Chapter 142

              “Everyone hold tight. I’ve never tried anything like this before, and the ride will probably be bumpy.”

                “You know, I think that’s the exact speech I gave to a girl a few nights-”

                “Roy, not the time.”

                “Sorry, just trying to lighten the mood.”

*             *             *

                Nicholas had finally given up his pointless tugging on the chain, and Nick’s resolve was wearing thin as the small headache had turned into a pair of knives stabbing him in the brain. The ice had grown at the same relentless pace all the while, and now it rose over them in full majesty. There was still a sizable space near the top that was uncovered, but most of their view was only sheer ice now.

                “I wonder what it will feel like,” Nicholas said, pulling himself up from the ground. “Being wiped out, I mean.”

                “Beats me. When I was stuck in here, it was like drifting through darkness, being stuck in the space right between dreams and waking. Time meant nothing, and I wasn’t particular inconvenienced, so probably not so bad.”

                “What you experienced wasn’t a true purge though. She’s made that abundantly clear.” Nicholas gestured to the spot where Professor Stone’s image had previously appeared to deliver her verdict.

                “Yeah, that’s why I said ‘beats me’ when you asked. Probably we’ll feel nothing, or we’ll just be stuck in this dome forever. Pre-Lander us will get control and everything will be like it was before.” Nick was surprised by the sadness in his voice. It had been so long since he accidently showed genuine emotion that he wasn’t prepared for it.

                “Here’s hoping we’re just destroyed then,” Nicholas said. “I do not take much shine to the idea of being stuck here until our body dies.”

                “At least the company is amiable.”

                “No offence, but there are a lot of other people I’d prefer to be stuck with.”

                “Ditto,” Nick agreed.

                “Since we’re here though, I do have a question for you,” Nicholas said, turning to look at the man who so identical and yet so different from him. “Before the chains popped out, you said you weren’t conflicted about who we are, about what we’ve done. How? I’ve read the files and I’ve met your friends and nothing I’ve seen would indicate something that would provide such a serious personal shift. We’ve always been devoted to the work of the Family, but it weighs on us just a bit. Why do you seem so much lighter?”

                “Several reasons,” Nick replied. “Personal growth certainly helped, as did getting a little perspective from outside our Vegas life. Not to mention surviving the HCP meant I didn’t have a lot of time for inner dilemmas. But really, I think it was realizing that I have a place in the world.”

                “I’m going to need a little more than that.”

                “You read the file about when George kidnapped Mary and Hershel, and saw the memory of us fighting him. What I didn’t put in there is that I originally decided not to go. I was going to sit it out, run back to Vegas, and never set foot on Lander campus again. Then, when I was sitting in my room, go-bag in my hands, I realized two things: the first was that I didn’t want to leave people I cared about behind, which was a shocker all in itself. The other was the bigger revelation though: I realized that they needed me. In order to pull off that crazy escape attempt, they needed my brain, my trickery, and my talents. Powerful people, aspiring-Heroes, and my criminal skills would be what pulled them from the fire.”

                “That doesn’t sound that surprising to me,” Nicholas remarked.

                “Words don’t really do it justice. It was just the moment of understanding that there was a place in the world between outright criminal and saintly Hero. That it was possible to be a bad guy and do good things. In that moment, I realized I could be my own kind of criminal, my own kind of man, and find a place in the moral spectrum where I made the rules.”

                “Sounds like… actually it sounds like the sort of thing Gerry would get behind.”

                “I think he was trying to teach us that for years before we left,” Nick agreed. “Poor guy, he’s going to have to start all over when this is done.”

                They both looked up at the slowly closing gap in the sky. There was no real time here, yet they still realized that they didn’t have much on it left.

                “Since we’re getting wiped anyway, will you tell me what secret you figured out that was so vital it had to be destroyed?” Nicholas asked. “Nathaniel’s presence and your intrusions made getting anywhere in the research damn near impossible.”

                “Tsk tsk, making excuses about failing a mission,” Nick chided.

                “Technically, I still had another semester.”

                “You know as well as I do that Ms. Pips considers dying without finishing the job to be failure.”

                “Says the one who got taken out first.”

                “Ouch, below the belt,” Nick said. “Don’t feel too bad about not figuring things out though; I doubt you ever could have.”

                Nicholas made a large gesture of rolling his eyes.

                “I’m not being mean, you just don’t have the perspective I do, and without it you’d never put the pieces together.”

                “I have nearly all the information you possessed.”

                “That might be true, but you’re missing the empathy,” Nick said.

                “Empathy? That’s the trick to figuring out the big secret?”

                “Understanding emotions is. Not just how to manipulate them, but how they actually impact you. You only got a taste of it in the memories; I lived in a cesspool of the stuff for two years. Hate, friendship, jealousy, devotion; just a miasma of the gunk coming from all directions. Being infected was ultimately inevitable.”

                “You’re talking in riddles,” Nicholas accused.

                “Sorry, it’s my final moments of consciousness; I’m allowed to wax philosophical a bit. You know my only real regret right now?”

                “Getting us destroyed?”

                “Not in the slightest. No, I wish I’d never pulled you back to college in the first place. I wish I had just left things as they were when I left Lander. It was all nice and sewn up, but now my friends will be stuck with this fresh, painful ending. They don’t even get another round of goodbyes.”

                As Nick spoke, Nicholas noticed a shadow on the ground beneath him, one growing steadily in size. His eyes darted up, expecting to see the dome finally completing itself, but what met his eyes instead was far more bizarre.

                “If you’re still channeling luck, I think you can stop.”

                Nick glanced to Nicholas, who was still staring up, then followed his eyes through the gap in the dome. There, plummeting toward them at high speeds, was a tangle of bodies belonging to Mary, Hershel, Roy, Vince, and Alice. They shot through the gap and slowed just before landing, all setting down with the lightness of a sunbeam. Nick stared at all them, seeing his friends through his own eyes for the first time in over a half a year, and spoke before he could stop himself.

                “This service is completely unacceptable. I called for a ride hours ago. You manager is going to hear about this.”

                That was all he could get out before the others swarmed him in a hug.