The rest of the evening passes pleasantly enough. They play triple scoopball, which is not too taxing so they can talk while playing. Afterwards, they play Q-bus, a game Tom is not familiar with. It is kinda like a 3D domino with pieces that only match certain other pieces. The way they play it, it is cooperative rather than competitive, but that was probably not the way it was designed to be. Of course, if Tom were to play competitive games with a Starborn, even a severely underage one, he would lose spectacularly every time, no doubt. So he is wisely not complaining.
By the time Tom is getting tired, Rita disappears to the bathroom (well, at least one of the bathrooms) and returns a bit later in fetching pajamas. Ben goes next, and finally Tom. He is pretty tired by this time, so upon emerging in nightclothes and with brushed teeth he immediately suggest that he would like to sleep if he only knew where.
Ben nods. "That's fine, we'll sleep now as well." The fleet-footed teens lead the way upstairs. There is a room, at first sight fairly large for a bedroom, with wallpapers in typical kid-friendly colors. A second look, however, reveals that the room is actually quite full. It holds three beds: One of them is a double, and the two others are adult single size, but standing side by side. A dresser and some kind of cabinet eats into the space as well, so the place is actually rather crowded.
Rita jumps onto one of the two single beds. "This one is mine!" she announces happily.
From subconscious suspicion to alarming clarity in six seconds. Not bad. "This is your bedroom?"
"She used to sleep in the double with me, but she's got her own bed now."
"Yup. I'm so grown up, I have my very own bed!"
"And since you said that you did not want to sleep with me OR my sister, we put in an extra bed for you!"
"Ah, uhm, thank you."
"You are welcome."
"This way we can all sleep together and still have our own beds!" adds Rita.
That is technically true, admits Tom in his mind as he gingerly climbs into the remaining bed. But did they have to put them quite that close together? Once the light is out, it will be hard to say where his bed ends and Rita's begins. He almost asks Ben if he can sleep in the double bed instead. But in the last moment, he considers that Ben is likely to inadvertently inform the world about it, quite possibly in a worldwide Viewcast. That's just the kind of guy he is. So Ben lies very, very still and silently instructs his body to not flail about in sleep as it usually does. And, not least, to absolutely not under any circumstances do the thing it sometimes does in the morning.
Something is very wrong with the world. There is no life anywhere. There are ruins of what may have been homes, but the ruins are so old and weathered that you can barely see that they have been made by humans at some time. Now, there is not even a blade of grass. The ground is reddish clay, dried by a stark sun in a hazy, orange sky. Like an evil eye the scorching star glares balefully down on a ruined world.
Then Ben appears. That's the only word that fits: Appears. He seems to just tunnel into reality from some other place. He wasn't there, but now he is. It is Ben alright, but he is changed. Much older. His hair and beard are white as snow, although his face is still unlined and his body is that of a man in his prime, muscular in a sinewy way. This is rather easy to see since he does not wear any clothes. But it is his face that draws attention, for despite its smoothness it somehow radiates age, as if those eyes have seen millennia come and go, whole eons pass before them.
Those eyes are now sweeping over the land around him, taking in the desolation and devastation of the dead world. Shock and horror are reflected in that face: This was clearly not what he had expected. And then, when his eyes have had their fill, he speaks. Or rather screams. "No! Noo!" He claws at his face, as if to gouge his own eyes out. "I did not mean to be gone this long! I only... I only..." His whole body contorts in unbearable agony and he falls to his knees on the dusty ground, his face still hidden in his hands. And then he falls silent. Then he changes.
When he rises, he is calm. But it is a horrible calmness. Lifting his hands, this Ben starts to speak in a different voice, powerful, formal. He intones: "Eternal Light, Invisible Force of Goodness that permeates all worlds! Hear my wish this one time, and let it be done! To this world I offer up my lifeforce, to make whole what my absence has broken. Bind us thus, spirit to dust, light to darkness, to be forever one. This is my pledge, eternal, irrevocable. Let it be done! Let the illusion of ego cease!"
The older Ben spreads his arms, like a human cross. And as he stands there, he begins to glow. His body begins to shine with an incandescent brightness, and then dissolves completely into the light. Tom begins to scream, but he has no voice, and it is too late. With a soundless explosion, the light spreads outward, like waves on a pond. And where it spreads, everything changes. The red barren clay becomes fertile soil and is covered with grass and trees. The angry orange skies become blue and clear. The broken and weathered ruins become beautiful homes. The oppressive silence is broken by the song of birds and the laughter of small children. But the space where Ben stood is empty, just empty air and a patch of soft green grass. And that price was too high, too high even for a world.
Suddenly, now that it is too late, Tom's voice is back. He is not sure of all that he is screaming, but "Ben! No!" is in there, and "don't go away" at least. "Please don't be gone." Tears blur the beauty and wash away the paradise, and he closes his eyes. When he does, the world disappears. A familiar voice comes from somewhere outside that world. "I am here. It is OK, Tom. It is all alright."
When he opens his eyes again, he is sitting in bed. Ben is sitting beside him, holding him, speaking softly. Rita is watching with big eyes. A small lamp over her bed is the only light in the room.
"You have been dreaming, Tom. I am not going away. Nothing bad is happening."
"I'm sorry. I did not mean to wake you..."
"It is OK, Tom." Ben is holding him close. "I don't mind."
"I had a horrible dream... you went away. Forever."
"I won't, Tom. I will always be there when you need me." And then his voice changes, becomes one Tom has not heard ever before this night, solemn, filled with authority. "I will be by your side whenever you need me, whenever you miss me, whenever you ask for me, from this breath and till you draw your last. Before the Invisible Force of Goodness, this is my pledge, eternal, irrevocable."
Tom whimpers in horror.
The black wings of nameless fear swoop by overhead and gradually fade. Tom grabs his friend's shoulders and swallows until he gets his voice back. "Ben, don't do that!" "Don't do what?"
"Don't keep saying things like that!"
Ben blinks. "I have never said any such thing before, and may not do so again in a human lifetime."
"But in the dream you said something like that too, and then you died!"
"Tom, I am not even sure that is possible. The Heritage protects me."
"Not from yourself! You made another such awesome oath, and then you just... this really makes no sense, does it?"
"Perhaps if you tell it from the beginning."
So Tom describes his dream as much as he can remember it. The only thing he skips is the part about no clothes. It really didn't seem important in the dream either, as if Ben had come from a place or a time where clothes were not considered important. And anyway, it is not like he would say such a thing in a bedroom no matter what. That would be just wrong. But the rest he describes, word for word as he remembers it. Ben and Rita listen intently, seriously, as if it wasn't just a stupid dream. As if it was important after all.
"And that was the last thing I saw. But you were gone, Ben. Really gone. I could feel it."
"How strange. And I was very old, you say?"
"I think you must have been thousands of years old. I don't know how long quarter angels live, but that was the impression I got."
"Was I a man or a woman?"
"What? A man. More so than now. There was no doubt about it." His ears grow warm with the secret of his knowing, but it is not really important.
"Well, there goes Lee' s theory" says Ben unconcerned.
"Dr Lee believes that the key to mother's longevity is the repair mechanism of her gene spirals. She has inherited one set from her human mother and one from her Visitor father. Lee believes that as a half-Visitor grows older, the superior repair mechanism of the Visitor gene spiral will not only repair itself, but rebuild the human gene spiral in its image. Eventually she will be completely Visitor. That means that I may already have more than 25% visitor genes. But my only X gene spiral comes from mother. If it rebuilds the dot spiral in its image, then I will become a Visitor female when my human lifetime is over."
"That's just too weird!"
"Well, if your vision is correct, that is not going to happen."
"I never said that it was a vision! It was just a dream, but horribly lifelike."
"If you did not believe it to be true, it would not have the power to scare you even after you woke up."
Rita speaks up. "It was sad that Ben had to stop living, but it was kinda nice that he died for the world. Kinda like Jesus."
"Yes" agrees Ben. "I might have done that if I could, but I cannot imagine ever having that much of the Goodness inside me that I could do that."
"The story about Jesus is one of my favorites too! He was a real American hero. And it was so romantic."
"Uhm, I think he was actually Jewish."
"I don't see why that should be a problem."
"Because America wasn't discovered until 1500 years later?"
"Oh. I didn't get that part. I am pretty sure it was an American movie though."
"That would explain the romantic part. But it's based on a Jewish book."
Rita jumps up and strikes a dramatic pose in her pajamas. "How deeply I have longed in my heart to eat this last supper with you!" She sits down. "And the part where his mother and his not-quite-boyfriend watch him on the cross."
"I don't think it is common to use the words 'Jesus' and 'boyfriend' in the same sentence."
"But he was really close, like you and Ben."
"I don't think we are not-quite-boyfriends either."
of course you are more than that now. Ben gave you a marriage vow
and you accepted it, but you did not give one back. How much is
that? Betrothed perhaps?"
"That's not like it at all!"
"It wasn't a full marriage vow, sister mine, it was only the part that applies to us. Married people also have some other things to do."
"Exactly! But Ben, why did you have to say that... vow?"
"Because I could not bear the pain in your voice when you said that I had left you. I want you to never feel that pain again."
"That's what Mommy said, when you love someone you want only good things to happen to them."
"But you don't have to marry them all!"
"Don't worry, Tom. I am not going to marry you. Even if Lee should be right, it won't happen in your lifetime."
"Now that's a mental image I can live without."