Saving Zim by Dib07

Summary:

When you had it all. When old age forces you to change. When life isn't what you'd imagined. When you aren't prepared to be so powerless. When a soldier's undetermined future remains his greatest fear.

Warnings:

Zim Angst. Violence, language and distressing scenes.

Blocks of text in italics means that it's a flashback.

Disclaimer:

I do not own the IZ characters. However this story and this idea is mine. Cover art lovingly designed and drawn by TheCau.


A/N:

This is the angst you all get when I have a keyboard in front of me! I implore you all to find me, and take the damn things away! XD

And uh man I gotta implode again with happiness, Hailsdoesart, aka Queenstiel has done fanart! Oh gods I wish it could hoist it up on this page! I love your style, Hailey, and you are officially the third person to draw Clara! I love how you've drawn her the same way Alicartin has done (which reminds me, Discount Smeet needs updating lol). BirdNerd03 has also drawn her so damn well, and omg I DON'T DESERVE THIS! Every time fan art flags up I think I am going to literally die from joy and shock and surprise. No joke. Someone may need to have an ambulance on standby or something. XD So thank you so, so, SO SOOOO much, Hailey. I always reel about it. I just write crap, and then get so much love and joy in return. Sharing this story was the best decision I have made. And it's been a journey. I cannot get over what you did - I really can't. I love you. You're still one of the reasons I updated not so long ago, (And piratemonkies64 and OMG SO MANY!). And yes, I see you have finished The Game, and I am dying to catch up and read it. (stories come and go too quickly, don't they?) Congrats on finishing it. Wait for me, I am coming to devour it soon! XD

Temporarily I have included the tracheal intubation (well, extubation) scene (Note to self: tracheal intubation makes pulmonary edema worse) for YOU RissyNicole! Gosh. Well, what you ask for, you shall receive! Heh! Enjoy! Lol! When you read it, you'll know why I omitted it! It's just angsty!


guestrev

Yes, everything seems to be on the up. (fingers crossed)

Guest

Haha! Gods, please don't die on me! PLEASE!

Guest

I know. I know! I do too many bad things. XD

Moops

Omg that was such the cutest thing you wrote. Lol. Angry lil hands. So cute.


CHAPTER 37 (43): To be Old and New again

'Can we keep our bearing straight
Or will we be blown off course
Are we instruments of fate?
Do we really have a choice?'

Boat Song - Woodkid

Clara knew she would get reprimanded for her clutter that had grown from a small pile, to various slightly bigger piles. First it was just the paper bag containing all her knitting essentials, like the yarn, the needles and measurements. They had evolved into clothing of various fabrics and colours, all of which would fit Zim. It was ideal when you had a patient who didn't move. Many times she took a tape measure and measured the length of his arm or legs and waist and chest to get an ideal measurement. And to add to her clutter was a stack of old books accumulating on the middle shelf – of which they were mainly old fairy tales she had read and enjoyed as a child with few privileges from the orphanages' limited library, like Peter Pan, The Last Unicorn, Jack and the Beanstalk and many others.

She dipped a cloth into the warm water in the plastic basin, rinsed it out and used it to wipe the feverish shine from Zim's forehead. He drew back away from her in sleep; probably having a nightmare or a very surreal dream. The colour had returned to his cheeks, and he no longer looked like he had been rubbed in snow.

The professor came in, preposterously tall and authoritative with his stern lab coat and enclosed expression with a stethoscope resting across his broad shoulders. He came across as always so mutually formal as if, during the course of his life, he had forgotten how to converse with his fellow species. "Ah, young lady! During our ill tidings I have had the misfortunes of not remembering my manners. How are your accommodations?"

"Just fine, thank you." She was surprised that he had allowed her to sleep in the same room with her fiancé, in a cosy double bed. However, despite the friendly lodgings, Prof. Membrane intimidated her just a little. Maybe it was because she could not truly see his face, or because he was so aloof in all things. Or maybe it was because she got the impression he was always sizing her up. After all, Dib was something of a celebrity, and she was just a stray. A nobody. An orphan.

Then he glossed over her book and knitting collection, and she inclined closer to the bed, hunching her shoulders; just knowing he was going to mutter his disapproval.

He looked at them with vague disregard, as if he was curious, yet not really bothered by them. "I'm sorry." He said. "I didn't quite catch your name. Clara...?"

"Vernon. Clara Vernon." She muttered it quickly, as if the sound of her own surname hurt her mouth.

"Ah. Yes." Then he disappeared into the room next door, and her heart sank. He was probably typing her name into a computer, and seeing the incriminating results that would follow. It would not be the first time this had happened to her.

And when you had a fiancé whose father was super smart, how could she believe even for a moment that the surface of her integrity would stay untouched?

Anybody could look at anyone's history these days. Privacy was becoming scarcer by the day in this modern world where anything about anyone was digitally engraved on the internet.

Five minutes later, the professor returned, nonchalantly humming some tuneless tune, and holding a clipboard charting Zim's progress as if that's what he had been doing all the while, and had not reading up on her history.

She felt cornered: belittled, even though he had not yet said a word, and was only visually checking the ECG patterns while he hummed a tune.

Funny how secrets always had a way of getting out. And no matter how small they were, they still put dirt on her.

So, she tried to be brave, adopting Zim's fondest trait, and said to the professor: "Are you going to tell him? Tell your son about me?"

The professor turned to her, perhaps estimating her character. Her question. And deciding whether he should acknowledge it or not. But he surprised her, as he always did. "You are... a very perceptive young lady." He said, having to come to terms with the admittance. It was not often he was caught out. Not often someone else could read him. "I know what... loss can do. We've all lost something or someone dear Miss. Vernon. You need not apologize or explain anything to me. It's the present that counts. Not the past. If you tell him, it'll be on your own terms, not mine."

She smiled. She couldn't help it. "Thank you." Dark visions of being abandoned again were temporally vanquished. She regretted thinking of the professor as some aloof, calculating human being. He did what he had to do. He was human too, and as much as she battled to quell her fears, she reminded herself that she didn't need to be so wary of him after all.

He really was a smart man, like the world said he was.

Clara dipped the cloth back in the basin again when she saw one smooth, long antenna bob and flex. The professor had noticed, and remained impeccably calm.

Like a wilting grass stem, it came to rest on the pillow, and stopped moving.

If consciousness had been breached, however thinly, it had not lasted.

Clara wasn't sure why the little thing wasn't waking. He wasn't on sedatives anymore. Only painkillers, strong dobutamine and other medicines the professor was gently applying as a try-and-test method in case any one of these drugs could make Zim worse.

The professor approached the bed with a blood pressure monitor, and wrapped the enormous Velcro cuff around a twig of a pale green arm once he had rolled up his pink sleeve. "It's imperative that we remove the intubation tube. I hope to get to work on his PAK-device this very evening! And we cannot forestall or delay the procedure. Keeping the tube in him will only weaken his lungs in due course. As it is, the oxygen levels in his blood are back up to scratch."

The PAK in question – like Zim's body – was monitored around the clock for any signs of changing. Its state had remained the same since Zim's admission – the exterior shell seemed to be exhibiting excessive heat as if whatever acted as the coolant had failed. The little pink port lights were unusually dim, and could barely be discerned when all the lights in the room were shut off. The ports were likened to the dwindling embers of a used up cigarette butt after Dib had tossed it to on the gravel outside: watching the cinders fade and die.

"Professor," she began, "how are you doing to do this exactly? Fix his... machine device?"

The professor adjusted the Velcro strap. Started blowing up the air from the valve to compress the inflation apparatus around Zim's arm. "We're going to approach this in two big steps, Miss. Vernon."

"Please, call me Clara."

"First, we get the mite breathing on his own. That should be straightforward. Second! I shall amalgamate his PAK with modified parts. Such a procedure will no doubt challenge my wisdom. It could cause neurological complications, respiratory and circulatory collapse. But that's the worst case scenario. All in all, he has a sixty percent chance of survival! And I like those odds. Psychological damage, however, is something I cannot determine."

Even if he could feasibly get back on his feet again, he may not want to.

Whenever Zim did wake, for mere seconds before sinking back down again, hardly revealing little more than a slant of watery red from under his eyelids, he did not seem to notice the tube down his throat, or the way his lungs acted without the personal efforts of his body.

"I think we'll try to remove the tracheal tube now." He said. The blood pressure device deflated. The professor took the measured reading from a singular glance. "Staying on compulsory oxygen is making his pulmonary edema much, much worse! The bed rest has done him good, and though I would much prefer that the mite be more awake for this procedure, I think it would be best if we get him breathing on his own again this instant."

"Maybe I should get Dib..." She wasn't sure where he was, or what was taking him so long. It could be that he was with Nurse Joy again, having his burns soaked in cream, or kicking at stones in the lab's garden. She felt that she did not know him anymore. He was a different person now. Did not listen to her or anybody in fact, and stooped into his own dark thoughts far too often, and for far too long.

"No, no! We'll do just fine. Let's remove this tube, shall we?" He went to get some equipment, mainly the external breathing apparatus.

Clara turned to Zim whose wrinkled eyes were still pinched shut. "We're removing the tube in your throat. You've got to start breathing again." She told him in clear words in case he could hear her. "It'll be over soon."

The professor meanwhile was untangling the respiration tube as he prepared a less invasive respiration model: the normal breathing apparatus with the plastic mask. "Keep talking to him." The professor advised. "And tell him to try and breathe. I'm going to remove the intubation tube as quickly and as painlessly as I can."

Clara visibly tensed, her hand squeezing Zim's claw-mitten.

"Sit him up, gently Clara. Support him. Carefully now..."

She did as was instructed; gently making sure that Zim's head was leaning into her shoulder as she shored his little body upright.

The professor cupped the outer mask with his hand, and, with the other, titled Zim's head further back. After removing the outside tape that kept the mask in place on skin, he started dragging it upwards and outwards. There was a gurgle as the tube was lifted out of the old Elite's lungs: scarping along his swollen throat. The ECG spiked with fast, loud blips.

"Easy, easy!" Clara coddled him, feeling the corded tension bunch up inside his body.

"Almost there!" Prof. Membrane drew out the last inch of it, and it scraped out between Zim's teeth. Drool and discharged blood followed its retreat. As soon as it had come away, Clara mopped up the spillages around his mouth with a tissue but just as the professor was about to equip Zim's mouth with the new oxygen mask, the little Irken started burping up more blood. Clara went white, her body freezing up on her. Dark visceral fluids dripped out of his lower lip and teeth.

"This is no good!" The professor acted rather startled with this new development, and leaned Zim's upper body forwards slightly. "Cough it out!" He told the Irken. "You must!"

Blood pattered onto his clean bed sheets like rain drops.

"Cough!" The professor slapped the side of his chest in an effort to wake him up: to bring him out of whatever daydream he was in. "Clara, tilt him back slightly, to his left side!"

"Breathe, Zim! Just breathe!" She coaxed, feeling fresh waves of fear strike her like punches to the gut. She didn't know what to do, only to await some kind of miracle like a useless fool.

Suddenly his little chest moved – not by much. Just a shy jerk.

The professor began thumping Zim's little chest where his diaphragm was located. "Breathe! Draw in those little lungs! Cough! You must!"

The lack of air must have done something. For Zim cramped up weakly, his slow brain registering the absence of sustained air and the inexpiable loss of it. He was trying – really trying to inhale. Clara suspected that Zim had weak lungs – the lungs of an insect. His lungs were not strong mammalian lungs. He was quite possibly a creature who had never been designed to hold his breath for very long – for he did not need to swim and hold his breath, for example, or to really do much on his own without relying on the PAK. His lungs did not have the capacity or the efficiency as theirs. Even Dib himself knew that they had been too diaphanous to see when he had used the organ x-ray device back when he was a kid.

In desperation, Prof. Membrane was hitting the Irken in the back by using the side of his palm, trying to shock Zim into action. There was a croak, and then a cry as Zim sucked in a thin slither of air before he rattled with deep, chesty coughs. The professor quickly placed the soft plastic of the oxygen mask over him, and held it in place, hoping the concentrated levels of air would provide immediate relief to his lungs.

There was a great cankerous cough that spewed black blood against the inside of this newly positioned oxygen mask. Clara was rubbing his back up and down, and the professor drew away slightly, as if he was giving space for Zim to breathe, allowing him time to get used to the arduous task newly demanded of him.

Another cough followed the first, and more blood joined the first splatter.

"Easy, easy." Clara was rubbing his chest, and watching him very, very carefully for signs of pain or shock. Zim could not endure any more of either.

Zim gulped down another desperate slither of air, his underworked lungs wheezing loudly. His head was slung low, and each heavy exhale made the insides of his oxygen mask fog up. Clara could literally feel Zim shaking. His arrhythmic heart was hammering with accustomed unsteadiness, its distraught pitch echoed back in the ECG. She suspected that Zim could still feel the ghost of the tube down there; wedged inside his throat and lungs.

"Shush, little creature." The professor cooed gently, "Deep breaths. One at a time, little one. One at a time. Take as much time as you need."

Slowly, the fit of panic that had so seized the invader started to trickle away. He was drinking in breaths a little easier, which cleared the painful fog in his head, and dissipated the leaden fire in his lungs.

"Easy now. Easy does it." The professor whispered. They didn't move for a while, allowing Zim time to adjust to breathing again. It's okay." The professor gently put a hand over Clara's arm, and gave her a reassuring squeeze. She still could not take her eyes off the Irken. "He's breathing. All by himself. But he's exhausted. I'll prepare for the next phase. We do not have much time."

"Time? What do you mean?" She asked, looking at him now, a stray band of auburn hair hanging between her wet eyes. "He's too weak for anything else right now."

"I know, dear Clara, I know."

-x-

Clara turned the page of Peter Pan, looked at the next word and struggled to find the strength to continue. How many days had she spent here, how many hours had she sat on this very chair, looking over the many medical instruments when the tedium stretched onwards to an uncertain eternity? She lowered the book with nervous hands, feeling foolish for reading out loud to no one but herself, when she saw Zim stir. She paused, her blood chilling to ice, and every single word suddenly wanted to pop out of her mouth, and, paradoxically, she had no idea what to say at all.

Velvet eyelids opened to a scratch, and autumnal red shined out between them. Claws, battened by tough mittens, flexed beneath the blankets. His healthy antenna stretched forwards: listening, feeling the atmosphere like whiskers on a cat. The hypnotic blips on the ECG escalated into quicker, shorter strokes.

She wanted to call for somebody. She had no idea where Dib was. As of just lately, he had gone off the map. The professor was going over the new instalments for this PAK-thing, combing through it one final time, even though she was sure he had finished work on it earlier this afternoon.

Zim winked those eyelids closed again, his tiny body tensing beneath the soft, cream-coloured blankets as if he was about to tip into a seizure. The antenna fell back again. The accelerating blips did not decline.

She knew she had to say something. Was it her reading that had woken him, or was it the absence of her voice?

Clara reached out, and gently touched the bone of his shoulder beneath the soft silk of the blanket. She could feel him trembling through it.

"Zim? Easy! It's me, Clara! You remember me, don't you? Hush! It's going to be okay! You're safe! Safe!"

Those eyes, tired and secretive, like dark alcoves in a forest on a summer's day, opened again, his pinkish orbs coasting over to look at her from the depths. She felt cold, unnerved. Scared. She hadn't expected the moment to suddenly come, and with her all alone with him. "It's Clara!" She said again. She knew he could speak. The tracheal tube had been gently removed last night when the oxygen levels in his blood had improved, and the professor had replaced it with a standard plastic ventilation mask to keep his lungs from getting too irritated. Zim had only been semi-conscious at the time, and not all there for any one moment. And perhaps that was a mercy, given how much blood he had coughed out from the edema after the tube had been removed.

Clara glanced, in a panic, over her shoulder to see if anyone was coming in, if anyone was close by. Where were they when she needed them most?

Zim tipped his attention away from her, his eyes seeming to lose focus. He was trembling again. It was probably shock.

"Zim? Please, it's okay."

A deep, calm voice beckoned from behind her, and her horror melted away at once. "Now, now, there's no need to fear me, or anyone else here." Professor Membrane walked into the room with sedate steps, and he reached the edge of the Irken's bed. His antenna barely moved to sum up this new intruder. It was like his veins, his nerves, his brain was doped. But he had been off the strong sedatives for almost fourteen hours. "We're here to help you." To lessen his great height it seemed, the professor bent down onto his knees by the bed, the ECG at his back, and even then he was still quite high. And he continued to talk to the old soldier. "You were in a lot of pain when I got to you. You knew you could have come to me."

"Pro...professor..." Clara started, "He's... he's shivering."

He frowned at the interruption. "What you are feeling will be strange, little one. But I assure you it's for the best. Now, let's get you sitting up."

There was a squealing, piglet-like whimper from the Irken, and Clara's heart tore at the sound.

The professor's large gloved hands, looking far too rough and cumbersome for such a gentle job, carefully raised Zim's heavy head. "Miss. Vernon. The pillows."

She had to physically jerk herself from her own palsy – her shock, and immediately started to shore up the two soft pillows.

Like he was handling a cracked eggshell, the professor slowly, tenderly lifted Zim upright, securing his weight so that he couldn't flop forwards or sideways. Then he was eased against the arrangement of pillows, and the professor shored up the creamy blanket so that it kept his bandaged chest warm. Through it all, Zim's mentality seemed to float, like an unfettered cloud. His eyes were still soft ruby grooves, never really looking at them, only through them if they happened to be in his line of sight. Then the professor turned on his knees, and started fetching something out of a drawer by the bed. Clara gently snaked her long fingers around one of his mitten-claws, and squeezed it. Something registered in those dull, weedy eyes of his, and his head turned slightly so that he could look at her.

I know what it's like to lose it all. She wanted to tell him so badly. To raise him away from the platform of his agonies. To think that you have no one. But it's not true. Not true at all.

The professor had a tiny, sharp hypodermic needle cradled in one hand. "It's a little pick-me up, little one. It'll be gentle on your system." Zim's dull gaze broke from Clara as he tracked the needle in the larger man's hand. The shivering spread to his antenna: to his knees beneath the layer of blankets.

He must be so confused. Clara thought. "We should get Dib! I think Zim would like to see him!" She could not stand to see Zim this way. He was so tiny, so lost and frail: an emblem of desolation. Where were his rebuffs? His strong will and character? It had all melted away, leaving them with this trembling wreck of an Irken.

Professor Membrane passed her a look which could have meant anything.

Zim's eyes were still on the needle, and Clara could feel his claw weakly flexing in and out as he worried. Then he coughed. It was a weak, syrupy sound, reflecting the fluids within, and greenish blood splattered the inside of his breathing mask. Instinctively, with her free hand, Clara rubbed his back below his spherical device.

"Is he in pain?" She asked the professor, for Zim seemed unable to reveal these urgent questions.

"No, no he shouldn't be. He's on strong analgesics that are better on his system than some others I've tried in smaller doses."

"Why isn't he talking to us?"

The professor fell back on the analytical approach because it was what he knew best. "His vocals should work fine. Memory may be lacking, but I assure you he can speak." He lifted the hypo. Zim swung his gaze away from it, antenna flattening against his head, leaving his crooked left to stick, propped out, as it had always done.

Lifting a loose sleeve of pink, the tip of the needle went into the skin above the Elite's elbow. Zim shut his eyes in a bitter scrunch, gurgling the faintest mewl.

"Just a little sting," Clara encouraged, giving him all the comfort she could give, hoping it would liven his spirit, "to help you feel better."

Zim's heaving chest hitched a little as he endured the invasive cold bite of the needle. Clara was sure it was the act of the thing that upset him most, and not what it did.

The professor emptied the medicine into the vein, and drew the needle back out again, closing the pinprick hole with a cotton bud. Then, ever looking for the next task at hand, he lifted away Zim's breathing mask, swabbed out the blood with sterile wipes, and placed it back over him again.

She could barely tolerate his look of multifaceted fear and abandonment. "I'm... I'm going to get Dib." She let go of his wrapped-up claws, left her seat and walked to the threshold of the door, but before she had taken one step out of the room, she heard a brittle croak that might have been a scream if he had had the strength to issue it. She turned, and saw Zim looking pleadingly at her from the bed. Then his eyes rolled into the back of his head. It looked like he was falling unconscious. She ran back, grabbed those claws and ran a shaky hand upon the bone of his skull. "I'll stay." She said, "I'll stay."

His chest heaved out a breath as though he had just drawn a long sigh, and those tired eyes cleared a little as they opened again. The trembling abated.

Still, he did not speak.

The professor looked to her, as if surprised Zim needed anything, let alone her company. Then, saying to Zim, he said, "I'll go fetch my wayward son. Keep in mind, my friend, that as soon as I'm ready, and I will be very shortly! I am going to repair your mechanical PAK device as much as I am able. Then you can cause as much chaos as your little heart permits." He patted Zim's head like he was somebody's pet, and he walked away to get Dib.

Zim, leaning lifelessly into his pillow, looked at her occasionally as if to see if she was still there. His wild, feverish shivers had weakened, and he looked much more restive.

Perhaps the injection the professor had given him was working. Then a hand at his left side lifted up to rub at his chest, as he might have done not so long ago, and Clara instantly caught it, and smoothed it back on upon his lap. "No." She said. He was probably doing it more out of habit, then actual pain. Irkens were not good contenders with discomfort. They tried to defeat it, attack it, like it was a physical enemy, and not something they were willingly able to tolerate. Their PAKs, she was quickly learning, carted away that measure of hurt effortlessly. Now Zim had to deal with any shortcomings himself with no tech to depend on. And he didn't know how else to deal with pain. "You mustn't do that."

There was a rush of feet out in the corridor, and Clara's skin bristled at the noise that sounded so acute and destructive in the calm she had built. Then the bludgeoning clatter of feet stopped short, as if the owner was aware of the noise, and Dib appeared in the doorway, a sweeping smile filling his face.

It was like seeing an old reunion of high school friends.

Dib glided in, looking tall and aglow with timid joy, and Zim's right antenna shot up, his glazed eyes opening wider than they'd ever gone since he'd woken.

"How are you doing hotshot?" The young man asked, taking up position on the other side of the bed, looking as drawn and as pinched as Zim did. "I've missed you. More than you know. And I didn't think I could ever miss a cranky alien or your contempt for the human race."

Zim looked up at him, and there was a ghost of contentment, Clara was sure of it. But he still did not voice a single word. And she could plainly see the splinter of sadness dent Dib's fragile happiness.

"You feel different, don't you?" Dib asked him. "I know you do." He stammered into silence for a moment, as if weakened by Zim's alien apathy. He could not tell what he was thinking. But Dib must have looked inward, saw the resolve there, and brushed the trepidation aside. "It'll feel strange, and you may hate it for awhile, but trust me, you will feel so much better."

There was no open rebuttal, and no denunciation from his alien. It had felt like years, not months, since last they were in the Treaty; teasing each other about their lives, their differences. There were times when Zim had lifted the table over when he had lost to a game of chess, or checkers, (and he didn't lose often), and it always drew the attention of the other pub goers, forcing Zim to give them a guilty smile, and a lame excuse. Now the Elite didn't look like he had the strength to get up and move. And, after this PAK renovation, the professor intended to get Zim up and walking to improve circulation before atrophy set in.

Irkens had such lean, condensed muscle, that they atrophied surprisingly quickly.

Dib looked like a rock face about to crumble so Clara stepped in; "You're going to come and live with us, Zim, as soon as you like."

The faintest spark of surprise loomed in the Irken's dark, glazed eyes. It was as if he was so convinced of his own loneliness, his own shame in his defeat, that he had never ever considered such an outlandish possibility.

"How about it, Fudgekins? Coming to live with me and Clara? You'll get your own room. Your own little place to call home." Dib asked imploringly, but he was growing desperate the longer Zim was mute. And as much as he tried to batten down the lid of his own panic, he could not. "Zim? Zim please speak to me! Say something! Call me names! Swear at me! Do what you do best and hate me!"

Zim remained a floppy, slumped doll. He breathed. He blinked. It was about all he did.

Dib looked to the professor who had returned and was presiding close by. "Dad, he's not... not brain damaged, is he? When you tried to get him on oxygen..."

"His brainwaves are functioning adequately enough for cognitive purposes." His father returned objectively. He then lifted up an arm, and read something on the touch screen on his wrist. "I'm off to acquire all the instruments necessary for his repair. I shan't be long." And he disappeared again.

Dib looked down at his alien again, seeing that Zim had closed his eyes.

-x-

The professor had exhaustively scanned the PAK beforehand, having uploaded its integral design into his computer to study its mantle, and its secretive core, so he knew what to look for, and where most of the damage was hiding.

Even though Dib had been praying for this moment, it still came too soon. Gravity thickened around him, making each footfall seem more defined. Each syllable spoken somehow more amorphous. He wasn't ready. But he knew they had to push on.

Zim, barely surfacing from his sea of unconsciousness, was gently moved onto a bench for easy all-round access to his body. Beneath him was an absorbent mat, and on top of that was a heater blanket. The oxygen tanks had been moved to stand beneath the bench, and any excess tubing had been tied up. The professor had monitored and studied his vital signs for anything that might show a subtle weakness that could prevent the ceremonial opening of the PAK, but so far, though his vitals were in the critical zone – they were stable enough to proceed.

"You can be brave too, Zim." Dib whispered, holding onto his little white mittened hand. Zim had been positioned to lie cantered on his chest, so that he lay on his right side. His head was supported by a shallow pillow, and his left arm was also supported by a blanket to keep his body evenly aligned. This helped the professor access the stationary PAK without any inopportune incline.

Zim's eyes always foretold of the withdrawn Irken confined within. His pinkish pupils never moved or shifted under the duress of Dib's voice, his touches, or his presence. He never acknowledged the professor or Clara as if they were but paper fragments blowing about in the dark realm of his apathy. His face was lined and pale with exhaustion.

"We're going to repair your PAK now. Just as we'd originally planned." Dib told him, not relenting in the face of Zim's mental atrophy – just banally chatting away as was his usual nature. He always waited for a response, no matter how tiny or remote.

His father was setting aside tools, checking to make sure he had everything at the ready. But his ministrations went unnoticed as Dib purely focused on his oldest rival. His oldest friend. "Zim." He entreated on a personal level, trying to see what was still there, behind his faded eyes. He wanted to reach in, and pull Zim back out of this jaded shell of depression. "It helps. To talk. About how you feel. There's no harm in giving it a go."

Zim exhaled slightly harder, causing the inner plastic of his mask to mist up, but it was the only indication he gave. It was almost a sign of impatience; the usually conceited annoyance he emitted when Dib had said something ludicrously stupid.

Dib persisted, glimpsing the remotest signs of life stir somewhere inside. He wanted Zim to relax, and shirk away those principles the military had stamped into him. Because, really, who was watching, who was taking notes? It was almost as if Zim believed himself to be a performer on a theatrical stage, and that someone, somewhere in the darkness of the back row, was taking notes on his performance; judging his underlying commitments to the Empire. It was not beyond Zim's selfish realms of belief.

When still no retort was forthcoming, Dib tried something else: "I want you to survive this, butterball. We need you. I need you. I can't look at my burns without you. I'm too afraid to see the person beneath the bandages on my own. I'm pathetic, Zim. I'm half a man without you."

He knew this to be true.

Enemies always baptised the hero in fire. Without a good antagonist, something viable to overcome, how could heroes ever improve? And have the strength to overcome their inner demons along the way?

"I have everything set out now. The future I always wanted. Except, it won't be what I want. Not without you by my side. You wanted me to have babies with Clara? You know, with my 'applicable' partner? Yeah. I'll have them. And you can be their fucking uncle. How about that? You want to be ordered around? Clara can be your new Tallest. You idiot. You selfish, fucking idiot."

Maybe, in losing Gir, Zim had had to confront a deeper failure in himself, a latent defeat in his duty and role as an Irken soldier.

Everything Zim ever did encompassed his solider-ego. And it frustrated Dib to heck.

"I'm getting you back on your feet, you bastard." He said quietly. "I'm not letting you give up. You want a purpose; I'll give you a purpose. You stupid alien. You've got to fight."

Watery light filled Zim's crescent-moon eyes, but it could have been from the overhead surgery lights the professor had just flicked on. But those diaphanous pink pupils were finally falling upon his own eyes, having shifted to look up.

His eyes seemed to say: There is no battlefield here. Where are the drumbeats? There is nothing to fight for, Dib.

Dib clutched his mittened hand. "Your battlefield is right here, and the drums are your heartbeats." He wanted so badly to understand the inner mysteries within the soldier.

Zim had never been the quiet one. It just wasn't in his nature. His new sullen disposition only served to remind Dib of the Irken's broken reality, and the insurmountable losses. He wanted Zim's old authoritativeness to break out; he wanted his robustness to return. He wanted the Old Zim to come roaring back into the fray, untouched by all the corruption.

"This is still your fight, Zim. You can't give up. You never allowed me to throw in the towel. Why should I behave any differently with you?"

He waited for some final summation from Zim that would help the human to better understand him, and to see if he had truly broken through at least one of Zim's towering high walls. But, if that wall had truly trembled, it remained standing true.

"Because I am not convinced you are willing to go. I know what your ultimate fear is." He waited, seeing if Zim would react. "It's losing me. It drove you to destroy Gir. It drove you to commit yourself to the black reaches of a merciless space. I mean too much to you. You were willing to give up everything for me. And you didn't do it for the promise. You did it because you've made a life here for yourself. You made a comrade out of me. Don't turn your back on it now."

The professor came over, shattering the moment. "Son," he said purposefully, looking set and ready for the hard fight ahead, "we've got to begin the procedures at once! No dallying about. I assume you've memorized the schematics in your head?"

"Yes, dad." He had studied them, and studied them until his head had become padded with lethargy from staring at the diagrams for so long. Even if he had had another two months to study them, he still wouldn't be any more ready than he was right now. He expected his dad to lead, as if he was a pioneer in an expedition to New Lands. It was an endgame situation Dib knew he would have to eventually come to terms with, if his plans to help Zim with his PAK would follow through, and it had.

So really, he could never be ready.

His father passed him a pair of surgical gloves. Dib slipped them on, feeling cold inside, like he'd just swallowed ice cubes. His father, already wearing gloves, gave the ECG screen one last look. Clara, who had not wanted to oversee the operation, walked in hesitantly, wearing one of those green aprons. She too put on gloves, and she didn't look at either of the two men. Only when she took the stethoscope from one of the units did Dib give her a hopeful wink. She smiled back, but it was dropped in the next instant.

The professor peeled back the blankets and unlaced Zim's gown to access the PAK. Its dull pink ports lights could no longer be discerned under the harsh, cold glare of the overhead surgery lights, and its tarnished metal surface underscored the collection of scratches, dents and blackened scorch runes. It may have once been perfectly oval, and perfectly shiny when Zim was new, before it was bashed about, weathering an anthology of accidents, clumsy bumps and general wear and tear. It had served Zim well, in all retrospect. For it was a manufactured edifice that had survived for a century and a half. There were few tools that man had ever made that could last so long, and under such high usage.

All the newer parts, cheaper, and no doubt inferior to the original equipment of the PAK were all laid out and labelled on a bench nearby, ready for the transition. Clara kept close to Zim whose eyes were still wedged shut, as if frightened of the next step, and having no power to do aught else but hide. She sought his mitten, held it to her face, and spoke to him, the other hand stroking the back of his head.

"Son?" His father's voice tugged him back to the task at hand. Dib gulped, and accepted the asbestos mask handed to him. He put it on. It was better to not breathe on the delicate gears and tubing inside Zim's PAK. If water erosion was the problem here, then water vapour would be on his breath, and he did not want to be pouring that all over Zim's life support. His father tugged one on too. "Let us begin."

Dib nodded, and felt his chest fill with a pressure he could barely breathe past. He wasn't ready.

The first obstacle they had to overcome was of course the removal or the circumvention of the PAK's mantle. Built to thwart most damage and to insulate and protect the delicate intricacies inside, one could not deliberately force their way in unless they had the right tools to go about the job. Careful extrication was necessary. And the PAK seemed to be built to protect itself from brute force should any enemy try and crack it open. Only Irkens knew the backdoors to their own PAKs, getting them open with the formal ease of sliding a key through a lock. The professor had thought of sliding tweezers or pliers into the small cavity to try and 'tease' the mantle open as if it was no different from opening a box. What they had not foreseen in their strict plans was Clara's minimalist approach.

"Zim. Can you be really brave for me?" She asked of him. He continued to draw in air through the mask, remaining stagnant in his comfortable inertia but the heavy lines under his eyes marked emotional strain: and the cost of living. "Soldiers can face anything, right? I bet this is nothing to you. You must have been through so much in your life, and survived it all. So this should be easy, right? All you've got to do is open your PAK. You're safe. Always safe."

Dib shook his head, and approached her. This was getting them nowhere.

Then his father cried: "It's opening! Dib, quick, the spanner!"

Dib went back round; saw with his own eyes the mantle opening up like the window of a cockpit. The two halves peeled out sideways, on joints so that they could flip back all the way to reveal the exterior rims, as well as the mechanical viscera inside. The bottom half slid down on a silent hinge.

Zim had just done them an enormous honour: something Dib would never have believed he was ever capable of doing.

Was it finally trust that had broken through? Was it purely to win Clara's challenge, falling into her gambit? Or was Zim thinking; 'what the hell?' in his own morbid way of complying with them, because it was all useless to him anyway?

It was like looking into the confusing network of a circuit grid with an alien mix of sci-fi superfluity thrown in to just amplify matters. Of course, Dib should have known straight away what he was looking at, and what all the different nodules and tubes and breakers did, having sat and stared at the schematics and diagrams long enough to store something useful in his brain. But, by glancing into the majestic aura of Zim's industrialized composition that radiated pinkly in a weakened, fading glow, everything he should have learned seemed to slip out the backdoor.

The one thing that was very clear was the evident theme of corrosion. It had saturated parts of this synthetic anatomy without remorse. Tubing that was once coated in one uniform colour was shadowed in abnormal stains, and sediments of blackened rust had accumulated up and through passageways. So much so, that these rust deposits were now incorporated into Zim's working parts, like cholesterol manifesting and solidifying in the arteries.

Attempts to clean himself of this decay must have been unsuccessful, leaving the condition unsolved. Or he foolishly might have expected some new PAK instalment to fall through the letterbox of his door, for Zim had discreetly mentioned something of the sort prior to Gir's attack.

The scans had picked up on this caustic rust, giving him and his father detailed views of the corrosion. But it still somehow looked worse when they were seeing it for real. And Dib had not been expecting the pink glow either. It pulsed faintly, like a languid heartbeat, dull and lifeless to an almost grey shade. It seemed to come from no definable source, yet appeared to be emanating from all of Zim's delicate internal functions. This led to the strong belief that every piece of Zim's PAK did something for its host, whether it be a passive function, or impassive in terms of influence and control. The vital, integral layers that involved Zim's memory banks, encoded drives and organ efficiency were the deepest parts: his life support. This delicate core was the second brain – and it was covered in a gel-like layer that the professor did not dare touch.

The old invader's engineering tools, stored deep within the PAK in their meticulous folds, would also have to be plucked out. This included his welding lasers, communicator and other things. This lightened the PAK still further, and enabled more room for the professor to adapt the PAK and make it run smoother, thus easing the strain on the integral core.

His father bent down slightly, and took a set of pliers from the bench. He moved these over to the internally stored communicator – mainly used in the past for calling upon Gir in times of need. But again before any of them could predict it, the communicator levered outwards towards them on a thin pole, making its severance easier.

Zim was manipulating his own tools from the rocky plateau of his shaky mentality, saving them the hassle. Dib did not have the luxury of time to ask him why he was being so... uncharacteristically helpful. Usually, when Zim did anything anomalous, stepping out of the benchmark of his consistency, it was purely for something maniacal and selfish; something that would later serve him in unknown ways. This unnatural compliancy worried Dib.

Dib frowned. Was it because Zim didn't trust them, that he was doing this? If he gave them his armatures for easier disposal, it meant saving himself from feeling the invasive scrutiny of fingers trying to weed them out manually, right? That made better sense than thinking of it as Zim's alien willingness to help.

Or maybe it's because he's been in so much pain, that he just wants it to end? He's at the end of his endurance; he's done with the games, done with the masks and pretences. He knows he's at our mercy. One step from being autopsied. He's afraid of what's to come, should he live or die. So he's complying, only because he doesn't know what else to do. He can't fight. He's too weak, but to lie here and await whatever outcome we choose for him.

It was a sad thought, a sad reality. And he believed this was why Zim was so quietly conforming. Then he looked on over at Clara, saw her using the stethoscope to listen to his heart, her other hand stroking his head, talking to him so patiently and lovingly all the while.

The professor dipped in, closed the pliers over a badly frayed wire, and cut its top end clean – trying to deftly cut around the filaments inside. He accidently nipped one. Zim's left hand jerked, and a pained groan flew up his throat. It made his erect antenna flay upwards in surprise.

Dib, hovering close, and feeling like a useless third wheel, watched the delicate process as his father melded a new tube back into place. "The filaments within are connected." He said. "I accidently snipped two. So intrinsic is the connection between biological tissue, and cyborgenetic implants, that I am astounded at the perfect symbiosis of the two. I shall try to be more careful. Every dash of line, nodule and duct seems to serve some intricate purpose, connected as they all are to his nervous system."

Dib respected the fact that his father was doing his almighty hardest to get it right the first time round, even though he was still learning. It was one thing on a graph, and doing it for real on the patient. Zim's PAK was likened to a timed explosive. Snip the wrong wire, and BANG! You might accidently activate his life clock, or something else.

The professor seemed to know more or less what he was doing. But Dib was lost in translation. To him, The PAK was as alien as it could get. He had no idea how to even begin to understand what part did what, and how on Earth his father could fix what needed fixing. And it glowed! As if it harboured Zim's essence inside, and that, if something should break, it would release his spirit, like a genie from a bottle.

The professor strained over the PAK, configuring how the newer bits and pieces would adapt and fit into the device's cavity. Dib supposed it was like trying to fix an antique clock while it was still ticking.

"If this works... how long will he have to live?" Dib asked, his voice slightly muffled by the asbestos mask.

"I'm not sure at this stage. This contraption has certainly gone past its prime. Its parts are worn down, and many nodules that carry around this strange blue gel have been dented, causing the gel flow to stop. Some of it has overheated, and burnt out. I can do what I can, but it will never be the same as it once was."

Next, Professor Membrane employed a tiny drilling tool, and gave Dib a small suction device. "I'm going to begin removing the worst of the corrosion. As the rust comes off, I need you to suck it away before it settles somewhere else. All set?"

"Y-Yeah."

"All right then!"

Without the fear that would have frozen Dib to the core, Membrane proceeded as if this was just another ordinary day in the lab, leaning over a delicate experiment. He turned the drill on, and it emitted a high, keen whine. Like a dentist's drill. He began to zap against the shoreline of rust fetched hard against a nodule, scattering it into flakes. Dib routinely sucked it away, every loosened bit of debris flying up into the suction.

It was impossible to tell if they were hurting him, as gentle as they were trying to be, or if Zim was purely reacting out of fright. For he could not see what they were doing: could only feel and hear, and have his body respond to their prying at strange and surprising intervals he could not prepare for. Regardless, Zim's stress levels were increasing.

There was so much rust. It was like stripping barnacles away from a ship's infested hull. The worst amounts were tackled, the smaller deposits left alone, for the professor seemed aware of Zim's rising tension and the very sudden actuality that they had less time to work on the PAK than they had originally planned. So combing through the black and sometimes white oxidation had become a much more hurried undertaking.

"Clara, what's his current heart rate?" He called over the drilling.

"Two hundred and twelve!"

The professor continued curbing the solid lumps staining integral machinery, not letting up. Dib meticulously kept in line with his father's progress, knowing that one stray bit of fragmentation would go to parts elsewhere, and clog up something else if he did not suck it clean away.

"Professor! Professor!" Clara sounded frightened now, like a young girl lost in a forest, calling out for help, "He's getting worse! He's panicking!"

"But this shouldn't be hurting him!" Dib protested through clenched teeth behind his mask.

The professor raised the drill out of the PAK, switched it off and went round to placate the now shivery Irken. During the brief commission with the PAK, his body temperature had plummeted, despite the electric heater blanket beneath him. The professor shored a thick blanket over him, covering up the open PAK as well, forcing Dib to step back with the suction device still in his hand. Ruefully, he pulled the mask down from his mouth so that it hung around his neck. "It's all right, all right now," the professor said softly, trying to curb Zim's amalgamated terror, "Don't be afraid. Come now. Take big, deep breaths for me. That's it, little one. No need to panic. Everything's under control."

Dib tried to see past their arms, trying to see Zim.

Clara increased the heat levels of the blanket beneath by one more notch. It could go no higher. It was now on maximum.

Zim's trembling – fierce as it was – as if every demon had revisited him while they hadn't been paying attention – lessened in small, gradual doses. It was like someone had put him in a freezer for as long as sixty seconds.

"It's the sound of the drill." Clara confessed, looking at Dib and his father with equal remorse. "It's frightening him."

The professor turned to his tiniest of patients, and rubbed his shoulder under the blanket. "Zim, little one, I must reduce the layers of corrosion in your PAK device. The only way I can productively shift it is by using that drill! I know it sounds horribly loud, but I assure you that I am not going to hurt you with it. That I promise!"

Dib wasn't sure how well Zim would be able to understand anything of what they were saying, or what was going on. Maybe he regretted his PAK admittance, and was once again conflicted with thoughts of dissection. Of captivity. Of having no control.

Zim, having his eyes scrunched tight, opened his right one slowly. Who knows how many insecurities he was going through, how many fears he was being presented with from the crevasses of his own panicked-mind? For when he opened his one eye, it was filmy with tears. He swallowed several times to perhaps try and express his horrors, but he never said anything. He only whimpered.

"Just a little more. It's got to be cleaned." Clara assuaged him, stroking his head.

The professor knew he had to come to some genus of consolidation so that work could continue. It was no good trying to salvage a PAK when the Irken they were striving to save died from trauma. But it meant increasing the dose of sedation: a sedation that did not mix that well with Irken chemistry. It had been something he had wanted to avoid for the duration of Zim's recovery – if he could ever reach that stage – and now saw that it was foolish for holding out on it. Realistically, he had wanted his alien patient both awake and alert to better determine his reactions to the manual repair, in case they damaged him further by accident; such was the nature of working on something they still knew little about, and had only studied from documents and diagrams.

"Block it out for him dad." Was Dib's final input on the matter, helping to sway the professor's decision. "We need to do this quickly. It's no good if we're stopping and starting all the time with his life support open to the elements like this. If his life clock begins its countdown, all this will be for nothing."

"Very well." He slipped a dosage into the alien's catheter. Zim's right eye shut fast, and his breathing and heart rate slowed in as little as one minute. The professor made sure he was out by slapping his wrist and addressing him sharply to stir a reaction from him, and when the Irken was listless in sleep, not rousing at all to the aides, they continued their work. And so the drilling went on, much smoother and easier now, without worrying their patient.

The collection of erosion was tamed, its deposits better managed. A lot of the delicate material began to surface, as if they were unearthing fossils from rock. Tubes were uncovered, and tiny knobs and bolts. When the professor passed him the drill to access smaller deposits further inside that his bigger fingers couldn't reach, Dib really did feel like an archaeologist. It was still theoretical if repairing Zim's PAK would reverse his age, and make him young and healthy again. It was too soon to ask, way too soon, but it pressed on Dib's mind like a burning question, and as much as he feared the old Zim, with his relentless energy and cosmic ideas, he actually – really missed him.

"Uh that'll do, my boy! That'll do!" His father took the drill from him, turned it off and did the last bit of suction himself, finding any and all lasting debris. Zim's devices looked much cleaner. Of course, a lot of them still had a skin of corrosion in some places, being too far to reach, or the machinery underneath just too delicate to mess with. But all in all, they had removed about 70% of Zim's calcified deposits, which relentlessly gave Dib the impression of cholesterol.

Now, it was just the diseased parts.

The professor tweaked around, carefully easing off one piece at a time from wire follicles or nodules he had to unscrew, and replacing it with an exact duplicate. The ephemeral absence of any one piece always did something to Zim's body. When one nodule was removed, it sent Zim's claws into a spasm, as if they had unwittingly interfered with his muscular skeletal coordination, and were messing with his sync drives. Of course, this was only speculation. For all they knew, each one part that was removed messed with the real brain in Zim's head, confusing its nerve networks from the second electronic brain, and causing these nervous-system disruptions. This incessant duty, fallen to him and his dad, put daggers of cold fear through Dib's heart when he began to think that their repair work might give Zim permanent injury: like brain damage for instance. No one human had ever got this close to a PAK, much less be honour-bound to fix it. As much as the professor was smart, and as much as they had tried to gain from theory and documentation research, they still knew precious little about its practical nature, and what every piece of it did. For all Dib knew, they were fumbling about with Zim's gross motor functions, and that, if the Irken should wake up fine the next day, he would only then discover that he could no longer walk. They could even effectively make him go blind by accident.

These very real notions, all clumped together into one huge anxiety-storm, made Dib drop back, still holding onto a scalpel he had been using to pry off a tiny length of tubing. The professor distractedly gave him a look, his concentration diverted. "Son? Where are you going? We still have much to overcome!"

Now was not the time to say stupid, melodramatic things like: 'I feel sick.' But he honestly did feel sick. And awful too. For messing around with, and swapping things about in Zim's cybergenetic brain. Who knew what part of the PAK made Zim heal, for nothing in there was labelled, or coded. It was all the same grimy pale blue and pink colour, the glowing within still a slow, languid beat. An Irken might know straight off the bat, with but one lazy glance of what did what, and what thing did what for what body part. Maybe Zim's integral healing ability: the very thing that might reverse what time had done to him was within his core – the very thing that lay under a shell of gel.

"Son?" Now the professor was peering at him more anxiously than before. Clara had also raised her head, the ear cap of the stethoscope plugged into her ears. They were both looking at him.

"Sorry, I... I..." He was about to divulge the truth, ready to lay bare his torturous emotions, when his eyes skimmed over the table loaded with instruments and tools. He picked up a torch, trading it for his scalpel. "I was looking for this."

His father nodded. "I need you to attach this. It needs to be fast. It's pumping out a blue substance. It's best we don't let it spill."

Dib went back into the fray, trying his best to keep his hands from shaking.

Like mechanics attending to the needs of a car's engine, they worked on it for another twenty minutes.

It was hard to see the exact detail under all that blue gel, but Dib could see circuits and tiny, thin wires interconnecting, like nerves in the brain. Lots of metal glinted through the gel, also reminding him of the circuitry in a computer's motherboard. Little lights glowed within, sometimes dimming, sometimes brightening, like the PAK was thinking. Oftentimes, waves of pink light would flow across these wires, and Zim's left foot would twitch in response.

Then Professor Membrane came with the new PAK bypass. It was sophisticated rubber tubing that split three ways and was implanted with a regulation chip. It was meant to sidestep around the bent or burnt out parts of the PAK and carry the gel around the PAK without interruption. The gel's function was largely unknown, but it was vital to Zim's survival. Maybe the gel acted as a lubricant for the other parts to work, or it acted as a coolant, or something else entirely. Perhaps it even helped with the PAK's natural electrical conduit. So the professor meticulously started to drill the tubing and chip into the PAK's mantle to service the parts within.

What was worse; the professor was implementing human instruments into Zim's PAK. Zim hated man-things. Hated human technology, calling it barbarism at its worst. And now, it was going to be a part of him, for the rest of his life. So it was quite ironic that Zim had human equipment nestled in his Irken technology that would keep him alive.

The tubing was in place, and the chip started directing the gel flow. The three-way rubber valves started to work, and the gel was moving through the parts, causing Zim's integral ports to light up again in a warm pink glow. The exterior tube was warmed by his internal blood system. And it was also glowing.

The professor leaned back, smiling.

Without Zim to do it for them, Membrane carefully began to align and refit the shell back again piece by piece from the bottom up. It was like putting 3D puzzle parts of a tortoise's shell together.

"How do you know you've done everything?" Dib asked worrisomely. He was glad it was over, and pulled off the surgical mask from his lower face.

"I just do, my son."

"You're not going to put any of his old gear back in?"

"He won't be needing them. If he wants the best out of life, he must change." It sounded like wisdom. But to Dib, it only sounded vaguely foolish. Like telling a child not to run.

The PAK was completed, each correctly placed piece slotting into the other, ensuring a tight, secure fit, as if internal locks automatically activated upon contact, ensuring a tight, reliable hold.

Finally, Zim was moved to lie on his back again, the pillows ensuring the support of his PAK. The antidote to his sedation was administered into his bloodstream.

It was done. It was actually done.

But Dib didn't feel all that proud. There was no telling what they had improved, until Zim woke. No telling what they had done. Or had made worse. All they had to go on was computer results from the blood analysis. The professor took a new sample from Zim's arm within the first ten minutes after the operation.

Zim lay with his eyes shut. Dib waited by his side, tense with that ever-present worry he had never truly shaken since Zim's collapse at his home.

You have some strange tubing in your PAK now. Fuck, you have tubing everywhere.

I'm sorry. But I wanted to save you. Is this all worth it? I want you to be happy. Did I go too far?

Dib imagined some metamorphosis to take place, should the PAK be abstained from the worst of its deterioration, like something out of the movies.

Zim's white skin colourisation did not improve, and neither did his crevassing wrinkles or the inflammation in his joints that were still hot to the touch when Dib felt them under the blankets. Even the savagery marked deep into his chest did not spontaneously heal over.

Dib was a little put out by this. He imagined that once some of the PAK's parts had been salvaged and repaired, Zim would get younger again. His wrinkles would fade, his aching joints would disappear, and he would be the young, viscous invader he remembered. But that did not happen. Whatever Professor Membrane had achieved, Zim looked no younger. The tubing, partly translucent, sluiced around with blue liquid outside the PAK's exterior shell like some unearthly intravenous that looped back inside. The bypass was a success. Or so, his father kept telling him.

"The bypass consists of a cable that'll send electrical liquids to his PAK to help it function. It is what he needs."

Nothing would ever be the same again. There was no coming back from this. Dib supposed that it had been like this since the obliteration of Zim's home.

Dib blinked, noticed how dry his eyes felt.

At a little past ten, one hour after the operation, the rain picked up outside. It sounded like someone was dropping hundreds of pebbles onto the roof of the lab. Behind Dib, on a table, were about eight used coffee mugs. He hadn't eaten, and had purely lived off coffee for fuel. Clara had tempted him numerous times with all his favourite foods. But Dib simply had no appetite. The only things he did consume, other than more coffee, were painkillers. He had them every four hours, popping them out of their blister-packets as if they were sweets, and downing them with the help of hot, sugary caffeine.

Under the musical duress of the storm outside, the wind thumping against the brickwork as if it was testing the building for weaknesses, Zim slept on. Dib, who had not taken his eyes off him once, sucked in a breath: his body tense with anticipatory fear. What had become of his Irken? What mental prowess was retained after their attempts to save him? Had they switched around parts of his brain, or what? WHAT? Not knowing killed Dib inside.

"Son?" It was his father. He had entered the room looking solemn.

Dib turned, said a very shaky, "Y-Yeah?"

"What you've done for him is admirable. But he is a creature of intelligence, and of free will. We must allow him to make one final decision."

He did not like his father's new tone. "Dad? Where are you going with this?"

"We must allow him to choose. That way, you can both be happy." He sat down beside his son, and told him the plan.


Dib07: Ugh. Getting Zim on the same page is like trying to ask a mountain to move over. Hope you enjoyed that, dear readers. Managed to shorten 20 pages down to 13. PHEW!