abandoned her at any time and left her to die.

      But he hadn’t done any of those things, and though she couldn’t be sure he would never lose control and do something horrible in the future (she had made a vow to herself to never again disregard her dad’s warning that Jason was a dangerous man) she didn’t really believe he would.  Ever since this whole thing began he’d been treating her with nothing but love and compassion, which she returned with cold hatred.

      And this was a role that Jessi simply was not comfortable with.  At times she almost felt that she was the villain and he was the victim.  Jessi hated the fact that he loved her so much.  She didn’t understand it.  She wanted to dismiss it as lust, but if lust was all it was he would have raped her by now.  For some reason that she couldn’t possibly comprehend, he genuinely loved her.  But it didn’t make any sense.  She was decades younger than him and they were nothing alike.  He’d seen her that one night when he had dinner with her family and that was it.  The attraction could only be a physical one but how could true love be based only on physical attraction?  Especially when Jason himself was clearly not interested in sex for its own sake…

      It was all too confusing and it hurt Jessi’s brain to think about.  For whatever reason, he loved her and she hated him.  What made it even worse is that he wanted her to hate him.  He knew he deserved her hatred and if she did feel any sympathy for him it would make his feelings of guilt even worse.  But how could she go on hating him with every ounce of her soul when he insisted on hating himself so much?  How could her hatred be a punishment when he was so adamant about punishing himself?

      None if mattered, she finally decided.  However she felt about the man, she could never forgive him.  What he had done to her was horrible.  She was suffering every day from unbearable grief and crushing loneliness and this would probably last for the rest of her life.  She could never…would never be his friend.  That would be rewarding him for taking her life away, and both of them knew she could never do that, regardless of how she felt about him.

      But like everything else it would be difficult.  Though she could never allow herself to be his friend, for the rest of her life he would always be her friend…and her only friend. 

* * * * * * * 

      Although he was often tempted, Jason restrained himself from taking the ship down to land on the planet again.  As he observed the course of evolution taking place on the planet’s surface, it became more and more apparent that the slightest random event could affect the planet’s future for the entire course of its history.  Jason had already exerted a small influence on the evolutionary cycle by having walked and breathed on the planet for even a small amount of time.  As he watched the creatures grow and change, he was forced to wonder whether things would look a lot different if only he hadn’t dipped his hand in the ocean water all those ages ago.  Tiny fragments of his skin, containing his alien DNA, had undoubtedly had some effect on the green slime from which all this had arisen, and Jason had no way of knowing how great an effect it was.

      He resolved not to interfere with the cycle of evolution on the planet any further, and let things run their natural course.  This was in keeping with the proper scientific method—observation always changes the results of an experiment to a certain extent, so the object is to minimize the effects of observation.  To return to the surface and spread more of his DNA even by the simple act of breathing could lead to an entirely different evolutionary outcome than would occur if he stayed put on his ship.  Jason wanted to know how life arose naturally on a planet—not what he could do to affect it.  His ultimate ambition was merely to observe the universe, not to play God.

      What he had already observed was probably enough to win him a Nobel Prize back in the fourth millennium.  From the original samples he had taken with his scanner when he landed on the planet, he was able to discern hundreds of thousands of different combinations of DNA, most of which were extremely different than any DNA code from a species on Earth.  For all the variety of species on his home planet, every creature’s DNA code was virtually identical, with seldom more than a difference of 10%.  A blade of grass shared virtually the same genetic code as a blue whale.

      But the DNA fragments Jason had analysed from the planet’s surface were radically different from each other.  The green slime contained DNA codes that were hardly identical at all.  One fragment of DNA would be over 70% different than a fragment of DNA only metres away in a different patch of slime.

      And yet the creatures that Jason now saw evolving still seemed to bear remarkable similarities to the creatures of Earth.  On the land there was unmistakably vegetation and animals which survived by eating it.  Over time, new animals developed which sustained themselves by eating other animals.  None of these creatures looked exactly like any of the species Jason was familiar with from Earth, but their basic attributes were the same.  In spite of the radically different DNA, they had bodies with four appendages, and separate heads with organs for sight, hearing and smell, as well as mouths to eat with.  Some of the animals had scales, others had fur.  The only undeniable difference between the animals on this planet and those on Earth seemed to be merely that the mouth tended to form above the eyes rather than below.

      Yet it certainly went a long way in explaining the mechanics of natural selection to see that even with such a wide variety of DNA codes to start with, those that survived tended to be those most similar to the creatures on Earth.  Jason’s hypothesis was that because this planet had such a similar environment to Earth, the most beneficial traits which would be passed on through the generations were more or less the same.  This would explain the similarities between body structure and the development of features such as fur or scales.  Jason hypothesized further that organs such as eyes and ears were most likely universal, and that all complex organisms would eventually have to develop organs to detect light and sound to survive the process of natural selection.

      These discoveries fascinated Jason.  He was learning more about how life developed in the universe than any scientific experiment from the fourth millennium could ever hope to tell.  If things worked like this everywhere, it was a safe bet to assume that the universe was swarming not only with life, but with creatures all very similar in appearance and behaviour.  For trillions of light-years in every direction, you would be able to find planets with plants and animals just like those on Earth.

      But what really excited Jason was to learn whether the evolution of intelligence proceeded in the same vain as natural evolution.  Once some of these creatures began to develop big enough brains to speak, harvest crops, develop technology and so on, how would their history unfold?  Would it happen much the same way as it had on Earth, with thousands of separate civilizations developing in competition with each other, or would they be more inclined to cooperate?  Would they eventually develop technology too strong for them to handle and destroy themselves, or would they continue on in harmony with their natural environment and expand out into the rest of the galaxy?

      Jason hypothesized that it would all depend on which type of creature was the first to develop intelligence.  If it was a creature similar to the ape on Earth, an animal with a strong territorial mentality, civilization would most likely develop much as it had on Earth.  However, if the creature to develop intelligence was of a more patient, compassionate nature, things might turn out much differently.

      As the months went on, Jason found his own patience growing thinner and thinner as he waited for something to start showing signs of intelligence.  A few creatures seemed promising.  Some began to walk on their hind legs, but remained just as stupid as always.  Some of the furry creatures seemed to live in what could be considered tribes, but nothing like language ever developed.  It seemed that intelligence, if it were to occur, was something a lot rarer and harder to come by than simple life.

      This made perfect sense, of course.  Earth had harboured life for billions of years before homo-sapiens actually developed language and civilisation.  This brief spark of intelligence may only have lasted a few thousand years if they had not survived the Great Collapse of the third millennium.  And when they did survive and ventured out into the rest of the galaxy, they had apparently met with little or no resistance in wiping out the other species.  It made perfect sense that intelligent civilisations were rare.

      But Jason continued to hold onto the hope that intelligence would arise on this planet.  For billions of years he watched its life develop, waiting for the moment when one of the species would finally learn to talk.  He believed that if he waited long enough it was bound to happen.  The planet was so similar to Earth that it seemed impossible for it not to happen.  Eventually some genetic fluke would have to endow a creature with a big enough brain for reflection and reasoning, and this would have to be enough of an advantage for those genes to pass themselves on and give rise to an entire race of big-brained, intelligent animals.

      But disaster would strike before this would have a chance to happen.  There was a comet that crossed the orbit lines of the inner planets every few hundred years.  Jason had noticed it a long time ago, and flying around at many years per second it became almost a regular part of the scenery.  He hadn’t thought much of it, as the odds of it colliding with anything were infinitesimally small.  Still, to be absolutely sure he had calculated its trajectory and confirmed that it would not hit anything in the inner solar system for at least ten billion years.

      But then suddenly its trajectory changed.  Something Jason had not seen in the outer solar system had slightly altered its course, and he calculated that it would come dangerously close to the planet in just under a few centuries unless something else changed its trajectory.  His measurements were not perfect, but there was a significant chance that the comet would in fact hit the planet and destroy a significant percentage of the life there.  It would take another billion years to recover.

      Jason’s ship had shields but no weapons, so it could not destroy the comet, nor did it have anything which he could use to alter its course.  He would just have to slow his ship down during the expected time of impact and hope for the best.  Even if he could stop the comet, he reasoned, it was probably best that he didn’t.  After all, he was trying not to interfere with the course of the universe, and saving the population of an entire planet was a great deal of interference.  For all he knew, the comet would destroy a species that would eventually evolve into a race that would take over the galaxy. That would mean he, Jason, had single-handedly been the cause of the fate of an entire galaxy.  He had no such ambitions.

      And so he slowed his ship to a normal time scale when the comet was on its way, and watched and waited to see how the course of the universe’s history would naturally unfold. 

* * * * * * * 

      Jason knew there was a possibility of a rather devastating cataclysm, but he had not been prepared for just how violent and deadly the effect of the comet would ultimately be.  As he orbited the planet at close range moving at a steady rate of one minute per second, he watched as the comet collided not with the planet itself, but with its moon.

      For a moment Jason breathed a heavy sigh of relief.  The planet, it appeared, had been saved by its satellite.  But when he took a closer look he realised that the comet’s collision with the moon was actually the worst thing that could have happened.  The comet’s impact scattered enormous chunks of moon rock into the lunar orbit and spiralling outward from the surface.  It was not long before bits and pieces of the moon began entering the planet’s atmosphere, and it would not take much time before chunks big enough to withstand the fiery atmospheric entry would make it down and impact the planet’s surface.

      Finally, when Jason recalculated the new orbital trajectory of the moon, his heart froze in disbelief.  The comet seemed to have hit the moon at the worst possible angle, changing the almost circular lunar orbit into a long ellipse.  The moon sailed much further away from the planet at its apogee than it used to, and it approached much closer at its perigee.  The effect on the planet’s rotation was devastating enough, but to make matters worse the orbit was decaying, moving closer and closer to the planet’s surface with each approach.  After five orbits, the moon itself would collide with the planet.  And Jason made this discovery on the third orbit.

      There was no question about it any longer—the planet was doomed.  It might have survived the impact of the comet.  Even a few chunks of the moon hitting the planet’s surface here and there would have only destroyed most and not all of the planet’s life.  But the moon was too huge for anything to survive its impact.  At almost a third of the planet’s size, the moon’s impact could even shatter the entire little world into trillions of rock fragments.  There would be no trace of anything that had been living on the planet.  After billions of years of evolution, it would all be reduced to vapour and dust.  And before anything had a chance to develop intelligence.

      Jason made his decision quickly without stopping to think of the risks he was taking.  The experiment, it seemed, was coming to an end.  But now that he could no longer influence the planet’s future—it was doomed either way—he absolutely had to go down and gather some final pieces of data.  He had a good two weeks before the moon collided with the planet, and he would never get this chance again.

      Without a word he picked a relatively safe spot on the surface and the computer began its landing sequence.  As soon as the ship broke orbit and began heading towards the planet, Jason heard the voice behind him ask, “What’s going on?”

      He turned with a start to see Jessi sitting on the bed with a curious look in her eyes.  He was surprised to realise how close he had been just then to forgetting all about her, but she was still there.  She would always be there.  Now she was actually talking to him, asking him a question, which Jason promptly answered.

      “That comet hit the planet’s moon,” he explained.  “It knocked the moon off course and now it’s going to hit the planet.”

      “The moon is going to hit the planet?” Jessi asked in disbelief.

      Jason couldn’t tell, but he thought he heard genuine concern in her voice.  He was aware of his own strange emotional ties to the planet, but could it be that she actually cared about the fate of the little world as well?  Jason had invested incredible amounts of time and patience into studying this planet, so he understood his own attachment to it.  But there was no reason for Jessi to care what happened either way.  She had no interest in the scientific value of Jason’s experiment, and only took an interest from time to time because it was in fact the only thing happening.  But was it possible that she had somehow grown attached to the world as well?

      “Yes,” Jason answered.  “The whole planet is going to be destroyed.”

      “Then why are we getting closer to it?” she asked.  “Are you gonna land?”

      Of course.  She was just worried that Jason was going to get them both killed.  “We’re not in any danger,” he explained, then reconsidered.  “Well…not much danger anyway.  I’ve got to finish my experiment.  Collect some final data.”

      “Why?” she asked.  “What difference does it make?”

      What a damn good question, thought Jason.  “That’s a good point, Jessi,” he said.  “Maybe it doesn’t make any difference at all and maybe it’s just stupid.  But I’m trying to learn as much as I can about this universe we’re in and I’ve already wasted almost two billion years studying this planet so I can’t just walk away from it.  I got DNA samples the first time we landed.  If I can grab a few more before it’s all gone it’ll tell me more about life in the universe than scientists back in the fourth millennium could ever have known.”

      Jessi’s look was one of incomprehension.  “What’s the point?” she asked again.  “Why does it matter how much you know about the universe?  Whatever happens we’re trapped in this box until we die and nothing you learn can change that.”

      Jason was stung.  In that one short statement Jessi had illuminated the fundamental difference in their natures.  He wanted to know all that could be known about his environment.  She wanted a life of human companionship and simple pleasures.  Neither purpose was superior, but neither could complement the other.  There had never been any hope for them—Jason should have seen and accepted that from the very beginning.  His refusal to accept it had led them to their mutual doom.

      “You’re absolutely right, Jessi,” he finally replied, and left it at that.  He cursed himself a few more times as his ship brought them both to the planet’s surface.  Two doomed souls on a final visit to a doomed world. 

* * * * * * * 

      The ship touched down towards the middle of a large continent, in a valley between a river and another mountain range.  As long as they were far from water there was no risk of being drowned by one of the many tsunamis that were forming due to chunks of moon impacting the ocean.  Jason’s ship, however, could not keep track of the trajectories of every single piece of debris from the comet’s collision with the moon, so it was possible that his own landing site would be hit while the two of them were there.  He only hoped that his sensors would be able to warn him in time.

      When the ship finally landed and Jason opened the hatch, he noticed a very different feeling in the air around him than there had been on his first landing.  His sensors quickly indicated that the composition of the atmosphere had changed over the millennia, though it was still perfectly breathable.  It was merely a bit thicker and contained more carbon dioxide.

      The ground was no longer solid rock but soil with a grass-like substance growing over it.  But this grass was yellow and far thicker than the grass on Earth.  It crunched below Jason’s feet as he walked on it.  The grass was the first living organism from which Jason took a DNA sample.

      Jessi followed Jason out of the ship, simply because the opportunity to leave the ship was too great to resist, and she was no safer in the ship than outside of it.  Still, Jason turned to her and warned, “Please don’t go running off this time,” he said to her, “unless you want to be crushed by the moon when it hits.”  She nodded in response and lingered close to the ship, resisting the suicidal urge to flee.

      The valley was filled with living things, mostly plant life but a few herds of strange furry creatures.  Jason walked up to one of these herds, which had absolutely no fear of him, and scanned a few of the creatures, surprised to find himself particularly drawn to them.  These furry things were only slightly larger than bunny rabbits and looked like normal Earth-born mammals except for the strangeness of their facial features.  Although their mouths were above their eyes, the stubby little legs, round furry bodies, and relatively large eyes and ears actually made them rather cute.  Jason found himself genuinely saddened by the idea that within a few days they would all be dead, and all traces of them would be wiped from the universe forever.  From that point forward they would exist only as dead particles floating through space, and ideas in Jason’s memory.

      When he was finished scanning the creatures he made his way to the river where the variety of life was much greater.  Not only were there many species of insect-like organisms to be found on the river bank, but the water contained aquatic animals that looked like a cross between fish and reptiles.  They were like small orange crocodiles with fins.  Finally, the water itself contained numerous micro-organisms which Jason could compare to the samples he had taken from the ocean billions of years before.

      He was almost finished scanning the animals by the river when his sensor began to beep with a warning signal.  He’d programmed his ship’s computer to transmit the signal to his hand-held sensor if it detected a chunk of moon-rock falling towards his landing site.  “That’s all?” he asked himself.  “I haven’t even been here an hour and I’ve already got to leave?”

      Looking up at the sky, he noticed the moon approaching, growing far larger than it had ever looked before and hurtling menacingly towards the planet.  This was to be the final approach the moon would make before actually hitting the planet itself.  Chunks of rock were still circling it and many of those chunks would undoubtedly hit the planet’s surface when it got close enough.  The sky was already beginning to light up with streaks of fire here and there—tiny bits of rock being burned up in the atmosphere.  Apparently at least one moon rock large enough to withstand the heat of entry was headed towards Jason’s landing site.  He had to take off and leave.

      “Jessi!” he called, experiencing a brief moment of panic when he turned back to the ship and found he couldn’t see her.  Had she actually run away again?  Would she really rather die horribly than continue living with Jason?  Jason couldn’t blame her, but he didn’t even want to think about how terrible he would feel if she died.

      But before his fears could skyrocket out of control he spotted her standing with the herd of furry creatures he had scanned earlier.  He walked up to her and saw that she was scratching one of them behind the ears.  The creature seemed to be greatly enjoying it.  The little scene nearly melted Jason’s heart, but there was no time to waste.  “We’ve got to get going,” he informed her.

      “But we just got here,” she said, not taking her eyes off the little animal.

      “Yeah, but the moon is approaching,” Jason said, pointing to the ever-growing sphere in the sky.  “This landing site might get hit by a chunk of it in just a few minutes.  We need to get off of the surface before that happens.”

      “Fine,” Jessi conceded and stood up.  “But it sucks that everything here is gonna die.”

      So she actually did care, Jason thought.  At least now that she’d seen the animals on the planet up close.  “Yeah, it sucks a lot,” Jason responded.  “But there’s nothing we can do.”

      “Can’t we save some of them?” she asked, and bent down to pick up the creature she had just been petting.  In her arms it curled into a little ball and made an excruciatingly cute sound with its nose.

      Jason saw a bright light in the sky beyond Jessi’s head, growing larger and larger, probably the piece of rock that was going to strike.  There was no time to argue and Jason could not immediately think of a reason to refuse her request.  So although he had no idea if he could even feed or care for such a creature, he quickly gave in. 

      “Take that one aboard with us,” he said.  “It’s yours.  But now we really have to go.  And I mean right now.”

      Jessi gave a faint hint of a smile and ran off back towards the ship.  Jason followed quickly behind her.  In two minutes they were seated at the cockpit and the ship began its launch sequence.  Through the cockpit window the fire in the sky was now brighter than the sun.  Just a few seconds after they lifted off, the chunk of rock struck the mountain range and the shock wave rippled across the ground they had just been standing on, tossing up dirt and rocks hundreds of metres into the air.

      With the exception of the little furry creature that Jessi now held in her arms, every living thing Jason had just scanned was now dead. 

* * * * * * * 

      Jason did not return to the planet again before it was destroyed.  In the few short days that followed, the last remaining days of the planet’s life, Jason merely studied the data he had collected and finalised his logs.  The results were about what he expected them to be: there was not nearly as much variety in the DNA coding in the samples he had just taken as opposed to those he had scanned from his first visit.

      Whereas the first samples had a very low degree of correlation to one another, the final samples were all very similar.  The DNA of the aquatic creatures was nearly identical to the DNA of the furry land animals and quite similar to that of the insects.  The coding even matched that of the grass and other vegetation by no less than 85%. Jason was able to conclude that while there can be a wide variety of possible structures of the DNA molecule, only those molecules which have coding to produce beneficial traits are able to replicate themselves and survive through billions of years of natural selection.  So while any combination of DNA coding is possible and usually exists at the genesis of life on a planet, the range becomes narrower and narrower as time goes on and eventually leads to very little differences between the DNA codes among surviving organisms.  Theoretically, one could classify the stages of evolution on worlds according to the range of existing DNA codes.  The less variety among DNA molecules on a planet, the further along in its evolutionary process it must be.

      However, this was to say nothing about intelligence or the possibility of intelligence arising among the organisms on the planet.  One could not tell from the level of correlation among DNA molecules how close or far away a planet was from developing intelligent life.  When intelligence arises, Jason thought, it probably happens suddenly and due to a very large number of factors being just right.  It was most likely very rare that intelligent creatures develop on a life-harbouring world, and even rarer that these creatures survive long enough to expand into space.  Humans, it seemed, had just been rather lucky.

      The creatures on this planet, however, had been quite the opposite.  With all of the rocks and debris floating around in space, it was not uncommon for devastating collisions to occur.  But for something of this magnitude—for a planet’s satellite to be knocked into a collision course with its own planet—that probably did not happen often and Jason was just unlucky enough to have picked a planet with such a calamitous fate.

      Yet there was going to be one survivor of the doomed planet, and it was quickly becoming a blessing for both him and Jessi.  The furry little creature that she had rescued from the surface was now like a third passenger aboard the ship.  Now Jessi was no longer trapped with only the company of a man she despised, but also an innocent little creature whom she could love and care for as her own.

      Although she let the little thing run around on its own when it wanted, it seemed to spend most of its time curled up on the bed with her as she would scratch and pet it.  Jason was pleased to find that its physiology was similar enough to Earth creatures that it would not make either of them sick, and it could survive on some of the food items which Jason had in storage.  Jessi cared for the creature all by herself, feeding it when it was hungry and even disposing of its waste.  It almost surprised Jason how responsible she seemed to be in taking care of the animal, but it made perfect sense as she had nothing else to do.

      At any rate, it kept her occupied and distracted from thinking about the awful predicament Jason had put her in, so tensions were a lot lower than normal.  Jason even found that the animal could be a topic of pleasant conversation between the two of them.  It was something to discuss that had nothing to do with the past and the tragic events that had brought her there.

      “Have you thought of a name for it yet?” he asked her on the day after they’d returned to orbit with it.

      “It’s a he,” Jessi replied, “and his name is Brownie because he’s brown.”

      “That’s a cute name,” Jason remarked, thinking that if he’d have come up with a name it would probably have been something like Darwin.

      “I know it’s a cute name,” Jessi picked Brownie up and held his face an inch away from her own.  “A cute name for a cute little guy.  Who’s a cute little guy?  Is it you?  Yes you are.  Yes you are.”

      Jason’s heart nearly melted.  And to think he had initially thought saving the creature was a bad idea.  His first thoughts had been along the lines of whether rescuing the animal constituted a breech of his own personal ethic of non-interference, though he quickly realised that the world itself was doomed either way, and making a difference in the life of one creature was a far cry from influencing the future course of an entire planet.  The world from which the animal came no longer had a future, so its removal would not have lasting consequences.

      No, the only part of the universe that would be affected by the creature’s rescue was the tiny little world inside Jason’s ship, and the effects would only be good.  Jessi had a much needed outlet for her more positive emotions—she was full of love and affection and had absolutely nowhere to project it.  Now, all of her positive emotions could be focussed on Brownie, and all of her negative feelings could remain directed at Jason.  Needless to say, Jason was more than satisfied with this arrangement.

      Before long, the day arrived when the moon was due to collide with the planet and destroy it forever.  At the beginning of the final hour, Jason turned to invite Jessi to the cockpit seat to witness the last moments in the life of a planet.  Without a word, Jessi took the seat next to him with Brownie nestled on her lap and completely unaware that he was about to become the sole survivor of an entire world’s population.

      The two sat mostly in silence for awhile as the moon fell closer and closer to the planet, accelerating faster and faster as it approached.  When it was about to slam into the atmosphere, Jessi remarked, “I can’t watch,” and turned to close her eyes for a moment, thinking of all the millions of other cute little creatures that were about to die.

      They were about to witness an apocalypse—the end of a world.  A world that Jason had watched from its birth as accumulating rocks hurtling around a star to its cooling and birth of an atmosphere, clouds and oceans.  A world on which Jason had watched the life grow from patches of green slime to countless varieties of highly complex organisms with unique behaviours and personalities all of their own.  In just a moment it would all be wiped away, existing forever afterwards merely as notes in a log that nobody would ever read.

      The moon finally entered the planet’s atmosphere and pounded into an ocean only a few hundred kilometres from the nearest continent.  Immediately, rock fragments began to scatter outwards, shooting so high that they broke free of the atmosphere and continued outward into space.  “Oh my God,” Jason exclaimed, and Jessi opened her eyes to turn and witness the spectacular scene in front of them.

      The moon dug itself deeper and deeper into the planet’s crust, which soon began to crack all around it.  The continent which had just been there was torn to shreds even before the moon finished digging its way in.  When it was finally completely submerged, there was so much dust in the sky that it even began to cover Jason’s cockpit window.  But before the dust became too thick, the planet itself shattered into trillions of fragments ranging in size from a giant mountain to a microscopic speck of dust.  All trace of an atmosphere was gone, dissipated into space among the debris.  If anything was still alive on any of those fragments, it would not survive for more than a few seconds.

      Before his ship could be hit by any of the larger and more dangerous fragments, Jason turned around and began to fly away, still in a state of awe at the incredible event he had just witness.  Though he had seen a star explode, the feeling was now completely different.  The star had been a lifeless ball of gas.  This planet had been home to trillions of living, breathing beings, all of which were now dead.

      Jason turned and noticed that Jessi was clutching Brownie harder than ever and crying softly.  The sight almost brought tears to Jason’s eyes.  Just a few days ago he had thought she didn’t care what happened to the planet.  Now, she was taking its destruction even harder than he was.  What was he doing bringing along this sweet, sensitive girl to witness the cold, indifferent violence of the universe?

      This was the last thought Jason had before everything changed suddenly and drastically.  For the first time since he’d entered Andromeda, Jason’s radar picked up an artificial signal.  His blood froze suddenly as he looked at the computer and saw that only a few hundred thousand kilometres away was another spaceship, and it was heading directly towards him. 

* * * * * * * 

      Could it really be?  Had he been followed into Andromeda by STAR Security ships and finally discovered now?  That made no sense at all.  If he had really been followed he would have been found billions of years ago.  And there was only one ship approaching.  How could they expect to capture Jason, whom they knew had ICT and was not afraid to use it, with only one ship?

      No, the only possibility that made any sense was that this artificial signal was not coming from a STAR Security ship at all, but another intelligent, space-faring species, most likely native to Andromeda.

      Jason simultaneously experienced feelings of intense excitement and near panic.  If this was an alien ship, he had no way of discerning its intentions.  The safe thing to do would be to immediately turn around and blast away at a few thousand years per second to the other side of the galaxy.  But something held him back, and he just sat still in silence, keeping his impulse to flee in check.

      Jessi was confused, but she said nothing.  She knew that another ship was approaching—she’d flown through space with her family enough to know a few things about radar signals—but she had absolutely no idea what to make of it.  It was likely that the first possibility her mind jumped to was that she was finally being rescued.  That perhaps her father had survived and had come looking for her with her mother and sister.  But she dared say nothing, or else Jason might lose control again and blast them away to yet another galaxy, one much farther away.

      Jason was prepared for anything.  He had spent the better part of the previous year waiting to encounter some intelligent life in Andromeda, and now it appeared that the wait was finally over.  Only he had not found it—it had found him—and he was not about to lose this opportunity by being over-cautious.  This new species might be friendly, but he felt perfectly safe in his ship if they were not.  At the first sign of hostility he could use his ICT to blast as far away as need be.  If he could escape from hundreds of STAR Security ships with orders to destroy him, he believed he could easily get away from one ship of unknown origin.

      At last the new ship was close enough to be seen through the cockpit window.  Jessi’s hopes must have sunk very quickly as it was clearly not of any human design.  The ship was of a solid gold colour, with no windows or engines to be seen. It was in the shape of a triangle with a spherical bulge in the centre, and it was very large, probably about the same size as Space Station Juciper.  It approached and slowed itself until it had matched course perfectly with the Comfortably Numb, directly facing its cockpit window only a few short meters away.

      Jason nearly jumped out of his seat when for the first time since the incident in the Milky-Way a message came over the communications channel.

      “We greet you, Human visitor.”  The message clearly came from another species, but it sounded so human that for a moment Jason thought it might be a trick.  “If your intentions are peaceful, please respond.”

      What was going on?  An alien species in the Andromeda galaxy that could speak perfect English?  All at once the possible explanations began flooding into Jason’s brain, but he decided it would be best to just ignore assumptions and wait to discover the truth.

      “This is Jason Floyd of the human ship Comfortably Numb,” he responded.  “Who may I ask is hailing us?”

      “Then it is true,” the voice responded immediately.  “You really are the Jason Floyd.”

      Not only did they speak English, but they knew who Jason was!  He began to suspect that this might all be some bizarre nightmare, but when he looked at Jessi and saw that she was just as confused, he knew this was really happening.  “You know who I am?” he shouted back into the microphone.  “How is that possible?  And if you know me, how is it that I don’t know you?”

      “That is a fair question,” said the voice.  “You have identified yourself, and so you shall know our identity.  We are the Yvenzhel.  I am the Zhyenvyentluk, ambassador to the Human.”

      Nice to meet you…” Jason didn’t try to pronounce the name, “…but I’ve never heard of your species.  Why have you confronted me like this?  What are your intentions?”

      “Your questions will be answered if you comply with our requests,” said Zhyenvyentluk.

      Jason once again turned to Jessi, who was just as dumbfounded as he.  Turning back to the microphone, he replied, “Then what are your requests?”

      “We require your presence aboard our ship,” answered Zhyenvyentluk.

      “Why?” Jason replied, a deep feeling of anxiety rising inside of him.

      This time the reply did not come immediately.  “Unfortunately I must limit the information I disclose to you until you have left your vessel and have come aboard our ship.”

      “You require only my presence?” Jason asked.

      “You must bring the female and the primitive creature as well,” Zhyenvyentluk replied.

      “Then we don’t have a deal,” answered Jason.  “As much as I’d like to meet you and find out everything I can about your species, I have no way of knowing whether your intentions are peaceful or hostile, and I won’t put her life in jeopardy just to satisfy my curiosity.”

      The reply took longer than ever this time.  “I admire your precaution.  Your concern for the female does you credit.  And if you have truly never heard of the Yvenzhel as you say then you have nothing to fear.  However I regret to inform you that you must come aboard our ship.  You have no choice in the matter.”

      “Oh my God,” Jessi exclaimed.

      “Don’t worry,” Jason turned to her and through his own rising panic managed to speak in the most comforting tone possible.  “They can’t force us to do anything.  If my ship can escape from STAR it can escape from them.”

      As though he knew what they were saying, Zhyenvyentluk said, “You believe you can escape if you like.  This is not so.  Your ship will be destroyed the instant it deviates from its present course, which you must do unless you want to collide with our ship and destroy us both.”

      Apparently the situation was far worse than Jason thought.  Jessi was beginning to panic.  She clutched Brownie so hard that the creature began to squeal in pain and she had to let it go.  “What are you gonna do?” she asked.

      Jason ignored her for the moment and spoke into the microphone.  “It seems we’re trapped then.  But I have to know more about your intentions if I agree to come aboard.  If you’re willing to destroy me why not destroy me now?  If we comply with your request, I need your assurance that the girl won’t be harmed.  I would rather kill us both now than subject her to whatever tortures you may have in store.”

      A brief pause, then a reply.  “You impress me, Jason Floyd.  You are different from the others of your race that I have encountered.  I will be honest.  Neither your survival nor that of the female is guaranteed, but the Yvenzhel are a peaceful race and we do not torture.  You will be given a fair chance to have your freedom restored if you comply with us.  But you will be coming aboard our ship whether you do so voluntarily or not.  I am merely giving you the chance to demonstrate your willingness to cooperate now.”

      “What are we gonna do?” Jessi asked again.

      “It sounds like we’re in trouble,” Jason was thinking out loud.  “I shouldn’t have let them get so close, but I still think we might be able to get away.  It’ll just take a slight manoeuvre and my shields are up so if they fire we shouldn’t be completely destroyed.  In a couple of seconds we’ll be on the other side of the galaxy.”

      “I’m scared,” cried Jessi.

      An overwhelming feeling of love and compassion surged within Jason.  “Don’t be afraid.  I’m going to do everything I can to keep you safe.”

      But no sooner had Jason said this than a beam of light shot straight through the cockpit window and hit Jessi.  She let out a terrifying scream and Jason stared in shock as her entire body seemed to collapse in on itself and disappear.  In less than a second she was gone.

      In the next instant, Jason lost complete control of himself as his mind exploded in a sudden storm of anger, confusion, and fear.  This was the most awful moment since he’d escaped from the Milky-Way and realised what he’d done to Jessi.  In the absence of a single coherent thought, Jason suddenly leapt to his feet and grabbed his ears and hair with his hands, tearing them apart and then pounding on the side of his head with his fist as though this were a nightmare and he was trying to wake himself up.  They had just killed Jessi.  The thought was too horrifying for his mind to handle.  That was it.  He couldn’t go on anymore.  It was one thing to have kidnapped her—it was another thing entirely to be responsible for her death.

      A suicidal impulse suddenly took hold of Jason.  He sat in the cockpit seat and began inputting his ship’s self-destruct sequence.  It was then that Zhyenvyentluk’s voice returned.

      “You have not responded,” said Zhyenvyentluk.  “We are still awaiting your decision.”

      Jason picked up the microphone and shouted, “Fuck you!”  Then he continued in a blind tirade.  “How could you fucking do that, you heartless bastards?  ‘Peaceful race,’ my ass.  You just killed an innocent, beautiful girl.  You fucking bastards!”

      “So your response is rage?” Zhyenventluk remarked.  “Interesting.”

      “Of course I’m enraged!” Jason cried.  “You just…you just…” he couldn’t go on any longer.  It was pointless to waste words.

      “It seems then that your intention is not to come willingly,” said Zhyenvyentluk, with what almost sounded like a tone of regret.  “Perhaps if I informed you that the female is safe you will join us?

      Jason froze.  She was safe?  How could that be?

      “You are unfamiliar with our technology,” Zhyenvyentluk replied, as though reading his mind once again.  “We have merely taken her from your ship and brought her to ours.  We can do the same with you but we are still giving you a chance to comply willingly.”

      A blood vessel seemed to pop in Jason’s head.  It was like they were playing some sort of twisted game with him.  He picked up the microphone, “So you’re testing me?”

      “Precisely,” said Zhyenvyentluk.  “You seem to care a great deal about this female.  We are trying to determine whether you will cooperate in order to ensure her safety.”

      Jason was silent for a moment, still unable to fully process what was happening.  He had just met an intelligent, extra-terrestrial species for the first time in his life and he already despised them almost as much as he despised Brian Davis and STAR.  “Well apparently you’ve won then,” he spoke through his teeth.  “I’ll do whatever it takes to keep her safe.”

      “Very good,” came the reply.  “Your compassion is noted.  Please pick up the creature and stand with it in front of your cockpit window.  We will take you aboard just as we did with the female.”

      Jason felt a strange sense of relief wash over him.  For the first time since he’d left the Milky-Way, the burden of freedom was completely removed.  He no longer had any choice but to do as he was instructed.  If he did not, he was sure they would kill Jessi, and he could not help but do everything in his power to prevent that from happening.  He had already done her enough harm as it was.  And he had just promised that he would keep her safe.

      So without another word he stood up and found Brownie lying on the bed, picked him up and walked back to the cockpit.  As he stood straight up and stared at the alien ship, his mind began to cycle through all of the mistakes he had made so far.  He could not afford to make any more.

      Suddenly, two beams of light shot through the window, one striking Brownie and the other hitting Jason in the chest.  For an instant he experienced an incredible pain, as though an electrical shock was striking every individual molecule in his body.  The interior of his ship seemed to expand in size so rapidly that within a second he could no longer see anything.  The last thing he felt was an extremely cold sensation as though all of his body heat was instantaneously drained away.  Then he lost consciousness.