Aurora stepped over the mangled body of a robotic guard – one of many such cadavers which littered the hallway behind her. She marched ahead like an automaton; determined, single-minded, possessed by an almost hysterical calm. Another bot leaped out at her from around the corner, and she took it down with one swipe of her arm. Plunging a fiery hand into its chest, she ripped out a tangle of wires. It crumpled to the floor, sparking and twitching, and she simply kept walking as if nothing had happened.
"Don't let it get to you…" She coached herself as she continued on, her voice cool and detached. "Keep your head. You knew it would come to blows eventually. It was inevitable." She maintained her composed tone, even while she hurled a firebolt at an upcoming gun turret. "Just stay calm and keep it together. One step, one word, one hit at a time. Don't lose sight of that, no matter what."
Ahead, a wall came into sight. It was the final wall, the only one left separating her from the control room. She closed her eyes, but kept talking, and her words remained firm despite the new air of urgency which pervaded them.
"No fear. No mercy. No anything. Only an objective." With each step, she picked up speed, faster and faster. "Only an objective..."
Her pace quickened to a full-out run; she sprinted down the corridor, her eyes still pressed shut.
"Here we go!"
She opened them in a flash; two green bolts gathered around each outstretched hand and went shooting toward the wall. She hurled one after another, and her forward momentum maximized the force of the blasts. They breached the edifice and carved a hole which continued to smolder even after Aurora had plowed through the billowing smoke and dashed into the main control room. Inside, she stopped to catch her breath, then straightened and made a quick but thorough survey of her surroundings. The room was large, pentagonal, and spotlessly clean; steps led up to a platform that ran along two of the five walls. Atop the platform sat a control console covered in hundreds upon hundreds of buttons, knobs, and blinking red and blue lights, which flashed like so many Christmas tree bulbs against the polished silver backdrop. Having completed her inspection, Aurora frowned. Where was he? Had he not said to meet him in the main control room?
"You certainly do know how to make a stylish entrance..."
Like a phantom, he was suddenly there, standing only a short distance away. She turned to face him, and there was a brief, cold silence while they sized each other up. DJ looked her up and down, his expression unreadable, as they acknowledged one another.
The Dictator bared his teeth in a chilly smile and began to walk toward her. She stepped to the side, and they circled one another warily, a current of hair-raising tension coursing between them. Aurora crouched low, every muscle taught, poised to spring into action at any moment. Dictator Jimmy's pace was leisurely, his body relaxed, masking a readiness to fight that matched Aurora's own. She clenched and unclenched her fingers as they circled, and he watched her actions carefully. Her nose and part of her mouth remained hidden, but her eyes, exposed by the damage to her silver mask, blazed acid green. The Dictator, keenly aware of this chink in her armor, took the opportunity to meet her gaze. Her eyebrows furrowed harshly under his intense stare, but she kept her emotions under lock and key.
"I have been waiting for this day for a long time," he said slowly.
"So have I."
The silence drew out as they continued in their slow and deliberate stalk.
"You know how this has to be, right?"
She tilted her chin down in a nod. "You and me. Mano a mano, winner take all."
He grinned wolfishly, and Aurora felt the hair on her neck stand on end. "Exactly. Just you and me. Winner take all."
Still circling one another, she tightened her hand around an orb of deadly light in preparation for their clash. DJ took note, but didn't counter it.
"Ah. I'm glad to see that you've been putting my suit to such good use. I wouldn't dream of it being worn by anyone else. Of course, overcoming my own technology shall be an interesting exercise…one to which I look forward."
When she didn't respond, he took another step to the right, ever vigilant.
"Something rather unexpected happened to me before I came here. Normally I wouldn't bother trifling with such stories, but since it concerns you, I feel obligated to share. About twenty minutes ago, I met someone who I had never expected to see again…and she was wearing a mini-dress, of all things. You know to whom I am referring." He paused. "Libby has grown to be quite beautiful, hasn't she? Then again, the next time you see her, you may find her appearance...slightly altered…"
Aurora's subtle flinch didn't escape him, and he went on. "I took the trouble of reuniting her with another old friend: Experiment 21-12…or Sheen, as you may remember him. Hopefully he will have sufficient time to get re-attached to Libby before I kill her. I'm going to melt her pretty face off, Aurora, and you and Sheen are going to watch. As for Nav and April…well…let's just say I don't anticipate a happy reunion, at least not in this lifetime."
Through sheer force of willpower, Aurora managed to maintain a stoic visage. "Don't bother with that old routine, Neutron. It won't work. Now shut up and fight me!"
She slashed her arm down, sending a crescent of green fire wheeling toward him. He conjured up a column of blue flames from the air at his feet, and Aurora's strike hit the barrier. The collision rent the energy masses apart, leaving behind only a dozen tiny flames which wafted to the earth like incandescent feathers. He slowly lowered his outstretched palms.
"What's the matter with you, Vortex?" he sneered. "That wasn't a killing strike. You'll have to do better than that."
"Not interested in your pointless babble, Neutron. Talk with your hands!"
She charged toward him, then pivoted on the ball of her foot and channeled her forward momentum into two successive throws. The crackling bolts whizzed toward him, and he sprang backward, narrowly avoiding the blasts. Recovering, he drew his hands up like a puppeteer, and a wave of blue light rose from the floor and swelled toward her. In a split-second decision, she gritted her teeth, sprinted toward the fiery curtain, and leaped over the top. She rolled as she hit the floor on the other side, then sent an inferno shooting a few inches over the Dictator's head. He ducked and turned rapidly, taking potshots at her as she somersaulted out of the way.
"Come on!" Aurora shouted, jumping up.
She opened her fingers, and a dozen round flames combusted in the air around them. She sent them zinging toward him like bullets. He dove out of range and, keeping low, darted toward the left wall. She struck the tip of her shoe against the floor like a match, and fire sprouted grass-like from between the tiles. It scorched the earth beneath her feet as it spread toward the Dictator; the heat rose quickly, lifting her bangs and illuminating her eyes with neon flecks. DJ never paused – he spun around once, surrounding himself with a circle of protective flames. A few seconds later, the fire on the floor burned itself out, and he stepped out of the circle. She hurled three more fireballs at him, but he easily evaded, and the spangles trailed past him like comet tails. He treaded toward Aurora, perfectly composed, and she locked into a firm stance.
She lifted her right hand to the sky, and light gathered into a whirlpool around her outstretched fingers, spinning like a tiny galaxy. She shifted her weight forward and flung the disc; it sliced toward him like an electric saw blade. In the blink of an eye he replicated the maneuver and slashed the ad hoc weapon horizontally across his body. It cut through Aurora's firewheel just as it reached him, and the two halves spun off into the corners of the room.
Aurora's eyes widened. "How…?"
She unleashed another barrage, and the bolts sped past him one by one. He studied her movements – left, right, throw, left, right, throw – and anticipated her next move. He hurled a matching strike toward her, and the two spheres of energy collided and exploded a few feet in front of her, knocking Aurora off her feet. She coughed on the thick gray smoke as she got up.
"There's no way you're this good, Neutron. You and I both know that when it comes to athletics, you've always been a total pansy. What? Have you been pumping yourself full of steroids?"
He smiled and took another step toward her. "Not quite. Unlike your version of the suit, which is only good for simple firepower, my version has built-in performance enhancers. It makes me stronger, quicker, more agile. The suit has a computing system which can calculate the trajectory of a projectile in 2.45 nanoseconds and react accordingly. The neurokinetics are so advanced that they can produce a flame the temperature of lukewarm water or as hot as the interior of a kiln, and I've programmed the combat software with twenty-four different styles of street fighting and martial arts."
He snapped his fingers, igniting three orbs of fire, which he started to juggle casually in one hand. They crackled as they tumbled over one another. Following them with her eyes, she took a step backward, two kindled daggers at the ready.
"It's a bit discouraging when you think about it, isn't it?" he prodded. "You've spent your whole life training to gain the same physical abilities that I acquired from a few short hours of work in the lab. I can reduce all your strength, all your skill, and all your power into a few simple equations. Power that I can hold in the palm of my hand."
He snapped his fist shut, and the spheres of light vanished. Their eyes met; her strained laughter sounded weak inside the main chamber.
"This isn't fifth grade anymore, Neutron. Get a clue! You think I care? You think I'm still so insecure that I have to constantly compare myself to you, only to come up short?"
Aurora pitched the fire-daggers at him. They flew wide, cutting off his escape on both sides. Light pooled around her ankle, and she launched it toward him with a roundhouse kick. It caught him on the shoulder, slicing through his suit and burning the skin underneath. He clapped a hand to the wound, and Aurora advanced on him, tossing her hair.
"Ha, look at that. No wonder you have to resort to petty jabs."
"That won't work," he replied coolly. "You won't be able to make me angry. You will not cloud my judgment. I'm wise to all your games, Aurora, because I taught you most of them."
"I don't need games to beat you!" Aurora lashed out and landed two kicks to his abdomen, then spun and raked a banner of flame across his upper body. "I'll make you beg me for mercy!"
Dictator Jimmy merely closed his eyes as she continued the assault. Just when it seemed that she had definitively gained the upper hand, he parried her strike, then drew back and punched her with all his might, sending her plowing backward into the floor. Her slide came to an end several feet away, and she jerked up just in time to see him spread his arms and take a deep breath. As he did, the threads of his suit seemed to come alive, crawling over his wounds and knotting them together until his body was fully repaired. He flexed his fingers, all muscle damage erased. Aurora's eyes grew wide.
"No way…" she breathed.
"Impressive, isn't it? Had you stuck around a while longer the last time you were here, I could have built improved healing capability into your version of the suit as well. Too bad you were in such a rush to be rid of my hospitality. If you'd have stayed, your suit would also have been upgraded with a 65% improvement to its healing capabilities, as mine was. As usual, your decisions have put you at the disadvantage."
She jumped up and clenched her fists, ready for his next move. Without missing a beat, he weaved wisps of azure light into a ball and then flung the projectile at Aurora. She dove to the side, narrowly avoiding the blast, which left a black scorch mark behind on the surface of the floor. She glared up at him from her long-legged crouch, wiping her mouth through a break in the mask.
"You pompous bastard. You think you're better than me? Sure, I have your suit, but I can fight without it. You can't. You wouldn't last a minute against me in real hand-to-hand combat. You're a coward and a weakling, who cheats his way to perfection by using technology. I earned my abilities. I earned every scar on my body and line on my face. I earned my right to hate you. What have you earned?"
In response, he drew his hands up and formed a fiery wall in midair. He pushed his palms forward, sending the partition shooting toward Aurora. Instead of standing back and waiting for the attack to reach her, he sprinted after it, following closely in its wake. The barrier of light hid his advance, and when Aurora broke through it with a matching strike of her own, he was waiting for her. His trick caught her completely by surprise, and she barely had time to brace herself before his punch hit her square in the jaw. She went down, hard, and he walked toward her, his footsteps slow and evenly-paced.
"I earned the fear of every being in the galaxy," he answered darkly. Grabbing her by the collar of her suit, her hoisted her up off the floor. "Has our rivalry really reduced you to such a primitive comparison? Physical prowess over intelligence? Brains versus brawn? You know as well as I that intelligence is not a skill to mock or degrade. If I have 'cheated', as you so amusingly put it, it has been no more than you. We all must work with what we have in order to achieve what we do not. My technology is a result of just as many years of effort as your well-trained-body is."
Aurora gave a ghoulish smile, licking away the stream of blood running from the corner of her mouth. "Heh heh, that's the reaction I was looking for, Neutron. I like you so much better when you're angry."
"That is an incorrect assessment of my mental state."
"Ha! Unbelievable. Who spouts that kind of crap in the middle of a fight? You're a bigger nerd than I gave you credit for!"
"This isn't an issue of anger, Aurora," he repeated calmly. "It's an issue of you simply not grasping the nature of our association."
"Oh yeah? Well grasp this!"
She clouted him on the cheekbone, her fist encased in a rotating globe of fire. He lost his grip on her and dropped back, holding the scorched side of his face. After a moment, however, strands of his suit slithered up from his neck and repaired the damage. He circled around to her right, and she let loose another soulless laugh.
"That's right…come and get me…just like before…"
Judging that she was waiting for him to go on the offensive, Dictator Jimmy hung back, a few stray sparks orbiting around his fists.
"What's the matter?" she goaded. "Afraid I might pimp-smack you in the face again? Ha!"
"I'm glad to see that you find your own immaturity so amusing."
Aurora's eyes grew steely. "Oh, I'm not amused – I'm dead serious, Neutron. Make no mistakes about that. Now that we've got that little misunderstanding cleared up, what do you say we put aside this meaningless banter? 'You're stronger, I'm smarter,' blah blah blah…nobody cares. You're a fan of experiments: why don't we go ahead and test our relative fortés empirically and in real time?"
"What are you waiting for?" he shot back.
She stormed toward him, and he changed tactics, taking advantage of Aurora's madcap fighting style. He adjusted his position at the last instant, and she skidded past him. Angered by his evasion, she whipped around and swung at him, only to watch as he ducked out of her range. He twisted and came up behind her, his back facing hers. Each time she tried to change direction, he moved the opposite way, resulting in a sort of stilted dance as they made a series of futile circles around each other. Before Aurora could alter her strategy, he stuck out his foot, and she tripped over it and fell. Outraged, she cursed, and he looked down on her, cocking one eyebrow ever so slightly.
"I think we have our experimental data now, Aurora. I'll let you come to your own conclusions about our relative fortés."
"Don't screw with me, Neutron! How are we supposed to fight if you won't even throw a punch?"
"If you insist…"
Blue energy crackled around his fingers, and he compressed it into a projectile. With a flick of his wrist, he tossed it to the ground in front of Aurora, and it exploded on impact. Glowing shrapnel flew toward her, and she swept her arm across her body, repelling it with an arc of green energy. She somersaulted backward and stood.
"Nice try, but I can do better."
She dropped down, spinning as she did. Her arms cut through the air like blades, blending slices of fire into a small tornado. It separated from her and veered toward him, losing stability as it neared. Just before reaching him, it fell apart, discharging a hundred razor-thin fibers of fire in all directions. He summoned a shield of light, but failed to make it big enough to protect his whole body. The strands ripped through it and inflicted tiny slashes all down his legs – like paper cuts, but deeper. He was forced to take a single step backward to steady himself, and Aurora pointed an accusing finger at him.
"If I'm just some pathetic weakling of no consequence to you, why did you take me captive? I'm the only person to have ever been captured by the Dictator and lived to tell the tale. That seems like a pretty impressive distinction to me."
He stood firm, clenching his fingers as his suit healed him. "Impressive? I hardly think so. You are alive now because I allowed you to live. If I had wished you dead, you would have been so. There was never any point during the encounter where the ball was in your court."
Aurora tapped her forehead. "My my, what a selective memory you have. What about Carl, huh? You might have been in charge of your own actions...heck, even of mine, but how can you claim full control when your own henchman betrayed you? Speaking of which, what did you do to Carl after he helped me escape, I wonder? Torture? Banishment? Execution?"
"You misunderstand, Aurora. Carl didn't betray me. The decision to release you was not his. Carl broke you out of that cell because I instructed him to do so."
Aurora's retort died on her lips. She opened and closed her mouth several times before she was able to speak again. "W-what? What did you say?"
"You heard me."
She stood there, dumbstruck, as she attempted to assimilate this new information into her worldview. "But…but why? Why would you let me go?"
"I knew that releasing you would pose no real threat," he explained, "and I wanted to see if a prisoner, free from his or her cell, would be able to make it out of my base and off this planet alive. And then, should the prisoner succeed, if he or she could cope emotionally with what he had endured.”
"You tortured me because you liked watching my reaction?" she spat.
"Certainly not. 'Liking' had nothing to do with it. I was conducting an investigation, not indulging in voyeurism. Then again, you have always seemed to enjoy deluding yourself that I have some sort of feelings concerning our past encounters – or this encounter, for that matter."
"'Delusions' my ass," she snapped. "Your story doesn't hold water. Just man up and admit it, Neutron. Forget all this nonsense about "observing a prisoner's coping strategies". This wasn't some random investigation; you could have done that with any prisoner. This was about me. You weren't ready for me to die yet. Because after all, let's face it – without me around to challenge you, your life would be pretty boring, wouldn't it?"
"You give yourself too much credit."
"Do I? Regardless of the reason, you still treat me differently than everyone else. This very conversation is a testament to that fact. Are you having this conversation with the Gorlock High Council? No. One of the Seven Samarkandi? No. You're having it with me, and you've always been having it with me."
"Call it…an ongoing experiment," he said. "You said it yourself: I am fond of them. Out of all my enemies, you have known me the longest, and thus you may have insights into my character that others do not. You are useful, for the time being, because of that. To echo your sentiments: I am experimenting with you, Vortex. I have always been experimenting with you."
Aurora's words tasted bitter on her tongue. "Fine then. What have you learned? Tell me everything. Tell me about all my weaknesses and failings, all the little intimate details that make you hate me. Share every shortcoming, every flaw, every thought that's crossed your mind on the subject. Go ahead, tell me. Show me what your grand experiment has revealed to you."
"What makes you think that this is about you?" he asked. "I already know all your strengths and shortcomings. I know your skills and flaws. And I know your failings. All the little "intimate details", as you phrased it. I am sorry to disappoint, but you are not the subject of my grand experiment. My goal has always been to learn more about my own self – to learn my weaknesses and my shortcomings – which, provided I continue in my research, will go through exponential decay with time."
"Egotistical, self-obsessed bastard!"
He shrugged. "It's not egotism. My methodology is logically sound. You are one of only a handful of survivors who knew me as a child; as such, you are in the unique position of being privy to many of my limitations. So I play with you. I taunt you. I push you to the edge, until you come after me with everything you've got. In this manner, I am able to run brief controlled experiments to test my own weaknesses and to ascertain areas for improvement. I will give you credit there, Vortex – you do know me better than anyone else. You and I are close, bound together by a decade of rivalry and opposition. But in the end, there is no contest. There is no comparison. There never was."
She glared at him with unrestrained hatred; her shoulders trembled with anger and frustration. Fists clenched, knees bent, body curled forward, she shook with years of loss and suppressed emotion.
"Are you hurting, Aurora?" he mocked. "Is this knowledge too much for you to handle?"
She bit out the words. "Not even close."
"Well in that case, let's continue..."
He conjured up a swarm of glowing particles and directed them at her feet, where they flitted about, collided, and burst like firecrackers. Stung by the tiny explosions, she hopped back, clutching her shin.
"Ouch, what the hell!"
He advanced, cupping a miniature electrical cloud in each open palm. "Do you know what your problem is, Aurora?"
He tossed them into the air above her, and she dipped to the side to avoid the crackling energy discharge which rained down.
"You are so easily manipulated. I can play you like a violin, and you don't even see it coming." He swung around after her. "I can train you as I would train an animal, condition you to move wherever I deem fit, like a rat guided through a maze..."
In one movement, DJ grabbed Aurora by the throat and kicked her feet out from under her. He slammed her against the cold tiles of the floor, knocking the breath from her lungs. He pinned her body to the ground, his face only inches from hers, and, smiling in calculated malice, traced a finger along her cheek.
"Penny for your thoughts?" he purred.
She hurled herself upright with a snarl. Rolling backward, he managed to evade her retaliatory punch. They both leaped to their feet, caught off balance in the dangerous moment between attacks.
Aurora forced breath into her lungs. "I…I..."
"You..." he completed, "are going to lose. No matter what you achieve, no matter what you accomplish, I will always surpass you. And your own vulnerabilities are what will bring you down."
He hurled a series of fireballs at her feet, and she was forced to back up to avoid the brunt of the blasts. With each new evasion, she took another step closer to the wall, and he continued firing, guiding her toward his intended destination.
"Speaking of vulnerabilities..."
He combined two firebolts into one, then shot it at the ground, where it exploded in a flash of heat and light. Blinded, Aurora staggered backward and collided with the wall. Moving so quickly that he seemed to leave behind an image of himself hanging in the air, he hurtled through the blast and seized her by the shoulders. Dictator Jimmy jerked her away from the wall and then slammed her back against it. He lifted up both of her arms and pinned her wrists securely over her head.
"Let me go!" she shouted.
"Not a chance." He leaned in, filling her field of vision. "Everything that's been said – it's only the tip of the iceberg, isn't it? All those words – they touch on, but do not wholly encompass, what you feel. Like I said before, I know you, Vortex. I know how tormented you are."
He increased the pressure on her wrists and sidled closer.
"I'm everywhere, aren't I? When you sit alone in a room, whether you stare blankly ahead or shut your eyes, it's my face that you see. Sometimes it feels like I'm in the air that you breathe and the water that you drink. Even the clothes on your body are a constant reminder. Just like that suit I made, I'm ingrained into your skin. I walk behind you like a shadow and surround you like a veil, cutting you off from everything else. I am simultaneously your greatest strength and your greatest weakness, your raison d'être and your private prison. It's maddening, isn't it?"
He guided her hands down and draped them over his shoulders. Her mind flooded with memories – years of loneliness and hardship, a picture-book of bets won and lost, one after another, playing on their burnt reels of film.
"You're tangled up inside," he continued. "I can feel it in the way you tremble. To you, I'm not just an adversary, not just an experiment, not just another obstacle to overcome. And why wouldn't you feel that way? In 21 years I'm the only man who's dared to get this close to you. You hate it with all your mind and body and soul, and yet on some level, you wouldn't have it any other way."
His evocative words left Aurora nettled and lightheaded.
"Get away from me…" she breathed.
"The worst part is, you know you're fighting a losing battle. More than anything, you want to believe that somehow, deep down, I am still that boy you used to know. Your voice of reason tells you that it's impossible, but it's not enough to quell your longing…" He deliberately brushed his lips across her cheek as he leaned in to whisper. "After all, who's to say? Maybe that boy is here somewhere. Would you know him if you saw him?"
He tightened his hands around her waist, and she inhaled sharply. He didn't draw back to look into her face – instead, he kept whispering breathily into her ear.
"The sights and sounds are hard enough to bear – but the real torment lies in your other three senses. Smell… taste… touch…Don't lie to me and tell me you haven't thought about it."
Aurora pushed her eyelids shut, face flushed red, as Dictator Jimmy's hand wandered to her neck. After a moment, he reached up and delicately wrapped his fingers around the edge of her silver mask. She watched, frozen, as he pulled it off. Without looking away from her, he slowly lowered his arm. He didn't toss it, or burn it, or kick it aside – he merely opened his fingertips and let it go, and the mask clattered to the ground.
"That's better," he said.
Her lips parted to speak, but nothing came out, and for that brief instant, she was completely in his power.
"Years ago you told me that there was nothing left of you," he said, "that you could no longer feel. But I can see from your actions tonight that you were lying. Tell me: what do you feel right now?"
She was unable to complete her sentence, and he smirked. "Oh Aurora, you're so predictable. I know how to disarm you, and you fall for it every time."
Her body stiffened in anger, and he pulled away and shoved her back against the wall, once again pinning her wrists.
"They say you keep a bulletin board full of pictures of me in your bedroom. Does it help, I wonder? Has it satisfied all your questions?" He leaned in again, his eyes intense. "Because you know, there are other ways to learn about your enemy. Once we're done here, I am sure we can find a way to address all of your unexplored curiosities. After all, how can one know pain if one does not first know the opposite?"
Aurora lost it. With a sharp cry, she hurdled forward and cracked her skull against his. He reeled back, and she immediately advanced, wielding a sword of fire.
"You son of a biiiiiiitch!" She chased after him, swinging it erratically, all the while raving like a madwoman. "Screw you, screw the plan, screw everything! I won't rest until I put a bullet in your head!"
He dodged and returned fire, knocking the saber from her hands. As soon as it flew from her grip, it fragmented and evaporated, and she came after him with her bare fists.
"I'll beat the living shit out of you! Murderer! Psychopath! Sadistic, pathetic excuse for a human being! How can you even stand yourself?" As she raged, flames broke out on the surface of her suit, shimmering like an oil fire over water. "I'll cut your throat so many times that even that damned suit won't be able to revive you! I'll break every bone in your body and destroy every inch of this hellhole!"
She punched wildly, her breaths coming in sobs. Cool-headed as ever, he stepped out of range.
"You're losing control, Aurora," he cautioned. "Be careful."
"Don't you DARE tell me to be careful! Where the hell do you get the nerve to tell me be CAREFUL?"
She jumped into the air to kick him, and he caught her foot and twisted her leg, sending her crashing to the floor. She landed on her hip, and her wrath transformed into a grimace. A second later, she rolled onto her stomach and glared up at him, her expression quivering with all the malice and madness of a rabid dog.
"Get up," he ordered.
She did so immediately, and he struck her on the shoulder, knocking her to the floor once again. She jumped up a third time, shedding flames like scales.
Dictator Jimmy clobbered her again, and this time, she was not able to get back up so hastily. She lay on her side, cradling an injured arm.
"Have you tired of this yet?" he asked.
"Go screw yourself! Any chance I had at a happy life was ruined because of you! You killed my parents, stole my dreams, took away my home!"
"You can't blame me for everything. Even if none of this had happened, even if you had led a normal life on Earth, I sincerely doubt you would have ever been truly happy. It's just not in your disposition, Cindy. You're only satisfied when you're filled with vengeance and anger. So go ahead, rage all you want. You're still the one on the ground."
She lurched back to her feet again, distraught. "I despise you! I hate you more than I've ever hated anything in my whole life! If it meant being rid of you, I would rather have never been born at all!"
"Hatred only takes you so far. It won't help you win."
She sprinted toward him. Skipping the usual firefight, she went right to the source, grabbing him by the shoulders and wrestling with all her might to bring him down. He pushed back, and they ended up gridlocked, each wrangling to budge the other even an inch.
"Thirteen years old, Neutron," she shouted, "THIRTEEN! – and I had to strap myself behind the controls of a flying metal coffin and pilot it out onto the front lines. Do you know what that's like? A mere child confronting almost certain death, praying with every shred of her body to a God who isn't there, begging him to spare a life she barely wants to live?"
"Fighting was your decision, not mine."
Aurora strained harder, her bitter words coming a mile a minute. "And what good did it do me? Being a resistance fighter gained me nothing! Even when I was on their side, practically every person I met treated me with fear and contempt. And then, just when things were finally getting better, you had to capture me and rob me of what few allies I had! Now they treat me like a disease, like you've infected me somehow...they have no appreciation for everything I've sacrificed, for the part of me I've lost! True, April and Nav try to take care of me, but even they think I'm one step away from a complete breakdown. Being treated like an outcast among outcasts, as though I were a piece of you...it's even worse than what you put me through! I haven't known a moment's peace or a moment's happiness since that day in Retroville ten years ago, and it's all your fault!"
He grappled harder. "They weren't wrong, Aurora: you are a piece of me. You are a product of my actions. Without me, you wouldn't be you."
"And without me, you wouldn't be you!" she retorted without thinking. "I made you the way you are!"
His fingers dug into her arms like iron vices. "So you're admitting your guilt for what happened ten years ago? You're taking responsibility for what I've become?"
Realizing her error, she briefly lost focus, and DJ was able to overpower her. Twisting her arm, he maneuvered her around and spoke harshly into her ear.
"...because if you made me who I am, then you have to deal with the implications!"
She wriggled from his grip and took a swing at him. "I do deal with them!" she shouted. "Every single day!"
He shoved her away, then knocked her down for a fourth time. She rolled over, hissing in pain, but before she could resume her offensive, something happened that broke the fevered intensity of their battle. A gun turret, mauled nearly beyond recognition, flew out of the doorway on the other side of the room and landed like a hunk of lead on the floor a few feet away from them. Both Aurora and DJ stopped to look – first at it, and then at each other.
"What the...?" said Aurora.
Something moved in the hallway outside, and a hush descended over the main control room. A darker shade of black stirred against shadows, and Dictator Jimmy glanced back over his shoulder at the approaching intruder.
"You know, it's rude to lurk in doorways, Sheen..."
Future Sheen stepped out of the shadows, his chin held high in defiance. Aurora didn't recognize him at first; his height, the strange markings on his body, and his grim countenance were all radical departures from her memory of him.
"Rude, you say?" he repeated. "Rude?"
"Holy mother of –" blurted Aurora, "is that really – ?"
Future Sheen reacted with unexpected hostility, snapping in her direction. "Is it what? Is it really me? I don't know, what do you think – do I look the same to you? Go on, take a good look!" He made a fist, practically snarling. "Don't like what you see? Huh? Why don't you come over here and say it to my face!"
Future Libby took Future Sheen by the arm. "Sheen, you gotta chill! I'm sure she meant no offense…"
"I see you brought her along," remarked the Dictator.
The dark-skinned woman peeked out from behind him, and Aurora gasped when she saw her.
"You better believe he did," returned Future Libby. "I'm the one that broke him out. You have a lot to answer for, Jimmy, and the three of us are going to make sure you get what you deserve."
Future Sheen cracked his neck and planted his feet. "That's right. We are. And you wanna know why? Ten years – ten years of living in filth and being tortured and poisoned. Endless day after endless day, wondering if I'd ever see a friendly face again, wishing for any other life but mine. Because of you, all I've got in my mind are needles and chains and claws and grime. It's almost driven me insane. I used to pass the hours by imagining all the things I'd do to you if I ever got out."
Up until that point he had been concealing his deformed hand behind his back, and he revealed it now with a ghastly scowl.
"Well guess what, asshole? I'm out now, and it's payback time."
Meanwhile, back with the others...
"Come on guys, hurry up!" Future Carl pointed ahead to the doorway which led out of the emotion maze. The kids scampered along behind him, winded and still a bit queasy from their ordeal. "The communications blackout ends just through there – there's even a console you can use. Surveillance, weapons, secondary systems, everything you'd ever need. You can use it to check up on your friends and figure out what we should do next."
Future Carl dashed through the exit and skidded to a halt in front of the console; the kids burst out behind him a moment later, straining to catch their breath. Cindy rested her hands on her knees, flashing Future Carl a wry glance.
"Man...I had no idea you were such a running buff," she said between breaths.
Carl gasped for air. "Me...nei..ther…"
They looked over at their new ally, who was hurriedly punching information into a series of login screens. "Where should I start?" he asked. "A life signs check?"
"No, don't bother," replied Jimmy. "If I know myself, and I think I do, then DJ and Aurora should be in the main control room. Is there any way you can access the surveillance cameras? I'd very much like to see what's going on in there right now."
"I can try…"
The screen changed; it divided up into four sections, with each sub-monitor showing a different angle of the room. Their little crowd huddled round the scene unfolding on the monitors. At first, all they could see was smoke and fire, flames thrown this way and that amid a chaotic exchange of blows. After a bit more observation, however, the situation became clearer: Aurora was fighting Dictator Jimmy like a madwoman, rage and humiliation visible on her face even from the distance of the cameras. Her silver mask was nowhere to be found. But more importantly, as Jimmy soon realized, an even more important element was missing from the drama playing out before them: there was absolutely no suggestion that Aurora had used or was planning to use the antidote.
Cindy voiced Jimmy's thoughts. "She's fighting him…but why? Why hasn't she used the antidote? He's right in front of her. There – she could have used it just now. And again! What could she possibly be thinking?"
There was a brief period of silence.
"Maybe it just broke or something before she could get it to him…" suggested Carl.
"Well," said Jimmy uncomfortably, "I suppose that's a possibility. Then again, given what we know of Aurora, it's probably not the most likely explanation. I hate to say it, but…"
Cindy's eyes flashed. "You think she's reneged on the antidote plan, don't you? That she's so dead-set on getting revenge that she'll accept nothing short of a fight to the death? Well, you're wrong! You hear me? Aurora wouldn't do that. Not after all the risks we've taken to make it this far."
Jimmy raised a hand to calm her. "All right, all right, I won't jump to any conclusions. I'll be the first to admit that we don't have all the pieces to this puzzle. For all we know, something may be preventing her from administering the antidote…either way though, we need to get to the main control room, and fast. I don't care why she's not following the plan; all that matters is that she isn't. We'll have to take matters into our own hands and finish the job for her. Cindy?"
The blonde pulled the vial from its storage compartment in her blue and green suit. "Got it right here. Let's get going!"
Jimmy caught her by the wrist. "Whoa, slow down. Before we just go barreling headlong into the fray, we should take a few precautions. You... older Carl... do you have any idea if the weapon systems are back online yet? We hacked them awhile ago, but if they're up and running again, we should probably shut them off, just to make it easier for our people to get to the control room when this is all over."
"They're back up again, all right," said Future Carl, "but I don't have the security clearance to change those settings. Only Jimmy can reconfigure the main system."
"Don't worry about it!" returned the boy genius. "Goddard can just repeat the hack he did earlier, while we were still in the ducts. Goddard, you stored the password in your memory cache, right?"
"Go to it!" Goddard's mouth opened slightly, as he presumably set about accomplishing the task. Sometime later he shut it again. "Mmmmgrr! Bark!"
"Right! Thanks boy. Well guys, looks like the hack was a success. Weapons and surveillance are off all over the base, so we're good to go."
Future Carl hung back, drumming his fingertips together, hoping one of the kids would notice him. Finally he worked up the courage to tap Jimmy on the shoulder.
"Ya?" said Jimmy, turning round.
"Sorry," apologized Future Carl, "but…well, you see, there's something else…"
"This may be an unnecessary risk, but there's someone you're forgetting. Someone I can't in good conscience leave behind."
"Someone else?" repeated Libby. "Who?"
"Euuw…" whimpered the robot dog.
"Goddard?" echoed Jimmy. "What about him?"
"Not your Goddard," corrected Future Carl. "MY Goddard. The one in this universe."
"What? He's still operational? I'd assumed that since nobody ever mentioned him, he'd been deactivated or something."
"Well, that's actually not too far off the mark. When Jimmy built this base several years back, he had some trouble getting the…uh, reactor core I think it was…to work right. Supporting life down at the bottom of the ocean isn't easy. There are so many systems that need to be managed and coordinated. In the end, Jimmy just took apart his most reliable invention – Goddard – and constructed the rest of the main core around him. In other words, Goddard is built into the base itself."
Jimmy's expression darkened, and his mouth set into a grim line. "He did that to MY dog?"
Future Carl nodded. "You have to understand…Jimmy stopped thinking of Goddard as his pet years ago. He was just another piece of machinery, a way to make things more efficient. But Goddard isn't just a machine. He feels things. He's self-aware. You know what I'm talking about. As he is now, he can barely move, and his body is in pieces. He's miserable. Leaving him welded to a reactor core at the bottom of the ocean…it'd be a fate worse than death. The only problem is, I have no idea HOW to get him out. I don't even have access to the reactor core room. But with your DNA, we could get inside, and maybe you could figure something out…"
“He's suffering terribly!”
Jimmy sighed. “All right, all right, we'll go now.” He turned to the others. “I'm trusting the rest of you guys to take the second copy of the antidote to the main control room. Goddard can get you inside, but once you're there, it'll be up to Cindy to make sure DJ breathes it in. You got that? You can't mess this up, any of you. This is literally our last chance."
He met each of their eyes in turn, and he saw the same fear there that he felt simmering in the pit of his own stomach. None of them quite knew what to say to one another, and the unspoken words stretched out into a long pause.
"Well,” said Jimmy, taking a deep breath, “I guess this is it, guys. Make like Nick and break a leg!"
After a round of pitiful laughter at his attempted joke, the group parted ways. As they drew apart, Cindy cast a lingering glance over her shoulder at Jimmy. He did the same, and they caught each other in the act.
"You…you better come back in one piece, you hear me? If you do something stupid and get yourself hurt, I'll deck you so hard you'll gargle baby teeth!"
"Ha," he snorted. "Wouldn't happen in a million years, but I appreciate the sentiment, Vortex."
They turned away for good this time, grinning to themselves as the two groups headed out toward their respective destinations...