Meanwhile, elsewhere on the ship, a high-pitched scream came flying down an isolated hallway. Sheen, Carl, and Libby darted out of a door and slammed it behind them. Crashing sounds and growls emanated from within, and it took all three of them to keep the door bolted shut.
Libby, back pressed against the door, panted hard. “What is Aurora thinkin’, keepin’ something like THAT on the ship?”
“I’ve seen some ugly alien monsters in my day, but that one took the cake…and the main course…and the chef...and pretty much anything else it could eat along the way!”
Carl fanned himself frantically. “I’ve never been so scared in my whole life…except for that time when we walked in to the ladies’ room by mistake and saw Ms. Fowl without her…”
“AAAAHHHHH!” bellowed Sheen. “Don’t remind me! I have enough scary images permanently burned into my brain already!”
Sheen counted on his fingers. “Well, we found four bathrooms, six storage rooms, three armories, eight closets, one alien freak, and one bright red room with absolutely nothing in it. This place makes NO sense, and that’s saying something, coming from me.”
Carl mopped sweat off his forehead. “This ship is just too big and confusing, and – wait. What was that?”
Somewhere in the distance there was a crash, followed by the unmistakable sound of giggling.
“Finally…” said Libby, pushing away from the door.
The three kids followed the sounds down another corridor until they arrived at an arched doorway. The hallway opened into a gym about half the size of a football field. Blue mats covered the stained floor, while exercise equipment and various high-tech machines packed each of the four corners. There was a huge target painted on the left wall, with scorch marks burned all around it.
Sheen surveyed his surroundings until he spotted a row of what appeared to be bowling balls. “Hey, I bet this’d make one heck of a dodge ball! Heads up, Carl!”
He stumbled over to the rack and selected the largest of the black spheres. It became immediately obvious that it was heavier than a standard bowling ball, and he staggered backward to maintain his grip. Future Libby appeared from behind a row of barbells, and as soon as she saw the kids she gave a wave. She had changed into a form-fitting white space suit, and had tied crimson and orange bands around her arms, her legs, loosely around her hips, and tight across her waist in a crisscrossing maze of color. Her earrings jingled as she stopped in front of them, but except for the sparkling gold ring on her left hand, all her other jewelry was gone. Sheen dropped the ball, and it bounced a couple of times before smashing into an expensive-looking machine.
“Wow, girl,” said Libby. “That is outfit is tight.”
Future Libby raised an eyebrow. “Tight as in ‘cool’ or tight as in ‘revealin’?”
“Both…” supplied Sheen.
Aurora appeared behind him in the doorway, eyes blazing with anger. Little bits of emerald flame burned on the ends of her hair as she glared down at him.
“Sheen, what am I going to do with you? You dropped my zero-grav exercise ball, broke my radiation generator, AND you keep repeatedly hitting on my best friend? Do you have a death wish or are you just really stupid?”
“Don’t worry about it, Aurora,” said Future Libby. “I’m sure he didn’t mean it. Besides, we don’t really need a…what was it?…a radiation generator for hand-to-hand combat, do we? ”
Aurora closed her eyes. “What are you kids doing here anyway? Libby, I thought I told you to keep them out of my hair.”
April appeared behind Aurora. “All right, which one of you opened the door to Loof-loof’s room? He is very upset!”
“Loof-loof?” repeated Sheen incredulously. “Is that what you call that thing?”
April shot him an accusing look. “So it was you? He is my pet! You should not have disturbed him!”
“Disturbed him? I think you’ve got it backwards sister! That freak almost swallowed me whole!”
April clenched her fists. “Why, I ought to…”
“Look,” interrupted Libby, “before we get into a big ol’ fight here, you should know that these two want to watch you fight, and they aren’t gonna shut up until they get their way. Just let us stay, and I'll make sure they're so quiet that you won’t even notice us. See? Just pretend we’re not here.”
Aurora rolled her eyes. “I already am.”
Smiling excitedly, Sheen and Carl took a seat along the wall next to the doorway. Libby plunked down next to the former, who asked her if she had any popcorn. Ignoring the spectators, the women headed out into the center of the blue mats. Aurora tipped her head from side to side and rolled her shoulders as April fastened a pair of cuffed brass knuckles over her forearms.
“Try to loosen up a bit, Libs,” suggested Aurora, “and then we’ll see how well your basic combat skills have been developed. You said the monks trained you?”
Future Libby bent down and touched her toes. “Ya, but only a little. Much as I love ‘em, they’re kinda sexist…they weren’t real keen on a girl fightin’ for fighting's sake.”
April tipped straight into a back bend. “It is OK, Aurora and I are both experts in fourteen different types of martial arts. We will be able to help you improve your skills. Besides, if our plan works out, you will not need to do any hand-to-hand combat at all. Nevertheless, it never hurts to be prepared.”
April kicked her legs over her head and transferred into a perfectly balanced handstand.
Future Libby watched her, wide-eyed. “Wow, I haven’t been able to do a handstand since I was a little kid. That’s amazin’.”
Aurora brushed off the comment. “Ya, well, she has years of training, and so do I. So don’t expect to instantly be able to do back flips or walk on your hands or anything else. Let’s start out with a simple blocking set. This’ll test your knowledge of basic self-defense.”
Aurora lifted two fingers, took a deep breath, and then lunged at Future Libby. Instantly, as if pulled by a string, Future Libby’s arm jerked up and blocked her attack. Aurora pulled her hand back, and then punched at Future Libby’s stomach. She blocked this as well, and as Aurora’s attacks grew faster and stronger, she stopped each new one without even breaking a sweat. When Aurora finished, Future Libby didn’t have a hair out of place.
She grinned proudly. “Ya see?”
Aurora smiled approval. “Not bad at all! What a relief. I wasn’t looking forward to smacking you in the face. It’s going to be so much easier to teach you advanced moves when you’ve got your basics down so perfectly.”
“How well do you know your leg blocks?” asked April. “Let us see.”
April broke into a series of rather impressive high kicks, and Future Libby either blocked or dodged each one.
“Her defense is very solid, Aurora,” nodded April. “But how is her offense?”
Future Libby looked sheepish. “Not very good. The monks never taught me any of those kinda moves. They said a girl should know how to defend herself, but to leave the fighting up to the men.”
“Just give it a try anyway,” said Aurora. “I’ll go easy on you.”
Future Libby swung at her, and Aurora grabbed her arm, thrust the elbow upward, and pulled her into a tight hold.
“Left yourself wide open there. OK, how about this: can you escape from a simple hold like this one? Give it a shot.”
She squirmed frantically, but Aurora held her fast.
Future Libby grimaced as she wiggled. “Y’know, if you were a guy I could have gotten out by now. One good kick and I’d a won the fight before it even got started.”
“For cryin’ out loud Libby, that’s not a gentlemanly way to fight!”
“Do I look like a gentleman to you?”
Aurora released her, then sighed. “Well, you’re no Houdini, that’s for sure. Still, your defense is pretty darn tight. As long as your attacker doesn’t manage to wrestle you into a hold, you should be able to stand your ground.”
April cracked her neck. “Enough practice, Aurora. I am growing impatient. She is clearly not a match for either of us, and I want to spar. Did we come here to sit and chat or are you planning on actually fighting me?”
“You’d better go sit down, Libs. April and I’ll give you a demonstration of how pros get it done.”
Future Libby obediently left the mat and joined the kids, and all four of them leaned forward in anticipation for the fight.
“Ready when you are…”
April and Aurora’s manner underwent a complete change. They crouched low and circled one another like caged animals, eyes focused and bright.
April cracked every one of her clawed fingers. “I am going to beat you into oblivion, Aurora. When I am done with you, your own mother would not be able to recognize your mangled face.”
“I’d like to see you try, ugly,” Aurora shot back.
“Not as ugly as you, jelly-bag. Were you not so repulsive, I would have skinned and eaten you already.”
Carl covered his eyes. “Make them stop!”
Sheen grinned and elbowed Libby. “Haha, man, this is pretty good!”
April grabbed a spiked club from a rack of weaponry behind her and bared her razor sharp fangs. Aurora strengthened her stance as waterfalls of light poured down her arms and pooled around her clenched fists. The Gorlock charged at her and brought the club smashing down. Aurora caught it in one glowing hand and grinned as the molten metal slithered down her arm. She lashed out at April with an energy bolt.
From that point on the fight moved so quickly that it was nearly impossible for the spectators to keep track of it. Both women moved with deadly speed and agility, and their movements were so precise that it looked more like a carefully choreographed dance than a fight.
“I hope they don’t hurt each other,” said Carl. “It looks really dangerous!”
“Sweet chin cleft of Ultralord! Did you see that? Aurora almost got the club to the head that time!”
“Oh, be careful you two!” shouted Future Libby. “Please!”
Aurora and April snapped around and shot her the same vicious stare. “Shut up!”
Aurora turned a back walkover and clipped April in the mouth with her foot. April staggered back and wiped purple blood off from her lip, then dove at Aurora. Aurora rolled out of the way and swung her leg around, and April tripped and lurched forward. She grabbed both of April’s arms and pulled them behind her, and there was a burst of green light before April hopped away, unable to pull her arms apart.
The Gorlock woman laughed loudly. “All right… hahaha! You win Aurora! You win! For goodness’ sake, get me free!”
Aurora smiled hard. “I couldn’t resist, April. Those metal armbands of yours make perfect handcuffs when they’re fused together. Hold on, I’ll break them open.”
April strained against her bonds, and the cuffs popped off, sending shards of metal flying out all over the place. “No need. I got them off myself.”
Aurora punched her on the arm. “Hey, nice moves! The back flip with that club of yours was pretty impressive. You almost got me that time.”
“The fire was extremely irritating, as usual. Next time I fight you, I will not allow you to wear that suit.”
Aurora snorted. “Well, have fun trying to get it off. The silver webbing is ingrained right into my skin.”
“Oh well, I am sure that I will beat you anyway! You are faster, but I am stronger!”
April clapped a hand around Aurora’s shoulder, and they both laughed in good-natured camaraderie.
Sheen stared, open-mouthed. “Dude, what is WRONG with you two? One second you’re at each other’s throats and the next you’re chumming it up!”
“Right,” said Aurora, still smiling. “I probably should have warned you. In Gorlock culture it’s tradition to threaten and berate your opponent before your fight. If you don’t, it’s considered an insult. I mean, come on. I don’t really think April’s ugly.”
“And clearly I am not planning to skin and eat her. It is merely combat etiquette to say such things.”
“Phew,” whistled Sheen. “This is one strange universe.”
“Speakin’ of strange, Aurora,” began Libby, “did you say that suit is ingrained into your skin? As in, you can’t take it off?”
“Well, the blue fabric is retractable, so I can wear other outfits over it, but the silver neural relays are imbedded in my skin. I don’t know how to get them out. I mean, I’m sure there’s a way, but I didn’t build the thing, so you can’t expect me to know all its tricks. And it’s not exactly like I can just phone up Neutron and be like, 'Hey Jim! So, you remember that suit I stole from you? How do you get the thing off anyway?' I guess being stuck like this is the price I pay for its power. It’s not too bad when you think about it.”
April considered. “Perhaps next time you see him you can ask him to take it off?”
Aurora glared sharply at her. “April, are you really that clueless or are you just trying to tick me off?”
Sheen burst out laughing, but Carl scratched his head.
“I don’t get it…”
Their conversation was interrupted by the sound of static pouring from the intercom. Cindy’s voice followed a moment later.
“Testing…one…two…three. Can anyone hear me? Hello…”
“Cindy, what are you doing?” demanded Aurora. “How did you get on the ship’s intercom?”
“Cool your jets. Neutron was too darn lazy to go and find you himself, so I asked the ship to put me over the intercom…all the Desperado’s systems are voice activated, remember?”
“What do you need?”
“I’ve got good news. No, great news: the antidote’s finished. Meet us in the cockpit.”
Everyone was dead silent for a moment, then in a flurry they all jumped up and made a mad break for the door.
to Volume 4
Guest art at the top of the page by the lovely Shoot-O, bottom art by me. Of course.