Stars shone brightly in the crisp spring air, competing with the waxing moonlight to light Kim's path up Mt. Middleton. The snows had mostly melted and the pines gave off a fresh scent that should have lifted anyone's spirits, but Kim barely noticed as she trudged up the scree slope. Monique quietly shadowed Kim's footsteps, watching her friend anxiously.
It was almost midnight. Ron's message was due any time.
The two women crested a small rise that led onto a grassy plateau. The back of the mountain shielded them from most of the wind as they settled onto the damp grass, legs crossed underneath their homespun dresses. The stars blinked above; Kim thought they seemed so very far away tonight.
Monique broke the silence. "Have you told Ron about Josh?" Staring up, Kim merely sighed and shook her head. "Don't you think you should?" Monique asked.
Another sigh. "I don't want him to worry," Kim said softly. "You know how he can get."
The ladies sat in the night's stillness, waiting. They both had ample practice at waiting and the delay didn't bother them. Kim's 16-year-old visage pointed up, eyes closed, while Monique's teenage eyes watched her friend. The stars continued wheeling around the sky and the moon set behind Mt. Middleton before Kim heard a soft voice in her head say, "Incoming message from Ronald Stoppable ready for replay."
Kim held out her left hand, bare palm up. Monique was here, so she'd play it externally for her friend's benefit. "Play message," she whispered.
Ron's miniature windswept face glowed into existence a few inches above Kim's outstretched hand. The playback was perfect, both women could see his image clearly. Looking around, Ron's facsimile eyes locked onto whatever had recorded him and he began speaking. From Kim's point of view, Ron was looking directly into her eyes, into her heart, and she feld the familiar rush of adrenaline on seeing his face.
"That time again, KP," he said, the words echoing against the mountain rising behind the two seated women. "I got your earlier message, had some time to replay it a coupla times. Glad to hear you're doing good, real glad. Um, you sounded pretty peppy, so I guess Josh must be doing something right." Kim gasped involuntarily, knowing she'd gone overboard with her last message to Ron, who continued, "He better take totally excellent care of you, or 300 light years away or not I'll stomp over and give him a taste of some monkey kung fu." This time a small sob escaped from Kim's lips. She'd give anything to have him try.
"So there's been some developments," he continued after a pause. "Some of the people in white coats - not that they really wear white coats, ya know, but still I always think of them that way - have been playing and they've got some cool stuff. The bad news is, they haven't been able to do anything about the ship's drive, and the fuel's all evaporated anyway, and we don't have any way of making more. So I guess that's it.
"We're stuck on Outland, pretty much forever unless somebody can come to get us. Which isn't likely."
Silent tears streamed down Kim's cheek. She expected the message, especially after all this time, but it was still difficult hearing it spoken so matter-of-factly. She was sure he'd practiced that over and over.
Ron's miniature face contorted momentarily, then continued too quickly. "But don't get bummed, we knew it was a possibility, right? I mean, we had some time together before I left, not that it was enough time, but we had more than most people get, ya know? And we're both alive and healthy, we've got that going for us, and... oh, hell, Kim, I can't do this." His hands appeared suddenly, wiping across his brow, fingers pinching the bridge of his nose. "I'm really sorry, but I just am not having a good time keeping this up. I gotta confess something. Yori and I, um, we, well, we never really got together like I told you." Kim's head snapped up and her bright green tear-rimmed eyes bored into Ron's tiny holographic gaze, not that the recording would notice. "I just told you that so you wouldn't worry about me. I knew it would hurt and all, but I figured since we couldn't be together, you'd feel better if you weren't worrying about me being OK and all. So I, uh, fibbed."
Ron was right - it i had /i hurt. After he'd told her, so long ago, that he was finding solace in Yori's arms, Kim couldn't tell which was worse... her Ron in another woman's arms, or Ron suffering silently and pining for her, day after day, year after year, with no hope of reunion. After much thought, she figured he was probably right, so she'd made up a story about finding solace with Josh Mankey. Ron had taken it well, although she knew it had hurt him greatly.
She had always wondered if it was the right thing to do.
Ron's hologram wiped his nose and went on, "In fact, the colony has been losing people steadily. We're down to less than two hundred. Yori..." he began, choking up a little, before starting again, "Yori was one of the early ones to fall. She's been gone a long time, Kim. I think my refusal cut her bad, and she just faded before falling. I feel really guilty about that, almost as guilty that I lied to you." His voice became strident. "But I want you to know I really wanted you to be OK with me gone. Yeah, it was stupid for me to volunteer to join an interstellar mission, but I thought it was gonna be a puddle jump. Just a couple of thousand years and we'd be back together. And when things went wrong and we couldn't get back, and the other ships and colonies had the same problems, well, I have a pretty good idea what I mean to you, since that's what you mean to me. So I had to do something. I hope it was the right thing.
"Please tell me you forgive me. I love you." His eyes, tiny, pleaded with Kim for solace.
Kim couldn't take any more. Her hand shook until the image began gyrating in the dark, autostabilizers failing to compensate for her shaking. She clenched her hands, and Ron's message cut off. Kim wrapped her arms around her stomach and felt herself falling forward, before Monique's quick arms caught her. A ragged rush of air filled Kim's lungs, followed by an anguished, piercing scream that bounced and echoed off the mountain and up into the night.
Her lungs and throat raw, Kim continued gasping and crying in great, animal heaves. Her mind circled closer and closer, round and round, remembering only the farewell long ago when Ron told her he wanted to go, asking her to come too. The trip to another star would last thousands of years, but that wasn't a problem.
After all, they were immortal.
Every human was immortal. That gift, that curse was bestowed by Professor Dementor's mad labs, the day the anagathic spray was released. Six billion humans rendered deathless, ageless, without knowledge or consent. The gift was obvious: life everlasting, for everyone. The curse was more subtle, but no less vital than the gift. Every human stopped aging, their body processes locked at the instant they inhaled Dementor's spray. Sixteen year old cheerleaders stayed sixteen forever. Children remained children, pregnant women would never give birth. No woman would, ever again. This was the last generation of humans, albeit a far more prolonged generation than ever before. But still, the last.
Human nature being predictable, half the human race had fallen within a decade. Wars, greed, hunger, anger, frustration, self-pity, and sheer recklessness winnowed the human race to those most able to deal with their newfound longevity. Most of the children, the younger ones who required constant supervision, fell within a few centuries. The old and infirm, locked into dying bodies that never died, could not bear it and simply passed away. No matter how much research and science threw at the problem, nothing could be reversed. The anagathic lock was irreversible; even clones didn't mature. Eventually the human race came to accept that the pinnacle of human evolution was over, and the long remaining years were the twilight of the race.
Kim and Ron spent a busy pair of centuries helping keep and restore peace, helping those who had trouble helping themselves. Their 16-year-old bodies stayed energetic and resilient, and wounds healed quickly. In many ways, it was the highlight of Kim's life... she had a mission in life, and a life companion to share it with. Even though they couldn't legally marry, or ever have children, they shared their lives as as a steadfast couple. When civilization finally began to steady after the upheaval of life everlasting, starships were developed using the most advance science and materials the one billion humans of earth could muster. They were meant to visit terran-like worlds and establish colonies. In any society without immortality, they would've been generation ships, travelling at ten percent of lightspeed; but immortal humans could simply wait. A journey would take a thousand years or more, but the crew would never age, never die.
Ron wanted to go on such a journey. He begged Kim to come, but she refused. Their arguments were epic, but in the end Ron stepped through the door as Kim watched from a monitor in the launch facility. He was supposed to be gone on a single mission that would last three thousand years.
Kim's ragged gasps eased until she was simply sniffling and crying. She'd wanted to break that monitor, she remembered. Break it so she wouldn't have to ever know the haunted look on Ron's face as he boarded the starship. She knew it was killing him to stay on earth, and it was killing him just as much to leave Kim. They'd had two lifetimes of living together, loving, and there was no reason to expect anything different for the long future ahead.
Until the ships failed and could not be fixed. Too many vital people had fallen to recreate the mighty vessels.
The millenia since Ron's departure were a pale ghost of their time together. Kim still helped, walking the earth and helping repair the damage the human race had done to the planet. She helped spread foodplants and spread iron-eating bacteria that chewed away the ugly cities of her ancestors. She helped people when they needed a hand, or a shoulder to cry on. She and many others straightened up the blue planet until it became beautiful once again, unmarred by cities and roads and pollution. Only rarely did she acknowledge she was writing her race's epitaph.
Kim always came back to where Middleton had been, especially on those nights every few hundred years when colony messages were sent and received. She always came back to where she and Ron had spent their time, back before she had personally helped disassemble the town.
Her face slick with snot and tears, Kim leaned on Monique's strong shoulder and tried to calm her tortured mind. She was fifty thousand years old, and couldn't get over the relationship she'd had in her first two centuries of life. The funny thing was, she didn't want to get over it. Of the thousand thousand humans left on earth, the only person she wanted to be with was Ron.
The stars shone down from so very far away. Sniffling slightly, Kim closed her eyes and let darkness take her while Monique stroked her long red hair, gently ruffled by the constant mountain breeze.
Dawn wasn't far off when Kim pried open her crusty eyes. Her head lay in Monique's lap while her friend sat stiff-backed and cross-legged in a meditation pose. Kim lifted her head and Monique opened her eyes. "Any better?" Monique asked with a worried tone.
"Dunno," Kim croaked.
Monique sighed and shifted slightly. "You're going to have to tell him that Josh fell thousands of years ago," she remonstrated. "He deserves to know."
"Yep. I know."
The women sat in the chill pre-dawn air for a while. "Hey, you didn't finish the message. Wonder if there was anything else."
Kim looked back down at her bare hand. Somewhere in there was the rest of Ron's message. She closed her eyes for a moment, gathering strength, opened them, and said, "Resume playback."
"I love you," Ron's simulacrum said again earnestly from above Kim's palm. His eyes clouded for a moment, and with an obvious effort of will he looked back up and smiled. "I always have, and I always will.
"OK, enough of the heavy, back to the fun stuff I was talking about. The white coats may not have managed to fix the drive, but one of the little gadgets they dreamed up is nifty. They can record your feelings and let somebody else play 'em back. I've got a feeling you already know how I feel about you, if ya know what I mean, but maybe this'll help. The instructions for making these 'feelies' is in the main squirt, they tell me. But I've included my recording here. Just say 'tickle me' and it'll trigger.
"I guess that's about it. Even though we're not together, I'm not alone. OK, that's kinda mystical and all, but it's how I... feel. So take care of yourself, and send me a squirt when the next upload happens.
"All my love, KP." Ron's image winked out, replaced by a small yellow sphere that pulsed slightly. Kim blinked and looked at Monique in the tenuous predawn light.
Monique nodded. "Do it, girl."
Kim looked at the little holographic globe and whispered, "Tickle me." There was no immediate reaction, but before long Kim felt something warm in the back of her mind. Soon it flowed to the rest of her body. She imagined she felt how Ron felt when he recorded this; dusty and uncomfortable, thirsty, but strong. She closed her eyes to concentrate the feeling. Her mind supplied whispery images, remembrances of Kim from Ron's memory - a flash of red hair, a wide smile, big green eyes, a strong beautiful figure. With each fragment came a flush of warmth, a smell of cinnamon, a feeling of being held, being completed, being loved. Her face relaxed, her mouth curved into a gentle smile, the first in a long time. She sat like that for a long time, until Monique cleared her throat and brought Kim back to herself. With reluctance, Kim dismissed the yellow sphere and let Ron's feelings flow from her awareness.
But some of Ron's feelings stayed. Enough to keep the smile on her face, enough to make her remember her own images of Ron from millenia ago. Enough to make her recall what it was like being with Ron instead of mourning his absence, as she had for tens of thousands of years.
The stars were flushed out by the predawn light, a bright cyan spreading up from the east. It was going to be a beautiful day. Taking a deep breath, Kim awkwardly stood and helped her friend up, and both started down the long path to the empty valley far below.
Kim had a recording to make.