The stars gazed down on him as he worked, thousands of winking eyes folding in and out of the clouds, now shining, now gone. He found their presence comforting, a simple reminder of three years past, when stars—some of them the same stars winking down at him now—had hung, suspended, all around the Legacy, silvery pebbles in the vast etherium. He set down the wrench he held in his hand. Standing barefoot and in a sleeveless white cotton shirt and his old, baggy trousers, he tipped his head back, gazing up at the dark purple, summer skies, delighting in the sense of wonder that never seemed to leave him whenever he looked up at the sta—
"Standing by my baby tonight!"
The voice rose in a grainy, static-laced ditty, jolting Jim back to the task he had set himself to. Sitting beside him, cross-legged, rather cross-eyed, yet undeniably cheerful, was a coppery, loose-jointed robot. A Bio-Electronic-Navigator. B.E.N. to anyone who chanced to spend at least twenty seconds with him. The robot, despite his recent three years spent among civilized and certainly living, breathing beings, still had quite a lot of repairs owed him. He also had a lot of maintenance owed him. Delighted at the very thought of being made fully functional again, B.E.N. had a tendency to wear down most of his repairs in the course of a week.
"Sorry, B.E.N.," Jim muttered. "Didn't mean to get side-tracked."
B.E.N. bounced a little where he sat, enduring Jim's repairs with fierce good will. "It's all right, Jimmy. Sidetrack away. Gives me a chance to get in tune with my inner chips. You know, old programming and all that. Got a motherboard that goes back one hundred and sixty three years and I'm telling you, Jimmy, my boy, nobody's thrown out my temporary files in as much and, hey, I might as well do something with 'em 'cause, you know, they're just random strings of zeros and ones otherwise and a zero to the left is not gonna go from zero to hero anytime soon unless—"
Jim fixed the chattering robot with a warning glare, not the first he had directed at him that night. B.E.N.'s eyes slit down in mollified understanding, his incessant talk dropping down to a whisper. Jim tightened the wheels set at B.E.N.'s elbows, flicked shut the hinged door at his back, and rose to admire his work. B.E.N. looked more or less the same as he ever had, but definitely less loose-jointed. Not likely to loose any parts within the next five months anyway.
Satisfied, Jim packed away his tools, then stretched out along the roof of the Benbow Inn. He preferred working out there, where no one could bother him, where—his work on B.E.N. aside—he was guaranteed solitude and blessed, wholly appreciated peace. Closing his eyes, he luxuriated in a lengthy, lazy stretch, every muscle straining, then relaxing, his breathing slowing down. He couldn't even really hear B.E.N. anymore, although the robot had picked up his ditty where he had left off. Something involving an awful lot of the word baby.
Three years ago, Jim had enrolled—under the recommendation of Captain Amelia—at the Interstellar Academy. As a freshman, newly arrived from Treasure Planet, wide-eyed and brimming and bursting with the desire to just hop on a skiff and wow the pants out of everyone, he had quickly discovered that an awful lot of work went into discipline and rote memorization and writing term papers and juggling class schedules and not forgetting where they moved Dr. Becker's lecture on aerodynamics for that week and just getting by. He was getting by, he supposed. Give or take a few scrapes with less-than-enthusiastic professors—the type who had little patience for self-taught and so-called know-it-all pilots—his years at the academy had been surprisingly smooth. Even after he crash-landed his modified practice ship as a sophomore, the crash leaving behind rends in the lawn that required a team of specialist to re-plant the entire south field.
Something was missing, however. Something just didn't feel right. A little nagging flutter was constantly at the back of his mind, shadowing him, trailing him wherever he went. For three years, he had laboured under its presence, firmly telling himself that it belonged buried, best left alone. It was the past, and it was over. With a frown, Jim sat up.
B.E.N. had downloaded a new song, his fingers snapping along to a beat only the robot could hear. When he noticed Jim had climbed out of his reverie, he lowered the volume of his voice.
"Keeping my voice down for Jimmy," he said in a loud, singsong whisper. "Don't want to disturb Jimmy."
"It's okay, B.E.N.," Jim sighed. "Just thinking stupid thoughts." He gazed up at the darkening skies, now shifting from purple to deep, stark black. "There's nothing I can do anyway. He's gone." With a grunt, Jim rose to his feet. He began to make his way towards his attic bedroom's window, which would lead him back down into the Benbow. A rustle of static from B.E.N. stopped him in his tracks.
Turning, he narrowed his eyes, thoughts clicking and clattering behind them. He chose his words carefully. "B.E.N.," he said. "Those songs you've been singing... Where do they come from?"
B.E.N. stood in silence for a while, not quite accustomed to actually being asked to talk. Something in the way Jim was looking at him, however, with his eyes narrowed in thought and his head cocked to the side, short, neat, regulation bangs brushing against his brow, told B.E.N. that the question should not be left unanswered. Straining a bit, he started to pull together that answer. His eyes flickered first blue, then green, breaking up into squares of static with every new jolt of information.
"It's, uh, from... Er, they came from a... frequency! Yes, a high frequency channel that the centroid of the mechanism augmented and, um, it jiggled it a bit like a, er... Well, it was a... It was called..." B.E.N. straightened in triumph, his eyes lucid and bright blue. "Radio waves!" The robot laughed, delighted in his ability to remember those two words. "Radio waves. That's what it is! Radio waves!"
Jim folded his arms, one hand rising to trail along his jaw. "Radio," he murmured, rolling the word around his tongue. He turned to B.E.N. "So you're saying that you can pick up stray frequencies?"
The robot nodded. "That's right. Picked up frequencies from here to the Lagoon Nebula to a couple'a propaganda bits from Tuskrus and before ya knew it everyone was on a train to Treblinka and they had bombed out the entire town square and I knew it was then and there that I asked Lupe if—"
Jim placed a stern if not unkind hand on the robot's jutting shoulder. B.E.N. blinked up at him for the space of a few seconds, then flashed the boy a winning, crooked smile. Jim found himself echoing that smile. He crouched and looked straight into the robot's eyes, speaking slowly, not because he thought B.E.N. wouldn't understand—although the robot's excitable nature certainly didn't cancel out that possibility—but because he was fighting down a strange, growing giddiness.
"If you can pick up radio frequencies, is it possible that you could pick up communications transmitted between, say, ships? Portable communication devices? Longboats?"
He allowed to last word to hang between them unexplained. B.E.N. didn't know everything that had happened before the Legacy pulled into the Crescentia Spaceport. Even if he knew, Jim felt pretty certain that B.E.N. would've somehow scrambled up the memory, lost somewhere between his new programming, his repairs, and purp pie recipes. Only a few people truly knew, or at least suspected. Captain Amelia, Dr. Delbert Doppler, the shape-shifting Morph, and Jim.
The vacant, yet serviceable expression on B.E.N.'s face told Jim the robot truly did not know. He merely nodded vehemently. "I can pick up almost everything, Jimmy. Just point me in the right direction, and you'll have more frequencies than you can shake that proverbial stick at!"
Before he realized what he had done, Jim pulled B.E.N. to him in a fierce, bear hug. The consequences of his action didn't fully strike home until he realized the robot had begun to wail, loudly, clinging on to his neck and spluttering out a million thank yousand oh, Jimmy, you hugged me!
To his surprise, Jim found he didn't mind.
One look at B.E.N. and Sarah Hawkins felt certain that the poor little robot was indeed mad. It was perched on the Benbow's roof, a small foldout antenna sticking out of its side, humming to himself as waves of static crashed against the antenna's dish and jumbled out through two speakers attached to the robot's head. It had been sitting there on its breaks for a week, erupting into song every now and then, whistling out snatches of tunes that didn't belong together. One morning, he burst out in flatula, then garbled away into the common trade speech, Benbonian news snippets, a rollicking jig, and a Tuskrus army march. Sarah shook her head.
Jim, as usual, wasn't being very helpful. When she asked, he would mumble something about extra credit work, then become intensely interested in whatever dish he was scrubbing, regardless of how spotless it already was. Sarah didn't buy his story for a minute, but knew it was pointless to press the point. Jim would only tell her when he was ready. That much, at least, he still shared with his fifteen year old self.
"Well, all right," she would say. "But remember, I'm not the one that asked you to spend your summer holiday working on extra credit assignments, however proud I am to hear those words coming from your mouth."
And that was that. B.E.N. remained perched on the roof, and Jim remained skittish and aloof and excitable. He crawled out onto the roof almost every night, sitting beside B.E.N. and modifying his antenna or his speakers or his wiring. It really was like homework, in a way. Jim was nothing short of surprised to find that everything he had rote memorized for his elective, junior year course on robotics was coming back to him with ridiculous clarity. He peered at B.E.N.'s interior workings and felt a newfound appreciation for the muddled robot.
"I tell ya," he said, adjusting the antenna towards the north. "Whoever made you must've been pretty advanced. I've seen stoves that grow obsolete faster than they can ship them out here, but for a one hundred and sixty-three year old navigator, you're pretty impressive."
B.E.N. swivelled his face to meet Jim's. "Ya mean it?" He grinned as Jim nodded. "Oh, gosh, thank you, Jimmy! You know, Flint never told me anything quite as kind. He just wanted me to figure out the centroid and then bring him his rum. Centroid, rum, centroid, rum, centroid, rum."
As the robot chattered away, plugging in at least thirty repetitions of centroid-rum, Jim lay back to look at a lazy bank of crawling white clouds. What B.E.N. was doing still seemed unreal, even after all the different frequencies started pouring in. Jim had instructed B.E.N. to keep an eye out for any communications coming from a longboat belonging to the Legacy. Even as he spoke the words, it seemed like a long shot to Jim, the excitement he had felt at the first spark of his idea fading away.
He would lie awake at night, listening to the intermittent static and music and voices, hoping. Once, a slurred pirate song had trickled in, and it was with some embarrassment that Jim discovered that he had somehow leaped out of bed, leaped out onto the roof, and clamped his hands around B.E.N's shoulders, his ear pressed close to the left speaker. As disappointment settled in—it was an old jig playing on some public station show—he became acutely aware that he was standing on the roof at two o'clock in the morning, wearing nothing but a loose white shirt, his boxer shorts, and sleep mused hair.
"This probably isn't going to work," he murmured now. "He could be anywhere..."
The words, he found, had almost brought tears to his eyes. Angered, feeling ridiculous, he wiped them away. He was eighteen now. This wasn't any time to be crying. It was a time for action. It was a time to put together a larger antenna for B.E.N. Blanket the entire etherium, if that's what it took.
"An antenna?" Doppler scratched below his chin, eyeing Jim from the corner of his eye. He was bent over his tub, filled with lukewarm water and lavender scented oil. His sleeves had been rolled back, a waterproof apron tied around his waist. It was the children's bath time. Dipping his elbow into the water, seemingly satisfied with the temperature, the doctor turned to look at Jim. "But the Benbow already has at least five different antennas. Not counting that robot fellow, B.E.N. That makes six. Six, fully functional and thoroughly modern antennas." Doppler paused, his brows knitting together. "Not counting that robot fellow, B.E.N."
Jim shifted his weight, his left hand toying with a wooden bath toy, a little green clipper ship. "I know. But none of them have enough, um, power. I'm making a..." His voice trailed away, his mind desperately trying to rustle up more impressive words. "I mean I'm conducting an experiment on, er, high frequency channels and..."
Doppler chuckled. "Ah," he said plainly. "Curious young minds. You're attempting to build a ham radio, correct?"
Jim nodded, relieved at finally having some plausible explanation to cling to. "Yeah, that's right. Ham radio." He winked at Doppler. "Sharp as ever, doctor."
With a grunt, Doppler rose to his feet. For one heart-stopping moment, Jim could have sworn the canine looked slightly suspicious. Jim had never been very good at lying. Bluffing he felt he had mastered, but lying just refused to come naturally. He tried out a tentative smile, hoping it would make him look shy and sheepish and embarrassed at the very thought of his newfound academic interests. Doppler seemed to buy it. The good doctor smiled, somewhat paternally, and patted Jim's shoulder.
"Right of passage, young Jim," he said. "I built my first ham radio when I was sixteen. It picked up three stations for a full four days. Then it blew a fuse and caught fire and my uniform caught fire right along with it and I wound up diving into the school's pond." Doppler coughed, delicately. "That, of course, shall not happen to you."
Still reminiscing about his teenage years, the doctor lead Jim along a musty corridor, down a flight of steps, a sharp right, and finally down into the basement. The doctor tapped and prodded and then banged three quick times at a keypad set into the wall. Several oil lamp globes, set to hover around the room, flared to life. Despite himself, Jim whistled at the sight before him.
The room was packed, wall-to-wall, almost ceiling to floor, with all manner of machinery. Ancient holo-map models competed for space with homemade automated brooms, old, discarded home appliances, lamps, the doctor's collection of hygrothermographs and thermometers and clocks and perpetual motion machines and glass jars containing bolts and gears that mystified Jim even as they drew him to them. He ran a hand across a wall-length holo-map of Montressor, complete with real-time weather projections and geographic shifts. He recognized, lying together on a table, several sphere maps, smaller than the map to Treasure Planet, covered in a thick film of dust.
"This is amazing," he breathed.
A fumble and a grating, scrapping sound rang out after his words. Doppler, one foot firmly anchored against the wall, was attempting to move forward an ancient oak armoire, grunting with the effort. "Amazing, yes," he grunted. "I've collected all of this dust gathering beauties since I was your age. My father collected the maps."
He tightened his grip on the armoire and managed to shift it a bit to the left. Jim rushed forward to help him, his palms quickly becoming coated with a layer of dust that, to Jim's disgust, included miniscule, brown eggs of some sort. Grunting, they finally managed to move the armoire out of the way. Behind it was a second armoire. Jim cast the doctor a questioning look. Doppler threw out his chest in wounded defence.
"No room for conventional furniture placement, as you can undoubtedly observe," he said. As he spoke, he slipped one finger into the armoire's keyhole and pried open the door. A cloud of dust burst out, followed by a flurry of moths and one nasty looking black critter that reminded Jim uncomfortably of the Legacy's arachnid rigger, Scroop. Doppler paid no attention to the animals scurrying out of his furniture, simply reached in and pulled out what looked like a clumsily folded, silver parachute. He blew along its top, dislodging even more clouds of dust.
Jim coughed, backing away. "Is that the antenna?" he choked out, his hands waving away the smoke and the newly disturbed moths.
"Indeed, yes," Doppler said. His glasses were covered in grime. He put down the bundle and set himself to the task of wiping them clean. "This antenna was meant to receive and send discovery reports to the Central Bureau for Astronomical Findings. They're located on the Smithson planet, you know, which is, if you ask me, prohibitively far from Montressor." He perched his glasses on his nose and let out one, exquisite sniff of disgruntled pride. "This antenna allowed Montressor to beat those snide—I mean scientists at Raiason to the discovery of the Gemini Comets. Discovered by yours truly."
Jim looked at the lumpy bundle and couldn't quite believe Doppler's satisfied words, even after the doctor made it a point to gesture importantly towards a framed newspaper clipping showing him at thirty-three, goofy grin plastered firmly on his face, an insert of two comets almost obliterating his head. As questionable as the bundled antenna looked, though, it was probably better than anything he could throw together by himself. He picked up the lump.
"Let me see you to the door," Doppler said. "There's a tricky board on the second to last step."
No sooner had he said the words than Jim caught his foot on it, Doppler followed suit, and, with one thoroughly terrified howl from the doctor and one surprised woah from the young man, they both stumbled backwards into a mountain of dust.
"Oh, it's like my birthday!" B.E.N. crowed, delighted beyond measure as Jim connected the silver antenna to the wiring on his back. "I've never been this pampered since... Well, I've never been pampered, really. Some owners, they buy oil baths for their robots, you know. Order all sorts'a stuff from expensive catalogues and come home laden with freesia body wash and etherium crystals scrubs, but not old Flint, oh, no way José, not for this navigator, and I tell ya..."
Jim smoothed out the silvery fabric of the antenna and nodded in distracted agreement to whatever it was that B.E.N. was saying. Gurgling beside him, Morph kept chasing his own reflection, the antenna's interior flaring out in bright pink as the shape-shifter burst into several excited pieces and bounced along the fabric. Jim scooped him out gently, guiding him towards his shoulder.
"Not now, Morph," he said. "We've got to test this first."
The pink blob trilled out his understanding. Not wishing to overexcite him, Jim still hadn't told him what the antenna was for. If the plan worked, Morph would know soon enough anyway. It was best to keep him in the dark, where disappointment would have no place if the plan failed. Jim ran his fingers down the shape-shifters body, offering a slim comfort the little blob probably didn't understand.
With a whir that caught Jim by surprise, B.E.N. stretched out his neck. "I feel something coming!" he said, an air of suspense hanging to each word.
Tense, hoping, waiting, Jim leaned forward into the speakers. Even Morph seemed to sense something important was happening. He inched close to Jim's chin and waited, trying not to gurgle out a peep. Several minutes passed, accentuated by a faint hiss of white noise, then a sputter of static, a random word, a crackle, more white noise. Just as he was beginning to grow impatient, a loud blast rang out in Jim's head. He jumped back, hands firmly clamped over his ears.
B.E.N. was singing.
"The Galaxy Express three-nine will take you on a journey, a never ending journey! A journey to the stars!" He chortled. "It's a commercial, Jimmy, from twenty years ago. Imagine!"
Suddenly, B.E.N. tensed, going stiff, his voice slurring away into a bass warble. Slowly at first, then in a quick whirl, he rotated his head fully. His eyes flashed bright green, a vestige of the robot's less-than-stable personality. Jim began to grow worried, but didn't dare approach B.E.N. A shower of white sparks shot out, criss-crossing around the robot's head. After a few seconds, B.E.N. began to shake and splutter and babble out a long string of numbers, song, news, words, whale song, static, crackle, snap, word, weather, pop, hiss, song and dance and crackle and Radio Free Billy Goat presents the Canine Robbers! With a metallic screech, B.E.N.'s head lolled back. A little cloud of smoke rose out into the afternoon air.
Panicked, Jim fell on his knees beside the robot. He disconnected the antenna and pulled B.E.N. onto his lap. The robot sagged against his thighs, his eyes devoid of any kind of light. Jim flipped him on his back and worked frantically, pulling out several wrong wires in his frustration. He ran his hands through his hair and forced himself to calm down. This needed some clear, concise thinking. It wasn't coming any time soon. B.E.N. wasn't responding. Feeling impotent, he slammed his palms down on the robot's back, cursing. Come on!
"Take me out to the ball game..."
With a surge of hope, Jim slammed his palms down on B.E.N.'s back again. The robot lurched, once, then began to tremble, before it jumped back and opened its bright blue eyes wide and stared at Jim and gave him a triumphant smile and opened his mouth.
"Flint pulled out my memory chip so I wouldn't tell anyone about the booby traps!" he announced grandly.
Jim blinked, then gave B.E.N. a relieved, wistful smile. "I know, B.E.N. We survived."
The robot nodded its head. "And Silver survived too," he said. At the sound of that name, Morph fluttered forward, gurgling happily, looking about him. Jim sat in silence, taken aback. B.E.N. was still smiling at him, but there was something odd about the way his eyes were shinning. They were pure blue, more lucid than Jim had ever seen them. The boy swallowed an uncomfortable lump in his throat.
"That's right," he said carefully. "Most of the crew survived. Silver ran away. He took one of the—"
"Longboats," B.E.N. said. "One of the Legacy's longboats." He narrowed his eyes and leaned close to Jim's face. His tone was flippant and conversational. "Say, are we looking for John Silver, Jimmy?"
Jim remained silent. Morph, sensing that something had gone wrong, floated down towards Jim's chest, where it nestled against his breastbone and kept his eyes averted. Jim placed a comforting hand on the shape-shifter's back and looked up steadily at B.E.N. The robot had now dropped all pretences of friendly conversation.
"Are we looking for a pirate, Jimmy?"
The words came out in a harsh murmur. "Yes, we are. I am. I'm looking for John Silver."
B.E.N. threw his arms out over his head, waving them in frantic gestures. "How can you even think about that? That pirate tried to kill you! He was waving a gun at you. I saw it with my own eyes! You were screaming at him and trying to get away from him and I tried to save your life and—"
"He was my friend!" Jim's face had become pinched, his brows shadowing his eyes. "He stood up for me and saved my life and you don't know a damned thing about it!"
Jim rose to his feet in blind anger, turning away from B.E.N., slipping and skidding down to the roof's edge till he could jump down the side and away from the robot. He could feel Morph trying to keep up, spreading out in distress, but he pressed on. He could still hear B.E.N. calling out to him, trying to apologize. His voice sounded sincere, wounded. For a moment, Jim almost turned back.
The silver glint of the antenna caught his eye, and he felt anger rise up again. Intense, embarrassed anger. He walked away from the inn. "Who was I trying to kid?" he muttered. "This was never going to work. I'm just a stupid kid." Stopping, he clenched his fists and glared up at the sky. It gazed down at him with one immense, impassive blue eye.
"I hate you!" he shouted. "I hate you for leaving me!"
The words echoed back to him in a tumble of shrill, ugly sounds. Childish, impotent, worthless.
Jim sat on the windowsill of his attic bedroom, looking out at the stars, not really seeing them. His hand had risen to trail slowly up and down his neck. It had been three years since he had been forced to cut off his ponytail. He thought he had outgrown it, left it behind with the Jim that had almost gotten himself sent to juvenile hall. He wondered, idly, almost wistfully, what that Jim would have been thinking now, what he would have been doing.
Probably roaming the galaxy with John Silver. A happy little team. A pair of un-repenting, wanted criminals.
His breath escaped in a sigh, his hand dropping onto his lap. That was not his future. That could not behis future. All of that was in the past. With Silver. Nothing but a nagging little memory. Jim pulled up his legs and let his head fall against his knees. Sitting under the night sky, he felt small, insignificant. A little speck in a huge universe that moved on with or without him. He thought those feelings were firmly buried in the past, flittering away like most of the anger he had once felt at his father. He had finally found someone to take his father's place, to be there for him, and now that someone was gone too. Lost. Disappeared.
He found he could no longer remember exactly what Silver looked like, what he smelled like, how tall he really was. In his mind, the cyborg had expanded, transformed into more of a feeling, a missing piece, than a real man. He was a fleeting image in the back of Jim's mind, blurred and faded. The ghostly weight of his arm seemed to fall on Jim's shoulder, and he closed his eyes. The feeling faded away, replaced by the harsh geometry of the windowsill.
"I miss you, Silver," Jim heard himself whisper. "I wish you were here."
A small intake of air came from the door. He buried his face deeper into his knees, pressing back the tears, before he looked up. He had expected his mother, hovering by the door with a worried expression on her face, bringing back more memories of the person he once was. With a start, he realized it wasn't Sarah who stood in the faint orange light coming from downstairs. It was B.E.N.
The robot stood uneasily, a huddled mass of copper and gears and circuitry. Jim turned his face away and pretended to look at the stars. He heard B.E.N. cough, then take one tentative step forward. It was a while before he tried moving again, his gears groaning under the effort. Jim pushed out an exasperated sigh, his mind weighed under the feelings of anger he couldn't suppress. He wanted to set B.E.N. at ease, instead he found himself muttering.
"It's all right, B.E.N., no need to apologize again."
B.E.N. took one more uncertain step forward, his hands wringing together with little screeches and snaps. "No, I, um... I guess not," he said. He fell silent for a while. The blue light coming from his eyes gave him an eerie appearance in the dark. Jim could almost see all of his insides, silhouetted against the blue glow and the light creeping in through the doorway. It seemed as if B.E.N. would fall apart at any moment.
Jim lowered his legs, turning to fully face B.E.N. "Look, I understand how you feel," he murmured. "I shouldn't have asked you to do it, not without telling you why..." He slumped forward, his hands clasped below his knees. "I mean, I should've known. You and Flint... It must've been terrible for you and I—"
"Nah, Jimmy, don't blame yourself. I'm the one who was wrong."
"No, I was—"
The robot straightened with as much pride as it could gather. "When I say I was the one that was wrong, then I'm the one who was wrong. I'm a machine, after all. Higher computational abilities than humans."
A smile tugged at the corners of Jim's lips. "Yeah, I guess so." He lifted his head. "Still, I never should've asked you to do this. I'm asking you, now, to stop. You don't have to help me anymore."
Silence edged out between them. B.E.N. reached out to pull at a loose wire coming out of his back. He seemed at a loss, shifting his weight from side to side, eyebrows lowered. Finally, he folded his legs and rolled forward to where Jim sat. The boy was hunched, gazing at the floor, his fingers working over his knuckles in absentminded patterns. B.E.N. hesitated, then placed a hand on Jim's knee.
"Hey," he said. "I'm not leaving my buddy Jimmy." He peeked at the boy's face, partly hidden behind his bangs. He was looking at the robot, his expression bordering between embarrassment and determination, his nose and cheeks red. B.E.N. patted his knee. "Even if he is looking at me that way."
The robot shook his head. "Nope. Won't listen. Finding Silver obviously means something to you." B.E.N. hesitated, then straightened, his voice becoming stronger. "And if it means something to my Jimmy, then it means something to me."
Jim heard himself sniffle, and had to chuckle at the sound. He ran a hand below his nose and looked up at the expectant, smiling robot. "You mean it...?"
"Cross my circuitry and hope to run out of oil," B.E.N. said, disregarding the fact that a gear swivelled loose as he crossed his fingers over his chest. The boy was smiling and reaching out to hug him, and that was enough for old B.E.N.
Five Months Later
Jim stepped back from the mirror and took one long, hard look at himself. He was dressed in white, a thick woollen, high-necked jacket and trousers and a bright yellow cord wound around his right shoulder, the tassel trailing over his chest. His hair was neatly combed, bangs barely brushing his eyebrows. He reached up to push them back into place, straightening his already straightened collar. His reflection grinned back at him, more than a little cocky.
"You clean up nicely, James Pleiades Hawkins," the reflection said.
The bright smile in the mirror faded, and Jim turned away from his confident, cocky reflection. He edged his way among the packed bodies of his classmates. A loud, droning buzz hung inside their dressing tent, jackets and boots and ceremonial rifles and last minute lunches and duffle bags and perfume bottles lining the floor, cluttered on top of chairs and a dresser someone had pulled in. Jim pulled back the tent's entry flap and looked outside, taking in deep breaths to clear his head from the suffocating mass of life behind him.
Cobalt blue skies yawned out before him, spreading out above densely packed galleries. White banners fluttered in the morning breeze, four silver stars set on a blue background, snapping and cracking as the wind picked up. Jim could just make out his mother, a wide brimmed bonnet set on her head, daisies decorating its brim, clasping the commencement programme to her chest as she turned to smile and laugh and talk to Dr. Doppler. The doctor, balancing his little boy on his knees, was overdressed. He wore a brocaded, white velvet suit, with more lace at his throat and wrists than Jim had ever seen. Amelia, sitting beside him in her dependable, starched, blue captain's uniform, looked rather plain compared to him. Her three daughters, one of who was furiously scratching beneath her bright yellow bonnet, sat beside her, swinging their legs and stretching out a taffy between them. Morph flittered from one girl to the next, pulling itself into candy shapes and bursting into pieces as the little girls tried to catch him.
Jim saw Amelia give Doppler an affectionate smile, then bend to kiss the forehead of the little boy on his lap. The doctor smiled and put his arms around his son, bouncing him lightly on his knee as the boy giggled and clapped his hands. Jim let the tent flap drop, blocking out the sight.
B.E.N. had remained at the Benbow. He had failed to make contact with Silver. Had remained behind in the hopes of still reaching him, somehow.
In Jim's mind, the empty, whispery feeling that was Silver had begun to make its way through again. Jim began to play with his fingers, cracking his knuckles. Snap, pop. This was supposed to be his mother's day. Her happiness, her pride, reflected in her eyes and in the long, warm embrace she had given him when he first stepped out in his full dress uniform. An old pirate had no part in this. Jim cracked his thumb and stood in silence, gazing down at his hands.
What would Silver say, if he could see me?
He found he didn't have the heart to imagine the words. A pet name pushed into his subconscious, echoing inside Jim's head as he looked at his reflection, winking in and out from between the students crowding in front of the mirror. Jimbo. He tried to smile, to hold on to that little word and somehow turn it into something tangible. Jimbo. He turned away from his reflection. He needed to get some air.
Green grass whispered under his boots as he made his way across the lawns behind the tent. Professors and admirals and lieutenants stood in haphazard circles, clutching drinks, raising a babble of voices. Jim walked away from them, headed towards nowhere in particular. He couldn't feel himself moving, had no idea how far behind he had left the tent and the commencement field and the galleries. He felt heavy. He felt unreal. The sun was shinning too brightly and there were too many voices echoing in the air and something was running away over the lawn and hissing as it went.
Raising his head, he looked around him. He forced himself to block out the voices far behind him, the snap of the banners, his hammering heart. He concentrated all of his being on one faint sound. A little hiss, an intake of breath. He closed his eyes. The world began to fade away, blurring into a whisper, and there it was, moving away, growing fainter. Movement fading in the trees.
Before his head had caught up to his heart, Jim was running. His legs pumped out beneath him, branches slapping at his face as he tore his way across the wood. Green and brown and blue mingled into one in front of him, meaningless. Jim pushed on, his throat burning from the exertion and the mounting excitement. He burst out into a clearing and stumbled to a stop.
"No," Jim groaned. "Silver..."
With a grunt, he pushed forward again, hoping, looking around him as he went. There had to be a ship, a carriage, a cart, tracks, something. Anything. His arms pumped at his sides, the bright yellow tassel fluttering out behind him. He looked up at the sky, shivering in place as he ran, never growing farther, never growing nearer. A faint trail of wispy blue smoke streaked across it and Jim felt his heart contract. Catching his foot on a rock, he stumbled forward.
He lay on the grass, his breath escaping in short, sobbing pants. He could taste mud and sap on his lips. His uniform was probably ruined, stained with grass juice. Running after a hiss. Jim brought down his fists on the grass, his teeth gritted, keeping down the sobs he could feel welling up. He beat at the ground several times, burning his anger on smashing the green blades beneath his fists. Cursing Silver.
At length, he stood up, slowly, feeling drained. He ran a hand over his eyes. His uniform was indeed stained. He looked down at it forlornly and wondered, idly, how much trouble it would be to request a spare one before the ceremony began. His body felt limp with embarrassment as he picked his way back towards the dressing tent.
Professor Scarpini moaned at the sight of him, his shaggy lion's face breaking out into a wide-eyed stare of disdain. Jim didn't pay much attention. The professor hovered around Jim for a few minutes, disappearing into the crowd and calling out for someone, anyone, to please find this boy a suitable set of whites. Jim felt him press a bundle wrapped in tissue paper against his chest, an urgent hiss ordering him to change and to change quickly because it was less than ten minutes until the ceremony began. A holographic modesty screen was activated around Jim, and the incessant, grating whine it produced finally jolted him out of his haze.
He dressed in silence, a dull sense of defeat pounding along his temples. As he stepped out from behind the screen, starched new whites slightly baggy on him, a voice rumbled out from outside.
"Formation, please! The ceremony has now officially begun."
Over the excited chatter rising around him, Jim heard the first notes of the academy's anthem, a crescendo of drums and trumpets and little pings from the one lonely triangle. He squared his shoulders and stepped into his place in the line. A mint green tentacle reached out and tapped him on the shoulder. Jim turned to see a tall, lanky squid with wide set eyes. Mellaka, the class monitor and three-time chess champion. She blinked her large, liquid eyes at Jim, then pressed something into his palm.
"A right queer fellow came along the tent," she slurred out, her voice seeming to come from deep underwater. "Covered in more fabric than I've ever laid eyes on. He asked for you. Funny voice. Sounded muffled." She swivelled one eye towards the right, her left eye blinking before she focused on Jim again. "You'd walked out. Asked him to stay, but he seemed rather in a hurry. He left you that. Said you'd know what it was."
She turned her attention forward, and Jim was glad for the privacy she was giving him. The rest of his mind seemed to have shut off. He understood Mellaka's words, but they still sounded impossible to him. He stood at an uneasy slump, not daring to open his palm. Whatever Mellaka had pressed into his hand felt cold and clammy, its edges scrapping against Jim's skin. He took a deep breath and looked down at it. It glinted dully in his hand, and he felt his breath catch in his throat.
"A doubloon," he breathed.
He turned it over in his palm as his gaze lifted towards the green and blue outside the tent. Professor Scarpini's voice rose out from a few paces ahead, ordering everyone forward. A rustle of boots over grass rose into Jim's ears, the crowd outside murmuring and clapping and whistling, the march floating out over the speakers threatening to drown out everything. Jim heard none if it.
Slowly, he curled his fingers around the doubloon and brought his fist to his lips. He thought of B.E.N., perched on the Benbow roof. He thought of Sarah and her daisies and Doppler lifting his son high in the air to wave at young Jim and Amelia looking strangely pleased and the little girls finally catching Morph and laughing and their laughter ringing out like silvery bells. He curled his fingers tighter around the doubloon, and he thought of Silver. Massive, twinkling ghost in the back of his head. Teasing out a thin coating of tears. Every time.
Jim kissed his fist.
"Thank you," he whispered.
22 March 2003. My first post-Treasure Planet story. Hope it turned out all right. I'm not quite sure I captured B.E.N. correctly... but I tried, and had fun trying.
Now, onto a few credits. The Central Bureau for Astronomical Findings on Smithson planet is a paraphrase of sorts of the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, located at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. Treblinka was one of the Nazi concentration camp sites during World War II, located fifty miles from Warsaw, Poland. The song B.E.N. sings before going haywire ["Galaxy Express Three-Nine"] is from the anime Galaxy Express 999, based on the manga by Leiji Matsumoto. Kudos to all whom recognised it.
Thanks to Dave for setting me straight about the actual name of Jim's academy, here going by its movie name, as opposed to its Jim's Journal name. Thank you also to all of you reading. I've been made to feel very welcome in the online Treasure Planet community, and that's always special. Cheers.
© 19-21 March 2003 Team Bonet. Treasure Planet is © 2002 The Walt Disney Co. The characters of Jim and Sarah Hawkins, and John Silver are © 1881 Robert Louis Stevenson.