Mission Control had fallen eerily silent, save for the faint hum of type as it continued to scroll up the display screens. But none of the three people occupying the lab was reading it or could stand to.
"Any chance that these could be wrong?" Bogg asked, with more desperation than hope. He kept his back to the screens, as if not seeing them could make them and their contents disappear. "That there's some other possible future for Jeff?"
"The program generated the five most likely outcomes of our projected scenario. The odds of there being a sixth viable future with a different result are point-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-one," Bryce reported. "Rounded up to the nearest millionth."
A million to one odds. Not good any way you looked at it, Bogg thought bleakly.
Susan rubbed the back of her neck as if it ached. "If Jeffrey returns to his existence in Standard Time, the danger to him increases exponentially."
Math had never been Bogg's strong suit, but the term "exponentially" made his blood run cold. "What about Drake? Is he responsible for all these?" he asked, gesturing towards the screens behind him.
"He could be. Bryce ran the projections for that too: there's a more than 80 per cent chance that he's behind at least three of these attempts. But even if we try to stop him every time . . ." Susan paused, her eyes full of shadows. "Phineas--I think you know as well as I do that he's going to keep at it until he succeeds."
"Until he gets Jeff, you mean."
There was a world of desolation in that lone syllable. Bogg lowered his head and stared at the floor.
"Phineas . . . I know this isn't easy to hear or accept but -- ever since Jeffrey's been with you, he's been safe. Safer than he would have been in his own time."
"Safe?" Bogg echoed incredulously. "In the last two years, he's been shot at, kidnapped, nearly blown up, burned to death, frozen, suffocated, drowned, and bitten by a mad dog, and that doesn't even cover the landings--"
"And he's survived. Largely because of you. Because you've been there protecting and looking out for him." She reached out again, tentatively, and laid a hand on his arm. "For the past two years, you've given Jeffrey your love and care--would you call that 'nothing'? I wouldn't, and," she took a deep breath before continuing, "I don't think they would either."
There was no need to ask whom she meant. Just as there was no need for Bogg to wonder what "they" would have wanted. Because he already knew, as surely as if Bill and Kathy had told him themselves. If it came down to a choice between their lives and their son's . . .
"I want to go back," he said again.
Susan's face clouded. "Phineas, don't you understand--"
"Yeah. Yeah, I do. More than you know. But there's something you need to understand too." He took a fortifying breath of his own. "I need to go back--so I can talk to them."
July 13, 1983
The summer heat lay in a haze over the cemetery, making the suit and tie he wore even more uncomfortable, but Bogg made himself ignore it as he walked toward the plot where they lay.
Today would have been their fifteenth wedding anniversary. He'd chosen the date on purpose: the thought of attending the funeral had been too painful and, more importantly, he wasn't sure he could have resisted the temptation to snatch Jeffrey up and Omni away with him, six months ahead of schedule.
Their headstones were up, looking almost obscenely new and pristine, and the inscriptions stood out in sharp relief against the dark grey stone. William Stephen and Katerina Beatrice Jones, their birth and death dates, and the simple phrase "Beloved Parents." Bogg wondered if Jeffrey had had any say in the epitaph and hoped that had been the case.
Kneeling, he laid the flowers he carried upon each grave: a white rose for Bill, a red rose for Kathy--like the one she'd worn in her hair that night at Aldo's. Then he sat back on his heels, feeling in some obscure way as if he was waiting for something, though he couldn't have said what.
Finally, he cleared his throat and said tentatively, "Hi, guys--it's me.
"Bet I'm probably the last person you expected to come here. Or--maybe not," he added. "If there really is a . . . a life after death, then you already know all the things I couldn't tell you before. That I'm a Voyager--and I'm taking care of Jeffrey. I--hope you don't have a problem with that."
He paused, but no lightning bolt came arcing out of the blue at this confession and no rumble of thunder rent the sultry air. Encouraged but still cautious, he continued, "What happened to you wasn't fair or right. You should have had ages together. You should have had the chance to watch him grow up, marry, have kids of his own. Instead, you were all robbed of that, and I'm gonna make sure that the person responsible pays--if not today, then someday."
He paused again, this time to suppress the anger that stirred in him at the memory "But that's about me. I know that retribution doesn't matter to you. I know that your son was the most important thing to both of you, the only thing you'd worry about, wherever you are.
"I can never take your place. You were great parents who raised a great kid. I think he's got the best of both of you in him, but he's his own person too. And . . . I couldn't love him more if he was mine."
Something loosened and warmed inside of him at the admission. It had taken him a long time to say those words aloud--the first time, he'd blurted them out unthinkingly, at his trial--but it seemed to get easier with practice. And perhaps that, more than anything else, might reconcile Bill and Kathy to their son's being in his guardianship.
Bogg reached out, tentatively traced the inscription on her headstone. "Maybe the life we lead isn't the one you'd choose for him--it's not even the life I chose for him at one point, but Jeff had other ideas. Being a Voyager's not always comfortable or safe, and I know he's missing out on a lot of normal experiences that other kids have--but I can promise you that I'll always do my best to take care of him. And that I'll always love him. I'll love him enough for all of us."
He sat there a while longer, in the drowsy warmth and stillness. No sign that he'd been heard . . . unless the strange sense of peace that eventually stole over him could be counted as such. After some reflection, Bogg thought that perhaps it could.
Rising to his feet, he brushed the grass from his trousers and reached for his Omni. Time to go back, to where his--their--kid was waiting for him.