Late in the night, all was quiet aboard the Desperado. The kids dozed peacefully in their rooms, and somewhere April tinkered with a sinister-looking weapon. Aurora paced up and down inside her room, staring at a photograph half-obscured by the darkness. The ship’s autopilot drive filled the stillness with its gentle hum.
Then, without warning, the shriek of shredding metal tore through the air. Cindy and Libby were flung against the wall as the ship lurched to the left; on the other side, the boys flew from their bunks and crash-landed in a tangled heap on the floor.
“Caaaaarl, move your chub!” moaned Sheen, still half asleep. “You’re rubbing up against me again.”
Carl, who had awoken on impact, was less concerned with their sleeping situation. “AHHHHH! Everything’s gone dark! What's going on?”
“Of course it's dark, you dumb lump. Dark. Sleep. Go back to sleep.”
“No Sheen, something's wrong! The night light's out, and we're on the floor!”
He opened his eyes. “We're on the what?”
There was a noise like a small explosion, and a deafening crack crawled along the walls.
Jimmy shook them. “Guys, get up! We have to get out of here!”
“What the heck was that?” asked Sheen.
Jimmy glanced over at the door. “I think the ship’s been hit.”
“What?” panicked Carl. “Are we being attacked? OH GOD WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!”
“Keep it together, Carl. We need to get to the cockpit and assess the situation!”
The room swayed back and forth as the boys struggled to stand. The tremors proved too much for the bunk bed, and it began to tip forward with a creak.
Jimmy pushed Carl and Sheen out of the way, just in time for the bunk to come crashing down. It missed them by a few inches.
“Get to the door!”
Goddard and the boys plunged forward into the hall. Emergency lights of some kind flashed up and down the corridor as they turned to run.
“Wait…” said Carl, “what about the girls?”
Sheen pushed ahead. “What about them?”
Jimmy grabbed Sheen by the shirt to stop him from taking off. “Carl, check if they’re still in there!”
Carl rushed over to the girls' door, but his attempts to turn the handle ended in failure. He tugged harder, planting his foot against the door to anchor himself.
“It’s stuck!” he grunted.
Sheen stuck out his chest, macho style. “Step aside, Carl! Doors are crafty beasts - they can smell fear a mile away. This situation calls for a REAL man.”
As luck would have it, Cindy kicked the door open at the exact moment Sheen gave the handle his most forceful tug. It shot open and banged him right on the nose.
“Wahhh, my sniffer! I call foul!”
Cindy stumbled out into the hallway and fell to one knee. She held a motionless Libby in her arms.
She looked to Jimmy for an explanation. “Neutron?”
“If I had to guess, I'd say the ship is under attack. Cindy...is Libby...unconscious?”
“I-I think so. She hit the wall pretty hard.”
“Oh no, poor Libby!” swooned Carl. “She was so young! So full of life!”
“Cut it out, Carl," said Jimmy, as he stepped forward to examine the unconscious girl. "We need to approach the situation in a calm, logical manner.”
That was Sheen’s cue to approach the situation in a hasty, illogical manner. “Step aside, Jimmy! My Ultralord training manual prepared me for this. I know just what to do in this situation. Hold on…”
Sheen licked his finger and held it out in the air for everyone to see. A wad of spit glistened in the flashing emergency lights, and the kids gave him a puzzled look. He cracked an enormous grin, then jabbed his drool-coated finger into Libby’s ear. She instantly jerked upright.
“Whoa! What was that?!” She picked at her ear, and the ensuing examination of her finger revealed a slimy trail of Sheen-slobber. She rubbed her ear like crazy. “Ugh, Sheen! That is WAY off the grossness scale!”
The ship jolted again, and the kids lost their balance. Sheen and Carl smacked heads, and Cindy and Jimmy crashed to the floor.
Cindy pulled herself up onto her hands and knees. “Neutron?”
“No time! Let’s get to the bridge!”
They bolted down the hall and across the corridor, then through the double doors into the cockpit. Sheen’s eyes grew wide at the sight that awaited them.
“Sweet elbow-freckle of Ultralord, look at that!”
Aurora was strapped into the pilot’s seat, punching on various controls and joysticks like a madwoman. Outside the glassy curves of the viewing portal, a massive silver ship drifted through deep space. Embossed on its side was a blue atom decal.
Jimmy struggled to keep his footing. “Aurora, what’s going on?”
Aurora glanced quickly behind her. “What are you guys doing out of your rooms?”
A stream of blue laser fire rocketed out of the other ship, and Aurora yanked on the controls, dodging it by a hair.
“It’s not safe out here! In case you haven’t noticed, we’re under attack. Get back to your rooms! Unless of course, you want to stay and join in the fun…”
“You call this FUN?” guffawed Libby.
Aurora pushed a big red button, and the Desperado fired a bolt of green energy at the opposing ship. It did little damage.
“April,” yelled Aurora, “where the heck are you? Forward shields are down, and the starboard weapons array is offline. I think it’s time to try out that new gun of yours!”
April poked her head in from an adjoining room. “Really? YEEESSS! I will go and get it!”
“What's her deal?” asked Jimmy, watching as she dashed off. “We're getting blasted, and she's grinning like a kid at Christmas.”
Aurora shrugged. “April is a weapons specialist. She really likes guns.”
The opposing ship cut through the darkness and swung around to face them. A gigantic weapon mounted on the front began pulling in streams of energy from the surrounding space as it charged to fire.
“Aurora!” pointed Cindy. “Pay attention!”
“Huh? Oh, WHOA!”
Aurora rolled the ship to the side, narrowly avoiding the brunt of the blast. The kids tumbled head over heels as the Desperado spun out of control. A shower of sparks fell from the ceiling, and the viewing portal shattered, sending shards cascading in all directions.
“Oh no!” cried Carl. “I think I lost my right shoe!”
Jimmy dug his fingers into the carpet. “Carl, we’ve got bigger things to worry about! We’re about to be sucked into space!”
“Not quite, Neutron,” said Aurora, jumping up. “We’ve got an vacuum shield surrounding the portal. It won't keep out the big stuff, but as long as it holds, we’ll have air. Hey APRIL! Get in here!”
The reply echoed from another room. “Coming!”
April darted in, panting heavily. Slung across her back was the most enormous blaster weapon any of them had ever seen. It was covered in spikes and glowing ridges, and was so tall and thick around that it looked more like a cannon than a rifle. She hoisted the weapon onto her shoulder and strode forward.
“Wow,” admired Sheen. “Now that’s what I call a LASER!”
April stood firm, silhouetted against the jagged curves of the broken viewing portal. Beyond, the opposing ship hovered menacingly.
April took aim. “I love my job…”
She pulled the trigger. A dazzling beam of energy shot out of the barrel, and the kids crumpled to the floor, blinded by the light. April was thrown from the force of the blast, and as she tumbled backward the enemy ship burst into a cascading display of soundless explosions. Fireballs flared out into space, and pieces of rubble shot off in all directions.
Carl shaded his eyes against the spectacle. “Oooh! Awwww!”
“Check it out! She just wasted that ship!”
A chunk of rubble hit the vacuum shield with enough velocity to break through, and it careened toward Sheen like a missile. In a split second, Aurora jumped into the air and kicked it out of the way. It smashed against the right wall.
Sheen swiveled to face her, wide-eyed. “That was just like the flying dragon kick that Ultralord uses in episode 66! You two gotta be the coolest girls ever!”
Aurora and April exchanged grins.
“You like that?” asked Aurora. “You should see us when we actually get into it.”
April nudged the other woman. “Ha ha, remember the time that those Oglonkons raided the space station? And Nav pretended to be a Sorpnok?”
They both burst out into laughter, then took turns whacking each other on the back. The fit of camaraderie subsided, and they linked their arms as the kids stared at them in confusion.
“I don’t understand what just happened,” said Jimmy at last. “That ship…it had my atom symbol on it. Was my alternate self aboard?”
“As if!” scoffed Aurora. “There was nobody aboard that ship. It’s merely a scout vessel…one of thousands of identical craft sent out by our dear dictator to harass people.”
Cindy scowled. “You mean we went through all that, and we’re no closer to beating him?”
April shook her head. “Welcome to our world.”
Aurora turned to the control panel and began punching buttons. “Actually, we’re further away than ever. I ran a diagnostic, and by the looks of things, we took some pretty heavy damage to the bow. I've got the forward shields back up, but we’d better stop for repairs.”
“Repairs?” echoed Jimmy.
“Uh-huh. As luck would have it, there’s a spaceship service station nearby.”
“Isn't it? They’re pretty much everywhere. I like to think of them as the Wal-Marts of the future. Well, minus the heinously bright lights and chintzy junk made in China. Our waystations are stocked with everything you could ever need.”
It was Sheen’s turn to interject. “Do you think they’ll have a limited-edition Ultralord fan club ring engraved with twin shield designs and equipped with a duo button receiver that can transmit messages between rings and encode top secret stuff and play ringtones…and…and…”
Libby laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Sheen…you better stop before you hurt yourself.”
Aurora took her place in the pilot’s chair, and maneuvered the ship past the flaming rubble field and into the expanse beyond.
“So, Aurora,” began Jimmy, “this space station...how long until we –”
Aurora pointed out the window. “Do you see that little grayish brown speck way out there?”
He squinted. “Ya…”
“That’s it. The whole thing is built right into an asteroid.”
The speck grew larger and larger as they approached.
“OK, so here's what I've been thinking,” began Sheen, stroking an imaginary beard. “What idiot came up with the name 'Dictator Jimmy', anyway? Shouldn't he have like, a cooler nickname? Something like 'The Murderlord', or 'the Disc Jockey of Evil'...”
“You have got to be kidding me,” said Aurora.
“Or maybe just 'DJ' for short,” continued Sheen. “Yeah, that's good. DJ. See? Five seconds and I come up with a better name than an entire universe.”
“Wait,” said Carl, “does DJ stand for 'Dictator Jimmy', or 'Disc Jockey of evil'?”
“It doesn't stand for anything. That's just his name now. Now revel in my genius.”
Carl reveled, and Aurora practically face-palmed. “Please tell me this isn't going to stick.”
“If it bothers you,” soothed Libby, “we could…”
Sheen cut her off. “Are we there yet?”
“Hey, Captain Ritalin!” snapped Aurora. “Focus here! I know it’s hard for you to overcome your own stupidity, but please. Here - while we’re in transit, why don’t you make a list of things you want me to buy for you?”
Aurora nodded to April, who unclipped a palm-pilot like device from her belt and handed it to Sheen. The kids passed it around, and when they had finished, April offered the device to Aurora.
“See?” she grinned. “Look at that. We’re there.”
Rows upon rows of shops, boutiques, and superstores wound their way around the asteroid like a spiral staircase. Pulsing lights and colorful advertisements caught the viewer’s eye from every storefront, and even the pitted rock in between sported a handful of alien product logos.
“Wow,” said Libby appreciatively. “Now that’s shoppin’ done right!”
A loud click echoed through the room as the Desperado docked on the floating space station. Aurora locked down. “All right everyone, shall we? We’re docked safely at the service garage, and I’d like to get all of this done as quickly and painlessly as possible.”
She rose from her seat and led the others out. They proceeded through several identical corridors before arriving at an innocuous door. Aurora stopped beside it, and an automated voice spoke.
“Identify yourself,” came Vox’s tinny command.
“Ugh! Curse the day I installed voice recognition chips in this stupid thing!”
“Voice match confirmed. Welcome back, Aurora.”
Aurora opened the door a tiny crack and sidled in.
Jimmy attempted to peer inside. “What’s in there?”
“Butt out! It’s MY room, thank you very much. I’d like some privacy if you don’t mind.”
When Aurora reappeared a moment later, her face was concealed behind her silver mask, and she held a number of pills in her hand.
“Here,” she said. “Swallow these.”
She placed one in Jimmy's palm, and he frowned. “Uh...why?”
“They're translators. The Dictator's rise to power may have catapulted human culture into the spotlight, but not all alien species are capable of understanding human speech. These translators will make you mutually intelligible.”
“But why swa–”
“Just do it.”
Jimmy shrugged and tossed it back, and the others followed his example. Aurora nodded to April, who took the lead. They wound their way down another corridor, through a narrow archway, and past the electric door that had zapped Sheen. The front door dropped open with a hiss, and they walked single file down the ramp-way and out of the ship.
Cindy looked around. “Wow…this place is sleaze-ball central.”
The others took in their surroundings without comment. The concrete room faded into shadow at each of its four corners, where sketchy-looking characters buzzed over vessels of every shape and size. The shrill whir of mechanical drills permeated the space, and smoke from burnt-out engines hung in black clouds, illuminated from time to time by falling sparks.
Sheen scratched his chin. “Hmm. You think they sell chicken wings here?”
Cindy glared at him; April strode forward and let out an ear-splitting whistle, instantly turning every head in the workshop.
“Listen up, lowlifes! We have a Gorlock ship here in need of a speedy repair. I will pay double to the mechanic who can fix it the fastest and with no questions asked. Who is up for the job?”
A wave of murmuring rippled through the shop, until at last a shifty green alien limped out from behind one of the wrecks. Two enormous brown aliens loomed in back of him – their apparent lack of eyes made them look all the more threatening. The mechanic rubbed his clawed hands together as he spoke.
“G-G-Good d-day to you, my esteemed G-G-Gorlock. My name is F-Flint, and these t-two here are Bronk and Lunkus, m-my err…assistant mechanics.”
Bronk and Lunkus took the time to voice their opinions.
April narrowed her eyes at them, and Flint visibly trembled under her stare. Lunkus and Bronk didn’t seem to notice.
“Do you think you can manage a simple repair job, or do we need to take our business elsewhere?”
Flint eyed the Gorlock woman nervously. “I-I assure you, we w-will take e-e-excellent care of y-your esteemed vehicle.”
“Very well, the job is yours. But if I find even one screw out of place, I will report you to the Gorlock High Council, and I can assure you that the recriminations will be swift...and final.”
Flint shrunk backward, and April broke into a malevolent grin. Aurora took this as a cue to step forward, and this time even Bronk and Lunkus gave a little jump.
“O-o-o-oh,” whispered Flint. “It’s t-t-that human with the s-s-silver m-mask!”
Hushed comments wound their way around the room, and the kids listened in puzzlement as snippets of the conversation reached their ears.
“Look there! Do you know who that is? …”
“…Aurora’s her name. I’ve heard lots about her…”
“…Heard that she’s the person who’s gotten closest to the Dictator and lived to tell about it…”
“…Someone told me that she shoots green fire out of her hands…”
“…no, no, she’s a pilot…single-handedly destroyed 300 of the Dictator’s scout ships…”
The mask shielded Aurora's face from the others, but she seemed to be enjoying the attention.
At last she spoke. “Hey Libs, you up for a shopping spree?”
The aliens visibly relaxed.
Libby winked. “Has the answer to that ever been 'no'? Mall of the future, here we come!”
Aurora tossed her hair as she turned, and Libby followed. Every eye in the shop followed the pilot and her companion, and when Aurora paused at the exit, the room's occupants held their collective breath.
“Hey Nerdtron, stay here and make sure these mechanics don’t try any funny business. I don’t trust them as far as I can throw them. And Cindy, keep an eye on Jimmy and make sure he doesn’t complicate the situation by being…well, himself. And April, keep an eye on both of them and make sure their fighting doesn’t get out of hand. Got it?”
April nodded, and Cindy and Jimmy glared first at Aurora, then at each other.
Sheen waved his arms at her. “Hey, what about me ’n Carl?”
“I don’t care what you do, as long as you don’t get in our way. You’re both creative young men…so go find a way to entertain yourselves. I’m sure there’s a shop that sells food somewhere in this place. Just mention my name when they ask for payment.”
“All right, alien grub! Let’s hit it!”
“I don’t know, Sheen,” said Carl, hanging back. “This seems like a pretty big place and we might get lost and…”
Sheen waved away his friend’s concern. “Don’t be such a pansy, Carl! Besides…think of all the awesomely freakish foods we could find!”
Carl brightened. “Ya, maybe they’ll have some of those Plutonian Gut Chunks that I got to eat when we were on that alien game show!”
“That’s the spirit, man! To the food court, away!”
The two made a mad break for the door and were gone within seconds.
Aurora elbowed Libby. “See? Like moths to a flame. Now let’s get out of here before any of these weirdos decide to creep on me.”
Guest artwork at the top by Genki-de