Belonging

by

Michelle Pichette

 

Epilogue 

 

 

* * *

Epilogue

 

     Dylan had not been to Mars ever before in his life and had never thought that he would go there.  Now that he arrived, he rather hoped that the trip would not end how he feared it would.  There was no answer to hails for days now and things hadn’t been particularly wonderful even before communications had suddenly died.  Now, as he brought his shuttle in for a landing, Dylan’s biggest worry was that he would be leaving as alone as he had arrived.

     The small science base had been deserted for hundreds of years.  The door on the airlock stuck and Dylan had to push it opened, barely able to do so, even though he was still fit and had held onto his heavy gravity world physique.  “Harper!” he yelled, half wondering how the smaller, weaker man had gotten into the base, especially now.  It made him angry with himself, the way he had let Harper slip away and disappear so completely two years ago.  He had tried to find the little engineer, but things kept coming up, getting in the way of his dedicating his entire attention to finding Harper.  Excuses, Dylan heatedly chided himself.  He was supposed to be Harper’s friend.  Some friend he had been.  “Harper!” he yelled even louder, the silence that reigned in the base making Dylan shiver.  There was power and atmosphere, he told himself.  Harper was here, keeping things running, alone when he should be among his friends.  Dylan moved deeper into the base, unwilling to face that the worst might have happened before he got here, before he could make things right.

     He had searched nearly everywhere when he heard a muffled cough come from one of the two remaining rooms.  Breathing a sigh of relief, Dylan hurried into the room, only to stop dead at what he saw.  There was a clutter of machinery everywhere, devices that Dylan couldn’t begin to decipher the purposes of rising up almost to the ceiling everywhere he looked.  There was a litter of ration packs scattered around the floor, other assorted garbage and filth there with them.  “Harper,” he said, carefully moving deeper into the room, afraid to move quickly for fear of what he would step on or have fall on him.  There was a murmur of barely audible words off to his left and Dylan turned that way as soon as he found a break in the clutter that would allow him to do so.  “Harper,” he repeated uncertainly, almost hoping that someone else was here.

     “Go away,” Dylan heard, the voice that spoke the words sounding exhausted and almost too hoarse to speak, and all too familiar.

     “Harp...” Dylan started, then stopped dead as Harper finally came into view.  If Dylan didn’t know with absolute certainty who he was looking at, he wouldn’t have known him.  Skeletally thin and pale, with long, filthy hair running down his back and over his shoulders, Harper, unshaved and unwashed, worked hunched over something, muttering to himself.  A sudden pain stabbed at Dylan at seeing Harper this way, especially now, when he knew the engineer should be resting, should be being cared for by doctors trying to find a cure for the disease that was ravaging his body.  “Harper, I... I came to bring you home,” Dylan said as he moved a little closer.

     Harper looked up at him, his blue eyes looking too large for his face because he was so painfully thin.  He stared at Dylan silently for a few moments, then his body began to shake.  Dylan began to move forward, thinking at first Harper was convulsing, then he stopped when he realized that it was laughter shaking the smaller man’s body.

     “Home,” Harper choked out, the laughter sounding like it was being ripped out of him.  Then, as suddenly as the laughter had begun, it dissolved into sobs and Harper collapsed into a sitting position on the floor.  “Home’s gone,” he wept.  “I thought maybe I could bring it back... Find it somehow... Just wanna go home again... Wanna to go back, back to where she found me one last time... Just hoped... maybe she’d find me again... take me somewhere good... to be with her when I died.”

     Dylan quickly made his way to Harper and stooped by him, steadying him as he began to fold in on himself.  Dylan felt a deep ache suddenly in his chest.  Harper hadn’t spoken of Doctor Babin, never once since that day he had lost her.  Hearing him do it now, hearing him say what he was saying was almost too much for Dylan to bear.  “You’re not going to die, Harper.  There are doctors on Sinti that are so close to a cure for Lebalka’s Syndrome that it could happen any day,” Dylan told him.  “You should be there, being cared for, not here by yourself working on...” Dylan glanced around at all the whirring, chirping things around them “... whatever all this is.  Come on.”

     “Just wanna go home,” Harper sobbed, not moving otherwise, neither helping nor hindering Dylan from doing whatever he wanted to do to him or with him.  “Wanna go home,” he kept repeating, nothing else seeming to matter to him.  Dylan lifted him into his arms, feeling all of Harper’s bones far too clearly as he was settled against Dylan’s chest.  It was frightening how light Harper was and Dylan hurried back to the shuttle, fearful that even moving Harper was hurting him irreparably.  He knew how bad Labalka’s Syndrome got in the latter stages, how brittle it made bones, how it weakened its victims’ tissues so severely that the slightest touch could cause mortal injury.  Dylan prayed Harper wasn’t that far gone yet, that the fact that he had been standing under his own power meant there was still some time left to find a way to help him.

     So many Seefrans had fallen suddenly ill and died from the new, deadly disease that Dylan had made certain to have everyone from the Andromeda checked thoroughly.  Beka, now working on reuniting the Nietzschean Clans as their matriarch, had been cleared immediately, which came as a relief considering how important she was in keeping the Clans cooperative with the new Commonwealth.  Rhade and his family were all fine as well and Dylan wasn’t certain that Trance could be affected by something as mundane as a virus.  As a Paradine, Dylan also had found himself immune.  Harper, who had drifted away from everyone shortly after Tarn Vedra had reemerged, had not been so lucky.  Considering his history with illness, it was almost a forgone conclusion that Harper had been infected.

     It hadn’t been any easier to find Harper back at that time either.  The little engineer had been traveling from world to world, drift to drift, base to base seemingly searching for something, though no one could clearly say what.  The knowledge that he seemed to be questing for was varied and seemingly unrelated, from the evolution of plants to gravity in the microscope realms, from the effects of solar radiation to cloning.  There didn’t seem a topic that he hadn’t delved into, albeit briefly, for Harper had never stayed in any one place studying any one thing for long.  The fact that he had been diagnosed with an incurable disease only seemed to make Harper’s search more urgent, the engineer vanishing from the Andromeda less than a day after getting the news that he was dying.

     Now, after finding him again, Dylan finally understood.  Harper had been trying to find a way to resurrect the Earth, which had been destroyed in the final battle with the Abyss.  Harper had wanted what Dylan himself had wanted when he had reemerged from the black hole he’d been trapped near for three hundred years and found his life and Tarn Vedra, his birthplace, gone.  Harper had wanted, still wanted, to go home.  However, Earth wasn’t simply hidden, as Tarn Vedra had been, it had exploded, been utterly destroyed before their eyes.  Harper had been devastated, but they were in the throes of the final battle with the Abyss at the time and he had seemingly shrugged of his loss and helped Dylan to win the day.  Apparently, his acceptance of the situation concerning Earth had been tenuous at best.

     Dylan carefully laid Harper out in the back of transport, the little man’s voice growing softer and weaker by the moment and now he was murmuring almost inaudibly, restlessly tossing his head back and forth as Dylan pulled a blanket over him and stroked Harper’s dirty hair out of his face.  There was practically nothing left of the small, bright, energetic young man that Dylan had knocked down with his force lance at their first meeting so many years ago.  Dylan wanted that Harper back, the brash, brilliant, sarcastic, annoying, loyal, hyperactive, talkative, stubborn, sweet kid that had helped him get his own home back.

     “Hang on a little longer, Harper,” Dylan softly told the desperately ill man lying there before him.  “We’ll get you well again and I’ll help you find Earth, all right?  Just hang on until we get to Sinti and I promise we’ll do it together once you’re better.  I’m sorry that I didn’t... That you had to...”  Dylan suddenly felt tears on his cheeks.  How could he have let Harper drift away alone like that?  How could he have let a friend, someone that had stood by him through so many bad times, fade into this mockery of what he once been?  Dylan straightened, feeling determined.  He would make things right.  He would get Harper well, then keep his word.  Somehow, he would get Harper home.

     After wrestling the airlock shut again, Dylan went to the controls of the shuttle and flicked on the communications array.  “Rommie, I’ve got him,” he said as he ran through a quick system check, preparing for takeoff.  “Prep the Medical Deck and have Doctor Keesh standing by.  Harper’s going to need him to pull out all the stops.”

     “Dylan, don’t lift off yet.  There’s a... disturbance in the area and it could affect your shuttle,” Rommie told him.

     Dylan frowned, thinking of all the humming machinery in the base, wondering what Harper had been doing and if it had anything to do with what Rommie was talking about.  “When did this disturbance start?” Dylan asked.

     “Just a few seconds ago,” Rommie told him.  “We’re still analyzing it.  We should know if it’s safe for you to lift off shortly.  Doctor Keesh is preparing medical.  Tell Harper I missed him.”

     Dylan smiled a little, thinking Harper would like hearing that.  He had always adored the Andromeda.  Andromeda had gone through engineers like water through a sieve after Harper had left, burning them out like faulty relays.  Dylan had the feeling that hadn’t been so accidental as he’d thought.  He began to think that Rommie had wanted her engineer back.  Frowning, Dylan silently prayed that was still possible.  Shaking off that negative thought, he said, “You’ll tell him yourself when we get there.  Let me know when I’m clear for liftoff.”

     “Of course, Dylan.”

     Dylan leaned back, thinking over what he would do as soon as Harper was safely settled into Doctor Keesh’s care.  He needed to contact Beka and Trance, let them know that he had found Harper, that they were rushing him to Sinti.  Harper needed friends around him, Dylan decided.  He needed to know that people still cared about him.  Of course, he, Doyle and Rommie would be there for him on the Andromeda.  Cleaning Harper up and stabilizing him would be the first order of business, Dylan thought with a nod to himself.  Once he was well, Dylan would bring him back to the Andromeda as her Chief Engineer.  She would be thrilled.  It would be like the old days, full of adventure and comradery, and Harper would know that he hadn’t lost everything when the Earth had been destroyed.  They would make Harper a new home together.

     A strange voice stirred Dylan back to the present.  Harper had been murmuring and whimpering in the passenger cabin, but Dylan’s brow knit as he again heard a voice that couldn’t be Harper’s.  Starting to rise, Dylan focused on that voice, which was saying, “... not your fault.  Don’t cry, son.  It’ll be all right.  You’ll see.”  Growing alarmed because he suddenly recognized that voice, Dylan sprang the rest of the way up and rushed to the passenger cabin.  He arrived just in time to see an aged Admiral Nelson straightening with the bundled engineer in his arms.  The fact that the now elderly Nelson could lift Harper that way only served to show how emaciated the little engineer was.  Harper had fallen still and silent, looking asleep where he rested in the Admiral’s arms, seemingly at peace.

     Nelson met eyes with Dylan, the disapproval all over his face making him halt in his tracks.  “How could you let this happen, Captain Hunt?” Nelson demanded in heavily accented Galactic Common, cutting Dylan to the quick.  Harper murmured something inaudible and Nelson looked down at him, worry taking over his features for a moment.  However, the frown returned as Nelson looked back up at him.  “Mister Harper is in capable hands now.  Go back to your Commonwealth.”  With that, Nelson and Harper vanished.

     Dylan’s eyes went wide and he shouted, “NO!” at the empty cabin.  Casting his eyes around frantically as if Nelson had just moved out of his immediate line of sight, Dylan felt panic seize him.  What had Nelson done?  There was no help for Harper in the past!  Dylan raced back to the controls of the shuttle, lifting off immediately, saying, “Rommie, I’m coming in.  Admiral Nelson was here.  He took Harper.  We need to...”

     “Dylan, I have you on autopilot back to me.  An emergency transmission is coming in, hailing you specifically,” Rommie cut him off.  “I don’t know how... but it’s Harper!”

     Before Dylan could respond, an image of Harper flooded his view screen.  Dylan stared at the image.  Harper had defined laugh lines around his eyes as he smiled warmly from the screen, his hair as white as it was blonde.  Harper looked to have aged twenty years in the few moments he was missing.  Dylan decided that he hated time travel.  “Hey, Dylan.  Sorry about the rushed departure.  Wasn’t up to good-byes then.  Figured I’d better make up for it now.  Especially now.”

     “Harper, where are...” Dylan started confused, yet overjoyed about this sudden turn of events.  Harper might be older, but he also looked healthy.  Dylan didn’t know how that had happened, but he rejoiced briefly over it.

     “You’re probably trying to talk to me,” Harper said, still smiling, though sadness tinged his features a bit.  “Sorry, but I couldn’t figure out how to make this a two way communication.  I guess you’re stuck just listening to me one last time.  First, I wanted to say I’m sorry.  Not just for this, but for everything.  I know I was a pain in the butt more often than I wasn’t.  Thanks for coming to look for me.  The Admiral told me that you were trying to bring me somewhere to help me when he found me.  I don’t remember.  Everything from then is kinda fuzzy.  I’m sorry for worrying you.  I never meant to.  You know me and when I actually manage to focus on something.  Everything else sorta disappears.  I’m sorry, Dylan.  Forgive me, okay?”  Dylan shook his head, thinking that Harper shouldn’t be the one asking for forgiveness.

     “So, anyway, I wanted you to know that I’m all right,” Harper continued, grinning brightly again.  “I know you’re probably wondering why I sent you this message instead of coming back myself, but, and you probably won’t believe me, I’m happy.  Honestly, I am.  I’ve been really busy and before the Admiral died a few years back, we did it.  We figured it all out.  It’s just... we couldn’t fix things if I came back.  Paradoxes are such a bitch, huh?  It’s okay, though.  I’m good here.”

     Harper paused, looking down at something out of view and laughing softly about something.  “They keep giving me awards.  Isn’t that a kick in the head?  Everyone thinks I’m so freakin’ brilliant, but I can’t go out in public to bask in the glow because Seamus Harper died back in nineteen ninety six.  I had to be somebody new, somebody reclusive.  It’s all good, though.  It really is.  It was worth it.  Everything that happened.  Even being alone now.  It was all worth it.”

     Harper looked back at him now, his eyes seeming to meet Dylan’s.  “Kiss Beka, Trance, Doyle and especially Rommie for me.  Tell them I’m okay.  Smack Rhade upside the head and tell him he’s a Nietzschean freak and that I miss him.  And... and thanks, Dylan.  Thanks for being good to me even when I didn’t deserve it.  Thanks for letting me love Rommie like I did.  It was a great ride, Dylan.  I’m glad we beat the bad guy together.  I’m glad you got Tarn Vedra back.  I only wish I could have gotten Sarah back for you too.”  Dylan’s eyes misted over.  Harper was saying good-bye.  He wasn’t coming back.  How could Harper not come back?  Nelson had gotten here somehow, after all.  What did he mean by paradoxes?

     Harper looked down for a second again, doing something out of Dylan’s view.  “Anyway, it’s almost time.  Something’s about to happen, Dylan.  Something wonderful.  It was the only way we could do it.  Be good to them, all right?  They’re all a little shell shocked, but they’re good people and they deserve this chance.  And he’s not a bad guy.  Give him a chance, okay?  You gave me one and that turned out mostly good, right?”  Harper paused and gave Dylan another sad smile, reaching a hand out to touch the screen.  “Bye, Dylan.  You’re the best.  You know that, right?  You really are the best.  Thanks for saving me, for helping me be even a little like you.”  With that, the screen went blank.  Dylan felt like snatching for the image that had just disappeared, shaking his head in denial.  Harper was gone.  Just like that Harper was gone forever and there was nothing he could do about it.

     Suddenly, the shuttle rocked violently and Dylan was nearly tossed from his seat.  Everything fell still again after a few tense moments.  “Rommie, what...” he started, only to be thrown around some more.

     “Dylan, I’m pulling you in as fast as I can,” the Andromeda informed him as her face again appeared on his shuttle’s screen.  “There are energy waves originating between us and Sol.  There’s a dimensional portal beginning to open, a huge one!”

     If the Andromeda sounded alarmed, then the portal was very large indeed.  “Are you being drawn to it very quickly?  Is Mars caught in it?” Dylan asked, wondering if a black hole was opening or if it might be something worse.  More energy waves rocked his shuttle and Dylan held on for dear life.  He couldn’t be back on the Andromeda soon enough.

     “Nothing is being pulled to it,” Andromeda informed him, but still sounded tense.  “Something is coming through from the origin of the waves.  You’ll be docked in ten seconds.”

     No sooner did his shuttle land than Dylan sprang out of it and ran to Command.  The Andromeda shook around him as the waves hit her and her crew wore worried looks as Dylan sprinted past them.  When he got to Command, he almost froze at what he saw on the view screens.  A massive, glowing portal had opened and energy pulsed from it in regular waves as a black dot in the center of the light slowly grew.  Something was coming.  Dylan almost felt like holding his breath.  Was it a Magog Worldship?  Was it another Abyss?  They needed to do something, but until the thing emerged, Dylan didn’t know what that something should be.

     “How far away is that portal?” he asked.

     “Approximately one hundred million kilometers,” Rommie told him.  Several of the Command Staff looked as though that was no where near far enough away.  Dylan was about to disappoint them.

     “Beautiful Light of Dawn, bring us in closer,” he ordered his Than pilot.

     “Sir?” the insect-like alien said uncertainly.

     “Closer,” Dylan repeated as the black circle in the portal grew to more than half its diameter.

     “Yes sir,” Dawn replied, but she didn’t sound happy about it.

     “I estimate it will take fifteen seconds for the object to emerge from the portal,” Andromeda said.  She shook violently and Dylan had to grab a rail or be thrown to the floor.  “And the waves are getting stronger the closer we get.  I do not recommend closing to more than a ten million kilometers to the event or I’ll be torn apart.”

     “You heard the lady, Dawn,” Dylan said.  “Get us to eleven million kilometers and hold us steady.”

     “I’ll get us there, Dylan, but steady?” Dawn replied as the ship buckled like an angry horse under them.

     “Do your best, Dawn,” Dylan said as they grew closer and the black circle grew larger until it almost blotted out the light of the portal.

     “Five seconds,” Andromeda told them.  “Four, three, two, one.”  There was a tremendous flash and the Andromeda actually flipped over so that she was facing back towards Mars briefly as the strongest energy wave of all hit her.

     Alarms sounded harshly as Dylan thanked the Divine for artificial gravity and started to straighten up from where he had crouched to avoid being thrown down.  As the Andromeda turned back to where she had originally been facing, he looked at the view screen and had to do a double take before he could speak.  “It’s the Earth,” he breathed out, not believing what he was seeing.  ‘Something is about to happen,’ Harper’s words rang in his head, ‘Something wonderful.’  Only this wasn’t the Earth Dylan had seen destroyed.  This Earth was blue and green, not gray and brown.  This Earth looked alive, not dying.  Dylan shook his head.  How could this be real?

     “The Earth and its natural satellite,” Andromeda confirmed.  “There is a defense shield stronger than anything in my memory around them.  And we are being hailed from the Moon.”

     “On screen,” Dylan said a little weakly, not sure how many more surprises he had coming.  If this was Harper’s doing, things weren’t anywhere near done.

     Cheers and shouts of joy came over the speakers as a familiar, smiling face came onto the screen yelling over his shoulder, “Quiet!  Quiet!  We’re through, okay?  But these people don’t know us and... Oh!”  The person on the screen turned fully toward him and Dylan felt his knees go weak.  It was Harper, but not the Harper they had known.  This was a Harper from somewhere else, another reality.  Paradoxes Dylan thought, his head spinning.  “Hi!  Wow!  You are Dylan Hunt!  Man, after you were... Never mind.  It wasn’t you,” the man on the screen babbled in a very Harper-like fashion.  Straightening and tossing another pointed, “Shhh!” over his shoulder at the people Dylan could barely see there, he said, “I’m Doctor Seamus Harper, Director of the Earth Corp of Engineers and I am very, very happy to see you, Captain Hunt.”

     “Doctor...” Dylan started very uncertainly, then cleared his throat and put on his game face.  He was here as a representative of the Commonwealth, he told himself, and suddenly this had become a diplomatic mission rather than a rescue.  “Doctor Harper, the Commonwealth of Planets welcomes the Earth back into our universe.”

     Harper looked relieved for a moment, then asked a little tensely, “The Abyss?  The other me, the one that helped us to build the portal, he said that you had destroyed the Abyss in this reality.”

     “Yes, Doctor Harper,” Dylan said with a nod, feeling a little tension himself over that question.

     Another wave of happy shouts erupted from behind this new Harper, who grinned from ear to ear at Dylan’s words.  “We were afraid it wasn’t true,” he said his voice trembling, laughing.  “We were the last ones left in our universe.  The Abyss had destroyed everything else.  We almost gave up hope.  You don’t know... you can’t know...”  Tears of joy rolled down Harper’s face and he laughed and wiped them away absently.

     Dylan caught a glint of gold on his hand, on the ring finger of his left hand.  This Harper was married.  This Harper might have children.  This was not the person he had known for so many years, Dylan thought a little sadly.  ‘Give him a chance,’ Harper had advised on the matter.  ‘He’s not a bad guy.’  In fact, a lot of the ambiguous comments Harper had made were beginning to make sense.

     Harper hushed the people behind him again as he composed himself and said, “I am authorized by the Earth Council of Twelve to initiate diplomatic proceedings between our planet and the Commonwealth.  I’m supposed to act as liaison, but frankly, I’m a scientist and I don’t have a clue what I’m supposed to do now that I’ve said that.”  Harper laughed self consciously.

     “Don’t worry, Doctor Harper,” Dylan said, smiling a little.  “We’ll work it all out together.”  For you, Mister Harper, Dylan thought to his Harper, the one that had drifted away so long ago, the friend that had trusted him to do this last, incredible thing for him.  For you, I promise, I’ll make sure they’re all right.  And with that, Dylan started welcoming the Earth back into his universe.

 

***

 

 

Epilogue II

 

     It had been a week since Nelson had finally found Harper, cursing himself for having not done it sooner.  It had almost been too late.  Nelson reached out and gently ruffled the hair of the sleeping man he sat beside, thinking he dare not do it when Harper woke.  This was not the boy that had fallen from the future and found a place at the Institute and the lives of the people there.  The man sleeping, healing there next to him was older, just as Nelson himself was older, and had been through unknown trials.  The devastating illness that had almost killed Harper this time was only the last in the line of horrible things that had once again plagued the little engineer’s life since he had been torn away from those who loved him.  The doctors were surprised that he had managed to live through the history of what their examinations had revealed.  Nelson smiled fondly.  Harper was still resilient, still a survivor.  He would have to be for what was to come.

     Nelson had tried to keep his word to Harper, had tried to find some way of saving the Earth and her people.  While he had been doing that, he’d found other Earths, ones in realities slightly removed from his own.  In his own reality, the Earth of the future had become too badly damaged to be saved.  He had been there, near the end, and had come to find out something miraculous.  Harper had survived!  His son was alive somehow, despite what Barris had done to him.  Nelson had felt elated and horrified at the same time at finding this out.  What had Harper thought when he’d woken from his ordeal and found himself abandoned by those that were supposed love him?  It was then that Nelson realized the truth of what Harper had told him about finding someone traveling through space.  It was damned near impossible, even with a time machine.  It had taken him a long time to do it, almost too long, but in the end, he had succeeded.  Nelson caressed Harper’s cheek gently.  He was so glad that he had succeeded.

     Moaning softly at Nelson’s touch, Harper rolled his head to one side and began to come around.  Nelson moved his hand back to his lap and smiled softly as Harper’s blue eyes opened and slowly focused on his own.  “Welcome back, son,” Nelson said, meaning it with all his heart.  Harper looked so much better, clean and shaved and well again.  It had been almost unbearable seeing the younger man in the condition that Nelson had found him in.

     “Admiral?” Harper murmured out hoarsely, weakly.  He would be weak for a while, Nelson knew, but soon they would go home. 

     Nelson nodded.  “Yes, Seamus.  I’m sorry to have been so long in finding you.  I hope you can forgive me.”

     Harper continued to stare at him, saying softly, “I thought that Dom would come for me.  Is this... Am I all the way dead yet or just dreaming again?”

     Nelson touched Harper’s shoulder gently.  “You’re not dead, dying or dreaming, son.  I know that’s a little confusing, considering the way I found you, but you’re going to be just fine.  The doctors say you’ll be making more than a full recovery and when they release you, we’ll go back to Earth and start back to work.  We have a planet to save, after all,” Nelson told him.

     Harper looked away, the expression on his face telling Nelson that he was processing and reprocessing what he had just been told.  “But... but there’s no cure,” was the first thing he managed to say and those words sounded bleak and confused.

     “Oh, certainly in your time, but we’ve moved from then.  We’re in your future, Seamus,” Nelson told him gently, knowing that all this was coming as a huge shock to the him.

     Harper’s eyes met his as he shook his head, asking, “How?”

     “The Pem Device.  You did a wonderful job repairing it, Seamus.  It was how I found you finally.  I’m only sorry that it took so long, that you had to suffer so much before I could get to you,” Nelson said, feeling terrible about what Harper had gone through and what he still had to face before everything was finally finished.  “It turned out that my name still held some clout, even here.  That much I am glad for, because the doctors healed you and now you’ll be strong enough for what we need to do to save the Earth.”

     Tears filled Harper’s eyes.  “The Earth is gone,” he wept, the tears spilling down his cheeks.  “It’s my fault... all my fault...  I only wanted to go home... but the Abyss blew it up...  Because I wouldn’t go work for him... Because I loved the Earth so much... The Abyss destroyed it...  I’m sorry... I’m sorry...  I tried to fix it, but I couldn’t... I tried and tried, but I kept getting sicker and... ”

     “Stop that,” Nelson commanded him, hating to be so forceful, knowing that Harper still had a lot of recovering to do.  He wouldn’t let the engineer torture himself this way, though.  “It was never your fault, Seamus.  Never.  You did the right thing, denying the Abyss.  It was an incredibly brave thing to do, standing up to something that powerful.  I know you’ll be brave and strong enough to help me now because of that.  I couldn’t stop what happened by myself either, but together we can do it.  We can save the Earth.  Not your Earth, but Earth all the same.  We can do it together, if you’ll help me.  It will mean sacrifice on your part.  I wish I could change that, but I can’t.”

     Hope lit on Harper’s features.  “I don’t care.  Anything.  I’ll give anything to bring the Earth back,” he said and Nelson could see that he meant every word.

     Nelson nodded to him.  “All right, son.  Rest quietly for a bit and I’ll tell you about what I’ve worked out on my own,” he said, then began to tell Harper about alternate Earths that existed sideways from where they were.  The doctor came in as Nelson described an Earth he’d found, one that was alone in its universe and under siege by the Abyss and deserving of rescue.  The doctor tending Harper probably thought they were discussing some sort of history lesson.  After all, what Nelson was talking about had already happened where and when they were.  “We can save them, bring them across to fill the void in our universe, but it would mean that you could never go back to your time again,” Nelson concluded when they were alone once more.

     “I don’t understand.  Why not?” Harper asked, but lay still in his bed, not appearing all that upset by what Nelson had just told him.  That was good.  He was calmer now and he would need to be for what was coming next.

     “There’s another Harper on that Earth,” Nelson told him, gently laying a hand over the younger man’s and squeezing gently.  “I don’t think that two of you can exist in the same time and place.  Remember the turmoil on Barris’ world when the two of them were there?  I know that it might seem unfair that you would be the one that couldn’t stay, but the other Harper, he’s married and has children.”

     Harper looked a little saddened, but nodded, saying, “Then he should be the one to go on.  It’s not like I mean anything to anyone anymore.  Will...will I just disappear?  Will it hurt?  It’s okay, really, even if...”

     “You’re not going to disappear,” Nelson assured him, squeezing his hand again.  “You’ve got a long life and a lot of work ahead of you.  You’re coming back to Earth with me.  I’ve made all the arrangements already.  You’ll have a new name, I’m afraid, since everyone that knew you thinks you died all those years ago and they all knew you were from the future, which would have caused no end of problems.  You can’t see them, Seamus.  Not any of them.  Seamus Harper has to remain dead.”

     Harper nodded slowly, looking away from him.  “Sacrifice,” he murmured, closing his eyes and looking pained.  “Did I hurt her too bad?  I never wanted to hurt her.”

     Nelson knew he was talking about Dominica and moved his hand to Harper’s head, gently stroking it, getting the younger man to look back at him.  “She grieved for a time, but she’s all right.  She’s a strong woman,” Nelson told him.

     Harper nodded, sorrow tinging the weak smile that he forced on his face.  “Yeah, and she was always way too good for me.  I’m glad she moved on and got married and stuff.  Really.  I read about her husbands and kids and I... I won’t do anything to mess that up for her.  I’ll stay away.  I want her to be happy.  It’s what I always wanted.”  His eyes fell again and Nelson could see him swallowing down pain and grief.

     “Seamus...” Nelson started, not wanting the engineer to suffer this way.

     Harper looked up at him offering him a plainly forced grin.  “I’ll be okay.  I’m an expert at starting over.  It’s all good, right?  Just, won’t people figure out who I am by my...”  He reached up to his neck, probably expecting touch his neural interface.  Confusion clouded Harper’s features when he found his neck bare, the disk that had been below and behind his right ear for so many years gone.

     “You won’t need that anymore, so the doctors removed the whole neural net unit, just as you were going to have done when we were last going to go to Earth,” Nelson told him.

     Harper nodded.  “It’s okay.  I wanted it that way.  We should purge the nanobots in me, too.”

     Nelson laid a hand gently on his arm, smiling softly.  “All the nanobots are gone too.  They were able to repair the damage to your lungs and immune system, so you don’t need them anymore.”

     Harper’s brow knit and he said, “But... but how?  I...”

     “Medicine is much more advanced here.  They rebuilt your lungs and immune system.”  Harper began to stammer out an argument, but Nelson interrupted, saying, “It’s done and there’s no changing things.  It’s for the best.  As far as anyone on Earth will know, you’re nothing out of the ordinary.  Only a few very highly placed people in the United States government and the Witness Relocation program will know that you were Seamus Harper and none of them know about you being from the future.  They think you had been kidnapped by persons who took you to a hostile country that wanted to use what you had designed for space travel in their missile programs, which you bravely refused to do though they’ve held you for years.  I recently found and rescued you from where you have languished all this time.  You’ll have to endure a debriefing, but I’ll be there with you, so don’t worry.  You have a new identity and will be starting work for the Nelson Institute in a secure, remote lab when you’re done healing here.  I took the liberty of choosing a name for you.  I hope you don’t mind.”

     Nelson took out Harper’s new passport and driver’s license and handed them to the younger man, waiting as Harper read the name on them.  Harper made a little sound of surprise when he did, then Nelson found himself in a tight embrace.  “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Harper wept in joy into his shoulder as Nelson gently returned the hug.

     “You’re welcome.  You are most sincerely welcome,” Nelson told him, so glad that Harper was happy with what he’d done.  He wanted Harper to be have a least some happiness.  The little engineer had certainly earned it.  Nelson only wished that he could have done more as he sat there hugging the son of his heart, the son that he had thought he’d lost so many years ago.  He was finally going to get to bring his son Seamus home.

 

 

 

* * *

Final Epilogue

 

 

     Harper sat on his board, head tilted up to the sun, letting it soak into him as he swayed lightly with the movement of the water beneath him.  He would never tire of this.  Never.  However, Harper knew it was this was his last day doing it.  He supposed he should be sad, but he couldn’t make himself feel any sorrow.  The day was too beautiful, the waves had been awesome, and if today was the last time he was going to be out here on the Earth’s oceans, it had been a very good day for it.  That was the trouble with coming from the future.  He knew things that most people didn’t, like the fact that this was his last day on Earth.  It was all right though.  He’d had a good run, a good life here.  So it was time to move on.  He was good at moving on.  He wasn’t afraid to do it again.

     “Hey, Doc!  Big one coming in!” Kukane Apo called from somewhere nearby.  Harper opened his eyes looked out to the ocean.  A big wave was coming up behind him and he tensed, getting ready for it.  He’d have one last ride, then quit for the day.  He was getting tired anyway.  His surfing buddies were getting set up to ride the wave too when a bunch of squids came out of nowhere and started making a lot of noise, saying the wave was theirs and for everyone else to back off.  Jerks.  Harper ignored them and caught the wave.  It was huge, with a nice pipe.  Harper didn’t try to get fancy like he would have when he was younger.  He did raise a hand to lightly run his fingers over the wall of water next to him as his board glided easily along.  Yup, this was the way to end his surfing career.

     “My wave, old man!” came a barely audible voice over the roar of the wave.  Harper glanced back, saw someone coming up on him fast, decided he didn’t need to get wiped out and banged up bad, then dove off his board so he’d have control over where he wound up.  He let the wave pull him for a bit, then dimly saw something dark move past him.  Mentally sighing, he managed to swim after the ‘something’ and grab it, then make for the surface.  Floating on his back, the wave past him now, Harper rearranged his grip on the squid that had tried to run him over.  The larger, younger man was unconscious and a little bloodied, so Harper levered him so that he had the guy’s head out of the water.  He was breathing, so Harper got a decent grip on him and started paddling one armed toward the shore.  Harper grinned, wondering a little vindictively if his board had flown up and whacked the surly squid off the head when he had bailed.

     A few minutes later, Kukane appeared with a couple more of the their usual crowd.  “You okay, Doc?  That guy, he just...” Kukane started then seemed at a loss for words.  The usually even tempered Hawaiian was plainly furious.

     “I’m fine.  The idiot squid got knocked silly,” Harper said with a grin, not wanting anyone to fret over him.

     “We all saw what happened, dude.  You were out there all cool, owning that wave... You are the coolest, Brah!  Then, the squid like... Dude!  Where’s he get off gunning for you like that?” Billy Tan sputtered indignantly as a couple of the other guys relieved Harper of his burden.

     “D’ya lose your board, Doc?” Millie Rodriguez asked, sounding a little upset about it.  “Guys, Doc lost his board!”

     “S’okay, Millie,” Harper told her as Kukane let him ease up on his board to sit in front of him.  “I was done for the day anyway.  Probably done for good.  I think I’m getting too old for this.”

     That brought flurry of denials, which made Harper feel good.  Millie and Billy were in their twenties and the rest of the crowd he ran with ranged from their teens up to older dudes like him and Kukane.  Most of them were pretty young, though.  “Aw, come on, dude.  You’re just a couple years older than me,” Kukane scoffed, patting him on the back.

     “Couple of decades,” Harper said with a grin.  Kukane was the closest to his age and he was pushing sixty.  “I’m eighty four, bud.  This elemakule ain’t too proud to admit he’s ancient.”  He had lived to be far older than he’d ever imagined he would when he’d been as young as Billy and Millie.  He smiled at the thought.  Why did people make such a fuss about getting old?  So he got tired more easily and had slowed down in general.  It still wasn’t that bad.

     “Yeah, but you’re in better shape than half the guys out on the water today, Kaikua'ana,” Kukane told him.

     “You can’t quit, dude,” Billy said.  “Who’s gonna make the Shoobies think we’re respectable if you quit?”

     “Yeah, Doc.  And keep the squids and Tori Kooks in line?  You’re the coolest senior anywhere,” Millie declared.

     “Sorry, guys.  Got someplace I gotta go,” Harper told them, not knowing how to tell them the truth.

     “Geez, Brah, you coulda said.  We’ll see ya when you get back then,” Billy said with a big grin.

     “Sure,” Harper said with a nod, not having the heart to tell the kid that he wasn’t coming back this time.  “When I get back.”

     They got to shore and off loaded the damaged squid on his buddies.  The newcomers glared, but they were out numbered and backed off, since the rest of the regular crowd had gathered around to give them warning looks not to start anything.  As they shuffled off with their tails between their legs, Billy told everyone about him going away.  Before he knew it, the whole gang was gathered around him, wishing him a good trip, telling him they’d miss him, some of the girls giving him kisses and caresses that he knew weren’t going any further than that.  All the kids looked on him like he was a cool grandfather or surfing guru and he could live with that.  Most of the group hit the surf again and Billy said that he was going to go look for Harper’s lost board.  Kukane stayed behind and gave Harper a grin and a soft punch in the shoulder, saying, “You work too hard, Kaikua'ana.  When’re you gonna retire?  Didn’t hurt me any.”

     “I think if I stop working I’ll just stop period,” Harper replied with a shrug.  “Besides, it keeps me from going senile.”

     “You’re not senile?” Kukane said with a chuckle.

     “Har har.  You take care of the kids, okay, Kaina?” Harper said, extending a hand.  Kukane took him by the forearm and pulled him in for a bone crushing hug rather than shaking his hand.  Harper returned it gladly.  Kukane had been his friend for over forty years.  Back when the Admiral had first brought him back to Earth and Harper had first cautiously ventured out onto the beach alone, Kukane had been there, a lot younger and angrier, calling him a donkey hodad or a foamer.  Then Kukane had wiped out and got thrown through the spin cycle and didn’t come up.  Harper had seen it happen and had been close enough to go in after him.  It had been pure luck that he’d found Kukane before he died and after dragging him back to the beach and pushing all the water out of his lungs, he’d left the big Hawaiian with his friends and gone out to catch a few more waves.  Kukane was on the beach waiting for him when he finally came back in and had hugged him and called him Kaikua'ana for the first time.  They’d been buds ever since.  He’d like to think the big Hawaiian would miss him and remember him as a good person.

     Harper began to walk away when Kukane called after him, “Hey, Doc, you ever gonna tell me your name?”

     Harper laughed softly.  All these years on the beaches of the islands, he’d only ever had one name, Doc.  No one had ever pushed for more.  Not much, anyway.  His surfing buddies knew he was some sort of scientist, that he could fix their cars and broken gadgets with ease, but beyond that, his life off the beach wasn’t anything they really tried to delve into.  Kukane had been like a Kaina, a little brother to him, though, taking him to his home and his heart back when Harper had felt loneliness would drive him insane.

     “Seamus Zelazny Harper,” he replied, thinking that he wouldn’t be around long enough for that admission to come back and bite him on the ass.  It wasn’t like anyone knew that name anymore anyway.  Still, he hadn’t been Seamus Zelazny Harper in a really long time.  It felt good to be himself for a few moments.

     Kukane whistled softly with a big smile.  “That’s a mouth full.  I think I’ll stick with Doc.  Aloha, Kaikua'ana.”

     “Aloha, Kaina,” Harper called back, then made his way slowly up the beach.  He wasn’t in a rush.  He ambled through town, saying good-bye to a few friends there, then finally headed to the docks where his boat was moored.  When he got to his boat, a pretty young lady was sitting in it, giving him a cross look.  “Hey, Mel,” he said brightly.  “Great day, huh?”

     “Don’t give me that.  Where have you been?  What have I told you about wandering off?” she snarled at him.

     “That you can’t be an effective bodyguard if my body isn’t where you’re guarding,” Harper replied as he stood on the dock by the boat with his hands in his pockets.  “Too which I usually respond that I’m an old man and that no one’s going to bother with my sorry ass, so the government should really reassign you to someone that actually needs guarding.”

     “Hey, Doc!  Still robbin’ the cradle, eh, you old dog?” Barry from the marina called from the dock as he passed.  That drew an outraged squeak from Melody and Harper barely choked down a laugh that he knew would not be at all appreciated.  Melody was a recent addition to his life and the least offensive bodyguard that had been foisted off on him, so he didn’t want to hurt her feelings.

     A few years back, there had been a security breach at the Institute and some foreign operatives had shown up on his doorstep, looking to steal him away or do him harm.  He was never sure which.  They were totally unprepared for Harper’s security measures and had wound up his shackled, unwilling guests until some security men from the Institute came to collect them.  Despite the fact that he plainly hadn’t needed any outside help to take care of himself, one of the security men had declared he was on permanent assignment to him and invaded his home.  Harper had thought maybe it would be nice having another living, breathing person around his secluded abode, but the guy was a total drag.  He’d tried to toss out Harper’s surfboard, telling him that there would be no more surfing happening, that it was far too dangerous.  He’d trashed all of Harper’s chocolate and coffee telling him that they were unhealthy, especially for a man of Harper’s advanced years.  He’d tried to set schedules for everything right down to bathroom breaks.  Harper had gotten him fired by disappearing on his pushy, regimented ass and showing up in Washington without him.  Not that it had solved the problem entirely.  A new bodyguard had left DC with him, much as Harper had grumbled about it.  None of them lasted long.

     Melody wasn’t as bad as most of them.  She didn’t try to tell him what to eat, mostly, or when to sleep.  She tried to stay in the background most of the time instead of making a nuisance of herself.  Okay, so she kept switching his real coffee for decaf and she was a bit of a mother hen, thinking he was rickety just because he was old, but she talked to him like he still had a few functioning brain cells and she wasn’t terrible company.  He’d been able to tolerate her for the few of months that she’d been trailing him around, as annoying as that was, and found himself feeling almost fatherly affection for her.

     “You weren’t surfing again, were you?” she asked him, giving him a narrow glare.

     “Would I do that without the helmet and all the safety gear you so generously got for me?” he asked in return, giving her a wide eyed innocent look.  There was absolutely no way he was making the scene with all that stuff.  He’d be laughed off the beach.

     “Hmm,” Melody hummed, not looking like she believed him.  “Then where have you been for the whole day?  Have you been at Misses Schultz’s again?”

     “Argh, no,” Harper said with a wince.  “One drunken indiscretion and you’re never going to let me forget it.”

     “Aw, come on.  You make a cute couple,” Melody said, finally giving him a grin.  Harper unmoored the boat and got in, thinking it was safe to do so now.

     “Not happening again, Mel.  She’s three times my size and smells like sauerkraut,” Harper told her as he flopped down on next to her.  “Don’t know what I was thinking the first time.”

     As she turned over the engine, Melody chuckled, “I think Jack Daniels was doing all your thinking for you that night.  You and your darts buddies should buy stock in that company.  Anyway, so what if Misses Schultz is a little heavy?  She thinks you’re adorable and she’s a great cook.  You can’t cook to save your life, Doc.”

     “That’s what they make tv dinners and take out for,” Harper told her as she pulled away from the dock.  “Besides, you can cook and you smell pretty nice and I wouldn’t have to worry about being crushed if you rolled over on me.  Maybe I should cozy up to you.”

     “Dream on, old man,” Melody huffed.  “Go hit on some beach bunnies if you want some Pula Kahula in your bed.  They’re probably all impressed with your mad skills and will look past the fact that you should be dating their grandmothers.”

     Harper grinned.  “Look at you with all your surfing lingo!”

     “You’re a bad influence,” Melody told him without humor.

     “Have been for years,” Harper chuckled.

     “And just how many poor Gidgets have you lured to your bed?”

     “None in recent decades and not all that many even in when I was in my prime.  I’m more talk than action with the ladies.  Always have been,” Harper admitted.

     “So Misses Schwartz was a fluke?”

     “Pretty much.”

     “So what happened?”

     “With Misses Schwartz?  You really want me to go into detail?”

     “Eeww, no!” Melody said with a grimace.  “I meant what happened with you that you don’t have a permanent bed buddy?  You’re a decent guy, smart, probably pretty cute in your day.  Why didn’t you ever get married?  Never met the right girl?”

     “I did, but I got grabbed by this evil dude and she thought I got killed, so she went on with her life and married someone else,” Harper said, looking off into the ocean.  He missed her.  Even after all these years, he still missed her.  “She smelled like raspberry pie and she had these big, brown eyes that lit up when she smiled,” he murmured, smiling a little as he remembered how it felt when she ran her fingers through his hair as the wind ruffled what was left.

     “I’m so sorry, Doc,” Melody said, sounding embarrassed and sad for him.

     Harper shook his head, bringing himself back to the present, and looked over at Melody, patting her gently on the arm.  “Hey, it’s all good.  I mean, at least I had somebody that really loved me, even if it was only for a little while.  Some people never even have that.  What about you, Mel?  Is there somebody out there that you’d rather be spending time with?” Harper asked.

     She offered him a plainly forced smile, still looking sad for him, and patted his hand, which rested loosely on her arm.  “Not at the moment.  I’m all yours, Doc,” she told him.

     “Promises, promises,” Harper said with a wide smile.  Melody rolled her eyes at him and changed the subject.  Harper sat back again and regretted that he might hurt her when he left.  Would she feel like she’d failed in her job when she found him gone?  He hoped she wouldn’t.

     They chatted until they got to his secluded little place out in the middle of nowhere.  Should anyone wander up the sheltered, tight inlet and come upon the place by accident, there was only a tiny dock and a door set in a concrete block and lots of jungle to be seen.  There was nothing of interest.  There were no neighbors to drop by unexpectedly.  This isolation what the price Harper had paid to bring Earth back, to replace his former home with a copy from another, dying universe.  He had never regretted agreeing to pay that price.  He would have accepted nonexistence if it had come to that, but he was grateful that it hadn’t.  So no one knew him as anything other than ‘Doc,’ the strange guy that popped out of nowhere every so often wanting a little human contact.  It wasn’t a big deal.  Out here on the islands, that wasn’t as unusual as it might be other places.  It really hadn’t been a terrible life.

     Melody tied up the boat while Harper ambled over to the door to disengage security measures.  He grinned as he did, thinking back on the entertainment the system had supplied in the past.  Those spies that had been the first to fall victim to his twisted sense of justice had been really hilarious.  A couple of the bodyguards that had ticked him off had outright quit after he had ‘forgotten’ to deactivate it the past, which had been an added bonus.  No one had gotten hurt, not that it would have mattered to him all that much if they had.  Nobody, but nobody was sneaking up on him unannounced, especially with intent of doing him harm.  He’d been kicked around enough for one lifetime and it just plain wasn’t happening again.  He’d only ever given one person the keys to his tiny, out of the way kingdom.  He had reset all the coding when Admiral Nelson had died, not caring if current management at the Institute didn’t like not having access to him.  Practically no one knew how to find him anyway.

     “So you must be starving after being active out in the fresh air all day,” Melody commented as she came up behind him with some grocery bags.

     Harper pulled the door opened for her saying, “You know me.  I’m always ready to eat.”

     Melody cast him a smirk.  “I don’t know where you put it all, frankly.  If I ate like you, I’d weigh three hundred pounds.”

     “I owe it all to hectic living,” Harper replied with a grin.

     “You should take better care of yourself, especially at your age,” Melody berated him.  “At least you’ve had the good sense not to drag your surfboard all over town lately.  Did you leave it with Kukane or Billy today?”

     “Now, that would imply that I was surfing,” Harper replied as he took a bag from her with a sunny smile and went in with her.  She had his story.  He was sticking with it.

     “Oh, come on.  We both know you were,” Melody said, rolling her eyes.  “I don’t know why I’m here.  You’re plainly more of a danger to yourself than outside forces.”  Harper chuckled softly.

     “Actually, you don’t have to worry about me sneaking off and getting hurt surfing because I had to bail and lost my board the last time I went out,” he told her so that she’d chill out as he unlocked the inner door.  It had the opposite effect.

     Melody made an alarmed sound, dropped what she was holding and turned to him, moving him around roughly, obviously looking for injuries that weren’t there.  “What?!  Damn it, Doc!  Are you hurt?” she demanded.

     “Well, I wasn’t before!” Harper complained, shrugging her off of him.

     “Doc,” she snarled, her tone warning, glaring at him.

     “Mel,” he mimicked her, crossing his arms over his chest.

     “Come on,” she said, picking up her discarded grocery bags.  “Let’s get in so I can check you over.”

     “I’m fine!” Harper declared indignantly.  Of course, she didn’t believe him until they got into his living area, she had his shirt off and had checked over everything except what was under his swim trunks.  She gave the clothing item a glare and Harper told her, “My pants only come off for women in like states of undress, so get naked or back off, Mel.”

     “I’m a qualified nurse and you know it,” Melody reminded him, giving him and his trunks another pointed look.

     “My house, my rules,” Harper said stubbornly.

     Melody’s angry expression faded and she gave him a malicious smile.  “Fine, but you have to sleep sometime.”

     “Is there a problem, sir?” a deep, English accented voice cut into the conversation at that point.

     Harper was still frowning over the threat that had just been leveled at him.  “No, Alfred.  Everything’s fine.  Were there any calls today?” he asked, still glowering at Melody.  Good thing he liked her.  If he hadn’t told Alfred he was all right, Mel would have met some of Harper’s nastier security measures up close and personal.

     “No, sir.  It’s been very quiet here without you,” Alfred told him.  “I completed all the household chores, including the laundry.  Will I be cooking for you this evening or will Miss Melody?”  Harper raised an eyebrow at Melody, posing the question without having to say anything further. 

     “I was going to make stroganoff, but I don’t know if you deserve it anymore,” Mel said imperiously.  “I should let Mister Roboto heat you up some cardboard tasting pizza.”

     “Pizza, then,” the robot said, starting to turn to go.

     “She was being sarcastic, Alfred,” Doc told him.  “You could set the table, then I’ll call if we need anything else.”

     “Very good, sir,” Alfred said and began to walk away.  He wasn’t fast on his feet, but Harper thought he’d done a pretty good job with him overall considering that he was one of the first robots he had built here in the past.

     “Creepy thing,” Melody commented, taking her groceries into his small kitchen.  “And why is he Alfred and not Jeeves or something?”

     “Alfred Pennyworth,” Harper told her, figuring that would explain it all.  Melody gave him a blank look and Harper frowned a little.  “Bruce Wayne’s butler?” he tried, which got him no better result.  Harper rolled his eyes.  “Bruce Wayne.  The Batman.  Come on!  You have to know who Batman is!”

     Melody shook her head at him.  “Tim Drake is Batman,” she told him as she started pulling food out the bags now resting on the kitchen counter.

     Harper helped her, putting away some of the things he knew for certain she wouldn’t be using.  “Sure, now.  The original was Bruce Wayne, though.  How do you not know that?”

     “I’m not as big a geek as you are, Doc.  You’re lucky I knew who the current Batman is,” Melody informed him.  “Go shower.  I’ve got this.  You’re getting sand everywhere.”

     Harper grinned a little, knowing how to get Melody back for being so rough with him a few minutes ago.  “Alfred, apparently I’m leaving a trail of sand behind me when I walk,” he said as he headed toward his bedroom.  He knew she hated having the robot around her when he wasn’t there, that she didn’t like talking to Alfred for some reason.

     “Very good, sir.  I will remove it,” Alfred said from the dining area.  Melody let out a squeak of displeasure, but Harper closed his bedroom door and had himself a nice, long, hot shower.  When he got out, his swim trunks were gone and the bathroom had been tidied, so Alfred had plainly been through the room.  He could smell the stroganoff that Melody had said that she was going to make, so Harper threw on some clothes and went back out to see how things were coming along.  As it turned out, food was just going on the table, Melody frowning while she tried to take things away from Alfred as he attempted to help.  Harper smiled softly and then gave Alfred the rest of the night off.

     Dinner was consumed and relished, dishes were cleared, then Harper and Melody played some rummy in relative quiet.  “Don’t you get tired of it?” Melody commented after a while.

     “Kicking your butt at cards?  Never gets old,” Harper replied as he drew one from the deck.

     “Dream on, old man.  No, I meant being out here all by yourself for all these years.  You’re obviously not the hermit type, but you’ve been out here alone for, what, half a century?  I understand that you work on top secret stuff for the Nelson Institute and the government, but they’d give you anything you asked for and you know it.  So why no cute little lab assistant for you to shine your brilliance on or something?  Heck, I’ve been here for three months and I don’t even know your name.  Just ‘Doc.’  What kind of existence is that?”

     Harper smiled softly.  “I tend to be really focused when I work, so having people around me when I am is just distracting or annoying.  And I like being around people when I’m not working, but I want them to like me for me, not for what I do.  Unlike movie stars or other public figures, nobody connects my face with my work because I keep to myself when I’m working.  My friends are my friends, not fans or people kissing my butt because they want something from me.  Besides, it makes your job easier that I live the way I do.”

     “I suppose,” Melody said with a little frown as she picked up his discarded card.  “I know I’m not supposed to ask, but what goes on back there in your lab?  Should I be worrying about you getting hurt when you disappear back there for days on end?”

     “You worry about me getting hurt when I go to the bathroom,” Harper chuckled.  “I’m not that fragile.  I used to be, but not so much anymore.  And thank you very much.”  He picked up the card that Melody had just put down and laid out the remaining cards in his hand.  Melody cursed quietly under her breath.  “Okay, that’s fifty seven for me and... ooo, bad luck holding onto all those face cards, Mel.  Negative twenty seven for you.”

     Melody frowned at him and obviously checked his addition before gathering up the cards to shuffle them.  “How do you count up points so fast?” she grumbled.

     “Math is my life.  Don’t get crabby ‘cause you’re losing.”

     “You could clean up in Vegas,” she observed as she dealt a new hand.

     “Probably, but why bother?  The Institute buys me anything I want to keep me happy, not that I have a lot of wants these days.  I have everything I need.  Well, mostly everything... “ Harper paused as he sorted though his cards, letting the thought hang there unfinished.

     “Except?” Melody asked after a few moments, as expected.

     “I really loved that board.  Billy said he’d look for it, but if he hasn’t called by now, it’s gone.  I’d go back to O’ahu to buy a new one from Izzy, but it’ll take the better part of a week and I’ve got some deadlines coming up.  If only I had someone I could send for me.”  He glanced up over his cards.  There was no response, so Harper regrouped.  “How I wish I had some nice, sweet, caring individual that would run over there and tell Izzy that I’m a senile old man and lost my board...”

     “Forget it.  Call this ‘Izzy’ and we’ll go over together to get it in a week,” Melody told him.

     “Izzy doesn’t owe a phone.  He says they mess with his karma,” Harper replied.

     “How could a phone...” Melody started and shook her head in disgust.  “You have weird friends, Doc.”

     “You have no idea.  With Izzy, it’s in person or nothing, but he makes the best boards anywhere.  I have an account with him, so someone just needs to go out there and put in my order, then wait for the board to get finished so Izzy doesn’t give it to someone else if it sits for more than a day.  How about it?  I’ll spring for a suite at Waikiki Marina Hotel at the Ilikai for while you’re waiting.  They’re right on the beach and they have a really awesome spa.  It’ll be a nice little vacation for you and it’s not like you’d be doing much here.  I’ll be in the lab all week,” Harper told her as he drew a card.

     “A vacation for me or you?  I don’t need you taking off and getting into mischief while you have me off on some ridiculous errand,” Melody told him.  “I’m not as stupid as some of those other guys you’ve played tricks on, so you can forget pulling that kind of stunt on me.”

     “What?  You’ll have my only boat.  I’m a little old man.  Do you think I’m gonna swim for it?  Or hack my way through umpteen miles of jungle to some pineapple farm and do what exactly?  I thought we were buds, Mel.  Would I do something bad to a bud?” Harper groused, tossing a card down, certain that he looked hurt.  He’d gotten to be a good actor over the years.

     Melody didn’t look entirely sold though, considering his words and her cards with a little frown.  “If I go see this Izzy, I’m getting a board too and going with you on your little surf trips from now on.  That way I’ll know you’re wearing protective gear I got you,” she said.

     Harper smiled.  “Sure, Mel.  Sounds great.”

     “That’s if I decide to go,” Melody said, putting down a straight and discarding.  “I still think you’re trying to pull something.”

     “Me pull something,” Harper scoffed.  “As if I’d ever get anything past you.”  Melody still seemed to have reservations, but she didn’t say anything else, so he knew that she would go in the morning.  That was good.  He didn’t want her to be here when he departed this Earth.  It would only upset her needlessly.  He was going and there was nothing she could do to stop it, much as she would likely try.  Better that she come back and find him gone.  Now he was glad he’d lost his board.  He had been trying for weeks to think of some way of getting Melody out of the house for the whole day tomorrow and hadn’t been able to come up with anything he was sure would absolutely work.  Hearing her talk about getting her own board, though, had made things a little sad.  Adding Mel to his surfing buds would have been nice.  Too bad she hadn’t been the first bodyguard assigned to him.  The last couple of years would have been a lot different.

     “You know, the guy at the Marina was saying that the stray he feeds there is ready to have kittens again.  He said that you usually take two or three off his hand and he’s counting on you to do it again.  We should stop by in a few weeks,” Melody said, giving him a nervous look over her cards.

     “Mel, I told you, Mitzi was my last one,” Harper told her patiently.  He knew where this was leading and didn’t want Melody coming back with a surfboard and a kitten for him.

     “Oh, come on, Doc!  I know you loved that cat, but you should get a new one.  People with pets live longer,” Mel told him.

     Harper frowned at her trying to manipulate him, but he knew that she was doing it out of concern for him.  He’d had cats almost since the first day he’d come to live here in the past.  It had been nice, having little, furry buddies wandering around, snuggling up with him.  He usually kept four or five, much to Alfred’s dismay, because he cleaned up after them.  However, he’d known what was coming and over the last few years, when one of his pets had passed on, he hadn’t replaced it.  The last, Mitzi, who would jump up on him shoulder the instant he got home and ride there almost all day, purring all the while, had died just a month ago, and Mel had helped him bury her out in the back.  She had tried to get him to buy another, had offered to get a new pet for him herself because she knew how much he loved the little animal, and couldn’t understand why he refused.  He didn’t want to leave a lot of loose ends behind when he was gone.

     Thinking that reminded him of something he’d been meaning to do all day, so when they finished their current hand, he rose, saying, “I’ve got something I’ve got to do in the lab.”

     Mel glanced at her watch with a frown.  “It’s ten o’clock.  I thought you were working tomorrow anyway.  Can’t you do it then?”

     “I keep forgetting,” Harper told her with a shrug as he walked over to his private elevator.  “I’d better do it while I remember.”

     Mel’s brow knit and she got a slightly worried look on her face.  “Maybe we should go see a doctor in the morning if you’re having troubles with your memory,” she said, sounding really concerned.

     Harper chuckled.  “I’m not going senile just yet, Mel.”

     “Uh huh.  Did you activate your security system, since your memory is so great?  I don’t remember you doing it,” Mel said, giving him a challenging look.

     “Well, you know, I had this woman less then half my age trying to get my pants off when I came in tonight and somehow found that distracting.  If you’re really worried about it being on, I’ll do it when I come back up, ‘cause I’m not stressing.  I have you here to guard me.  How much safer could I be?” he asked, putting his hand on the reader by the elevator door and casting a grin back at Melody.  The doors, as usual opened almost immediately and he stepped through them.

     “Or you could just give me the codes, old man!” she shouted at him as the elevator doors slid shut again.  Harper’s grin softened into affectionate smile.  Melody didn’t think he trusted her.  If that were true, she would have been out of here like the others before her.  However, his security system didn’t need to be on.  She wouldn’t be able to ‘surprise’ him by leaving for O’ahu if it were.  And it wasn’t like he needed its protection any longer.  He only had a few more good-byes to say, then he would be ready to go.  Nodding to himself as the doors opened again, he put on his ‘boss’ face, rallying himself to face the troops.

     “Boys, we need to have a talk,” he said as he walked into the platform above the huge work area that practically no one on Earth knew existed.  The Admiral did like his secrets.

     Suddenly, the activity that had been going on in the main level of the room came to an abrupt halt and a couple dozen eyes turned his way.  Eyes that he had made with his own hands.  “Yes, Father,” said Wes, ever the group spokesman as his ‘brothers’ gathered behind him, all looking up at him.  Harper had been a little sad about never having children that were of his own blood, but he’d certainly made enough of them over the years.  Wes, while not his first construct, had been the first to call him ‘father’ and Harper had felt oddly touched that the robot’s artificial intelligence had come to think of him that way.  Even though he had done nothing to encourage it, soon all the robots he’d built were calling him father.  From there, bits of varied personality began to show, no two robots alike in how they changed, and Harper became more and more proud of how well his ‘boys’ were growing.  He worried a little over them now.  He had never left them on their own for long.

     “I need you all to know how pleased and proud you’ve made me over the years,” Harper said, then turned to the short set of metal stairs that lead down to the main work floor.  Once there, his ‘boys’ gathered around him, silently attentive.  “I couldn’t have gotten half of what I accomplished over the years done without you guys,” he told them.  “You are all talented and unique and amazing, and I want you to know that I love all of you.”

     Paddy’s metal hand came down very lightly, affectionately on Harper’s shoulder.  “As we all love you, Father,” he said, his inexpressive face almost seeming to smile somehow.  Harper had thought long and hard about making his ‘children,’ Alfred included, more human looking.  No, he had told himself.  The time of androids like Rommie and Doyle had not yet come.  No sense in leaving anomalous things behind him when he went.  He could read the emotions of his ‘boys’ even if no one else could.

     Harper gave them all a sad smile.  “I know.  I’ve always known.  That’s what makes this so hard,” he said, looking down for a moment, gathering his thoughts before looking up again.  “Boys, I’m going to be leaving soon and I won’t be coming back.  Someone will come, though.  Abby Morton.  She the head of the Emerging Technology department of the Nelson Institute.”

     “Father, you are the head of the Emerging Technology department of the Nelson Institute,” Ailin told him.  His Ailin, always liking things correct and orderly.

     “She’ll be taking over when I go,” Harper said.  “She’s very nice.  I’ve spoken with her often.  And I knew her dad.  He was a very smart man, too, and a very good friend to have.  When Abby Morton comes, you do what she says, all right?  You show her all our work and my notes.  She’s the new boss, so make a good impression.  Keep making me proud, okay guys?”

     “But Father, where are you going?” Alastar asked.

     “Far, far away,” Harper told him, patting him gently on his metal arm.

     “You are not as strong as you once were, Father.  We should come with you.  You might need us,” Wes said, his sentiments backed up by a flurry of nods and a few softer voices saying, “Yes.”

     Harper smiled fondly and shook his head, “I’m sorry.  You can’t come with me, boys.  I’ll miss you all, but I can’t take you with me.  So let’s get everything shut down here and put you guys to bed, all right?  Abby will wake you up when she comes.”  Harper spent a few moments with each of his ‘sons’ in turn before putting them all, one by one, into sleep mode.  He’d keyed all their systems to ‘wake’ again when Abby Morton spoke in the room.

     Once he was done, he went to the computer in the corner of the room and made a hotel reservation for Melody, making sure to book her some spa time, and printed everything out, including directions to Izzy’s, then he shut everything down there too.  As he climbed back up the short flight of steps back up the elevator, he paused near the top and looked out over the room.  He’d spent a large part of the last fifty years here in this place.  He felt a shiver pass through him at the thought of leaving it behind forever, but he shrugged it off.  He’d sat still in one place for long enough.  It was time to move on again.  Smiling a little, Harper turned to lay his hand on the elevator panel.  It was time for one last adventure.

     It was quite late now, so Harper was a little surprised to hear the television when the elevator doors opened again.  He went into his living area and found Melody asleep on the sofa, the television droning on about great deals on travel.  Harper set the papers he’d brought up on the table where Mel would see them, turned off the television and turned to Melody.  She was a sweet kid, he thought with a soft smile as he pulled the throw from the back of the sofa and gently laid it over her.  “Thanks for watching over me, Mel.  Thanks for caring enough about me to be a friend while you did it,” he whispered, then gave her a fatherly peck on the cheek, then straightened and went into his bedroom to say his final farewell.

     “Do you need anything else this evening, sir?” Alfred asked as he entered the room.

     Harper shook his head, saying, “No, Alfred.  I’m just fine.  I wanted to thank you for being such a good retainer over the years.  You always went above and beyond, man.”

     The robot’s eyes spun for an instant, as if adjusting focus.  “I should like to think I am a credit to my maker, sir,” he said.

     “We both know that you’ve grown beyond what I programmed into you, Alfred,” Harper said with an affectionate smile.  “I particularly like the sense of humor, the way you tease Mel so that she never caught on.  Classic, dude, totally classic.”

     “I am pleased you approve, sir,” Alfred replied with a little bow.  “It’s quite late.  You do need your sleep, sir.”

     Harper nodded.  “I know.  Listen, Alfred, Mel’s going to be going to O’ahu in the morning and she probably won’t want to wake me up.  Get the boat ready for her trip and tell her that I made the reservations we talked about if she doesn’t find the papers on the coffee table, ‘kay?”

     “Of course, sir.”

     “And Abby Morton from the Institute will be coming in three or four days.  She’s going to need access to everything here, so make sure she can find everything, all right?” Harper asked.

     “As you wish, sir, but won’t you be able to show her around yourself?” Alfred asked in return.

     Harper put a thin smile on his face and shook his head.  “I won’t be here then.  I’m going away, Alfred, and I won’t be coming back.  I need you to keep looking after the place after I’m gone, though, okay?  I mean, at least until Abby says otherwise.” 

     Alfred’s eyes seemed to readjust focus again.  “Are you feeling unwell, sir?” he asked.

     “No.  I’m good,” Harper told him.

     “If you’ll excuse me saying so, sir, you are an elderly man that’s lived a very colorful, rather difficult life.  Should I wake Miss Melody?” Alfred asked persistently.

     “There’s really no need, Alfred.  Nothing’s wrong,” Harper said, then grinned.  “There’s no cure for old age and that’s the only thing slowing me down these days.  Don’t worry about me.  I’ve been waiting a long time for this, a lifetime.  I’m finally going home.  Someone I love is coming to get me to bring me there.  Don’t be sad for me, Alfred.  Be happy.”

     Alfred’s eyes adjusted again, his little emotional twitch in an emotionless, metal face.  “But, sir... Father...  Without you, what meaning do I have?” he asked, sounding almost mournful.

     Harper stepped close and touched the side of Alfred’s face.  “I need you to take care of your brothers,” he told the robot.  “There are going to be people coming after Abby, maybe even with her.  You interface just with Abby and don’t let anyone hurt your brothers.  Abby won’t understand that you’re real at first, not just a thing.  It’s something that’s new to the world.  You have all my notes about how your brain works and you’re going to give the blue emergency disk to Abby right away when she comes.”

     “The one about machine sentience, sir?  But no one is supposed to see that disk.  You told me that if anything ever happened to you...” Alfred started.

     “That was before,” Harper interrupted him.  “Now is the time for it.  You give it to Abby.  You show her and she’ll understand about you and your brothers.  You’re the oldest, Alfred.  You’re in charge of the family when I go.  I know I can trust you to be in charge.”  With that, he hugged Alfred, waiting patiently as metal arms slowly, carefully returned the embrace.

     “It... I feel something strange, sir.  I don’t want you to go.  Stay, Father.  You always kept us safe.  Please stay,” Alfred said quietly.

     “You’re just afraid,” Harper told him, patting his back gently.  “It’s okay to be afraid, but you’re bigger than fear.  Never forget that.  If it’s in you, if you don’t let it swallow you, you are bigger than any fear you ever have and you can beat it.  Take it from me.  I’m just some little guy and I’ve beaten fear plenty of times.  You’re tougher than me, Alfred.  Lots.”  With that he eased from Alfred’s arms.  “I’m going to go check on Melody now.  After she goes out tomorrow, go into recharge mode until she or Abby Morton get here, all right?” he asked, setting hand on Alfred’s arm.

     “Yes, sir.  It... it’s been a pleasure serving you,” Alfred told him.

     “The pleasure has been all mine,” Harper told him with a soft, sincere smile.  Alfred moved off to get the boat prepped for tomorrow and Harper watched him go, then went back into the living area and looked at Mel.  He carefully lifted her feet up onto the sofa and laid her head on a pillow before tucking her back under the throw blanket and giving her another soft kiss on the cheek.  All his children were taken care of.  He could rest now.  He plopped into the armchair near the sofa and watched Melody sleeping until the darkness of sleep gently enfolded him.

     “You haven’t been to see me in a while,” came the Admiral’s voice from the darkness and a light came from somewhere, brightening where Harper stood.  The Admiral was there, looking like he did all those years ago when Harper had first met him.  Even when he had gotten old in real life, Harper had only ever seen him this way, looking strong, confident, heroic.  This was how he remembered Nelson when he missed him over the years.

     “I’ve been busy keeping all the bodyguards at bay,” Harper told him with a shrug.

     Nelson grinned and chuckled, “But not the new one, I’ve noticed.”

     Harper shrugged again.  “She’s a good kid.  I’m glad that she’ll be able to get on with her life.  She shouldn’t be stuck in a block of cement with a crazy old man.”

     “That being you, I suppose,” Nelson said.  “Seamus, I swear you’ve always been your own worst critic.”

     “Too late to change things now.”

     “Well, much as I could argue the matter, I know that’s not why you’re here.  You only come talk to me when you’re nervous or afraid.  What’s wrong, son?” Nelson asked, his face growing suddenly concerned.

     “I’m not afraid,” Harper stated stubbornly, but then relented a little.  “Not exactly afraid.  It’s just, she’ll be coming for me soon and... what if she doesn’t or she hates me for... I don’t know, for everything?”

     Nelson smiled warmly and came over to him where he stood and laid a hand on his collar bone and gave it a gentle squeeze.  “Of course she won’t hate you,” he said in his best reassuring tones.

     “She might,” Harper said weakly, giving Nelson a sheepish look.

     Nelson chuckled warmly again.  “Never.  You shouldn’t worry.”

     “And yet I always do,” Harper sighed.  “You’ve still got my back, right?”

     “Of course,” Nelson told him.

     Harper gave him a weak smile.  “Good.  Then everything will be all right.  Thanks, Admiral.  For giving me a life I could look back on with pride.  For everything.”

     “If you want to thank me, call me ‘father’ or ‘dad’ for once,” Nelson replied with a scolding look, though he stroked Harper’s cheek affectionately.

     Harper gave him another abashed look in return.  “You have real kids.”

     “And you are one of them, though you would never allow yourself to believe it,” Nelson said.  “I love you, son.  Never forget that.”

     Harper was about to respond when he suddenly found himself sitting up in his chair.  Groggily, he scrubbed a hand over his eyes, then took in the room.  The sofa was empty and the throw blanket was half over him, his movements probably having pulled it loose.  “Mel,” Harper called, but there was no answer.  He looked at his watch and found it was almost ten o’clock in the morning.  It was then that he realized there was a piece of paper pinned to his shirt.  Rolling his eyes, he pulled the paper free and read:

    

     Old man,

     I decided I’d go get the surfboards if only so I wouldn’t have to listen to you whine about it.  I don’t know when you finally fell asleep last night, but try doing it in a bed tonight.  And TURN ON YOUR SECURITY SYSTEM!!!  Mister Roboto said that he’d make sure you were safe until you woke up or I wouldn’t have left.  I swear, we’re going to go get you tested for Alzheimer’s disease     when I get back.  I’d better not be able to just stroll in the front door when I’m back or we’re doing it the minute I do!  Remember to eat.

     Mel

 

     Harper smiled.  “Good-bye, Mel,” he said softly, then went to use the bathroom.  Once he’d done that, he went back into his living room, tidied up a bit, then stood there, not knowing what to do with himself while he waited.  He supposed he ought to eat something, but couldn’t see the sense in doing so.  He wasn’t hungry, just suddenly nervous.  He was being silly, he chided himself.  He’d known this was coming for a very long time.  What did he have to be nervous about?  Needing to do something, he went back into his room and checked that Alfred was in recharge mode, then he changed his clothes, the ones he’d been wearing all rumpled from having been slept in.  He smiled as he buttoned his shirt.  Dylan and Beka wouldn’t recognize him, and not just because of the years.  He sometimes felt like he was actually a different person from Seamus Harper, the little slave from a broken Earth of the future.  He’d like to think that his friends from that distant time would be proud of who he had become.

     He went back into his living area and flopped back down into the easy chair there, picking up the book that he’d been trying to get through for ages that was lying on the floor next to it.  Melody said that it was the best novel she’d ever read, but Harper couldn’t say he agreed.  He would read three pages, maybe, and promptly fall asleep.  He half suspected that Melody thought it was boring too, but liked him getting sleep.  Of course, he couldn’t prove that and she kept asking what he thought of the book and telling him that he hadn’t read far enough into it.  He gamely tried again now, thinking he owed her at least one last attempt.

     The next thing he knew, he was waking up again, vaguely hearing someone calling from the vicinity of the door and moving closer.  “... anyone here?  Hello?  It’s Doctor Patterson.  From the Institute in Santa Barbara?  Doctor...”

     That was when Harper stood up and faced his visitor, who had been behind his chair and probably hadn’t seen him there.  He’d thought he would meet her at the door, but this worked.  “Hey, Dom.  Long time no see,” he said, unable to keep a sheepish expression totally off his face.

     She was standing there, almost to where he stood, holding a bundle of papers, looking stunned.  She was old, like him, but he would have known her anywhere.  To him, she was still the most beautiful woman that had ever lived.  “Seamus...” she breathed out, the papers she was holding falling, forgotten as she dropped her arms and took a hesitant step toward him.  He ought to say something, he told himself, but his brain couldn’t seem to form the words that he wanted to say and get them out of this mouth.  Dom walked slowly up to him, her eyes taking in his face over and over and she stopped just before him, still seeming shocked to see him.  That was when she slapped him, hard, across the face and snapped, “I thought you were dead!”  Before he could react to the slap or the words, tears were in her eyes and suddenly her arms were around him and she was clinging tightly to him, sobbing into his chest, “I thought you were dead.  I saw you die.  All these years... I thought you were dead.”

     Harper closed his eyes as he hugged her closer still and breathed in the soft scent of raspberry pie.  Suddenly he was twenty five again, and he and Dom had never been apart, and she had never stopped loving him just like he had never stopped loving her.  He stood there, holding her, never wanting to let her go, half fearing he was dreaming this again. Please let it be real, he begged the Divine, just for a little while, let me have this.  I’ve tried to be a good man.  Please, just let me hold her for a little while longer.  He stood there silently with Dom in his arms, wanting nothing more than this for the rest of his life.

     They stood that way for what seemed like a blissful eternity, then Dom drew back a little and laid a hand on his cheek where she had slapped him and gazed up into his eyes.  “How are you here?  You died on that planet in the future... or the past... I... I don’t know.  I only knew that I’d lost you.  Why didn’t you come to me?  Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked, seeming hurt and confused.

     “The Admiral saved me,” Harper replied, cupping her face in his hands, wanting to kiss her but not daring it.  “He kept looking for me, but he didn’t find me, not for years.  You were married to Steve by then.  You had a husband who loved you and kids and a life and I... I just wasn’t part of it anymore.  I couldn’t just show up and announce, ‘Here I am, back from the dead!’  I couldn’t hurt you or your family like that.  I wanted to tell you... You’ll never know how much I wanted to!  But I couldn’t.  Even when Steve died, I just couldn’t.”

     Dom was still searching his face with her eyes, gently stroking his temple with her fingertips.  “I... understand, I think, but...”  She shook her head and stepped back from him and waved around the room.  “How did you get here?  No one knows about this place.  I only just found out where it was.  There was no other boat at the dock.  How did you get here?”

     Harper smiled at her being so flustered that she was repeating herself.  “I live here,” he told her.  “I work here.  Hey, come on!  I’ll show you!”  He grabbed her hand and pulled her over to the elevator, quickly putting his hand on the security panel.  The doors opened almost immediately, for which he was glad.  He didn’t want to give Dom too much time to think.  He’d talked about Steve Patterson dying, and that was only a few years ago.  What was he thinking?  He was going to get her even more upset than she probably already was!

     “You live here?” Dom asked, still sounding baffled as he guided her quickly into the elevator.  “For how long?”

     “Since the Admiral brought me back to Earth, almost fifty years now,” Harper told her as the doors shut and the elevator started to move.  “He and I worked on some pretty amazing stuff since then.  I’ll tell you all about it, but first I want to show you what I’m working on now.”  With that, the doors to his workroom opened and he guided her out on the platform.

     Lights came up automatically as they entered the room, triggered by their movement.  Dom looked out into the huge room and her eyes seemed to grow large at what she saw.  “That’s the Neptune Six,” she said, seeming shocked.  “I’ve seen pictures...  Oh!  Oh, no!  Come on!”  Suddenly she was grabbing his hand and started to tug him back toward the elevator.

     “What’s wrong?” Harper asked, growing confused himself and holding her back.  “It’s all right for you to be here.  It’s my project, after all.”

     “No!  No, it’s Doctor Charles’ project!” Dom told him in alarm.  “I always thought he was expanding on the notes you left with Mister Fletcher, but he wasn’t!  He’s been using you!  How could the Admiral have allowed this?  What’s Doctor Charles been doing to you, Seamus?  Where is he?  We have to get out of here before he comes back!”  Harper suddenly laughed, unable to stop himself.  Dom was trying to save him!  She did still care!  “This isn’t funny!  You’re in danger!  He called me and asked me to bring him some papers from the Santa Barbara office.  I’ve always wanted to meet him, so I came when he asked me to bring those papers.  Who knows what he really wanted!” she shouted at him, beginning to look cross.

     Harper shook his head, wiping tears of amusement from his eyes.  “He just wanted you to come here,” he told her.  “Dom, I’m Doctor Charles.”

     That stopped Dom dead in her tracks and she gaped at him for a moment.  “You?  You’re...  Wait.  Seamus is Gaelic for Charles,” she said, probably as she realized it.  “And Roger Zelazny!  The H is...”

     “For Harper,” Harper filled in the dangling thought, gently laying a hand on her arm and taking her hand again.  “I guess the Admiral couldn’t think of anything for that part of my name.  That’s why no one knows what the H stands for.  Someone might have worked it out then.  It’s why Doctor Charles is a recluse, because there were people that knew him by another name.  I’m Roger H. Charles, Dom.  No one’s been stealing my work or doing anything to me.  It’s all right.  Everything just fine, really.”  He started to lead her to the stairs again and this time she came unresisting, probably too shocked not to at the moment.

     “You have two Nobel Prizes!” she said, sounding overwhelmed.  Harper smiled a little and nodded.  “You... you designed the Neptune ships, got man to Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn!”

     “Guilty as charged,” Harper replied with a smile.  “Speaking of Saturn, ever wanted to see it up close?  We can eat dinner looking out over the rings if we leave now.”

     “What?” Dom asked a little distantly.  He glanced back at her and had for force himself not to squeal with delight.  Dom was looking at him with that extremely hot, turned on expression on her face, the one she used to give him when he had just said or done something smart in front of her.  She smiled at him as he met her eyes.  “Are you trying to lure me off in your spaceship, Seamus Harper?”

     “Ah, Doctor Charles now, but everyone just calls me Doc.  And yes, I was,” Harper told her with a grin.  “It’s all finished and someone from the Institute was supposed to come for it and my notes in a few weeks.  What do you say we take it for a little test drive?  She’s got a propulsion unit that leaves everything else I’ve ever made in the dust.”

     Dom’s brow knit and her expression became speculative as she pulled her hand from his and crossed her arms over her chest.  “Doc, huh?” she asked.  “If you’re Doctor Charles, who was the man with the British accent that spoke with me on the phone?”  Dang, Harper thought barely restraining the urge to cringe.  She’d gotten her composure back way quicker than he’d hoped.

     “Uh, that would have been Alfred,” Harper replied with a sheepish look.  “He does all my telephone calls.”  Well, that wasn’t entirely true.  He actually used his computer to talk to anyone from the Institute, routing his typed words through the speech program he’d written for Alfred.  Everyone at the Institute thought he was British.  The Admiral had always found that hilarious.

     “And who is Alfred?” Dom pressed.  “I didn’t see anyone else here.”

     “He’s my butler and I gave him the day off,” Harper told her.

     “You have a butler named Alfred, a secret identity and a cave under your house where you do your real work,” Dom summed up, then raised an eyebrow at him.  “Are you going to whip out the cowl and utility belt now?”

     “Yeah, sure.  Evil forces in the world fear me and my dark vigilante ways,” Harper said with a chuckle.  At least Dom got the Batman reference.  “So, can I take you out for a spin in my space ship?”

     “Is it safe?” she asked, still looking leery on the topic.

     “Very safe!  Really, have you heard of any mechanical problems with the Neptune program?” Harper asked in return, almost hurt by the question.  Dom shrugged and Harper grabbed her hand and pulled her up to him, putting an arm around her.  “Come on.  I’ll let you drive once we’re out of orbit,” he tried persuading her.  He knew she loved trying new things, or at least she used to.

     “Maybe...” she said, letting him lead her a few feet forward.

     “And we can talk,” Harper pressed, pulling her a little closer, not that she was resisting.  “I have so much to tell you about.  Almost sixty years worth.  Please?”

     “All right,” Dom gave in, giving him a little smile.  “For a little while, anyway.  I have a flight back to Santa Barbara the day after tomorrow.”

     Harper gave her a huge grin and pulled her closer still and began to tell her about his life since they had parted, thinking that he hoped she’d forgive him when she missed her flight.  Of course, now that she was coming with him onto the ship, he knew she would forgive him that and that he’d lured her here under false pretenses and for not having gotten in contact with her sooner.  He had been afraid that she’d be mad or something, that she wouldn’t go onto the Neptune with him, that all the history records would be wrong about what happened after this moment.  He knew it meant that he would never return to Earth, that he would spend the rest of his life with Dom out in space, convincing the Perseids, then the rest of the Commonwealth worlds that Earth could make a fine addition to their numbers.  Well, she would be doing that.  He would just be there to shuttle her around and for moral support mostly.  He didn’t mind.  They’d get married on Sinti and they’d be together from here on out and that was all he cared about.  As they climbed aboard his ship arm in arm, Harper knew without any doubts that he was finally where he belonged.

 

The End

 

 

 

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