On a muggy June morning of no particular importance, Zim felt a thought slither into his cortex like a stinging worm: Invaders hate summer.
Any bit of self-awareness would have corrected this non-sequitur, as the "summer" he was prepared to gripe about did not exist on Irk, either as a season or as a calendar of events. His errant thought also failed to consider that his "summer" was a local phenomena, too, defined by the weather of his current location in North America, and enforced by national and local government.
No, a clearer way of thinking would be that Invaders hated the particular aspects of summer he now decried: heat and boredom.
Boredom, because Invaders lived for their missions, flourished in strict scheduled environments, and loathed paths without direction.
Heat, because their uniforms chafed when the temperature rose and the cloth rubbed up against their worm-like skin.
Zim had means to battle the heat, and in fact, the summer months most of the time did not exacerbate this issue too much, because without required school attendance, his need to remain upstairs dwindled, and the underground base remained crisp and cool even through the boiling swells of July and August. He came to spend nearly every hour of the day in some part of his laboratory, studying and preparing and planning.
Boredom, on the other hand, was an affliction he did not respond to well. If he did not have a list of tasks to complete, he would circle uselessly about, repeating the same futile gestures, tuning the same equipment, cleaning the same surfaces, and recording endless logs purporting to preserve documentation of his accomplishments. This only got worse as he stayed underground, because his sense of time would dissipate, and as he didn't sleep, he could go for days before he realized he was caught in a malproductive loop.
That was how he came to this moment, positioning himself in front of his main console at three in the morning, feet aching, throat itching from rehearsal.
Zim checked the fit of his boots one more time. The crisp, wrinkle-free surface of his uniform. The lint plucked from his gloves. The sweat came through the edges of his tunic, and he prayed it wouldn't be visible on screen; he cursed the heat, though he stood in the center of his underground lair, blasted by heavily conditioned air. He gurgled a sip of soda to let the bubbling carbon burn away the rawness in his voice.
"All right! Computer. Start recording."
"Hrmm… Here goes… Take fifty-two…"
Zim cleared some phlegm, brightened his eyes with enforced enthusiasm, and saluted.
"My Tallest! Invader Zim here, reporting for duty. I continue to experience the network malfunction preventing me from communicating with you live, but know that I'm not allowing that to stymie my progress! I will resume shipping you my pre-recorded messages in the hopes that they find you well."
Zim fidgeted a second, then took a nervous breath. His message took a turn from his usual bravado tone, into something more cloying, more pathetic.
"Now, I can't help but notice I haven't received any responses to my latest reports. I know it's not my place to demand anything from you, but it has been two months, and I've waited with tremendous patience. Surely, there must be some time in your schedule to at least send me some confirmation. I'd hate to find that my messages aren't reaching you, as they include such incredible, AMAZING, incomparable results, proving my worth as an Invader." He clasped his hands together, sucked in a nervous breath in his pause, and concluded lamely: "Anyway, that's it, I guess. Looking forward to hearing from you…?" He slapped down on his keyboard to sign off, chomped on his tongue, and screeched. "'Looking forward to hearing from you'!? AUGH! WHAT WAS THAT? THAT WAS TERRIBLE!"
"It was an improvement over your first draft," the computer assured him, though even Zim knew this was a low bar. His first take involved profuse weeping and gnashing of teeth.
"You're sure? I thought it came off too needy. I-I think I should go again."
But the computer, desperate not to have to sit through another take, gently pushed back. "Sir, you should spend more time fixing the base's technical problems."
Zim growled at being redirected by his own base's AI, but his body ached for reprieve. He chuffed and pulled out his command chair. "Fine, fine, whatever! Send it." Zim waved a hand, and it was done; a satellite cannon fired off the disk. He collapsed into his seat. He slumped, swallowed back another slug of soda, and returned to work.
He ejected a connector cable from his PAK to plug into the console and, after entering his password, tried to connect. A flat, warning tone blared, and a message flashing Connection Not Established illuminated the dome. "Still nothing," he sighed in defeat. He disconnected the cable and proceeded to hammer some code into the console. His vision blurred with uncharacteristic exhaustion; he rubbed his eyes, unaware of how bags had come to form beneath them. "Computer, have you made any progress in diagnosing the network issue?"
"Your protocol ID cannot connect to the Irken communication network. This could be due to a PAK malfunction, a network error, a local hardware problem, or the result of changed permissions."
A giant gleaming-red question mark appeared on the looming screen, looking down on him like a stern glower. " It means I still have no idea what's wrong."
"Urrgh! Useless!" Zim hobbled over to his workshop area, where he promptly slipped off his PAK and set it on its stand. He tapped on the tablet already prepped at the counter, which brought up the text of a manual for PAK troubleshooting. On top of his network problems, he had started to notice his PAK behaving strangely; at regular intervals, its chassis would become hot to the touch, to the point of burning his uniform and skin, and he noticed frequent delays and stalls in his automated commands. Fortunately, these issues hadn't disrupted any plans thus far, and didn't seem to impact his connection to the PAK's memory functions, but he began to suspect it had something to do with its inability to connect to the network.
He had sent out a repair request to Irk weeks ago, so until an authorized drone could arrive to assist, he had to make sense of the problems on his own.
Zim sank into his seat at the workspace and gave the manual a half-hearted flick.
"I've looked at the PAK's components in and out; at least I think we can rule out physical damage."
He reached up to the tool rack to grab something like a screwdriver.
"Ah, well. Another look won't hurt."
It would be the eighteenth time he'd sat at this workbench to execute the same, fruitless investigative surgery, but by the seriousness of his expression as he pried the top-shell off, one wouldn't know it. He settled in, back aching, eye straining through work goggles, and went to work.
Over the long stretch of tireless labor, the only accompaniment to the clacking of tools came from the cavernous, isolated hum of the dome, and the echoes of distant drips and cracks in the earth from the constant, minute shifting of tectonic plates. Zim dissected, stared, vision blurred from overexertion. Over his lips, he began to unleash a stream of hostile, free-associating rambling, at first to complain about the pointlessness of returning to this task, then merely to fill the haunting emptiness of the underground. And while it started out under his breath, it grew in volume, until he very nearly shouted a crazed, ranting speech into the wall where he chucked his screwdriver.
"And-it-doesn't-even-WORK! But-they'll-pay, THEY'LL-ALL-PAY!"
Suddenly, a hushed flow of air whisked through the elevator chute. A chiming tone echoed through the elevator doors, and when they opened, out skipped an enthused GIR, cradling a tub of melting chocolate ice cream in his arms and humming a discordant, incessant series of notes. Minimoose floated in after him, dragging another dripping ice cream tub via hastily-fastened twine about its body. The two reached the examination table and made it host to their impromptu ice cream party while Zim continued to fret at his work.
Zim had given up and started slamming the PAK's metallic chassis back into place, though in his frustration and nattering, he kept laying them in the wrong order, thereby infuriating him all the more. He did what he could to ignore the annoying sounds invading his oratory senses: the giggling, the humming, the slurping of gooey cow juice.
Slam. Crack. The fracturing noise startled Zim enough to knock him out of his stupor; he pulled back the current plate to assess the PAK's interior. Nothing broken. He sighed with relief.
"Um… Sir? Were you talking to me, or…?"
"No, I wasn't! I was―GIR! Quiet down! Rrgh, I can't hear myself think!"
Zim wheeled around in his chair, froth-mouthed. "What! What is it!"
"It is now six o' clock." As if to tempt him, the computer pulled up a display of an outdoor view, complete with the hopeful glimmer of sunlight on morning dew and the ambient sounds of waking songbirds. "For your psychological stability, I am recommending that you leave base today for the minimal monthly dose of stimulation and social interaction."
"Hmm? What is the meaning of this!?"
"You have not stepped upstairs in over twenty days, and are beginning to show symptoms of Base Madness."
"Base Madness!? NON-sense! I'm perfectly psychologically stable! And I have plenty of social interaction down here!" Zim wheeled around and gestured at the sticky robot and its dim-eyed, moosey companion. "I have GIR, Minimoose, and Darryl!"
Zim's finger lingered and pointed at an empty spot on the floor. No one spoke.
The alien didn't notice the awkward silence, and laughed abruptly. He didn't notice, but his eyes twitched as he cackled, "Ha! Good one, Darryl." He then slapped his goggles back down and slumped over the console, chuckling in a woozy, debilitated manner. "You were always the funny one."
"Oh, put a sock in it! If I wanted your opinion..."
Zim might have launched into another vicious diatribe, but was interrupted by a tiny, needy tug on the hem of his uniform. His anger faded into a fog of confusion; he blinked heavily down toward the floor, where the glowing blue eyes of his robot met his gaze.
"Master, can we go play with Mary today?"
"H-huh?" Momentarily, Zim forgot how to interpret the thing's babble. "Oh. You mean the human." He turned to place the last piece back into its socket and lift the PAK for reattachment. He scolded in a distracted manner, "We don't 'play' with him, GIR. He's my mortal―"
"But I miss him!" GIR whined.
The PAK wobbled, rose, and automatically fastened its cables into his spine. Zim decided to interpret GIR's words in a way it didn't intend. "You're right. The Dib has been eerily quiet as of late." A thought brightened his outlook; this was a chance, he hoped, to break the monotony of his current state. "Perhaps he's cooking up some plot against me."
"Maybe he's on vacation!" GIR suggested.
This was a strangely cognizant idea for GIR to think up on his own. But as fate usually had it, GIR's rare moments of lucidity came only when Zim's ignorance prevented him from appreciating it. Zim scoffed at the robot's answer. "Vacation? What are you yammering about?"
"Be-… because it's summer!" GIR answered, this time less self-assured. He popped up onto his feet, invigorated by his imaginary scenarios: "Maybe he's at the beach! Or eatin' hot dogs!"
"Everything's hot dogs with you lately," Zim griped, not bothering to conceal his disdain. He then noticed sweat stains seeping through his uniform and decided to freshen up, so he plodded to a steel-doored closet on the other side of the hall and slid open a compartment containing a row of identical suits. As he changed, he thought aloud, "Though something about this 'summer vacation' is starting to remind me of something. Computer! Do I have any research notes on this?"
Zim tucked his tunic and neatened his collar. He glanced curiously upward when nothing was said after a few moments.
"Oh, did you want me to…?"
"Sorry, you didn't... actually say―oh, whatever." The main display screen lit up with helpful, grade-school level graphics: a happy smiling sun, a boxy red school building, grinning stick-figure children frolicking in a field. The computer's voice lifted as it had a chance to educate. " Summer vacation is a period of three months when Earth schoolchildren are relinquished from the public school schedule. Many use this time period to engage in extracurricular sports or clubs, travel to outside regions, visit family, work temporary jobs, or simply relax with leisurely activities."
"Of course, of course. Ugh. 'Leisure.' As if these man-pigs need another excuse to roll in their own filth." Suddenly, Zim decided he could look through his archive to find inspiration. "Computer, remind me of the important tasks I completed last 'summer.'"
"Last summer, Dib and his family went on a road trip through the Midwest. You disguised the Voot Cruiser as an Earth vehicle and followed them. During the trip, you came across the Biggest Ball of Twine and declared your intentions to… er… use its power for evil?" The computer's incredulity caused it to pause before admitting, "I have documentation." A photograph of Zim grinning and posing besides the comically-humongous twine-ball appeared. To a layman, he would appear to be no more than an easily-impressed civilian having landed in a tourist trap.
"Ah, yes. That plan was wildly successful, if I recall correctly."
The computer cleared its throat and flashed another picture on-screen. This photograph had been taken mere moments after the first shot: the ball of twine budged only a few feet, and all that remained of Zim's figure were his spindly legs sticking out from beneath it. "Sir, that is a negative."
"No, no, no! I―I meant what happened after that!"
"Umm… You were arrested by Earth authorities for piloting a vehicle without a license. Dib's father arranged your release, and you were forced to join your rival for transportation back to base."
The picture on display spoke magnitudes. Zim, squished in the back seat of the Membrane's car, sandwiched between a sour-faced Dib who seethed and glowered out the window, and the surly sister, whose attention was completely sealed on a handheld device. The Zim in the picture had two thumbs up and an ill-suited grin on his face. Current-Zim then split his own lips into a nasty smirk as well, and he gave his countertop a whack with his balled-up fist. "Yes! I successfully wasted those puny humans' time and resources."
"I got to ride shotgun!" GIR recalled, chocolate ice cream now smeared across his lips and chest. "Then I got to RIDE A LLAMA!"
Zim, instead of being annoyed by the robot's exaggerated glee, piggybacked: "Yes, yes! AND I managed to steal some of the humans' precious 'twine'!" (He nodded to Minimoose, whose belly still had twine wrapped about it like a prized ribbon). "Truly a day of victory for the Irken Elite."
Somehow, this trip down memory lane reinvigorated his zeal. He leaped to his feet.
"You know what? Maybe delivering another sound defeat to that melon-headed fool will cheer me up after all! C'mon, GIR. Fetch the new plasma cannon."
A few steps into the great outdoors, and Zim almost confessed that he had needed the trek; in the early, sleepy hours of the morning, a dream-like shadow cast over the neighborhood, and the air felt fresh and new in his lungs compared to the recycled oxygen of his underground quarters. As Zim started his way down the street, with the squeak-toy steps of his green dog behind him, he eyed the houses he'd memorized with his impeccable Irken memory. He knew the residents, the slave animals, the blueprints, the weaknesses. Not that any of this came in handy―never had any of them proven more than temporary annoyances. But it soothed him, this counting, this endless planning for incoming attack.
Unfortunately, after a few blocks, the sun crested over the horizon and began to roll its punishing tide on the street. It boiled at his feet, then crept up his legs and eventually flared across his chest, bathing his frail body in solar radiation. The air, which felt fresh before, soured with thick moisture and city musk, becoming itself a cloud of inescapable heat.
The walk became a regrettable slog. Zim had to slide his wig into place more than once as his scalp softened with slippery grease, and his contacts started to itch more than he'd ever remembered. When he reached the boy's residence, he could swear the bottoms of his boots were melting and congealing to the cement, making every step miserable.
"Stupid Sun," he uttered, shooting the hateful, eternally-combusting star a resentful, but indirect, glare. His mouth felt parched and leathery as he vowed, "It'll be the first thing to go."
Zim redirected his gaze to the nondescript facade of Dib's home. The house seemed quiet. The windows shuttered, the lawn a crisp brown, its paint cooking in the sun.
He didn't turn around, but positioned himself with fists at his hip. "GIR! Let's give the humans a proper greeting! DEPLOY THE CANNON!"
"Okee-dokee!" GIR thrust the bulky, chrome-colored weapon up from the street, upon which it had been unceremoniously dragged, and balanced it in a precarious manner upon his tiny costumed shoulder. He pointed for the front door―and fired.
A burst of sparks, then a sputter, then a sad, limp stream of neon-blue fluid trickled out, forming a puddle of luminescence at GIR's feet.
It took Zim a moment to realize something had gone wrong; when he whirled around, he found GIR snickering, spewing the plasma in the air, and dancing maniacally as drips landed on his costume.
"Ehehehe! It BURNS!"
"GIR! Did you wear out the battery?"
(Behind him, as a testament to his irresponsibility, there was a path of wanton destruction: smoldering holes in the sides of buildings, toppled light-poles, craters in the road).
GIR shifted his eyes and answered innocently, "No."
He swallowed an irritated growl. "No matter. We'll just have to resort to classic Irken guerrilla tactics."
This, apparently, meant rolling, flipping, dodging, and creeping up the walkway until he reached the door… and then ringing the doorbell. His excitement tingled through his fingers, and he couldn't help but bounce on the balls of his feet, like he was ready to pounce on the first living thing that appeared at the door.
Five seconds of waiting, and he was ready to curse and smash the door open. He growled and punched the doorbell a few more times. Ding dong, ding dong, ding―
Finally, the door opened, revealing not a human of comparable height, but a towering figure in a white lab coat. At the very top of this ivory tower, a man's face was obscured by the over-important stiffness in his collar, with only the gleaming black goggles visible. In the man's hand, a boiling mug of coffee simmered and steamed, pouring out steam like a frothing cauldron.
The voice rang out from under the coat, its tenor full and grand. "Ah! Dib's little foreign friend! What a pleasant surprise! How are you on this fine morning?"
Zim impatiently attempted to glance around him and into the kitchen. He had no business with the father. Zim had always reserved a wary respect for the man; the madness and intensity of his scientific passion could only be called Irken . But over time, Zim had also come to recognize the scientist as selectively dull-witted. In interacting with him, Zim depended on the same tired, played-out lies, and the professor never so much as blinked with suspicion.
With the dramatic events of the near-apocalyptic encounter with the Florpus Hole, Zim worried that Membrane would continue as a serious rival. He still had horror-memories of the father and son decimating his automated army. But, after the ashes settled, the self-delusion returned, and just as promptly as the planet snapped back into its correct coordinates, the man again treated Zim as an oddball foreigner.
Zim sometimes wondered how it was that a dense being like this was capable of producing a child who saw through his ingenious human disguise from day one. Perception, he could only speculate, must be a maternal genetic trait.
He played along as usual with a formal salute―a habit in addressing authority figures. "Greetings, Father of the Dib! I was out walking my normal-looking dog, and I thought I'd stop by to visit. Is your husky-headed child home?"
Professor Membrane's countenance slumped a little. It was hard to tell under the lab coat collar and goggles, but he seemed downcast. "Sorry, little boy! Dib will not be able to play with you today. You see, both he and his sister have gone off for a two-week stay with my―" He buckled over, gripping his chest as if in massive pain. "―Horrible hippie sister." He shook a morose head and spoke gravely, "I can only hope they don't return vegetarian."
"Oh. What a shame," Zim said, still dripping his voice with false camaraderie. He did feel a strain of genuine disappointment, though. "I really need to see him. Couldn't you lend me this person's coordinates?"
"Oh-ho-ho! No can do! My sister lives in some kind of backwater commune untouched by modern concepts like 'addresses' and 'vaccines'! You'll just have to wait until he comes back." He lifted his mug in a motion of chipper farewell. "Good luck out there! And just so you know, I think your perfectly-normal dog is on fire."
"Yes, yes," Zim acknowledged without concern, only flitting his eyes briefly back on GIR's smoking form. "He does that."
Zim told himself this was not a disappointing development. So Dib wasn't home. The alien hadn't seen him in ages, anyway, so this temporary setback meant nothing to him in the long run.
"Pah! This is good news," he assured himself. He tugged on GIR's leash and ignored the caustic plasma-scorch smell as he ventured back to the curb. "It gives me time to plan his demise."
When he sat on the curb to rest his feet, he felt the miserable, radiating heat sear his behind. He scowled out into the flash-fried jungle of suburbia and tried―failed―to imagine the passage of two weeks. Yes, he thought. When Dib returned, it would be truly a new chapter of chaos and war, unhindered by old, false promises. Thrill crawled up his throat like a venom. He could hardly wait.
The taxi hit a pothole, jarring its passengers and sending them, briefly, aloft. Thankfully, seatbelts prevented them from slamming into the ceiling, but their luggage in the trunk could be heard banging about. The fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror bounced and spun, below the shadowy view of a cabbie's dull eyes.
The humming sound from the back seat hiccuped with this jolt, then rejoined with even stronger intensity: "OMMMMM…."
"Dib, if you don't stop that, I'm going to strangle you!"
Dib opened his eyes. His sister's face was close enough to cloud his glasses with savage breathing. He swallowed and went silent, and she scooted back over to her side to resume playing with her GameSlave.
The two siblings continued the ride back home in bumpy silence for several minutes. Gaz, who had languished over the last few weeks without video games and internet (Aunt Nessie allowed neither in her house, on account of her belief that they 'controlled minds'), pulled out her game system the moment the taxi door closed, and stated outright that she intended not to go outside for several weeks if she could help it. Her mood had been especially foul over those weeks, and Dib tempted fate by so much as breathing in her direction.
Dib himself spent the first week crawling up the walls. No TV, no internet, no anything. He smuggled paranormal magazines along to keep his wits about him, but his boredom led him to spend more time with his aunt, and something happened.
Gaz called it Stockholm Syndrome. Dib called it a revelation.
"I was trying to get in my morning meditation," he explained to Gaz feebly, uncrossing his legs and dangling them over the seat.
"You can do your STUPID routine when we get home, and you can do it IN YOUR ROOM where it won't bother me."
"It's not stupid! It's important!" He pinched his forefingers and thumbs together. "It centers me!"
A hiss passed through her clenched teeth. "...I can't believe you managed to replace that dumb paranormal stuff with something even more annoying."
"I'm not giving up the paranormal, Gaz. I'm just shifting my perspective." He spoke in his usual nasal, self-important fashion, albeit now with a strain of faux-spiritualism. "I've spent my whole life chasing the unknown, and it's only ever made things worse for me. So from now on, I'm focusing on the here and now. On being at peace with the universe."
"...Every word out of your mouth makes me wanna gag," she said, obviously not listening. Her fingers coiled sharply about her game console, threatening to snap it half. She swallowed some bile and droned, "Aunt Nessie gives you one yoga lesson, and all of a sudden you're the Dalai Lama."
"Hey! I'm serious about this!"
"Sure, Dib." Gaz leveled a glare at him, and almost considered arguing with him. Instead, she grunted, one eye pinned skeptically on his new attire, a leather headband with colorful gems. "I give it a week."
Her lack of faith in him was so normal, that he didn't allow it to sway him an inch. Dib understood now what he wanted with life, and he knew he wanted a big change. After all, the planet had narrowly escaped destruction, and it was his fault .
Zim had given up. Surrendered. Dib saw now that he should have let it go, taken it as a victory, and allowed Zim to wallow in his defeat forever. Sure, Zim might have found some other harebrained scheme eventually, but at least Dib wouldn't have felt responsible for its coming about; his attempt at unmasking Zim's identity at the Peace Day convention only inspired Zim's most dangerous plan yet.
It had been a heartbreaking thing, realizing that his righteous war against the alien invasion had put the planet in more peril. Gaz had been right: his rivalry with Zim? Stupid.
The aftermath of the Florpus Incident left him sulking and listless: it was, in part, the reason his father had booted them to the countryside. But Dib felt with unnerving certainty that the trip had, in fact, cured him.
A new lease on life! A new strategy! A new way of thinking! He couldn't stop grinning.
Upon reaching the house, Gaz wasted no time. She climbed out of the taxi, landed on the curb, and lugged her suitcase behind her. She reached the front door before Dib finished issuing the cabbie their payment; he looked over the quiet house as he slid to the ground, seeing that it hadn't changed, and sighed. His own bag dragged across the sidewalk, a heavy burden that only reminded him of the work he had ahead. It would be easy to slide back into his room and fall back into old habits, so he internally steeled himself for the temptations that would surely surround him. He had to stick to his plan. Had to . No matter what.
Which meant he needed to deal with…
Dib paused suddenly. The stop came instinctually at first, a paranoid twitch that could happen out of thin air. But after a moment, he heard something stir. To his left, one of the hedge bushes rested in the dark shadow of the early morning, and his eyes tracked it in suspicion; sure enough, something was rustling. It could be a squirrel or a bird. Or it could be something HORRIBLE.
I need to stop thinking like that. Nonetheless, he plucked a stray stick from the ground, approached the shuddering, leafy lump, and listened carefully. He could make out mumbles, but it could be anything, couldn't it?
At a healthy distance, Dib jabbed the stick into an opening and hit something tender. No response. He jabbed again, a little harder this time, eliciting a grunt and a crunch of some sticks and leaves. Then, without warning, a green, scratched-and-scraped head and torso spilled out of the hedge and onto the ground, its human-ish eyes blearily blinking up at him.
Dib screamed; the startled alien screamed; GIR leaped out of the bushes to do a joyful jig.
A few rounds of shrieks later, Dib finally recognized him and caught his breath.
"AHHHhh-ooh, wait. It's only you."
Zim seemed disoriented at first, but he recovered and tried to pull himself from the hedge. He couldn't. "Ah… Ah… Aha!" Zim, still tangled and struggling on his back against the knotted branches, shook a triumphant fist in the air. "Yes, it is I, Zim! I've caught you by surprise, filthy human child!"
"Actually, we kinda surprised each other," Dib corrected. "Have you been… camping out in the bushes this whole time?"
"What? No! Of course not!"
GIR meanwhile waddled over to Dib to tug on his coat. He held out a vaguely-sandwich-shaped apparatus dripping with cheese. "Hi, Mary! I made S'mores! Want one?"
Dib gingerly pushed the robot away. "Okay, Zim, you were obviously waiting for me. For… A while. What do you want?"
"I—want—ugh!" Zim gave out last thrust, and freed himself from the bramble. He tumbled then sprang to his feet. "What I always want! To destroy you and your pitiful planet!"
The alien posed, awaiting Dib's pathetic retort. But none came. The bespectacled young Earth book stood there on the sidewalk, face blank, battered suitcase behind him, jacket fluttering a little in a morning breeze.
"Ah…" Zim twisted his feet, agonized by this strange suspense. Dib had never taken so long to scream back at him. When he couldn't take the tension anymore, he leaped for action. "GIR!" He frantically reached out with his arms in the robot's direction, pumping his talons in the universal 'gimme' motion. "The cannon! Hurry!"
"Oh, I don't have it no more." GIR pointed cheerily up into the branches of a nearby tree. "I gave it away! To a nice family o' squirrels!"
"You what! You imbecile! Fetch it back!"
"Aww, but Master! They're using for their nest!"
"I don't CARE, GIR! That's a class-A weapon they're stuffing leaves into!"
Zim seized up and jerked his head. The boy was at last speaking; he stiffened in attack mode in the human's direction.
But rather than return Zim's hostility, Dib looked rather calm, almost assuaging. He lifted a hand in surrender and gentle interruption. "Hey, Zim? Before you get on with… Whatever this was…" Dib frowned as he lost track of his words and scratched the back of his head. "You know, it's a good thing you stopped by. We… have to talk."
This suggestion made the Irken burrow his gaze into the boy's head. He almost thought he understood when he cackled and waved a claw. "Is it about that absurd-looking thing wrapped about your enormous head?"
"Oh, this? It's a focus bandana. My Aunt Nessie told me it helps balance my chi."
The Irken slacked his jaw and grunted his lack of comprehension. "Hah?"
As much as Dib wanted to, he couldn't maintain his expression of serene solemnity. He frowned, both defeated and embarrassed. "Er… Okay, so I don't really believe in that stuff. But it does help me focus!"
Like an infant spotting another playing with a shiny new toy, Zim felt an irrational desire to steal it.
"Anyway, yeah, that's kinda what I need to talk to you about. Something's… come up."
Zim saw the seriousness in his face and decided this must mean a long, dull diatribe was about to be delivered. He groaned. "Alright, on with it, then. Tell me what you must."
"Well, I just got back from this trip, and it's been a real eye-opener. I never got to spend much time with my Aunt Nessie growing up, but after spending some time with her, I realized I like her. She listens to me. She doesn't believe me or anything, but at least she doesn't call me crazy."
"Uh-huh." Zim already looked petrified with boredom. His booted toe tapped on the sidewalk and he cast an irritated look off into the distance.
"She noticed how stressed I was and taught me some stuff to help me calm down. Like breathing exercises, tai chi, mindfulness―"
Zim piped up incredulously. "You had to be taught how to breathe?"
"Anyway, it all came together when we took a trip to the beach. Normally I don't swim or do much of anything when I'm there, but this time, I decided to make a change. And you know what I did? For a few minutes, I actually stopped to enjoy myself. I even stopped trying to hunt down the local beach yeti, and just―looked out at the ocean, and took in the view. The waves… The white sand… The seagulls overhead… The island of plastic waste drifting by..."
As Dib blathered, Zim had settled his behind on the grass and yawned. "Does this hideously boring story have a point?"
"It was nice, Zim. Just being in the moment, not worrying about stuff."
Had Dib delivered this impactful message to another human, he may have received an understanding nod or two, or at least some empathy. Who in the human race didn't crave a moment's reprieve from the stresses of the everyday?
But Zim was an Irken, programmed and bred to care, and to care so hard that sleep had been banned from their genes, leisure stricken from their schedule, and peace extracted from their brains. The thought of pausing was a horrifying one, a step closer to demise. So Zim neither understood what he meant, nor where this was all leading. The Irken could not remember the boy ever speaking this way before, and this fact alone unnerved him.
A trick, he thought. Some crafty human trap. He kept a hand at his hip, near a holstered blaster. It wouldn't evaporate the human like the cannon, but it would put a hole through him, if need be.
"What are you saying?" Zim finally asked, spitting it combatively.
"What am I saying? What am I saying…?" Like this was an elaborate math puzzle, Dib tapped his chin, clutched his head, and rubbed his neck. "I guess what I'm saying… is I quit."
"Quit." Zim had to manually search for the word; it literally was not in the Irken vocabulary. A strain of excitement filled him when he interpreted its meaning. "You mean, you surrender?"
"No, it means…"
"THAT MEANS I WIN!" Zim paraded about the yard, arms in the air. "ZIM IS VICTORIOUS!"
Dib stared, then shook his head in defeat. He lifted the handle to his suitcase again, readying himself to move for the house. "You know what? That's fine. I don't care."
"I'll decimate this heap of rock and dirt! I'll make its inhabitants crawl on their bellies! None shall escape my iron fist!"
Dib shrugged and pressed the front door open. "What happens, happens."
"And―" Zim paused his rant; the rhythm suddenly felt all wrong. He gave GIR a desperate glance, then started a feeble list on his claws: "And, and I'll enslave your children, and stuff your cattle with melted caramel, and―"
The front door of Dib's house slammed shut.
Zim leaped. In his alarm and confusion, he gawked at the empty stoop. His breathing staggered as if something had punched him in the gut; he released a quick pant and scurried for the door. Like his life depended on it, he hammered a finger into the doorbell in succession.
On the other side of the door came a reluctant sigh. The knob clicked, but the opening slid open only a sliver, wide enough to reveal Dib's exhausted face. "What?"
"I―!" Zim stomped on the stoop in a childish tantrum, and even his voice took on a whiny tone. "I wasn't done!"
"SO AS I WAS SAYING, I'm going to boil your oceans, launch your monuments into space, turn your trees―hey, are you writing this down?"
"No. No!" Dib flew the door open, stalked out, and pushed Zim from the stoop. "Geez, what are you not getting, here? This!" Exasperated, he motioned between the two of them. "This is what I'm quitting!"
"Oh," Zim squeaked, as if he'd just cracked the riddle. He sounded almost… vulnerable. "Oh, I see."
For a pained moment, neither spoke.
"You're not going to try and stop me," Zim said.
"Yeah, I'm moving on," Dib answered, again gripping the door with an intent to slam it in his face. "I'm sure you understand."
"WAIT!" Zim rushed the doorframe and pinned the door with his arm; Dib gave it a firm push but Zim, small creature though he was, had the strength of an elephant when he wanted something his way. "What is it really?! You don't think I'm a threat anymore? Is that it?"
"I'm not saying that! I'm saying―okay, maybe that is what I'm saying!" Dib, feeling a headache coming on, nursed a sore spot on his forehead. "I mean, it has been different. Especially now that I know there's no invasion coming."
"Wh-who?" Zim erupted into a snarling roar. He snagged Dib by the coat and screeched, "WHO TOLD YOU THAT!? IT'S A LIE!"
Dib, baffled, reminded him, "You told me! You said the Armada isn't coming! Remember?"
"F-fool! Of course I remember! But y-you see―" The hesitation drenching his expression gave away the gravity and lameness of his lie: "My Tallest were so impressed with my newest plan, that they have changed their minds! They'll be here any DAY now!"
Only because they had been down this road countless times, Dib crossed his arms and lifted an eyebrow. "Okay, what is it?"
"Your amazing plan."
Silence. Sweat trickling down Zim's brow. A bird flew overhead; a stray dog plodded down the street, stopped briefly to sniff at the trash can, and moved on. At last, Zim answered thinly. "It's a secret."
Dib looked unimpressed, then irritated, then, finally, a little pitying. In a conciliatory gesture long unpracticed, he reached out and patted him on the shoulder. "Look, Zim. We won't be enemies anymore, but we can still be not… liking… each other… guys. And when summer's over, we'll see each at school, and you'll still be an alien hellbent on world domination, so…?"
But by now, Zim was huffing in monstrous, aggravated breaths, and smacked the boy's hand away. "Don't give me that drivel! There's someone else, isn't there? ISN'T THERE? Some sort of bigfeet? Or tentacle monster? NO! YOU'RE HUNTING PIG-BOY, AREN'T YOU? CONFESS!"
Somehow, Dib became aware of the absurdity of this exchange; he narrowed his eyes and glanced past the Irken to see that its robot sat on the grass, watching them fight while it munched from a bucket of popcorn (where did it get that?). Dib took the door in his hand one last time. "Goodbye, Zim. Have a good summer. Also: get off my lawn."
This time, when the door shut, Zim drummed his fists on it. "Never! An Irken does not retreat!"
But the sprinklers sputtered on and began their morning spray across the lawn, and retreat became the only option.
White-hot, screaming anger that laced his blood.
Zim had not been this angry when he found out the Tallest had deceived him and the Armada would never reach Earth. He had felt defeat and self-blame, and a sense of having failed his leaders―they gave him a false job because he hadn't proven his worth. But not anger. His programming harshly and definitively suppressed any such feelings against a superior officer.
But Dib, an inferior being, rejecting his status as a threat? Tossing him aside as a mere curiosity, and not as the next potential Emperor of this godforsaken planet?
Down in his lab, he smashed vials against a bare wall, creating a shower of broken glass.
"He'll be sorry," he vowed. He tore a stack of plans toward him on his desk, shredding through them at furious speed. "When this summer season is over, I'll show him exactly how dangerous I am! He'll rue the day he crossed ZIM!"
He pushed a blueprint aside and found what he was looking for: his list. The task list ran for some forty or so items, all ideas for his inevitable reign over the Earth.
He grinned and began from the top.
Some time later …
A massive array of completed projects lined the workshop, some morbid, some bizarre, some laughable. There were tools, weapons, bioengineered creatures in tubes. If anyone would claim Zim had lost direction, surely this would prove them wrong. No, he'd become more focused with the boy out of the way. Why, Zim began to feel he wouldn't even need to wait out the summer before he could dominate the planet for himself.
With a final seal done on the metal seam of his latest satellite launcher, he cut off the soldering tool and lifted his face-mask. He whistled in marvel at the chromatic sheen. "Well, that's it. I think that's the whole list."
To check, he skipped over to his work-desk, pushed aside his latest paperwork, and unveiled the pad. He flipped to page two, scratched off the final item, and dropped the pad on the floor with an air of finality.
Then, he followed suit: felled by misery, he collapsed to the floor face-first, and smeared his sticky cheek on the metal tile with a moan. "Oh, how much longer will these awful months continue?" He gnashed his teeth against his knuckle, fighting tears of despondence, and demanded, "Computer, how many days has it been?"
Sounding surprised, the system answered, "Sir, it's only been seven hours."
Before he could summon the right curses to launch at the computerized voice, he noticed a peculiar itch started at the base of his back. No, not an itch. A compression, a burning pain. A carbonated, sulfuric smell; a sizzling sound; a whining noise, like a fan over-exerting itself.
"Ow-ow-ow-OW!" Within a split second, Zim recognized the feeling and punched the command for an emergency detachment; his whirring PAK whipped across the floor, then wobbled in place like a lolling, empty bowl. As Zim clawed at the seared flesh at his back, he screeched furiously, "Computer, coolant tank, now!"
The computer didn't even confirm the order, but shot out an arm, snagged the overheating PAK, and flew it across the science wing. A tube of murky liquid popped its top, and the arm plunged the PAK inside. A rumbling, throaty hiss bubbled to the top, and a noxious, milky cloud of steam spilled out and onto the floor, where it quickly dissipated. In seconds, the heat dispelled and the PAK floated in peace, its shellface a ghostly, pulsating figment in the still coolant tank.
Zim took a brisk jog down the hall to catch up to its location, but if it was anything like the last few times, the PAK would take a minute or two to unjam itself.
"Again," he observed bitterly. He scritched uncomfortably at a seam in his back skin. "What on Irk is going on?"
"I am not qualified to diagnose the problem."
Zim was tired of that answer. "Okay, but can you guess?"
The computer considered this, and allowed itself some leeway. "Based on your most recent PAK malfunctions, it is likely there is an error in your internal memory drive. It may be over-capacity."
"Over-capacity!" Zim pressed his eyes up against the cloudy glass, and watched the red-hot device steadily pale in the coolant gel. "How's that even possible?"
"Unclear. But when the PAK-repair drone arrives, it will be able to diagnose the issue, and defragment and clear memory space."
Zim snarled a bark of frustration. He struck the tank with an errant, violent blow of his fist.
"Shall I send another repair request?"
"What good will that do?! It's obvious at this point that no one's coming!" Steaming, Zim scanned the vast, empty chamber. All the equipment afforded a top Irken Invader, and what could he do? He couldn't escape a growing feeling of helplessness and isolation, feelings that Irkens were not accustomed to. A small shiver reached his spine. "Computer, explain again the parameters of PAK repair."
"Only the Control Brains and their drones have authorization to edit, encode, erase, or repair PAK coding. Any Irken intelligence-whether organic or artificial-that attempts these actions will experience a memory short-circuit and forced refresh."
"Should I at least try it?"
"You've already tried. Several times."
"What? I don't remember―"
"Is that why I have that permanent metallic taste in my mouth?" He didn't wait long enough to receive an answer. "You said Irken intelligence, didn't you?"
Zim at times lacked precision in his thinking, as well as foresight, as well as self-awareness. But Irken problem-solving was a deep-rooted thing, able to express itself in even the most broken of its species. Zim forced his circumstances through his measly organic brain, and once he recovered his PAK from the coolant tank and reattached, he was able to make his decision.
"Very well," he declared. "I have a plan. It will require all my cunning, all my finesse, all my elite military training."
"You don't mean…"
"Yes, I do!" He pulled out a drawer, admired an elaborate lock mechanism, and tapped in a code. A whirring of gears opened the drawer's contents: a red notebook with cryptic Irken writing on the front. "It's time for the nuclear option."
Up until now, Dib had never been much of a music aficionado; music interfered with his life's mission and would have drowned out the important radio signals, television shows, satellite pings, and other soft sounds that eternally reached out there . He had no interest in the bubble-gum pop dance tunes or throaty croons of singers longing for lost love. At most, he'd only ever tolerated the most inoffensive strains of classical music, and even then, he avoided the pieces that swelled with too much grandeur or heart. Too distracting. Too sappy. He had work to do; he had to save the human race.
It was yet another reason his peers eyed him with suspicion and disdain. It certainly didn't make small talk any easier: What bands do you like? Oh, I don't really listen to music. And they'd think, often aloud and right in his face, What sort of kid doesn't like music?
Maybe, Dib thought, I'll start listening to music this summer. What an idea! Not that he had any idea where to start. He knew Gaz had stacks of CD's in her room, ready to thrash noise into her eardrums during especially long gaming sessions, but he worried her preferred genres would be… too intense for his delicate acoustic palate.
He wondered all these things while lying in bed, headphones having droned nearly thirty minutes' worth of Himalayan throat singing into his ear canals. It lacked any discernible tune, but after a half hour, a hidden musicality to it emerged from the outflow of his blank, unfocused mind. And it brought him there: I should listen to music, and then, I should really redecorate my room.
His peace and quiet were broken unceremoniously when his sister slapped his door open, reached his bed, and jabbed him to attention in his tender side.
"Ow!" Dib sat up, earphones falling from his ears. "What?"
"Someone's knocking, and Dad says answer the door."
"Dad's not here."
Gaz did not seem deterred. "Well, I said answer the door."
"Why don't you do it?"
"Because I'm busy!"
Not too busy to reach his bedroom and pester him to do it, evidently―but he knew better than to resume the argument if he wanted to keep his limbs intact. He sighed, pried his headphones from around his neck, and plodded in defeat down the stairs and for the front door.
"It's probably for you, anyway," Gaz surmised from her bedroom door.
Dib let in a sharp, pained inhale. "Oh, please, no. Don't let it be―"
But as he passed the kitchen and approached the door, the loud, demanding, militaristic knocking had a certain, awfully-familiar tenor to it. And it had been evidently going on for an inhuman amount of time. Irken persistence.
Dib felt dread and exasperation, but he knew ignoring it wouldn't work. He turned the knob, allowing the door to only open a crack.
And there was Zim, his eyes fluttering coquettishly, his voice as sweet and sticky as a melting fudge sundae. "Hello, Dib, my newest, best-est friend."