Chapter 8: Evolution of a Tragedy
Aurora shifted in her chair. “Before I go back to the beginning, I think it would be best to explain what's going on now. You may have guessed that a lot has changed in the past ten years, and if so you've hit the nail on the head. Things in this reality are going downhill fast. April and I are caught in the middle of a vast conflict…a conflict that will ultimately decide the fate of millions of worlds.”
“Millions of worlds?” scoffed Cindy, leaning forward. “Isn't that a bit melodramatic?”
April met her gaze levelly. “It is not. Aurora speaks the truth. We face a terrible foe...a man who has destroyed whole solar systems and annihilated entire cultures in his quest for power. He is a remorseless killer and a sadist, and he lords his authority over your Milky Way galaxy and a number of neighboring galaxies, including mine. The chaos wrought by his conquests has in turn allowed multitudes of opportunistic lowlifes and petty warlords to come out of the woodwork – instability and exploitation are rampant. The Galactic Police are completely overwhelmed and on the verge of becoming defunct. Luckily, Planet Gorlock has thus far been able to resist any attack launched against it. The Gorlock army, as well as underworld agents and resistance fighters from hundreds of other worlds, have banded together to try and stop him.”
“April and I are part of that network of revolutionaries,” continued Aurora, a touch of bravado echoing in her voice. “So far, we haven't been able to take out this loser, but we won't give up. We will never give up.” Her voice slowed as she came to the end of the sentence. Aurora’s arm trembled almost imperceptibly as she leaned forward and picked up an unopened soda can. She raised her gaze, and the look in her eyes was nothing short of murderous. “I will destroy him for what he's done to everyone…for what he's done to me. Someday I'll have my chance, and when I do, I won't hold anything back.”
SNAP! The soda can burst, and purple liquid fizzed down her arm, staining her clothing and spreading into a dark pool on the table. Little streams grew out of the purple reservoir, snaking their way to the corners of the table, where they coagulated and rained to the ground like drops of blood. She closed her eyes and let the can clatter to the floor. Everyone was silent for a moment, then Jimmy spoke.
“I think I understand…so, you want our help defeating this guy? Sounds doable. I can think of at least five or six inventions off the top of my head that'd probably beat whatever he throws out at us. I could easily recreate them given the proper chemicals…”
“If it were as easy as that,” laughed Aurora contemptuously, “do you think we'd be in this mess? Please! What do you take me for? Unfortunately, the situation is a little more complicated. He is extremely dangerous.”
Cindy threw up a careless hand. “Pfft! He can't be that strong. Where'd this loser come from, anyway? And how did he manage to single-handedly defeat everyone? You guys are pretty pathetic if you all lost to one man!”
Aurora smiled. “In order to understand how screwed up things truly are, we have to go back...back ten years, to December 11th…to Libby's birthday party, when all of this really began.”
“My birthday? Uh...that's come 'n gone, and we don't have no evil dictators runnin' around.”
“Not in your universe you don't. But in ours, something happened on that day that changed our lives forever.” Aurora gave a long sigh, then glanced lingeringly at Libby. A sentimental glow came into her eyes, and for a moment she seemed lost in the past. “You and I used to have so much fun, Libby. I remember it so clearly...our trips to the Candy Bar, our sleepovers, our crazy adventures with Jimmy, Sheen, and Carl. The way you used to tell me to get over my pride issues and just talk to Jimmy…and then the way you'd turn right back around and pretend you weren't crushing on Sheen.”
Cindy, Jimmy, Sheen, and Libby all took turns blushing at these remarks.
“And most of all,” she continued, “I remember your 12th birthday party. You hired Gray Star to play, and BOY were you excited. Everyone was invited. It was gonna be the party of the year. Ha ha, remember how all the presents looked the same because everyone took that same wrapping course at the Learning Hut…and I alphabetized them for you?”
Cindy and Libby smiled in unison. “Ya…”
“Then I'm sure you also remember what happened next. Just before the party started, Neutron, Sheen, and Carl stopped by and dropped off their presents, but they seemed all anxious to leave again. I think it was something to do with some lame new invention of Neutron's. The "chronoarch" or something. But then that STUPID Betty Quinlan showed up, and that changed their plans quicker than I could blink.”
Libby looked up in surprise. “What? Betty Quinlan didn't come to my party!”
“Ya,” sneered Cindy. “I wouldn't have let her in.”
“Well, she came to the party in our universe,” said Aurora. “And it irritated the heck out of me, I might add. I couldn't get a word in edgewise…Jimmy spent the whole time hanging on her every move.”
Jimmy looked equally surprised. “What? I did? That never happened with us. We left Libby's and went back to the lab before the party.”
“You certainly didn't in my universe. You were such a pathetic tongue-dragger that day, Neutron. And when Gray Star played, you and Betty danced together…in fact, everyone was dancing. Except me.” Aurora leaned forward over the table and stared him right in the eye. “Do you know what it's like, to be the only one without somebody? To be all alone when everyone else is having fun? I swear, I could've jumped up on the stage and started spitting nickels and you still wouldn't have given me the time of day!”
“I would have!” interrupted Sheen. “Especially if you were wearing the same outfit that you are now!”
Carl nodded. “I would've noticed too! I love nickels!”
“Nice try you guys, but no. The point is, I wasn't exactly in a good mood by the time Libby started opening her presents. When she unwrapped Jimmy's gift, it turned out to be a white bottle of perfume…or at least, that's what I thought. Jimmy started freaking out when he saw it. He tried to take it from Libby. He said she couldn't use it, that it would ruin everything. He yelled at Carl...said he had grabbed the wrong bottle. That he had given her Megalomanium instead of perfume.”
“Megalomanium?” asked Carl. “You mean that stuff that makes you mad with power?”
Aurora nodded. “Exactly. But I didn't know that. I thought Jimmy was just being a jerk to Libby, and I wanted to get back at him. So I grabbed the bottle…”
Jimmy’s face grew pale. “Oh no…”
“Pointed it at his face…”
“And sprayed it in his eyes.”
There was a moment of silence as the kids absorbed the full meaning of her words.
“You sprayed him in the face?” gaped Libby. “What were you thinkin'?”
“I wasn't thinking.”
“Wait a minute!” shouted Sheen. “Are you telling me Jimmy's the one who huffed the stuff? But I thought Libby was the one who became an evil dictator!”
Jimmy looked like he was going to be sick. “Not in this universe,” he said, swallowing audibly. “So…I was the one who was exposed to the Megalomanium? Me?”
“Yes,” said Aurora quietly. “And after that, you were never the same again. It didn't happen right away. In fact, life went on for quite a while without changing too much at all. But soon, I started noticing that something was wrong. It was subtle…the way you treated your friends, the way you reacted to the little things. The way you started to seek out power over other people. I thought you were just having a bad week...but then the behavior continued, and soon it escalated.”
“What did I do?”
“Your manner went from immature to borderline to violent, all in a matter of weeks. At first it was impressive...your wardrobe changed, you stood up to the bullies, and you stood up to ME. You took charge of everything…and I was so dazzled by the new you that I was blinded from the truth.”
“The truth?” he echoed.
“You started making inventions that you had never made before…inventions that could only hurt, not help. And soon it was like you were a totally different person…even Goddard had trouble recognizing you. Your parents thought you were just going through a phase or something, so nobody figured out what was really going on. I think Carl may have suspected that something was wrong with you, but nobody really understood the extent of what would happen next.”
A patch of light reflected off the lenses of Carl’s glasses. “I knew?”
“You knew that Jimmy had been exposed to the Megalomanium and that it was changing him. But you didn't know what to do. Jimmy was your best friend after all, and you didn't want to upset him. And by the end of May, NONE of us dared to upset him. By then, Jimmy had declared himself supreme high ruler of the entire town of Retroville. Nobody had even bothered to fight back. But it wasn't enough; his greed for power was insatiable. Driven by the Megalomanium, he started a mini-conquest. Town by town, state by state, Jimmy let everyone know what he intended to do. He tried to get us to help him...and for a while, we did. But then Libby and I drew the line. He got so angry at us…he got so angry at anyone who refused to obey him.” She paused, then took a deep, shaky breath. “He came to my house one day and confronted me. He told me that he was going to make me suffer…suffer so much that I'd wish I had never been born. I'll never forget the look in his eyes that day. It was inhuman.”
Jimmy's face paled to a sickly white.
“And he kept his promise,” went on Aurora. “He resurrected an old favorite: the nanobots. You remember them, right? How they became so obsessed with human error that they deleted everyone on the planet? Well, he set them loose again. They deleted my parents first, then one by one, everyone I knew. As if that weren't enough, he sent them out after other targets, and it escalated to a terror campaign across the globe. Soon everyone was gone. Several of Jimmy’s old enemies managed to escape the onslaught, but I don’t think he really cared. By the end, the only people who were left were Carl, Sheen, Libby, and me.”
Jimmy reached out, as if to somehow prevent her from saying more. “Please...”
“Before he left, Jimmy came to see me again. I…I remember...it was so windy that day. I was standing in the street, looking up at the abandoned buildings, wondering if there was any difference between myself and the rest of the empty city. He walked up to me, and we stood looking at each other. He stared at me…just stared without saying anything at all. But he didn't need to. He knew he had won. I was broken. He had won.”
Aurora’s eyebrows knitted together as she surveyed their faces. Tears threatened to spill over Libby's dark lashes, while Sheen drummed his fingers nervously on the tabletop. Cindy couldn't seem to take her gaze off Jimmy, who was looking more nauseous with each passing moment. Aurora took a deep breath, then began again.
“Then, something strange happened. Jimmy couldn't look me in the eye. He started to shake all over, and for a minute it seemed like he was fighting the Megalomanium. He finally looked up at me, and oh God…I've never seen anything like it. He just stared at me...stared with this wordless desperation that I couldn't hope to understand. To this day, I still don’t know what, if anything, he was trying to tell me.” Aurora bowed her head, and her blonde bangs spilled over her eyes, casting her face in shadow. She kept her eyes downcast as she continued. “Afterwards, he forced Carl, Sheen, and Libby into his rocket. And then he left. He left, just like that. I was completely alone, the sole survivor of earth, a piece of cosmic driftwood. I had nobody left and nowhere to turn.”
No one said anything, and the silence was deafening.
“What did you do?” whispered Libby, almost inaudibly.
“I didn’t do anything. In the end, it was luck that saved me.”
April’s voice cut in, and the kids nearly jumped at the sound. “During the time that all this was happening on Earth, I sent a series of message rocks to Jimmy. They were not about anything in particular…I just wanted to keep in touch. However, when he never replied to any of them, I began to get worried. So, I decided to pay Jimmy Neutron a visit.”
Aurora shot April half a smile. “You can imagine my surprise when April showed up at my doorstep. I’ve never been so happy to see anyone in my whole life. It’s funny. Our past squabbles seemed so insignificant…almost like they had happened in another lifetime.”
“After I found her, Aurora told me everything that had happened. I was horrified, but I realized that immediate action needed to be taken if we were to stop the newly evil Jimmy from destroying anything else. I could not just leave Aurora marooned on a ruined world, so I offered her the chance to fight back…I offered her a one-way ticket to Planet Gorlock.”
Aurora shrugged. “I had nothing to lose, so I went with April back to her home world. Pretty soon I learned that the strange and frightening new planet could also be a refuge…a clean slate, and a new beginning. I grew up there, in a sense. The person who I had been on Earth was gone.”
“When we were only 13,” explained April, “Aurora and I joined the resistance movement, and we have been part of it ever since. In the eight years since then, we have dedicated our lives to the struggle. So many things have happened…”
Aurora broke in. “Ya, ya, they don’t need to know all the details. Lord knows I wish I could forget them. All the rest aside, I think you now have a pretty clear picture of what happened, and what’s going on at the moment. Do you understand what we’re up against now?”
Jimmy nodded slowly. “Yes, and it's far worse than I imagined. I'm still having difficulty processing all this – but your story at least made one thing very clear: we have help you. After all, this is as much our problem as it is yours. This may be another universe, but it's still OUR lives we’re talking about.”
“So, we’re all agreed,” said Aurora with an air of finality, before the others could voice opposition to Jimmy's resolution. “I’ll give you a briefing about upcoming battle strategies soon. But in the meantime, I think you kids better get some down time. You look like you’ve all seen the Ghost of Christmas past. April, why don’t you show them to the spare rooms while I clean up after dinner?”
The kids left the table and followed April down the corridor and back into the cockpit. They shuffled along as if in slow motion, each trapped with their own thoughts.
“This way, everyone,” said April softly.
She led them through another corridor and down a short hall. They came to a door on the right; about five feet down there was another door, nearly identical to the first.
“OK,” pointed April, “the first room here is for the girls. The second one that you see there is for the boys. I hope that you all get some rest. You have been through a trying ordeal today.”
turned without another word and disappeared down the hall. The kids
listened as her footsteps faded into an echo, and the echo faded into
to Volume 2