Edge of Forever

"Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
…the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity."

~Emily Dickinson

*

Time stands still here, and yet I'm always getting left behind.

Welcome to the Null-Levels. Come in. Can I get you some tea?

The water will take forever to boil. There's no amount of time less than that, here.

Don't worry; it won't seem like forever. Sit down. How was your trip? Good.

My trip? Oh, I don't really remember... it was so long ago, and I had other things on my mind.

The water will boil eventually. Let me tell you a story.

*

I turned around, and Renet was standing there.

"Cancer," she told me.

"What?" I said blankly. Maybe she had arrived in my lab accidentally, from some other time and place where the two of us were already having a conversation.

"Cancer," she repeated sadly. "The kind that hits you young and kills you quick."

Maybe she had come here from a conversation with someone else. "Who?" I asked cautiously.

"You," she replied.

"When?"

"Soon."

"...Why?"

She looked at me, her eyes full of sorrow and weariness. "These things happen."

*

See, it's already boiled. What kind do you like? Milk, sugar?

What happened next? Don't worry, I'm getting to that.

*

"So take me to the future," I said, when we had all gathered in the living room, when Renet had explained things. "Take me to some hospital in the future, where I can be cured."

She shook her head. "There's no cure."

I looked at her in disbelief. "Are you telling me the intelligent races of the universe never find a cure for cancer?"

"No, they do," she said. "They find lots of them. But not for you."

"I don't understand," I said. "There's no place where I can go to a hospital, and be treated like a normal patient?"

Renet sighed heavily. "It's not you," she said. "It's your genes. There's... there's hardly anybody like you guys, anywhere. Doctors can't treat mutants."

*

I was floored. I had often wondered what my life would have been like if I had existed in another time, in another place. Now, Renet was telling me that there really were times and places where I could have been accepted as a normal person. But...

There's hardly anybody like you guys, anywhere.

There were places where I would be accepted. But none where I would truly belong.

I had a powerful feeling of loneliness, in that moment.

But I still had a determination to live.

*

"Take me," I said. "Take me to a doctor who will treat me. They can do tests, anything they want." I swallowed hard at the idea of giving anyone such license over my body, but I continued. "Then you can take me further into the future, where they've used those tests to make a cure for me. And then... then I can come home."

"Oh, Donnie..." she said, and I could see how much it was hurting her, to deliver this news. "Your disease is so fast. If you stay in Time long enough for them to do all the tests, it's already too late. You're already past curing."

"How do you know?" I asked softly.

"I've been here so many times," she said, just as quietly. "Donnie... I'm sorry."

*

I thought that was it, then. I thought she was giving me my six-months-to-live. I couldn't decide whether I was happier knowing. I supposed I would have found out soon anyway, when everything hurt and I couldn't keep food down.

I felt awful. And then I remembered my family was there, hearing the same news, and I felt terrible all over again. They would have to take care of me. And then they would have to live without me.

It crossed my mind that I could at least relieve them of the first responsibility...

But only by subjecting them to the second that much sooner.

*

"Why are you here, Renet?" I asked angrily. "Why have you come here, just to tell me there's nothing you can do?"

"I..." She hesitated. "There is something, Donnie. There's one more thing."

"What?" I asked. I felt so tired. I was sure the cancer was already inside me, strangling me from the inside out.

Renet took a deep breath. Then: "I can take you to Null-Time," she said bluntly. "You'll stay exactly like this, forever. You won't get sick."

*

Is something wrong with your tea? No, please, you can drink while I'm talking. Can I warm it up for you? There.

Where was I? Oh...

*

"We'll do it," Leo said. There was no discussion. Just a decision from the eldest.

Renet shook her head sadly. "Guys... I'm really sorry. This offer's not for you." She lifted her eyes to meet my gaze. "Only for him."

*

That wasn't exactly what I'd had in mind, when I thought about exiting on my own terms. To be still alive, but to be so far away from everything I loved, and to know that the gap was widening every minute…

I didn't know what to do.

*

"Why?" Leonardo demanded. "Why can't we go with him?"

"It's not supposed to be this way," Renet said defensively. Bad move. Not the way to handle Leo when he gets protective. Some part of my whirling brain wondered how well she really knew us, in all those other times and places. "You have no idea how many strings I had to pull, just to get permission for one."

"What..." I said shakily, needing to understand what I was being offered. "What are my choices, now?"

Renet twisted the Time Scepter between her hands, and rubbed the softly-glowing crystal. Lines shot out of it, lines branching upward, like many V's overlaying each other. "These are your choices," she said, and as she focused on the bright trails they shifted, changing their length. Some were very short. Some were moderate, and one reached nearly to the ceiling before fading from view.

Or maybe it went through the ceiling.

Renet pointed to one of the trails. "This is if you do nothing," she said. She pointed to a longer one. "This is a possible trip to the future. The doctors there can help a little, but they can't save you." She pointed to the shortest line. "This is if you..."

She left it there, and I knew that she had seen the future where I beat the cancer the only way I could.

By getting to the goal first.

By ending my own life, before the disease could end it for me.

Renet pointed to the longest line. "This is if you come with me."

*

I didn't really like any of those choices. It was obvious, from the silence, that my family didn't either.

*

"Guys," I said. "Can I talk to Renet privately, for a minute?"

My family exchanged glances and left quietly.

I rested my head in my hands. "Will they be able to visit?"

"Yes," she said. "But you won't like it."

"What..." I rubbed my eyes - I was not crying - and tried again. "What will happen to them?"

"I can take them to the future," she said gently. "They'll... they'll be okay there. You won't have to worry about them."

I raised my head and looked again at the lines, still glowing in the air. The one she was offering me was so unnaturally long...

"Will I live forever?" I asked.

A pause.

"For as long as you want."

*

Can I get you anything else? No? Well, if you're sure...

*

I was in my room, packing a few things.

"It's the right choice."

I turned. Leo was standing in my doorway, watching me.

"You should be packing, too," I said dully.

Leo came in and sat on my bed. It occurred to me that no one would sleep in that bed again. For some reason, this made me terribly sad.

"We'll miss you," he said.

I gave up on packing. I just sat down next to him, rested my head on his shoulder, and let it all go.

"I am so, so sorry," I slurred, somewhere between the sobbing. "I don't want to do this. I want to live. I want to live here."

Leo just held me, and let me make a mess all over him. "It's not your fault."

"It's inside me," I moaned. I grabbed the edge of my plastron, as if I would tear it off. "I want it out. Leo, I just want it out!"

He moved my hands away, so gently. "It's all right, Donnie. It's going to be all right."

But nothing would be all right again.

*

I'm sorry. It's hard to tell you this. I'll try to continue...

*

We arrived in Null-Time, and we all immediately clutched our stomachs.

A minute later I turned and threw up. I was immensely glad, at that moment, that I had taken Renet's offer. I couldn't imagine doing that every day, from the cancer, or from the treatment.

"Nice," Raph said.

I straightened and wiped my mouth. "Sorry," I muttered.

"It's okay," Leo said. I kind of hated him for saying it. I wanted to believe him, but I knew he didn't even believe himself.

He dropped his pack and came forward to embrace me. I hugged him back, trying to memorize the feel of this, the comfortable fitting-together I had taken for granted.

"Take care, Donnie," he whispered in my ear.

"I will."

We separated. His skin slid against mine, and something tore in my heart.

Mike was next. "I love you, big bro," he said.

It was the last time he would say that to me without irony.

"I love you too," I said.

Then, Splinter.

I couldn't stand it.

I bent, we hugged. He told me... things. They're private. Sorry. Then he stepped back to stand with the others.

Raph was last. I wasn't expecting much from him. He wasn't very good at goodbye, or hello, or anything else involving emotional expression.

"So, uh..." he said awkwardly. "Don't do anything I would do, right?"

I tried to smile, but it hurt. "I usually don't."

He moved forward uncertainly, and then suddenly enveloped me in an intense hug. "I love you, Donnie," he said fiercely. "I shoulda.... I shoulda said it more."

"It's okay," I said, into his neck. "I knew."

He pushed away, just as suddenly, and rejoined the others.

There was me, and there was them.

"I love you guys," I said. "Visit me?"

"We will."

"You bet."

"Until next time."

"See ya soon, Donnie..."

They shouldered their bags. I waved. Renet lifted her scepter...

... and they were gone.

*

And that's how I came to live here, with Renet.

What is she to me? Hmm... hard to say. Not my girlfriend. More like my... sponsor. We're close. And I'm here as long as she has the leverage to keep me here.

She's moving up in the ranks. She's gone a lot, visiting other times and places. It's hard to say how long she's gone. Time is a tricky thing, here.

I never know where she is. She could be in the future. (The future from my home-time, I mean; there is no past or future here.) She could be in the Late Cretaceous again. It doesn't really matter where she is. I have no way of contacting her. I just have to wait for her to come back.

After a while, I realized that she was aging, from her stints in Time. Not as fast as a normal person, but faster than me. I don't age at all. If I go into Time, I'll get sick. I could come back here, and halt the progress of the disease, but it wouldn't go away. I'd spend the rest of my eternity tired and sore and regretting my jaunt into that world where things actually change.

I asked Renet, once, why she didn't bring a doctor here, to Null-Time.

"They could do tests on me here," I said, "and find a cure, and then I could go back into Time."

She shook her head. "The tests don't work here," she said. "The... the thingies in the little dish..."

"Cell cultures?" I suggested.

She nodded. "Yeah. They don't grow here."

"That's all right," I said. "The doctor could take the sample back into Time. The cancer would grow in the dish, it wouldn't grow in me, the doctor would come back when he had a cure."

"It doesn't work," she repeated. "The samples don't survive the trip out."

I looked at her for a long moment. "Renet..." I said slowly. "How many times have you done this?"

"A lot," she said softly.

I asked her a lot of things. I asked whether I could shift in and out of Time, so that doctors could test me while the disease still stayed in early enough stages that I could be cured. No, she said. I asked whether a course of treatment in Time, combined with regular visits to the Null-Levels, would give me something like a real life. Not a good one, she said.

In desperation, I asked whether a doctor could clone me, test the clone, develop a cure from those tests, and...

She just looked at me pityingly.

I stopped asking questions.

This is my life now.

For as long as I can stand it.

My family does visit me, occasionally. The first few visits were... bittersweet. My brothers were taller, more confident in themselves. You could tell that they were eating better, that they were finally getting what they wanted out of life. You could see the years of stress easing from Master Splinter's shoulders. He actually looked younger.

I only wished that I could have gone with them.

The visits after that were awkward. My brothers had become adults. They were settled. They had jobs, families, lives. And I was still a teenager, still a little misproportioned, trapped forever in the throes of a growth spurt. I had gained hardly any life experience, and it seemed like my mind hadn't changed either. My perspective was the same. I was still seeing the world through the eyes of a young outcast.

And the visits after that... just depressing. We have nothing to say to each other anymore. Master Splinter is getting old now. He's slowing down. When he visits, he stays as long as he can, trying to buy himself more time to be with his grandchildren.

My brothers aren't old yet, but they will be. They should have watched me die when I was seventeen. Instead, I am still seventeen, and I will watch them die when they are eighty, ninety, a hundred.

I won't even be able to go to the funeral.

...

No. I will. Whichever of them goes first, I will be at the funeral. And then I will stay in Time. I will get sick, and I will die, but at least the burden of caring for me will be on those unprejudiced doctors of the future. It will be shared among my nieces and nephews.

My father won't have to see it.

My still-living brothers will, but that's all right. Because they'll know that I waited for them, that I was willing to watch one of them take their last breaths.

Willing. Yes. But not for all of them.

I don't want to be the last.

...

I'm sorry. That's probably more than you wanted to hear. I do appreciate you listening. No, don't worry about the dishes. I'll take care of them.

What? How long have we been here? It doesn't matter. Renet will jump you back to just a few seconds after you left. Her aim is much better than it used to be.

And me? No, it doesn't matter for me either. I have all the time in the world.

...

All the time in the world, and no one to spend it with.

... Please stay a little longer?