Debacle (R) - Subject Zim

Summary:

All his life Dib has wanted to capture Zim and gain the victory and fame he always wanted. When his wish comes true however, not everything falls so comfortably into place.

Disclaimer:

I do not own the IZ characters. However this story and this idea is mine.

This is from the old story Debacle which I rewrote awhile ago. You can read it as it is, and needs nothing else to accompany it. ^-^

Warnings:

Dark themes and angst throughout.


Dib07: Thank you so much for sticking with this story and surviving last chapter. I'll keep this short because my guest review replies kinda got longer and longer, XD but please enjoy! My comments will be down below at the end! This chapter is dedicated to Ikainica and VelociraptorLove! (Ikainica, my reply to your gorgeous review is inbound!)


Guest

This was the hardest comment to reply to! XD I still don't know where to begin, it's too painful. I'd give anything to lie to you, to say everything's gonna be alright. Thank you for being so invested in Zim, and wanting to know that he'll be okay. It really touched me.

Zimothy

Thank you so much! It must have been even harder to read when you don't know what's coming. They really overdid it with Zim, almost as if they wanted to believe in the magic he might provide them without truly taking a moment to understand him. That last moment got me too. I can't wait to show you more, and thanks for sticking with this story!

Guest

Zim really does put up the strongest kind of fight. The fact that its useless and the odds are against him doesn't apply - he's so tenacious, and he is more worried about Gir than himself. And about the other comment, you have a point! Carlson I don't think even stopped to think about Dib's mental state. He sees this every day, minus the green blood of course, and I suppose he thinks Dib gets full rights to see what happens for defeating Zim. I suppose, if we're gonna get technical, Carlson is gaslighting Dib. I won't say anymore than that for now. As for the propaganda alien invasion movies, good point and thank you for mentioning that! It's exactly where I see Carlson coming from.

Guest

It is truly unethical what they're doing, and highly immoral, which begs the question: when a creature comes from the stars, and not our own planet, what rights does it have? When you have to consider religious views and arguments (was God involved in his creation for example? and should he have 'human' rights) and then what governments and military have to say about it. I am really glad you brought this up, because though it is a small fraction of what I wanted to subliminally address in the story, it's also very important. Human beings cannot even look after and treat their own kind with respect, let alone the animals that inhabit this world, and everything mankind ever does is for profit, or destroyed through fear because they couldn't understand it, like hunting wolves for example. Torrent is a symbol of mankind's sadism. I could go on, and maybe the story's characters are exaggerated, but I want you to read between the lines, as you are already coming to terms with the true horror of Zim's reality. And I listened to your concerns and I removed the 'explicit' part of the chapter, it was far too upsetting, I agree. And if there is anything specific you want me to rewrite, i.e. sections, scenes, please let me know and I'll see what I can do!

Guest

Thank you so, so much! I hope karma catches up to the Sergeant too! Me and a reader were discussing horrible ways of torturing him! I am glad you survived last chapter, and your review means a lot to me! I hope you stick around for what's next!


The Wish

Did you really think you had nothing to lose?

We both stepped into a game that couldn't be won.

It was your doing. Not mine. I was trying to defend myself. I'm only human, what did you expect?

You were going to finish it. I had to stop you...

He squeezed these beliefs tight even as the world greyed at the edges, his legs flimsy and weak to the point of folding that he had to cling to the support of the terminal. All he had to do was look the other way, to keep his fingers plugged in his ears, but the disservice would be too great to his rival and equal on the battlefield as he stared, dumbfounded; cocooned in snowy casings of shock as he watched this indomitable enemy and creature from the stars crumble into a seizure.

In the dark and snow, he waited, holding his mother's hand-knitted doll to his chest. The letter he had painstakingly written he held clenched in his other hand.

Every night he went to the outskirts of the wood where tales told that a UFO had landed there centuries ago. People put messages in bottles and had them drift out to sea. Others wrote to Santa, posting letters in the mailbox to be delivered to the North Pole. He tagged letters onto trees around the 'supposed' place the ship had landed, hoping the alien hadn't really left, that he was still out there, somewhere, watching the humans toil and struggle in their day-to-day lives.

He would sit by his windowsill as the stars came out, looking for that pink light, the one that wasn't a plane or a satellite but a real spaceship.

They had to have the power to heal, the power to cleanse sickness, and liberate humans from pain.

Every night he would write to them, wondering if tonight was the night they'd notice and read the letters he had left. But as his mother grew sicker, his pleading messages intensified until the day she died. After the funeral, his written messages were no longer ones full of hope, only anger, hate and despair.

'Why didn't you save her? I know you're out there! You let her die!'

'It's your fault this happened!'

'I believed in you!'

Sometimes his eyes would drift to the rag of blindfold on the floor, and the leavings of flesh and blood that had been left on the platform's restraint.

"How does so much blood come out of something so small?" Carlson's dry and empty comment floated from afar, worlds apart.

He was suddenly cold in the middle, as if someone had dumped shards of corrosive ice into his stomach. He was skidding down a slope, he couldn't slow the fall, and the way back up was out of sight.

The words came out in a splutter, and when he emptied his guts out, turning away just in time, he saw half-digested ham rolls float in a murky yellow pool.

The sergeant drifted over, swallowing down scotch as if it was going out of date. He barely paused in his drinking to pat Dib on the back. "I quite agree. Their incompetence makes me sick too. I don't like that particular shade of green either. My wife once tried to paint the living room with that exact color." He paused in his back-rubbing ministrations to gesture at the scientists in the room. "Can someone mop up the mess for god's sake? Torrent! Is your brain still working?"

He could hear his father screaming orders at a flustered Williams, with Torrent just standing there as if someone had switched off his functions.

When he had the courage to peek through the glass again, skin clammy and feverish, he watched ribbons of green sluice off his father's once-white coat as he held Zim in his arms. The screams were over, but he clamped his hands over his ears to try and plug the screams resonating in his head.

Carlson was muttering to himself, something he often did whether he had an attentive audience or not. "We'll get what we want out of that alien. We're softening it up already. All you need is a bit of time and the right tools. Damn thing's like a walnut. But all you need is the right nutcracker to sever the shell."

He grabbed Carlson's sleeve to pull the man back to make it all stop, but the sergeant jerked him upright with a light frown and dusted off his shoulders with one hand as if Dib was one of his soldiers whose clothes had got rumpled.

"A01 didn't come alone, you said so yourself in your files. This 'Gir' may be the key to get the thing to finally crack. If not," he gulped back the last measure of bitter whiskey without fanfare, "then it'll be up to me."

He realized Carlson was referring to the Voot Runner as well as the PAK. They couldn't deactivate the ship's defensives without Zim's cooperation... "It's... it's not about any of that..." He weakly tried to convey, "What about what he knows...? About what's c-coming...?"

"It is better to know the enemy by seeing what makes him tick."

Dib began to move towards the observatory door as it slid open on frictionless bearings, and Carlson threw him a look that revealed something ugly beneath the surface.

"Where are you going, son?"

"I... I f-feel... sick..."

"It's new to you, isn't it, to watch the creature suffer without personal repercussions. A01 deserves it, every little bit." And he motioned to the padded and stitched wound concealed under Dib's shirt.

He spurted out of dry and chewed lips: "You're... you're killing him..."

"Excuse me, son? I didn't quite catch that."

What came out was an explosion. "I said you're killing him!"

The man started to laugh. It was a deep, cutting sound that stirred up past-agonies of his peers and teachers laughing at him and his ideas. Whenever he had anything to say, he was pushed into the dark, cut down to size, and dismissed.

He couldn't stay; he was close to breaking, and knew he was a coward after all. He shuffled out of the door, with Carlson saying: "I'll keep an eye on you, son. Get some rest." And he lifted his empty glass in a toast as Dib hitched himself out into the corridor.

He hurried at a limping stagger, wanting to scrub his body and his mind raw from what he had seen. It was different when Zim was the monster: the out-of-control villain that had to be put down. He had been able to face him when he had finally driven Zim into a corner. But he couldn't face him now.

I am not a coward! I've done my part!

I shouldn't have stayed... shouldn't have seen...

He wandered down the halls. The stink of ammonia, chemicals, pain and latex was strong, and seemed to come off every surface in Geneva. In places medical and clinical, of cold instruments and glistening IV bags, there was always the lingering antiseptic stink that encouraged fear and helplessness.

You did this, Zim! Not me!

If you knew your leaders didn't care, why did you stay? What kept you from leaving?

He escaped to the cold outside world that could not lift the febrile fever, and heard the uneasy, thunderous rumbles in the skies of a grey afternoon. He clung to the brickwork of the building, not trusting his legs enough to carry him.

The isolation was a cold prison walling him tight. He looked to see if Gir was waiting for him, but there was no one familiar around. Pressed against the compound gates and fences were the protestors, pushing their posters and cardboard cut-outs against the wire.

Tomorrow, he realized, would be just as grey.

Riches... fame... recognition... what had he really wanted?

He staggered blindly to the car, hands shaking so hard that when he pulled out his keys they flew to the gravel.

It doesn't matter what they do to him.

I've done my part. He's not my problem anymore.

After several angry attempts he eventually got in the car only to sit on the cold seat, head in his hands. Something blew out of him and he started to kick the footwell, his toes connecting with the brake pedal. The numbness that had caked his side in bliss suddenly weakened, and pain began to burn there in its place.

Their lives had been a furious carousel as they revolved around the other. When Zim had began to flag, his confidence giving way, Dib had pushed on, waiting for the cracks to widen, for the invader to collapse under the weight of his own desolation.

I needed to be free of him. I didn't do anything wrong.

He wished he could forget the times when Zim had reached out pull him from the dark...

'You're the only one who can help!'

'Help? You?'

'Oh come on! You're not mad about the whole 'leaving you to rot' thing, are you?"

He had turned his back on him as soon as he could.

'Never thought it would come to this, did you? Any last words?'

He lifted his face from his hands, glasses murky with condensation from his hands and tears from his eyes.

On that fateful night, he wondered what the soldier would have done if he had discovered him sleeping in bed, lying there, defenceless. Would he have ended their long feud so simply? Such a short and empty finality did not suit the nature of so chaotic an Irken who yearned for admiration, for recognition. His flashy dramatics and spectacles exhibited the fury inside when he was more like a feral cat in a cage, revealing a darker desperation when the cracks gave way.

The last fight had been all or nothing, for both of them. What Dib had ultimately faced was something different, something desperate, and not the Irken he knew.

In the dark, behind the crash of shattering glass, metal points slammed into the floor as he slowly unfurled. Dib had waited for him with his back pressed to the wall, hands gripping the nail-studded baseball bat. Zim's eyes had burned cold in the dark, as if hidden rage or lucidity had cleared any and all ambiguity that had contained him.

He supposed, at the end of it, he had become someone Zim had never known, the end consequence shattering them from their past, themselves, and what they thought they knew of the other.

Dib had fought back like the desperate animal he faced, intertwined in metal limbs and claws, kicking and thrashing for the blaster. The house was still cluttered with the ornaments that he had desperately flung at the invader as he tried to escape out the backdoor to the garage, and the four-legged machine waiting there. If it hadn't been for the pitcher of lemon-crusted water he had thrown when Zim had flashed through the doorway, he doubted he would have come out on top.

He had to win, survive, and triumph over something that had been tormenting him for so long.

The blaze they had unknowingly shared and felt and touched, allowing them to connect on a subliminal level had burned down to ash.

The media was a compilation of put-on smiles and plastic praise, mixed with disapproval and disillusion as its cold undercoating. The surface had given way, he had fallen through, but instead of breaking the barriers to be heard, to be noticed, to be loved, he had fallen to a dark and bottomless chasm where he kept on falling.

And he had left his father there. The horror on his face was a scorch mark in his eyes. He kept seeing it, no matter how many times he closed his eyes. Nothing in the world could soften the pain or the strangling cold in his chest.

Is that why you came for me, Zim? To try and prove yourself to the Tallest one last time? Was it because there was nothing left? Because I ruined everything for you?

I hate you.

You could never understand the daily trauma you put me through. Do you know how long it took me to recover after your 'simulation' to see if I was lying about throwing that muffin at you? I thought it had it. I really did. The recognition. The success. The life I wanted! All of it was taken away.

Because of you.

He closed his eyes, the tears trailing slowly down his cold and pale cheeks. He wasn't sure how long he sat there for as he watched the sun sink and spill its blood across the horizon like red yolk. He steadied a shaking hand on the cold rim of the steering wheel and drove home, the scenes slipping past his window with no sense of time or realness.

You didn't say anything, Zim. I gave you the chance. And you just looked at me. I hate you!

He arrived home, hoping he could escape all that he had seen, but the despair remained as true as an anvil crushing his chest. He flipped the light switch on in the foyer, but the dark house, lightening up in chilly welcome, was as unfriendly and as bleak as the labs he had run from.

His mind kept tormenting him by replaying it, images randomly flashing out in graphic intervals. He had stared at the place where his arm had come away between shoulder and elbow, at the sudden stump spurting green. They had gone through god knows how many nerves and arteries to satisfy their egos and ill-guided research to understand the PAK and his healing in the midst of undermining the creature who carried it.

Closing his eyes made it worse.

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

He put on the radio to try and drown out the reoccurring noises and screams in his head, but every lyric, every damn word carved out the guilt, always somehow managing to relay what he'd seen, what he felt, what he'd done. He rushed back to turn it off, and he ended up throwing it off the counter top instead.

He retrieved the dustpan and brush in the cupboard under the stairs, and after grabbing the mop and bucket he bent down on his knees and started brushing the debris away, dumping the glass in a bin and using the mop to tackle the green and red stains that had become a dusky black and orange respectively.

The stains were harder to remove after being left to stain the wood and varnish. Zim's blood was particularly resilient, and after several disinfectant bursts from the spray and soaking the area in bleach-tinged water, the blackish green stubbornly remained. The scratches in the wall that arched into a dramatic curve, also tinged in green, had gone black. Most of the green had sprayed the wallpaper and doorway when he had thrown the pitcher of water. It had given him the advantage, but it hadn't been enough to stop the furious soldier from lunging at him. Beating back his advances with the baseball bat had kept his claws at a comfortable distance, and when the blaster dropped between them, grabbing his left antenna had bought him two seconds of time.

He took the bin out to the yard before heading back indoors. The clouds had closed over, he didn't stop to check what time it was, only that night had somehow crept in, the evening sun a fleeting gash of pinks and reds, and then the silver moon was rising through the clouds like a lonesome ship sailing through the night. He sat on the back porch step, a bottle of beer dangling from loose, cold fingers as he looked across a dark and shadowy lawn, but it was not the windswept grass he was looking at or the way shafts of silver struck the midnight trees. He was reliving the way Zim had contorted and struggled, the froth running out of his lips, the way his ankles shook in those metal cusps, and the purulent, glossy greens that had poured out of so tiny a body as the cutting, grinding metal saw masticated bone.

The pain of his stitching was nothing compared to the unremitting self-reproach, the closed panic, and the climbing torment that nothing could touch or alleviate. The look on his father's face haunted him most of all. Was it the blood that had upset his father so? He didn't hurt animals. He did everything he could to help them, oftentimes donating millions to animal shelters, especially the ones that couldn't re-home broken and old pets that weren't much use to families with children.

He took a swallow of beer, but he couldn't taste the alcohol and it filled his belly with more of that corrosive, burning ice. He felt too sick to eat anything, and he suspected it would end up the same way the ham rolls had.

This wasn't the fairy tale he had believed in. The way out had seemed so perfect, so promising...

I should be happy.

Why am I not happy?

I had my hands on your throat! I wish you'd told me how much you hated me! You had the opportunity! You love to talk! And you didn't! You just lay there!

Is this it then? Is this what saving the planet amounts to?

He was certain that once Zim had all his little secrets ripped out of him, there would be nothing to fear, and people would raise him high on their shoulders, without guilt. Without pain.

You were my ticket in, Zim. Not just for fame, but to be off the fence. So that I wouldn't be the pariah.

I thought success could buy me something, you know? Something that would make me feel different, and change me from who I was. What I am. Is that what you wanted too? Is that what kept you here?

He dropped the beer and let it fall onto the paving slab where burgundy beer glugged out of its thin and brown neck. He couldn't close his eyes in time when the running liquid was the blood running out of Zim's suddenly severed arm, and of the dark emerald splashing across his father's white labcoat.

He stood up slowly and walked into the warm amber of his kitchen to scoop up his prescription cup of meds. He threw his head back and swallowed them dry.

I get it. You're a soldier. You've got to do your job or face the consequences. But there are always consequences.

I think the farmers were sad for what they did to the Golden Goose, but only because they never got what they wanted from it.

He leaned against the counter, thinking of the puppies trapped in that place, forced to endure innumerable injections, inoculated diseases and cruelty.

I should've killed you. And I didn't. What does that make me, Zim? Am I a monster too? Like you?

He hazily looked at the floor, suddenly weighted with the repercussions of what he had initiated.

If the PAK falls into Carlson's hands...

The doorbell rang, he froze, and the lid of every horror popped open. It could be his father, wounded and angry for leaving him there. It could be Carlson with that unfriendly smile. He doubted the sergeant would have any problem finding his address and spending the time to hop on over for a 'little chat.'

Woodenly walking through the rooms to the front door, he was on that conveyor belt again as he was numbly propelled forwards. He could see their shadow at the door and the sharp curves of hair fanning out from either side of their head. He opened the door, tired amber alighting on the cold ochre eyes of his sister. Her hand snapped forwards, hitting his shoulder below the collarbone and pushed him back. He stumbled, holding the place she had struck, "What... what was th-that for?"

"How does it feel Dib, to sleep at night? To drink water whenever you like? To sit down and put your feet up to watch another rerun of Mysterious Mysteries?"

"Hey, hey now..." She stepped forwards like a slowly advancing bull, knuckled fists quivering at her sides. Dib moved away step by step, hands fanning out in surrender. "...Can we just talk about this?"

"Has your egotism been fulfilled? Is the success just what you wanted? So where are the celebratory parties, Dib? Where are the banners saying 'hero' and 'saviour of Earth' on them? I don't see any sparklers or young women strapped to your arm." She mimed looking around as if they were hiding somewhere before she started marching towards him again. "Maybe I should make my own wish come true? Everyone should have what they want, right? Who cares who I trample along the way?"

"Who have you be-been talking to?"

She kept advancing. "Who do you think?"

He remembered. Gaz had taken dad out to lunch, probably when he was sleeping in the guestroom after recovering from his stitches. Maybe the professor had just given her a brief account of what was happening, what they were discovering...

He tried to rally strength into his voice. "Don't you dare pretend you don't know what Zim is! What he was capable of!" She kept coming. His elbow hit a miniature mosaic pot made of blue fibre glass for his coins and it dived to the floor: exploding into powder-like particles. "What examples do you want? How about that time he stole children's organs? Or when he doused Lincoln in water from one giant water balloon? He tried to take a bus load of kids through a wormhole to a dimension with a giant moose in it or something! What about that PEG energy device? Zim tried to... to sabotage it! He... he tried and nearly succeeded in sending us all through a florpus hole! If it wasn't for me, he would have done it!"

"Is that what makes you think you're so great?"

"Haven't you heard of karma? What goes around comes around!" He backed into the kitchen, ankle striking the table leg as he passed it, but Gaz wasn't showing any signs of slowing down.

"So he deserves pain and torture, does he?"

"Well, not so much torture, but when you invade other worlds with the intention to hurt and enslave..."

"So he deserves to be locked in a room and tortured to death?"

"Why do you care?" His eyes flashed fire and he stopped in his tracks. When she went for him, raising her fist to strike his chin, he caught it in his hand and held it. "He came to conquer and enslave us."

"You're so convinced of your own righteousness, but you still know right from wrong, don't you? Real justice is knowing when enough is enough, or you end up being just like Zim. Cruel, selfish and vindictive. I thought you were a human being, Dib. Now I know you're no better than him."

"That's... that's not..." He let go of her.

"If you think you can gain happiness from his destruction, then go ahead! I guess you're more twisted than he is. At least he had an excuse to be vindictive and callous, but you aren't a soldier, you weren't trained to be like that."

She stopped, her eyes softening. When she turned around, he took two steps towards her, about to put a hand on her shoulder when she slapped his touch away.

"You're... you're putting dad through so much..." She said quietly, and this hurt him the most.

"...He's supporting me! He knew he was wrong all this time, that I was..."

"Is this what it is? A contest? To prove something?" She glared at him: a look of pure loathing and disgust.

"Zim's the monster!" He cried.

"Is he?"

Dib didn't try to stop her, or beg for her understanding. When she banged the front door closed, he was left with the screaming as the sounds of the saw buzzed and sawed in his ears and head.

He sunk heavily to the floor in the foyer, staring at the wrinkled carpet as the tick tocking of the grandfather clock's pendulum swung to and fro.

She doesn't understand. She wasn't the one fighting him.

He didn't feel like staying here to be continually tortured by what he had seen; his conscience eternally rewinding back to the moment as his equal and adversary became a wretched, pain-torn animal.

Don't you dare judge me, Gaz. I sacrificed so much. You don't know what it cost me.

He thought of Zim's remaining kingdom: the last vestiges underground that had yet to be molested. All that technology was his. But it felt like he had stolen it, not earned it.

When he closed his eyes, he saw his father taking a limp ragdoll Irken into his soaked and blood-smeared arms. Green had splattered everything: dripping and trickling off the chair-like platform and onto the floor, with splodges on the walls in the shape of Williams hand prints.

The pings and blips had become an unvarying sound bereft of any pattern or rhythm.

Williams had looked so baffled as if the Irken had no reason or excuse to lose so much as a second of consciousness, and then cold perplexity cleared into icy shock when the Irken's vitals began to deteriorate.

The turbulence in his head and heart had him climb to his feet as he tried to escape the noose of his own making, but every turn, every step seemed to tighten the prison he'd made.

Dib hurried out into the back yard, crossing the lawn in quick strokes and yanked open the garage door to reveal his cluttered workshop. Tak's ship sat obligingly in the far corner, allowing ample room for other projects and inventions. He hadn't been the tidiest worker. The shelves were unorganised and cluttered; each one greasy with unmentionable oil stains and chemicals, and the floor was splattered in newer stains where something had leaked.

The mechanical construct lifted its smooth and metal head, its teeth parting open, segmented tail wagging expectantly.

He looked at it, and for the first time since its creation, he realized the brutality of it, of how every piece was made to specifically hurt and maim the Irken he had hunted.

It snapped its jaws in a bark; a grating, thunderous noise that ignited the tension in his shoulders and arms. The mechanized wolf/dog had been one of his many labours as he fought to counterattack, outmanoeuvre and outsmart the Irken. Invention and improvised engineering had been his best defence and attack. In many ways his intellect and ability to invent had saved him. If he had been an ordinary boy with an ordinary education, Zim would have creamed him years ago.

Maybe seeing the base, and the Irken tech I've won will give me some relief.

A more sensible part of him whispered: it's still too soon, someone from the lab might be following.

But they have no reason to suspect me of anything, and they don't know about the base underneath. If Gir stays away, I'll be fine.

He grimaced angrily, remembering the phone call, of Zim dropping him in it.

The dog sat up, the gears in its legs whining slightly as it cocked its head, a silvery tongue popping out of its chrome filled mouth.

He thought again of Benjamin, and what animals Zim might have trapped and buried in his base. That would give him the justification, not that he needed any with what the Irken had done to him, but a little something to prove once and for all of the soldier's evil wouldn't go amiss either.

"It's time to get you out for another field test." He went to pat its smooth and polished metal head and thought better of it.

Ironically, this metal canine had been inspired by Gir. He had observed the pair of them, the Irken and his idiot lackey from a distance whenever the Elite happened to take Gir out for these 'walks.' The foolish enterprise of the 'alien walking his robot' would take hours as Gir went round the park dragging Zim along to chase butterflies and steal ice cream off toddlers.

He realized that he could have a 'dog' companion of his own, to 'even the odds,' so to speak. He had gone home that day and immediately got to work building a prototype. It had to obey his commands, and be hack-proof in the likelihood that Zim might try to take control of it. Its shell was titanium with a magnesium based alloy that was highly resistant with good fatigue properties.

He had considered how effective Zim's PAK defences would be against it, and if those synthetic struts for legs might even be able to dent the dog's titanium coat. The dog had no problem crushing a steel rod in its jaws, and had easily snapped an old iron chain in half.

The dog had one shortfall. It didn't have ranged weapons. Arming the thing would weigh it down, and he wasn't sure he wanted his machine to go round blasting missiles through every living thing and building to get at the Irken, and built it so that it could outrun and outmanoeuvre the invader without need of munitions. Zim was no stranger to close combat, and had proved this effectiveness time and time again, but he had also been confident that Zim hadn't faced anything like this before, no matter how many simulations and battles and opponents the Elite had experienced.

Their recent battle a week before the miserable showdown had left a massive circular dent in the metal hound's left hind; the metal having caved inwards, cracks tracing to larger fissures. If it wasn't for the manhole cover the Irken had dived into at the last second, Zim may have ended up in pieces.

For the first time in his life the words to call the hound back had been on his tongue, and with a last rattling scream of horror his enemy had disappeared beneath the manhole cover, the green-splattered metal circle chiming as it resettled, and the dog had run desperately around it, looking for the prey that had escaped it. When he had approached the manhole cover and the dog, he'd seen bits of pink clothing and ropey green flesh hanging from a dozen bladed teeth.

This mechanized machine wasn't Benjamin, and it only had a partial understanding reserved for basic attack and summon commands. It could not understand emotion, or the intricacies of what he said, only emulating the behaviour of a real dog to a limited extent. It was finely tuned to sniff out and hunt Irkens, not to be a companion. Gir, Zim's companion and idiot, was still very much his envy in many ways, and he had gone and dumped him in the woods as quickly as he could as if Gir was blood on his hands that needed to be washed off.

'You aren't a soldier, Dib. You weren't trained like he was.'

His amber eyes settled on Tak's ship for a long moment before turning away and walking crookedly down the side of his house to his car, the chrome dog following.

The drive didn't take long, and when he stepped out into the brisk cold, leaves hitting his ankles, Zim's skewered and slanted house stood impossibly tall in the silver-moon lit shadows, but its roof seemed to sag on its shoulders, and the purple glass was broken. He bent over or under the numerous and prolific lengths of POLICE tape and tested the doorknob as the hound sniffed the porch steps. The handle's resistance did not surprise him, and he slipped out the electronic keycard he had 'burrowed' from his father and hit the small pin of a button. The short ranged EMP was enough to disable the electric locks the cops had left in place, and with a turn of the doorknob he was inside.

He unclipped his flashlight from his belt and shone it upon the remains.

Remnants of the ruin and chaos jumped out at him from the dark, and a section from the hangar above had collapsed from the sequence of detonations, smashing the couch and floor in concrete and metal-tube rubble. Walls had slouched inwards, and the kitchen's entryway was partly blocked with debris.

The dog let out an excited bark that sounded like tin grating rock.

The bookcase had been pushed open by the resulting debris of earth and metal that had fallen through, and Dib set the dog to dig and munch through the detritus. While the hound was busy, he clicked his light off and stood by the window's edge, looking out for vandals or cops who might be on-route to oversee the place. He could hear sirens on and off in the distance, and his anxiety climbed with them, but the sirens always passed on. Lincoln was prolific with crime, and he alleged that the cops who normally watched the place had been called elsewhere, but for how long that would be, he did not know.

He wasn't sure how long he could keep the underground lair a secret. One mention of it, accidental or otherwise, and Carlson would tear through the earth any way that he could.

The dog chimed, its barks like rumbling rocks about to fall. He turned, flashing his light on the beast's oil-tainted muzzle and cold steel teeth. Its eyes were hardly discernable; when he had made the dog he had tried to limit and minimize possible weaknesses that Zim might try to exploit, such as optics or anything he could grab and damage in the melee. As such, its eyes were tiny glowing red apertures that often didn't show in daylight, but they looked nothing short of horrific in the dark.

"You're done already?" He came over, boots crunching on purple glass, bits of couch stuffing, toys and tube plating. He lifted the flashlight, and its pale yellow cone rested on a narrow half dug passage. There was little use asking if it was safe to a machine that only listened to base commands, so he hunched down, the light leading him forwards, and began crawling on his hands and knees. Things hard and sharp poked into him from the sides and ceiling, and when he heard something groan from somewhere above or ahead, he stopped in his tracks, worried that the tight and tiny tunnel might collapse on him.

The light pouring out from his torch suddenly fluttered, strafing the black passage in flashes that did little to illuminate the darkness ahead that was absolute, and the space he was in was filled with his quick and shallow breathing. He wanted to shuffle back as fast as he could, even if it meant abandoning the whole idea when he saw a light: pale and pink on the far side, a star in the nightscape that his flashlight had originally blotted out. The passage ahead might be as wide as a pin drop, or there may be enough room to squeeze his shoulders through.

He considered the risks of a cave-in, of being buried alive.

The pink light seemed to waver, guttering almost like the flame of a candle. Against every instinct that was yelling and screaming at him to retreat before Zim's base became his coffin and grave, he rammed his shoulders and buttocks through the tightening narrow space of what felt like a rabbit hole made of glass and forged on, pressing and digging his elbows and fingernails into dirt that was as hard as concrete.

He could feel as much as hear the unremitting and jagged whine of gears and components as the dog followed behind. He was aware of bladed titanium teeth that were built to cut through Zim's PAK only mere inches from his ankles and legs.

The pink redness grew, the light seemed almost porous, and the tightening throat of a tunnel he was crawling through opened out into the conduit's chamber. Lights flashed and thrummed erratically, and several lines of tubing had fallen, crisscrossing over themselves or the devices they had landed on. The conduit's glass and metal door, smooth and curved, opened on silent mechanisms, the base's invitation unwelcomingly ominous.

He stood before it, looking up at its cylinder curves and pulsing glows. "C-Computer?" His voice came out, insipid and shaky. His handle on courage was weak and slippery, but he refused to scurry back down the hole.

No answer.

Is the power out? Then why is the conduit still active?

He stepped tentatively into the conduit, the dog following, its metal nose mostly to the floor for Zim's old scent that the machine could detect via filters and sensors in its nose.

The conduit door slipped closed without a sound and he felt the uneasy sensation of dropping a thousand floors without being fully aware of how fast he was going, only the immediate and terrifying weightlessness as he disappeared through untold depths of the Earth's mantle. Who knew how far Zim had tunnelled, and how many layers of the planet's crust he had successfully carved aside to make room for his many catacombs and labs.

Even though he rattled and shook from the cold within, the descent was impossibly smooth to the point of gentleness, and when the door glided open, presenting brightly lit and colourful depths, he hardly believed he had gone very far from the surface.

Why here? Why did it stop? Is this as far as it goes, or...?

He took long moments looking owlishly around without stepping out of the conduit even when the base could just as easily send him further down where things lay dead and buried, or shoot him back to the top at light speed.

He looked to the metal dog, suddenly realizing too late that it may have been wiser to have brought Gir along instead of this cold and metal thing with tiny red slits for eyes.

He finally stepped out onto hard purple flooring, and more lights flickered on as if they were triggered by movement. He hunched to a standstill, expecting a trap.

Nothing came to smote him, no grapplers or hooks or miniature claws hurried to accost and dismember him.

Banks of computers came on, nestled along elaborately coloured embankments that twinkled and flashed and hummed to their own serenade, each and every space filled with millions of bright buttons and knobs and flashy panels. Everything was mostly at a height of two feet, making Dib feel as though he was walking through a place made for hobbits. Little walkways turned here and there, the ceiling so low that he had to duck or else get clubbed in the head by low-hanging tubing, bulkheads or nodules. Sometimes he had to walk sideways when the walkway narrowed, with multiple corridors winding away like rabbit warrens to other places. The dog snuffed and sniffed, but the scent was fading.

The tubing created arachnid shadows across the bristling and pulsing purple walls, and amongst the squeezed and narrow inlets of labyrinthine mazes were tiny stairways and hatches and doors. Pulsing through every hub and sequin was that continuous hum of machines working, and every so often there was the exhale of air from a vent, giving the impression that he was inside the belly of a mechanical beast.

He ran a hand over a panel, finding it slippery, smooth and warm, the shock of which made him pull his hand away. His PAK had been warm too when he had rested a hand on it.

There was a sound, soft and ringing before it faded beneath the desultory hum and breath of Zim's subterranean base.

He paused, eyes swinging to the bright and pulsating hubs, terminals and niche of doorway in case there was something there, watching him.

"Did you hear that?"

The dog lifted its heavy head, aperture ruby eyes glowing cold.

What if there were monsters down here? Experiments left to wander the metal corridors, things he couldn't imagine, monstrosities better left buried?

"Computer? Are you there?" Even though the hum wasn't very quiet, the channels and corridors exhaling of their own accord, his voice still seemed to echo and fall, peeling long and far. What if something else could hear, and was crawling through the warrens and passages towards him?

He suddenly felt absurd for his cowardice. This place was his! He couldn't tiptoe around it and expect every horror to come falling through every corner! Tearing this place apart would help destroy the intimidation this place preserved, and turn spaces strange and unfamiliar to places he could grow accustomed to. The aliveness of the base, the alien, he may try to tarnish, preserve, or reverse engineer, he hadn't quite decided yet.

Why isn't the computer responding? Did Zim shut it off? Did it get damaged somehow, or is it listening to everything I do and say?

There was a cry in the distance, echoing before fading like a dream half glimpsed.

Could ghosts haunt this place like they could on the surface?

"Go!" He snapped up a hand, pointing to a choked and narrow passage where he thought he'd heard the noise, and the dog became a smooth, silver torpedo as it rushed ahead, its gait unnervingly quiet for something so powerful.

He leaned against a doll-sized terminal, wary of the pulsing lights and warmth that enveloped the honeycombs of places that went up, down or through the earth's stony cold plateau.

In the stillness, the memory returned, of Zim, a creature from the stars, pulling and twisting with the black rag of cloth fastened over his eyes as they slowly and steadily butchered him like a butcher hacked up slabs of meat.

"Why is A01 not... waking?" Williams had asked the stupefied and on-looking scientists.

The dog came bounding back unscathed and began to paw at the metal flooring. It had found something.

"Lead on." A flick of his wrist and the dog turned round, Dib following with less of the urgency. He imagined doors or blockades to come crashing down from near-invisible wall slots to seal him from the conduit, and his exit. As much as he wanted Zim's base and his tech, he didn't like it, couldn't trust it. Every part of it acted like something organic, something living that could rise and activate to defend itself. And though the computer hadn't answered, he could sense it tracking him: unseen eyes measuring his every step.

The metal dog stood at a slim and narrow door that tapered upwards in an eerie, unsettling gothic design that was not in keeping with the usual eccentricities and gaudy Irken aesthetics. Its steel-like material was disconcertingly dark, with drifts of purple coalescing through the black material. When touched, it exhibited icy cold and not the warmth he had slowly come to expect.

It clicked open.

He jumped back, hitting the glowing wall behind him, with the dog standing perfectly still as the lean and narrow doorway yawned wide. He could hear the cycles of ventilation that sounded more like the great asthmatic heaves of a dragon, and saw glimpses of potion-like beakers and bottles that captured every vibrant colour he had ever known or seen. As he gazed in, he saw cages, gothic like bars leaning closed into birdcage shapes, all of which hung open or stood broken. What was left was the bedding and straw that animals or experiments may have rested on.

The door opened a little more and something small, gold and yellow flashed past.

One of the glittery and gaudy potions was knocked over, and its syrupy contents went splashing across the sequinned panels.

Two tiny velvet dark eyes stared out from under a metal console.

Dib eased himself down on his knees, the pain brief and intermittent, and he reached out a hand, thinking it to be a bird or a small rodent that had got trapped down here.

"It's okay." He thought of Benjamin coming out of the dark and dusty corner, tail between its legs.

See, Zim? You're just like them, you're no different to the monsters above. You keep animals down here too, and experiment and hurt and molest them.

A tiny golden head popped out from the shadows, and the sight of it made his heart fall down somewhere. Beneath its button pink nose was a huge grinning set of teeth that stuck out from its lips. Its body was svelte and slender, its small and narrow shoulders sloping down a long tapered body to a tail. Tiny ears were perched on either side of those fabulous gnashes.

My, what lovely teeth you have...

"Master...?" The voice that came out of it made him whirl round to get away, blood running cold, and he tripped over thin air and landed somewhere down the corridor.

There was a scuttle of legs, and ohmygod it's gonna get me! Eat my feet off! Bite out my eyes! when he saw the tiny thing standing out in the corridor not less than three feet from him. It had waltzed past the metal dog as if it was simply furniture. And it was so quick!

"Please don't eat me!" He raised a hand, realizing too late that fleshy fingers wouldn't defend him against those enormous teeth.

"I don't think I could keep down something as inedible as you." The creature sat perched on its hunches and had the audacity to lick under a little armpit. It showed no fear whatsoever. It voice was organic, not mechanical or recorded, and shrilly chirped back with impossible fluency.

"W-What are you?" He looked to the stationary metal hound and back to the critter with his hand still raised in front of his face.

"A weasel. My name is Zephyr. And you must be a filthy human from above. How did you get here?"

"I... well, urm, you see..." His brain clicked off, he could only stare as thoughts tumbled uselessly inside his head.

"Is there a way out? I've eaten everything I can find and there's no sign of Master..."

"M-Master? You mean Zim?"

"Yes." The creature returned without hesitation. It stopped washing itself and rested back on its forelegs, watching him from oil drop eyes.

"Th-that can't be right..." He slowly shifted himself onto his butt, shoulders braced against a bulkhead. He wasn't sure which way to run if the creature decided to come for him, but one quick command and the 'weasel' would be nothing but fodder in the dog's teeth. "Zim is not your master! You're an experiment of his, aren't you? That doesn't make you his slave!"

The 'weasel' hopped over in two fleeting skips, its body moving like water and Dib leapt back, on the precipice of calling for the dog when the weasel only stared back as if it had come for a closer look. "You humans really are ugly." Was its esteemed assumption.

"Did Zim teach you to say those words?" Those pristine teeth glared back, white as icicles. The teeth made up at least two-thirds of its face. Its claws weren't to be underestimated either; they clicked and clacked on the hard and purple floor like miniature ice-picks.

He couldn't stand the way it watched him from its cold, black eyes.

"I am no experiment."

"You are! You just don't know it! Where do you think you came from? You're a Petri-dish finale! Some inconclusive footnote that's been left to rot down here! It's just as well I broke in! And this is what I find! Are there other monsters like you down here?"

"Monsters?!" The creature leapt up and bounced onto him, shiny teeth centimetres from his nose as little claws gripped the shirt at his chest. The creature might have weighed as much as a big rat, but Dib wasn't in the habit of finding out just what damage it could do if he should try and fling it off. "Is that what you think I am?" It hissed. "Then what does that make you? You and your kind are mindless ogres! You come into the forest, you set fire to my home! You lace the ground with your poisons and anger, and burn everything as you go! The animals that live there aren't given a second thought! You build your homes on top of ours, take our food, and ostracise us when we try to take what we can to survive!"

"W-What?" He blinked at those teeth and those little eyes perched on top. The creature snorted, its hot breath fogging his glasses. It violently shook its little golden and yellow striped head and hopped off him, settling itself on a panel on the purple and gleaming wall.

"He's a prototype! He likes those jaws I gave him!"

"If it wasn't for Master I wouldn't have made it. He gave me these gifts to fight back." And he used a tiny paw to gesture at his elaborate and shiny teeth. "Those he tries to save who are broken, he arms and weaponizes. Have you seen the news?"

"N-News... what?" He tried to imagine this little critter perched on a mini sofa, flicking through the channels of a TV with an itty-bitty remote.

"The moose on the news! They're poaching the poachers!"

"He... what?" The fact that this thing could understand relative terms and concepts, like the TV and the news channel was just too fantastical to process. Had he fallen down a rabbit hole somewhere and hit his head? "I'm hallucinating! This isn't real! You aren't real!"

The little weasel crossed its arms in front of its fluffy yellow bib and cocked its head at him. "Enjoy your disbelief." And it scuttled along the wall.

"Wait! Are there more of you trapped down here?"

"There is another room further on. They're like me."

"Zim... gave you those teeth? You... you wanted them?"

Zephyr nodded.

"But why are you still down here if you're not a prisoner?"

"Not all of us were ready to go outside, and then the place was locked down from above and none of us could get out."

I am dreaming. This isn't happening.

Just go with it, and soon I'll wake up and everything will be fine.

He went back into the room with the empty cages and straw-covered dens, and found another slim, narrow leaf of door that looked impossibly thin and brittle to be practical. He touched it, and when it slid open he was shoved aside by a flock of beasts large and small. They hurled themselves through the opening, incessantly chattering away in English when he expected bleats and chirps and grunts.

A badger bumbled out alongside a fluttering crow, a deer, a mongoose and about thirty rats and turkeys. Each one came equipped with something mechanical and cybergenic in nature. He stood and watched them pass by with that same dazed, dreamy expression.

His world was cracking at the foundations.

This isn't Zim. This isn't what he does.

A variety of zoo animals paraded past, honking or muttering in English, and he hoped to God that he wasn't in some kind of coma.

When the feathered and furred beasts had left (he could still hear them grunting and barking at each other along the distant passageways) he crept to the doorway of the gothic and ebony door to catch his breath.

Why arm and equip little bumbling critters? He must have been using them to take over the Earth.

Months ago, on the cusp of June when the grass had been bleached by the sun, he had watched Zim poke at the squashed body of a gopher with a twig on the roadside, and this had convinced him once and for all of the Irken's depravity. Later, that same squished and dead animal had returned part cyborg with a cybernetic eye and limbs. Dib had had his leg stuck in a hole in the Irken's front yard and this walking horror/abomination had antagonized him the whole night through.

But what if... what if that dead gopher had led to something... to fixing... to saving...

No, no that's not what he does!

He headed through the passage he had trekked down, not always remembering to duck in time from a low hanging tube or nodule in the ceiling. The catacombs and unbridled depths began to crowd too close around him, with levers and terminals catching on his clothing as he hurried down the weaving arteries, desperate to see open skies and feel the cool breath of autumn. When he stumbled into the conduit, the metallic dog at his side, the suffocation weakened, and when he reached the top via the conduit he lurched out into an earth-packed tunnel crammed with the animals he had released.

The badger was at the front of the party using its extra special Zim-gifted claws to dig a wider tunnel, allowing even the biggest beast to climb out. He warily followed them out of the tunnel, watching them disperse through the purple doorway and broken windows as they made their way back into the world.

"I'm gonna get them!" Honked the goose.

"Down with the fences!" Squeaked the mongoose.

"I'm going to puncture every car tire!" Grunted the badger.

He didn't know what to make of them, what Zim's dark purpose had involved. For a moment he saw a flash of gold: of the weasel with the impressive set of jaws, and he wanted to talk to him, to know, when the little critter was lost beneath the snuffle and scramble of the other animals.

With the robot dog sitting in the trunk of the car, he watched the last critter disappear into the night, and his heart sunk further than it had ever gone.

The guilt was clawing him apart.

"Zephyr...?" He called desperately, why?

But Zephyr had gone.

After having the metal dog collapse the hole it had originally made, he began the lonely drive home, his mind chasing after ideas and theories that went nowhere while his heart was entangled in a prison of pain and regret.

With the house keys jangling in one hand, he made the slow climb up the porch steps to see a little green dog-thing sitting on his welcome mat. The relief rushed in; a warm tide coalescing the pain and cold, and he had to resist the sudden urge to scoop Gir into his arms.

"I... I told you..." He said, voice timorous and weak, "...n-not to come here."

Gir's doggy face turned towards him, little nubby arms wrapped about his torso. He looked cold, as if robots had the ability to feel the temperature. Briefly he thought of temperature/pressure sensors and how attainable they might be for Irken tech before he jolted out of his thoughts to look over his shoulder. It was dark, with the trees cracking and creaking sadly beneath the bullying hand of the wind. He didn't know who was watching.

Gir meanwhile was looking with unusual disquiet at the metal dog standing stone-still by Dib's side.

"It's okay, Gir, he... urm... won't bite. Hurry and get inside."

Gir was more than happy to oblige him, and skipped and hopped through the doorway.

Dib looked round again, suspecting every shadow.

-x-

He lay in bed with the light on. The dark suddenly frightened him.

With the dog costume pulled down to expose the robot's conical head, Gir lay tucked up beside him, his little nubby arms intertwined around his arm. It took nearly an hour to sate the robot's 'hunger.' He had eaten all his cereal down to the last cornflake. Dib had watched in numbed bewilderment, hardly believing that a robot could hunger for anything other than the next oil change.

His eyes listlessly took in the honeyed light from the lamp as it shone on the furniture, with the steel rods of the bedposts glowing like little golden baubles.

He wondered why Gir had come back to him when he could have wandered to Zim's base, or remained in the forest where the little animals could have entertained him for days on end. Gir was just a robot with a broken memory, broken drives and broken circuits, a construct made out of nuts and bolts that should not desire company or warmth. He was a mere tool for his master that served no other purpose than to assist the evil that had helped make him. As he pondered, he felt Gir squeeze him tighter. Was there ever a moment when Zim had let Gir snuggle up beside him? Did they do things together that didn't involve work and evil plots?

He took a deep breath, looking at his various UFO wall posters across the room, wondering what it was truly like to be an Irken soldier. What things had Zim seen, done, and survived? He had never seen him as anything but the threat, the obstacle, and his platform for fame and recognition.

Empty praise from a near-sighted and forgetful media was one thing, but the attention of his father had been his real goal.

"Please tell me he's a monster, Gir. Tell me I did the right thing." He asked in the quiet. He expected some random and loony reply, and looked to see that Gir had shut his optic-eyes and appeared to be sleeping. Against the moan of the wind outside, he could just about hear him snoring.

It was dangerous to have Gir with him. If he dumped him on the outskirts of National Woods, and dragged him to its darkest centre, he might boomerang back again in no time, and then what would he do with him?

He remembered how white his father's face was, his pallor draining to look as white as the coat he wore before was saturated in ribbons of green.

He looked over to the phone sitting on its receiver on the nightstand, wanting to call dad, to ask how he was...

...and if Zim was...

His courage slipped, and he turned away from the phone, hating himself. The guilt was a tightening band around his heart.

He felt his father drifting away, from him, the enterprise of what they had, and he couldn't figure out why.

Maybe he knows how intelligent Zim is, how special it makes him. That, deep down, he always believed in me, that I was too blind to see it.

He was scared of seeing his dad again, scared of his disapproval, terrified of what he might say to him now.

Soft tears fell into the green felt of Gir's costume. Exhaustion tore a hole through his wakeful torments, and he found himself standing by a grey stoned wishing well. He looked down at its wide throat, hands resting on cold, wet stone. If he looked really hard, he swore he could see stars down there.

"Are you going to stand there and gape all day?" He sat, perched on the edge, lips upending into a soft and playful curve. Even in the darkest of places his eyes brightly glittered as if cosmic nebulas were trapped inside them.

Dib frowned. "I don't know what to wish for."

Zim ran a black claw along a crack in the brickwork. "It's not as hard as all that."

Dib stepped away from the blackness and the faraway stars.

He gently cocked his head at him, the smile still playful, and knowing. "Don't tell me you're afraid, stink beast?" One eye squinted lower than the other as he slung hooked claws across his arms. "You got here yourself. Surely you know what you want?"

He edged closer to the algae-stained wall, looking again to see if there was something he had missed. Looking for the pink lights.

Zim slipped something out of an ever so tiny and narrow pocket and revealed an envelope. Written across the tattered and slightly bent surface were the scrawls of Dib's childish handwriting. "I think this belongs to you."

Dib backed up a step, looking at the envelope in horror. "Why... do you have that?"

"Is it so hard to figure out? The forest was littered with them." He reached out, "Take it you fool."

"No."

"Don't you want it?"

"No!"

Thin claws rested on either side of the letter to tear it in half. He broke into a run, hands reaching to stop when Zim let the letter go, and it floated into the sky, its flight directed by the winds that ferried it along the deepening black.

He stood, watching the letter fly to the sky with tears running down his cheeks.


Dib07: Kudos to those who got the Pokémon reference/vibe and The Last Unicorn vibe, though the latter is much harder to spot unless you know what to look for! Hopefully this chapter was a bit of a breather after last time. Next chapter, we're back in Geneva - yay! *many in the crowd: 'boo booo!' XD

Thank you for the reviews, the support really helped me get this story into the light. I know it took awhile to encourage me, but I am so, so glad you persisted, otherwise this story would still be hidden and locked away.