Aurora nodded at April one more time, and she and Libby exited the repair shop and made their way into the main area of the mall. A crystalline walkway extended out as far as the eye could see, and shops of every shape and size lined the walls on either side. Dance music and flashing lights beckoned the shopper, and each vibrant advertisement seemed to be more extravagant than the one before it. Casinos, clothes shops, entertainment booths, replica monuments, and fake plants gave the impression of a futuristic Las Vegas. Libby surveyed her surroundings in awe as Aurora scrolled through the shopping list contained on the palm pilot.
“Oh, you think that’s funny, huh? Well, aren’t you the little comedian. I mean seriously, what do you think; I’m made of money?”
“Huh? Who are you talkin' to?”
Aurora flashed the palm pilot screen at Libby. “Neutron! He put down 'Full Spectrum Chemical Analysis Kit' on the shopping list. Do you have any idea how much one of those things costs?”
“Uh…to tell you the truth, I have no idea what that even is.”
“Well, let me tell you, it doesn’t come cheap. Just the Hafnium itself costs…”
“Um, no offense, but I really don’t need to know.”
“And would you look at this!” she exclaimed, throwing up her hands. “Someone wrote down ‘man-eating shark-hamster with five heads’. Honestly…”
“Uh-huh. That would be Sheen.”
“And “foot fungus cream”? What the…”
“Honestly, why do I bother? Let's just ditch the virtual shopping list and do things the old fashioned way. You game?”
Libby broke into a huge grin. “All right, that’s the Cindy I know an’ love! We’ll show these future people we’re still the queens of consumerism!”
Aurora stifled a giggle, and though Libby couldn't see her companion's smile, it was evident in her voice.
“I’ve got it Libs. I know just what we should do while we’re here. I was thinking earlier that I should buy you kids some space suits, and this is just the place to do it. After all, your current outfits don’t offer much protection from cosmic rays or disease-causing microbes – not to mention that they’re painfully outdated fashion-wise – so why don’t you help me pick out some new ones? Heh heh...I can’t wait to see Neutron in a full-on radiation suit...”
Aurora grabbed Libby by the arm and practically dragged her into the closest shop at hand, which happened to be labeled 'Supernova'. The flashing pink doors slid closed behind them, and they found themselves in a jungle of merchandise – racks upon racks of identically-sized suits, but with no two alike in color and design.
Libby blinked. “Wow.”
“Well, this looks like as good a place as any to start looking. I’m sure they’ve got something stylish at a reasonable price. And if not, I can always…”
Aurora’s words seemed to fade away as Libby watched her dart about the shop, gesturing at various price signs and outfit designs. Her childlike enthusiasm stood in stark contrast to her cold, expressionless mask. Libby looked at the ground, sadness suddenly gripping her.
“Aurora?” murmured Libby.
“Aurora…why…why do you wear that mask all the time?”
“We all wear masks, Libs. Mine just happens to be one you can hold in your hand.”
Libby shifted uncomfortably. “But why would you want somethin' like that?”
“When you look at a mask, Libby, what do you see? You see nothing… no thoughts, no emotions, no weaknesses. In my line of work, you can’t afford an Achilles' heel. The only way to endure is to block out all extraneous feelings. Besides, if I ever saw him, face-to-face, I just…I don’t want him to see me. I don't want anyone to see me. It makes it too personal, Libby. And I can’t deal with that anymore.”
Libby considered. “Well, maybe you could take it off for a while, just while you’re around me. I mean…won’t it be hard to get a good look at these outfits with that big mask hanging over your eyes? And besides, it’s not like you could make any face I haven’t seen already.”
Aurora hesitated for a moment, then reached for her mask.
“Go on!” encouraged Libby. “Nobody will mind.”
She pulled it off slowly, and Libby broke into a smile.
“There we go! Now, I think I spotted the perfect outfit for my girl Cindy. What do you think?”
Libby yanked a suit off the rack and displayed it proudly. The garment consisted of dark chrome fabric embroidered with swirling celestial designs. As Libby turned the outfit over in her hands, the light caught shades of sapphire, aquamarine, and acid green.
“Mmm, perfect,” agreed Aurora. “It’ll match her eyes!”
“So, should we ask the manager to get it in her size, or what?”
“You don’t have to worry about that. These space suits are one-size fits all…they automatically adjust to your body shape for a perfect fit. Speaking of a perfect fit, I think Neutron should go with this one.”
Aurora lifted a deep blue ensemble from behind a row of others. A narrow strip of silver cut through the blue and formed the point of a triangle across the chest; two matching metal cuffs above each wrist completed the look.
“Mmm-hmm! That is FINE! Cindy will lose her marbles when she sees him in that. You know what she's said in the past about clothes makin' the man.”
Aurora gaped for a moment, then burst out into laughter. “Ah, Libs. It’s good to finally spend time with you after all these years. I’d almost forgotten what it felt like to just tromp around a mall…but enough of that! Let’s hurry up and pay for these, then try a few other stores and see what we can find.”
Aurora and Libby scurried off to continue their search; elsewhere, Sheen and Carl had found their way to the food court and were sitting at a metallic oval table, scrutinizing the digital menu.
“Um, Sheen…” asked Carl, “have you ever heard of "Tep-luggle eggs" before?”
“I'm still trying to figure out what "Phlonker Muffins" and "Pindo Scales" are. Jeez, you'd think they'd have pictures of the food or something.”
“I wonder if they sell hypoallergenic protein substitutes...”
“Can I take your order?” came an impatient voice.
Sheen and Carl gave a little jump, and turned to see a very tall alien woman beside their table. Her green hair squiggled like a thousand tiny snakes as her six arms moved in all directions.
“Wow!” admired Sheen. “Check it out Carl, it's an alien freak! Hey Lady, can I get your autograph?”
The woman stared at them through half-lidded eyes, clearly not impressed with Sheen's comment.
“From where I'm standing, sir,” she said in a less-than-polite tone, “You're the alien freak. I happen to be from the planet that owns this establishment.”
Sheen scratched his head. “Oh.”
The alien waitress shifted her weight to one hip, brushing back a wriggling lock. “Now, may I please take your order?”
“I guess I'll take…um…” Sheen closed his eyes, then pointed at random to an item on the menu. He squinted down at it. “Fludgecake, please!”
The woman grabbed a notepad with one hand, scribbled down notes with another, reached behind her for a tray, flicked buttons on a dispenser of some kind, and produced a large lump of furry orange jelly, all within ten seconds.
“Wow, fast food!”
The waitress rolled her eyes. “You've clearly never been to a modern restaurant.”
“Please, Miss Alien Lady,” piped in Carl, “do you sell Plutonian Gut Chunks here?”
She whipped out a plate heaped high with the chunky material, and Carl began wolfing it down. Sheen poked his food, and it twitched and scurried to the far side of the plate.
“Hello!” he shouted, jerking backward. “I thought I ordered already-dead food!”
He pummeled it with his fist, and after some initial resistance the creature gave a little shriek, then laid still. Sheen shoved the whole thing into his mouth.
The waitress tapped her pen on the table. “Payment method, please.”
Juices dripped down from the corners of Sheen’s mouth. “Mmfpt?”
“PAY-MENT METH-OD,” she repeated impatiently. “How do you intend to pay for your meal?”
Sheen swallowed. “Uh, put it on my tab?”
“You mean…you want to buy it on credit? Name please.”
A light bulb went on in Carl’s brain. “Oh! Aurora's name!”
The waitress’s eyes widened. “Aurora? As in...Aurora Vortex?”
“Ya…that's the one,” said Sheen. “You know, about yay tall, with a bad attitude and seriously smokin' outfit.”
She backed up a step. “Please forgive my previous comments, sir. I had no idea you were guests of Aurora. Don't worry about the expense for your meal...it's on the house.”
The waitress bowed and fled, leaving a bunch of surprised customers in her wake.
“Dang,” said Sheen. “I wonder if Aurora's name would get me a free burger at McSpanky's.”
The boys mowed through the rest of the meal, then slumped down into their chairs, rubbing their overstuffed bellies in satisfaction. As Sheen picked pieces of food out from between his teeth, a shadow fell over the table.
“I see you had no trouble at all finding the food court,” said Aurora dryly.
Carl opened his eyes. “Libby? Aurora?”
“Hey babes!” waved Sheen. “We were just talking about you.”
Aurora raised an eyebrow. “I'm not sure whether I should I be flattered, or very concerned.”
“Havin' fun, guys?” interjected Libby. “What did you have for lunch?”
Sheen considered. “I'm not exactly sure. Kind of tasted like…moldy bread mixed with cough syrup.”
Libby wrinkled her nose.
“What have you girls been up to?” asked Carl.
“Shoppin' galore! We've picked out outfits for me, Cindy, Jimmy, and Sheen so far.”
“Awesome! Does mine have Ultralord on it?”
“Sure does,” said Libby. “Aurora an' me had to special order the Ultralord decal, but we got it. You'd be surprised what they sell in this place. Apparently there's quite a market for Earth movies and TV shows ever since DJ's evilness launched humans into the spotlight.”
“Seriously, Libby, you too? Is 'DJ?' really a thing now?”
“I'm sorry! It's catchy!”
Aurora folded her arms. “Anyway, Ultrafreak, you should consider yourself lucky that Libby talked me into getting something you'd like. I was gonna buy a pink Power Rangers suit just to tick you off.”
Carl looked up expectantly. “What about me? Do I get a suit?”
Aurora broke into a mischievous grin. “Why, yes. In fact, I have a...special outfit in mind for you.”
“Ah, gee, thanks!”
“Come on, Libs,” motioned Aurora. “Let's wrap this up and get out of this dump.” A little smile played about the corners of her lips. “The sooner we finish, the sooner we get to see Carl in his new ensemble.”
Aurora gave a cruel laugh as the two of them disappeared into the mall. Sheen glanced over at Carl uneasily.
“I didn't like the sound of that laugh, dude. It was like the "I'm going to do something really evil" laugh my little sister uses when she puts plastic wrap over the toilet seat.”
“Oh…” Carl looked anxious. “You think so?”
“Ah well, it's all good,” said Sheen, kicking back. “Besides, what's the worst they can do?”
While Sheen and Carl digested their meals in the food court, Cindy and Jimmy were back in the repair shop, struggling to fix the ship with the help of the alien mechanics. Flint hung over the boy's shoulder, fidgeting while Jimmy tightened the bolt on a newly welded section of fuselage. Beads of sweat dripped down Jimmy’s forehead as Flint’s eyes flickered from side to side.
“P-please h-hurry, my esteemed h-human. If the Gorlock comes back and sees you d-doing our job, there’ll be hell to p-pay.”
Jimmy wiped his face. “I’m working on it, but this alloy isn’t very malleable. Does it contain traces of Carbonium, by any chance?”
“Hmm, yes,” nodded Flint shakily. “A very intelligent d-deduction. Y-you certainly are g-g-gifted.”
Jimmy straightened up and grimaced as he rubbed the small of his back.
“Getting tired?” asked Cindy, the barest hint of mockery in her voice. She handed him a towel, which he gladly accepted. He wiped his forehead, and Cindy took the opportunity to glare at Flint and his two assistants.
“It sure would be nice if you mechanics actually had a single brain between the three of you. We're paying you to be useful, not stand around and watch.”
“Don’t worry about it, Cindy. I’m enjoying myself. Besides, if I left it up to these characters, they’d use thumbtacks and rubber bands to put the ship back together.”
Cindy shot a savage smile at Flint, whose face turned even greener than before. Lunkus scratched his greasy head.
“Lunkus no understand. If you no need us, we why stay here?”
“Me bored and tired,” agreed Bronk. “Sleep now please.”
“Y-Yes, my m-men are correct,” breathed Flint, clicking his nails together. “If we’re no longer n-needed… can w-we take a b-break?”
April’s voice boomed out of thin air. “HEY! What did you say?”
Flint’s sharp intake of breath was clearly audible, and every head in the vicinity swiveled at the sound. April stood in the doorway of the Desperado, lording over the scene with her hands on her hips. She marched down the ramp-way and stuck her finger in the mechanic's face.
“Take a break? You are asking to take a break after the boy has done all your work? Why aren’t YOU fixing the ship, lowlife? I thought I was paying you to work, you worthless scum!” She drew her blaster weapon and planted the barrel square between Flint’s beady eyes. “Do I make myself clear? Or shall I give the walls a new coat of organic paint?”
“Y-yes-yes ma’am,” stuttered Flint, nearly dropping the wrench clutched in one filthy hand. “We’ll g-get back t-to w-work a-at once!”
Flint, Bronk, and Lunkus frantically scrambled back to their stations, and with a satisfied smile April strolled back into the Desperado. As soon as she was out of sight, a gray biped scuttled out from behind a nearby cruiser and tapped Flint on the shoulder.
“Flint,” he whispered, “why do you let the Gorlock woman push you around? You should refuse to fix her ship after the way she’s treated you.”
“You d-don’t understand, Skleem. You don’t say “no” to a Gorlock. B-besides, these people are the resistance. They’re g-going to save us from the Dictator. Sometimes it is better t-to turn a blind eye to the actions of one criminal if it can help get rid of someone e-even worse.”
“Excuses, excuses,” hissed Skleem. “You’re a coward.”
A different mechanic joined them from behind the silhouette of another wreck, his beautiful lean body backlit by the glow of distant welding torches.
“Don’t talk about things you don’t understand, Skleem,” he sneered. “I’d rather put up with the insults of an ornery woman than find myself meeting up with the Dictator again. Just because he hasn't attacked your species doesn't mean you are immune. Tell me, have you ever seen his face? Have every had your skin charred by the heat of your burning home? Have you heard your family screaming, seen a sky the color of fire?”
Other voices joined in from around the garage, and Jimmy and Cindy listened uneasily.
“That brute attacked my homeworld…”
“…My husband and kids, I lost everything in the attacks…”
“My best friend disappeared in the battle against him…”
The shouts and calls built in pitch until they escalated to a trilling, as if a dozen wild animals had been loosed in the shop.
“Disgusting humans! I hate them all…”
“Down with the Dictator!”
“…May he suffer as we have suffered!”
“…Soon the day will come when our people are avenged…”
The beautiful mechanic’s voice echoed out across the workshop. “Yes! Thank the gods of all our worlds that the resistance is close to a breakthrough! Soon enough we will be rid of that despot forever, and then the whole galaxy will have cause to celebrate!”
Jimmy tapped Cindy on the shoulder. His eyes were solemn, and he motioned for her to follow. After shooting a wary glance in both directions, she tiptoed after him. They crept around to the far side of the Desperado, and as soon as the alien mechanics were out of sight, Jimmy fell down onto all fours and crawled into the small crack between the ship’s underbelly and the concrete floor. Cindy sidled in next to him, coughing on the dust.
“What’s the big idea Neutron?" she asked, struggling to crouch in the cramped space. "Why are we under here?”
Jimmy’s face was cast in shadow. “Did you hear all the stuff that those mechanics have been saying…about all the horrible things that I’ve done in this universe? It’s awful…”
“Jimmy, you have to get it through your head. The Dictator isn’t YOU. You’ve got to stop beating yourself up over it...and you've got to stop dragging me into crawlspaces.”
“It's just that…something occurred to me back there. All those aliens are desperate for revenge…and from what I can deduce, they expect a great battle. But Cindy, what will we accomplish if we DO plan a large-scale attack? Can you imagine how massive the loss of life would be? I don’t want to see any more people die. So I’ve been thinking…and I think there’s another way.”
“What do you mean, ‘another way’? What can we possibly do?”
“Well, I’ve been formulating an idea. I’ll admit it’s a little unorthodox, and will probably make a lot of people very angry, especially if they’re looking for revenge. But Cindy…it could save millions of lives.”
“What is it? Tell me already!”
“I can’t tell you in here, because one of the mechanics might hear me.” He regarded her for a moment, then laid a hand on hers. “But promise me…promise me you’ll defend me when I tell Aurora my idea. Even if it seems crazy at first, I need you on my side. She’ll listen to you.”
Cindy stared at him blankly.
She was still considering whether or not to pull her hand away when Flint poked his head under the ship. Both kids jumped in surprise and smacked their heads against the bottom.
“W-what are you two doing under there? Are y-you conducting some s-sort of courtship ritual?”
“W-what?” stammered Jimmy.
“With HIM?! No way!”
Cindy shoved him to prove her point, and he shoved her back. She jumped up in anger, only to bang her head against the bottom of the ship a second time. When the dust cleared, Cindy found that she had fallen onto a confused and debris-caked Jimmy. They stared at each other in surprise for a moment before April’s face appeared beside them.
“All right you two, let’s get back to…WHOA….hey…!” April covered her eyes with one clawed hand. “Sorry, I had no idea you two were…”
“Ewww!” shouted Cindy.
“It’s not what it looks like!” he cried. “Get off me!”
Scowling, he pushed her off and scrambled out into the open. She followed, her arms crossed tightly and her face squeezed into an angry pout. Jimmy snatched the towel he had used previously and wiped the dust off his face, then tossed it at Flint.
He whirled away from Cindy. “Let’s just finish the repairs and get out of here,” he said.
-> Chapter 12 ->