It was quiet after the battle for Ni’Challan’s space station. Somewhere, on the skin of the habitable zones robots, welded, glued and replaced sections blasted by Doctor Strangelove’s forces. Still, others polished away scorch marks and cleared up damaged exhibits inside the structure. In the control centre, the gravity was correctly orientated, and the broken perspex replaced. Inside the secured room, Algernon, Peggy, Bruce and Rain rested. The only sounds were the grumbles and complaints from Ni’Challan as he saw the extent of the damage done to his sanctuary and collection.
Rain was still mulling over Algernon’s revelation that he’d never been a child and never experienced growing up. Even his assumed 15 years was more time than he currently remembered and all at the hands of the elusive Doctor Strangelove. Though Rain was missing a large portion of his early life, he remembered fondly all the people who had seen him through from age seven to his mid-teens. Glancing over at the console he recalled the little old man who, one Christmas, had given him…everything. A far cry from the taciturn stranger alone with his space-bound collection.
Could I have built him up to be something more than he was? Rain thought. It was possible. It was amazing what the human mind did with memories that it thought were important. They acquired a magic quality, the etherealness of better times. The further back the memory went the more stardust the memory seemed to collect.
“Can I help you?” Ni’Challan said in a tone that stated the complete opposite. Rain realised he’d been staring, lost in his thoughts. He stood and joined Ni’Challan at the console as he continued his work.
“I just want to be of assistance, sir.” Rain replied, falling into the same formal patterns of speech he always did when conversing with Ni’Challan.
“And yet you refuse my invitation to join my Found Gentlemen,” Ni’Challan said nonchalantly enough, but there was a tone of reprove and a disappointment. Rain had assured the Ni’Challan that under normal circumstances he would have been happy to take the position, and Ni’challan had accepted the refusal graciously at the time. But, rejection is still a rejection, and time tarnishes negative memories as it exalts positive ones.
“Mr Cudo, why are you here?”
“Because we knew you needed help.”
“And you’ve given it, and I appreciate your efforts even though it is by your mismanagement that aid was required. What I want to know is, why are you still here?”
Rain looked over to the party, still resting from the battle. It would have been easy to blame their lingering on the hard-fought fight. Bruce himself was not doing well after the blood rush had faded. It would be simple to say that was their reason for lingering. It would be the truth, most of the truth, but not all of it.
“I…sir, when I received your card I thought only of Bruce and his father. Even then, though flattered, I knew I had no place among your Found Gentlemen,” Rain paused a moment, weighing his words, ”Then I discovered you were Mr Samuels, the man who gave me my life’s vocation, a reason to keep on living.”
Ni’Challan made a derisive sound, “You overestimate my actions. I gave you a trinket on the off chance I could recruit you at a later date. And to that, you have made yourself very clear.”
“You may have never intended it, but in your actions, you gave me the greatest gift; hope,” Rain could see Ni’Challan squirm under Rain’s sentimentality. But this was the moment he’d wanted to say since discovering that Mr Samuels still lived, “Sir, I can’t be a Found Gentleman, but I’d like to be a friend if that’s at all possible.”
Ni’Challan’s brow’s furrowed, and his hands faltered on the console.
“Friends?” He asked, glancing sideways through his thick eyebrows at Rain, “What is it that you think we have in common?”
“Virtually nothing,” Rain admitted candidly, “A moment twenty years ago, we’re both alive and living this incredible life amidst the Strange, that we collect…”
“Collect?” Ni’Challan interrupted. It surprised Rain what Ni’Challan knew of him. His entire history was an open book to Ni’Challan, whereas it was a vague and confusing nightmare for Rain. Ni’Challan knew that Rain was a wanderer with only what he could carry in his pockets and his backpack to his name, but knew nothing about what he found important.
Rain nodded, but didn’t answer the question directly, “Tell me, sir, why do you collect your…pieces?” Ni’Challan picked up on Rain’s ambivalence to his collection and frowned, “They are valuable…artifacts, “He added the appropriate amount of reverence, “Important to Earth and every recursion they’ve spawned.”
“A bit of broken boat? “ Referring to a piece, the Titanic, “A motorcycle from a fictional world?” Algernon’s beloved Akira bike sprung to mind.
“They are tangible and irrefutable links to their moments in time. One thousand five hundred died on the Titanic. Millions died in Tokyo 1988 and many hundreds of thousands in 2019. And you too, are a link to your own tragedy, though you do not remember it. What was that number again?”
“Eight thousand, three hundred and seventy-two,” Rain supplied breathlessly. It always had that effect.
“Exactly, you are a living link to all those who were lost. You are an important remnant of that history.”
“History, his story, her story, their stories…” Rain toyed with the words, “You find your worth in the.. .preservation of those stories?”
“I do,” Ni’Challan said proudly, “I preserve the truth.”
“You are given purpose. You find comfort in your small part in those stories?” Rain added, moving through his argument. Ni’Challan looked at Rain suspiciously as if he suspected some con.
“Then we are more alike than you realise. You connect and collect the stories of people through their artefacts. I do it through my interactions with the people themselves,” Rain gestured to his group and back Ni’Challan himself, “It is our own small piece of immortality.”
Ni’Challan huffed derisively again and went back to his console, the work of fixing his space station and collection.
“Rain, are you ready to go?” Peggy called as she and Algernon formed a circle with the unconscious boy and the distracted Bruce. So busy with Ni’Challan, Rain had not noticed the group getting ready to leave.
Without a thought, the black puzzle box appeared in his hand. It had ceased to be a comfort to him, though its role in preserving and shaping his life was undeniable. But, if it could soften the heart of an avaricious old man, it was a gift worth the giving. Placing the puzzle box down on the console, Rain moved away to join his party.
“What this?” Ni’Challan picked it up, puzzling through its many movements without opening it, “But I gave this to you.”
“Yes sir, “ Rain looked back at the box, his one and only companion from that first meeting to this moment, “It’s meant a great deal to me over the years, but I don’t need it now.”
“Oh?” Ni’Challan looked genuinely confused by the revelation, “But it’s yours.”
“It reminded me of hope and magic. I don’t need it now. I have both in here.” He tapped his chest and his head. He went to turn away again, sure this time the box would be taken and returned to Ni’Challan’s collection.
“But…it’s just a box. There is nothing significant about it.” Ni’Challan pondered, more to himself. He held the box up as if examining it closely for something he may have missed.
“Oh, I disagree. It was magical then, and it’s magical now.” Rain smiled for the first time in that conversation, “Let me show you.”
Facing Ni’Challan, he moved his hands in front and behind the proffered box in a smooth, practised pattern. One moment in Ni’Challan’s line of sight, the next hidden for a fraction of a second. Suddenly the box disappeared without Rain seeming to touch it. For the next few minutes, Rain made the box appear and disappear in various locations including Ni’Challan’s pocket, all the time keeping his eyes fixed on the old man’s.
At first, the Ni’Challan observed Rain’s hands carefully looking for the deceptions, the misdirections and the covers that sleight of hand artists used to convince their audience that illusion is real. Slowly though, as Rain moved the Strange through his routine, the tricks became wilder and more impossible even for an experienced eye. Rain spun and manipulated the puzzle box until Ni’Challan chuckled in surprise and from that moment, the gentle old man twenty Christmases ago was there in the room.
“See, not such a simple box.” Rain finished, placing the box into Ni’Challan’s age-worn hand.
“No, only for you.” Ni’Challan held it out to Rain, “Your clever box would never do those things for me. You’ve taught it that.”
When Rain didn’t take the box back, Ni’Challan reached out, cupped Rain’s hand in his own and placed the box on the flat of his palm. The moment was so like the one when he first received his gift from Mr Samuels that Rain knew he had remembered true. He hadn’t imagined more than there was, the moment shared then as now.
“There, back where it belongs,” Ni’Challan said with finality, “Now go, your friends are waiting.”
Rain nodded, not trusting his voice in the moment. As he turned to go once more, he heard Ni’challan.
“I suppose you’ll be back, won’t you?”
“As soon as I can,” And Rain smiled, a flush of emotion for this silly old man and his trinkets washing over him, “Farewell…Ni’Challan.”
“Yes, yes. Leave me to clean up your mess.” Ni’Challan grouched, but now it seemed more tempered. A crusty facade. Scratch the surface, and you’d see the rust was no more than surface deep.
Rain joined the others in the circle as Peggy started the translation. He had come to the station a mess of grief, fear and doubt. His grief was still present, a raw thing that often took him by surprise, there was a sense that life continued, and it could be worth living. It was another rock in Rain’s shaky foundations, an absolute truth to base a life.
The translation blotted out everything, and he was only aware of the Strange, his part in the mechanics of travel, and being happy.