Chapter 40: End Game

End
          Game by Mara S.


Dictator Jimmy turned to face the newcomers, brushing a few strands of hair out of his line of vision.

"You should have listened to my warning back in the cell, Libby. It wasn't wise to let him out. This will not end well."

Future Sheen nudged Future Libby aside, and she stepped back toward the doorway. He faced DJ across the burnt, scarred tiles, clenching and unclenching his clawed hand.

"Give it up, Jimmy. I'm stronger than you'll ever be. I can run three times faster than a normal person and jump twice as high; I can rip a metal door off its hinges and chuck it clean across the hall. You know what I can do to a human body, because you designed me to do it."

With a hair-raising chuckle, Sheen's tone changed completely; he hunched forward and his lips curled into a slasher smile.

"Well, what goes around comes around, you sick son of a bitch. You want a monster? You've got one. I'm going to chase you down, rip you open, chew up your raw insides and then spit out the pieces."

DJ's countenance remained implacable, but Future Libby cringed.

"Sheen…"

"Stay out of this, Libby," he said sternly. "Don't get in the way. He'll just take advantage of your compassion."

"An astute observation," remarked Dictator Jimmy. "I will take advantage of her."

Future Sheen, who didn't miss this double entendre, lurched forward and snarled. "Stay away from her!"

"Ooh. Awfully touchy, aren't we?"

"Touchy?" he raved. "What do you mean, touchy? How else would I be, after being locked in that hellhole for a decade? You sick son of a…We'd all be better off if I cut you in half where you stand!"

He charged toward his old friend, drawing his mutated hand back in preparation for a killing swipe. DJ merely crossed his arms and, with a look of boredom, uttered a single voice command:

"Execute Override, Program 21-12."

Future Sheen's left eye lit up from within. It cast a red glow onto his cheek bone and threw shadows down his jaw. He swerved to the right, grabbing at the left side of his face, then staggered a few more steps before coming to a dead stand-still. His biceps trembled, straining, as if he were held in place by an invisible barrier.

The Dictator walked toward him. "As if it would be that easy…"

Dictator Jimmy drew back his arm and delivered a diagonal strike across Future Sheen's face, knocking him to his knees.

"Don't!" exclaimed Future Libby.

DJ hit him again, sending him toppling to the ground, where he lay unblinkingly, like a deactivated machine. Future Libby darted forward with a disheartened cry, only to stop short when the Dictator let out a laugh.

"Did you honestly think I would create a volatile super-soldier without designing a fail-safe?" he asked scornfully. "Did you really think that I would grant Sheen superhuman strength, torment him for the better part of ten years, and then give him the opportunity to escape, unless I was absolutely assured of my own safety? I'm frankly shocked by your lack of clear reasoning."

"Leave him alone! I'll – I'll fight you myself!"

"Good idea. Let's see how far that gets you, shall we?"

He kicked Sheen to the side, then advanced toward Future Libby, who extended her palms and locked into a defensive stance. Before he could attack, however, a wall of jade fire shot between them and cut him off.

"I swear to God, if you touch her…" threatened Aurora, standing.

Dictator Jimmy tilted his head toward her, his profile backlit by the ghastly flames. "You've still got some fight left in you?"

"You better believe I do. What are you waiting for? Hit me with your best shot, you piece of crap."

His gaze traveled over his three opponents with disinterested calculation, as a player might look upon a set of game pieces. He walked toward Aurora, raising an arm as he did so.

"I no longer need to 'hit you with my best shot'…"

She went on the defensive as he neared her, crouching like a cornered animal.

"You see, " he said, "I have a new toy…"

Behind him, Future Sheen re-animated, pulled aloft as if by strings – his arms dangled limply and his mouth hung open, a lusus naturae with crooked shoulders and glowing, feral eyes.

"What in God's name…?" she exclaimed.

"Let's see how you think on your feet." He pushed his hand through the air, extending his palm toward her. "Re-direct 21-12. Target: Aurora…"

Like a trick of light, Sheen pivoted, sprinted, and pinned Aurora against the wall, all in the course of a few seconds. He grasped her neck with his left hand, and his razor-sharp nails pricked the skin just above her jugular vein. Her toes dangled several inches above the floor – she squirmed and clawed at his arm, choking and gasping for breath.

"Sheen!" shrieked Future Libby. "What are you doin'?"

Future Sheen didn't seem conscious of the drama playing out around him. He merely stared into Aurora's face, teeth bared in a snarl, a killer instinct blazing in his left eye. Aurora ignored him – she scowled instead at DJ, even as her fingers pried at Future Sheen's iron grip.

"C-coward," she gasped, struggling for air. "C-can't even…kill me yourself…"

Dictator Jimmy smirked. "I have always been a firm believer in the merits of delegation…"

Future Libby took advantage of their exchange to scramble to Sheen's side – she grabbed hold of his free arm, but her attempts to tug him away met with no success. Seeing that Future Libby's pleas were falling on deaf ears, Aurora sent a river of green light rippling down toward Sheen's arm. Just before the blaze reached his skin, Future Libby shouted out.

"Wait Aurora, don't hurt him!"

"Uchhh…" she choked. "Well what…do you expect…me to do…"

"Give me a chance to reason with him first."

"Reason?" repeated the Dictator. "He can't be reasoned with."

"You wanna bet?" challenged Future Libby.

Aurora squirmed. "Libby…you better…know what you're doing…"

Future Libby merely glared pointedly at Dictator Jimmy, then went right back to tugging on Future Sheen's arm. "Leave Aurora alone, Sheen! Remember why we came here. She's not the one who did this to you!"

"Oh, is that so?" incited the Dictator. "Because it seems to me that she is precisely the one who did this to you." He took a few steps closer to the trio, lowering his voice as he did. "Remember, back on the ship those first couple of months? It was rough, wasn't it? Just you, Carl, and Libby, trying to cope with a world that was falling apart at the seams. You tried to make things easier for her – you cracked jokes, and snuck her extra bits of food, and held her hand when I pulled one trigger after another – but she didn't care about any of that, did she? All Libby could think about was Cindy, stuck back on Earth."

Future Sheen growled, tightening his grip on Aurora.

"It was Cindy's fault – it's Aurora's fault – that Libby was taken away from you. And you're the one who's suffered for it, forced to endure experiment after experiment, sequestered away in the dark for unbearable lengths of time. Well now it's happening again. As soon as Libby got out of the cell, what was the first thing she wanted to do? I'd be willing to bet a substantial sum that it was 'find Aurora'. So you see? Libby still cares about her more than she cares about you."

"That's not true," broke in Future Libby. "I DO care about you. I crossed billions of miles of space to find you! Please, just put her down, before this gets any more out of control..."

For a moment, Future Sheen's eyes seemed to clear, and his grip slackened enough for his captive to at least breathe again.

"You see?" prodded Dictator Jimmy. "There she goes again, protecting Aurora. And it doesn't even make any sense. If it weren't for Aurora, none of this would have happened. She was the one that made me like this. If it hadn't been for her immaturity, her jealousy, our lives would have ended up very different."

"Don't listen to him, Sheen," said Future Libby. "He's manipulatin' you. He's just like…like…a little devil on your shoulder! Well I'm your shoulder angel, so please listen to what I have to say. Sure, Aurora made some mistakes in the past, but we need to focus on what's happening now."

DJ made a sound somewhere between a contemptuous scoff and a chuckle. "Oh, that's cute. But you are naïve indeed if you think that I'm the only devil in this picture. You truly don't understand what you've gotten yourself into, do you? You're playing a game where you don't know all the rules. He's twisted, warped, ruined – a killing machine that can't even control who his victims are. Sheen knows what I'm talking about. He remembers our clinical trials, when he ripped apart whatever or whoever I told him to. You remember, don't you?"

Future Sheen hung his head, eyes pressed shut. DJ grinned triumphantly.

"That's what I thought. I know you've tried to convince yourself: 'if I can just escape, if I can just try hard enough, I can overcome this. I can be with Libby and the others again and everything will work out'. Well, you can only delude yourself so much. You know what you are, Sheen. Even if you were to defeat me, even if you were to get off this planet, it wouldn't change what's inside you. All it would take is one moment's lapse in restraint, and she'd be dead – you could even kill her in your sleep. Face it: no matter how much you wish otherwise, she'd be better off without you."

Libby took a step closer. "He's wrong. I wouldn't be better off without you. And I don't believe a word he's told me about you, and you can break his hold over you. You just need to focus all your willpower. You can do it, concentrate!"

"Yes, concentrate. You'll wake up a bit more, but you still won't be able to control your physical motions. Go on, try it – see how it feels to be fully cognizant while paralyzed inside your own body."

Future Sheen thrashed back and forth a few times, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not peel his fingers away from Aurora's throat.

"He's…right…" slurred Future Sheen haltingly. "Libby, you should. Should run away. While…"

"Fight harder!" she shouted.

"Please. I am going. Going to…kill. Kill her. Can't stop…"

Future Libby looked up at him sharply, as Tuyen's advice once again filled her mind. She reached down and took his free hand in hers, and then slowly guided it up toward her neck.

"I'm puttin' myself out on a limb here, and you gotta return the favor. Okay? See, look…" She uncurled his fingers and wrapped each one around her throat, then let her arm drop. She met his eyes without the slightest hint of trepidation. "I feel…no fear."

Future Sheen gaped at her. After a moment he pulled his hand away from her neck. "Libby…"

If her short-lived breakthrough upset him, Dictator Jimmy gave no sign of it. Instead, he broke the silence that followed with a resigned sigh.

"What a shame. I was looking forward to killing you myself, but…How does that saying go again? 'Tell me and I'll forget, show me and I'll remember, involve me and I'll understand?' Well, I have a lesson that will pander to even your learning curve, Libby." He nodded his head in Sheen's direction. "Re-direct 21-12. Target: Libby…"

In an instant, Future Sheen dropped Aurora. She fell to her knees, gasping for breath, and DJ didn't waste a single second – before she could recover, he grabbed her by the shoulders and rammed her against the wall. Meanwhile, Future Sheen turned on Future Libby, his red eye aglow.

"Sheen, I –AHHH!"

Future Sheen struck Libby with the back of his hand, and she fell backward, landing a few feet away on the floor. Shaking from surprise and fright, she touched the base of her nose and examined her fingertips. They were sticky with blood.

She gaped up at him, mouth open. "You…you hit me!"

"Of course he hit you," said Dictator Jimmy, "and he will continue to do so until I tell him to stop. That's all there is to it."

Future Sheen looked down at his target without recognizing her; like a zombie, he mindlessly moved forward to deliver the next blow. Seeing his intent, Aurora kneed Dictator Jimmy in the stomach and then knocked him out of the way. She somersaulted forward and kicked Future Sheen's legs out from under him, sending him crashing to the floor. Aurora vaulted in between him and Future Libby and encircled the two of them in a tornado of protective fire.

She reached down to help her friend. "Libby, are you OK?"

The still-shocked Future Libby pulled herself off the floor. "I don't understand… Tuyen said that if I…if I…"

"Don't trust, Libby, act! You have to see the situation for what it is!" Aurora added another layer of flames to the ring, and the shield soared higher. "We only have a couple more seconds. I have to think of a plan..."

"Whaddya mean, 'think of a plan'? I don't understand, Aurora! Why haven't you used the you-know-what yet? This fight is too much for you. You look like you've been beaten to within an inch of your life!"

"I know, but there's nothing I can do," replied Aurora flatly. "The vial broke before I could get here, Libby. Smashed against the duct wall."

"It…broke?"

Aurora nodded slowly. "I'm not going to sugarcoat things for you. We're in serious trouble here. There's no way you can beat Sheen, and I can't protect you from him and fight off Jimmy at the same time."

Future Libby swayed a little, suddenly lightheaded, and Aurora caught her by the arm.

"I…I can't believe this is happenin'…"

"It doesn't look good, I know."

"What…what do we do now?" asked Future Libby.

"We wait for backup. And in the meantime, we fight."

"You just said yourself that we're no match for them!"

"You got a better idea?" shot back the blonde.

The flames began to wither, and Aurora and Future Libby leaned against one another, tired, injured, and emotionally drained. As the green light grew dimmer, they could make out two human-shaped shadows looming ominously beyond the curtain of fire. The silhouettes crept forward, growing larger and darker as they approached. Dictator Jimmy and Future Sheen morphed through the blaze at last, closing in like wolves on their prey.

"Look out!" yelled Aurora.

Future Sheen sprung toward Libby, and Aurora hurled herself into the air, drop-kicking him in the stomach with both feet. He tumbled backward, and Aurora hit the floor.

"Run, Li–!"

Dictator Jimmy grabbed Aurora from behind, wrapping his arm around her neck and pulling it tight. Caught in perhaps the worst possible position from which to escape a stranglehold, Aurora fought back with every last ounce of her strength. Future Libby recognized her friend's danger and rushed forward to help – only to be blocked by Future Sheen, who had already recovered from Aurora's maneuver.

"Stop it! You're helpin' him win!"

Future Sheen slashed out at her with his left hand, cutting her across the collarbone. Shreds of golden fabric fell to earth like autumn leaves, and Future Libby sank to her knees, clutching a bandaged hand to the wound. Lifting her fingers, she looked down to see a rapidly spreading red stain. With the sight of blood came an awakening, a realization unlike any she had ever felt.

"You're…you're really goin' to kill me, aren't you?"

In answer, he hit her again, and she fell forward onto her hands.

"You can't kill me. I can't let it end this way. What'll happen to you when you wake up and realize what you've done? What'll happen to Aurora if I'm not around to help her?" She grabbed hold of his leg and buried her face against it. "Please…please don't kill me…"

A few feet away, Aurora, unable to break free from DJ's hold, ceased her wriggling and instead shot a fireball straight up at the ceiling. A waterfall of concrete, drywall, and fractured piping came crashing down, forcing Dictator Jimmy to roll to one side to evade the falling rubble. Aurora, free at last from his grasp, rolled in the other direction.

"Execute Override, Program 21-12!" Aurora belted out the command. "Redirect 21-12: Target, Jimmy!"

The Dictator stood, calmly brushing dust and small debris off his clothing. "You memorized my code words? Very clever. Unfortunately for you, those commands only work when I say them."

She gritted her teeth, and he smiled pleasantly.

"You can't save your friend, Aurora. It would be in your best interests to just forget about her and focus on fighting me."

"Like hell I will! Is there any limit to how low you're willing to stoop? What a freaking typical villain tactic, you hoser!"

Aurora whirled to face Future Sheen, who was pulling Future Libby up off the ground by the back of her dress. "Open your eyes and see who you're attacking, Sheen!" she bellowed. "Is your head screwed on backward? Get with the program, you freak! Wake! Up!"

She pitched two fireballs at the back of his head, and they flew low, hitting him between the shoulder blades. The impact knocked him to the floor, and Future Libby took the opportunity to scramble away.

"Wake up, you stupid knuckle-dragger!" Aurora hit him with three more bolts, and he drew his knees up to his chest, little plumes of smoke rising from his wounds. "I'll keep this up until your skin turns to charcoal if I have to! You may have superhuman strength and one heck of a freakish mutant arm, but you don't have Jimmy's healing capabilities. When I burn you, you stay burnt. Your single-mindedness makes you vulnerable – as long as you're intent on attacking only Libby, I can easily beat you!"

She wound back her arm to fire another shot, but before she could, Dictator Jimmy blindsided her and grabbed her by the wrist.

"…And as long as you're intent on protecting Libby," he echoed, "I can easily beat you. It works both ways."

He yanked Aurora toward him, and she instinctively pulled back. At the last moment he released her arm and shoved her away with both hands, turning her inertia against her. She lurched backward, and only years of training prevented her from losing her footing and falling to the ground.

"Son of a –"

"Better concentrate on defending yourself, Aurora…"

She cried out and barreled toward him, one arm drawn back to throw a punch. He intercepted her attack, catching her about the waist and using her momentum to flip her off her feet and into the air. Aurora was cast head-over-heels in a 360 degree arc, and yet she somehow managed to retain enough coordination to stick the landing and come out standing squarely on both feet. Mere seconds after this elegant display of acrobatics, she hooked around and walloped him in the spine.

"Suck that!"

Dictator Jimmy fell down onto his side. She kicked him over, and then stepped on his back; he went rigid with pain as she crunched his vertebrae under her heel.

"I hope that hurts!" she snarled.

Indigo flames shot up all around him, and Aurora hastily withdrew – but not quickly enough. Seared by the heat, she was forced to dodge to her left, bringing her out in front of Dictator Jimmy. He gripped her leg and pulled her down beside him into the lake of blue fire, where he climbed on top of her and grabbed her by the shoulders. She threw him off, and they tumbled over one another, wrestling to gain the upper hand.

"Uchh…let go!" she spluttered.

He forced her to the ground again, pinning her arms over her head and bearing down on her with the full force of his body weight.

"Get off get off get off GET OFF!"

Aurora locked her legs around him and used her lower body to flip him onto his back, then raised her arms up over her head and brought both fists smashing down. He threw up a glowing forearm to shield his face and then grabbed her by the throat. She did the same to him, and they strained against one another, grimacing with the effort.

"I don't know about you, Aurora," quipped the Dictator, choking slightly, "but this seems like a lose-lose situation to me..."

"Shut the hell up!"

A small distance away, Future Sheen came out of his stupor at last and flopped over onto his stomach. He rested his weight on one forearm, holding his face in his other hand.

"Ooowwww… my head! Jeez, what happened?"

"S-Sheen?" prompted Future Libby hesitantly. "Is that…you?"

Future Sheen groaned and drew his knees up under him, still holding his throbbing head. "Tsssss…Ya, ya it's me…ugh…"

Exhaling in relief, Future Libby rushed forward to help him up. The second she came within range, however, Future Sheen took another swipe at her – he missed by half an inch, and Future Libby skittered backward. Sheen looked down at his own hand, taken by surprise.

"What the…? Why did I just…?"

He spotted the red stain on her chest and broke off. His mouth trembled slightly, and his stricken expression spoke volumes. "Libby, y-you're bleeding!" She touched a hand to the bloodstain, and he asked the obvious question in a tense, uneven whisper. "Did I…did I do that?"

"Ya, you did, and if you don't get a hold of yourself, you're gonna keep doin' it."

He dove forward and caught her by the left sandal. She jerked her leg away, and the strap broke off in his hand. He looked down at it, eyes wide.

"I can't…I can't control my body. Libby! You have to get away from me!"

"Do you honestly think I can outrun you? If you don't figure out some way to check yourself, you're gonna kill me!"

He twisted from side to side like a reptile, crawling forward on all fours. His red eye grew bright again, and he looked up at her with a carnivorous smile.

"Heh heh…I'm going to catch you, pretty, pretty...I'm going to get you..."

She backed away, appalled, and a second later he berated himself. "W- what am I saying? Agh! Snap out of it!"

He drew himself up off the ground, and Future Libby retreated.

"Hhhhhh..." he exhaled. "I can smell your blood..."

She turned and ran, and Future Sheen sprung after her. He tackled her from behind, and she crashed to the floor, losing her other shoe and skinning her knee in the process. He grabbed her by the arms and threw her onto her back, but before he could get any further, another one of Aurora's emerald streamers struck him between the shoulder blades. Future Sheen fell to the side, contorting.

"Keep your hands off her, damn it!" shouted Aurora, who had managed to get up again. She turned away from her own fight and yelled irrationally to Future Libby. "Do whatever it takes, Libby! Don't be afraid to hurt him. Kill him if you have to! Just don't let him kill you – don't go down without a fight!"

DJ capitalized on her momentary inattention and used it to bring her down. He slammed his heel into her lower back, and Aurora's whole world broke apart with a deafening crack; stunned, she tipped over at an angle, crashing to earth like a doomed porcelain vase. Mid-fall, he kicked her a second time, and she was propelled horizontally, tumbling and sliding across the tile before coming to a stop several feet away. For a long time she remained motionless, lying in a heap on the floor. Finally she managed to prop herself up on one arm…but despite her best efforts, she could not get up.

Dictator Jimmy walked over to her. "What did I tell you, Aurora?"

She collapsed again, coughing, and he kicked her once more, contemptuously this time.

"You're not even trying."

She curled up into a ball, shuddering. "AHH! GOD that hurts!"

He kicked her repeatedly in the abdomen, his face blank. "That's right. It does." He bent over and, grabbing her under both arms, hauled her up. "I wonder how many of your ribs I can break…"

He threw her down again, dashing her body against the floor. Her vision flashed to white and, for the second time that day, she felt herself slipping toward unconsciousness. Aurora's thoughts came in disjointed, dreamy waves as he continued to throttle her – she waited for her fury to kick in and conjure up a protective cocoon, but her instincts didn't come to her rescue. Instead, she remained where she was, watching with little comprehension as Future Sheen rose fitfully, tendrils of smoke still coiling off his skin.

"Oh no…" he breathed.

His arm yanked him forward, and he stumbled along behind it, tugging and squirming as if grappling with an invisible foe. Fully conscious now, Future Sheen experienced the enormity of his own out-of-body horror; he limped toward Future Libby, half-stooped over, like a corpse moving at the behest of a necromancer.

"Please!" he begged. "Not again…"

His sinews strained, dragging him on. Future Sheen's perception thrummed in and out of focus like a plucked rubber band. One second, he rode wild on a current of primordial excitement; the next, his entire being recoiled, revolted by his monstrous impulses. Caught between the two forces, he squeezed his eyes shut in one last-ditch effort to regain control over his actions.

"If I can't see her, I can't hurt her…"

He lurched forward involuntarily, catching Future Libby by the tear in her dress. In that instant his lids flew open, and their eyes locked: his tortured and panic-stricken, hers wide and filled with fear. An eternity seemed to pass as he grabbed her by the neck and flung her down onto the ground.

"No!" he cried frantically. "STOP! STOP IT!!"

Future Libby rolled over and made a break for it, but he threw himself onto her back, pinning her down with his knee.

"Oh God, make it stop!" he pleaded in anguish. "After everything I've been through for her, all those years in the dark...the dark wasn't supposed to follow me out!"

He hunched over her, tears stinging his eyes. They ran down his cheeks and splashed onto her clothes, ominously attracting his attention to something else entirely: the silver zipper which ran the length of her dress. He turned his head away and shouted hoarsely.

"Goddamn it, how could you do this to me?!"

DJ took a break from kicking Aurora to throw a snide comment his way. "Don't blame me for your current predicament, Sheen. You were the one who brought Libby into harm's way by coming here. You knew perfectly well what could happen, and yet you still chose to lead her right into the heart of the fight. If you ask me, it was pure selfishness on your part. You wanted revenge, didn't you? And you were willing to risk her life in order to get it…"

"Shut up!"

He turned away. "With pleasure. I'm growing quite tired of this damsel-in-distress routine. Either finish her off, or finish yourself off instead. I've made my point, and now I'm done with the both of you."

Leaving them to their own devices, he grabbed Aurora by the hair and dragged her to her feet. She didn't give him the satisfaction of crying out in pain, but when their gazes met, her eyes were watering involuntarily.

"Now, where were we, Aurora?"

She spit out more blood. "As I recall, I was just waiting for the opportunity to do THIS –"

She gouged him in the throat, and he staggered away, clutching at his damaged windpipe. He took heaving, raspy breaths, and the skeletal lines which crisscrossed his suit bobbed up and down on his chest. Within moments, his healing ability kicked in, and the corners of his mouth twitched upward into a sneer.

"Impressive, Aurora. If it weren't for my technology, that last strike could have proved fatal. Crushing your enemy's trachea? A brutal and effective maneuver."

Aurora's breathing came in ragged gasps, and she held her ribcage, trembling with overexertion. "Thanks. I aim to please."

Despite her jocular words, it was clear that Aurora was nearing the end of her rope. Lines of blood streamed down her left arm from a gash on her shoulder, and yellow and purple bruises colored her face.

"I'm no anatomist, Neutron," she began, "but I know I'm in deep trouble right now. My body can't handle much more of this. If I take too many more direct hits, I'll be out of commission for sure."

"And you're telling me this why?"

"Just thought I'd rob you of the satisfaction of telling me yourself."

"On the contrary," he asserted. "I am pleased to hear you admit it."

She took another swing at him, and he dodged to his left, bringing him within a few feet of the pile of ceiling rubble which separated their fight from Libby and Future Sheen's.

"Libby, I am so sorry," babbled Sheen. "Please…please don't hate me. I want you to know that it isn't me, I don't mean it...God, I'm sorry..."

Future Libby, shaking like a leaf, somehow managed to maintain enough composure to try a new approach. "I'm sorry too! If you hadn't defied Jimmy by sendin' me back to Earth all those years ago, none of this would have happened to you."

He grabbed at his head. "AH! Don't say that! I don't want to be angry at you too! Let me at least have one person in my life who I don't want to rip to shreds!"

Still trembling, Future Libby continued. "My point is, I never had a chance to say thank you. What you did...it was the most amazin' thing I've ever seen. You risked your life to save me, and not a day has gone by since that I haven't thought about that fact."

"What does it matter?" he wailed, distraught. "It's all going to come to nothing! I always told myself that things would get better, SOMEDAY things would get better...and now, THIS? Is this really what the future has in store for me? Losing my mind and murdering the one person I've been waiting for? Damn it all! I gave up everything for you, Libby, lost everything, lost myself even, and I thought you'd be able to give some of it back...but now I'm going to lose you, too! How could he do this to me? How could ALL OF YOU do this to me? EVERY SINGLE ONE OF YOU!!"

"Sheen," coaxed Future Libby, "listen carefully. I'm no Rocky, but the monks at least taught me how to dodge an average punch. I know you can't stop, but if you can just slow yourself down…just to the speed and strength of a normal human…I might be able to do somethin'."

"I'm trying, I'm trying!"

"Did you really endure ten years of misery for it to end like this? Try harder! Everythin' depends on it!"

Calling upon every ounce of muscle and willpower he possessed, Future Sheen concentrated on slowing his breathing and heartbeat. This time, when he seized her about the waist and slung her onto her back, he ignored his guilt, and instead devoted all his energy into visualizing himself shifting into a lower gear.

"I think it's working!" he exulted, eyes still closed.

"Oh yeah? Good."

She delivered a swift, hard kick straight to his groin. Caught off guard, he doubled over in dumbstruck agony. She crawled out from under him and, stumbling to her feet, raced over to the field of fallen debris. Selecting a sturdy steel plate from amid the wreckage, she turned back to Future Sheen just as he was getting up.

"Sheen, I'm really sorry about this, but…"

She walloped him across the face with the sheet of metal. He collapsed, knocked unconscious, and she lowered the improvised weapon, breathing hard.

"I…I did it?…" she asked after a moment. "I can't believe it. Haha, I did it!"

Her euphoria faded as the adrenaline rush retreated. She sunk back down into corporeality, and the welts, burns, and lacerations which zigzagged her body finally took their toll. Exhausted from the traumatic fight and from her numerous injuries, her legs buckled under her. She fell to her knees on the floor beside him, smiling through the haze of pain and fatigue.

"Did you see, Aurora?" she whispered. "I won…"

For a moment she sat there, posed in her tattered dress like a broken doll. Nauseous from the smoke and the smell of her own blood, her vision started to blur. Finally, her eyelids flickered shut, and she flopped down into a neat little pile beside Future Sheen.

"Libby?" gasped Aurora.

Dictator Jimmy watched this all in silence, one eyebrow raised ever so slightly. "Well. Wasn't that an interesting outcome to their fight…"

Aurora whirled back to face him, a look of fierce triumph on her scratched and dirtied face. "She beat him! Haha, she really did it! You hear that? She beat him! And she didn't do it with any of that power of love crap. She knocked his lights out with a freaking chunk of metal! Hahaha!"

She stumbled slightly, her laugh growing wilder. He shrugged.

"Doesn't really matter either way. That entire drama was merely a small footnote to tonight's main attraction. Am I right?"

Aurora's laugh turned into a coughing fit. She rested her hands on her knees, struggling to breathe.

"Heh…hhh…" she rasped. "Let's not lie to each other anymore, OK? We both know how this fight is going to end. But you know what? I'm not angry anymore. Hell, you could kill me right now, and I'd die happy, just from having seen that look on your face when Libby thwacked Sheen over the head." Aurora winced as a shooting pain raced across her abdomen. "Bet you didn't see that one coming, did you? Your perfect killing machine, defeated by a five-foot four-inch fighter in a miniskirt…."

Aurora's left leg began to tremble violently, and she trailed off, gritting her teeth. She grabbed hold of it to prevent it from giving out, but only succeeded in spreading the malady to the rest of her overtaxed muscles. Growing weaker by the moment, her entire body shook with exhaustion, as she struggled to draw in one shallow breath after another.

"Keh…hhh…damn it…"

"Aurora."

Dictator Jimmy crossed the short distance between them and came to a stop directly in front of her. Through sheer defiance alone, she forced herself to straighten and look him in the eye. For a long moment they stood thusly, face to face and eye to eye, without saying anything.

"Well…looks like this is it," he said.

He clasped his hands behind his back and started off in a slow, steady circle around her. Aurora refused to budge – tipped slightly to one side, she clutched her bloodied arm, beads of sweat running down her face. Simply remaining upright was a monumental endeavor, but she clung to this last shred of pride. He continued pacing, now within her field of vision, now outside of it again, and she watched him with the steely eyes of a soldier.

"I will be the first to admit the magnitude of your accomplishment, Aurora," he began. "While you have ultimately failed in your goal, this is the closest I have ever come to dying. You overcame my global defense system, infiltrated my underwater base, survived countless pitfalls, defeated a legion of robotic soldiers, and made it all the way into the main control room before finally failing. I applaud your commendable efforts."

His praise was laden with a cruel and subtle mockery, and she looked on him with disgust.

"Spare me the bloody pleasantries, Neutron. You can gloat on your own time."

He disappeared from her sight again, and a pattern of slow, rhythmic footsteps filled the void. He circled round and re-appeared on her other side, an amused expression on his face.

"Not to dampen your spirits," he said, "but I don't think you have much say in the matter."

She followed him with her eyes, seething internally. In a last-ditch bid to stall for time, she pulled out the final weapon in her arsenal.

"Tch. Keep it up, buddy. You think you have me all figured out…my plan all figured out…but you're wrong. I didn't come here for the reason you think. You see, Neutron, there's something you don't know about. I have an ace in the hole."

"Oh, is that so?"

"That's right. You may have beaten me this round, but it doesn't matter. Even if you were to shoot me, and Libby, and Sheen – heck, every single member of the resistance – right this instant, you would still lose in the end."

"Is this some sort of morality monologue?" he jeered. "About how good will always triumph over evil, or some such nonsense?"

"Please. Don't insult my intelligence. I'm talking about an actual tactical advantage – one that you couldn't have possibly accounted for."

He concluded his pacing where he had begun, directly in front of her. "You're bluffing."

"What'd be the use in that? It won't help me get out of what's coming."

"That's right," he said. "It won't. This is it for you, Aurora. You think the last ten years have been a nightmare? They're nothing compared to what I'm going to do to you once we've left this room. You will beg me for mercy, but I will show none. Only after I have broken you in every possible way will I kill you."

"Kill me. I don't care. Torture me, rip me open, tear me limb from limb…do whatever you want. Some recent experiences have made me realize: it doesn't matter. We could live a million lives in a million universes, and what would it amount to? Only a million lives, out of an infinite number. You and me, you and me, endlessly repeated, over and over and over again forever. What's one life, when you know that?"

He turned his back to her. "You're beginning to sound like quite the Nietzsche wannabe, Aurora. But I'll tell you right now – you won't find refuge in nihilism. That's the great paradox of pain; you can't escape it by saying that it is meaningless. Pain gives meaning to meaninglessness."

"I'm not waxing philosophical, Neutron. You're just not paying attention to the clues I'm giving you, and it's going to make it that much sweeter when you see for yourself what I was talking about."

He snapped around, his voice tense and quick. "The only thing I'm going to see, Aurora, is you. You, as I torture you, strip you of your humanity, make you beg for your life like an animal. I want to witness the moment when you reach that black epiphany, when you finally realize that in the end, there is no dignity or bravery in the face of death. There is only misery and ruin, as you wait for the gaping mindlessness of the universe to swallow you whole." He seized her chin, and she winced a little. "There is nothing left for you Aurora, understand? No hope, no future. No heaven or hell. Just me."

He moved in closer, and the conversation assumed a whole new tone. "Just me…"

Completely drained of energy, Aurora slumped forward, and her head landed on his shoulder. He took hold of her arms to steady her, and there was a long pause.

"You and I are pretty warped, aren't we Neutron?" she said quietly.

When he spoke at last, his voice was gentle and devoid of derision. "Yes. We are."

"Why do you suppose that is? Why did it have to come to this? I always knew it would, but…why?"

There was another pause before he answered. "Because…it's what we both want."

Taken aback by the tone of his voice, Aurora repeated the strange statement. "What we want?"

"Yes. Your whole life you've been struggling to determine whether you were truly to blame for what happened to me. This fight – you weren't seeking revenge, you were seeking the answer to that question. The truth is…deep down, you wanted to lose. You wanted me to hurt you. In the deepest, darkest corners of your psyche, you want me to punish you for what you did. It's a strange catharsis, I'll admit, but it's the only thing that will free you from your bitterness and guilt."

In the long silence that followed, Aurora fought a growing compulsion to surrender, to give in to him and let it all be over with. In the end she settled on a compromise, and instead acknowledged the irony that overshadowed all their interactions.

"Heh. It's funny, isn't it, that the only person who truly understands me is the same person who's going to kill me?"

"I suppose it is."

"And you?" she asked. "What do you want?"

"Me? I want the same thing I've always wanted."

"You already have everything you want, Neutron," she said wearily.

"Not quite." He touched her cheek, and she shivered.

"Listen," spoke Aurora, "before you take me away from here, there's just one other thing I want. One minor concession, that's all. Lord knows I've never asked for a favor from you before, but just this once…"

She never got a chance to finish her sentence, for at that exact moment, something else caught her attention. On the other side of the room she spotted Cindy, who was gawking at her from within the hole in the control room wall. The other kids popped out alongside her, and Sheen waved excitedly to Aurora. Cindy smacked him aside before pulling out the antidote and gesturing at it wildly. Aurora interpreted this visual cue to mean something along the lines of "what the hell are you doing?" and, in an instant, she re-formulated her plan of action. Without betraying what had transpired, Aurora let her eyes trail over DJ's face, and she repeated her last words in a murmur.

"…just this once…"

Wrapping her arms around his neck, she pulled him into a tight embrace. He stiffened at first, but then slowly relaxed into it, sliding his hands up her back and into her hair.

"The concession?" he whispered. “What do you want?”

She tightened her hold, motioning for the kids to approach. They stealthily picked their way across the chamber, with Cindy in the lead. Aurora beckoned for them to walk faster, disguising the movement by twining her fingers in his hair. The thrill of the moment washed over her, and for a second she had the sensation of being outside history – one by one, she watched all the players as they moved to their appointed places on the stage. She drank in the heady rush of clinging to an already-conquered foe, a foe as yet oblivious to his fate. Heart pumping furiously, she whispered into his ear.

"I want you to look behind you."

Dictator Jimmy turned his head and peered back over his shoulder. He saw the kids approaching from a short distance away, and Aurora had the satisfaction of watching his eyes widen. Before he could react, she clamped both her arms around him and converted every last remaining ounce of energy and emotion into raw firepower. A tower of flames consumed them both, swirling round in a cyclonic pyre. Aurora pushed him back, then roundhouse kicked him in the face, and he stumbled to one side, stunned and badly burned. Cindy recognized her opportunity and went for it. She darted forward away from the others, holding the antidote aloft in one hand.

"Hey Aurora, think fast!"

She hurled the vial with all her might, and it sailed across the room in a high arc, turning circles through the air as it traveled upward toward its zenith. It caught the light like a crystal, and the seconds seemed to drag into hours as it sparkled and glimmered its way back down to earth. Aurora swept it out of the air and, in one unbroken motion, flung her arm downward, redirecting the vial at the floor.

"Say hello to my ace in the hole!" she exulted.

The vial burst, releasing a fine mist which diffused and rose to engulf the still-healing Dictator. He hacked as the tiny droplets entered his lungs.

"An airborne agent?"

Blood began to trickle from his nose, and he staggered a little, choking on the vapor. He coughed violently, perspiration gathering on his suddenly-ashen skin. Despite this undignified physical reaction, his expression never lost its confidence. Half bent over, he looked up at Aurora from under strands of sweat-slicked hair.

"I don't know what you're planning or what's going on, but I can assure you, it will not work. Neither chemical nor biological warfare will harm me. If it's an airborne toxin, my suit will heal me, and if it's a pathogen, my immune system will fight it off. It's a strange byproduct of the megalomanium – my immune system is…is…"

His cough grew increasingly frenetic, and for the first time, his eyes betrayed a hint of concern. "What's…why isn't…" He doubled over, hacking so loudly that the kids winced at the sound. "I don't understand…" he said, looking at the floor. "Why am I still coughing?"

"It's because the stuff you just breathed in wasn't a toxin or a pathogen, Neutron," she answered. "It was something else. Something you never could have prepared for in a million years."

Bleary-eyed and struggling for breath, he looked back and forth between her and the kids, unable to make sense of the situation.

"What are those? Holograms? A shapeshifting species? Or is this aerosol hallucinogenic?"

"None of the above. You're not seeing things, and this isn't some sort of trick. They are exactly who you think they are."

He dropped to one knee, rasping horribly, his arms wrapped round his stomach. Tremors ran up and down his body, and his hands and leg muscles quaked. Beads of sweat dripped down his chin as his failing vision stretched and blurred his surroundings into meaningless blotches of color. Having not seen what he did to Aurora during their fight, the kids felt a twinge of sympathy for him.

"What is happening to me? If it wasn't a pathogen or a poison, then what on earth did I just breathe in!"

Aurora dropped the bomb without a smidgen of ceremony. "It's an antidote to the megalomanium."

He repeated her words dumbly, drawing out the syllables. "An…tidote?"

"That's right. It's going to put you out for a little while, Neutron. And then when you wake up, you'll be cured."

"You..." He lost his balance and fell over onto his side, but still stared up at her with strained, bewildered eyes. "You…"

"'Me' nothing. You miscalculated, Neutron. You assumed that I was here to kill you, and thus tailored your response to meet that threat. But that was never my intention. My goal was not to destroy you, but to save you."

"Save me? But I...I don't..."

His head lolled forward. Fighting with everything he had to stay awake, he crawled forward a few feet, though he could no longer speak. The inevitable was not far off, however, and within a few moments the antidote overpowered him. His eyes rolled up into his skull, and he went limp, collapsing into an unconscious heap at Aurora's feet. She stared down at him in silence for a long while before making her final pronouncement.

"End game, Neutron."

Seeing that the danger had passed, Cindy ran over to the fallen Dictator, while Aurora limped a few steps away and slumped down into a sitting position.

"Are you sure he was supposed to pass out after inhaling the antidote?" asked Cindy worriedly. "I thought Jimmy said that the only reason he'd lose consciousness was if the antidote was too strong, and he was slipping into a coma!" she paused. "...And, on another note, what the heck were you two doing when we came in here, anyway?"

Aurora shuddered as sharp pains raced through her core. "...uuuugh..."

She curled forward and spit up blood, which spattered on the floor between her outstretched legs, and Cindy realized that the real person she should be concerned about was her future self.

"Holy crap," she exclaimed, darting forward, "are you all right? Ugh, what am I saying? Of course you're not all right – look at you! You're throwing up blood for God's sake!"

"Yeah, I'm in pretty rough shape..."

Libby, who by this point had noticed the room's other slumbering occupants, could no longer contain her curiosity. "Listen, Aurora," she began apprehensively, "I know you're kind of in dire straits yourself right now, but would you mind tellin' me why me and older Sheen are all bashed up and lyin' face-down on the floor?"

"They'll be fine. They're just unconscious. Sheen got a little too friendly for his own good, so Libby gave him a sheet-metal sandwich...heh heh heh..."

Aurora's chuckle turned into a cough, and she flopped onto her back. Exhausted, she stared up at the ceiling, lying on her pillow of matted, golden hair.

"And what about you, Aurora?" said Cindy. "Are you even going to be able to move around after receiving that many injuries?"

"Don't worry about me. My suit's nothing like Neutron's, but it does have some healing capability. It just...operates a bit differently, that's all. I need to concentrate on resting for awhile. It's OK..."

She exhaled the last two words, closing her eyes as she did so. The room fell silent, and the kids shuffled about uneasily. When they finally struck up a conversation again, they instinctively spoke in whispers.

"So...what do we do now?" asked Carl.

Libby took a seat, crossing her legs and resting her chin in her hands. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm dead tired. I'm gonna chill right here until Jimmy and skinny Carl get back with Goddard."

Carl cringed. "But...there's blood on the floor!"

"There's none where I am. Come on over."

He obliged reluctantly, and the two of them huddled together for comfort in the middle of the charred room. Cindy continued watching Aurora while Sheen, who had been standing off by himself, worked up the courage to approach his future self. He regarded the sleeping man with unusual somberness.

"Is that really me? I mean, I'm a total dreamboat and everything, but I look...I don't know, scary."

He averted his eyes and, in doing so, spotted something on the ground. Frowning, he bent and picked up a small white object.

"What the heck?" he blurted. "Is this...a tooth?"

He showed it to Cindy, and she frantically waved it away.

"Eww, Sheen, put that down!"

Unswayed by her reaction, he turned to Aurora and displayed his find. "Hey babe, this yours?"

"Sheen!" shouted Cindy.

"Whaaat? I'm just asking! If it's not hers, I wanna keep it as a souvenir."

"Ugh, what is the matter with you? You can't just waltz out onto a battlefield, pick up someone's tooth, and ask to keep it! God, you are SUCH a freak!"

To their astonishment, Aurora began to laugh. It started off as a slow, weak chuckle, then slowly built into a ringing peal of genuine mirth.

Cindy put her hands on her hips. "Great. Now you've sent her into hysterics."

Still laughing, Aurora draped a wrist over her eyes. "Unbelievable. You guys are ridiculous. You have absolutely no sense of reality whatsoever." She released a sigh and let her arm drop back onto the floor. "I could learn a thing or two from you..."

Somehow, this left Cindy and Sheen feeling awkward, and after an unsure pause they left Aurora's side and joined Libby, Carl, and Goddard. Clustered together, and trying not to look too closely at the bloodstains and other debris which littered the ground, the four kids waited for Jimmy and Future Carl to return. Emptied of the sounds of vengeance, the chamber became like a room in the dead of night. Future Libby and Future Sheen slept peacefully, their breaths rising and falling in unison, while DJ dozed under the blank slate of insentience. Aurora stared skyward, and the uncharacteristic look of serenity on her face gave her a strange kind of beauty. A soft glow seemed to hang around her smudged, bruised face and her tangled hair. And, when she smiled to herself a few moments later, it was with the gentle sadness of one remembering a life well-lived – though nobody saw her as she shut her eyes, and drifted off into a cold and pallid silence...


-> Chapter 41 ->

Aurora with bloody handprints on her back