Turning all against one is an art that's hard to teach.
Strains of an old, angry Earth song echoed in Zim's head as he skimmed through the datapad report on the reconstructive surgery the Irken Rehab Alliance had just performed on The Almighty Tallests.
"They came in with crushed ribs, re-organized organs, and plexi spacers stuck between most of their vertical bones. Maximum leg muscle atrophy too." Dib's voice was subdued. "I was in their PAKs, you know. They were hopped up on an ungodly amount of drugs to keep the pain at bay. I'm shocked they were up to making any leaderly decisions at all. They were lucky to have a force of loyal, skilled Invaders able to interpret their general dictates into specific actions."
Zim nodded his head slowly, recalling to mind gossip about seemingly random executions the Tallests had prompted, poor leadership decisions he'd never thought to question, and unusual insistence on stupid, pain-based entertainment like Probing Day. Turns out the Tallests weren't even the tallest except by design, and Invaders bore far more responsibility than they for upholding and extending the glorious Empire.
"What was that political word about monarchs in modern day?" Zim muttered under his breath.
"Figureheads," Dib supplied. "Though in this case, 'puppets' is a lot more accurate."
With their ribs reconstructed and their spacers removed, the Tallests wouldn't look the same as before, which was to their benefit. The more they blended in with the rest of the Irken race, the less chance some angry Vortian, Meekrob, or even Irken tracked them down and murdered them in cold blood. They might be able to lead normal-ish lives. After intensive physical therapy and rehab, they might even be able to walk on their own.
Zim smiled, tapping the screen. "You know, that was almost fun. Besides the nearly being executed bit. Did you see their faces? It was… priceless." The sentence still came haltingly, but he understood the meaning behind most American expressions by now. "You're much more subtle than you were when we first met and all you could do was shriek about aliens. You could practically be an Invader yourself."
"Yeah, well, becoming a supervirus living in a superprocessor for a few hundred years will do that to a personality."
Zim set the datapad aside, turning to stare out the deep-space window-wall of his quarters aboard The Massive. He did this more for Dib's sake than his. The hyuman never got tired of staring out at the star-spangled expansion of space.
"Zim." It was a soft reprimand, but Zim didn't want to think about it.
"A little longer," he pleaded. "Just… can't we enjoy this a little more? We just won. It was everything we wanted it to be."
A heavy sigh, but this time Zim wasn't corrected. He glanced over his shoulder to where Dib sat, now admiring the view Zim had given him with appropriate awe. Dib was absolutely and completely here with him to witness the victory they'd planned. He'd lived to see it it. All that hard work, and now Dib would be there to help with everything that sprang from their success. Rehabilitating the race, restructuring their society—
Dib's head swung around, his eyes fixing on Zim. "Knock it off. Right now."
Zim growled, shutting his eyes. "I want to think like this!" Zim insisted. "Nobody is forcing me! So why not?"
"Because it isn't what he wanted for you. You sink back into denial and there's no telling how far you'll regress or what you'll lose. You'll be spitting in the face of all the progress you've made. You've come this far, Zim. You really can't afford to split off from reality now."
"That's precisely why I need you to stay!" Zim balled his claws up, staring fixedly out the window, away from the image of Dib. The one that was just a projection to his optic nerve from the code harbored in his PAK. He caught a glimpse of its stern-faced reflection on the viewing window, which hadn't been there a moment ago. A very smart code. It refused to leave his line of sight, now.
Dib shook his head. "You've had hundreds of years. That's more than you normally could have had, and the only reason Dib even agreed to this was on the condition that you—"
"No. I don't want to. I can keep you here and you know I can. I won't let you erase."
Dib's disapproval seared him. Of course he knew what Dib would have wanted, the fool had embedded it too thoroughly in the code they created to let Zim forget.
"It's so stupid." Zim hissed, jabbing a claw at the reflection. "Other hyumans leaped at the chance to extend their lives when that research became available."
"Yeah, and the fact that not all of them wanted to live for millennia should have clued you in to something."
Seething, Zim shouted, "YOU were stupid, stupid head. I moved a whole planet into an alternate universe where time ran slower. You could have just let us stay there. Instead you pitch… pitched a fit. Insisted I put us back. I hate you. Why couldn't we just have stayed there? You weren't done teaching me. You broke your promise!"
Zim ground his teeth. In the last century or so, the AI had stopped rising to the bait, leaving him enough space and silence let him pick apart his own statements and, flirk it, he even knew why.
"Just because I'm getting better at doing this by myself doesn't mean I don't need you here!" Zim knew he was grasping at straws, but he didn't care. "He's gone. I know he's gone and you're just a program, but you're all I have left. Why can't I keep that much? If he's gone, why does it matter if I keep you around against what he said? He's not here to know. It doesn't hurt him."
"Because it will hurt you and your whole race in the long run if you don't learn this lesson." Zim's shoulder warmed slightly as a projected hand rested on it. "Look, you haven't begun to get to the bottom of why this whole Control Brain situation happened in the first place, but I'd put money on part of the reason being fear of death gone awry. Part of our plan was a three plus generation weaning off PAKs, right? Back to naturals, so someday Irkens won't have to manage the brain-chemical fallout of mind control. Part of that is learning that there are worse things than death, and to face death as a part of life.
"So, yeah. I pitched a fit that you tried to slip me Rejuv shots and yanked my whole planet out of its proper place to keep that from ever happening to me. You weren't gonna learn this lesson properly from anyone else. I absolutely kept my promise to teach you all I could, in fact this is one of the biggest lessons I had to teach you and I could only do that by living out my whole life in front of your eyes."
Zim's head hung between shoulders hunched in. He pulled his legs up, tucking knees against his chest and curled over them. He'd argued this innumerable times already and he never won this fight. Dib had ingrained his mindset too solidly in the program for it to be swayed. "I don't want to learn this one."
"You obstinate bug-eyed menace." Dib muttered. Zim barked a short laugh. He hadn't lost his touch. He could still get under Dib's skin. The laugh choked off as a cavern opened up in Zim's chest, swallowing the humor into a black hole that devoured any vision of the future. They'd won, but it didn't seem to matter in the face of losing what remained of this one stupid earthling.
"Hey. Hey, stay with me." Dib's fingers snapped in front of Zim's face, drawing his attention back to the familiar face. There was a small, sad smile on it, now. "Wanna see a magic trick?"
Aching, Zim managed a tiny nod.
"Okay. Watch. Nothing in my hands." Dib waved his hands, showing the palms and the backs. "Nothing up my sleeves." He offered the sleeves of his trademark trench coat for examination. "But hey, how did that get there?" He reached just past Zim's field of vision, withdrawing a quarter. "Zim, you shouldn't hide coins behind your antennae. How are you supposed to camouflage properly if you're reflecting light off your head?"
His vision of Dib wavered, suddenly blurry.
"Wanna see another one?" Dib said, softly. Without waiting for a response, he produced a hat and fished around in it, continuing. "An Earth kid who didn't have a friend in the world managed to hit the lottery. Sure, he had a few life-threatening situations to deal with first, but after about a decade, he found," and here, Dib produced a small Irken plush from the hat, "He had the most loyal friend he could ever ask for."
Dib pulled a deck of cards from the hat, discarding hat and plush together. "Wanna see another one?" He shuffled the deck. "The most infamous Defect in the history of the Empire gets sent to exactly the right place in the universe. Kinda like saying, 'Hey, pick a card!'" Dib spread the carts out, facedown, with the sweep of a hand. The line of cards hovered mid-air, and Zim flinched from the subtle reminder that this was just an optical projection. "Stay with me, Zim. Pick a card."
Dutifully, Zim chose one at random and eased it out from the line, peeking at it before placing it back face-down. Two of shovels.
"Spades, but close enough." Dib nodded, then returned the cards to deck-form and put Zim's card on top. He cut the deck, losing the card in the middle, cut again, and dealt one card face-up. He slowly dealt a few cards face-down from the top. "So, the Defect picked a single human and bet everything on him. And at first, it only paid off in one way." He nodded at the few face-down cards he'd dealt. "Go on, flip the top card."
Zim did so. "Two of sh—spades."
"But he had more up his sleeve." Dib reached forward, toward Zim's neck, and retrieved the three of spades. Then the four of spades. Then the five of spades. He continued pulling spades out of Zim's collar, his sleeves, and his antennae as he said, "And the two of them put in so much work and got so many assistants that they were able to topple the Control Brains themselves and save the future of the Irken race, as well as innumerable others. All this just by surrendering the Defect back to the Irkens at the right time, and delivering a specially crafted virus right to their core system." He threw the whole deck up in the air, each card twirling as it arced up and showered down. "Think about how many other races you freed in addition to your own, Zim. Tell me this whole thing hasn't been the greatest magic trick ever."
Zim gave a small nod.
"But every show has an end. It's time to draw the curtain."
Zim squeezed his eyes shut.
"Time to graduate, Zim. Anything else you learn, you've either got to find out for yourself or by reaching out to other people."
Zim gulped air. "Is… would he be…"
"Yeah, idiot. He'd be proud of you. And I think he'd be bawling like a baby over the level of acknowledgment he got—just like you promised. And that acknowledgment has only just begun."
Zim scrubbed at his eyes. "I think I'll need a break from this mission. Go back to Earth for a while."
"Visit Dib's grave?" The corner's of Dib's eyes crinkled. "Why would you ever want to visit a hyuman's rotting, smelly remains? Isn't that gross and weird?"
Zim laughed again. "Yeah. It is. Your dumb customs are bizarre and filthy… but… weirdly honorable."
"I'll take it."
Zim continued to stare out the window wall. There was nothing left to say. He could feel the code turn in on itself within his PAK, disintegrating line by line. Within seconds, he was truly alone with himself.
A few hours later he stood, stretching to ease the stiffness in his limbs. Not quite among the aged, he still was not nearly as young as he used to be. Slipping a hand under his collar, he pulled out a quarter attached to a thin, silvery chain that looped to the back of his neck. Rubbing it between his claws eased the sharp twist in his spooch a tiny bit. Though perhaps some food would be good as well.
He left his quarters, hugging the right wall as he focused on the shiny bird on one side of the quarter. Quarters and quarters. Radically different meanings to the same word, depending on how you used it in a sentence. Human languages made jokes about this all the time in all their different forms. He was just starting to understand the humor of it, but continued to marvel that they survived long enough to reach space with a ramshackle communication system like that.
Zim glanced up. Two Akiridion-fivers approached, each pushing a hoverbed. They each took up a side of the hall, so Zim would have to scoot to the middle. Saluting the Akiridions, he side-stepped to the middle.
Zim's antennae jolted as he recognized the occupants of the hover-beds. Purple squinted at him, his expression oddly slack. Zim took in the size of his body at a glance. If he stood on his feet, he would barely be taller than Zim. His eyes slid to the other bed, where Red regarded him with open-mouthed horror.
"What… I…" Red's eyes filled with liquid, his antennae twitching with fury. "What! Did!?"
One of the Akiridions grimaced. "Apologies. They are just waking from reconstructive surgery. We haven't had a chance to work with them yet."
Zim watched Red's features contort from fury to despair and end with a crooked, crazed smile. "We'll see you destroyed for this, Zim," he rasped. "We'll…" he rolled his head to the side, suddenly racked with sobs. "What… did you do to us?"
Zim turned back, slowly. Purple still stared, expressionless, at Zim.
Hopped up on an ungodly amount of drugs to keep the pain at bay. According to what he and Dib had learned from the damage to his own brain, the worse the PAK's interference, the more scars the brain would carry for the rest of an Irken's life. Zim looked at his former Tallests with a new understanding and a feeling he'd learned in his time on Earth. Something that made his old wish to stab them through the face with his PAK spiderlegs feel like a petty, smeetish thing.
Abruptly, Zim flicked a tiny latch on his neck-chain and detached the quarter. He rolled it up his sleeve with a practiced gesture. He was pretty sure neither of them had been looking at his hands. "Say, my Tallests, there seems to be something…" He reached behind Red's antennae, just out of his range of vision, and retrieved the quarter from his sleeve, pulling his hand back into view. "Now how did you find a low-moneys unit from Earth all the way out here?"
Red's eyes widened and he spluttered.
Zim turned. "And Tallest Purple, you…" he leaned forward, repeating the sequence to retrieve the quarter again. "You found one as well. How strange."
Purple's eyes went wide and round.
The Akiridions hid smiles behind their hands and Zim grinned himself. "I suppose you two are their assigned caregivers?" At their nod, Zim saluted again. "You have a tough job ahead of you, soldiers. Perhaps I will stop by on occasion to assist. They may find a familiar face comforting in time." Zim marched down the hall, a little lighter with each step. "I think I will, as well."
Note: Song referenced is You're Gonna Go Far Kid by The Offspring. I know sometimes you guys would prefer I bring things to a completely happy conclusion, but I see life as being full of mixed wonderful and painful things, that both must be accepted and dealt with in order to live life fully. While I aim for hope, the bittersweetness of reality is something I can't help pointing back to. It's not even that intentional, this is actually how I see life and it weaves itself into my writing. So this chapter brings the story to its conclusion.
But wait, there's more! To date, Raymond-legends on ffDOTnet has a chapter of recursive fic based on Hey Spacejerk out called Teh Returnening, and Invader Johnny mentioned something in the works as well so keep an eye out. I've answered them already but I'll say it at large, I'm totally fine with recursive fanfic as long as I'm not directly plagiarized. This concept has a lot of room for expansion at several points, though I have covered the points I feel I want to, perhaps you'd like more? Or would rather there had been a different ending? Or other plot points? You are welcome to do so yourself, please just let me know so I can read along too!