Dib jogged very lightly along the sidewalk. Running was invigorating, after three months crammed in a 20-by-20 foot cage; the noise of traffic and other pedestrians was slightly overwhelming. He was sweating already, the cloth of his shirt sticking under his arms and back.
He knew exactly where he was going. Unprepared, unequipped, he didn't know what he was going to do when he got there. All he had were his hands and the anger in his heart. Dib wasn't even honed to the fitness he was used to. Muscles had been confined and had atrophied a little from the inactive time. He had to slow down to a power walk, taken aback by the weakness creeping up on him.
Probably he needed to hit the house, grab some of them equipment that would hopefully still be stashed in his room. He would have no chance of making it to the Spittle Runner if he was ill prepared. Dib sped up to a jog again, muscles that had strung themselves wire-tight with cramps uncoiling.
It took an hour and a half to reach his neighborhood. By then he was flushed and his black hair was soaking with sweat, the scythe flopping behind his back. He jogged up the sidewalk, turned at his house, and pushed his palm against the touch pad by the door.
Membrane apparently hadn't bothered taking him out of the system; thank God, thank God. Dib heard the bolts clicking in the door and shot through when there were only two feet of space between door and frame, slamming it closed behind him. The house echoed with emptiness and Dib raced upstairs, lunging into his bedroom, drinking in the sight of his place, thickly coated with dust but unchanged. He dropped to his knees and scrambled to the bed, where he hauled out several cardboard boxes, coughing at the thick clouds that stirred up from the sheets and cardboard. The dust made his eyes tear and he blinked the moisture away, sliding his fingers under one flap of cardboard and wrenching it up sharply.
It was all still there: the stash of equipment to use against Zim if things ever got desperate. The stealth suit was folded neatly on top; he threw the sleek black material carelessly to the side and began to dig out explosives.
It was a stockpile years in the making. Relatively primitive pipe bombs shared space with more sophisticated, timed explosives that he had built as his technical expertise increased and he realized the need for a delayed blast. When he judged that he there were enough he pulled stretched himself out under the bed and dragged a thick, musty burlap messenger bag out from where it was pushed against the wall. He wriggled into his stealth suit and slid bombs into pockets, into the bag; everywhere they would fit. He had just thrown the sack of the carryall over his shoulder when he heard the door click open downstairs and footsteps creak across the floor. Dib froze in place immediately. His back was to the door; he was facing his bed. The skin between his shoulder blades itched.
It was too early for Membrane to be home – he was sure of it. Gaz. It had to be Gaz.
A shiver ran through his body. He tucked the bomb into one last pocket with shaking, suddenly clammy hands. He was abruptly hyperaware the house around him, of his place in it.
No noises from downstairs. Gaz was standing still – Dib's madly working brain pictured her, waiting at the bottom of the stairs, waiting, waiting until he cracked. The bogeyman in the house, the bogey little-sister. If he stepped out, what would she do? He would be vulnerable. She'd see him, pinpoint his position right away. He wished he hadn't left her alone.
Come on, Dib, he thought. Work this out. Come on, Zim's made you weak but he hasn't made you STUPID! Find a way out of this. Change the rules. Surprise her.
His eyes went to the window.
A moment later he let himself onto the bare earth under the eaves of his house, dropping immediately to his knees so that he wasn't in line with the kitchen window. The weight of the bag bowed him and he crouched still, thinking.
Okay. Gaz isn't here to help. Not anymore. I have to make sure that she can't follow me. I have to make sure she's okay. Dib gnawed on his lip, mind in quiet agony. Was Zim controlling her firsthand, or had he just left standing orders for Dib to be stopped? Would she fight like Zim or like herself?
Just have to wing it. Shit.
Dib crept around to the front of the house, probably more stealthily than he needed to. Eventually he ended up at the front door and crouched again to calculate his next move. Assuming Gaz hadn't moved from where she'd waited for him, she'd be facing away from the door and if he moved quickly enough it might be possible to surprise her from behind.
How had she known he was in the house in the first place? Sure, she was his sister, and probably instilled with Zim's guile too, but… it was creepy. The way she had just seemed to point, straight as a compass needle, to where he was. Could that really come just from knowing somebody's mind?
Yeah. Probably. Of course it could, stop screwing around, Dib, stop putting it off, the longer you're out here the more things that can go wrong.
He set his bag by the door, took a deep breath, and went for it.
Gaz wasn't in front of the stairs when he plunged in. Dib saw it and rolled to the side, hardly thinking. It was good timing. It meant he was quick enough to avoid the Membrane Collectible lamp that whistled down and shattered on the floor. Gaz dropped it and lunged for him; Dib shot across the room at full-tilt scuttle and took cover behind the couch. He had a second to breath before she jumped over the back and almost onto him. Working purely on reflex he tore off a couch cushion and blocked her with it, letting Gaz bear herself to the ground.
He didn't want to hurt her, he really didn't want to have to hurt her. Too bad Gaz didn't seem to be hindered by any such compunction. She went in a mad dash for the kitchen and Dib lunged for her calves, made her fall. She caught herself stiffly and he dragged her back. Abruptly she gave up on getting to the cutlery drawer and rolled over instead. Thin sharp-nailed fingers caught the soft skin on his inner arm and pinched and twisted. It felt like her nails were going to press right through the skin and meet in the middle. Dib snarled for breath, jammed his fingers as hard as he could into the first pressure point he could remember on her arm.
It forced her to let go. Dib didn't take the chance of letting her on her feet again. He hauled her thrashing across the room instead, close to the entryway to Membrane's lab. He stopped trying when she latched her teeth into his forearm and started clawing.
It was an ugly, nasty way to fight. There wasn't enough space for either of them to gain the advantage they needed. Dib shielded his face with one arm, curled to deflect the kicks a little and pinched her nose with the free hand.
Even Gaz couldn't go without breath forever. Fighting the urge, face bright red, she released his arm to gasp in air, and Dib didn't give her the chance to get her teeth in him again. He forced her head backwards, jammed her back against the floor, and rolled her into a backwards somersault.
Then, feeling sick to his stomach (Zim, it's not Gaz, it's Zim, not Gaz-) he pushed her down the stairs.
Membrane's lab was filled with weird stuff. Probably hundreds of things down there could serve as weapons; Dib was counting on it, was surprised she hadn't taken something from there in the first place. He watched her slink away from the bottom of the stairs and into the jungle of machinery. That's right, keep on going. Go all the way into the corner. Find something really good. Come on…!
When she was really out of sight, he pulled a small explosive out of one pocket and keyed a time into it.
Membrane's home lab had seen its share of explosions. It was imperative to have a sensitive safety mechanism installed to protect the house, the neighborhood, the city, and the surrounding countryside, because when Membrane's experiments went wrong they did so impressively. Thus, the house was equipped with sensitive equipment to register even the start of blasts and to seal of the lab when one started.
Dib took his bomb to the center of the stairs, set it down carefully, and bolted.
Twenty seconds later, an explosion was registered by the house computer, and heavy metal doors slammed across the connection from the lab to the stairs and the stairs to the house. The ground didn't even shake.
Dib ran with his bag over one shoulder. It hit him in the ribs over and over again. He was hungry and tired and burning with an agonized worry for what he had done.
When he got the change, he was going to fucking kill Zim for this.
Twenty minutes to the house, and when he arrived Dib glared at the bright green façade.
Looking back, their fights were almost cute, almost fun; whatever they had been, none of them had ever been this bad. Nothing so… playing for keeps. He wouldn't ever have been forced to stay in a prison cube for three months back then. It wouldn't have been allowed.
He jumped out into the gnome field, and went for the door.
It seemed easier than usual to get into the house, or maybe he just wasn't remembering it right. But no… he was out of practice. It should have been hard, he should have laser burns; he should be hot and sticky with sweat. Dib paused suspiciously, looking over the front room, doing a spot check for obvious traps or any sign that Zim had noticed him at all. There was nothing going on up here; Dib had been studying Zim's house for years and by now the emptiness made his skin crawl all over. The TV wasn't even on. Dib crept around the edge of the room, quivery with adrenaline, squeezing around the TV and towards the garbage can that would let him down into the lower base. By the time he reached it he was nearly at the point of a paranoid breakdown.
Strange, standing back in this old place. It wasn't so long ago that he'd been here unchanged. Now the slopes and the curves of the walls seemed nightmarish, like a stranger standing just behind your shoulder. It had been that way when he first started infiltrating Zim's base; everything scary, twisted and dark, cold, alien. He had gotten used to it until the strangeness fit around him, another skin; a big one made of metal and technology that no human had seen before. And now the weirdness was back.
Dib ran his hand along the side of the bag, fingered the lumps and bumps that were explosives. He was going to break down the old walls of dreams.
He fit his long body into the garbage can and began to ease himself down.
Five minutes later, a computer monitor on the first level erupted in flinging shards of shrapnel and greasy smoke. The security system tripped into an automatic response routine, but Dib had already moved on.
He made a ragged circle through the big room, sticking bombs to computers, to bubbling tubes of fluid, anything that looked messy. Some of the timers he set to a delay as long as twenty minutes. When he had finished the circuit he went back to the elevator shaft. The moving platform wasn't working, had been dropped when the explosions started as a part of the countermeasures, but it didn't matter because he wasn't using it.
After the second level, his arms and legs were violently shaking and his fingertips were bloody.
On the third level he found Zim, standing and waiting for him.
Dib didn't move immediately to fight. He crept through the machines instead, leaving red fingerprints, watching. Zim paced idly in circles, boots tapping on the floor. Abruptly the Irken turned, stopped, his eyes reflecting the cold red of rubies as he peered into the lab. "Helloooo, Dib," he leered. "It sounds like you've been doing well."
The human shivered. Fine hairs on the back of his neck lifted.
"I wondered when you'd work up the spooch to come face me. It took about as long as I expected, actually."
Something was weird here. Something was off about this. All Dib's instincts were screaming it. Zim's voice was almost toneless; oily and smooth. He was never this well-modulated. He never had this much of a grip. Dib wormed forwards and the rolled, quickly, to flatten himself under some foreign and bizarre machine. It looked like Zim knew exactly where he was.
"Pathetic, Dib," Zim continued. "In the end you were a waste of my time. You were not a challenge. Of course, that's all I should have expected from a sniveling human not out of smeethood yet-"
It was probably possible to take him from here, Dib judged. Possible to catch him off guard, in one swift rush, and take him down-
He knew that this level had a lower part somewhere in it, a sort of sunken arena impressed into the floor. He could use that.
"But really, Dib… cutting yourself?" Pink teeth shone in a sneer. "The weakest thing I could ever have expected you to do. I mean, come on! Surely you are more than merely emo-?"
"Shut up!" Dib roared from his position on the floor. "You're so stupid, you don't know what you're talking about, you don't know what it's like!"
He didn't jump up. He retained that small bit of sanity. "You stupid alien, up on your high horse, all of the TIME – I'll show YOU! You'll never get to me, you'll never control me, I'm a human and humans have free will-"
He took out another bomb, flicked it into readiness, and kicked it away with a foot. It went rolling and skittering away across the floor until it exploded, the red ball of fire lighting up everything feverishly bright, cutting shadows hard and black against the floor. Zim looked over sharply, like a cat that had just seen something interesting, and crouched forward – the spider legs erupted from his pak and he bounced in a skittery run towards Dib.
The human dove to the side, rolled, staying low, hopefully out of range of the sharp metal points of the paklegs. They didn't grip well on the smooth floor and Dib took advantage of it, grabbed the lowest section of one, ripped it out further to the side so that Zim tipped a little. He still had three legs supporting him so that didn't work so well. Dib dropped it, dodged out of range of the other three – Come on down here and actually fight, space boy. Come on, come on…! Got to get in range!
Impossible to beat Zim if he couldn't get at the meatbody. Impossibly bad idea to get in a directly physical fight with him in the first place. But there was an advantage here, something to use, there had to be, there had to-
He stuck a bomb on the fly, to the bottom of some big tanky metal thing, and ran for cover. Zim didn't move in time and the explosion caught him, flaying back skin so silver flashed beneath. Was his blood silver? He couldn't remember. The blast knocked Zim off his paklegs and rolling. Dib caught his breath. Yes yes yes. Just stay down, just wait for me to get there-
Zim was on his feet again, mad now. Really mad. Hardly recognizable. Dib didn't care; he was panting and shaking and gleeful and he had a strategy. Kind of. He pelted away from the screaming alien towards the sunken arena, ducking and weaving and slithering as he went; he bolted in a zigzag pattern, so he would be harder to get a fix on. Zim was partly destroying his own lab now, tearing up experiments and machinery just to get at Dib. Metal cables and paklegs whistled past his ears.
He led the alien in a schizophrenic race towards the sunken arena. He had a plan. It was crazy and stupid and had a high probability of getting him killed. With luck it would probably kill Zim too.
Dib was getting a stitch in his side. It was the worst possible time, he could feel it pulling along his lungs and stomach – Come on, a little more, but don't fail me now, if you work for me now I promise to take a nice long nap later and eat a healthy meal, come on. For his stupid idea to work he had to be able to really get at Zim, none of this cat and mouse stuff. Yes. Come on. Stay pissed, Zim, stay crazy and stupid and arrogant, keep being yourself. None of that weird stuff you were doing earlier. All calculating. Come on.
An explosion tossed him away and into a curving wall of something. He slid to the floor. He could feel how all the organs in him had gone squish, away from the direction of the blast - they all wanted to get away. He could imagine them all bailing out. There go the intestines, with lots of little feet, like centipedes – there goes the stomach, waddly and mottled and squishy – there go the lungs, a twin set. Sorry, Dib. But man, you ain't been treatin' us right. We don't wanna work for you no more.
Stupid inner bits, you don't have a union – you can't just leave – and Zim was crashing down upon him, holding on to his throat with sharp pricky little claws, breathing and wheezing so some kind of cool greasy fluid spattered Dib's face. "Oh, look at this," he growled, "I really am going to kill you for this mess, human-" he growled, and Dib with spots in front of his eyes and his head spinning and his bones throbbing reached into a pocket and pulled out a bomb and wedged it into Zim's pack when a port slid open.
Because it was the right fuckin' moment, man. Oh yeahhh.
Zim shook him back and forth, and let him go, and went flailing and screaming about, like a cat with tin cans tied on the tail. Like a little kitty kitty he was. Dib laughed, strangled, and tasted blood and oil on his lips. He rolled over with great slowness. There was a huge disconnect between his spinning head and the rest of his body. When he was up he wobbled back and forth on his feet. Yeah, baby, yeah, like that, just get up, just keep it up for a few more minutes. He stumbled over to Zim who was flailing uselessly and screaming and grabbed him up in a hug, like they'd had to do that one time with Keef who wanted to be friends and just wouldn't – go – AWAY -
Come on come on come on.
The arena was just a few feet away.
How much time did the bomb have left?
He stumbled over there with Zim. He could feel the alien tearing at him.
HOW much TIME did the bomb have LEFT?
He dipped Zim out over the edge – a drop of about ten feet. He swung him out and let him go.
HOW MUCH FUCKIN TIME DID I PUT INTO THAT BOMB GODAMMIT-
Smoky red fire streaked up in front of him. Shoved him backwards. Blew his eyes to hell. He lay still and was shaken by the great noise of it. Like a big hand had reached down into his guts and was shaking everywhere. Like heavy bass at a concert. Ohh yeah we're rockin' now, gonna rock the night away, gonna rock… me… home…
Okay, I think that's enough, Dib.
You've made your point.
Be a good boy, now.
Be a good boy and get up.
Get UP, fucker, get UP, what's wrong with you-
Okay, getting up now.
He rolled over.
The sense of disconnection had increased into a yawning chasm. Orders clattered from point to point. Turn your head. Roll over. Onto your stomach. Pull up your arms. Brace your hands on the floor.
Yeah, it was easy.
He walked over to the edge. Someone watching him might have said it looked like he had sea legs and was just getting used to land again, or was drunk. He looked down into the arena. Eventually he smiled weakly, with blood crusted around the corners of his mouth. He wasn't carrying the sack anymore; he'd dropped it a long time ago, because it wasn't a good idea to be carrying around pounds and pounds of things that went boom on you when somebody was going nuts trying to tear you into ribbons and there was fire all around.
The Spittle Runner sat on a platform near the center, gleaming and clean and lovely. The cockpit sat invitingly open. First thing to do here, Dib thought, is to shoot my way outta this place. Heck, it would probably be easy with the Runner. Maybe, since they were in Zim's base, Tak would cooperate, at least to get them both on the ground level. He, he could dream, right? Maybe he could just follow the charred and smoking path she left to the surface. All the computer security was probably shot to hell by now, right?
It took him a few minutes to realize he was crying, softly and with no particular enthusiasm. He wrote it off to stress.
Zim was blown in half – the innards of the pak arced out in a rainbow of silver and twisted computer bits. The upper half of his body lay about five feet away from the lower half. Dib stared at him for a couple seconds, then went to the edge and lowered himself down slowly. It was only a drop of about three feet all told. He went and stood and looked down at the alien. Tears dropped on the floor.
It took him a couple minutes to see it. It took a little more time for the meaning of what he was seeing to register.
There should. Be. Insides. EVERYWHERE. All over the floor. Like splatterart, splatterart, haha, like little kids do –
Just that spill of little metal things, things that were so tiny and alien and complex that he couldn't tell what they were. Dib bent over and dropped heavily to his knees. He turned his head and looked into the cross-section of Zim's torso.
He'd seen Zim's guts once. A long time ago, with the x-ray goggles. It was a messy spaghetti-looking thing all wound up inside his body.
Here. This. Did not look like that – it was metal. A cross section of metal. A machine. A cross section of a machine. The pak was the only part of Zim that was a machine. The insides should be organic. Why weren't the insides organic? Sure, Zim could make sophisticated robots, but Zim wasn't a robot – he wasn't – he wasn't – Zim had a meatbody…
Slowly, Dib began to shake.
Decoy. Zim could make… perfect robots. Dib had seen them before. Zim had made a robot of Dib once, and even Dib couldn't tell the difference. As a trick. As a decoy. Zim had left a decoy. Of himself this time, as a distraction – as a little toy – as a test –
Dib's shape was almost blurred now from the tremors that shook his body.
Slowly, he looked up.
Somewhere in the walls there was a click. A staticky noise, the noise a computer might make while clearing it's throat. The noise of something beginning.
"Hellooo, DIB," a voice began. Tinny and canned. Recognizable. "I suppose if you're hearing this, then you've gotten out of that STUPID lab-asylum place I kept you in for a while. Well, GOOD for you. Too bad it doesn't really mean that much."
Dib put a hand over his face.
"But because I feel sorry for you – you and your pathetic little CAUSE – I guess I'll give you a hint anyway. 'Cause, I mean, it isn't ENTIRELY pathetic that you managed to get this far. Not BAD, little Dib.
I'm off on, you know, that whole world-domination thing, and it's going to WORK this time. Doesn't matter what you do. I know it's hard to hear, so sorry… oh wait, no I'm not!
You can follow me if you want. Your ship is in the base. It won't make any difference if you DO, y'know, but hey… I figured it might be fun to see your smelly face one last time before I unveiled myself as ruler of the earth. What good is being a tyrant if you can't really make fun of your enemies, huh?
See ya later, DIB!"
END OF CHAPTER 13
October 9, 2005
Thanks goes to J. Random Lurker for her help on this chapter. Go read her fic!