Chapter 41: Fallout
Just outside the minefield, a black ship dropped out of hyperspace, its twin green engines glowing like two cat eyes in space. Inside the cockpit of her personal spacecraft, Lady Jaya squinted suspiciously into the blackness. To her left sat the Corporal who had roused her from her slumber hours earlier, and to her right stood the mute Gorlock warrior Tartune, who was using one of her scimitars to inflict tiny gashes on her forearm. The rows upon rows of scars which ran down both her arms attested to the frequency of this practice.
"Corporal," began Lady Jaya, “I want you to run a scan of the surrounding area. Check for any ships orbiting the planet."
"Y-yes, my lady..."
He fiddled with a couple of knobs on the arms of his chair, and a 3-D rendering of the Shahada popped up on the screen in front of them. Lady Jaya leaned over him to inspect his findings, and he stiffened.
"I recognize that vessel," she muttured. "That's the Shahada, Nav Aksha'at's ship. I never did approve of that boy...far too cavalier. Try hailing them, Corporal."
"I just did, your Ladyship. There was no response."
"None that I can detect," he replied. "There is no one on board...well, no one alive, at least."
Lady Jaya pondered this for a moment before turning to Tartune. "I want your opinion, Tartune. Given that the ship we're on is a scouting vessel, should I call in the other Generals for backup, or should I continue to monitor the situation from here?"
Tartune sheathed her scimitar, then made a series of gestures with her hands. Presumably Lady Jaya understood, for she nodded in agreement.
"Yes, yes, very good. Exactly what I would have done. I believe another promotion may be in order for you soon."
Tartune smiled psychotically from behind strands of violet-black hair, and Lady Jaya turned back to the Corporal.
"Our problem might take care of itself, but if it does not, and Aurora and the others return to the Shahada alive, we will be waiting. We will remain here for the next several hours to observe, and if any other ships appear, we will hail them immediately. If they fail to respond, open fire. We will keep the hyperdrive warmed up in case we need to retreat. Did you get all that, Corporal?"
"Yes, your Ladyship."
"Good. Now, we wait..."
Elsewhere, Jimmy and Future Carl had made their way to the reactor core. Deep in the underbelly of the main generator, the two rescuers scoped out the situation. Still reeling from the shock of seeing his beloved pet imprisoned in so cruel a manner, Jimmy attempted to make an objective assessment of Future Goddard's condition. The dog's legs and tail had been removed, and his cube-shaped torso had been inserted into a custom niche. Color-coded wires branched out from nodes on his cranium and connected to a series of switchboards, which in turn relayed information to other parts of the core. A series of unidentifiable devices pulsed along Goddard's back, while clear pipes circulated coolant around the sensitive electronics. Only the robot's head was clearly accessible from amid the tangle of cables and structural supports.
Jimmy exhaled despairingly. "This technology is so beyond me, I don't even know where to start. I mean, maybe if I had a month and a team of engineers, I might be able to figure it out. But trying to safely remove him on the fly like this, without time or equipment...it's next to impossible. Ugh, why did I assume that this would be a simple fix? I'm such an idiot!"
"Just calm down," soothed Future Carl. "I'm sure you'll think of something. You always do."
"I appreciate the encouragement, but this is just too complex for my current understanding of computational engineering. I mean, there is one thing that might work, but it's a long shot..."
Goddard whined listlessly. "Grr...aow aow..."
"Hey boy! ...Hey there!" Jimmy stroked the dog on the head, trying to comfort him. Future Goddard's reaction – a whimper and an enervated lap from his robotic tongue – filled Jimmy with melancholy and self-loathing. "It breaks my heart to see you like this, Goddard. I am so sorry. So sorry. I'm trying my best, but I'm afraid that I'll damage you irreparably if I simply sever the connection and remove you."
Future Goddard emitted a series of barks, growls, and yelps, and Jimmy listened attentively.
"Hmm, I see..."
Future Carl watched, mystified, as Future Goddard continued to communicate with the boy in their cryptic private language.
"Exactly. That's why it's such a difficult procedure. I'd be relying too heavily on assumptions about my future self – assumptions that may or may not be true. I'm going to have to say no."
"Bark grrr grr..."
"But Goddard, it's too big a risk!"
"Bark bark bark bark!"
"What's he saying?" asked Future Carl.
"He says his AI is integrated into the base's mainframe," replied the boy genius. "It's not under his conscious control, but his AI is what's directing a lot of the base's defense systems. The power input is overloading his sensors, and it's causing him a lot of pain. He says he wants me to try to extract him immediately, even if I'm not confident I can do it safely."
"Is it possible?"
"Well, yes...in theory. The method I have in mind has about a fifty-fifty chance of succeeding. If it works, we'll get him out, at the expense of the base's defense network. If it doesn't work, we could crash several other essential systems and seriously damage Goddard's hardware. Worst case scenario, we risk killing him and destroying the life support and pressure regulators, causing a base-wide chain reaction of implosions and eventual catastrophic systematic failure."
"Oh. Well that's not good."
"No kidding," returned Jimmy. "Not exactly the kind of coin toss I like to make."
"What will you do?"
"I don't know," he sighed. "I think I can pull it off, but how will I live with myself if I screw up, and Goddard pays the price for it?"
"How will you live with yourself if you don't try?"
Jimmy closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. "I just..."
"You can blame me if something goes wrong," offered Future Carl. "I was the one who insisted that you do it. It's OK. I can bear the guilt so you won't have to."
"This isn't 'hot potato', Carl. Guilt isn't something you can just toss to another person like a ball. Whatever decision I make, I'll have to live with the consequences."
"I was just trying to help..."
"I know, I know. I'm not angry at you. This is just a really difficult decision. I feel like I'm at a crossroads in my life or something. Pick the wrong route, and I'll be forever stuck with the repercussions."
Future Goddard gave a few short yips, and Jimmy smiled wistfully.
"I know you wouldn't hold it against me if something went wrong, Goddard. I admire your resolve, and I understand your desperate yearning for freedom no matter what the cost. Still, I can't help but feel like haste makes waste in this particular situation. I think we should wait until DJ's cured, and then ask for his help..."
Future Goddard thrashed from side to side as much as his limited mobility allowed. "Grrr! Arrrf!"
"But Goddard –!" he protested.
Future Carl broke in. "Jimmy. I know you want to do what's best, and believe me, I would be devastated if something bad happened to Goddard. But I have faith in you. I can tell that you're doing the best you can, even though none of this is your fault. I wish I had one tenth of your guts."
Jimmy sighed again. "Well, it's never too late to acquire guts, if you'll pardon the phrase. You can start by finding me some wire-cutters and a wrench, since I suspect this is going to be a bit of a hack job."
"I'm on it."
The redhead jogged off to find the tools, and Jimmy turned his attention to the robotic dog. He stroked him on the head, whispering apologies and reassurances. "We'll have you out of there soon enough, boy...for better or for worse. Just hold on a bit longer, OK?"
For the rest of the kids back in the control room, the first indication that something was wrong came in the form of a subtle tremor.
"Guys?" murmured Cindy. "Did you feel that?"
Libby nodded. "Ya. The ground just moved. Kinda felt like a small earthquake or somethin'."
The room shook again, more noticeably this time, and Carl attempted a nervous rationalization.
"Maybe there's an undersea earthquake nearby...there are earthquakes on alien planets, right?"
Sheen bounced up and down excitedly. "Or maybe DJ cloned a T-Rex and decided to keep it as a pet, and now it's rampaging ever closer to this very room, drawn like a shark to the smell of human flesh! Come on, it's totally possible! If he can take over the galaxy, he can sure as heck bring a T-Rex back to life!"
Cindy face-palmed. "Sheen, did you undergo some sort of surgery to get your head that far up your butt? DJ does NOT keep a dinosaur on his base!"
"Oh yeah?" he shot back. "How do you know? Weirder things have happened to us."
"Actually, Cin," said Libby, "he's got a point. Weirder things HAVE happened to us."
"Ugh, fine, but that still doesn't prove he's right! There could be all sorts of other explanations for the shaking we just felt."
The room fell into the grip of a third tremor, and this one was so strong that the ceiling rattled and flakes of plaster rained down on them.
"OK," swallowed Libby, "that was scary. I think we should probably wake the others before this gets any worse."
Cindy agreed. "Good idea. If you take Libs and older Sheen, I'll take Aurora."
With Sheen and Carl in tow, Libby headed over to where the pair were still asleep on the floor. Libby knelt and shook her older self, while the boys gave Future Sheen a good motivational kick.
Future Libby stirred, moaning a little. "Wh...what happened?" Her eyelids fluttered, then flew open. "Libby! Guys! Oh thank God, you made it! Is everyone all right?"
"It was a close call," replied her younger self, "but I think so. We brought the antidote so Aurora could give it to DJ. He's passed out now, but I think it worked. Everything's gonna be OK."
The injured woman breathed a sigh of relief, then closed her eyes. The room began to shake once more, and she lurched upright. "What was that?"
"Uh, actually," said Libby, "that's why we're wakin' you up. Somethin's goin' on, but we're not sure what."
Future Libby rolled over onto her side and then hobbled to her feet, wincing as her hands contacted the floor. Libby got a nasty fright when she caught sight of the huge bloodstain on the front of Future Libby's dress.
"Girl," she blurted, "what happened to you? You look like you took a knife to the chest!"
"In a manner of speakin'. It was Sheen."
"Wha–? Oh no he DIDN'T! I'm gonna kick his –"
"Don't worry," assured Future Libby. "I already did." She gestured toward Future Sheen, only to gasp when she saw that the boys were attempting to rouse him. "No guys, don't! He's not himself!"
Her warning came too late, however. Future Sheen rolled over, slowly coming to. "Owww...jeez, Libby, you got me good..."
Sheen, apparently over his earlier misgivings, wasted no time getting right up in Future Sheen's face. When the latter opened his eyes, he saw the boy hovering in his field of vision, and he blinked twice.
"Uh-oh, this can't be a good sign."
Future Libby pulled Sheen back and stepped in front of the two boys, brandishing a hastily retrieved square of metal. "Stay behind me, you two. Before I knocked him out, he was under Dictator Jimmy's control. He's extremely dangerous."
Future Sheen wiped his forehead. "It's OK, Libby. Being unconscious reset me. I can feel it. I wouldn't recommend a full-on hug, but for the most part I'm back in business."
She lowered the makeshift weapon. "All right, but just so you know, if it looks like you're gonna go for round two on the crazy, I'll clock you right in the face again."
He groaned. "Fair enough..."
Taking this exchange as a go-ahead for further harassment, Sheen pushed Future Libby out of the way and dashed toward his future self just as he was sitting up.
"I can't believe I'm finally meeting you face-to-face! This is just like my favorite scene from Ultralord Episode 122 part 2, 'Upgrade to Villainy'!"
Future Sheen frowned. "You mean the one where Robofiend Build 1.1 meets up with Robofiend Build 1.2, and they join forces with Ultralord to stop the diabolical Dr. Zorthnax?"
"That's exactly the one!" exulted Sheen. "I can't believe you remembered!"
"Some moments in television are so epic that they stick with you no matter what." Future Sheen got to his feet, then paused, touching his cheek with a frown. He stuck his finger into his mouth and dug around, only to withdraw it with a look of dismay. "Aw crap! Where'd my tooth go?"
He turned a slow circle, scanning the ground. Sheen let him sweat for a minute before pulling out the missing item with a grin.
"Looking for THIS?"
"Sweet! You found it!"
He extended his hand toward the boy, but instead of giving it back, Sheen clutched his souvenir tighter and shied away. "Hey, hands off pal! Finders keepers. It's mine now."
Future Libby planted her hands on her hips. "Sheen, don't be ridiculous! Give him back his tooth!"
"Ridiculous? How am I being ridiculous?"
Glaring, she snatched the tooth away from him and placed it on Future Sheen's waiting palm. She closed his fingers around it, grinning sheepishly. "Sorry I whacked you so hard. I mean, you did kinda deserve it, but I didn't mean to knock out your tooth."
He shrugged. "Eh, don't sweat it. I've got extras." She went to pull her hand away, but he didn't let go. "Besides, I can think of at least a dozen ways you can make it up to me..."
Future Libby looked momentarily flustered, and her younger self rolled her eyes before calling back over her shoulder.
"Hey Cin, ask Aurora what we should do about the quakes, would ya? She's the one who knows the layout of this place. Maybe she's got some info we don't." When Cindy didn't answer, Libby swung around with a frown. "Hey Cindy, did you hear me?"
Cindy slowly turned her head to look back at them. When they saw the look on her face, their good humor vanished, because it was immediately clear that something was wrong. Cindy responded, and the note in her voice hit them like a bucket of icy water.
"Guys," she choked, "Aurora is..."
No further explanation was needed. All five of them sprung up and rushed over to where Cindy was crouching with two fingers on Aurora's wrist. Tears gathered in Cindy's eyes, and she blubbered out the words.
"I...I can't feel a pulse. I tried to wake her up, but she's not responding..."
"Move!" Future Libby shoved Sheen and Carl out of the way. She knelt beside her friend, barely able to speak for the lump in her throat. "Aurora? Can you hear me?"
Aurora laid there lifelessly, the skin beneath her bruises cold and tinged with a bluish pallor. Future Libby shook her, and Aurora's head flopped listlessly to the side. Seeing this, the others drew back.
"No way…" breathed Libby. "This isn't happening…"
Future Libby shook Aurora again, and a note of hysteria crept into her voice. "I know you're hurt real bad, but you gotta pull through. You hear me? Stay with me, Aurora!" She put her ear down by Aurora's mouth, listening for breath, only to jerk away in frustration. "I can't tell if she's breathing or not. All I know is, she needs medical attention, and fast!"
Desperate for some sort of solution, Sheen called to the others. "Quick! Does anybody know CPR?"
"I don't think that'll do much good, Sheen," said Libby softly.
"Well we gotta try something! We can't just throw our hands up and say 'well, that's that'!"
Another quake rocked the room, and the air creaked with the sound of cracking cement and straining metal. Steel supports snapped off the wall and shot out as deadly projectiles; Future Sheen knocked one out of the way before it could reach them.
Future Libby nearly fell over. "Damn it! All this bumpin' around is gonna aggravate her condition! We can't just leave her here on the floor, but I'm afraid we'll make her injuries worse if we try to move her..." She tugged on her braids. "I don't know what to do! Even if we could move her, I can't think of a safe place to bring her. This whole base is booby-trapped. Nav and April are missing, older Carl and Jimmy aren't here to help..." She broke off. "Jimmy, you son of a –!"
She jumped up and charged over to the Dictator where he slumbered on the ground.
"YOU!" Bending over, she grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him repeatedly. "You were the one who did this to her – now you have to save her! Don't you dare let her die! WAKE! UP!"
She let go, and he sagged to the floor, unresponsive. She jumped back up, angrier than they had ever seen her.
"I know you're in there! Don't ignore me!" Future Libby stomped on him with her bare foot, a gesture that would've been almost comical if not for the situation. "She risked everything to save you! And now, when she needs you most of all, you're not here to save her? You owe it to her! You owe it to all of us!"
"It's no use," said Cindy bitterly. "He's comatose. You could drop a bomb five feet away and he wouldn't wake up."
Future Libby kept right on kicking him, heedless of Cindy's statement, and the failed comedy made the futile effort all the more pathetic. "Don't take her away from me again! You already stole her once, and it took me ten years to get her back. Don't send her where I can't follow, Jimmy! I don't want to go back to being alone!"
Though she was facing away from them, the others could tell when Future Libby started to cry. She kicked DJ one final time, and he rolled over onto his back, still unconscious. Livid and bereaved, she stood in silence for a moment, shoulders trembling.
"Libs?" prompted Cindy.
Future Libby wiped her eyes before turning around. When she addressed Future Sheen, her sorrow had been replaced by a cold ferocity. "I can forgive almost anything, but I can't forgive this. If Aurora dies, I want you to rip him to pieces. Nothing quick and simple, either. Make his death as gruesome as you possibly can."
Future Sheen cracked his knuckles. "Gladly."
Everyone was so busy gawking at Future Libby's reaction that none of them noticed when, in the background, Aurora stirred and opened her eyes. The color and warmth had returned to her face, and even though she still sported countless cuts and bruises, she looked demonstrably healthier than she had after the fight. Grimacing, she propped herself up on one elbow, just in time to catch the tail end of the proceedings.
"Um...guys?" she asked, after a pause. "What are you doing?"
Future Libby caught sight of her mid-sniffle. "A...Aurora? You're..." It took a second to sink in, and then Future Libby charged over and flung herself onto her friend. "Aurora! Aurora, you're OK!"
Completely forgetting about her own injuries, Future Libby smothered Aurora in a crushing hug and planted dozens of kisses on her face. While the former gushed affection, the latter merely did her best to put up with the onslaught.
"OK, OK," said Aurora, patting her, "I love you too. Just take it easy, will you? Give me some breathing room…ow, my shoulder…" She fell back to the ground again, and the kids crowded around her worriedly. Irritated, she shooed them away. "Chill the hell out, guys. I'm fine. My body just shut down for a little while so that my internal injuries could be repaired. Normally my suit relies on my emotions to heal me, but this time I was too far gone. My organs were starting to fail...I had to take drastic measures."
"You could have told us beforehand!" said Cindy angrily. "We thought you were dying!"
"Well, for a few minutes there, I was. When my suit runs out of normal energy to feed upon, it takes directly from my life force instead."
"Huh?" said Libby. "What to you mean, your life force?"
"You guys know that my suit requires energy and willpower to function, right? Well, its healing abilities are an extension of that. It has no problem fixing more minor injuries, but when I'm mortally wounded, the healing feature becomes kind of like a deal with the devil. With no regular energy left to use as fuel, it shifts to a reserve supply: my lifespan. In order to bring me back from the brink, it has to drain away whole years of my life."
Cindy cupped a hand behind her ear. "I'm sorry, what? Would you mind repeating that, please? It sounded to me like you just said that in order to save yourself, you had to forfeit part of your lifespan. As in, 'sorry babe, it was nice knowin' ya, but it's early curtains for you'."
"That's right," confirmed Aurora.
Cindy's mouth snapped shut. Future Libby swallowed before posing the obvious question in a fearful, hesitant stammer.
"How...how many years did you lose?"
Aurora sat up. "It doesn't matter. I've already lived longer than I ever thought I would. Losing a couple of decades is nothing to a person who thought they'd be stone cold in a week's time. I always knew I was going to die young, Libby...at least now, I'll die less young. Right now, I'm just happy to be alive at all."
They were all too frazzled to know what to say to this. Future Libby continued holding onto her friend's hand as Aurora stiffly got to her feet, and only released it upon the blonde's insistent tugging. Aurora shook her arms to get the circulation going, then cracked her back with a groan.
"Damn, this must be how it feels to get old. Glad I'll never have to deal with that bullshit."
Future Libby regarded her sadly. "Aurora..."
The rumbling, which had misleadingly died down for a few minutes, now picked up again in earnest. A huge crack shot across the ceiling and branched down the far wall, and sparks began to fly from the room's security cameras. Aurora nearly toppled over.
"What in the...?"
The shaking intensified, and the magnitude of the destruction increased by leaps and bounds. A generator exploded in the hallway outside, blowing open the door and venting soot into the main chamber. The cracked ceiling opened and dumped rubble onto the unprepared group below, who ducked and covered as best they could.
"What on God's green earth is going on?" exclaimed Aurora. "What's causing this?"
Libby picked a piece of wire out of her hair. "We were hopin' you could tell us..."
Another round of lurching tremors ripped a hole in the wall, exposing hidden electrical equipment and bundles of plastic tubes. The chemical fire that had broken out in the hallway began to spread into the control room itself, and Aurora forced herself to suppress her rising panic.
"Where the hell is everybody? We have to get out of here!"
She looked down at the unconscious Dictator Jimmy, the ground shaking violently beneath her feet. A shower of sparks rained down on her, and she threw up her arms to shield herself. Stumbling back, she caught a glimpse of a lone figure standing in the doorway.
"Who's there?" she coughed.
Another violent quake sent most of the group sprawling. The kids hit the floor as Future Sheen whirled to intercept Future Libby's fall. They both crashed to the ground, and Future Sheen crouched over her, using his body as a shield against falling debris. Aurora staggered forward, hacking on the smoke. A rush of flames sent a wall of heat slamming into her, but she pushed through it, arms half wrapped around her face. She squinted ahead, and as the fumes cleared, her heart leaped.
"April! You're safe!"
She dashed forward, flushed with relief – only to falter when she got a closer look at the silhouette in the door's gaping mouth. April stood as if made of stone, the contours of her face shimmering and twisting behind the curtain of intense heat. Sparks danced around her, settling on her skin like gilded snowflakes. Her helmet was gone, and her shorn purple hair floated lightly about her face in the firestorm. Her body, which peeked out here and there from between torn clothing and numerous wounds, was slick with sweat. Her lips were shut tight, and two streams of purple blood ran from her nose.
Aurora took a step back. "April?"
There was no response. April's eyes were cast in shadow, two black holes in her skull beneath floating, angelic hair. She took a tiny step forward, and her knee gave out. She caught herself against the frame of the door, and Aurora drew her breath in sharply. April's whole body quivered as she struggled to pull herself up. She moved forward, picking her way across the field of debris as if in slow motion, pillars of flame twisting around her. She kept her head down, eyes hidden, staring fixedly at something clutched in her right hand. She stopped a few feet in front of Aurora, then raised her gaze. Her eyes, abnormally clear and focused, were full of murder.
Aurora rushed over to her friend. "April! What happened to you?"
"Nav. Nav is dead." April uncurled the fingers of her right hand, revealing Nav's silver earring.
Aurora's shocked cry was genuine. "No! Oh, God! April! April, I'm so sorry! How did…?"
April's hand shot out and seized Aurora by the wrist. The bones made a crunching sound as April tightened her grip, and Aurora gasped in pain. A single drop of blood rolled down April's cheek from a gash near her hairline. She slowly swiveled her head until her eyes rested on the motionless form of the Dictator.
"He killed Nav," she said, her voice quavering. "He shot him right next to me. The only reason I'm alive is because Nav tricked him into thinking I was already dead. …Nav, why did you save me? Why did you rob me of my chance to die honorably in battle, fighting alongside you for the people I love? How could you leave me behind to languish like this?" She released her grip on Aurora and stumbled toward DJ, as if in a trance. "All the people that the Dictator has killed…all the lives he has ruined…and yet we came here to save him? To let him live? What were we thinking?"
A support beam fell from the ceiling and landed on the floor beside April. She stepped over it as easily as one would step across a small puddle, never shifting her gaze away from him.
"He will not get away with it. He will not. The plan does not matter. Nothing else matters now. He HAS to die…"
Her voice rose during the last sentence, and all at once she plunged ahead at a full run. She vaulted over a smoldering chunk of metal and, in one smooth motion, dipped low and grabbed hold of a piece of fractured piping. Its razor sharp edge gleamed in the firelight as she sprinted past the kids, who stared on in shocked helplessness. With a cry she slashed the weapon down, aiming for DJ's heart. Aurora was quicker. She intercepted the blow, catching the metal in one glowing hand. April looked up at Aurora in astonishment; Aurora's eyes were cold as her fire spreads across the makeshift weapon. Molten ooze dripped off of it, and April snatched back her hand, burned.
"Aurora! What are you doing?"
"Perhaps you've forgotten the reason we came here," returned Aurora.
The Gorlock woman bared her teeth in a snarl. "And perhaps you have forgotten where your true loyalties lie! That monster killed your comrade of six years, and yet you stop me from avenging his death? Have you gone mad?"
"Calm down, April…"
"No! Stand aside!"
When Aurora refused to budge, April pulled out a small knife from a scabbard hidden in her boot. She lashed out, but Aurora dodged it, grabbed her assailant by the shoulder, and disarmed her. April slammed into her friend, and Aurora reeled back. She quickly recovered, only to find April's blaster weapon staring her square between the eyes. April's arm trembled wildly.
"You are my best friend, Aurora, but you are acting foolishly. Stand down. I do not want to hurt you."
"Then why don't you try putting the gun down…"
"If he lives, Aurora, I cannot. I cannot live with the knowledge that the monster who killed the man I love will go free. You do not understand, Aurora…you cannot possibly understand!"
An electrical panel on the wall exploded, releasing a stream of blue-green sparks. Aurora strode forward out of it, hair swirling and tangling with the neon flames.
"You think you're the only person who's lost someone they love?" she yelled savagely. "You think you're the only one who's suffered? Did you forget that he killed my family, took away my best friend, destroyed my planet? That I was locked in a cell for three weeks while he did whatever he wanted to me? Don't you lecture me about suffering!" Aurora's hair blew in the whirlwind caused by the fire, sweat dripping down her face. "I've had enough of it, April! Enough! I want to fix this crap heap of a reality – I want make amends, and he's the only one who can help me do it! I've come this far, and I'm not turning back now. This is the only course of action left…and I'll kill anyone who gets in my way!"
April's sharp intake of air was lost beneath the roar of the destruction, and she took a tiny step backward. Aurora lifted Dictator Jimmy's lifeless form from the floor and slung him half over her shoulder.
"We're leaving, April," she commanded. "Move."
April crouched defensively, grip tightening on her weapon. The two women were at an impasse, feet planted firmly, conviction burning in their eyes.
"How can you DO this?" seethed April. "Have you no feeling at all? Have you no love for your comrades – do you feel no righteous fury at seeing their pain? He killed Nav, and yet you protect him! How can you side with a murderer over me, your closest friend of the past ten years?"
When Aurora showed no reaction, April cocked the gun and touched the barrel against Aurora's forehead.
"Put the gun down, April." There was a long moment of silence; everyone in the room watched in a state of gut-wrenching trepidation. "I said put the gun down, April."
For a second it looked like April was actually going to shoot Aurora. Finally she jerked back and, cursing, hurled away the gun with all her might. With a strangled cry she twisted around and slammed her fist into the side of Aurora's face. Aurora dropped Jimmy, and he slumped to the ground. The Gorlock woman charged at Aurora, punching her again and again, yelling out all the while. Aurora resigned herself to the assault, barely blocking her assailant's punches.
"Traitor! Double! Crosser!" shouted April incoherently. "How could…! After all we've… How could you? How? How could…!"
April's attacks started to lose their ferocity, and it soon became apparent that she was no longer fighting with the intent to win, but rather as a way to release her rage and pain and anguish.
"You do not even care! Heartless, unappreciative…! Nav always cared about you more than me! Always! He would have…he would have done anything for you! He came here because of you! And he died because of you! And you DO NOT EVEN CARE!"
Aurora cudgeled April's neck with her wrist, knocking her friend unconscious. She let the alien woman slide to the floor, then looked at the others, her expression pained.
"I had to. I had no other choice. I've never seen her lose it like that. She was in hysterics. She'll come to her senses later…" The room rattled violently. "… that is, if we manage to get out of here in one piece."
"What are we going to do?" panicked Cindy. "We wasted so much time that it'll take a miracle just to get us out of the main chamber, yet alone out of the base and off the planet!"
As if on cue, Jimmy and Future Carl picked that moment to storm into the room. Choking on the thick, toxic smoke, Jimmy called out to the others.
"Hold on, everyone! We're going to get us out of here!"
Cindy fanned the air in front of her face, trying to get a clean breath. "Neutron, what the heck is going on? What did you guys DO?"
Jimmy skidded to a halt. "It was an accident, but there's no time to explain...we need to get the teleporters online before this whole place collapses in on itself!"
Future Carl flicked a tiny, concealed switch on the side of the console closest to the door, and the outward appearance of the controls immediately changed. The blinking Christmas light setup fizzled and winked out, revealing a series of sleek touch-screens and clickable holograms underneath.
"Ah, that's a neat trick," admired Cindy. "I always took DJ for more of a touch-screen kind of guy anyway."
"I'm logging in now," explained Future Carl, "but I'm going to need a few minutes to work this out. Hang on, everyone."
While Future Carl administered to the matter at hand, Jimmy rested his hands on his knees and let his head droop down between his legs. He wheezed as he dragged in contaminated air. In the chaos, only Cindy noticed that his shoulders were trembling with more than just exhaustion. At first she couldn't put her finger on what was wrong...then she realized that Future Goddard was nowhere to be found.
"...Jimmy?" hesitated Cindy. "What happened back there? Where's Goddard?"
Still rasping, he managed a three-word response. "Worst case scenario..."
She frowned, but before she could ask for clarification, Future Carl interrupted. "Uh, guys...we have a bit of a problem."
"No shit, Sherlock," shot back Aurora. "The base is falling apart around us!"
"That's not what I'm talking about! I mean, maybe the sensors are just giving a false reading because of all the destruction, but the computer is showing a lone Gorlock warship hovering on the outskirts of the minefield."
"Who CARES? We'll cross that river when we come to it. In the meantime, just get us out of here!"
His hands flew over the screen, manipulating pages, selecting options, and filling in information. "I'm working on it! Planet-to-ship beaming is very complicated...I'm not even sure I remember how to do it."
"How's this for motivation: figure it out, or I'll shoot you."
Future Carl fumed, red in the face. "Oooh...! Just...SHUT UP!"
He jammed his palm down on a holographic button that had only just appeared on the console, and the kids began to experience a pins-and-needles tingling sensation running in from their extremities. They looked down to discover a stream of glowing violet particles rising from their skin, suffused like mist in a beam of light.
"Hee hee, that kinda tickles..."
Carl's giggle transformed into a gasp, and even Sheen felt a rush of panic.
"Sweet mother of Robofiend, it's pulling us apar –"
He never got to finish his sentence, for the room's occupants – Future Carl by the controls, April on the floor, the kids scattered about – dematerialized a second later. They rocketed upward out of the base, traveling at lightning speed through the ocean, the atmosphere, and into space, to their destination on board the Half Life. The sensation was akin to being plunged into dark, fast-moving water: there was no air, and no way of telling which way was up and which was down.
They re-materialized in the cockpit, a dim purple halo still floating around the edges of their vision. Within moments they got their bearings. The cockpit proved to be a spacious, high-tech compartment completely lacking in any appearance of perniciousness. The room's scientific air made it hard for them to believe that mass murder could have ever been carried out from within its confines. Aurora, shaken up by the transport, ignored her queasy stomach, bent over, and hauled up the comatose Dictator. She proceeded to drag him toward the front of the cockpit, struggling to heft his weight now that her adrenaline rush had receded. Nobody came forward to help despite her obvious difficulties in maneuvering him; by contrast, they all hung back, as if avoiding a contaminant. Aurora did not miss the irony of the situation – that she of all people should be the only one willing to touch him. With grim humor she dumped him face-first onto the control panel, then paused to catch her breath, one hand on the small of his back to prevent him from sliding off. After a pause, she summoned enough energy to yell for assistance.
"Carl, get your scrawny butt over here and help me with this!"
Future Carl looked puzzled. "Help you with what?"
"We need to get this bird up and running," replied Aurora. "I'm assuming you know what sort of security Neutron has – DNA? Retina scans? Password? He may be lying here like a useless chunk of meat, but as long as we have his body, we should be able to fly this thing. So get over here and fire her up."
"I-I'll try my best," he stuttered, "but I've never actually flown before, and I really have no idea how to work the –"
"Never mind that, Carl. I'm not asking you to fly it. I can say without ego and without exaggeration that I am one of the top five pilots in the galaxy. All you have to do is help me gain access to the controls, and I can take it from there."
"Oh...if you say so..."
While they attended to getting the engines online, the others were finally able to heave a sigh of relief. Free from the threat of imminent destruction at last, Jimmy sank to his knees in front of Goddard and buried his face against the robot's head. His body quivered, and when Cindy approached hesitantly, Jimmy made no attempt to hide his tears.
Jimmy nuzzled his pet. "Goddard, Goddard. I'm so sorry. I'm so glad you're still here with me. Promise you won't ever leave, please..."
Cindy crouched next to him and rested a gentle hand on his arm. "Neutron, what happened? Are you all right?"
Without lifting his head, he blurted out a tearful explanation. Though half of his words were muffled beyond recognition, Cindy had no difficulty understanding the story.
"I messed up, Cindy. I messed up bad. ...in the reactor co...I thought I...make it work, but I was... I killed my own creation, my own best friend. He's gone. Really gone. I watched him power down right after I...and I couldn't...I've never seen anyone die before. I know he's technically just a robot, and...know MY Goddard is still fine, but I saw what it'd be like to lose him...I tried my best, I really did..."
A cold lump formed in her throat. "Sometimes our best isn't good enough, Jimmy. That's just the way life is. The important thing is that you're OK."
He pulled away to look up at her, wiping red-rimmed eyes in wonder. "Somehow your complete lack of tact is comforting in this situation, Cindy. I can't imagine why, but it is."
"What can I say? I've got talent."
To her surprise, he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close, resting his head on her shoulder.
"He was suffering, Cindy, so I rushed to get him out. Deep down I KNEW better, but I couldn't stand the sight of him in pain. I wanted to help him so much that I threw reason to the wind. My love killed him, Cindy. I loved him so much that I gave in to his begging, when I should have insisted that we proceed logically and cautiously. What do you do when your love kills someone?"
Cindy didn't know what to say to a question like this, so she merely hugged him tighter.
"They say that love clouds your judgment," she whispered. "Maybe they're right. Maybe we'd all be better off without it."
There in the crook of her shoulder, he felt the warmth of her skin against his lips. "I don't want to love."
As her fingers moved up his back, Cindy could make out the shape of his shoulder blades beneath his blue suit. His intense vulnerability, coupled with the physicality of the moment, left her dizzy and flustered.
"Neither do I, Neutron."
Libby, Sheen, and Carl all noticed this breach in standard Jimmy-Cindy conduct, but just this once, they refrained from saying anything. Instead they turned to the unconscious April, who was lying bruised and ignored in the middle of the floor.
"Shouldn't we like, move her, or –" began Libby.
All at once the ship came to life, and the kids looked up sharply. Aurora dropped DJ and took her place inside the pilot's chair. As she prepped for departure, an icon began blinking on the dashboard.
"We're being hailed..." she announced.
She opened a communications channel, and Lady Jaya's transmission popped up on a holographic screen.
"This is General Hinabatagan Jaya of the – Aurora! Is that you?" She broke off, flabbergasted. "Are you piloting the Dictator's ship?"
"Not yet. But I will be as soon as I get the hyperdrive powered up."
"Aurora, this is an outrage! Do you know what our allies would say if they learned of this? I demand a full explanation of your behavior and that of your crew, followed by the surrender of any captives you may have taken while on P24-505. If the Dictator is in your company, I order you to bring him onboard my ship for immediate incarceration. Never mind the fact that you disobeyed your superiors, or that you cost us both alliances and funds with your little plan – if you did in fact manage to defeat the Dictator, it is imperative that you turn him over at once. We will discuss the matter of your punishment at a later date."
"And what if I were to tell you to go take a flying leap?" returned the blonde.
"Should you refuse, I will have no choice but to use force."
Aurora laughed contemptuously, and the sound was not a pleasant one. "Haha! Like hell you will! Do you honestly think your puny Gorlock scout vessel poses ANY threat whatsoever to the Half Life, the most powerful ship in the galaxy? I knew you were getting on in years, but I had no idea you'd already gone senile!"
"Aurora!" fumed Lady Jaya. "I INSIST you comply with my instructions!"
"You 'insist'? Boy is that ever rich, considering your current position. If I wanted, I could gut your pathetic tin bucket and leave you all to suffocate in space!"
Lady Jaya, seeing that negotiations were not proceeding as desired, took a moment to re-evaluate her strategy. She squinted past Aurora at the cockpit's other occupants – however, she was more interested in who wasn't present than in who was.
"Where is April?"
Aurora's eyes shifted ground-ward. "Well, right now she's catching forty winks on the cockpit floor."
"She is unconscious?"
"Actually, she looks pretty comfy. I'm kind of jealous."
Lady Jaya fixed Aurora with a stern glare. "Is April badly injured? When and where do you intend to release her? Who knocked her out?"
Aurora lifted her chin haughtily. "That's none of your business."
A vein throbbed in Lady Jaya's neck, and her voice rose to a shout. "Tell me what is going on! That's an order!"
"I'm sorry Lady Jaya, but I no longer take orders from you. And if you'll forgive my forwardness, I think I speak for all of us here when I say: SOD OFF, you old hag."
With this pronouncement, Aurora severed the connection. Lady Jaya and her cronies could only watch on, helplessly, as the Half Life passed unscathed through the minefield and coasted over to where the Shahada waited in orbit. The Half Life transported the much smaller Numerian ship into its cargo hold, then vanished into hyperspace the instant the bay doors closed. The Gorlock soldiers stood motionless, and a long time passed before Lady Jaya spoke.
"Corporal, I want you to patch me through to Strych Enterprises ASAP. Strych may be an insufferable twit, but he has money and connections, and right now we are in need of those assets."
"Forgive me, your Ladyship, but what exactly should I say to him? Everyone knows that Strych only listens when there is something in it for him."
"My call will interest him, let me assure you," said Lady Jaya. "Tell him that I have something profitable he can sell to the media...something very profitable."