Chapter 34: Unnatural Selection
Aurora jerked upright with a strangled cry. Gasping for breath, she fell back onto her elbows, rib cage heaving as she forced air into her lungs.
The shock of waking dissipated, and Aurora’s senses returned. Groaning, she rolled onto her side. Every inch of her body throbbed in pain. Lying motionless in the puddle left behind by the receded waters, she allowed herself a moment of misery.
Gathering together all her willpower, she planted her hands on either side of her body and carefully lifted herself up. Her muscles trembled in protest as she drew her knees underneath her. Hunched forward, she rested her face in one hand and waited for the waves of dizziness to pass. At last her mind cleared and, taking a deep breath, she checked herself for injuries. She touched the back of her head with a grimace, then peered down at her fingers.
“No blood…that’s a good sign…” She rotated her wrists one at a time, then shifted her weight forward onto her knees and rotated her ankles, scowling as she did so. “Sss …jeez that hurts…”
Finally, she twisted her torso from side to side, checking each of her ribs for any signs of fracture. “No broken bones…guess that’s a plus.”
With a clean bill of health, she hauled herself up, wavering a little before regaining her balance. As the overwhelming pain and stiffness receded, she became conscious of a hundred needle-like pains in the back of her left arm. Frowning sharply, she lifted her elbow to get a closer look at her tricep. Shiny beads of blood dotted the light blue fabric of her suit, and she ran her fingertips across them in bewilderment.
A glimmer of light reflected off something imbedded in her arm; still frowning, she plucked a shard of glass from one of the wounds. Suddenly conscious of their presence, she yanked out half a dozen more. She stared down at the blood-glazed fragments cupped in her palm, eyebrows furrowed as she attempted to deduce their origin.
“…Glass? How did I get glass in my ar…” All at once the answer poured over her in a waterfall of icy panic.
“The antidote!” she gasped.
Aurora fell to her knees and plunged her hands into the murky puddle, desperately hoping to be wrong. “Please be here, please be here…”
Her finger made contact with a rounded shape, and she hastily fished out the cap to the antidote – which was attached only to a few pieces of broken vial. There was a moment of suspended silence as she stared down at the remains in disbelief.
She mouthed the words again, but no sound came out. The explanation played out in her mind – the antidote must have been crushed when she collided with the duct wall. Aurora curled forward, physically sickened, as the full meaning of this revelation hit home. No antidote. No antidote. No antidote. She repeated this appalling conclusion over and over while dread and anger engulfed her. It was so unfair. So monstrously, cruelly, mercilessly unfair. She had sacrificed everything for this plan – and there it lay, in little shattered fragments in her right palm. She purposely clenched her fist around the serrated shards, scowling in twisted satisfaction as they sliced through her flesh. She watched the crimson rivulets spill down her skin and drip into the water. Closing her eyes and inhaling deeply, she let her emotions bleed out through her hand.
The pain cleared her thoughts, and she rose quietly, fingers slippery with blood. She lifted her hand to her face and peered down at her new crisscrossing wounds, then turned to face the length of the hallway, every line of her body set in bitter determination.
“So. This is the way it has to be after all.”
She set out across the corridor, her grim figure refracted in all directions by the water at her feet, like stained glass in motion.
“Neutron, you better hope the kids get to you first,” she said in a low voice, “because if they don’t, nothing in all of creation will be able to save you.”
She walked on, ponytail swaying from side to side with each methodical step. Numb from head to toe, she picked up her pace, every footfall bringing her closer to the inevitable confrontation.
Meanwhile, back in Sector 2, Jimmy was turning the door-handle that lead into the maze. “Here we go…”
The door creaked open to a warehouse-like room with a tiny exit at the far end. The floor was shiny and clean, and except for a single light fixture hanging from the ceiling, the space was empty.
Cindy looked around in awe. “Wow. That’s a big room.”
Jimmy motioned for his friends to follow. “Let’s get a move on. But keep a sharp eye out, just in case…I think it goes without saying, but you can’t be too careful in a place like this.”
They remained huddled together as they picked their way across the linoleum, barely daring to breathe for fear of missing a distant sound. As they reached the halfway point between the room’s entrance and exit, Carl suddenly piped up.
“Jimmy, I feel kinda funny…”
The boy genius stopped mid-stride. “Funny? What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. I guess I feel…happy.”
They all stopped in their tracks, and Cindy considered for a moment. “Ya, now that you mention it, so do I. Like…unreasonably happy.”
“You know what?” giggled Libby, after a pause. “Me too! Isn’t that weird?
The girls made eye-contact, and Cindy burst out laughing. “Weird? It’s HILARIOUS!”
Libby covered her mouth to contain the laughter, and Sheen and Carl burst out into hysterics a second later. Jimmy felt his sides shake involuntarily, and laughter bubbled up inside him of its own free will. He doubled over, barely able to contain himself.
“What…hahahaha…is…so… heeehhahahahahaHAHAH FUNNY???”
“I…I don’t…haahaHA! I don’t…huhuhaha I don’t know!” gasped Cindy between the fits. “I don’t get it! Why are we…hee hee…why are we laughing?”
“Not a clue,” said Libby, “but…hahahaha…I….haaaahhha!!! I can’t STOP!”
“N…Neither can I! Ha! heehahahuhuhHAHAHAHAHA!” Jimmy gasped for air and leaned forward, steadying himself against his knees. Laughter poured out of his mouth like vomit, and he curled forward, holding his aching sides. “Hahaha! Ha! HAHA!! What…what is going on?”
Cindy's lips were pursed in a barely restrained smile. “Hm. Hmmhehehehaha! It’s like I suddenly can’t control myself. Hee hee. Everything is just so…brilliant!”
The kids burst out into another giggle fit at these words.
Cindy breathed out. “I don’t get it. Hm. Hmehehe. I don’t remember feeling this way a few minutes ago.”
“Hmhehe. Hahaha. Ahem. Me neither. Maybe…hehehahaha! HAHA! Errrg. It could be due to residual stress, or perhaps there’s some kind of radiation or chemical in this Sector that causes artificial laughter. Or…hehehahahaaaa!”
“He said “artificial”!” giggled Carl.
“ARTIFICIAL?!” belted out Sheen. “BAHAHAHAHAHA!”
Laughter once again swept the group, and Jimmy shook his head violently to break the spell. “We should get out of this room. Regardless of what’s going on, we need to keep moving. Follow my lead.”
They approached the exit, giggling, staggering, and swatting each other playfully. Jimmy carefully turned the knob, and the kids stepped through the frame and into the next room. The hinges squeaked eerily as the door swung open. A bluish hue seemed to hang in the air, and the floor radiated a bone-numbing chill. There were three identical exits at the other end, and Jimmy pulled up the map.
“Hmm, let’s see, which one?”
Like a scene out of a horror movie, the door behind them suddenly slammed shut. Their pupils dilated in unison, and they stopped dead, crushed by an inexplicable internal weight.
“I can’t do this anymore,” said Carl flatly. “I give up.”
His eyes rolled up into his head, and he collapsed right where he stood. He lay on the ground as if dead, eyes glassy and unresponsive. Sheen took one look at him, then wheeled around and walked into a corner on the far side of the room. Digging his fingernails into the surface, he bashed his own head against the wall. Knocked senseless, he slid down onto the floor.
“Carl!” gasped Cindy. “Sheen! What are you doing?”
Frowning, Libby reached up and brushed her fingers across her cheek. Gingerly pulling her hand back, she stared down at tear-stained fingertips. “What…what IS this? This horrible feelin’? Why…why am I …?”
All at once, Cindy was short of breath. Her palms grew sweaty and her hands trembled; her grasp on reality felt tenuous at best. Fearing for her sanity, she looked to the others. “Guys, what’s going on!?”
“No…point…in anything…” murmured Carl weakly.
Cindy whirled around, panicked. “What are you talking about? We have to get out of here! Neutron, do something!”
“No…he’s right, Cindy. I can see it all so clearly now. We never stood a chance against the Dictator. How could I have been so stupid? I’m so stupid, so stupid…”
He sunk to his knees, covering his eyes and muttering incoherently. Goddard curled up next to his master with a whimper.
“Neutron, what’s going on? What’s the matter with all of you?”
Carl’s voice turned nauseating somersaults through the air. “It’s life. It’s all too much to handle. I wish I were dead.”
“Alive? Dead? What does it matter?” muttered Jimmy distantly. “We never stood a chance. It’s all so hopeless. We’re going to die, and it doesn’t even matter. There’s no design or purpose to this life. Just blind, pitiless indifference…”
Libby choked on her tears. “Don’t say that!” She sobbed and, hiding her face, ran away from the rest of the group.
“Libby, stop!” called Cindy. "Where are you going? I…What am I…what am I doing?” She stumbled backward as fear tightened around her like a straight-jacket. “Neutron, open the door!”
Cindy dug her nails into her scalp, struggling desperately to keep her focus. She bit out the words with as much calmness as she could muster. “Listen to me. Jimmy, which door do I need to open?”
“I’m so dizzy…”
She pointed. “Those doors! Which one?”
To Cindy, each step forward felt like a punch to the stomach. After a few footfalls, she slumped forward onto her knees, every inch of her body straining in protest as her mouth tried to form the words. “L…L…Left! Oh, God!”
She dove forward and grabbed hold of the handle, and it swung open. After a moment their minds cleared a tiny bit, and Cindy was able to stand again.
Libby rubbed her eyes. “Wha…what just happened?”
“Everyone into the next room! Now!” commanded Cindy.
Libby and Carl headed for the exit, and Cindy grabbed Sheen and dragged him along behind her. The five of them crashed through the doorway and tumbled into the next room, where Jimmy slammed the door shut behind him. This room was larger than the previous, and at first glance a red hue seemed to permeate the air. It quickly vanished as flecks of light glinted off of the twisted steel weapons hanging on the wall.
Jimmy gasped for breath. “That was…horrifying!”
“Man, I’ve never felt so depressed in my life!” rasped Sheen.
“I want my Mommy!" Carl sniffled. "And some Prozac!”
“What…what just happened to us? What on EARTH is goin’ on? Did the room do that to us?”
Jimmy straightened. “I don’t know Libby…it does seem like our behavior was being controlled just now. But I have no idea how.”
“Who cares how?” said Cindy. “All I know is, we have to get out of here before…”
Carl retreated a few steps. “Uh-oh... I think I’m starting to feel something again!”
“What?” urged Libby. “What do you feel?”
Jimmy’s expression changed, and his angry shout rang out across the room. “Who does he think we are, anyway? Did he lead us here just to toy with us?!”
He slammed his fist against the wall, and the metal pieces hanging there tinkled alluringly. Cindy’s head snapped toward him, and she advanced, eyes aglitter.
“This is all your fault, you hear? All of it! The whole thing!”
“How is it my fault?” he asked, escalating at an unnaturally high pace. “You’re the one who got us into this mess, CINDY!”
“Not the way I remember it! Your stupid triangle pulled us here, remember?”
“But YOU sprayed the megalomanium in his eyes, you jealous, conniving, cold-hearted twit!”
“WHAT? I’ll bash in your freakish skull!”
Libby forced her way between them. “Guys, we need to get out of here! This place is messin’ with your heads!”
Jimmy shook off his confusion. “W-What am I saying? This room…it must amplify rage somehow. We need to get to the exit before…”
Cindy barreled into him, and they both rammed into the wall.
“I hate you!” she shouted. “I’ve hated you every day and I’ll hate you for the rest of my life! I hate everything about you! Your stupid hair, your stupid inventions, your stupid atom symbol, your stupid blue eyes!”
“Cindy, you idiot, why did you have to open the left door? Now look at what you’ve done! You picked the anger room for God’s sake!”
“You’re the one who told me to go left, remember? You and your stupid hunk-of-junk dog!”
Goddard let loose a low, guttural growl.
“Guys…” cautioned Libby.
“Shut up!” hollered Cindy and Jimmy in unison.
Carl spun around to face her. “Ya Libby, shut up!”
Libby turned red. “What are you talkin’ about? You’re the one who never shuts up, Carl! You and Sheen both. Always yackin’ away about NOTHIN’ AT ALL! It’s so annoying!”
“Oh, so is that how you feel?” yelled Sheen. “Well maybe we should just stop being friends then!”
“Ya!!” echoed Carl.
Sheen scowled at the redhead. “What are you agreeing with me for? You’re not my friend either! Wimpy four eyes! Fatty-fatty, two-by-four! Llama loving geek!”
“Sheen, how could you say somethin' like that to Carl? You’re such a jerk! A big, dumb, tone-deaf jerk who’s obsessed with a ridiculous cartoon!”
“At least I don’t need makeup to feel good about myself!”
A sudden crash distracted them from their spat. Cindy shoved Jimmy against the wall, and a sharpened metal pike fell from its hook and clattered to the floor. They both stared at it fixedly for a moment, then Jimmy dove after the fallen weapon. He swung it around just in time for it to clang off of the deadly-looking blade that seemed to have leaped of its own accord into Cindy’s hand.
Jimmy rose slowly. “So it’s come to this, has it?”
“I’ll cut you to shreds!” she snarled.
“Not if I get you first!”
He sliced his weapon down, and sparks flew off the hilt of Cindy’s blade. Before they could inflict any serious damage, however, Libby, Sheen and Carl dove in and restrained them.
“Let me go!” struggled Cindy. “He had it coming!”
“Let me at her!”
“Get them to the door!” shouted Libby. “Now!”
Sheen tightened his grip on his captive. “Which door? There’re two!”
Sheen glared. “Are you telling me what to do?”
Sheen and Carl dragged a squirming Jimmy to the left door and threw him through it, exchanging insults the whole way. Cindy took advantage of Libby’s momentary inattention and rolled forward, sending Libby slamming into the floor. She stood up and pointed the tip of her weapon at her friend.
“Don’t try an’ stop me!”
Libby struggled to force air back into her lungs. “Fine, I won’t! He’s all yours!”
Cindy dashed through the opening, and Libby followed. As soon as the door banged shut behind her, Jimmy and Cindy looked at each other in horror and simultaneously dropped their weapons.
“What…What was I doing??”
“I can’t believe it! I was actually gonna…”
They stared at each other in a state of shock as the others fought to get their breath back.
“This is bad.” Libby gnawed on her fingernails. “This is really, really bad.”
“Sheen, do you really think I’m a fatty, fatty, two-by-four?”
“Well you are a bit on the chunky side, but I didn’t mean what I said.”
“None of us did,” said Libby firmly. “It wasn’t really us. Jimmy, do ya think you can figure out why this is happenin’ before whatever weirdness this is starts to take over again?”
Jimmy stood up taller. “I think I understand now. This is the reason we didn’t see any surveillance or weapons earlier. This whole Sector IS a weapon. We must be in some sort of a sensory maze…a labyrinth constructed of a series of interconnected rooms, each designed to bring out a particular state of mind. I’m not sure how or why, but my future self must have created a system to influence the way people act… maybe with chemicals or artificial brain waves.”
“Why would he do that?”
“Well, why not? I mean, think about it. It’s a fantastic security measure.”
Libby looked puzzled. “Whaddya mean?”
“This maze destroys people from the inside out. We’d be done for if we were traveling alone.” The others stared at him blankly, so he elaborated further. “Don’t you see? If it weren’t for Cindy in that depression room, none of us would have been able to walk out of there. Then, in the anger room, the three of you stopped what would have otherwise turned into a deadly altercation.”
Blushing furiously, Cindy kicked her weapon further out of reach. Once it was out of sight, her face cleared. “I think I get it. So the only way we can make it through the maze is if at least one of us is able to open the next door and force the others through.”
There was a long moment of silence.
“This is just way too weird,” shuddered Libby. “This whole maze thing…it’s so surreal. Are you sure we’re not in some sort of an illusion, like the time the Brains hypnotized us into thinking we were back in Retroville?” She wiggled her fingers in a cheesy imitation. "Ya know...eat and forget...eat and forget..."
Jimmy shook his head. “I don’t think so, Libby. That kind of mind control wouldn’t work on Goddard. However, he’s clearly being affected too, so I think something else is at work here.”
“Isn’t there anything you can do?” asked Cindy. “Put that freak brain of yours to work!”
“I’m thinking, I’m thinking!”
“Well, think faster!”
“Hey, if you’re so smart, why don’t YOU come up with a solution, eh?”
Libby interceded before the argument could proceed any further “Guys, focus! If we stand around fightin’, then we’re just playin’ right into his hand. We can get through this. We just need a strategy.”
Jimmy forced himself to take a deep breath. “Libby’s right. OK, so here’s what we know. We need to get through this labyrinth to get to the main control room and meet up with Aurora. Each room affects us in a different way. Once we leave this room we only have to get through six more before we…”
“We can’t leave this room!” shouted Carl. “This room is safe!”
“It protects us!” blurted Cindy.
There was a stunned silence as they all became aware of their own words.
“Well, I guess that answers my next question," remarked Jimmy dryly. "We know what this room does now. Still, this is good. We have time to plan.”
He fell silent, and the ensuing quiet stretched out, increasing in discomfort with each passing moment. Sheen played with a hangnail on his thumb, and Carl scrutinized the tips of his fingers; Libby re-positioned her pink choker. Finally Jimmy opened his mouth to speak, and the others awaited his solution with anticipation.
“Guys…I’ve got nothing.”
Cindy’s gestures became animated with her annoyance. “…What do you mean, you’ve got nothing? Think harder!”
“It’s not a matter of thinking harder, Cindy. I’m at a loss. I haven’t the faintest idea how to get around this. In all honesty, I’m not really that adept when it comes to emotions. Sure, I messed around with pheromones a little when I created the Love Potion, but that’s the most time I’ve ever spent analyzing the biochemical factors that create human feelings. This kind of technology is years ahead of anything I can even imagine developing.”
“Well…then what should we do?” asked Libby helplessly.
“The only solution I can see is the obvious one – we go through the maze, taking each room one at a time, relying on our respective strengths to get us through in one piece.”
“Oh sure, now he becomes a team player,” scoffed Cindy, before softening. “But...all things considered, we don't have much of a choice. How do we start?”
“We don’t. We’ll be staying in this room forever. Given that fact, I’d really appreciate a nice cross-breeze to keep us cool on hot days. Wouldn’t you guys agree?”
“I guess…” said Carl, perplexed.
“In that case, Goddard, would you be so kind as to blow a hole in that wall over there? That should do the trick.”
Goddard barked happily, and unleashed a laser blast on the far door. It collapsed into the next room, and the tension in the air broke, like a shrill musical note cut short.
“Yay,” cheered Carl, “I knew you could outsmart the machine, Jimmy! Take that, you big…uh, room!!”
Jimmy dusted off his hands, smugness plastered on his face at having been so devilishly clever.
“Don’t congratulate yourself just yet, Neutron. We still have to get through six more rooms.”
He struck out across the floor and stopped at the splintered
threshold. “Starting now…”
Over in Sector 3, the security systems were still offline. Future Libby peered around a corner, her gaze darting this way and that before she ducked back into the shadows. Heart racing, she forced herself to shut her eyes and calm her thoughts. She craned her neck around the corner and scanned the area again. Future Libby twisted the ring on her finger several times, then took a shaky breath and snuck out of the darkened alcove. She crept past a row of iron doors and slowed as she passed the last one, frowning at an inexplicable urge to push it open and investigate. She glanced back at it over her shoulder as she rounded the next bend, and before she could shift her gaze forward again, she collided with something that seemed to have materialized out of nowhere. She staggered backward to catch her balance, only to find herself looking straight into the face of the very last person she had wanted to see – Dictator Jimmy.
“O..ooooh!!” she gasped.
His features burned themselves into her memory. The first thing she noticed was his form-fitting, metallic blue space suit – darker than Aurora’s, the lines of the suit coiled around his body like an alien skeleton. He was not particularly tall, maybe a few inches taller than Aurora, but he nevertheless seemed to exude a presence large enough to fill the entire room. His brown hair was arranged in a state of carefully ordered chaos, and his eyes – as blue and intense as cut sapphire – gazed out from the shadow cast by his bangs. Easily asserting his authority, he crossed his arms and lounged against the wall.
“Libby. It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”
Future Libby tried to reply, but no words came out. She stared at him dumbly, mouth open.
“So tell me, Libby, what brings you here? Business? Pleasure?” His voice was pleasant, his tone beguiling, and a smile played at the corner of his lips, as if he found her faintly amusing somehow. “What’s the matter? Not going to answer?”
When Future Libby again failed to respond, he plunged forward after her. She hopped backward to assume a defensive stance, but before she could counter his movement, his hand locked around her wrist. He twirled her round and pulled her against him, wrenching her arm behind her back and clamping it down tight. He bent over her shoulder and whispered right into her ear, his words quick and insistent.
“Aurora brought you here, didn’t she, Libby? Didn’t she?”
She struggled to pull her body away from his. He increased the pressure on her arm, and she yelped in pain.
“Aooow! Let me go! Auroraaaa!”
“Why are you shouting? She can't save you.”
Future Libby’s eyes flashed angrily, and she twisted and thrashed, sputtering incoherently. “She WILL save me! You’ll see! She’ll save all of us, you…you…she’s goin’ to beat you!!”
He chuckled. “I see your anger doesn’t express itself very articulately…”
“You creep! Don’t patronize me! Let go an’ fight me like a man!”
His smile faded, and he shoved her forward, still holding her wrist. She stumbled, and he swung her back toward the wall, rotating them around their mutual center of gravity. She smacked face-first into the hard surface, and he yanked her arms back and pinned her body to the wall.
“You want to fight me? Then you’d better be prepared for what happens if you lose. I’d be happy to give you a preview…shall I tell you about all the things I did to Aurora the last time she was here?”
Future Libby wriggled defiantly. “She’s stronger than you!”
“Perhaps,” he said in a low voice. “But are you stronger than me?”
A lump formed in her throat. He leaned in closer, and she strained against his hold. She felt the weight of his body against her spine as he pulled off her gold betrothal ring. He examined it thoughtfully, then, a moment later, his blue fire consumed it.
In response, he yanked her wrists together, as if to handcuff her. Instead of the cold bite of metal, she felt the warmth of his hands on hers – then the screaming, gnawing pain of flame against skin. She cried out as the fire coiled round her hands and scorched through her silk dress, marring sections of her skin with hideously painful burns. Future Libby’s legs buckled under her, and he let her tumble to the floor. His eyes were cold and his voice was deadly serious as he looked down on her.
“Don’t even pretend for a second that you’re equal to Aurora. You’re nothing compared to her. Look at yourself…marching into battle wearing that get-up. Have you no sense of reality at all?”
He sneered contemptuously. She merely stared down at her charred palms, too stunned to respond.
“But that’s how you’ve always been, isn’t it? Spoiled and materialistic, only caring about appearances. Deep down, you’re selfish, and you know it. First you made Sheen take the fall for you, and now you’re going to do the same to your best friend.” At the mention of Sheen’s name, she looked up, and he continued his verbal barrage. “You’re out of your league, Libby. I have no idea why Aurora brought you here, but whatever she was planning, it’s already gone awry. Somehow, you two must have gotten separated by accident. And now, you’re completely helpless...”
Future Libby’s mouth went dry, and he lashed out with another blaze of fire, singeing her legs. She cradled her limbs close to her body as she waited for the burning sting to pass.
“How do you think Aurora’s feeling right now?” he went on. “I’ll tell you how she’s feeling, Libby. Your disappearance will leave her internally distraught. Even if she tells herself otherwise, she’ll unconsciously assume the worse. And it’ll eat her up inside. She’ll come looking for me, and when she faces me one-on-one, you know what will be filling her mind? Thoughts of you. She’ll be worried about you. Distracted. She won’t be on top of her game – and I’ll take full advantage of that.”
Future Libby realized with a lurch of despair that his statement was true.
“In fact, Aurora’s already off her game. She thinks she’s one step ahead of me, but she’s wrong. I know her better than that. You see, she’s a bit too clever for her own good. Nav and April are doing a phenomenal amount of damage over in Sector 4 – it’s obvious that they’re meant to be a diversion. Aurora intended me to arrive at this conclusion, no doubt in the hopes that I would ignore them and go after her instead. This means that they are actually the weakest link in the plan.”
Future Libby’s eyes widened ever so slightly, surprised by the accuracy of his postulation. She immediately realized her mistake and forced a neutral expression, but her subtle facial movement did not go unnoticed by her captor.
“Ah. I can tell from your reaction that I have correctly interpreted the situation. Therefore, my next course of action is clear. After I have dealt with you, I will proceed directly to Sector 4 and kill both intruders. If Aurora wants to bring her friends into harm’s way, she will pay the price.”
Future Libby could scarcely conceal her horror, and he smiled in satisfaction.
“Thank you, Libby. You’ve been very helpful, and you didn’t even have to say anything at all. Just by being here, you’ve murdered your friends, one by one.”
Future Libby bit her lip hard, trying with all her might not to burst into tears.
“Now, now, do not worry my dear,” he said with false sympathy. “I’m not going to kill you. I’m saving you so that Aurora can watch me melt your pretty face off. Plus, if things go wrong later, I may need your life as a bargaining chip. Which leads me to the next item of business…I must dispose of you for the time being. I don’t want any interruptions.”
He jerked her from the ground, twisted her round, and pushed her forward, guiding her down the preceding corridor. She winced with each step, her raw skin still throbbing. The first of the metallic doors automatically swung open upon his approach, and he forced her inside. It shut behind them. DJ’s hand grew heavy on her arm and the small of her back as they pressed onward into the deepening shadow.
“W…Where are we goin’?”
A cold sweat broke out over Future Libby’s brow, and her heartbeat quickened. They descended stairs of some sort, and the light from the entrance began to diminish as they headed deeper underground. The air grew increasingly oppressive, and in her imagination the world above began to fade away, leaving only stifling darkness and the consciousness of her own pain. With each step forward she found it more and more difficult to breathe. Down in the endless corridor, the blackness possessed thickness and texture. Desperate to hear a noise, to make sure she was still alive, she found herself repeating her question in a small voice.
“Where are you takin’ me?”
When he didn’t answer, the fear waiting on the periphery of her senses rose to full-blown panic, and she opened her mouth to scream. As if he had anticipated her, his hand clamped down over her mouth and muffled the sound. She struggled, twisting and thrashing, but her hands remained locked behind her back. She half expected a reprimand, but instead he stopped, and she could feel his smile behind her.
He drove her on, and the next part of the journey passed by in a blur of indeterminate duration. Dictator Jimmy unlocked a metal door of some kind, and the hinges creaked as it swung open. He pushed her through it and onto her knees, then slammed the door shut behind her. The cell swallowed her.
Future Libby felt as though she was drowning. Up and down, back and front, and left and right lost their meaning as her sense of space expanded into the nothingness all around. Clinging to the only solid reality left to her, she flattened herself against the floor. She tried to focus on steadying her breathing, but a second later, every hair on her body stood on end. Somewhere in the darkness, something moved. The noise that came out of the void assailed her senses like a bolt of lightning: the bone-chilling sound of nails clicking against the stone tiles of the floor.
Her voice came out as nothing more than a barely audible squeak, and the clicking sounds drew nearer. Terror wrapped its vice-like fingers around her windpipe, and she froze, daring not even to move her eyes. Cold sweat trickled down her forehead and neck, and strange colors seemed to swim and blur together in her mind’s eye. From somewhere across the room, a voice spoke. It had a terrifying layered quality – the top half sounded human, but underneath the syllables lurked the ancient, guttural tones of a predator.
“He brought food early today…”
Future Libby tried to scream, but the sound caught in her throat. She backed away on all fours in blind terror, while the unknown presence advanced toward her. She extended her arms in desperation and at last managed to cry out a few strangled words:
“No! Don’t hurt me!”
The creature’s sharp intake of breath echoed in the damp cell. Future Libby sensed fear in the air, and after a moment she realized that it was not her own. She heard scraping noises as the room’s other occupant backed away. She straightened, wiping loose strands of hair from her forehead. When the voice spoke again, it sounded vaguely familiar, despite its labored breathing.
Recognition dawned on her brain, and a wave of nausea washed over her. Little white flecks swam around the edges of her vision, and a long moment passed before she was able to respond.
“Oh my God…Sheen?”
Before she could process the oncoming tidal wave of emotions, a panel on the wall slid open. She blinked furiously, pain shooting through her head at the influx of light. DJ stared down at her through the rusted metal bars that barricaded the opening. Future Libby’s gaze snapped over in Future Sheen’s direction just in time to see him retreat into the shadows.
“Sheen?” she squinted. “Sheen?”
DJ’s icy smile sent a shiver running up her spine. “Hidden, has he?” His eyes were aglow as he looked down at her. No human eyes could be that color; they seemed to radiate light at an impossible blue wavelength. His smile grew. “Look harder, Libby. Your vision will have adjusted by now.”
With a sense of dread weighing upon her, she swiveled and peered into the gloom. At first, all she could make out was a dark patch silhouetted against the mottled, water-stained concrete wall. As her vision cleared, she covered her mouth to stifle a gasp. Future Sheen crouched on all fours in the corner. His clothes were tattered and half-rotted, and tube-like protrusions ran from nodes attached to his body to a decrepit machine in another corner. Steel cuffs glinted from his ankles and his wrists, and a rusted collar constricted his neck. Lines of unintelligible red symbols and numbers were tattooed down his arms, across his chest, and on his face. He quickly moved to hide his left arm, and she caught a glimpse of claws before gazing at last into his face. The numbers 21 12 were etched into his cheeks, but she hardly noticed the markings as their eyes met. Future Sheen’s brown right eye stared back levelly, fear, surprise, hope, and wonder mingling in its depths. His left eye was the color of blood, the pupil nothing more than a slit – a maniacal cat’s eye beneath a cruelly curved eyebrow.
“Libby, allow me to introduce you to Experiment 21-12…” said the Dictator.
“What have you done to him!?” She almost screamed the words.
“What do you mean, what have I done to him? You’re the one responsible for this, Libby. Sure, he made his choice – but he did it for you. Everything that’s happened to Sheen over the past decade happened because of you. Don’t forget that.” He paused to let this sink in. “But, since you’re curious, I’d be happy to elaborate. 21-12 was one of my first test subjects. I conducted a degree of gene manipulation in the hopes of creating a sort of ‘super soldier’, with enhanced strength, intelligence, and sensory capabilities. Unfortunately, the experiment was a failure. The subject began to exhibit signs of mental instability and physical violence. The effort it took to control him outweighed his benefit, so I allocated him to this cell for further observation. I occasionally recycled him for additional miscellaneous experimentation when it was imprudent to waste a clean test subject – those numbers you see branded on his skin are a catalog of all the various procedures I have performed on him.”
“You’re a monster!”
“You don’t know the meaning of the word, Libby,” he replied. “The abomination you see before you is no longer the Sheen you once knew. All that’s left is a twisted body and an inhuman mind – the final product of unnatural selection. He’s a unique kind of monster, Libby, with the killer instincts of an animal and that special kind of cruelty that only humans can achieve. And I should perhaps point out that his ravenous appetite extends beyond the need for mere food…”
Tears poured down Future Libby’s face. She pulled her knees under her and covered her ears, trying to shut him out. “No! No! I don’t believe you! This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be!”
“Believe whatever you want. But in a moment I’ll close this panel, and you will once again find yourself alone with him in the dark. If I were you, I would get down on my hands and knees and pray that he doesn’t escape from those chains. Because if he breaks free, Libby – even I would not want to see the things he’d do to you.”
With this final pronunciation, he slid the panel shut with a clang. Future Libby lunged after the receding light, but the darkness swallowed her before she could reach it. She hit the wall, and panic seized her. She flattened her back against the grimy surface and dug her manicured fingernails into the concrete. Icy tendrils of fear coiled outward from the center of her chest, and her heart beat so furiously that it echoed in her ears. Unable to slow her breathing, she crept along the wall in the direction she imagined to be opposite Future Sheen.
Dictator Jimmy’s words played over and over again in her head as hot tears spilled down her cheeks. An inhuman monster, a cruel killer…at any second she expected to feel hands on her body, to feel his claws poised against her skin. …What would Sheen do to her? What final words would he utter? Or would he simply kill her without a sound?
She slammed her eyes shut, the cruel irony of it all too much for her to bear. She felt a dim sense of injustice as she waited for him to make his move – that she should have waited ten years and come all those billions of miles, only for it end like this. The moment seemed to stretch on for an eternity. When nothing happened, she opened one lid tentatively.
“Listen to me, Libby,” pleaded Future Sheen. “Ignore what he said – I may look different, but I’m still me. Well, mostly. We need to get out of this cell. But first, you need to get me out of these shackles.”
Future Libby shook her head furiously, holding tight to her spot on the wall.
“I’m not going to hurt you. Please come here.”
“It’s not really you! I don’t know what you are, but you’re not the Sheen I remember!” The words came out in a choked sob. “I waited so long…and you’re not him!”
“I'm sorry I'm not the guy you were expecting,” he said, and she heard the hurt in his voice. “But I promise I won’t do anything to hurt you. You have to get me out of these chains. It’s the only way we’re going to get out of here.”
Future Libby swam in a haze of indecision. Dictator Jimmy’s words danced mockingly through her memory, but she found herself steadied by Future Sheen’s tone of voice and his uncharacteristically levelheaded words.
“How…How do I know you won’t kill me?” she asked. “How can I believe it’s you? The REAL you?”
“You’re just gonna have to take a chance. Don't be scared, K?”
She hesitated a bit longer, until all at once Tuyen’s words poured over her in a wave of brilliant clarity: You will very soon recover something that you have lost, but when the time comes, you must not allow yourself to feel any fear. Only by remaining steadfast in the face of terror will be able to save the people you love. In an instant Future Libby comprehended, and she pushed away from the wall, a new resolve coursing through her veins.
She wiped her eyes. “I understand. Where are you? I can’t see a thing…”
“Follow the sound of my voice…”
She tottered forward, arms extended.
“This way,” he guided. “There we go, a little bit further. A few more steps…”
Future Libby stopped in mid-stride, fingers grasping air. Something inside her whispered, this is your last chance to back out.
“What’s the matter?”
She clumsily sought an excuse. “Once we get outta here, won’t he just come after us again?”
“Don’t worry. I won’t let him get you.”
“I’m not worried ‘bout me. Won’t he do somethin’ to you?”
There was a pause. “You don’t understand, Libby,” he said quietly. “Once I get out of this cell, nothing will be able to stop me.”
She felt a chill at these words and hung back.
Biting her lip, she forced herself to cross the last few paces between them. Her fingers quaked as they searched for his form in the emptiness. Finally, she reached him. She felt the heat from his skin a moment before her fingertips made contact. Slowly, she settled her injured hands on his body – and she silently thanked the darkness for concealing the burning in her cheeks.
His words eased her back to her senses. “Those are my shoulders. Slide your hands down my arms until you find the cuffs on my wrists.”
Pain forgotten, she obeyed in a combination of fear and exhilaration. Her heart skipped a beat as her hand trailed down his left forearm, where unnaturally hardened, raised veins branched across his skin. She quickly jerked her hand past the anomalous lines, and her knuckles clinked against the metal handcuff.
"Do you feel the latch there?" he asked. "It’s a little hook-thing sticking out from the rest of the cuff. I think it’s programmed so that I can’t open it, but I see no reason why you shouldn’t be able to."
"I think I got it…"
She flipped the hook on his left cuff, and it popped open. As soon as his hand was free, several things happened very quickly. He wrenched the chains off his other arm, then backed up a step, straining against his bonds. The sound of snapping metal filled the air, and Future Libby covered her head as shards of steel and pieces of chain flew out into the corners of the room. Opening her eyes again, she felt a rush of air as he brushed past her. Before she could pinpoint his position again, the steel door came flying past her and crashed against the cell wall. Still in shock at the sheer speed of the breakout, she found herself hurtling forward, her wrist locked in Future Sheen’s grasp. He dragged her through the doorway and into the darkened hallway at breakneck speed. Stumbling behind him, she didn’t even have time to yell out in protest before a tiny patch of light appeared up ahead. With fevered swiftness, Future Sheen turned and scooped her up. He bounded up the stairs leading to the exit, clearing three at a time. Setting her down, Future Sheen tore the door clean off its hinges and hurled it violently into the hallway, where it slammed against the far wall and clattered to the floor, warped and distorted. Out of breath and in mild shock, Future Libby leaned against the doorframe to catch her breath. Future Sheen darted out into the corridor, running in circles.
“FREEEEEDOM!! SWEET FREEDOM!!! WOOOOOOO!!!!” He laughed wildly and turned a series of cartwheels. “I have so much ENERGY!”
He flipped backward, then suddenly turned and punched the wall, leaving a crater where his fist had impacted. Staring down at his clenched hand, his expression changed. He faced the wall squarely and, yelling obscenities, slammed his fists into it over and over again. Dust and chunks of rubble rained down from the site of his assault, and he punctuated the episode by slashing out with his razor sharp claws.
“I’m…I’m finally out…” He trembled, panting,
He bent forward, resting his hands on his knees as he steadied himself. At last he straightened, and his gaze traveled over to Future Libby, who was staring out at him from her spot inside the doorway. Her eyes widened as she got her first good look at him. At his full height he stood a good head taller than her, and his torn, ill-fitted clothing showcased his sinewy muscles. His eyes, alert and asymmetrical, bored into hers, and every angle of his face hinted at a feral, unpredictable nature. She noticed that each time he took a breath, his whole body moved, like a coiled animal ready to spring.
“Sorry you had to see that,” he said. “You don’t understand what it was like, to be locked in there…” He broke off, then forced a reassuring smile. “But I got it all out of my system, so we're cool now. See?”
He spun around once in an attempt to appear carefree, but the gesture only succeeded in drawing Future Libby’s attention to his misshapen left forearm. It was covered in raised metallic veins, and his enlarged hand tapered into a set of curved, retractable claws. He noticed the direction of her gaze and quickly covered the area with his other arm, blushing in embarrassment.
“I’m sorry…I know how horrible I must look to you…”
“Actually, I think you look…good.”
A smile crept across his face. “Really?”
“Ya…I mean, not what I expected, but…”
“But not butt-ugly?”
She laughed. “No, not butt-ugly.”
There was another, drawn-out silence, this one longer than the first.
“You look…hot,” he said.
Future Libby blinked. “Hot?”
“Ya, I mean…well, look at you! You’re drop-dead-gorgeous!”
She planted a hand on one hip. “Sheen, I think you've been in prison too long…”
“No, no, I mean it! Seriously, look at you! That hair, that…err, figure…that dress…”
His sudden awkwardness left her feeling cool-headed and in control of herself for the first time since they reunited, and she smiled graciously. “Well, thank you for the compliments, but I don’t think now’s the time to be sittin’ around flirting. What’s the plan?”
“The plan?” he repeated, dazed. “Oh, right…the plan. I guess we find your friends and do whatever it was you came here to do."
“All right, but I don’t think I should tell you any of the details here, since he can probably hear everything we’re sayin’. Just get me to the main control room…I think that’s where Aurora was headin’. We got separated, and I think it’d be best if…”
“Aurora?” interrupted Sheen.
“Oh yeah, that’s what Cindy’s callin’ herself nowadays.”
“Cindy? So you did meet up with her on Earth after I sent you back?”
“Um…in a roundabout sort of way. I…Ouch! Ahh…” Acutely aware of her burn wounds once again, Future Libby glanced down at her hands to find them dirty and rapidly blistering. “Ow… oh no…”
“What’s the matter?”
“Ow… He ruined my pretty hands…”
He crossed the distance between them, and Future Libby displayed her injuries for him. He touched her fingers gently, his eyebrows drawn together in concern.
“That looks pretty bad. Here, let me…”
He pulled off what was left of his orange shirt and, after ripping into sections, began bandaging the wounds.
Still holding her hands in his, he met her eyes, and she immediately became uneasy. Pulling away, she babbled out an addendum.
“Th-that’s better. Thanks. Um, as to what we were sayin’ before…I’ll explain everythin’ later, but right now we need to get a move on. Time is of the essence here.”
“Then let’s go.”