Thursday had been – stunning. Literally hammer-to-the-forehead stunning (well, metaphorically hammer-to-the-forehead stunning). In a good way. That’s how it had started, at least.
A chance encounter with Summer in the hallway turned into some weird, amazing, gobsmaking, hammer-to-the-repeated-metaphor psychic connection between them. _Dad knew what he was doing with these nanobots, except when he didn’t.
And he’d confessed his love for her, and confessed his love for Alycia, and it should have been awful but somehow it wasn’t, and after a hug in psychic space that segued into a hug in reality space that had lasted an endless time (about five minutes based on the security footage, because of course he’d gone back and looked because it had been an amazing thing) they had parted, with smiles.
And he’d gone on his way, and she on hers, and his heart was filled with something that managed to push aside the fear and tightness and regret he always carried with him (and never more than right now, when his life was so precarious, and he’d just done that thing to his dad, and --).
And, and, and. Life always has an and, usually followed by a next, and, to Jason’s mind, often followed by an everything went into the shitter.
The talk with Summer hadn’t solved anything. He knew that. But it had let him open up, established honesty between them, helped him realize how amazing this thing was he had with Summer (even more than he’d thought). And, yes, there was still that thing with Alycia (he needed to figure out how to get her out of holding, and was sure he could, put a pin in that idea), but there was time, plenty of time, to thrash that out, once his brain wasn’t falling apart.
And if he didn’t fix that, then, well, he wouldn’t care, so win-win!
The future was fraught. But bright. Brighter than he’d thought. For about eight hours.
Then he found the note.
* * *
Summer hadn’t been down for dinner when he wandered into the kitchen. He’d been tied up with making plans for the nanobot reprogramming, for the Merge – some contingencies he hoped would never happen, but he felt better for arranging.
The hours had slipped away, and suddenly it was dark out.
He’d buzzed her room (the AIs were on hold for the moment – still active, but with no visual or audio – another thing for his to-do list). He’d gotten no response to the ping.
Her room. The room he’d offered her to stay in, and that she’d accepted. That was all he’d intended. (Well, that was all he let himself intend; he was not going to hit on her, that would be way out of line, way wrong, just skeevy. Little fantasies niggled at his mind about her hitting on him, but he didn’t let himself think about that – much.)
It was her room. He’d given it to her for as long as she needed it.
The bed was made up, navy corners. The desk tidy. Everything in perfect order.
And it was empty. Fully furnished, everything in place, but utterly empty of her. He felt it as soon as he walked in. The ineffable something of a room someone has departed from, not for a moment, but for –
There was a large suitcase on the floor at the foot of the bed. Not one of his. A piece of paper folded into a neat angle, propped atop it.
Quill Foundation stationary. Surplus, pre-2010 logo revision, with a normal text “Q” in the corner rather than the cool hex logo. The Q had little squiggles drawn around it in ink, a happy face smiling in the middle. A Summer Sun in a Summer Sky.
Something had his heart in vice, squeezing.
“Dear Jason, Leo and Aria sent me a new carbon shell.”
Oh, he did? Jesus Christ on a –
“I assembled it.”
Of course she did. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, unless she doesn’t have a body, in which case a bright, shiny, sparkly body is the best gift in the world. He’d thought he’d given her that, even though he hadn’t done so thinking of it as something she would owe him for, but purely as a favor because she needed it and he was her friend, but then Leo –
“I’m going on an extended shakedown cruise to see how it performs. After that, I will figure out what I need to do.”
_“What I need to do.” Jesus, no.
“You have been a great host, thank you ever so much, for everything. You saved my life and helped me find my self. You have my number if anything comes up. And I promise I will stay in touch.”
The words whip past in a blur, and he has to read it three times before they sink in.
* * *
He opens the case. Inside are blocks of foam, carved and improvised to hold something, or many somethings, and, yup, it’s enough to hold a body’s worth of volume. No instructions, but _she wouldn’t need instructions from him, he’d make it so that it would be intuitive for her. Of course.
_A glance around – the housing he’d built for her isn’t there. He intuits it naturally. Leo built her something that would hold her existing body, the one he, Jason, had put together. Nice and neat.
That son of a–
* * *
It’s not Leo’s fault.
It’s Friday. The really sucky day. Jason is sitting on the sofa. Still. Brigand’s head is in his lap. He occasionally pets him.
Getting up was hard. Harder than he thought it should be. He wanted to stay in bed – and couldn’t stand staying in bed, where the only thing going on was thinking about how much he didn’t want to get up.
He felt oddly broken when he finally dragged himself out of bed, showered, all that.
He’s been sitting on the sofa since then.
The house feels empty. Like the room, only more so. His feet don’t echo on the tile any more than usual, but it still seems like a tomb. _That place in Egypt, maybe. No – under Minos, the one with the three-headed –
He waves the memory off. Who cares?
“It’s not his fault,” he says aloud. The TV is on, some sort of sporting event – oh, the Olympics. The volume is down.
“It’s not his fault. Leo did the right thing. Leo usually does the right thing. He’s a stand-up guy. A hero.”
Yup. It was a group full of heroes. And one guy who was not.
“It’s not his fault. It’s my fault.”
_(It’s my punishment, _part of him thinks. For Dad. He pushes that thought waaaay deep. He’s got enough other ammo to blame himself with.)
_I mean, really. “Hey, let me build you a body. I’ll modify an assassin drone with a hard light projector and you can pretend like you are real.”
She_ is real, of course. But it must be hard to feel real when your body _is an illusion.
Leo knew that. Leo figured it out, where Jason didn’t. A real body. Hell, a real body that will fit the fake body Jason built.
_It’s not Leo’s fault.
“It’s my fault, dammit!” He lunges to his feet. Brigand looks at him reproachfully and makes a huffing sound at being disturbed. Jason doesn’t notice. “I mean – What. The. Fuck. Was I thinking? Seriously.”
He still can’t believe it. He’s run the conversation back and forth in his head. He and Summer, in some sort of joint virtual reality, his nanobots interlocked with her circuitry.
What was he thinking? Clearly, he wasn’t.
“Oh, Summer,” he intones in a melodramatic voice, one hand on his chest, the other extended in a posed gesture, one foot up on the coffee table. “I love you! I love you so much! You are so wonderful, so nice, so kind. Your love has transformed my life! But --”
He stops, re-poses into grand shrug, “-- I’ve got this other love, with Alycia Chin, and so I’m going to find out what being in love with her is like, so you hang out, and remember I love you, but I love her, and she has dibs. You’re a brick, Summer, thanks!”
He spreads his arms, drops backward onto the couch. Brigand makes another huffing noise, gets up, goes down to the end, then plops back to the cushion.
“What was I thinking? Who would ever say something so incredibly stupid! So hurtful! Who would ever say something like that to a real – to a meat person, and not expect to get a slap, or a punch, or a knife under the ribs? Obviously the Great Jason Quill, Boy Genius, would not expect it! So what did he expect?”
He jumps to his feet, clenching his hands together over his chest, like the heroine of a silent film. “'Oh, Jason! I understand completely! You are so wonderful! I will just step into this storage locker over here while you find out what love is like with a human girl. Don’t worry, I’ll go on stand-by, so take however long you wait. I’ll just be over here, with a slowly fading LED power lamp, waiting for you, waiting, waiting …’ Shit.”
Jason drops has hands with disgust. “She did what most people, most sane people, would do – get the hell out of Dodge. Only she did it like Summer would, nice, and kind, and with a note. ‘I promise I will stay in touch.’ Translation, so long, Jason, have a nice life, best of luck in your future endeavors, send me a post card, I know where I’m not wanted. _Shit!”
He sits back down again, half-crumpling to the sofa. “She did the right thing.”
Brigand gets up, comes over, and puts his head in Jason’s lap again.
* * *
_"-- amazing 1080 in the halfpipe, he’s really on fire in today’s final heat–"
I could do that, Jason muses.
_No, you couldn’t.
I_ totally could. He can’t must up much passion for the internal debate. _I have good physical training –
These guy practice this eleventy-zillion hours a week. You can’t even keep up with your pull list at the comic book store.
With the nanobots I could –
Oh, so you’re a_ cheat as well as lazy_. Good to know.
Jason turns off the TV.
* * *
He’s been standing in front of the fridge for five minutes, the air pouring out no longer cold. _Jolt? No. Ice Tea? No. Lemonade? No. Jolt? No. …
He finally closes the door. “This is why Tony Stark gets drunk. I’m sure of it.”
He pours himself some ice water.
* * *
Another shower. It’s something to do. He doesn’t turn on the fan, and the tile walls will get all wet and mildewy if the cleaning people don’t come this week.
But they come every week, cleaning up all the messes.
Except him. He’s a hot mess. Even the cleaning people won’t touch him. _No wonder she’s gone.
* * *
He turns off Sneakers when Mary McDonnell says, “You and I are not getting back together.” He can’t see the screen clearly anyway.
* * *
He toys with the idea of reactivating the UI for Travelycia for about five seconds. “I am a hot mess,” he says to Brigand. “But I am not that hot of a mess.”
Brigand looks up at him, head cocked.
“I mean, two days ago I was worried because I had too many girlfriends. I have the ‘nice girl’ girlfriend, who might not be a girlfriend, but who I really want to be a girlfriend, and the ‘bad girl’ girlfriend, who might not be a girlfriend, but who I really want to be a girlfriend. And now, just a few days later, the ‘nice girl’ girlfriend has moved out, and the ‘bad girl’ girlfriend is at an AEGIS black site somewhere.”
His stomach clenches. “Oh, well, at least I defeated dear old Dad.” His voice is thick with disgust. “Jason Quill always was an over-achiever.”
Brigand makes a noise and rolls over, exposing his stomach.
“I’m talking to the dog,” Jason says, his voice breaking slightly. He scratches the proffered tummy. “I am that hot of a mess. But at least you don’t care.” He bends over, and hugs the dog, who puts up with it for about a minute before wriggling away and trotting off down the hall to his water dish.
* * *
He stares at the computer monitor. A dozens of icons of different games crowd its expanse – local, networked, MMOs, FPSs, puzzles, action, classics, hot on the market, prototype stuff that he’s written himself. Stuff he’s spent hours and days and weeks enjoying, screaming at, laughing over, fist pumping, fist pounding, immersing himself into.
None of it means anything to him.
He shuts down the screen.
* * *
He goes to bed early that night. He’s one of the smartest people on the planet, and he doesn’t know what else to do with himself but go to bed early.
It doesn’t help him sleep.
* * *
Saturday dawns. Jason’s awake with it.
“Summer is gone.”
The words run through his head. The sound like the text from a bad novel. “Summer is gone. The skies are leaden with the cold and frost of a world devoid of warmth, devoid of hope --” Yeah, that kind of bad novel.
It hurts. It still hurts a lot. But it doesn’t hurt quite as much. It’s offset, just a smidge, by his loathing of his own behavior, his wallowing in self-pity. He hates doing that. He knows he does it to much, he knows others know about it, and it bugs the shit out of him every time.
He’s angry. He’s angry for himself for what he did to himself, and to Summer. He’s angry at himself for what he did to his dad. He’s angry at himself for the pity party he’d had the day before.
Today, at least, maybe he can do something constructive.
Ting. His daily schedule pops up on the monitor.
_Oh, dear Lord, really? The Ponies Ask-Me-Anything thing is today?
That’s – just the perfect cherry on top._
* * *
“Yeah, I think maybe someone’s hacked into the system down there,” Jason says to the speakerphone.
“We haven’t seen any signs of problems, Mr. Quill,” says Joline Wierengo, his Chief Infosec Officer. If she minds taking a call from him early on a Saturday morning, she doesn’t give any sign of it.
“Yeah, but I still think so. Reasons. Look, can you restrict the privs of the network down there into our system? Don’t cut it off – Amir needs email and browsing and all of that. But – look, you haven’t seen anything suspicious, but can you do a deeper dive, a more thorough analysis – make sure nothing has used access down there to penetrate our system and cause problems?”
“Sure. Um – if your brother should inquire about restricted access --?”
“I doubt he’ll notice.”
“Very good, sir.”
“Call my dad, sir, Joline. I’m just Jason.”
“Yes, Jason. We’ll get on it right away.”
“Send me the report when you have it, or by next Wednesday at the latest, okay?”
He hangs up. _Hey, look. I’m being a responsible guy. I’m doing what the company needs. Just don’t trust me with your romantic relationships. Or with your fathers. I’m not good with fathers.
He looks at the next note, and dials up Barbara to find out when the next Board meeting is.
* * *
He doesn’t want to go. He really doesn’t want to go.
He could send his regrets. If he’s actually retiring, leaving the group, finding some new, great, grand purpose (to screw up) – maybe he can just send his regrets. He can tweet his retirement to PowerPony. _That’ll make a big splash.
– would be a shitty thing to do to his team mates. His friends. Even if they know he’s a hot mess, they deserve to hear that kind of thing in person. And if they’re going to be there, he needs to be there.
Worse … if he didn’t show up, if he sent in his resignation remotely, Summer would know. She would know. And she would come back to him – for an hour, for however long he needed, and he couldn’t stand being an object of pity that way.
(And if Summer knew, then Aria would know, and Leo would know, and – Jason shrinks back from that whole scenario.)
_Suck it up, buttercup.
* * *
The hoverdisc is huge. It’s empty.
He really doesn’t want to even drive there alone.
The Ponies would probably love him to death. Everyone else – "Oh, poor Jason, he’s so lonely he has to bring his dog with him – like some a little old lady." Shit.
He doesn’t want to go.
_Do not be a recluse, Jason. Just. Do. It.
He climbs into the hoverdisc, spins up the engines, and heads out.
author: *** Dave H.