Nerissa stole away in darkness to the silent pond of her youth. In the glassy waters she once waded in, she washed off her brother’s blood from her hands.
“Wasted tears,” she muttered, viciously pushing away the wretched marks of weakness with a closed fist, as she wished it would it could impart anger to fill the void of sorrow she felt. However, her hand only left a scarlet mark upon her cheek. She thrust her head into the algid, turbulent surface of the water, just so long that her lungs ached. When she emerged, the tears were gone as she heaved for breath.
She glanced suspiciously at the moon as if it were a witness to the unnatural deeds accomplished under its saturnine gaze. However, it remained no more than a serene specter. She was perfectly alone.
Satisfied that the trees would whispers no wounding words, she rose with a struggle. That would not do. She straightened herself exactly, hiding her pain as her mother had always taught, with a smile.
Timothy watched Nerissa Gagnon closely at Paris’s funeral. Her little brother had been her closest companion since their parents left on an experimental voyage to Gliese 581 G just over ten years ago, days after young Paris graduated high school. Their parents had counted on Nerissa to closely watch over Paris, and indeed, she had. She had been everything one could expect in an older sister: a protector, a mentor, an ally, and an advocate.
She had her own very lustrous career in mechanical engineering, but she was just as eager to pull her brother along in his own interests in xenobiology. The pair was as whip-smart as their parents, and just as handsome and athletic. With parental pride, their parents had bestowed the monikers Venus and Adonis on Nerissa and Paris.
Still, now, Venus seemed to have lost her blush. Nerissa's face was pale, although no emotion boiled to the surface. It was still as the untouched glade behind the Gagnons' house that Tim, Neri, and Paris used to play within as children.
After the short funereal service where Nerissa offered a terse, composed, but undeniably elegant eulogy, Timothy approached Nerissa. “I am so sorry.”
“As am I,” Nerissa said without intonation. Her blank countenance could be taken for unfeeling in one unknowing of the Gagnons. No matter his or her personality in normal circumstances, every one of the Gagnons seem to freeze to ice in face of strong emotion. Timothy, who had grown up just across the way and was a best friend to Paris, knew the habit well. He wiped away his own tears and hugged Nerissa's stiff body. She reacted against him, as if his touch was painful. Gradually, however, she relaxed and placed her own cold hand against his back.
In that singular gesture of closeness, his tears came more rapidly. “God, Neri, I just can’t accept he’s gone. I don’t know what I’ll do without him. I just expect him to come walking up any moment now, smiling about what a scare he gave us. He always recovered before.”
“I know, Tim,” she said. Her voice was quiet: a lugubrious note, not quite vibrato, on a tightly wound violin. “I know.”
“Oh man, that was awesome!” Paris yelled. His hair stuck up vertically and his smile stretched horizontally, making his face an array of right angles.
He walked around boldly, shaking his limbs occasionally, as if he still had too much adrenalin wired into his system.
“Pants, Paris. Pants,” Nerissa smiled as she proffered a bundle of clothing. The laboratory was well lit, illustrating every fine curve of the younger Gagnon’s buttocks.
Paris laughed easily and without self-consciousness. “Oh, my prudish little sister,” he said, but picked up the trousers from Nerissa’s hand.
“Elder sister,” Nerissa corrected.
“Elder sister you may be, but you’re still little.” He reached out to muss her hair, but she ducked away skillfully.
“Now, Paris, you are still in quarantine. You should not be touching me,” Nerissa admonished.
“Pardon me, Dr. Gagnon,” he said mockingly. Nerissa rolled her eyes. “Did Mom and Dad see, you think?”
“I think they did,” Nerissa smiled.
“Did you hear about Dr. Gagnon, Ellie?” Ajax asked, hanging about Eleanor’s desk, as was his wont.
“It’s awful,” Ellie agreed, not terribly displeased by neither the information that was being received nor the messenger. Nerissa had all about ascended to godhood in how she was lauded for her groundbreaking work in matter transport she accomplished while still in graduate school and with the courageousness of her brilliant parents who became the first people to undertake the journey. Several other scientists had followed into the great beyond, but even traveling at the speed of light, it would be almost thirty years before they would receive word back.
It was always Nerissa this or Doctor Gagnon that, and the press couldn’t get enough of her and her perfect family. Eleanor had not quite the privileged upbringing and had to work her way through college, not get by on her parent’s coattails. Despite the superficial benevolence of her younger colleague, Eleanor harbored resentment toward her. She was not completely alone in this. While the younger Gagnon apparently became student body president of his university by sophomore year, Eleanor thought she could count the friends of the elder on one hand and have fingers to spare. While it was common enough to praise Nerissa, it was rare to befriend her.
“She’s taking it pretty well though. I mean, she planned the funeral early in the morning last week just so she didn’t have to miss work. You’d think she’d take a day off considering now she’s alone in this world,” Ajax said, perhaps a little melodramatically, but Ellie forgave him.
“If her graduate work does not work as planned, she’s alone in the universe what with her parents,” Ellie said in false remorse. “With only a Nobel to dry her tears.”
“You are wicked, Ellie my dear,” Ajax smiled and laughed. He was among those not entirely enamored with Nerissa Gagnon as well
“It is terrible though. I liked her brother,” Ellie said honestly.
“Everyone liked Paris. Maybe that’s why she offed him,” Ajax suggested.
“Now who’s wicked, Ajax?” Ellie giggled at her fellow conspirators, glancing over her shoulder for potential eavesdroppers. Sure enough, Thaisa Talbot, the vice provost, was approaching, a tight frown over her solemn countenance. There were times that Ellie sincerely hated the decision to get rid of private offices for a more “communicative and collaborative” layout.
“You didn’t hear it from me,” Ajax winked, seeing the approaching specter as signal to take his leave.
“I spoke with the doctors. They want to extend your quarantine,” Nerissa said solemnly.
“Why?” Paris demanded. “I feel fine.”
“I’m not a biologist, but they seemed upset at some unknown bacteria you are harboring. They need some time to properly dissect its genome to be sure,” Nerissa explained, waving her hand as if the matters of biology were no more than the musings of grown children. She was not without an academic arrogance, although she attempted to disguise it for the most part in front of her colleagues. Her brother, however, knew her feelings well and accepted them good-naturedly. In return, he disdained mechanical engineering as math monkeys playing with wrenches.
“They should show me. I’m a xenobiologist!” Paris said irritably, pacing.
“You only have a baccalaureate,” Nerissa reminded him gently. He stalked away and threw himself back on his bed.
“I hate being cooped up,” he moaned.
“Mom says you should be patient.” Nerissa said.
“Then why doesn’t she come down here and tell me herself?” Paris asked petulantly.
“She can’t. I told you,” Nerissa reminded him.
“I’m tired of this. I can only take so much. If they’re not done by the end of this week, there’ll be hell to pay.”
“Hello, Timothy,” Nerissa smiled as she opened the door for him. Her expression was nothing but magnanimous. However, it was the lack of surprise that prickled the back of his mind. Tim had never visited Nerissa before and only knew of her address as she had recently acquired her childhood home. Her parents had sold it when they were traveling to Gliese, but it was said she paid a substantial sum of money to entice the current occupants to leave.
Despite all this, she did not seem perturbed by Timothy's sudden appearance. It was almost too perfectly welcoming of a response. “Would you like to come in?”
He shook off the suspicion.
“If you’d be so kind, Neri,” he said with half a smile.
She switched on the lights of the sitting room as she passed. “I was making a cup of tea. Would you like one? I have chamomile, jasmine, or green.”
“Chamomile would be lovely,” Tim said. Nerissa disappeared down the hallway. It was several moments before she returned. Tim took the time to examine the extensive collection of books displayed. There was everything from Shakespeare to Kafka to Freud to Hawking. Not one was dusty or in any other means suffering from neglect. It was almost as if she read each of the handsome collection on a regular basis. From her demanding work schedule Paris had told him about to the aseptically clean living quarters, he wondered when Nerissa slept.
He heard a muffled thump. Not from the kitchen, but seemingly coming from the floorboards. He looked quizzically at his feet. A second crash followed it. Just as he made the decision to investigate, Nerissa appeared, almost imperceptibly flushed. She handed his teacup to him with a guileless smile that, while well fitted for her callow younger brother, seemed less suited to the older sibling. While young enough, her eyes were just a bit too stolid to carry the expression through.
Perhaps it was the grief.
“I heard a noise,” Timothy started awkwardly. “In the basement.”
“Oh, that,” she said flatly. “I am renovating.”
“Workers can be so clumsy,” Timothy nodded understandingly.
“There’s no one down there,” Nerissa said quickly. “I’m doing the renovations myself. Something must’ve just fallen over.”
“Oh,” Tim said. A prolonged silence passed that Nerissa seemed in no hurry to break.
“Neri, how are you doing?” Tim asked.
“What?” she asked with a slight smile, startled from her introversion.
“After Paris, it must be difficult,” Tim said. “I know it’s difficult for me. He was just so vibrant, so full of life. I have the hardest time accepting he’s gone. Whenever I see something clever or something he would have found funny, I find myself reaching for my phone to text him before remembering he can’t answer. That he’ll never answer.”
Nerissa politely looked down as Tim blinked a tear away for the man who had been his brother.
“It is difficult,” Nerissa admitted. “But I have my work.”
Tim looked up, and saw that there was no facetiousness in Nerissa’s solace. As some had religion, she had mechanics. Ever since she was a little girl, she had been strange in that way, desiring to build her own toys rather than wait for Santa to bestow them on her for good behavior. Perhaps she had chosen that route because Santa seemed to always favor Paris. People in general always seemed to. While ostensibly she seemed a model of perfection, there was something mechanical about her aspect so it always seemed that Paris had garnered more love and admiration.
With her success with the matter transporter, however, she had received her share of elegies and parental pride. Timothy remember that it was only days later that Paris had given some rousing speech on the progress of science, all of course in the name of his sister, and the press had turned their adulation toward the younger Gagnon. Really, it only seemed like in the wake of Paris’s death that the camera had permanently focused on Nerissa, that she was finally seen as the brilliant, tragic engineer on the bleeding edge of science, pushing toward a futuristic tomorrow that people would not have thought possible in a million years. She was finally and completely out of her brother's shadow.
Tim brushed away the thought before it occurred.
“Do you want to take a walk, Neri? We could down to the pond for old time’s sake,” Tim suggested.
“No, Timothy,” Nerissa said sharply. “I’m sorry, but I can’t. I’m very tired, and I think I may need some sleep.”
“Yeah, I do too. It’s been a tough few weeks,” Tim said. “Call me if you need to talk.”
She nodded. “I will. Thank you, Timothy.”
“Dammit, Nerissa, I can’t stay here any longer,” Paris stormed.
“Calm down. They are just being careful. It is for the best,” Nerissa said, the perfect facsimile of a parent talking down a toddler from a temper tantrum.
“And don’t you dare do that!” he said, his voice edging closer to a yell.
“Do what?” Nerissa asked, almost angelically. However, innocence was not designed to suit her ancient eyes. It could not carry through.
“Act like you’re my mother. You are not and you have never have been. And even if you were, it’s not like you could control my life. It’s my life. Not your life version 2.0,” he ranted.
“I do not believe I have ever been under than delusion. I have only ever tried to help you,” Nerissa said.
“I have had it up to here with your help,” Paris said.
“Please, Paris. Let us not fight. Let’s just talk, like we used to,” Nerissa said, almost pleading. She was no longer mother, but sister. She was the sister who never had a playmate so Paris shared Timothy with her. She was the sister who would stay up late to help Paris finish every project he procrastinated so that his parents didn't know he had snuck out to party the night before. First and foremost, she was his sister, she was his best and truest friend, and he hers. In a glance, they both seemed to remember this.
He sat down. “I can’t. I can’t. I need to get out. I can’t stand this. I need to see people other than you. When will they be done?” he asked, desperately.
“They are trying the best they can,” Nerissa said.
“Tell them to work faster. Or you do it for them. You could probably learn biology faster than they can figure this out. You’re the genius,” Paris said bitterly.
Nerissa smiled. “I will look into it.”
“Timothy Montague?” the mousy woman asked. She held a laptop clutched to her chest over which a pair of large eyes peered. Tim had never seen the woman in his life, but now she was on his doorstep. She seemed just as off kilter about the situation as he did.
“Yeah, that’s me,” he said.
“I need to talk to you, about Dr. Gagnon. Nerissa Gagnon,” the woman continued. “As far as I can tell, you were her closest friend.”
While Tim had mostly been Paris’s friend, he found he was not surprised that he was also the closest friend to Nerissa. While seemingly pleasant enough, she was often friendless. It was paradox that Nerissa never expressed as distressing, but Nerissa was a private individual. Tim believed there were many things Nerissa thought and felt but never expressed.
“Okay,” Tim said, still standing at the doorway, wondering why the woman was here.
“Can I come in?” the woman looked behind her shoulder, as if suspecting someone was watching. Was she a reporter? Was she doing a piece on Nerissa? If so, she wouldn’t be the first to wax philosophically on the isolated genius whose close brother had so suddenly passed and whose parents were nothing more than patterned light waves propagating through space at the speed of light at the moment.
“Um, sure,” Tim said. His dog came to greet the intruder with a happy tongue, evidentially less suspicious than Tim. The woman perched herself on the edge of a cushion on the couch, opened her computer, and began to pour through files and speak rapidly.
“I was working through Dr. Gagnon’s files for the recent mass transporter data. She keeps it quite encrypted, against university protocols—” she began.
“Sorry, excuse me, but who are you?” Tim asked.
“Portia. Portia Horner. I’m the data security analyst at Nerissa’s university and a big fan of her work. I’ve read every paper she’s ever published, watched every one of her speeches. It is why I work where I do,” she began to ramble.
“Nice to meet you, Portia, but why did you come to me?” Tim asked.
“Because I found something strange,” Portia said. She cut off, frowning and biting at her lip. She clicked at her computer before looking up once more. “And I wanted to know if you thought Nerissa had been acting strangely in the year before her brother died. And how her relationship to her brother was.”
Nerissa and Paris had fought, he remembered. But that was not so strange. Both were brilliant and strong-willed. Their parents had granted Nerissa control over the estate, and Nerissa had a way of attempting to direct her brother’s actions by dangling his heirdom like a carrot. She never did so quite so explicitly, but in an underhanded Machiavellian way. Of course, Paris responded in kind. Rebelling in slight ways that he knew could garner no recompense, and perhaps just a little, going out of his way to steal his sister’s thunder whenever possible.
While Nerissa and Paris could often be the best of friends, the rivalry between siblings could extend to a prolonged clash of the titans.
Timothy considered the wisdom of airing out the Gagnon old laundry to the woman he had barely met, who may still be a reporter attempting to fish for a new tilt to the Gagnon legacy.
“Tell me what you found,” Tim said simply.
“Well, part of my job is just to go through files and see if they’ve been corrupted or stolen. This Chinese group has been replicating data from the mass transporter that’s very similar to our own. So similar, in fact, that the provost assigned me to carefully comb through the entire group’s computers. They were seized without notice, and of course everyone threw a fit, besides Dr. Gagnon. And when I got to her laptop, I saw she’s encrypted the hell out of every piece of data. I couldn’t get in, and she refused to let me in.
“She said, ‘If you can’t get in, what makes you think a Chinese group without access to the physical copy would be able to get my data?’” Portia said. “She let me in eventually, but I was pretty sure it was to a dummy desktop. Not the one where she does all her real work. I did not dare confront her, but I told the provost.”
“That sounds a lot like Neri,” Tim nodded.
“That’s what everyone seemed to think. From the other scientists' laptops, I was able to find a few leaky files that might have been skimmed, but nothing too bad, so the provost encouraged me to get onto Dr. Gagnon’s computer by whatever means necessary. She figured that Dr. Gagnon would never admit to being wrong or making a mistake, and we needed to make sure that was the case. I downloaded a keystroke-tracking program and a data tracker, which would make copies of any files changed or deleted and gave the computer back to Dr. Gagnon. I figured since they would just save the data internally and not try to export it, she might not noticed,” Portia explained.
“But Neri did, and your programs were deleted the next time you tried to get into her computer,” Tim said.
“Yes, that’s correct. So, I asked Ajax to watch her. He was able to visually see her keystrokes and make a long list of passwords, and he reported them back to me. After she left for the day, I took her computer. It took all night, but I was able to get on, and I found this hidden file,” Portia said.
“Checkpoint?” Tim asked, reading off the dimly lit, grimy screen.
“Yeah. It was well hidden, so I figured it must be important, but I couldn’t figure out how to open these files or what they were. Mostly, the names are two distinct letters followed by a numerical code. However, “NG” with different numbers is repeated several times. The earliest file is one of the NG’s, and I figured out the numerical code refers to a time and date. It from a few months after Dr. Gagnon completed her first prototype. AG and JG correspond to the dates that her parents left, and there are initials as well for every other member sent to Gliese. Each file’s enormous, and with the dates and title, as far as I can tell, Dr. Gagnon’s been saving a, well, a copy of each person who has used her device,” Porita said, sitting back from her computer and blinking.
“Okay. I mean, that’s strange that she hasn’t mentioned it to anyone, but I don’t think we should be that worried. It’s just data, right?” Tim said with a shrug.
“I haven’t gotten to the really weird stuff yet. There’s a PG here too. Two files, actually. One, as far as I can tell, is just a normal file from about six years before Paris’s death. The other has been altered,” Portia said.
“What do you mean ‘altered’?” Tim asked.
“I mean someone’s been messing with the code. There’s no upload date. It seems to be a copy of the original PG, but there are several differences. I pulled up the two side by side. And if I didn’t know better, I would swear that Dr. Gagnon had been messing with her brother’s data, to change him somehow. But, that’s basically impossible. The files are the pattern of atoms, and to build up macroscopic changes, whatever they might be, by modulating by the patterns of atoms,” Portia said, waving her hands about, as if trying to erase the idea from her mind.
“It would take a genius,” Tom said. He met her eyes. He imagined all the things that Nerissa had complained about her younger brother and her insatiable desire to engineer past perceived problems. What things would she try to fix about him? Would she try to make him more compliant to her will? Would she decrease his intelligence slightly so that she felt smarter in comparison? What was Nerissa capable of? What did Nerissa want?
“Yes. A genius. But that’s not the end of it. I can see how many times each file has been downloaded and uploaded. Most of them, it’s a one to one ratio, like look at her parents. Someone steps inside and is downloaded at another terminal. I haven’t quite deciphered her code for what terminal it is, but I can see that they have been downloaded,” Portia said.
“But the modified copy of Paris. That was never uploaded. It was just copied. But, it has been downloaded,” Tim said, in sudden comprehension.
“More than once,” Portia concluded. Tim thought about the noise in the basement. What if Paris, or a Paris, was still alive?
“We have to tell someone.”
“Nerissa, you’ll get me out of here, right?” Paris begged.
“I’m doing everything I can,” Nerissa responded.
“I feel like I’m going to die in here. Please, Nerissa, I’ll take back everything I said those months ago. I won’t tell Mom and Dad. You just got to get me out of here,” Paris said desperately.
“Please, Paris, don’t be so dramatic. It’s not so bad in here,” Nerissa said.
“That’s what you say, but you get to come and go, talking to those doctors. Sometimes I swear there are no doctors, and it’s just you, keeping me in here because I was never the little pet you wanted me to be,” Paris spat.
Nerissa turned to leave.
“No, please, Nerissa. Don’t, no, I’m sorry. Don’t leave me here alone. I need you. I need someone to talk with. You have to get me out. You’re my best friend, Nerissa. You’re my sister, my big sister. You protect me. Please,” Paris whined.
“You’re not yourself when you’re like this, Paris,” Nerissa whispered. “I have to go. There’s something I need to fix.”
Officer Dennis Percy knocked on the door. “Dr. Gagnon, open up. It’s the police department. We have a search warrant for the premises.” Dennis had a certain distaste for the arrogant academics who, as a lot, seemed a whole bunch nuttier than your average folk. They didn’t seem to quite get that laws other than that of physics applied to them. He relished the task of setting one right, however the blood found by the pond in the backyard suggested this particular crime was darker than those with which he commonly dealt.
Quiet footsteps answered. He could hear her rise on her tiptoes to look through the peephole. “I’m sorry, Officer, what is it you require?” Nerissa answered almost listlessly, as if the armada of police cars and officers deserved no more notice than a raised eyebrow.
“We have a warrant to search the premises,” Dennis repeated irritably.
“It is dreadfully late. I kindly ask you to come back tomorrow, if you feel so inclined,” Dr. Gagnon said.
Dennis really hated academics. “This is not a request. Open the door, or we are authorized by law to break the it down.”
“That will be decidedly onerous task, I would assure you. Come back tomorrow. I am busy,” Dr. Gagnon replied without intonation.
“You have received a verbal warning, Dr. Gagnon. I—” Dennis started.
“Shall I offer my own verbal warning?” Nerissa asked. “In a minute’s time, I will detonate enough TNT to level this house.”
Officer Diana Kent beside him murmured a curse and backed away a step. “Officer Percy?” she asked, “Should we withdraw?”
Dennis considered it a moment. He realized the crazy scientist bitch might be telling the truth.
“Yes, stand down,” Dennis nodded.
“All units are ordered behind the perimeter,” Diana commanded into her radio. “Repeat, all units are ordered behind the perimeter. Code 287, suspect has made a bomb threat.”
As Diana and Dennis hustled back to the squad car, they were met with a wild young man who was surging forward. It was difficult to see the resemblance to the man who entered their station an hour earlier. The stress seemed to be slowly unraveling him.
“What? My best friend’s in there! Or, at least, his clone. We have to go get him. I can’t lose him again!” Tim yelled, struggling to get past the officers who already held him at bay. Behind him, a mousy woman continued to click between two laptops held on her lap, only moderately concerned with the happenings before her.
“Mr. Montague, while considerably suspect, we do not know for sure that Paris Gagnon is within the premises,” Diana said, attempting to keep the man back.
“Just let me talk with her. I knew her,” Tim said. “Please.”
Memories did not flash before Nerissa’s eyes. They ambled, slowly, almost three decades, mulling together languidly. There were happy moments, usually alone or just with her brother. The moments spent reading in the noonday sun trickled brightly past her eyes, as if she were walking in a dream.
There were darker moments as well.
“No!” he yelled. “This isn’t right. Dammit, you can’t play God!”
The darker moments seemed to be made of more viscous stuff. It stuck to her brain, refusing to budge, as if inertia exponentially increased with the unpleasantness of the memory.
“Please, Paris. Please. Just listen to me! I fixed you,” she begged.
“Not everything is here for you to fix. Life isn’t a plaything, Nerissa,” he retorted. “This machine is a monstrosity.”
“You are being unreasonable. Just think about it. The machine is just parts. It’s just mechanics, just physics, chemistry, and biology. Paris, can’t you just think what this means? Paris, I fixed you. I could fix anyone. We would never have to die,” she said. She tried to touch him, as if to make sure he was real. He shoved her away so viciously that she fell back hard.
She rose again and tried to hold him still. He hit her sharply.
“No,” he said, backing away. “No.”
Trinitrotoluene, although archaic in comparison to modern explosives, is surprisingly easy to make. When one works in a university, chemicals are easy to come by. Of course, with the quantities she needed, it was often difficult to avoid suspicion. However, she was the university darling, and storerooms are not well observed after dark.
She had felt so silly when was she began first acquiring her stocks. Surely she needn’t go to such extreme to protect her basement laboratory. It was just examining old data and experimenting with a new prototype. It was a faint wish, an uncertain hypothesis wavering on the edge of nothing. However, time had proved her wisdom.
“Paris, what are you doing?” she asked with alarm. The certainty, the elder sibling authority, she often used to address her younger brother was fading fast. “Paris, put that down! You’re going to hurt someone.”
His eyes glinted in the metal of her earliest form of protection for her basement laboratory. She couldn’t quite remember why she brought it down. Perhaps she was afraid her experiment would go horribly wrong. But, it had worked. It had worked perfectly. Almost. “It probably won’t hurt for long,” he said.
He raised the gun. She felt it rise level to her chest. Her heartbeat echoed in her ears. Her brother’s eyes were steely. Her feet were moving her backward before she realized the motion. She bumped against a bench and lost her balance. Even so, however, the muzzle slipped upward.
“No!” she screamed with acute realization, standing up and stumbling forward. “No, you can’t die, Paris!”
The pain felt so real as it shot forward from her memory, but she would never feel it again. Not all do fade as leaves; some are burned in fire. She had made mistakes. She had made discoveries, breath-taking, world-changing discoveries. How could those selfsame discoveries be mistakes? Was she but a modern Prometheus, bringing flame to mortals only to be prosecuted for it? Was she a Dr. Frankenstein?
Hardly realizing she had traveled, she was in her basement laboratory, her sanctum sanctorum and sepulcher. She went to the fuse box, finger trembling at the button.
“It’s not dying, Neri. Not really,” Paris smiled.
The childhood home where Timothy had spent many a summer day collapsed in on itself, almost delicately and neatly, like a prim and proper elderly lady folding her hands upon a lace-covered lap, with only a gently burning fire quickly taking to the remains. His response was neither delicate nor neat.
“Oh God!” he choked. He collapsed messily, limbs splayed. It was hope rekindled from ashes before being doused in a flood. If only he had known sooner, he could have stopped her. “Oh God! He’s--.”
The police officer shifted uncomfortably as they radioed in the new situation, calling for firefighters on the scene.
Portia, meanwhile, stopped her examination of Dr. Gagnon’s data and sidled up to Tim. There was something strange there in the data she was examining, but it did not seem to matter anymore. She pressed her arms around him and said nothing. “He was my brother,” Tim mumbled as she buried her head in his collar. “I loved him, and I hoped—”
“We all hoped,” Portia murmured. “We all did.”
“I’ve got you cleared!” Nerissa announced triumphantly. Her younger brother encircled her in a hug that lifted her off her toes and spun her around wildly.
“My sister, the genius!” Paris said. “I knew you could do it!”
“Come on, Mom and Dad want to see you!” Nerissa giggled in the euphoria her younger brother exuded.
“My beautiful son. My brilliant daughter. Oh God, I don’t know how I thought I could live without seeing you two grow up,” Adam Gagnon said, holding each of his children in an arm and burying kisses on their heads through his thick beard. “I’m so glad you decided to join us, whatever the reason why.”
“Hell, I can barely remember why. It seems like Neri was just showing off her machine to me, and boom, I’m here,” Paris grinned.
“The confusion is the result of some changes Nerissa made in the program,” Juliet Gagnon explained. “Apparently the change allowed for more efficient transportation of data and less chance of data corruption. It also changed lengthened the travel time by a several of years.”
“We probably wouldn’t have been able to make heads or tales of Neri showing up without a clue of how she’d got here if she didn’t send the note ahead of time. God, I now know what the old settlers felt like when I jumped off their matter analyzer,” Adam laughed. He kissed his children again. “Now, let me show my Venus and Adonis off to the old settlers. They’ve never even been to Earth, nor have their parents or their grandparents, what with how slow rockets are, and I’m sure you have some stories to tell.”
“What my loving husband means to say is that he is a hopeless braggart and has been continually boasting of your accomplishments, and Nerissa’s recent foray into microbiology and Paris’s cure for his own cystic fibrosis is no different,” Juliet explained.
“Did I do that?” Paris mouthed at Nerissa, who nodded eagerly. He sat back with a self-satisfied smile while Adam answered his wife’s slight with a peck on the cheek and a wink. He led his children triumphantly forward. However, Juliet held her daughter back.
“Nerissa, Neri, I am proud of you,” Juliet said simply. With the unheard of pure sentiment from her mother’s lips, Nerissa smiled. She could not quite remember why she decided to leave all of her research and awards back on Earth lightyears away, but Nerissa was glad she did.
She had been so worried about her brother all those years on Earth, but now he was fixed. Now, she could smile, honestly.