The clone 4-H-N was roaming down an open balcony high up amidst Grindotron’s technological towers, happy for Dylan on his recovery and looking forward to seeing him again. Suddenly she was jolted out of these pleasant reflections by a blur of fiery red, which shot past the edge of her walkway and sought an empty spot of sky beyond the megalopolis’s peaks.
It was Phoenix Prime, and there were a dozen reasons to suspect she was not on any flight of fancy. 4-H-N had not always seen eye-to-eye with that particular sister of hers, but she suspected this was one those situations where that wasn’t going to matter.
She pressed her wristwatch signal-button. Less than a second later an aerial robot, pentagonal in shape and no larger than a manhole-cover, was idling by her toes. These 4-H-N quickly slipped into specially-designed pockets on the robot’s back and thus smoothly swept from solid flooring, upright and riding with perfect balance like some skyborne skateboarder.
“Hi, Micro-Mallet,” 4-H-N greeted her friend. “Follow that girl.”
“It’s always a pleasure with you, Miss!” chuckled Micro-Mallet from between her feet. “I’ve never met an organic life-form who takes to the airways so well!”
“Oh, back in high school I was a frequent flier,” explained 4-H-N.
Phoenix Prime was sitting on an exceptionally high summit with her wings folded. Even by Grindotron standards, this vantage-point was a spectacular one. The city sprawled below in its staggering topographical intricacy, bathed in the afternoon glow of two suns, while farther off might be glimpsed shimmering countryside and even a scintillation of sea out beyond the Grod Sands war memorial museum.
“Quite a view you’ve found up here,” 4-H-N said to Phoenix Prime, sitting down beside her as Micro-Mallet glided off. “Nothing like Nottingham, this place.”
“Nothing like,” Phoenix Prime agreed seriously. “I was just beginning to understand how things worked there. But since we ventured to this galaxy, everything has become different. It’s perplexing, clone.”
She corrected herself at once.
“I’m sorry,” said Phoenix Prime, “I meant to say 4-H-N. There’s just so much on my mind…”
The other girl grinned. “You really have been doing it less,” she reassured her. “And if I cared that much about names I probably wouldn’t be going by a serial number. Speaking of names, yours is Phoenix Neetkins. I’m going to drop the ‘Prime’ as long as we’re up here. In fact, isn’t it time you started thinking about that?”
4-H-N took her sister’s hand, and waited patiently for a reply. She knew this was not the kind of talking Phoenix Prime was good at. At great length, her kindly perseverance was rewarded.
“She taught me everything I know about The Four Heroes’ cause,” Phoenix Prime declared. There was no need to specify of whom she spoke. “Turned my life around. Refused to give up on me, even despite everything I’d done. I depended on her. I was depending on her for what’s coming, later today…”
Phoenix Prime gave 4-H-N a meaningful look, almost a pleading one, though she was not quite able to meet her sister’s gaze. The clone understood. Taking responsibility for past misdeeds was fundamental to the cause, and 4-H-N could only imagine how torturous the prospect of facing Dylan had been to Phoenix Prime over these many months they had worked towards his recovery.
“But now I can’t look at her the same way,” continued Phoenix Prime. “I don’t know anymore if the guidance she’s going to offer me will have anything to do with what I learned from her on Earth. I’m alone again.”
4-H-N sighed deeply.
“Phoenix,” she began, “have you ever noticed just how many of our problems have come about because of somebody putting impossibly high expectations on somebody else? Gala saw more in Joe than was there, and that eventually landed us with The Foretold One. It’s the same with Joe and Dylan and how they’ve fallen out, two friends who used to think they could do anything as long as they had right on their side, but only ended up disappointing each other. The Four Heroes’ cause, Phoenix…I don’t know. There are times I think it’s more trouble than it’s worth. These days it’s like no-one can actually live up to the thing.”
She shook her head.
“Phoenix did teach you,” the clone declared. “She helped you become who you are today, part of the family and a hero in the Solidity War. That’s a lot. But Phoenix, you mustn’t base it all on the notion she’s infallible. Nobody is. Maybe that whole time when you were under Phoenix’s tuition has come to an end now. This might be where you start standing on your own, following your personal take on the cause just like we all seem to be doing lately. Life’s absolutely full of different little phases that begin and end like that, trust me.”
Phoenix Prime didn’t seem to follow this last part. 4-H-N squeezed her hand, and proceeded to explain:
“I was luckier than you, Phoenix. In fact, I guess I was luckier than the average Neetkins daughter, because I had something that’s pretty rare for us – a happy childhood. By that, I mean the period of my biological existence I think of as childhood now. Somehow I managed to stumble on the best friends a girl could ask for, pretty much the minute I was out of my processing-tube, and we discovered life and school and every sort of adventure together. Not that it was all fun and games, mind you – I mean, there was also this madman in a top hat who kept doing his best to destroy us…”
“And that was part of how it was a happy childhood?” Phoenix Prime inquired. 4-H-N had to close her eyes.
“It was, Phoenix,” she replied, almost blissfully. “The dear Baron. That entire chapter of my life’s a beautiful painting now, hung up on a wall somewhere in my memory, all lovely tones of cherry-blossom and cute boys and a positive rainbow of really nice underwear. But you can’t step into a painting, Phoenix. The place itself still exists, of course, and so do Biko and Kitty and the gang. But the time’s over. My friends from back then are all grown now, like I am. If I hopped a dimensional portal and went there tomorrow, it’d be different. Probably I wouldn’t even recognize half the spots where those memories were made.”
4-H-N had to search a minute for the words. What she came up with was:
“It’s there and it’s not there, Phoenix. If that makes any sense to you at all. Like those castle remains the Grindoes have preserved. There are things we have to remember, because they stand for something we need. But there’s no going back.”
As she studied her sister’s face, 4-H-N bore witness to the gradual dawning of a genuinely grateful smile.
“It makes perfect sense,” Phoenix Prime declared. “Thank you, 4-H-N. I understand now.”
She stood up, and spread her wings. 4-H-N scrambled quickly to her feet beside her. For no reason the clone could determine, she was starting to feel alarmed.
“Phoenix, what are you saying?” cried 4-H-N.
The answer that came back may not have even been addressed to her. Phoenix Prime sounded more as if she was thinking aloud, as she softly spoke the words:
“So it was a short time in the light, after all.”
She vaulted from the tower and next second was a spark in the vast Grindotronian heavens. Even with Micro-Mallet’s assistance, 4-H-N would have stood no chance of tracing such an ascension. In one peerless aeronautical bound Phoenix Prime had quit the roof of the world for loftier territories still, as one who wished to put the planet and all it had come to signify squarely behind her pinions. And sure enough, 4-H-N gazing thunderstruck into the sun-tinted endlessness could not but note her sister’s course, which was in the direction of Grindotron’s principal interplanetary port. Towards departing space-vessels tracking along the vertical and into the unknown did Phoenix Prime’s shape dwindle yet.
“But, I…” 4-H-N protested powerlessly, to the empty realms about her. “I didn’t mean…!”
It was more than 4-H-N knew that on a day before her time, and in an ancestral home distant indeed from the Royal Clan Neetkins’s present situation, Phoenix Prime had watched Dimension Borg beat his path across an ocean which in hue and greatness somewhat resembled the sky into which she herself was even now receding. The child Phoenix Prime however had known all the apprehension and dread 4-H-N knew today, for in that vanishing form were omens of a family soon to be rent asunder. Possibly too Phoenix Prime had been mindful of some still darker portent, this one regarding the places to which Dimension Borg’s journey would lead him, and of how many millions across the diverse realities would come to rue the outset she here surveyed. That feeling, more than any other, 4-H-N shared in her sudden solitude atop a tower on Planet Grindotron.