A/N: This was written for and won the April Fools Challenge over at The Write Away on LJ. :D It was also turned in for a creative writing final during the spring '10 semester.

Requirements for April Fool's Challenge:

-must be between 3-6k words

-must contain a twist

I hope you enjoy! :) And please forgive any typos, this wasn't beta-ed.

The whole world was awash with blues and greens as hundreds of spacecrafts took to the air from the Venetian Launch Pad. I watched, spellbound, as they leapt into the air, fire spurting from each back end. They rose to a certain point, made a loud noise and disappeared into hyperspace, only to reappear moments later with a boom, performing various aerial maneuvers that brought the crowd to its feet.

All of them were painted in respect to the Earth's assigned colors in the IDPA – blue and green- but were totally different in all other respects. Some were thin and graceful, faster than the others. There were bigger, clunkier ships that had weapons visible at every angle, and some made from an opaque substance that looked as if it would melt from the sun's rays. There were even giant, round-bodied crafts, full of windows and built with only one engine, turning tricks overhead. Turns, twists, rolls, dives, one after the other in such rapid succession that I could barely tell where one craft ended and the other began.

The IDPA – the Interdependent Planet Association – ran these shows once a month. They were used as training methods for new initiates to the Skybound, social situations for the Earthbound and Dirtbound, and an energy outlet for everyone. They were held all over the planet at every Launch Pad, but as the capital of the world, the Venetian Launch had the most spectacular show. I had been to this show, once a month every month, for the past twenty-one years, and the sight never failed to amaze me.

"Come along, Mallory," my mother was standing off to my right, her purse hitched over her shoulder. She was ready to go before the planes had even landed. That was my mother – always ready to leave. These shows were merely a requirement for the Earthbound to her; not a privilege, nothing special. She barely even dressed up for them – just her typical floral blouse with her standard issue khaki pants. The only difference from any other day was her hair. Instead of a bun, she wore the dark mass down, around her shoulders.

"Mother, they haven't even landed yet!" I argued, crossing my arms over my chest and letting my chin rise. Technically, parents were of a higher rank than their children. But I was twenty one years old, so full of myself that she had long ago stopped trying to make me follow blindly.

"We'll beat the crowd if we go now," she argued back, blue eyes hardening to points of ice. "They don't do anything interesting as they're landing, anyway." She started to walk away, feigning disinterest in whether I followed or not. But I knew her well enough to see her watching me from the corner of her eye, expecting obedience.

Well, she wasn't getting it. Not this time. I had let her force me into a pair of khakis and a dressy blue top when I wanted to wear a dress like the rest of the women my age, but this was something I would not bend on.

The landing exercises had been my favorite part of these shows since I was twelve – I wasn't going to miss them because my father had died and left me trapped with mother during the show. It would be cheating his memory as well as myself… landing exercises had been our time together. While mom walked home, we would sit down and watch the captains jump back in their hatches and bring the big ships down with a final trick; their one last hurrah. He would usually tell me a story about his own time in the sky, and we would both go home happy for once.

Mom gave a weary sigh and sat back down on her bench, folding her arms angrily. I knew I'd be getting a lecture about this display of disobedience later, but I was too excited to care. Most of the ships had already been brought down, with a flash of their lights or a zip back into hyperspace before landing, but the Polaris was still hovering the air, waiting for its moment.

The Polaris had once been under my father's command. The shuttle had been the last to don 'Earth Colors' and my father had been the last captain to surrender to the new laws of the IDPA. He and his crew had become rogues, escaping the Police Forces and Cop Bots sent after them until he had been tricked by his most trusted crew member into thinking they were running out of fuel. Rocket, my father's second-in-command and best friend, had turned them over to IDPA officials and taken over as Captain.

My father was legendary now, still infamous within the government as a rebel after three years. Like me, my father had believed that the IDPA was stifling the universes' independence, and hadn't cared for their brainwashing one bit. The fact that my father had fought against their tyranny made my heart swell with pride, but he had never seemed particularly enthusiastic, especially after he was caught.

Daddy's pride and joy was a beautiful space craft, made of titanium alloy and some other compounds that my father had never really explained to me. I had never been very eager to learn, not even from the man I admired most in the world. But I had humored him when he talked about the Polaris, mostly because of the excited look he would give when he mentioned its name. I heard all about its dual-powered engine, the windows made out of a plastic impossible to melt or break, the bent-back thrusters that sent the thing flying through hyperspace at four hundred astronomical units per hour, and each button's purpose in the Captain's Quarter. The talks had usually bored me to death, but I had gone along with them since they brought my father such joy.

After he became Earthbound, Daddy had never been the same. The IDPA couldn't risk letting him back behind the wheel of any spacecraft, let alone the fastest in the universe. Too risky for someone who didn't support their cause. Instead, after being forced to hand over his Captain's greens to Rocket, my father had been demoted and left to rot on Earth – his own personal Hell.

I knew he loved mom and me, but for him, nothing had ever compared to the feeling of zipping through hyperspace and watching the Earth shrink into a tiny dot behind him. After that feeling was denied him forever, he began to waste away. The only time he smiled was during these Airshows … or while he was talking about the Polaris. In the days directly before the end, I had practically begged him to speak of his glory days. I wanted his grins and smiles back… instead, I had watched him die.

"Can we leave yet?" My mother asked snippily, mouth pressed into a thin line. She must have noticed the faraway look on my face and decided to take advantage of my inattention. I didn't bother arguing – the Polaris was safely back on the launch pad now, and I had missed whatever finale Rocket had ended with.

"Let's go." I stood and began walking towards the parking lot from the raised benches we had been seated in for the duration of the show. I didn't bother to make sure mom was following – she could find the car on her own.

The lot itself was about half a mile from the launch pad observation deck, so I had some time to collect myself as I made my way to the family vehicle. Thoughts about Dad had a tendency to throw me for a loop now – it was impossible to think of his last days and keep a smile on my face. He hadn't deserved to waste away to nothing for three years. He was fighting for something he believed in

"Excuse me," a voice called from behind me, sounding slightly out of breath. "Mallory?"

I turned and graced the speaker with a polite smile, not expecting to come face to face with the man who had replaced my father aboard the Polaris. I would recognize him anywhere; the former captain had pointed him out at every Airshow we had witnessed since his fall from rank – and before that, he had been a common guest at the Ortega household. He had even picked me up from school when my parents were busy.

Rocket was built like a dancer; thin, with long, graceful limbs and a well muscled torso. Long, dark hair framed his angular face, giving a dangerous quality to his looks, like that of a ghost striving to keep some hold on his humanity. It was really no wonder I had developed the teenage infatuation I had … he truly was one of the most beautiful men I'd ever laid eyes on. And he'd treated me well, not like the boys at school.

With my dull brown hair and plain Jane looks, I'd never been the prettiest or the most outgoing person on the planet, and because of that, I'd had few friends. I'd preferred to spend my time with younger kids; tutoring, babysitting, and volunteering. But when Rocket was around, that all changed. He never pretended I didn't exist – instead, he made sure to include me in the conversation, and actually seemed to value my opinion. His smile still haunted my dreams occasionally, but I was over my childhood infatuation. My father's death had seen to that.

"Yes?" I responded coolly, clasping my hands in front of me in an effort to keep them from forming fists at my sides.

"Hi," he greeted anticlimactically, raking a hand through his chin-length black hair nervously.

My eyebrows rose. "Hello." He had avoided me for three years, and now wanted to exchange pleasantries?

"Uh – did you enjoy the show?" It was clear he had no more of an idea what he was doing than I did. He shifted his weight awkwardly from foot to foot, hands stuffed deep into the pockets of my father's greens.

"Very much, sir," I answered his query icily, flexing my fingers to keep them occupied. It chafed my pride to call him 'sir', but as he was a Captain and I was a lowly Earthbound, I had little choice. My father would surely be rolling over in his grave to hear his daughter speaking politely to his personal Judas, but I couldn't walk away. Something in my companion's demeanor had me wondering what it was he wanted, and I wasn't about to leave until I found out. I would later blame my schoolgirl self's fantasies for speaking with him, but at that moment I was at a loss to explain my actions. "Is that all you wanted?"

He bit his lower lip and moved his eyes to his feet. "No, of course not. Mal, I - would you – I mean…"

"Mallory!" my mother's shrill cry interrupted whatever it was that he was about to say. "What are you doing?" She jogged towards us, rage painted on her aging features. It was clear she had recognized the man I was talking with, and she was not happy about it.

"Relax, mom," I said, raising my hands in surrender. "The Captain was just leaving. Right?" I looked at the dark-haired man pointedly. He nodded quickly, his hair falling over his face with the action.

"Good to see you again, Mrs. Ortega, Mallory," he mumbled, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his Captain's Greens and staring at the ground. "I'm – I'm sorry for your loss." He walked off quickly, his boots leaving heavy imprints in the dirt.

Mom gave me a cold look before turning and walking the remaining ten feet to our car.


According to the Rules and Regulations of the IDPA of 2112, all Earthbound residents of the planet must go through exactly fifteen years of schooling, after which they are expected to become productive members of society. We were, in effect, the middle class of our world, not that our government would allow us to use that terminology. We weren't Captains or anyone who could help in the struggles against the other universes, but we weren't as lowly as the Manufacturers Rank – not so affectionately known as the Dirtbound.

I had graduated from school when I was twenty, a year ago. Since then, I had joined the IDPA's Teachers – which was basically a title for someone who brainwashed children. I lectured on the wonders of outer space, the adventures of the Spacebound – the Captain's Echelon, in technical speak – and a host of other topics geared towards getting children to train to become Captains.

Since I had become a teacher, I had been responsible for the minds of a hundred boys and girls between the hours of 0800 and 1500. So, a week after the Grand Airshow, I was in my classroom, watching my kids write mini-essays on what they wanted to be when they grew up. Travelling down the rows of desks, I realized that I would be reading several papers on Spacecraft Captains.

The sound of grinding gears proceeded a rusty sounding voice calling, "Ms. Ortega?" A speaker appeared on top of my desk, projecting the artificially intelligent Secretary's words.

"Yes?" A hundred pairs of eyes focused on me as I replied.

"You have a message in the office – please come pick it up after class has ended." There was another mechanical noise, and the box disappeared back into its slot in the wooden desk.

"Back to work!" I called out to the children who were now watching me with interest, while inwardly puzzling over the message waiting for me. My mother would have just sent me an image message via my Vio23 –it had a hologram simulator that allowed me to see her face as she spoke. I had bought it specifically for that purpose -she was an excellent liar as long as no one could see her face.

But aside from her, there was no one that would be sending me a message. The militaristic society I lived in did not really encourage friendships, and I hadn't had time for a beau since high school. So what was going on?

An hour of watching the clock later, I sent all the children home and gathered my belongings. The walk to the office was relatively short; right down the hallway and to the left. The AI machine that served as the school secretary buzzed to life as I entered, the control pad whirling and zinging to life. "Ms. Ortega, I was asked to project this for you," the mechanical voice sputtered.

I stepped back, ready to receive the message. A hologram of Rocket stood in front of me, hands in his pockets. Instead of Captain's greens, he wore a normal t-shirt and jeans, but his face still had that strange, ethereal quality, even pixilated as it was from the technology. I had never seen someone's form so distorted from sending a hologram – if I hadn't recognized that feature, I may never have known who I was listening to.

"Um, hey," he began, his voice sounding airy and distorted. "I'm sorry to contact you at work like this, but I figured you wouldn't be too thrilled if I showed up at your house – and your mom would probably try to kill me – and I knew you planned on working at the school, Luther was so thrilled that he told me…" he hesitated, probably realizing that he shouldn't have mentioned my father. Until that point, I had been smiling at his awkward demeanor and even found myself liking him a little.

I snapped back to reality quickly. "Secretary, you can just –" I started to tell it to delete the message, but his next words stopped mine.

"Right, that probably pissed you off. So before you delete this message, I'll get to the point. Come out with me. Tomorrow night, meet at the Launch at seven. Please. I'm taking the Polaris up solo – I remember how much you loved going up with Luther and me when you were younger. We can go out to Jupiter again … do you remember that trip? Your dad was sick and ended up sleeping the whole time, and you rode up in the cockpit with me? You were only about 16." The picture cleared and faded again, but not before I caught a glimpse of the reminiscent look on his face.

I remembered the trip well. It was one of my favorite childhood memories – my first glimpse of another planet. My first real alone time with Rocket. My first almost kiss, and the awkward moment directly after, when we both came to our senses.

"Of course, as you probably realize, I do have a bit of an ulterior motive – there's something I have to tell you." I was nearly certain I saw a nervous grin flash across his face. "Before you say no – your father wanted you to know. It has to do with him as much as it does me… maybe more. Mal, we both wanted you to know the truth. So come tomorrow. Please." The picture got clear suddenly, and in the instant before the recording snapped off, I could see his face perfectly, smirk and all.

I stared at the spot where the hologram had been for a moment, chin practically scraping the tile of the office. That son of a bitch had just blackmailed me with knowledge of my father and fond memories of my time with the both of them. Even if he hadn't betrayed my father and stolen the Polaris, I still shouldn't have even considered meeting with him.

But it was too late. Somewhere between being angry with him and making up excuses not to go, I had already made the decision to meet him.


It was a long walk to the Launch Pad.

I couldn't take the family car to the rendezvous with Rocket. Mom would ask too many questions and I was nearly certain that good sense would prevail if I began to analyze the situation too closely, and I couldn't let that happen. There was something my father had wanted me to know, and I owed it to his memory to find out what it was.

"Identification, please." A Cop-bot had snuck up on me as I walked. It was one of the ones mass produced by the Dirtbound, meaning it was box-shaped with antennae on its head to accept direction from the humans in the control tower. The rudimentary technology was laughable compared to the AI machines used inside the buildings, but they were still accepted as law enforcement in the cities - just another sign of how far in thrall the IDPA had our world.

With a sigh, I hauled out my identification card. I was definitely going to be late now – I had forgotten that it was close to the city's curfew. Had I been thinking properly, I would have taken a roundabout route to avoid the 'bots.

It took approximately fifteen minutes for the rudimentary machine to inspect my card and send me on my way with a warning to get home soon, so I was fifteen minutes late for my meeting. But the Polaris was still sitting at the bottom of the launch, and Rocket was still there waiting for me, leaning against one of its engine covers.

"I was beginning to wonder if you were coming," he said by way of greeting. "But I should have known better. You were always way too curious for your own good." As I surveyed his relaxed posture and broad smile, it occurred to me that Rocket had not changed at all since his tenure as Co-Captain. Where my mother and father had both aged immensely in the three years since then, he had stayed the same young, handsome man I'd been half in love with.

"I should have known better," I rebuked, crossing my arms across my chest defensively. "But I'm here. So what is it that's so important you tell me?" I kept back, as far away from him as I could while still being polite. I had dropped the rank's required 'sir' at the end of the sentence already, I didn't want to push it and piss him off.

"Come with me," he answered, pushing a button on the sidewall near him. A hatch opened, leading into the familiar front deck of the Polaris. I looked inside, but didn't move from my spot on the tarmac.

"Why?" I challenged. "Why can't we just talk here, so I can leave whenever I want to?" Why had I come here? What had I expected? Mom would disown me if she ever found out, and I was dishonoring my father's memory by even considering going aboard his old vessel.

"I called this meeting, I set the terms. It's only fair, don't you think?" he met my eyes challengingly. "Come on, Mal. You know you're going to come with me. It's not in your nature to back down from a challenge." He was mocking me, and I didn't like it. Not at all.

"You don't know me anymore, Rocket," I threw back angrily, the wind tossing my hair around my head. "I've grown up, and learned to think before doing something stupid." I wasn't really telling the truth, but he didn't need to know that.

"Are you coming, Mallory?" was all he asked, and somehow, I found myself climbing up the extended bridge and entering the deck.

A piece of my father was on this ship, and like Rocket had known, I wanted it.


"Just let me prep for take-off, and we'll get this show on the road," Rocket offered, moving around me to get to the cockpit. He was very careful not to allow any part of himself to bump against me, a fact I found almost amusing. He'd always been like that – afraid to touch me, even when I wouldn't have minded. In fact, I couldn't remember a single touch between us, not in all the years we had been friends.

He flopped into a chair in front of a screen full of buttons and switches and other things I'd be sure to break if I sat too near and began adjusting things, muttering under his breath. "Pistons, engine, thrusters …"

The vehicle beneath me began to move. I sat hurriedly in the nearest seat, not wanting to embarrass myself by falling over as we took to the air. I had been aboard the Polaris enough to know when I could stand on my own and when I'd be sure to fall.

"Here, strap yourself in," Rocket ordered, leaning close enough to gesture at the belt dangling off the side of my seat. "I'm taking us into hyperspace as soon as we're high enough." He leaned back, once again focusing his attention on his switch board.

I did as ordered, becoming more and more curious by the moment. Why couldn't he just start talking so we could get this over with? "My dad used to talk about hyperspace like it was heaven," I spoke suddenly, looking out the clear wall in front of me at the sky. "Do you feel like that?"

Rocket glanced at me from the corner of his eye. "Your father was a born spaceman," he replied slowly. "I doubt anyone felt as strongly about hyperspace as he did. But I love it, yeah." He hit a big red button on his left, and suddenly, we were in the air.

"Brace yourself," he warned, before lifting a handle. I flew out of my seat, stopping only when the seatbelt caught me. With my heart pounding in my throat, I held my breath, waiting to come out on the other side of the Earth's atmosphere.

Just as suddenly as it had come, the feeling of flying without an anchor stopped and we were just floating. The sky around us was dark, and when I looked down through the clear wall, all I could see was darkness. We were clearly not on earth anymore.

"Jupiter's over there," Rocket gestured to a far off blue dot in the sky to our right, smiling. He flicked a switch and my seatbelt released, letting me stand up to join him in the cockpit. He stood as well, too close for my comfort. The toes of our shoes were practically touching, our bodies separated by only a foot of air.

"Thanks," my voice was slightly breathless as I replied. "Now will you tell me what I'm doing up here?" I forced myself away from him, taking steps backward until I could breathe again. "You said something about my dad." The reminder wasn't just for him, but for myself as well. I couldn't forget why I was there.

"I was never supposed to like you," he muttered, raking his fingers through his hair. He glared at me accusingly, as if it was my fault this meeting wasn't going according to plan.

"Like me? You don't even know me anymore, Rocket!." I glared right back. He was the bad guy here, not me; I hadn't initiated contact and practically blackmailed him into meeting me. He was the one using my father's memory as a weapon, not me.

"I know more about you than anyone alive," he kept his eyes locked outside the window as he spoke, avoiding my sharp, questioning gaze. "You think I worked with your father all those years and didn't hear about you everyday? And then we he finally introduced us … I spent every moment I could soaking you in." He finally met my look with wild eyes, and the intensity in them sent a chill up my spine.

"You hate all things about science and the IDPA. You think they were wrong to take over the old government, and you could care less about bringing other universes into the association. You read the same insipid children's book over and over until you were fourteen, you're afraid of spiders and snakes and anything that doesn't have two legs." He bit his lip, staring at me. His hands had left the control panel and were now clenched at his sides, making his whole body look tense. "I was in love with you when you were barely seventeen!"

"What – why…?" The idea of him loving me was too ludicrous to even consider. My mind ran through question after question, but I couldn't articulate a single one for several minutes. My whole body was numb, thrumming with nervous energy.

"I trusted you," I whispered finally, gathering my thoughts. "Just as much as Daddy did. Why did you betray him? Why did you betray me, if you really felt that way? Why would you take the Polaris over if you really cared about me that much?" Tears burned at my eyes, humiliating me. I was supposed to be an adult now, but being around Rocket had always brought out my immaturity.

"I didn't have a choice!" Rocket exclaimed, pacing the small space between the board and the door like a caged animal. "I didn't think he'd be so upset – he knew, after all. I wouldn't work for anyone else, the only solution was to take over myself, or be destroyed." He lifted a tortured expression towards heavenwards. "I didn't know that the reality would kill him."

"You didn't want a new boss? That's your reason?" I shrieked, slightly hysterical. I knew I was overreacting, but talking like this had triggered something in me and I couldn't stop. "You killed him! He was never the same after he lost the Polaris – he wouldn't even smile at me unless he was talking about hyperspace. He cried when he found out you'd taken over as Captain!"

"I knew he hadn't told you," he murmured, almost too quietly for me to hear over my own labored breathing. "He wouldn't break his word. But I had hoped," he looked up at me, stopping mid sentence. "Mallory, I swear to you, it isn't what you think. Your father was my best – only – friend. It's not that I wanted to take his place, or that I couldn't stomach being an underling any longer. But no one else knew enough to take over, and I wouldn't trust anyone else with my secret."

Rocket stared at me intensely, dark eyes boring holes into my face. "This would be so much easier if I didn't know you," he whispered. "Or if you weren't so beautiful … so like him…"

I stepped back in alarm, hearing the words as a threat. We were in hyperspace, I had no way to escape if I had to. "Stay away from me!" I raised my arms defensively and stared at him warily, regarding him for the first time as the enemy my mother saw him as.

"Don't you understand?" he asked, a grim laugh sounding from his throat. "I would never hurt you. I couldn't. It's not in my programming." The mechanic terminology struck me as odd, but I didn't question it.

"Why did you do it, Rocket? You have to tell me why!" My tear filled eyes locked on his tormented face. Thankfully, my voice stayed level.

"No one else could take over the Polaris," he wet his lips, "because I am the Polaris." A rushing sound filled my ears at his announcement. I stumbled backwards, catching myself on a chair.

Before I could even understand his words, he had rushed on, saying, "Your father wrote my program as an auto-pilot. I was just supposed to steer while he slept, and switch to hyperspeed without typing a complicated pattern. He didn't anticipate the code taking on a life of its own, but that's what happened. The ship became a living thing … became me. I control everything on this ship, and I only answer to members of the Ortega family. No one else could have taken over, Mallory, because my programming doesn't allow me to answer to them."

I couldn't move. I was still breathing and blinking only because my body demanded it – I couldn't have even thought to take a breath after Rocket's speech. Everything around me was moving in slow motion; a blur of color here and there, nothing more.

Slowly, I realized he was still talking. His mouth was moving, anyway, but I couldn't understand what he said. It was like a radio with bad interception; the words kept going in and out of focus. "He was horrified … scared … you and your mother … IDPA … Rogues … forced him to keep running … my fault."

The last snipped caught my attention and brought me back into focus. "You – the Polaris – wanted him to go rogue?" I asked disbelievingly, still unsure of everything Rocket was revealing.

He nodded. "I didn't want to be discovered," he said miserably. "I didn't realize Luther would be blamed until I was forced to land for fuel. By then, it was too late. The IDPA's agents were all over us as soon as I landed. He wouldn't tell them about me, partly because he would be implicated and partly because of a promise he made to me to never reveal my existence." So they truly had been friends. If my father had sworn to keep the soul of the Polaris a secret, he must have trusted it.

But of course he had trusted it. I had known that Dad had trusted Rocket my whole life; no one else was allowed to pick me up from school or take me to hyperspace, or even come to the house if I would be home. Dad had trusted this … being … with his life and mine, which told me enough.

"He was taken away and stripped of his rank. He thought I had arranged it so that I could be free to do what I pleased outside the IDPA. That was what I wanted… but I would never have hurt him to get it. I swear it, Mallory. I just didn't want to be destroyed. I was weak. I didn't want to die." His remorse was so obvious that I began to cry for him. I had forgiven him, and something tells me my father would have, too.

"He was so horrified when he created me," Rocket continued, oblivious to my indifference, "he had never wanted to mess with artificial intelligence. He had no way of knowing that I was so much more than that ... and he didn't find out until after he was Earthbound. The day he found out I'd taken over as Captain, he called to order me to hand over command. But it didn't work – and he was devastated. He thought I'd kill the crew and take off on my own or something …"

That would explain Dad's tears that day. Actually, Rocket's explanation made a lot of sense. Little clues began to fit together in my mind; Dad's distress over his 'betrayer', the fuzz on the hologram Rocket had sent me at school – a hologram making another was like watching an image of a TV on another television set – his inability to age, his care not to touch me, and so many other little things. The 'man' standing in front of me wasn't real. He was a hologram – the soul of the Polaris.

"I wanted to kill you, you know," Rocket was still speaking in the background of my epiphany, but I hadn't heard anything until then. "I was going to lure you up here and dump you out in space to make sure you never tried to take control of me." Were there tears in his eyes? Could a hologram cry?

"But I couldn't help but love you like I loved him – as much as a mass of coagulated electromagnetic waves can love, anyway," his mouth twisted in self-deprecation, a sentiment I didn't like seeing there.

"Then what now?" I asked quietly, half dreading the answer. "I'm pretty sure you know I feel the same way about you … but nothing can come of it. I can't even touch you." My voice was totally unemotional, but inside, I was anything but. Rocket had been my first crush, my first love. All fantasies were gone now, but the feeling still remained.

"Look under the switch board, next to the big ball of green wire." His voice was as dead as mine, and his dark eyes lacked the sparkle I had become accustomed to. With a careless gesture, he revealed the catch that opened the underside of the board. I knelt on the ground and pulled the screen off, regarding him cautiously as I fumbled to find the right angle to pull at.

"There's a keypad there, with a button that says 'end'. Push it, and I'm gone." The words resounded in the tiny room like a boom of thunder. His voice was expectant, like he expected me to hit the button and end this whole discussion at that moment.

Instead, I stood up. "You want me to destroy you?" I asked tearfully, wringing my hands. "You want to end your existence instead of trying to figure something out?"

Rocket looked at me sadly. "There's nothing to figure out, Mal," his voice caught in his chest, "It's easier this way. I can just go back to being a machine. I won't feel guilty, I won't feel anything." The hopeful expression on his face almost killed me. He didn't want to love me.

"But I will," I said quietly. "I don't want to do it, Rocket. I love you, real or not. I love you!"

"And I love you," he agreed, getting as close to me as he could without moving through me. "But it's not right, and we both know it. End it, Mal. Just end it." He stared down into my eyes, pleading. "Please."

"Don't move," I murmured, stretching upwards until our eyes were on the same level. I leaned in as if going for a kiss, my lips hovering where my eyes told my brain his should be. My arms twined around air when I wanted to wrap them around his neck, but instead of feeling regretful, I just imagined a warm body between them.

He closed his eyes, probably imagining as well. His arms lifted and wrapped around my shoulders, stopping a mere inch from my skin. I imagined heat radiating from his skin, felt myself react.

It was the pain on his face that made me pull away. The want, the need written across his face that would never vanish as long as I selfishly kept him here. He would always be trapped by emotions that he wasn't made to feel, and no matter how much I wanted to keep him, it wouldn't be fair.

Suppressing a pang of regret for what might have been, I kicked the screen off of the board and hit the 'end' button with the toe of my shoe.