'I understand, without condoning or condemning. I'm leaving this galaxy for one less complicated.'
The words came out of him so easily. In truth, he was about to embark upon a journey into an experience beyond his knowledge - and, even considering that he boasted of having walked across the surface of the sun, that thought both terrified and elated him.
Across from him, in this room smelling faintly of iron filings, sat a man, in visage unconventionally handsome, seated upon a trapezoidal dais bearing the Egyptian symbol of the Ankh – the key of life. The man's clean-shaven features were crowned by a shock of tight blond ringlets, and his muscular, lithe body, so easily relaxed on the dais, was vested in the purple raiments and trappings of a King of Kings.
He looked at this man, sitting across from him on the other side of a glass orrery, in the private observatory of the would-be King, and felt a twinge of emotion. Pity.
'But you'd regained interest in human life ...'
This, from the man who'd just pressed a button and, by preemptively murdering three million people at a single stroke, ended a war which would have cost billions of lives.
Even as this compassionate murderer was speaking, he could feel the transition beginning. Part of him was no longer present in the same world as the mighty man who now looked upon the ruin of his own world and despaired. He was slipping away – had already slipped away – and he had barely enough time for one last valediction. A blessing upon the new human race he was leaving behind.
'Yes, I have,' he said, the words sounding increasingly hollow, distant. 'I think perhaps I'll create some.'
He said the other man's name. He heard the other man call him back.
'Before you leave,' the other said, 'I did the right thing, didn't I? It all worked out, in the end.'
Oh, the uncertainty. The quaver in his voice as the other, the world's smartest man, finally began to entertain the terrible notion that he may in fact have committed the greatest act of stupidity a mortal man was capable of.
And the grim finality of that thought was settling in. He could see it appearing on his conventional primate brow; see the muscles bunching under the skin to form an expression of horror, of guilt.
How could he say that he was any different to this man? He himself had wandered across rice fields, the air foul with burnt napalm and defoliant, blood, explosive residues, pain, motor oil and jet fuel, heroin and weed, sweat, salt tears, faeces and urine; a gigantic figure, eliminating armies of tiny people running away from him, human bodies popping like little fireworks at a gesture and a tiny expenditure of will, leaving nothing but a smell of cooked meat, and turned the internal organs of gun-wielding gangsters into steam, causing men to flare and burst open in cramped, crowded gin joints, adding the scents of blood and death to the odours of tobacco and marijuana and booze.
Indeed, a few moments before he'd taken one last human life. A hapless, mentally disturbed vigilante whose strict moral code forbade him to compromise; a man whose moral code, for all that it had been carried by such an unpleasant man, happened to be ethically correct this time.
Glimpses of his past – and, here and now, all that remained of the light cone was the past – stretched out behind him.
Extreme high velocity blood spatter staining Antarctic snow. A bilaterally symmetric blotch pattern. A psychoanalyst's inkblot test and a coppery smell. One more body amongst the foundations.
A room full of television screens. That outer space smell of steak and iron everywhere, mingled with heavy concentrations of ozone. Two lovers, a man and a woman, lying curled up beside a pool in a still, dark room. Smells of sex and Nostalgia perfume and chlorine from the pool.
'”Oh, it's sweet. Being alive is so sweet.”' Words from the woman, hanging in the air.
'”No. Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise.”' More words, hanging in the air. Refusal to accept blame or guilt for the terrible deed. A man, his hands already stained with old blood, dying in the snow with his hands clean of this fresh crime, at least.
The life between two bursts of light; the first, an accident back in 1959, the second a few moments before, in 1985, a deliberate act.
An existence encapsulated, bound, and now liberated.
He returned to this moment; to the furrowed brow of the man who, in making himself feel every death he'd caused, was now contemplating the prospect that his story was about to end. What could he say to this other, in the handful of time left to him in this world?
'”In the end?”' A faint smile was permitted to crease his glowing face. 'Nothing ends,' he said, saying the other's name. 'Nothing ever ends.'
Seconds became milliseconds, microseconds, a nanosecond, a picosecond ... and then no time at all. Awareness shifted away from the world he'd once stridden as a literal Colossus, to join the rest of him ...
He looked around. The plain stretched out before him, flat and featureless. No stars were visible. The ground beneath him did not feel like ground; there was an atmosphere, comparable in density and composition to the planet he'd just left behind.
Gravity, here, felt arbitrary; a mere suggestion to be invoked or discarded at will. Here felt familiar, almost like a map of the interior of his mind, not long after the accident, just before his materialisation in this form in the commissary of the military base in which he'd once worked, back when he was a mere mortal.
He extended his hand and looked at the back, then at the palm. It was the same as it had been, back in the world he'd just left: translucent, illuminated from within by a constant glow of Cerenkov radiation from the speeding electrons within his body.
'These hands,' he said out loud, 'have killed. Life – existence – has ended at my will, through these hands.'
The vocalised words sounded strange; he realised that, without solid walls around to reflect the sound, the only echoes could only come from the ground beneath. And the ground was not a reflective surface.
'How did it feel?'
The words came from behind him, the timbre familiar, but the words oddly accented. Perhaps British, or maybe Australian. Surprised and shocked to hear the strange words, he turned to face their source.
A corridor had opened up behind him; a seemingly infinite corridor, its walls, ceiling and floor composed of screaming electrical arcs, the corridor itself being roughly rectangular.
A figure was striding along the corridor, curiously dressed. He realised that this other was somehow dressed in a parody of the other from the world he'd left behind: an ensemble of purple and cloth-of-gold, with a gold yoke, bracers, belt, and gold silk hose. He wore a gold headband.
Again, clean-shaven, with hair in tight blond ringlets; but here, minor differences. Older, somehow. Less on an ectomorph and more mesomorphic. Oh, and shorter; he estimated this new arrival's height to be around 160 centimetres, rather than the stately two metres ten of the other.
An added accessory completed this stranger's ensemble. He noted that this new arrival, now crossing the ground toward him, wore shades over his eyes, obscuring them from his sight.
Literally. He could see the beating fusion heart of a star, but he could not see this man's eyes. This was the second curiosity. The first being surprise from his unexpected arrival and question.
'I ask again; how did it feel?'
He thought about it. 'Terrible beyond belief,' he said.
The newcomer nodded. 'I quite understand,' he said. 'You recognise me somehow ...'
'Yes. I left someone behind, before I came here. Someone who dressed as you, but was not you.'
'Reality is like that,' the new man said. 'What was this other one like, pray tell?'
'Oh, fast,' he said. 'Fast, intelligent, funny beyond words.' He let the sentence hang in mid-air.
'For a man,' the newcomer replied.
'For a man.'
'Built like a Classical Greek statue.'
'Let me guess; Alexander the Great.'
'How did you ...?'
The newcomer smiled. 'It's always Alexander,' he said. 'They get obsessed over the Greeks, then the Egyptians – Rameses II is always a popular choice, across the realities. I adopted a sobriquet based on a poem by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley: “I met a traveller from ancient land,/Who said ...”'
He took up the poem. '”Two vast and trunkless legs of stone/Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,/ Half sunk ...'
The other continued; '... a shattered visage lies, whose frown,/ And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,/ Tell that its sculptor well those passions read -'
He finished. '”Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,/ The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed.” I am familiar with that poem. Mine also gave himself that same name.'
The not-Ozymandias grinned. 'With great intelligence comes great hubris; vast, bloated egos. I wonder in how many ways his story differed from mine.' He chuckled.
'And by “they,” I mean all the variants of me that manifest.'
'Are you talking about timeline forking?' he asked the not-Ozymandias.
'The multiple universe hypothesis,' the other replied, sitting cross-legged on the floor. 'We live in a single universe, but at every branch point in time a myriad of choices causes a whole different timeline, or multiple timelines, to branch off. Universes exist where matter never formed, or where matter did form but the Sun and the Earth never existed, or where humans never evolved.
'We come from two proximate timelines where humans did evolve – and, more, evolved to form culture, civilisation and even democratic societies. Specifically, the kinds of democratic societies wherein a specific breed of human emerged, with a flair for the theatrical, a contempt for the law enforcers and a desire and the wherewithal to enforce justice in a criminal world.'
He nodded, looking at the not-Ozymandias. 'What of your reality? Where does your story differ from mine?'
'For that,' the other asked, 'I would have to ask for your story.'
'I understand,' he said. He paused, and began.
'It began with an accident,' he said. 'I worked at a nuclear facility, experimenting with intrinsic field subtraction. I ... I was very good at fixing watches. My father taught me that it was a simple matter of taking something apart, and then putting it back together in the correct sequence.'
'So, what was this accident, then?'
'I got locked in the intrinsic field subtraction chamber,' he said, looking at his glowing hand. 'The light ... the light was everywhere, outside me, inside me, and every atom of my body just flew apart.'
'And then, what?'
'And then,' he said, 'I got better. I put myself back again.'
'I understand,' the other said. 'Only one thing. Your original form was not blue, hairless, naked and glowing, was it?'
He looked at the other; and he suddenly realised something.
Since the second intrinsic field subtraction, he'd been existing entirely in the present. No comixing of past and future states; no living out painful memories of breakups, relationships, watching friends dying of cancer.
Only the eternal now; the pinched spot at the focus of the light cone.
So the stranger's words were actually, honestly, surprising him. He literally could not see them coming.
Aghast, mortified and yet also curious beyond belief, he stood mute, lost in aporia.
'That ... never occurred to me,' he said.
'Nor should it have,' the other said. 'It never happened to anyone before, so nobody had any kind of a frame of reference to base a norm against. Being a unique example, you set the norm.' The other got up. 'Come with me,' he said. 'We have much to do, little time, and many people to meet before we can begin.'
'Where are we going?' he asked, elated that he had to. In this strange, new existence, everything was new.
'Through the corridor,' the other said, gesturing. The corridor appeared, a point becoming an infinite line of points, the points unfolding in arcs like an electric rose blossoming, expanding into the rectangular outline of walls, floor and ceiling picked out in electrical arcs he'd seen before.
Some others waited for the pair at the other end of the corridor, in what looked like some sort of oval chamber, with openings at the narrow ends rather than doors, a vaulted ceiling and no overhead illumination – only the light coming from himself, the light source at the centre of the room the details of which he could not see from here, and from some of the beings he could see clustering about that light source.
He took a look around the room first, noting the remarkable attention to detail. The walls were of bare brick, unadorned; yet despite the fact that the brickwork was solid without gaps, none of the bricks quite matched their neighbours, in colour, texture or shape.
Beneath them was a floor, which felt soft and comfortably warm beneath his feet. The woven material seemed to pick up a static charge from his feet, though, and crackled where he walked, giving him an experience he had never had in this form. Ticklishness.
'If it's uncomfortable, float across,' the other said. He'd joined the group in the centre of the oval room. He nodded, rising to a comfortable height, and levitated across towards the others, his body straight, his toes pointed down like a high diver perpetually caught at the beginning of a dive.
There was a chuckle from the group. 'Showoff,' someone said. He looked at the members of this group with curiosity, now.
The group comprised a motley gang. The not-Ozymandias, of course, and a genetically-modified lynx, a great striped monster of a creature that he recognised. He watched the lynx licking the palm of the not-Ozymandias' hand affectionately. The name “Bubastis” emerged from his lips, a whisper. The lynx turned, recognising the name.
'Yours?' he asked. The not-Ozymandias smiled and nodded.
'My Ozymandias had one like her,' he said. 'She died in an intrinsic field subtractor; my second exposure to that device. My young Pharaoh had sent her in to distract me, while he warmed up the plates. A callous act, on his part, but not his greatest act of callousness.' The creature padded across over to him and sniffed at his strange, blue hand.
'I don't have anything for you, girl,' he murmured. Then he looked at the gang. 'Do my powers still work here?'
'All of them,' the not-Ozymandias replied.
'Very well,' he said, concentrating. Some energy coalesced in his body, becoming water, lactose, milk proteins, fats, baked ceramic, coloured glaze; a facsimile of an object from his childhood, from a time when he'd briefly kept a cat.
The bowl of milk appeared in the air, floating down to his hand. Gently, he placed it on the ground for Bubastis to drink.
'Probably little more than a taste for her,' he said, looking at the group. 'But I feel she deserved something.'
'Your way of atoning for the loss of the other one?' one of the members of the group said; a young-looking man with a large head, large eyes and a spidery body. His voice indicated that he had been the one to cry out “Showoff” previously.
'Works for me,' the not-Ozymandias said. 'Anyhow, I believe introductions are now in order.'
At this point, he turned his blue face towards the light source at the centre of the room. It was a woman, glowing with a gorgeous golden yellow radiance.
She stood up to greet him, smiling. Other than that her golden yellow glow resembling that of Earth's Sun, she could have been a female version of him: naked, hairless, her eyes glowing with blue Cerenkov radiation from within, the same stylised symbol of the hydrogen atom on her forehead – a circle with a dot, and another dot in the centre.
Something about her face ...
'Hi,' he said.
'Hello,' she replied. 'My name is Laurel Jupiter.'
His jaw dropped.
'I knew someone,' he said. 'In ... in my previous life ...'
'I know,' Laurel said. 'My version of you was a bit older. My mother had wanted me to follow in her footsteps, but I wanted to become a physicist. I worked very hard, physically as much as mentally, because throughout my studies, I chose to keep up my mother's workout regime to honour her memory.
My version of my mother died, you know. Cirrhosis of the liver. My father died on October 12th 1985. Lung cancer. He died in his New York penthouse, all alone. He was sixty seven. All those cigars he'd smoked. He was a costumed hero, too.'
'I am sorry to hear of your loss.'
Laurel continued. 'The accident happened at Gila Flats. It transformed me, as it did you. Only, two small differences occur between our stories – apart from the obvious one.'
'And what are those differences?'
'By the time the accident had occurred, you were already dead. A stupid car accident.
'And the second difference; my transformation was no accident.'
'I deliberately chose to become this,' Laurel said. She smiled, and reached out her hand.
He closed his eyes, and saw through hers -
The intrinsic field subtractor was at full strength. Thin fingers of electricity flared, striking at soft flesh, forcing her atoms to disintegrate as the vital data of her intrinsic field ceased to have any meaning.
The only place that the intrinsic field had any meaning was in her head; her will to survive.
And then all was Light.
Light, and Consciousness, and Memory.
When she forced her mind into her body, she realised how much she could now control. Matter. Energy. Time and Space. Her own quantum wave, and her intrinsic field, were now simply parameters in a vast, yet simple, Equation.
She had become that Equation.
No way was she going to be suborned by any one government; turned into something gaudy and lethal. Some sort of weapon to maintain control over their tottering, rotting hegemonies.
As the Equation, she suddenly realised that she had bigger plans.
She appeared in thirteen different places across the planet, in each place accompanied by a massive coronal discharge from nearby pointed objects and electrically conductive surfaces, all chosen locations out in the open, in full view of the general public:
- She materialised at a point directly above the Chrysler Building in New York; simultaneously, she shone above the Hollywood Sign in Los Angeles, drawing the attention of a hundred tourists armed with their primitive hand-held 8mm movie cameras.
- In Australia, her arrival caused terrified tourists to flee the vicinity of Uluru, convinced that they'd done something stupid and disturbed some ancient spirit.
- In China, she appeared in the sky above the Forbidden Palace in Beijing; in Japan, the skies of Tokyo, already the scene of a violent thunderstorm, flared anew as her arrival induced coronal discharges from the NHK Tokyo Tower.
- She appeared in the skies over Red Square in Moscow during a military parade, causing the Russians much consternation.
- In Europe, she materialised in four locations: above CERN in Geneva; above Lourdes; above the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and above Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, England. In all four locations, considerable numbers of people were present to witness these strange miracles.
- Some mountaineers were surprised by her arrival, naked, on the summit of Mount Everest. At the same time, a robot probe plunging to the depths of the Marianas Trench in the Pacific Ocean encountered her golden, glowing form, naked, unconcerned by the crushing pressures, looking up at it, grinning slightly and wearin an expression of curiosity.
- Lastly, the faithful at the river Ganges in Benares were shocked into stunned awe at the sight of a golden, luminous, naked woman walking calmly on the surface of the river, the touch of the soles of her feet cleansing the sacred waters of sewage, industrial wastes and parasites, rendering the silty river crystal clear from the sea all the way to its source.
In every instance, the woman's appearance lasted precisely one minute and forty five seconds before vanishing, in every visited location.
Returning to a single instance, the luminous Laurel Jupiter materialised again, this time somewhat less spectacularly, in a dark cave housed beneath the soil of England: part of a cave network undiscovered by humans in this reality.
And there she stayed, silent and pensive, waiting for her purpose to be determined so that she could do the thing she was meant to do.
Laurel looked at him.
'What was your existence like?' she asked.
He shook his head, sadly. 'Not what I'd expected,' he said. 'I was a watchmaker's son. I did well enough, but I wanted to become a physicist. When the Bomb went up, Dad forced me to study nuclear physics, taking the components of the watch I'd been assembling and just throwing them out the window as he declared his line of work obsolete.' His eyes grew wistful. 'So I studied nuclear physics, as I'd wanted, and I did well enough. However, I did want more. I wanted a breakthrough. I wanted a Nobel Prize. And for some reason, the breakthrough – the inspiration – was eluding me.'
'Until the accident that transformed you.'
'Exactly,' he replied. 'I have walked across the surface of the Sun, but then on my return to Earth I discovered a new horror; I could no longer relate to anybody any more.'
'Were you much of a communicator before?' Laurel asked.
He shook his head. 'Actually, when you put it that way, not really.'
Laurel smiled; her golden glow brightened. 'So your physical nature changed, but not your human nature.'
'That is my major flaw,' he replied. 'I acknowledged as much before I, well ...'
'Killed Rorschach,' Laurel said, sadly, her glow diminishing slightly.
'You had one of those?'
'I did,' Laurel said. 'Mine had gone too far. Killed two men who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They'd just been in the alley where a girl had been found dead. All those man had wanted had been some time alone with one another.
'Mine went after the men and killed them; but only afterwards did it turn out that the little girl had in fact been killed by someone else and dumped there.'
'Did you ...?'
'Find the little girl's killer? Yes,' Laurel said. 'I caught him trying to abduct another little girl outside a school. I tore his van apart, so he could go nowhere; stood in the air over him like an avenging angel dispensing justice; pointed, and baked his internal organs from within. You should have heard the crowd cheer.'
'Did you have the same problems as I had in my reality?' he asked her. She frowned.
'Show me,' she said. Now it was his turn to invoke memories.
The military forcing him into some bizarre role as America's gaudy, lethal walking nuclear deterrent. The closure of the Gila Flats research base, lest the Soviets or any other nation acquire the schematics for an intrinsic field subtractor. Last thing they wanted was a Dr Manhattan race between the States and the Soviets' counterpart.
Then the whole story of this murdered costumed hero, a vigilante working for the US government, thrown out his penthouse window by his world's Ozymandias, to prevent him from revealing the contents of his world's Ozymandias' truly bizarre and insane scheme to bring the countries of the world back from the brink of nuclear Armageddon ... by playing a trick on them with a genetically – created monster made to look like an alien creature, teleported into the heart of New York City with cataclysmic consequences.
The vision faded. He looked at his golden counterpart.
'Your Earth's populated by nutjobs,' she said.
'Tell me about it,' he replied. 'I mean,if Ozymandias had wanted power, why couldn't he have thought logically about it for a minute, and created a female version of me with his intrinsic field subtractor? The one he'd built in his Antarctic base? The one he'd tried to kill me with when I'd tracked him down?
'Moreover, why did he not put his own famous intelligence to work – and stepped into that machine himself?'
The not-Ozymandias and Laurel both laughed. 'Clearly,' the not-Ozymandias said, removing his shades, 'your version of me was not that smart after all.'
The not-Ozymandias' eyes glowed blue. Just like his own. And Laurel's.
'You were given the name “Doctor Manhattan,”' Laurel said. 'Associated with the Bomb, yes?'
Doctor Manhattan nodded.
'Evil device,' Laurel said. 'I chose my own name. “Aurora.”'
'Back in my world,' Dr Manhattan said, 'she was the second Silk Spectre, a costumed hero like her mother. No aspirations to study nuclear physics. She was on retainer by the US government to, er ...' He stumbled over the words.
'She kept you from straying by sleeping with you,' Laurel said. 'I got that from the memory dump you gave me. It's fine, Jon.'
Dr Manhattan looked at the not-Ozymandias. 'So you became another version of me,' he said.
'After due consideration,' the other replied, 'I decided that if I needed to get the job done right, I might as well do it myself. So I built an intrinsic field subtractor, and became its first subject.
I chose to retain the hair on my head and my eyebrows, and my human appearance, but I reset my physique to remove of my body hair. I took to wearing clothing befitting kingly status, even though I had no noble claim. A minor conceit, given that I could have chosen to eschew clothing. Like you and Aurora, I no longer feel hot or cold. The clothing simply marked my status among the humans, nothing more.'
He looked at Laurel. 'After a time, I realised that it was confusing to live simultaneously in every moment in time, and that this necessitated a
activation of the intrinsic field subtractor. I offered it to Aurora over there, too. She gladly accepted.'
'So your world had two people like me?' Dr Manhattan asked.
'Yes,' said Laurel. 'Aurora ... and Aten.'
'Interesting choice of names,' Dr Manhattan said.
He then turned to the spidery man whom he'd spoken to earlier. The one who'd derided him as a showoff.
'My name is John,' the strange man said.
'What a coincidence,' Dr Manhattan replied.
'I came here by choice,' John said. 'I founded an island colony, and brought along a number of people who, like me, were born with unusual intelligence.'
'Vast,' Aten said.
'Greater than yours?'
'By an order of magnitude,' Aten replied.
'I'd made some questionable decisions,' John replied. 'I had blood on my hands in my past life, you know.'
Jon looked at Aurora and Aten. 'Par for the course, it would seem,' he said.
'I did, however, love humanity, in the end; and, resolving to keep only my company, I sought to isolate myself from ordinary humanity as far as possible.
Having developed the intrinsic field subtractor in the form of a directed disintegrator beam, as well as a form of telepathy and psionic influence over the ordinary human mind, I worked so hard to erase both the evidence of and the memory of us from the world ... but I had enemies.
A Hebridean boy, a terrible and evil mind a match for my own, that manipulated the minds of humans, forcing them to come back again and again to my little forgotten colony, first as nosy journalists and eventually in the form of a multinational naval fleet, until we all finally agreed to just leave.'
'And by leave,' Jon said, 'you mean ...'
'We all stepped into the intrinsic field subtractor,' John said, 'and I pushed the button. In a flash, it overloaded – taking out the top of the central mountain of the island. Every gifted child I knew ... every friend I'd made ... was gone.
'But I, somehow, remained; and so I came back, in another place, another time.
'I was rescued by a starship captain, a man of equal intelligence who saw in me a friend with whom he could talk. A wanderer, a traveller between the stars, his only company on his endless journey was the occasional mind like mine, his sentient ship and the stars themselves, with whom he claimed he could speak.'
'Stars? He spoke with stars?'
Jon looked at Aurora. 'What's wrong with that?'
John smiled. 'They do sing to one another, after all. Captain Focale even composed a new song for them to sing, and got me to co-compose it with him.'
'Here,' said a voice, from behind Jon.
Another person entered the chamber. A slender man, apparently a native of a world with a lower gravity than Earth, his oval head was hairless, his eyes solid black orbs.
'An alien?' Jon said.
'Human,' Captain Focale replied. 'Future human, though not born of Earth. In my reality, we've colonised the heavens. By your time frame, this would be around five thousand years into your future. Give or take a few decades.'
Captain Focale turned to face John. 'It's ready,' he said. He turned to address the group. 'Everybody ready to go?'
Captain Focale turned to address Jon. 'You've only just arrived here,' he said. 'So you wouldn't know what this place is.'
'I don't,' Jon replied.
A golden, glowing hand, cool and smooth, slipped into Jon's. He turned to look at Aurora.
'It's where you let go,' she said.
'Consider your life up to the point before you came here,' Aurora said.
'I don't understand.'
'When you wanted to study nuclear physics, your father told you that your destiny lay in watchmaking, so you were forced to adjust to a life where your aspirations would be denied you, because your father wished otherwise for you.'
Jon looked at Aurora, impassive.
'Then, when you found you were managing to cope as a watchmaker somehow, you were pushed around yet again – this time, you were told by your father to become a nuclear physicist.'
'Yes.' Jon frowned.
'So instead of becoming the kind of person you wanted to be, on your terms, you became the kind of person your father decided that you were going to be, on his terms. And he did that to you, twice.'
Jon'e eyes widened. He felt something starting to build within him; something he had no words for.
'And what happened next?'
'I wanted to earn Father's respect,' Jon said. 'But somehow, I never did. Never. Always, there was this little sigh of disappointment.
'I discover a new antilepton, and he gives me this little sigh. I outline, in a seminal physics paper, the possibility of eight states of matter – solid, liquid, gas, plasma and four different kinds of quantum-level condensates – he gives a little tut of disapproval. It was never enough for him to see me succeed. As if nothing I ever did was good enough.' He balled his fists. 'I'd have liked to have seen him try and come up with a thirteen-dimensional analysis of the structure of quarks sitting in a Brooklyn watchmaker's shop.'
That tension within his body was building further.
'What happened next?' Aurora asked. 'To you, I mean. When that accident happened.'
'They sent the letter to my father, informing me of my disintegration,' Jon said. 'I never wrote to correct their error. I did, however, try to see him, once, before he passed.
'It was, of course, futile. I already knew what he was going to do, because I was living through the whole thing simultaneously. Past, present, future, my line traced out by the pinched point of the present.
'I visited him in his room above his little shop, the curtains closed, half past midnight, he in his bed, dying, a candle beside his bed in a little holder. The same one he'd always used to carry on his way to bed, as far as I could remember.
'”Hello, Father,”' I'd said to him,' Jon said, feeling that tension building further within him.
'And what were his words to you?'
'”Put something on,”' Jon replied, in his father's voice. 'You look like a meshugenah.” And you know, the last words I ever heard from him? His last words as a living being? “Gornisht helfn.” “Beyond help.”'
Jon had not felt anything like this internal pressure before. It had been a long time since he'd needed to assimilate oxygen to sustain aerobic respiration in his body; nonetheless, this tension in his diaphragm was having an effect on his breathing.
'And that was when you went back to Gila Flats,' she said.
'Yes. I resumed calling myself Jon after that. There seemed no point in keeping it a secret, now that he was dead.'
'So you went back to Gila Flats. But not to Janey.'
'Not quite,' Jon said.
'Because, when you needed her the most, when you were dying in the chamber, what did she do?'
'She ...' Jon gasped. 'She ran away.' He felt his fists clench as if in a death grip. 'She ran away!'
'And what did the military do?'
Jon was feeling his jaws clench. 'Everything,' he said. 'Nothing.' He gasped, holding in the tension. 'They kept me at Rockefeller ... kept Janey and, later, my universe's Laurie, by my side ... just to keep me from skipping the country or doing whatever I wanted to do.'
'Earn that damned Nobel prize, for a start,' Jon said, his irritation growing. 'The things I learned about the structure of matter, the insights I learned about the nature of the universe ... its joy, its wonders ... and everyone I talked to, from my handler down, would just nod and smile and reassure me ... and nobody could hear a word of what I was saying!'
Jon's aura was flaring, now. Aurora continued to grip his tightening hand. His eyes were blazing.
'They wanted me there for a purpose,' he said. 'Their purpose. Their design. Their plans, for my life!'
'And what was the result?'
'They became arrogant; hubristic. They believed that as long as they had me under their thumb, they could tell the world what to do; how to behave; and that the consequences of disobedience were. “Behave, or we'll send in Doctor Manhattan to reduce your country to glass.” Hells, they did it in Vietnam, not so they could win their war, but to show the rest of the world what they'd get if they stepped out of line!' He moaned. 'The nerve of them!'
'But you carried on anyway,' Aurora said. 'What difference the affairs of men? It was beginning to feel so distant to you.'
Jon nodded. 'I was falling apart,' he said. 'I felt trapped; collared and yoked up, like a beast of burden, or a pet. I was told that Laurie was my only real link left in the world. Everyone around me whom I'd ever loved or befriended – Wally Weaver, Janey, even old Moloch – was dying. And somebody was blaming me.'
'Turned out to be my version of you,' Jon said, pointing a finger at Aten. 'Ozymandias. Adrian Veidt.'
'The world's smartest termite,' Aten replied.
'He framed you,' Aurora said. 'How?'
'He gave Wally and Janey and Walter Jacobi doses of radiation,' Jon replied. 'Gave them all terminal cancer. Made the radiation signature look like they'd been exposed to the kind of beta particle radiation I generate internally.' His teeth clenched. 'Made it look like me.'
'And what purpose did that serve?'
'To get me out of the way,' Jon said, 'so he could finish his plan.'
'In other words,' Aurora said, 'he saw you trying to do your own thing, fulfilling your own purpose, and instead of letting you find a solution to the world's problems – which, eventually, you would have done – he used you.'
'Yes,' Jon said, his words a rumble deep in his chest. The pressure was unbearable.
'Just like your military handlers,' Aurora said.
'Just like Janey.'
Jon seethed. 'Yes,' he hissed through clenched teeth.
'Just like your father,' Aurora said.
And finally, the dam broke. Jon felt the anger surge up through him, burning in his eyes. Craning his head back, he opened his mouth and uttered a deep, primal roar which burned like the sound of the Big Bang.
With the release of his emotional tension came a burst of energy, a blue nimbus of light and energy of terrible brightness, flaring out from him in a vast, expanding disc. All the rage, pent-up over decades, exploded from his body in a brilliant, swirling ring flying outwards, with Jon in the centre, burning in the upper reaches of blue and ultraviolet, flaring, screaming.
When Jon's rage subsided, he found himself on his knees on the floor, his fists pressed to his head. His body was trembling; a sensation from his days when he was mere flesh and bone that he'd forgotten.
Around him, the walls of the chamber had been blasted to dust; but Aurora, Bubastis, Aten, John and Captain Focale had protected themselves with faintly glowing bubble force fields.
A hand rested on his shoulder. Aurora. Jon looked up.
'Did you ever get the feeling that all of your simultaneous experiences had been just your life flashing before your eyes? And that, instead of being a god, you were just a very powerful ghost pretending at being alive?'
Jon looked up at Aurora. 'Am I ... dead?'
'I hope not,' said Aten. 'Now come on, Jon. On your feet. You're free as sunlight, now. No more little people judging you, afraid of you, telling you the shape they wanted your life to take.'
'I ... I want to cry,' Jon said. 'I can't seem to make tears. How ironic is that? I can turn oxygen atoms into gold, but I can't exude salty water from ducts in my eyes.'
'You don't need to,' Aurora said. 'We know.'
Jon stopped trembling. He no longer needed to make an emotional display. Focusing his will, he rose silently into the air, crossing his legs and floating free about a metre off the ground.
John chuckled. 'Still a showoff.' He turned to face the corridor of lightning that Aten had just created; a tunnel to which everyone now headed.
'Can I come along?' Jon asked. Captain Focale and Aurora turned back to look at him.
'We'd be delighted if you'd join us,' Aurora said.
'It's just ... nobody really invited me anywhere before,' Jon said, levitating towards them. 'Apart from that disgusting hatchet job Doug Roth pulled on me in the TV studio.'
'That was not the TV studio's intention,' Aurora said. 'They had no idea Veidt had set them up as much as you.'
'And now,' Jon said, 'that, too, is in the past. Where is this going?'
'The future,' Captain Focale said. 'There's a visit I do need to pay, though; a small stopover before we go on. John asked me to help him out. So we thought we'd pay a visit to an old friend of John's, in the Hebrides. Drop by, and say ... hello.'
'And then,' Aurora said, 'the stars. You can sit with Captain Focale on his ship and listen to the stars singing to one another.'
'And perhaps,' Aten said, 'just perhaps, we can join their chorus.'
Jon took his next steps towards a future as beautiful as it was uncertain, repeating the assertion he made to Adrian Veidt, back in another life.
'Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.'