Chapter 38: Reunion
Meanwhile, back in reality, Future Carl had arrived at the bliss room. He sagged against the wall, sighing as gravity eased him down into a slump. He closed his eyes and unbuttoned the collar of his white shirt, searching for solace in the warm, soupy sensation that stole over him. His breathing slowed and, for the first time, a look of peace settled on his features. He gazed dreamily into space as he toyed with a lock of hair.
"Who cares if it's not real? It doesn't matter…"
A mere two rooms away, his younger counterpart was still stuck on the threshold of the room. He extended the tip of his foot just past the doorjamb and prodded Jimmy and Sheen with his toe, but the fallen sleepers remained where they were.
"Oh! Why won't they wake up? I gotta think...gotta do something…." The redhead plucked at the paperclips which dangled from his oversized Goth belt. From there, his gaze traveled down to Goddard, and an idea struck him. "Goddard! I know I can't understand you, but you can still understand what I'm saying, right?"
"Uh…was that a yes?"
Carl scratched his head. "I think that's a yes…" Adjusting his glasses with one hand, Carl pointed at the far wall. "Goddard – remember how, in that other room that nobody wanted to leave, Jimmy had you shoot a hole in the wall to break the spell? Well, maybe that'll work here too. Do you think you can do that for me?"
In answer, Goddard opened his mouth and blasted the target, spraying rubble every which-way. Carl coughed and fanned the air in front of his mouth as plumes of dust flooded the room.
"Did it work?"
The dust piled up on the kids like volcanic ash. Carl waited and watched in agonized suspense, but his friends did not stir.
"Oh! What do I do now? Guys, wake up! WAKE UP!"
He shouted their names one by one, his pleas growing more frantic with each call. Scared, alone, and in way over his head, Carl tilted his head toward the ceiling and yelled at the top of his lungs.
"SOMEBODY HELP US!"
Back in the bliss room, Future Carl nearly had a heart attack when an explosion rocked the maze. He leaped to his feet and turned to flee. Instead, a muffled cry reached his ears from somewhere deeper in the maze, and he lingered in place.
"Is someone…in there?" he wondered aloud. "How could someone have gotten in there without tripping an alarm?" He headed for the exit, intent on reporting his discovery to Dictator Jimmy. At the last second he paused and looked back over his shoulder. "Come to think of it, that kind of sounded like a little kid's voice…"
Future Carl weighed his options. Should he follow protocol and report the incident? That would probably be the safest bet. Then again, it had sounded like a child's plea for help… He fretfully combed his fingers through his hair, then sighed and reversed course.
"I must be going crazy," he said, rubbing his head. "Maybe this place is finally getting to me. Chasing after voices! What's next? Little people?"
He pulled open the bliss room's second door, and a rush of smoke flooded in. He swung it shut again. "Agh! What…what could be going on in there? Did Aurora set an explosive or something? It doesn't make any sense…how could she have gotten in there in the first place?" With a concerned frown, he re-buttoned his shirt. Pulling the collar up over his nose as a mask, he grabbed the handle again. "Guess I'd better go investigate…"
"..eed …elp!" came an indistinct voice.
"H-Hello?" stuttered Future Carl. "Is someone there?"
He narrowed his eyes against the smoke's sharp sting as he navigated the maze. Future Carl reached the door at the far end of the next room and, after stopping for a brief coughing episode, noticed the gaping hole in the wall.
"What in the world...?"
He went ahead and opened the door, and a blast of hot air flowed over him. As the smoke cleared, he could make out a short, stocky silhouette on the other side of the room. He focused on the figure: a heavy-set body, matted curls, freckles, and round glasses set on an even rounder face. Carl saw him too, and they simultaneously blurted out: "Who're you?"
"You look just like..." began Carl.
Before Future Carl had had the chance to come to terms with the red-headed mystery in front of him, he spotted Goddard and the other four kids, who were still sprawled out on the floor.
"No way... Am I...am I seeing things?" He removed his glasses and polished them on the bottom of his shirt. After wiping his eyes vigorously, he replaced the glasses and blinked in disbelief. "There's no way...it can't be us. It must be an illusion of some kind – a hologram or a bunch of androids or something, put here to make me lose what sense I have left. Or maybe I've already lost it…maybe I've paid one too many visits to the bliss room lately…"
Carl raised a hand. "Uh, 'scuse me. I have no idea what the 'bliss room' is, but I can tell you for sure that we're not holograms or clones."
Future Carl swallowed audibly. "You…you're talking to me…"
"Yup. Not an illusion. We're as solid as solid can be. See?" He thumped himself on the chest, then coughed weakly. "Oww…hit myself too hard…"
He rubbed the sore spot, and Future Carl continued to stare, flummoxed. "It finally happened," he murmured vaguely. "I finally cracked…"
"Boy, can I ever sympathize. Since coming to this universe, I've felt like I was going nuts more times than I can count!"
"'This universe'? Who are you? Why do you look just like me as a kid? And...what are you wearing?"
"Ooooh…right. No wonder you're so confused. Oh dear…I could never explain it as well as Jimmy, but I'll do my best. Here's what happened..."
Carl poured out the story in a disjointed, wandering soliloquy. For the duration of the tale, his older self merely stood and gaped, stricken dumb by what he was hearing. It wasn't until he heard the boy's final statement that Future Carl achieved any semblance of clarity.
"…And that's why we're here now. We're gonna find him and give him the cure, so he'll stop being evil!"
Carl continued babbling on, but to his older self, it was as if the entire room had receded into the distance.
"That's right. We need to get out of here so we can go meet up with the others and help Aurora…but how can we do that if they won't wake up? I tried putting a hole in the wall to turn off the room, but they're still out cold! Please, you have to help me!"
Future Carl closed his eyes, trying to gather his wits. "If I recall, this room turns your destructive tendencies against you. It's practically impossible to wake yourself up, even once the room's been turned off. Someone else has to bring you out of it, from the outside."
"How?" prodded the boy. "Tell me how, and I'll do it!"
"The quickest way to bring them back into their bodies is to cause them physical pain."
Concern passed over Carl's face like a shadow. "Pain? How much pain?"
"Nothing too serious. A sharp pinch to the neck should be enough to wake them up."
"You mean like this?" Carl tiptoed forward, pinched Jimmy on the neck, and then quickly drew back his hand. Jimmy flinched slightly, but remained unconscious.
"You're not doing it hard enough," said Future Carl, striding forward. "You need to use your fingernails, like this…"
He walked down the row of sleepers and pinched them each in quick succession. They twitched and shuddered as the pinch-sites reddened into unsightly circles. After a couple seconds, Jimmy began to convulse wildly, clawing at his arms, and Libby raised both fists and started banging them against an invisible barrier over her head.
"Let me out!" she screeched.
"W-what's going on?" stuttered Carl, looking to Future Carl for an explanation.
"Shh, just give them a minute. Watch."
Cindy let out an ear-splitting shriek, and both Carls jumped as she clutched her head in her hands and began to thrash from side to side. Sheen heard the sound and jolted upright, rolled into a crouching position, and then sprang at the nearest target, which happened to be Cindy. They grappled with one another without being cognizant of each other's presence.
"I'm sorry!" she rambled. "I'm awful! I'm the worst kind of person, I ruined it, ruined everything! Libby, Jimmy, Carl, Sheen...I'm sorry! I'm so sorry!"
Sheen simply laughed. "I've got you now, whatever you are. I'm going to turn you into what I am. Don't you want to be what I am? I didn't want to at first, but now I know better…" He bent closer, salivating. "Just one bite is all it'll take..."
"Make it stop!" groaned Jimmy. "I want to move! Let me up! Let me go! You sadistic, sick, perfidious reprobate! I refuse to be what you are! I won't let it happen!"
Carl backed up a step, lips trembling. "We have to do something!"
"Shh. Just wait."
The seconds ticked by, and gradually their cries became less urgent; after a few minutes, they fell silent altogether. Millimeters away from snacking on Cindy's throat, Sheen was the first to sit up, blinking in disorientation.
"What the heck? I'm back here?"
Libby snapped awake a moment later, breathing hard. She buried her face in her hands. "Thank God...it was just a dream..."
Regaining his senses, Sheen looked beneath him and realized that he was awkwardly straddling Cindy. "Uhhh..."
Carl sped over to reassure his newly-awoken friends. "Don't worry, Sheen," he said, offering him a hand. "The room made you act all crazy. We pinched your necks to wake you up again."
"Phew, ah man, for a second there I was...hey, wait a minute! Who the heck is that?"
It was at this point that both he and Libby first noticed Future Carl. Sheen spoiled the revelation with one of his characteristic outbursts.
"Whoa! What happened to you? You stop eating or something?"
Ignoring Carl's protest, Sheen reflected: "Wow. Older Jimmy's evil, Future Carl's skinny, both girls are babes...man, I can't wait to meet future me! I wonder if I'll be as jacked as Ultralord…you know, minus that huge goofy chin. I take after my mom's side, and we all have very delicate jaw lines...Hey skinny Carl, do you know where he is?"
Future Carl failed to produce an answer, and Libby interjected nervously. "Guys? What's goin' on with Jimmy and Cindy? Why haven't they – ?"
"Be patient," instructed Future Carl. "They're coming out of it now..."
Sure enough, Jimmy rolled over and brought his knees to his chest, then propped himself up into a sitting position. He studied his hands, opening and closing his fingers.
"I...I can move again..." he said breathlessly.
Cindy came to last of all, eyes nearly crazed with fear and self-loathing. She glanced round her, barely seeing, until her gaze fell on Jimmy. Cindy caught him completely off guard when she threw herself at him. He nearly toppled over, and she clung to him, pale, trembling, and slicked with cold sweat.
"I'm sorry, sorry for everything! For the pushing and the jokes and the megalomanium and the yelling and the cheating lying jealous mean nasty things I've said! I'm sorry for all of it! I'm sorry I am the way I am. I don't want to be like this, I swear!"
Jimmy, still unnerved by his own experience, wasn't prepared to deal with this onslaught of hysterical apologies. Nevertheless, stayed by compassion, he resisted his initial urge to throw her off and instead patted her awkwardly.
"Shh, it's OK...just uh, just try to calm down..."
"Oh Neutron, it was horrible! She was horrible...I am horrible! I broke everything, made the sky come down! I understand why you hate me, I get it now, I'd hate me too..."
Jimmy realized that she was recalling her nightmare, and he felt a twinge of sympathy. "There, there," he soothed, smoothing her hair, "it wasn't real. The stuff that we just saw...it wasn't us. And for the record, I don't hate you. True, your conduct has been a metaphorical pain in the lateral portion of my external oblique muscle for what seems like eons now, it's not like you've done anything completely unforgivable. So whatever dream you just had, put it out of your mind. It won't do you any good to dwell on it. OK?"
"You don't understand, Jimmy, I feel like I saw myself for the first time, and I –”
He grabbed her by the shoulders and pushed her back. "No," he insisted. "It wasn't you. It wasn't any of us. Say it."
"It...wasn't us," she relented at last.
Sheen, in typical Sheen-fashion, butted in. "I can't believe I'm the one saying this, but...Earth to Jimmy and Cindy! Helloooooo! Anyone home?"
"Sorry everyone, I just –" Jimmy trailed off at the sight of Future Carl. "Leapin' leptons, is that...?"
Carl nodded. "Yup! It's older me! Isn't it great? I already told him all about how we got here and how we're going to turn Evil Jimmy good again."
The genius and the servant stared at one another, and the air swarmed with unspoken words.
"Older Carl,” breathed Jimmy, “you're...you're..."
"No longer a tub of lard?" prompted Sheen.
"Badly in a need of a tan?" suggested Libby.
Carl protested, Cindy berated him, Libby shook her head, and they all began to squabble boisterously amongst themselves. Future Carl watched the exchange as if spellbound.
"Hold up!” yelled Libby. “We can't get to arguin' here. We've got a job to do, remember?" She turned to Future Carl. "Yo, skinny grown-up Carl, you know the way out of here, right?"
"And probably where DJ is, too..." added Cindy.
Carl puffed out his chest and proudly answered for him. "Yes he does, AND he's going to help us!"
Five pairs of curious eyes turned Future Carl's way, and he looked down at his brown loafers. "I guess, but...well, I have a question. How did you get in here? I mean, we picked up on Aurora, April, and the others as soon as they set foot in the base. But you kids...you came in like ghosts!"
"Oh, that," dismissed Jimmy. "Goddard is broadcasting a signal that interferes with the life sign detectors. It effectively blocks out our vitals: as far as the base is concerned, we don't exist."
Future Carl's brows shot up subtly – a muted, concealed gesture, as all his expressions seemed to be, and Jimmy found himself uncomfortably unsure of his new ally's state of mind. It was nearly impossible to read someone so inaccessible, someone whose whole being lay hidden behind flashing glasses and blank, gray eyes. Turning to the side, Jimmy lowered his voice and addressed his friends.
"Maybe it's just me, but is anyone else just a wee bit disquieted by this arrangement? We've known Future Carl a grand total of what... five minutes?...and in those five minutes, he pops up randomly, observes us, conducts a quick interrogation, and then decides to assist us in our mission? A bit weird, don't you think?"
Cindy threw a suspicious look his way. "Come to think of it," she whispered, "you're right. I mean, what do we really know about the guy? Are we sure we can trust him? After all, he HAS been working for the most evil man in the galaxy for the last decade. That's hardly the kind of resumé I like to see from someone who could potentially be holding my life in their hands."
"Guys," countered Carl, "this is me we're talking about! I know he wants to help us! I can tell. Besides, maybe it looks like he's done bad things over the years, but what if DJ was threatening him the whole time?”
Libby broke in. "I agree with Carl. I think we should give him the benefit of the doubt. I mean, he was the one who helped Aurora escape, wasn't he?"
"Well, there is that..." admitted Jimmy.
Sheen circumvented the whole debate. "Why don't we just ask him?" Before the others could stop him, Sheen strutted over to Future Carl and blurted out the question. "Yo Carl, you're not just stringing us along, are you?"
"S-stringing you along?"
"Ya, you know...yanking our chains...playing us for a sap…pulling the wool over our eyes… leading our horses to water but finding yourself unable to make them drink..."
Jimmy stepped forward and laid a hand on Sheen's arm. "Slow down Sheen, you're mixing your metaphors."
Future Carl just stood there, confused.
"What my idiomatically-challenged friend here is trying to say," explained Jimmy, "is that we have good reason to be suspicious of you. You show up out of nowhere in this godforsaken maze, wake us up, and then just spontaneously decide to switch sides? No offense, but if you were so eager to lend your aid to the opposition, why didn't you do it long ago?"
"It w-wasn't just spontaneous..." he stuttered. "Earlier today... you have to understand, this hasn't been easy...
"What are you trying to say?" grilled Cindy. "Stop waffling and just spit it out!"
Future Carl flinched at her harsh tone of voice. "I guess I just... I never wanted any of this. I never wanted to help build weapons, or see people be tortured, or witness all those awful experiments. What he did to Sheen and Aurora – I can barely live with myself. But what else was I supposed to do? I could never betray Jimmy. He'd kill me if I did, and nothing would even come of it. I would never want to betray him anyway. Somewhere deep down, he's still my best friend, and I owe it to that friend to never put him in harm's way."
"So why the change of heart now?" inquired Jimmy.
haven't had a change of heart. I'm not betraying him, because
him. If you guys had come to kill him, I would stop you. But
didn't. You're here to save him…to turn him back into who he
before. You see, I always used to wonder if the Megalomanium
wear off on its own, but it never did. Now things are
if I help you, I won't have to wait around any longer." He
reached out a hand. "So, what do you say? Give me a chance?"