A deep, directionless static permeated the watery world, speaking to the untold fathoms of a planet covered in ocean. The divers found themselves looking at their surroundings through an emerald tinted lens; sunlight danced on the surface above, funneling broken rays into the submarine realm. Aurora pointed toward the distant seafloor, where the indistinct outlines of the Dictator's base lay in silence.
"There's our destination…"
Jimmy looked over at Goddard, who had encased himself in a translucent, watertight force-shield. "Goddard, activate Security Protocol Nine Seven Dash Alpha…increase output by 300 percent, and compensate for all audio, thermal, visual, and kinetic signatures."
He responded with a muffled bark, then booted up the security protocol. A moment later an energy pulse left the protective bubble and rippled outward, forming an invisible circumference around the divers. Aurora rotated to face Jimmy, yellow hair tangling and blowing in the undersea breeze.
"Neutron, what was that?"
"A slight modification to a feature I built into Goddard a while back…the energy field he's generating will hide all life signatures within a thirty foot radius. True, it won't do you guys much good once we split up inside the base, but at least for now DJ won't be able to pinpoint our position in the water."
Aurora nodded grimly, and motioned for the others to follow her. She swam down, ponytail trailing behind her like a ribbon. Future Libby struggled to keep up, stopping every few strokes to tug on her dress. Nav followed closely, no doubt to enjoy the view, and the kids paddled awkwardly behind him. April, alert and armed, brought up the rear.
Jimmy glanced back. "April, your guns must be waterproof, right?"
"Of course. They're Gorlock weapons. On a planet with daily rainstorms and an average humidity of 99%, waterproof firearms are a necessity."
"I wish this outfit were waterproof!" exclaimed Future Libby, still pulling on her dress. "Oh, why did I wear this? The saltwater is ruinin' the fabric!"
"Weeeell," offered Sheen, "you could always take it off…"
Libby reached out to smack him, but the friction of the water rendered the action ineffectual. He laughed and twirled around, tiny bubbles lodging in the folds of his orange suit before rising in a merry procession toward the surface.
"Haha! You cannot hurt me! I am invincible! I am untouchable! I…eww! I just swam through a warm spot! Carl, that better not've been you!"
Carl's cheeks colored as he wobbled ungracefully through the water. "Sorry…I thought no one would notice…"
"Ah, man, this isn't your own private toilet! I just breathed that in, dude!"
Nav sniggered. "And thus we see that, no matter what the situation, bathroom humor continues to be funny…"
"For you, maybe…" shot back Cindy.
As the seabed drew nearer, Aurora maneuvered herself upright and glided down the rest of the way. Future Libby floundered behind her, kicking up a cloud of silt as she touched down. Nav and April sunk to the ground a moment later, their vision temporarily impeded by the suspended particles. As the sediment settled, the combatants found themselves on an endless plain of sand. The seafloor extended out as far as the eye could see, sculpted into gentle rolling dunes by the waves far above.
"There it is," breathed Aurora.
The kids, floating in the water at eye level, turned to face the marine fortress. Like a city frozen in space and time, the complex sprawled out over a vast tract of ocean. Its mottled green, blue, and brown walls blended in with the undulating water.
"Wow," remarked Libby after a pause. "It's so…"
"Labyrinthine?" supplied Jimmy.
"I was gonna say 'huge', but that works too…"
Aurora, all business, motioned for them to speed things up. "This way…"
She led them across the silty bottom, stirring up plumes of sand with each footfall. Sheen, noticing the character of their procession, interjected.
"Oh man, this reminds me of that scene from Pirates of the Mediterranean – you know, the one where Captain GarrrGrossa had all the skeletons walk underwater…"
Jimmy rolled his eyes. "Much as I appreciate your wasted youth, Sheen, now is hardly the time for movie references."
The group fell into silence as they slipped closer to the Dictator's base. Aurora kicked off the bottom and moved smoothly over to the main wall, parting the curtain of languid seaweed that swayed along the rim of the building. The others filed up beside her, and she pointed to a round opening half-clogged with sediment and barnacles.
"Here's the entrance to the water pressure valve. This one goes to Sector 3 and the central armory – which means Nav and April, you guys are up." The pair paddled forward to examine the opening more closely as Aurora completed her instructions. "The fit is going to be a bit tight at first, but once you're inside the duct, travel about 50 feet, and then break through the floor. Make a good showing of it, too. As soon as you're on dry ground, blast the hell out of anything and everything that comes your way. It has to be loud and flashy – Neutron needs to know that you guys are a diversion. If he believes that you two are meant to distract him, he'll ignore you and come looking for me instead – which is exactly what we want."
April scratched her cheek. "So…we are a diversion whose purpose is to do the exact opposite of what a diversion normally does?"
"More or less."
Nav shook his head, impressed. "Man, Aurora, I tell ya. You missed your calling as a criminal mastermind. You really do have a devious head on those shoulders. You deserve that spot as 7th Samarkandi even more than I do."
April pinched him on the arm. "Give yourself more credit, Nav! You are a superbly talented felon."
Nav rubbed the soon-to-be bruise. "Ow, April, you really are too kind…"
After adjusting her helmet, April stopped to take stock of her myriad array of weapons. Satisfied, she turned and wriggled headfirst into the open duct, kicking her legs to propel her into the dark interior. Nav grabbed hold of the edge a few seconds afterward, then turned to the crowd behind him and winked.
"Catch you on the other side, ladies and gents."
He disappeared with a smile, and the remainder of the group looked to Aurora.
"OK kids, here's the deal. The entrance to Sector 2 is on the arm of the base just to the left of this one. It should be fairly easy for you guys to access the duct. I'm not sure what awaits your arrival in that part of the fortress, so be on your guard. As soon as you are able, see if you can use Goddard to hack into the central computer or even just access the auxiliary security system. Shut down weapons, surveillance, communication – anything you can. Any leeway you can give the rest of us would be extremely helpful."
"Understood," said Jimmy.
"Libby and I are going to Sector 5, which is located on the other side of the base, two arms to the right of our current position. By the time we get inside, Nav and April should already be working their magic. I'll trust that you guys will be doing the same. Well, I guess this is it. Be careful, and please don't die."
With these terse parting words, the two factions swam in opposite directions. Jimmy waited until Aurora and Future Libby disappeared around the bend, then turned to face the others, easily slipping back into his usual role as leader of the group.
"All right guys. Follow me."
He led them along the edge of the fortress, all the while keeping a watchful eye on their surroundings. Goddard floated close behind, safe inside his bubble of air, as Jimmy guided the others down the path between the wall and the curtain of seaweed. They plodded along, and the silence grew, filling the space around them until it became an entity in its own right - an eerie, directionless hum circulating through the deep water. As they neared the entrance to the duct, even Sheen could not conceal his apprehension.
"Hey J-Jim, are we there yet?" he asked. "I'm so freaked I can't even think of a good Ultralord reference!"
"Keep it together, Sheen. Look, here's the entry point…"
Cindy stepped forward to enter the duct, but Jimmy stopped her with a wave of his hand. "No…wait a minute. I just thought of something. Goddard, can you scan for sensors around the mouth of the duct?"
His pet nodded, then opened his mouth and commenced the scan. Jimmy squinted down at the results, and everyone else crowded around him to get a look, only to find themselves staring at a seemingly incomprehensible sequence of numbers.
"Hmm…interesting…" murmured the boy.
Libby leaned back and shook her head. "How you can understand anythin' from that pile of numbers is beyond me…"
"It's not that complicated, really. Basically, Goddard's scan indicates that there is a network of advanced sensors on the interior of the ducts."
"Oh no!" cried Carl. "We'll never get through without him seeing us!"
Jimmy waved away his concern. "No, no, this is a good thing! His sensors won't be able to pick us up as long as we stay within 30 feet of Goddard. Plus, if I'm interpreting these results correctly (and I'm 99.97% sure I am), then the sensors are linked into the central computer."
Cindy motioned impatiently. "Which means…"
"Which means I can kill two birds with one stone and hack into the security system at the same time we're traveling through the duct."
"Oooh!" shouted Sheen. "…I don't get it."
"Don't concern yourself with the details, Sheen. Let's just make it through, and I'll handle the complicated stuff."
"You're the genius."
Jimmy motioned for Goddard to go ahead, and the robot dog-paddled through the round portal and into the inner passage. Jimmy entered a second later, and Carl, Sheen, and Libby followed close behind him, with Cindy bringing up the rear. Inside the duct, the passageway was dimly lit and cramped, and an internal current tugged on their hair and clothing. Creaking metallic echoes ran up and down the length of the tube, and Libby bit her nails, shoulders clenched tight with fear.
"I feel like the walls are closin' in around me!"
Cindy frowned. "Libs, I didn't know you were claustrophobic."
"I'm not. I'm just a little wigged that I'm under one hundred feet of crushin' water on my way into the lair of a psychopath."
Jimmy fiddled with his watch as he calibrated the settings, then shouted ahead to Goddard. "All right, boy. I need you to interface wirelessly with the central computer, OK? Once you do, I'm going to relay my instructions to you verbally, and I need you to convert them into binary and send them over the link."
"Mmmbark bark! Grr, rrr, mbbark! Bark!"
"Ah, I see. Keep trying…"
"Aow, bark bark!"
"Really? OK, try again, and make sure the packet sniffer doesn't detect the network intrusion…"
Sheen and Libby shrugged to each other as Jimmy and his pet carried on with their indecipherable conversion.
"Did you get it?"
"Excellent! OK, I'll input the first password. Ready? OK." Jimmy cleared his throat. "3.1415926535897 932384626433832795 0288419716939937 51058209 7494459230…"
"Whoa, there!" recoiled Sheen. "What the heck?"
"…7816406286 20899862 803482 534211706 79821480865 132823066. OK, part two of the password: 2.7182818284 5904523536…. "
"Whoa, seriously Neutron, what are you doing?"
"When I was ten years old, I came up with the ideal password. It includes the first 121 digits of pi, followed by the first 20 of Euler's number, followed by the number of characters in the ancient Mayan script, followed by the square root of the number of times I tried to build Goddard before I succeeded, followed by a long number equation using base 8, followed by numerical representations of my parents' names spelled backward, followed by the French word for the color of my rocket, followed by…"
"OK, OK, we get it! Jeez! But why are you reciting all that nonsense now?"
"Because, like I said, it is the ideal password. Nobody other than myself could ever remember, yet alone come up with, the exact sequence of numbers and letters that are contained within it. My older self would be a fool not to use it as the base password for the central computer. Now, if you wouldn't mind being quiet so I could finish…"
They group proceeded onward in awed silence as Jimmy rattled off a list long enough to make their heads spin.
"Ooh! Ooh!" said Sheen excitedly. "He said the number 43! That's my favorite number, 'cause that's how many Ultralord action figures can fit on the shelf above my bed!"
"Oh, and he said mine too!" smiled Carl. "Wanna know what it is?"
Libby shook her head. "Not really…"
He continued anyway. "My favorite number is number 2! Wanna know why? 'Cause it's not first, but it's still a good number!"
"Why are you tellin' me this?"
Cindy rolled her eyes flamboyantly, then gestured ahead at Jimmy. "Because, Libs, we're trying to kill time while Spewtron over there lists every known number in existence."
"Hey, you wanna be quiet back there? Jeez! 48339583...…"
After one final sequence, Jimmy completed his recitation. "OK Goddard, that's it. It'll probably require a DNA match as well, so upload my genetic code along with the password I've just given you."
"Mmm, bark bark!" Goddard's eyes glowed a brighter shade of white as he sent the information over the wireless link. A moment later, he made a pinging sound, and then projected a holographic image of the base directory into the water above him.
"All right!" exalted Jimmy. "Way to go boy! We're in!"
The others cheered in response. Sheen attempted to chest-bump Libby, but she deftly side-stepped, and he ended up banging into the wall instead. Trying not to grin at their antics, Jimmy turned his attention to his watch, which he used to scroll through the directory. He scrutinized the files and permissions intently, then frowned. "Hmm, that's odd…"
"What is it?" asked Cindy. "What are you looking for?"
"I can access a lot of sensitive information, like schematics, experimental data, and surveillance, but there doesn't seem to be a lot in the way of executable commands. No, wait, here's something…"
The travelers continued on in observant silence. Completely engrossed in his search, Jimmy almost blundered into the wall ahead.
"Whoa!" he said, reeling back. "Guess we've reached the end of the passage. But hold on just a second, let me finish…" He sifted through a few more databases, then finally snapped his fingers. "Aha! Here's something I can use! It's the command root for the weapons array in all 5 Sectors. Disable that, and any weapons tied directly to the main computer will be offline. It won't help with robotic personnel, but then again I didn't expect to be able to do that anyway. OK, Goddard, I want you to use a brute force packet method to freeze the security protocols."
"Is it working?"
"Grrr bark bark!"
"Good. Now, let me look for one more thing…"
The others stood around helplessly as Jimmy engaged in computing far beyond their understanding. He entered another long string of numbers and letters, then scratched his head. "That is so weird. I mean, as I had anticipated, I'm not having any trouble navigating the system – after all, it's set up in the exact same logical pattern I would use – but I still can't break through to the main controls. Everything seems to be protected by layers and layers of encryptions and pass-codes. I've tried all the techniques I would normally use to protect this kind of information, but it's not working. Clearly my older self knows some tricks that I don't…"
"Well I should hope so," said Cindy. "I mean, his inventions actually work…"
"And he's a murderous sociopath who destroyed earth and killed everyone we know and love. So take your pick. Malfunctioning inventions, or global annihilation…" His retort immediately put an end to her snide remarks, and Jimmy went back to his search. "Aha! Here's something, though I'm not entirely sure what it is…"
"Jimmy, shouldn't we be gettin' outta this duct soon?" reminded Libby anxiously. "I mean, the 15 minutes must be almost up."
"Good point. I guess I can continue this once we get into the open air. Hmm, I'm a bit hesitant to cut through the duct, though. If we destroy one of the sensors, it'll probably alert him to our presence in this Sector. I should disable them first…" He scrolled through the directory until he located the target of his search. "This looks like the right one. At least, I hope it is. OK, here goes nothing…"
He disabled the protocol, and almost instantly the duct was filled with a deafening rushing sound.
"Uh-oh…that can't be good…"
A wall of fast moving water slammed into the kids, throwing them against the wall and pinning them in place.
"Shut it down Goddard!" gasped Jimmy desperately. "Shut it down!"
Goddard quickly reversed the changes, and the pressure relented. The kids floated back to the floor like wayward leaves, shaken and slightly battered.
"Ugh!" coughed Cindy. "What the heck was that about? What did you do?"
"My fault! Turning off the sensors also turned off the water pressure regulator. The underwater current that had been previously held at bay was just unleashed. Luckily, we're not in the part of the base where the current is strongest, or we might have been seriously injured. Don't worry about it, though – Goddard re-stabilized the flow."
"Whatever you say, Neutron. Just get us out of this blasted tube, will ya?!"
Jimmy complied, aiming his watch laser at a small rectangular section on the roof of the duct. After cutting a square hole, he swam up and pressed his hand against the cutaway piece, and the water pressure sent it shooting out into the room above. He then helped the others swim to the surface. One by one, they rolled out onto the quickly-flooding floor above, gasping as their lungs drew in fresh oxygen. Jimmy pulled himself out last, sending droplets of water flying as he breached the surface. He retrieved the chunk of metal that had been removed and fit it back into place.
"All right Goddard, seal the cut!"
Two red beams emanated from the mechanical canine's eyes, fusing the seams and damming the flow of water. When the last plume of smoke had curled into invisibility, the kids slumped over in relief.
"We're in…" breathed Libby shakily.
A long moment of silence followed, broken only by the gentle sloshing of the ankle-deep water. Vein-like aquamarine reflections danced over the gray walls, filling the chamber with their quiet light. Somewhere in the distance, water dripped rhythmically. Jimmy wrung out his outlandish hairdo as Cindy splish-splashed over to him.
"Neutron, you don't think that little accident we had in the duct affected the rest of the base, do you? I mean, what if Aurora and Future Libby got caught up in that current?"
He tossed his hair. "I wouldn't worry about it. I'm sure they were out of the duct by the time it happened."
"If you say so…"
"At any rate, we don't have time to be worrying about the others. We have our own safety to consider. They'll take care of themselves. Now, if you'll just give me a few more minutes, I'll finish hacking and…"
"Grrr, bark! Mmbark!"
Jimmy snapped around. "What? What do you mean there's no wireless access here? It worked fine inside the tube!"
"Eow, eow… Grr rrrk ar ark! Bark!"
"Why on Earth would he do that? Are you sure?"
"Mmmbark! Bark bark!"
Cindy forced her way in between the two. "This may come as a shock to you, Neutron," she said, "but I don't speak DOG. Would you mind cluing us in? We're your teammates too, remember."
"Sorry, sorry. I was just caught a bit off guard." He turned to address his friends, spreading his palms in an explanatory gesture. "According to Goddard's internal computer, this entire branch of the Sector is a dead zone. There's no sensors, no surveillance, no wireless network. In other words, no chance of being detected – but also no chance of completing the hacking I started in the duct."
"A dead zone?" repeated Cindy."Doesn't that seem a bit, I don't know, suspicious to you?"
"Of COURSE it's suspicious! Why would DJ keep an entire Sector running, complete with life support and complex architecture, if it were empty? It makes no sense! Maybe this really was a project that was abandoned…or maybe…no, I don't think that's it… hey boy, do me a favor and pull up the schematics that you downloaded for Sector 2!"
Goddard projected a 2-D floor plan into the air, and Jimmy stepped forward to study it. The schematic showed a meandering, labyrinth-like collection of rooms – which, unfortunately, blocked the way to the center of the base.
"Hmm, that IS odd," he muttered, stroking his chin. "Sector 2 is like one big maze…the rooms don't seem to be laid out in any kind of logical order, and that makes me nervous. Unfortunately, I need to get to an area with wireless access or a computer interface…which means, one way or another, we're going to have to get through this."
Libby gestured at the labyrinthine floor plan. "But how are we gonna find our way through that?"
Jimmy smiled smugly. "The answer to that, as always, is science. Goddard, plot the most efficient course through the maze!" His pet obeyed, and a yellow line coiled out from their current position on the map and traced its way through the rooms, emerging at last on the other side. "See? All we have to do is follow Goddard's digital map, and we won't get lost."
Cindy traced the route with her finger. "OK, so according to this, we should start by leaving this room, and then go down a long hallway until we find the entrance to the maze. Does that sound about right?"
"You got it. Now let's get a move on…the clock is ticking!"
Rewind ten minutes, rotate 160 degrees, and shift over to Aurora and Future Libby, who were traversing the duct leading into Sector 5. Aurora led the way, periodically glancing over her shoulder to check on her timidly advancing companion.
Future Libby glanced around anxiously. "Ya, I'm fine…I'm just a bit…creeped out by dark, cramped places. Especially when those places are hundreds of feet underwater."
Aurora uncurled her fingers, and a faint green light illuminated her palm. "Better?"
Future Libby nodded, swimming in closer to her friend. They continued to advance, and Future Libby hugged tight to the wall, pulling herself along incrementally. Up ahead, the duct split into two passages – one was open, tapering into darkness; the other was partitioned off by a finely meshed grate. Future Libby stopped to examine it.
"What's with the filter grate?"
Aurora paddled around to face the other woman. "Um…I'm pretty sure that passage leads to the desalinization plant. Seawater is taken in through the filter, drained into pools, and then converted into fresh water using reverse osmosis. It's really not that important to our mission. Now let's get a move on…"
Future Libby hung back, frowning in thought. Aurora took a deep breath to keep her impatience under control. "What is it?"
"This looks like an easier place to get out. Are we gonna try goin' through the filter?"
"It probably would be," admitted Aurora, "but no, we're not. I've never been inside the desalinization plant, and I haven't seen the layout schematics. There are enough variables to consider without having to find our way through an uncharted section. After all, our mission is to find the Dictator, not get lost in his base.”
As her words died away, a distant rumbling sound flooded the duct. Aurora twirled toward it, eyes narrowed in suspicion. "What the…"
The walls of the tube began to tremble, and a split second later, a torrent of white, bubbling water rocketed toward them. Aurora's eyes shot wide open in surprise, but her cry of warning was silenced as the jet of high-pressure water slammed into her. With her last vestiges of coordination, she reached blindly for Future Libby's hand. She caught hold of one of Libby's golden bracelets, but amid the violent confusion, it slipped from her wrist. In the blink of an eye, the two women were hurled apart. Future Libby collided with the grate, which collapsed from the impact, folding around her like a piece of origami as both disappeared down the filter tube in a rush of churning bubbles.
The swirling waters pushed Aurora into the opposite passage. She barely had time to panic before she slammed back-first into the rear wall of the duct. She cracked her head against the metal, and reality slowed to a crawl. She could hear each and every bone in her body as they strained against the roaring water, and she wondered faintly if she was going to die. Three heartbeats later, her vision faded to white, and she felt herself slipping into peaceful nothingness. Fighting unconsciousness with every fiber of her being, she summoned up one last-ditch burst of energy. Green light trickled down her body, and as her eyelids drooped slowly closed, she began to melt through the metal wall behind her. The water pressure completed the task for her – the duct burst, and Aurora spilled into the room beyond it, borne along by countless gallons of water. The tidal wave calmed at last, depositing her on the floor of an empty corridor. Numb and dazed, Aurora lay on the ground, staring up unblinkingly at the ceiling lights until they finally went dark.
Coughing and sputtering, Future Libby pulled herself out of a small concrete pool. She staggered for a few steps, then fell to her knees. As soon as she could breathe again, she hauled herself up, blinking droplets of water from her eyelashes.
"Aurora?" she called out. "Aurora, where are you? I…ack..."
She doubled over in another coughing fit. Teeth-chattering loudly, she straightened again, shivering from the cold and the shock of the previous sixty seconds. Her mind raced as she tried to make sense of what had happened. What had hit them? Where was Aurora? She shook her head to clear her spinning thoughts, then turned to survey her surroundings.
The desalinization plant consisted of several interconnecting pools, separated from one another by semi-permeable membranes. Water gushed into the largest from the source tube, and the broken filter grate tumbled in erratic circles within the small eddy formed at their juncture. The smell of chemicals lingered in the air; distant walls creaked from the all-pervading damp. Although the room was dimly lit, Aurora was clearly nowhere to be found. Future Libby coughed again, this time on the verge of tears.
"Aurora must've gotten swept into the other duct, which means she could be just about anywhere right now! Oh, what should I do? How could things've gone this wrong already?" After a few more wheezy breaths, she drummed her hands against her cheeks, forcing herself to regain her composure. "Keep it together, girl. Jimmy should have shut down the weapons and surveillance by now. You can get through the base if you're careful. Just follow your instincts, and you're bound to run into Aurora before long. If you're lucky, you might even find Sheen…" She broke off, unwilling to think any further ahead than the task at hand. "OK, First thing's first…gotta get out of this room."
She glanced around until she spotted a door on the wall behind her. She hurried toward it, her white sandals squeaking on the wet concrete. She turned the knob cautiously, and, opening the door a fraction of an inch, peered out into the hallway beyond. She held her breath, listening with all her senses for any signs of approaching danger. As soon as she was convinced that it was safe, she sidled out of the crack and flattened herself against the side of the doorway. Peering around the corner, she noticed a gun turret mounted on the wall at the far end of the hall. Biting her lower lip, Future Libby slipped a bracelet off her wrist and tossed it into range of the weapon. She plugged her ears, but nothing happened. It hit the ground with a tinkle, then rolled a few feet before tipping over. Satisfied, Future Libby stepped out of her hiding spot and dashed across the hall, scooping up the bracelet as she went.
"'Atta girl..." she muttered reassuringly. "Just gotta take this one at a time…"
She rounded the corner and repeated the process. Driven by fear and emboldened by her success, she quickened her pace. As she rounded the fourth corner, a faint echo reached her ears, and her heart skipped a beat. She whipped around, wet braids slapping against her neck. After a breathless moment, she crept on again, more cautiously this time. After rounding the fifth bend, she found herself at the head of a long, T-shaped corridor. Overcome by the sudden and overwhelming sensation that she was being watched, Future whirled around, quickly extending her hands in a defensive block.
"I-Is anyone there?"
Silence replied, and she swallowed audibly, slowly pivoting back in the direction she had been heading – only to find her path blocked. She covered her mouth to stifle a scream. At first glance, she didn't recognize him – his lean frame, pallid skin, and tired, wan face were a far cry from the chubby boy of her youth. Even his red hair, which hung in damp-looking curls over his forehead, seemed a shade duller than before. Only by process of elimination did she realize who he was.
Future Carl gazed at her wordlessly, and the overhead light glinted off his glasses. Remembering how he had helped Aurora escape when she was Jimmy's prisoner, Future Libby dropped her guard and rushed forward with a smile.
"Carl! It's so good to…OOOh!"
She gasped in horror as two robotic aberrations jumped out from behind him. Like twisted relics of some bygone era, the robots possessed mismatched features from a variety of animals: covered in interlocking metal scales, they crept forward on all fours, their dexterous fingers and opposable thumbs tipped in razor sharp claws. Prehensile tails flicked through the air behind them, and white eyes glowed from within their powerful, fang-lined muzzles. The animatronic carnivores slunk forward, hissing and growling in menacing synthetic tones. Future Libby tripped backward a few steps, nearly losing her balance.
"What….what are those?"
Future Carl stopped their predatory advance with a motion of his hand, and the two creatures prowled back to his side. After a moment he spoke, his voice weak and one-dimensional. "Libby…is that really you?"
She laughed in relief, touching a hand to her chest. "Of course it's really me! Is it really you? My gosh, you look so different…"
He turned and immediately began walking away. "You shouldn't have come here," he said over his shoulder. "It's dangerous. You should leave before you get hurt."
"Wait, don't go! I can't leave! I got separated from Aurora, an' now I have to find her!"
He slowed to a reluctant halt, and she forced a note of optimism into her words. "We came here to save you guys!"
He looked at the ground, fiddling with something strapped to his wrist. As he shuffled his feet indecisively, Future Libby could not help turning a wary eye to Carl's robotic guards, who stared back at her with alarmingly expressionless faces. She suppressed a shiver. "Really, Carl, those things…"
He looked up sharply. "What do you mean, 'those things'? What did you expect?"
"What did I expect? I don't know, I guess…regular robots. You know, like the ones you see in the movies. People robots, not horrid creepy crawlers."
She shuddered, and he shrugged, reaching down to pet the one nearest to him.
"They're not so bad once you get used to them. Sure, they mostly walk around on all fours, but that's because Jimmy says there's nothing inevitable about bipedalism. The only reason it works for humans is because our intelligence allows us to overcome the disadvantages. Animals, on the other hand, are efficient. They can run faster, hear better, smell better, see better, and sense better than any human being. It's easy to trip a two-legged robot, but you can't outrun or outmaneuver one built to move like a cheetah or a wolf. So why model robots after humans? It makes much more sense to use animals as a template. The robots can be programmed to be super intelligent, yet like the animals on which they are based, they lack human free thought or will. Animals never question their masters."
"That's just plain creepy, Carl. You sound like a robot yourself when you say that. Come on, ditch those freaky things and come with me! We have to find Sheen and…"
Future Carl lifted a palm to silence her, and she trailed off. "I can't help you, I'm sorry. It's already bad enough that we ran into each other. You should go."
"But…can't you at least give me some kind of hint? Point me in the right direction? You must know this base like the back of your hand…"
He looked painfully guilty for a moment, then at last sighed. He pointed down the corridor. "You should go that way."
Without hesitation, she turned and jogged off down the hallway, waving over her shoulder as she went. "Thank you, Carl! Don't worry, we'll fix everythin', you'll see!"
As she disappeared round the corner, the communicator on Future Carl's wrist pinged softly. He flipped open the interface, and an evenly-paced, well-spoken voice issued from the other end.
"Who was it?"
Future Carl hesitated a moment before answering. "Um, it was…Libby…"
There was a pause, and when the voice on the other line spoke again, the barest hint of surprise colored the words. "Libby? What is she doing here?" White noise filled the vacuum left by his silence. At last he continued. "Did you send her my way?"
"Good. Carry on to the other two life signals. Leave Libby and Aurora to me. I'll radio you with further orders in a few minutes."
Future Carl stared off into space for a moment, then closed the panel on his wrist communicator. He turned and walked the opposite way down the hall, flanked by the two robotic nightmares. He kept his gaze glued to the ground.
"It was nice seeing you Libby," he said quietly. "Goodbye…"