Legal notes : I do not own the Care Bears or any associated characters.

A few of these characters are by me, such as Checkmate Warren – although the inspiration for him came from Warren Wright of "Absurd Notions" (www.absurdnotions.org /).

This story is a sequel to my previous fanfictions: "Return of the Care Bears", "New Allies", "Control's Prank", and "Of Origins and Invasions", in that order.

THE MIGHTIEST FOE

Part one: Out of the Frying Pan

In the outskirts of Care-A-Lot, a Caretaker and a Care Bear were having a discussion:

"Say, Love-A-Lot…How long has it been since the battle of Avalon? Two weeks?

-I think so, Christy…But it feels like it was a lifetime ago. I'm still getting used to there being no villains out there to destroy caring…

-Well, we still have that Devourer to worry about. Whatever it is.

-Bright Heart is always busy trying to make sense of the records of the communications between Avalon and Heavyland.

-So are Warren, Isaac, Dawn, and Paul. It's a real marathon for knowledge…Although Paul and Isaac are taking a break today.

-Because of St Valentine's Day?

-Yeah, Isaac needs some time with his wife, and Paul finally got the nerve to ask Alice out. She was about to ask him herself…

-I'll bet" chuckled the pink bear.

"I guess this is a busy time of the year for you" remarked Christy.

"As opposed to when? Valentine's Day isn't the only day of the year when people can use my help. Although some manage just fine without me. Nicholas and that girl he works with at the CareNet orphanage are such a cute couple…I'm almost surprised he hasn't proposed her yet.

-He said they don't want to rush things. But tell me…There's something that's been bugging me: What about you bears and cousins?

-What do you mean?

-Well, I know Good Luck and Polite are an item. But what about everyone else? Are there any couples? I mean, you're so friendly to each other all the time, I don't think I could actually tell if there was more to it. And beside…" Christy suddenly looked a bit embarrassed.

"What's the matter?

-Well, I don't know how to say it…It's kinda embarrassing…

-I promise not to laugh.

-Okay. Well, here goes: I'm just not sure what the genders of some of you are.

-…

-I mean, for most it's obvious, but I can't tell if Swift Heart is a he or a she…I'm not positive about Funshine…And a few more."

Love-A-Lot managed – with a lot of effort – to keep her promise and not erupt in laughter. She eventually replied: "To answer your question – yes, there are other couples. So don't worry – there will eventually be more cubs.

-If the Devourer doesn't eat us" half-joked Christy.

"Yeah," Love-A-Lot said nervously. There was a short uncomfortable silence after that, which the bear quickly ended:

"I've answered your question, so could you answer mine?

-Sure, fire away.

-Well, it's about you Caretakers. I know Isaac's married, Nicholas is with that nice girl, and Alice and Paul are an item…But what about the rest of you?

-Well, in high school, David briefly dated Dawn, but it didn't really work out, so they're back to being just friends. John and I don't have anyone special, but I know Lumpy and Arnold both have girlfriends.

-That's nice! But…What about Warren?

-Uh…Somehow, I just can't imagine Warren in love with anyone. As Dawn and Paul say, "does not compute". It's weird enough to see him acting friendly…Well, you know how he is.

-I do. I've met him back when he was a criminal, remember? Still, I hope he finds someone…"

Somewhere above the Atlantic ocean, Avalon was flying. And somewhere in Avalon, Noble Heart was surveying a research team:

"How's progress?

-Good and bad" replied an exasperated Checkmate Warren. "Good in that we've progressed immensely, and are starting to get a clearer idea of what is going on. Bad in that what's going on is bad news.

-How bad?

-Capital "B" Bad. Actually, all caps BAD. In comparison, the Avalonian invasion was a joke.

-Uh…Are you sure you aren't exaggerating a bit?

-If we understand this correctly – and I'm near-positive that we do – then it's really that bad.

-So what is it?

-A threat of cosmic proportions. I'll explain it all after we've figured everything out.

-And where are Bright Heart and Paul?

-Paul took the day off. And I've assigned both of them to a very important job – which might be our only hope if the Devourer comes here (which he most probably will). I'll join them soon – my work here is almost done anyway.

-I've heard that you've learned a lot from those records.

-That's an understatement. The communications between Avalon and Heavyland touched incredible fields. They were more ahead of us than Einstein was ahead of Newton. The Avalonians couldn't comprehend even a percentage of it – and we can understand only about a half. This could change the world – if there's anything left of it.

You know, I think I'm going to take the day off too. I've been overactive non-stop for way too many weeks – even I need to rest a bit.

-You're welcome to unwind in the Kingdom of Caring.

-I appreciate the gesture, but the sugar-sweetness of that place makes me uneasy. No offence, but I'd rather rest at Rainbow City.

-None taken. Let's call the Rainbow Rescue Beam."

Orphanages, as a general rule, are not the happiest places in the world. But the CareNet orphanage had a relatively happy atmosphere – in no small part thanks to the influence of some of the volunteers.

"Now, you see, Timmy, Claire – that's not the way to do it. You may have reasons to be upset with each other, but if you don't forgive each other, it'll only grow worse.

-Well…I…I'm sorry I called you names, Claire.

-And I'm sorry I hurt you, Timmy.

-See? Now hug and make up."

As the two children forgave each other, the CareNet volunteer smiled. She doubted she could have found more satisfaction at any other job. Granted, she wasn't getting paid here…Although that was entirely her decision. She was considering getting a job at the orphanage for good, in which case she'd get a salary like any other employee…But for now, she was more than content to be paid with the children's smiles.

Her train of thought was interrupted by one of the girls tugging at her leg.

"What is it, Millie?

-Is Mr Nicholas going to come today?

-I sure hope so.

-And I wouldn't disappoint you for the whole world!" said a familiar voice behind her. She turned to see Nicholas at the door, with a bouquet of flowers.

"Happy Valentine's Day, my fair lady!"

She chuckled. "Thank you very much! I was wondering if you'd have the time to come, with all the work at the Caretakers…

-Oh, most of the Caretakers have actually been sitting idle since the war. It's only the science crew that's busy all the time, trying to understand the alien communications. The reason I've been busy lately is that with them trying to decipher that stuff, there's less of us on call for caring missions.

So, how are things going around here?

-Fine, for most people. Except for, well, you know…

-Oh. Anything new with her?

-Still nothing. She barely eats, she won't say a word, she doesn't react when the other children talk to her – or anyone, for that matter. I just don't know how to handle that.

-I'll try."

Nicholas Cherrywood approached the girl in question. She was a special case – for starters, she was about as old as him. But still a child, as elves age much slower than humans. She was also a full-fledged villainess, who had been a thorn in the paws of the Care Bears for years. And she was a former sorceress, even if not a very powerful one, until he had bound her powers – including her ability to emit inhumane shrieks. Just how was he supposed to deal with her? She had prided herself a champion of uncaring, when all she had really wanted was to obtain the approval of her father and uncle. She had then seen that her father was willing to let her die to achieve his goals. No wonder she was a mess!

"Hello, Shrieky."

She didn't reply. She barely glanced to see who it was.

"Still not saying anything? You're not helping yourself, you know. I realize you must feel bad – believe me, I know what it's like. I've been there. But if you just let us help you…"

Shrieky's expression switched from indifference to anger. Nicholas preferred not to press the issue.

Checkmate: No rest for the wicked, nor for the just, it would seem.

Sophia: Thank you for sending me that file about your research. I sincerely appreciate.

Checkmate: Well, we can use all the help we can get. Professor Hart is in no condition to do much, and you happen to have a suitable intellectual level. Speaking of which, what are your conclusions?

Sophia: I think you're right – and that's bad news, to say the least. If you don't stop the Devourer, there'll be nothing left of Earth. I want to help, seeing as I happen to live here.

Checkmate: Any idea you can come up with. I'm still trying to figure out a plan. How do you fight a monster like that? No weapon ever devised in the Solar System could hurt him, not even a little. This will require all the intelligence we can muster, and more than that…

The next day, the Caretakers were on a quick stop in Care-A-Lot. Warren was having a discussion with Bright Heart:

"So, how's progress with the machine?" asked the mastermind.

"It'll be completed soon" replied the Care Bear Cousin. "Paul helped a lot, and you did a good job adapting Heavyland's designs…Still, I barely understand the principle behind some of the machinery.

-Well, keep in mind that the Heavylanders had an undeniable advantage when it came to particle physics. It's easier to understand sub-atomic phenomenon when you're sub-atomic yourself.

-At least we don't have to worry about the regular villains anymore. Maybe we can have some peace when this it's all over…

-Maybe. But most of the world's trouble are not the work of such villains – it's the result of regular lack of kindness, as well as stupidity.

-Sometimes I think you exaggerate the importance of stupidity. Not all people are idiots.

-But too many are. Look what I found the other day:" Warren then handed him a brochure. Bright Heart and a few others (Care Bears, Cousins and Caretakers) read it:

THE FIRST CHURCH OF CARE-A-LOT

Rejoice! For the Kingdom of Heaven is upon us.

Many have in the past spoken of the Kingdom of Heaven, where there shall be no evil. A realm entirely under the rule of God, where all shall live justly and happily forever.

Today, we can see a glimpse of the Kingdom, and its name is Care-A-Lot. And the messengers of God, beings of pure and perfect morality, come down to our sinful Earth to help us become free of sin, and worthy of the Kingdom: They are known as the Care Bears.

These ursine saviours come down from the Heavens to bring us their message of righteousness. Through their blessed Stare, they bring forth the Holy Spirit. Let all head their message, so that they too may live forever in the Kingdom of Heaven! May all praise Care-A-Lot!

"That's…Very flattering…But completely untrue" said Proud Heart.

"No kidding" scoffed Warren.

"This is just ridiculous" said Nicholas.

"How on Earth could anyone believe such unlikely stories?" wondered Bright Heart.

"Well, think about it" replied Warren. "You live in the clouds, and you come down to Earth to spread a message of universal love. That's more than enough for some people – and believe me, there is no limit to human lunacy. I've seen that first-hand.

-Well, we can't let them fool themselves like that" said True Heart. "We should go meet the people of this First Church of Care-A-Lot, and explain the truth to them!

-That might not be so wise" replied Warren. "They might take it the wrong way…

-What do you mean by "the wrong way"?" inquired Paul.

"Come on, Paul…I'm sure you've read "The Kingdom". When you shatter people's illusions, they can go even more insane. If you want them to understand the truth about you, you'll need a lot of tact…Maybe it's time to reveal your origin to the world. Well, no time for that now – maybe after we deal with the Devourer."

In one of the multiple CareNet institutes, an old man was muttering to himself:

"Oh dear…Oh dear…Oh dear…"

A nurse and a small man were watching him from a corner.

"Is he always like that?" asked the little man.

"Yes. In a constant state of shock. He's still coming to grips with what happened.

-What about my aunt?

-She's recovering. Want me to show you where she is?

-Thanks, after I talk to him."

The little guy then walked toward the old man.

"Uh, hello, professor."

The professor slowly turned around.

"Oh, hello, Fred.

-I wanted to drop by, see how you were doing.

-You're a better friend than I deserve.

-Don't say that.

-It's true! After what I did to you and your aunt…

-You weren't being yourself! It was all because of that anti-caring treatment. The real you would never have hurt a fly.

-But it was I who decided to use the anti-caring treatment in the first place. I'm responsible.

-You were being driven mad with grief.

-That's no excuse!

-Professor, you have to move on. If you don't forgive yourself…

-Forgive myself?! Fred, I turned children into my slaves! I froze a town's population! I rigged elections! I tried to destroy the Care Bear family! I built the Prank, which killed countless innocents! I can't forgive myself – I don't deserve forgiveness of any kind!"

Back in the Caretakers' HQ, Warren was talking to Bright Heart on the phone:

"It's almost complete? Good. No, I don't think we can design the warp drive – there's no way we can get enough energy for that in the time we have. But we most likely won't need it anyway. Bye."

After Warren hanged up, David asked him:

"Couldn't you at least explain to us science-impaired folks what the heck you and the rest of the brain trust are doing? Some of the time you're digging the communication records like palaeontologists, the rest of the time you're working on that mysterious machine, and the rest of us never even get a hint of what it is!

-On the contrary, hints abound. You just lack the scientific knowledge required to interpret them.

-Yeah, well, you're not helping. The rest of us are getting worried – we don't even know what the Devourer is supposed to be! Why all the secrecy?

-It's not really a matter of secrecy, David – we just don't want to explain before we've fully understood ourselves. That's all.

-And when should that be, oh grand exalted leader?

-Within the week, oh sarcastic right-hand man."

That was when Lumpy entered the office.

"Uh, boss, there's some guy wanting to see you.

-No-one we know? Uniform? Anything particular?

-Nope.

-Well, let him in."

In a short moment, a young man came into the mastermind's office. David and Lumpy had left by then. Warren spoke first:

"Welcome to the Caretakers' HQ, Mr…

-Patterson. It's an honour for me to meet you, Checkmate Warren.

-Not everybody shares your opinion on the subject. And I can hardly blame them.

-Oh, I understand. All of us make mistakes.

-True, but not all of us have an intellect that can destroy the world. Ability brings the responsibility not to misuse it.

-No man is perfect.

-Very true. And my mistake was to attribute myself perfection in a certain aspect.

-You thought you were perfect?

-No, but I thought my plans were. I believed myself – at least subconsciously – to be infallible. And as such, I granted myself the right to take over, and grab absolute power. The result was the near-destruction of caring.

-But you learned from your mistake.

-I'm trying. Recent events have demonstrated that I still have a lot of arrogance to shed.

-Your words clearly show that you're trying to become a better person. And while no man can claim perfection, it's a noble goal to try to be our best…After all, perfection can only be attained after this world.

-Beg your pardon?

-You see, Mr Checkmate, the reason I'm honoured to meet you is because you're close to the Care Bears. I've come here as a representative of the first Church of Care-A-Lot" – Mr Patterson failed to notice the expression change on Warren's face – "and we would like to help spread the gospel of the heavenly messengers. We figured the Caretakers were, in a sense, our predecessors, although you didn't spell things out as clearly as we did. We would like to cooperate with you in order to…"

Mr Patterson never finished his sentence. In a streak of light (which may have been inferior in speed to Swift Heart, but impressive nevertheless), Warren dragged him to the HQ's exit door, and threw him out of the building. He then slammed the door.

The other Caretakers looked at him in shock. Alice was the first to speak up:

"Warren, that was completely uncalled for!

-Alice is right on that one" said Nicholas, much less shy than he usually was when talking to Warren. "This time you went too far. Last I recall, my beliefs don't exactly match yours either!

-I wouldn't want to gang up on you, Warren" said Isaac, "but they have a point. You need to work some more on your anger management."

Without replying, Warren stormed into his office.

"I'm so glad you came" said Nicholas at the CareNet orphanage. "I just don't know what to do with her.

-It's hard to help someone who doesn't want your help" replied True Heart. "I can't promise anything, but I'll try. By the way…Bright Heart told me there seemed to be a problem at the Caretakers. Something about Warren losing his temper?

-Well, yeah…You know how Warren gets angry easily.

-Of course. But that isn't new – if anything, I think he slightly improved in that regard.

-Not enough.

-What do you mean? Did you have a fight?

-Nah. It's okay when he yells at us – we don't take it badly. This time, he got angry at someone else.

-What happened?

-Well, this representative from the First Church of Care-A-Lot came by, and Warren threw him out! Just like that! I mean, okay, that's a sensitive subject – but come on! Can't Warren be a bit more tolerant?

-I don't really know why he gets angry so easily, Nicholas. I think Secret Bear knows, but he won't tell, of course. And if Warren doesn't want to tell us, we can't force him.

-Maybe. But all that anger makes him borderline abusive."

Eventually, True Heart reached Shrieky.

"Hi, Shrieky."

No reply.

"I've been told that you haven't spoken a word for all that time. I understand that you just don't want help. Well, I can't force you to let me help you, Shrieky. But I want you to at least understand that sooner or later, you'll have to move on. Life isn't over. You can't stay like this for ever – so it's better if you come back soon.

-Go to hell.

-I'll be back another time, Shrieky. Good-bye."

As True Heart left, she smiled: To the very least, Shrieky had spoken. The caring mission was progressing.

Somewhere else, another caring mission was taking place:

"Thank you so much for coming" said Fred. "It breaks my heart to see the professor like that. He used to be the greatest guy I knew.

-I've heard the stories" replied Tender Heart. "I'll do what I can.

-By the way, thanks for forgiving me.

-We can't really blame you. You weren't really being yourself.

-That's what I told the professor. But he did use that anti-caring treatment on himself in the first place, so that doesn't help much."

The two soon reached the scientist formerly known as Professor Cold Heart.

"Hi, professor Hart" said Tender Heart.

Hart didn't reply.

"I'd like to have a talk with you" insisted the bear.

"As you wish" replied the scientist. "But I think I've caused you enough trouble as is.

-That's all over. We've forgiven you everything.

-I don't deserve that much.

-I think everyone should be forgiven. And most of what you did was because your feelings were turned off anyway.

-That's no excuse. I allowed myself to become jealous of those who still had their feelings. And I turned off my own feelings just because I couldn't deal with grief.

-Professor Hart…A long time ago, on one of the earliest caring missions, Friend and Secret were assigned to help two orphans named Kim and Jason. You see, losing their parents had hurt them so much, that they had decided to stop caring about people. We helped them with their problems…But if we hadn't been there, and if they had had access to your machines, I'm pretty sure they would have used them to turn off their feelings too.

But after we helped them care again, they helped us in one our greatest crisis ever, and probably saved the world. You've made a mistake, professor – but that's not the end of the world.

-Thank you for bothering…But my time is up. Try to help Auntie Freeze instead – she didn't deserve any of this."

"You might want to check this out, Warren" Isaac motioned toward the screen. "The astronomic observatory has never seen anything quite like it. They don't come out and say it, but it seems pretty obvious to me that the "cloud" is some form of spaceship, and it's coming toward Earth. When I first saw it, I suspected the Devourer…But that can't be it. Too many things don't match.

-Aliens coming here? Now of all times? This can't be a coincidence…But why would they want to come here just when the Earth is threatened by the Devourer?

-I don't know. But I do know that this ship is pretty small and inconspicuous – the observatory would never have detected it without the latest highly sensitive telescope.

And what's more: I've calculated its trajectory, and it's just not efficient. It doesn't take into account all the movements of the bodies in the Solar System – they lost some time with their erratic trajectory.

-So they're not mathematically inclined. In which case, they probably don't have the technology to help us against the Devourer. I'll warn the Care Bear family anyway."

A few hours later, in Care-A-Lot, Wish was observing the incoming cloud-spaceship with her star-o-scope.

"Can you see it, Wish?

-Yes, Tender Heart. And I even recognize it!"

"Listen up, everybody" Warren addressed the Caretakers. "It would appear that a spaceship of alien origins has landed in Care-A-Lot, and…

-Hold it" interrupted Paul. "Did you just say…

-Yes, a spaceship of alien origins. And as I was saying, the Care Bear family has requested our presence. According to them, this isn't a hostile situation.

-Then what is it?

-They say it's an old acquaintance of theirs. The name is Strato Nefarious."

Part two: Into the Fire

Soon enough, all the defenders of caring were reunited in the presence of the extra-terrestrial maestro. Funshine was quick to ask:

"Do you need a new light, for your music?

-No thank you, it has lasted through all those years. Quite an amazing feat – and a very helpful one, I might add. I owe you my thanks.

But I have come for pressing matters, because, I must warn you – you are all in grave danger.

-Let me guess – the Devourer of Worlds" said John.

Strato Nefarious looked taken aback:

"You know of the Devourer?

-We know a few things, but any additional data is most welcome" replied Warren.

"Very well then. Allow me to explain:

A long, long time ago, when I was still young –

-Hold it right there, maestro" Warren interrupted him. "How long is that in Earth years? Your specie doesn't necessarily have the same lifespan as humans, so, for all we know, "when you were young" could be 15 years ago, or back in the previous geological era.

-My apologies. Well, uh, what are your measures of time around here?"

After about 20 minutes, it was concluded that Strato was talking about events that had happened either at the end of the 19th or the beginning of the 20th century. Warren also took advantage of that pause to ask a couple of questions about the translation devices that allowed the musician to speak with Earth's natives. Finally, the alien resumed his explanation:

"A long, long time ago, when I was still young, communications were detected on various worlds, coming from a spot in the galaxy that no one believed to be inhabited. Those communications were in the form of tachyons – particles going faster than light itself. And they didn't come from a planet, like you'd expect – instead, they came from –

-A neutron star!" Bright Heart completed the sentence in his stead.

"A what?" asked Wish.

"Well, you know how stars eventually die and explode?" said Isaac. "Well, after the explosion, gigantic amounts of matter remain in place, and, under the effect of their own gravity, collapse. They become incredibly dense – think about shoving a blue whale into a very small box. The resulting object has an extremely strong gravity. If there was enough matter left, it turns into a black hole. Otherwise, it becomes a neutron star – a super-dense ball of neutrons.

-Please don't explain what neutrons are" said Brave Heart. "I think my head will hurt before this is all over.

-It's barely started" replied Warren. "You see, the gravity on the surface of the neutron star is so huge, that a postcard weighs as much there as a skyscraper would here. And if you dropped a pea, when it reached the ground, it would be going so fast that the shock of it hitting said ground would have the energy of an A-bomb. Everything's tantalizingly heavy on the surface of a neutron star – which is why, when the Avalonians heard descriptions of it, they called it "Heavyland".

-Everyone else called it Neutronia" explained Strato Nefarious. "It was an immense surprise for everyone to discover that life could develop in such a hostile environment – although some of the bolder physicists of many worlds had predicted that life could appear on a neutron star, if it was microscopic.

-Some Earth physicists have said that too" said Bright Heart. "I guess they were right.

"Anyway," the extra-terrestrial went on, "the Neutronians, who were soon nicknamed "Nano-folks", had developed tachyon communication, and used it to contact dozens of worlds and civilizations. They wanted to exchange ideas, science and technology – because, you see, their world was doomed.

Unluckily for the Nano-folks, Neutronia had ventured into a nebula, a huge cloud of gasses. And its gravity was sucking the gases, adding them to Neutronia's mass. According to their physicists' calculations, in a simple matter of time, this would tip their world's mass beyond a critical limit, where it would turn into a black hole, destroying them all. Even with their advanced technology, they couldn't prevent this from happening, so they tried to obtain technology from other civilizations, so as to gain the ability to leave Neutronia.

-Wait," said Lumpy. "They had this super-advanced technology, and they couldn't even make it to outer space?

-They lived on a world with super-gravity, Lumpy" reminded him Paul. "That makes it a lot harder.

-Oh.

-As I was saying," Strato Nefarious continued, "they exchanged technologies with many worlds. They revealed, among many other things, that they had modified the structure of their home-world, turning it into a gigantic computer. With their sentient world, their lives had become much easier.

After enough years of fruitful exchange, the Nano-folks had acquired some gravity-control technology, and many other gadgets, which they used to leave Neutronia. The entire population was evacuated – and just in time, as their world turned into a black hole soon afterwards. They weren't very far when it happened.

-Let me guess," said Warren. "Much of the computers in Neutronia's structure survived the transformation (probably becoming lines in space-time), but the circuits were modified.

-How do you know all this?" wondered Strato Nefarious. "I thought all this would be news to you.

-We've been digging the archives of communications between Neutronia and a secret civilization of Earth. We deduced most of what you're saying, but not all of it – and we weren't sure.

-Well, anyway, you're correct – the circuits were modified, and the huge computer system now cared only about itself. Neutronia had become an intelligent black hole – one with access to gravity control technology.

The first thing it did was to approach the evacuation ships carrying the Nano-folks away. It soon became clear that the encounter would be hostile – so the Nano-folks prepared for a fight. Now, it was a black hole they were fighting, so none of their weapons could possibly hurt it. They had bombs that could vaporize planets, beam weapons that could cut through anything, and more – but none of it would have hurt the black hole, who'd have simply absorbed anything they'd have thrown at it. So they relied on one desperate hope: The Feeling Force!

-We've heard about them" said Tender Heart. "They were the equivalent of the Care Bear family on Neutronia, right?

-After a fashion. The members of the Feeling Force were regular Nano-folks who had been imbued with the power of the Stare. Like you said, their role was rather similar to yours.

All the members of the Feeling Force used their Stare together on the black hole. But somehow, their enemy took advantage of the link that the Stare established between them to suck the caring out of them. It retained a link with them, and discovered that it could use it – and the energy of the caring it had stolen from them – to induce emotions in them, thus controlling them like puppets. The black hole then used the new Unfeeling Force to suck the caring out of the rest of the Nano-folks: When they used their Stare on anyone, it created a link with the black hole, allowing it to absorb the feelings of the victim. You see, the fiend had discovered that it could use the energy of caring more than almost anything else. It became its favourite food…

-That's one way to look at it" noted Warren. "Of course, black holes – even sentient ones – don't have a digestive system, so the food thing is merely a metaphor…

-Yes, true, but let me finish:

The black hole now realized that the Unfeeling Force could be its greatest agents, allowing it to feed on more caring. As such, the Nano-folks could be useful – if there was ever need for the Unfeeling Force to be replaced, then there would be need for other Neutronians to take their place. That's why that monster didn't eat the helpless creatures – but instead, swallowed them alive.

-Uh…I don't get it.

-Well, that's two different things: When it ate something, it crushed it with its sheer gravitational force, and made it part of itself. Those that it swallowed went through the tunnel in space-time that any black hole creates, and reached a space that one could say is located inside the monster.

-Oh.

-Having taken care of the Nano-folks, the black hole now wanted to "eat" more matter, so as to assimilate it into itself, as well as more caring energies. Unfortunately, it was aware of all the communications that the Nano-folks had engaged in with other civilizations – and thus, it knew where to find other inhabited worlds. It named itself, pragmatically, the Devourer of Worlds, and set towards its next victim.

From then on, a pattern would repeat itself: The Devourer would go to nearest inhabited world that it knew about. The inhabitants of said world would try desperate attacks against the beast, to no avail. Then it would unleash the Unfeeling Force, which would use a combined Stare to suck the feelings out of the population, and feed it to the Devourer. Then, once the planet was completely devoid of feelings, the Devourer would eat it – then it would do the same with any other planet in the system, then, finally, the system's sun. Then, having left nothing, it would set towards its next target.

-So…" said Paul hesitatingly, "this Devourer is basically the ultimate incarnation of Murphy's Law?

-Murphy's Law? What's that?

-It means," explained Grumpy, "that everything that can go wrong will.

-With all the technology from Neutronia," Strato went on, "as well as the technology they had obtained from other people, the Devourer could create a warp, which it used to move faster than light. It reached and devoured, over a matter of decades, almost every world that the Nano-folks had contacted, killing countless billions, reducing whole civilizations to nothingness. Only a precious few of these worlds escaped its hunger – by somehow hiding from it. Various methods were used.

One such world was Earth, with its barrier of stealth. I, for myself, stumbled upon it by pure dumb luck last time.

However, a few weeks ago – I think it's Earth-weeks, anyway – I was told that apparently, the barrier cloaking the Earth had collapsed, and the Devourer was on its way to the Solar System. As soon as I heard that, I rushed to come here and warn you, so that you may have the time to flee.

-You heard so quickly about the barrier's collapse? And so did the Devourer?" wondered Checkmate Warren. "We're talking about distances of many light-years here. If you and the Devourer could see it that fast, that means that perception goes faster than light here.

-Well, yes. Everybody who was in contact with Avalon uses tachyons for radar systems. You just have to use little enough, so that the Devourer doesn't find you…

-So the Devourer is coming here, hue? How much time until it reaches the Solar System? By our estimations, it's something between next week and next year.

-By my estimations," Strato Nefarious looked glum, "you have nine Earth days."

While all the information sank in, Warren kept questioning the alien maestro about all sorts of things. After a while, everyone else came back to them.

"We would like to thank you from the bottom of our hearts for helping us, Strato Nefarious" said True Heart.

"You're welcome, but I owed you at least that.

-But we'd like to know…What do you suggest that we do?

-Well, it's like this: No matter how much you want to, you can't beat the Devourer of Worlds. No attack against it will have any effect whatsoever, and you can't convince it to let you go. You can't hide Earth from it either – even if you recreated the barrier, the Devourer knows where you are now. So your only hope is to run away.

-Run away? To where?" inquired Noble Heart.

"It's a big universe. Just find some spot in the galaxy, far enough that the Devourer will never find it. Or come hide in one of the worlds that are still cloaked. My ship isn't big enough for all of you, but I've brought with me a warp drive that will allow you to build your own faster-than-light spaceship, and escape this doomed world in the nick of time.

-But what of all the people here?" asked Share. "We couldn't take everyone! As a matter of fact, we couldn't even take a thousandth, and probably less!

-They're doomed no matter what you do. If you flee, at least you will survive. I realize that this isn't what you're supposed to do – it's your duty to protect them. But it's hopeless this time: You can't stop the Devourer. So I must beg you – at least save yourselves.

-Dear Strato" replied Noble Heart, "thank you for caring, and for trying to help. But even if it's a losing battle, I don't intend to let the Earth die without a fight."

He then turned and faced the rest of the family, and said:

"However, what Strato Nefarious said is probably true. So each and every one of you has the right to leave. If any of you would rather run for his or her life than face an almost certain death, then I won't hold it against you. Not this time."

Checkmate Warren turned toward his fellow Caretakers, and said: "I concur. None of you is obliged in any way to give up on what might be your only chance to survive. I really mean that – if you chose to flee, that's okay."

Everybody seemed somewhat uneasy. But some were more so than others.

"Uh, Warren?

-Yes, Arnold?

-Tell me…Do we have a chance to beat the Devourer? Even a small one?

-No" replied Strato Nefarious.

"Yes" replied Checkmate Warren.

"You deluded fool!" the maestro seemed almost angry. "Don't you understand?! The Devourer has crushed worlds that were much more advanced, technologically, than this one!

-We have the records of tachyon communication between those worlds, Avalon, and Neutronia. We can replicate any of those technologies" replied Warren.

"That won't change anything! The Devourer is a black hole! Nothing can hurt it!

-There's always a way, and I intend to find it if it's the last thing I do – I mean, actually, if I fail, then that will be the last thing I fail at. But there's always a chance, and I intend to take it.

-If you believe there's a chance," said Arnold, "then I guess I can trust your judgement. I'm staying."

That was followed by several "me too"s, some enthusiastic, some not so. But Good Luck seemed down. Eventually, he spoke up:

"True Heart?

-Yes?

-Shouldn't we…Ask Polite and Perfect if the want to flee, too?

-Well…I guess so.

-Hey" said Alice, "for that matter, what about other people? Even if we won't run away, maybe we should let other people do so.

-And how will you chose them?" asked Warren. "Friends and families of ours? A planetary lottery? Besides, that would be wasting time building that evacuation ship – time better spent trying to save everyone.

-I've told you before and I'll tell you again: You can't beat the Devourer. You're completely out of your league with him. Nothing can stop it! I've seen worlds devoured by it – I know!

-Mr Nefarious, with all due respect and gratitude, your input beyond this point is unhelpful. You're repeating yourself.

-Because you just won't understand!

-On the contrary. But we also understand that there is no such thing as no hope – only almost no hope. And I, for one, intend to fight the Devourer to the bitter end."

Not a single Care Bear, Not a single Care Bear Cousin, not a single Caretaker had decided to run away, to Strato's great disappointment. Reluctantly, he returned to his spaceship.

"Are you leaving already?" asked Funshine.

"Well, yes. I was hoping to save you, but it would appear that I've failed. I'm leaving the warp drive here in case you change your mind in time – but as for myself, I'm getting out of here immediately. I'd rather put as many light-years as I can between myself and the Devourer, thank you very much. Considering he destroyed most civilizations within a radius of 500 light-years…

I sincerely hope that you survive the upcoming holocaust. I don't believe you stand a chance at fighting the Devourer, though. If you change your mind, you can find me in the darkest corner of the galaxy. And if you don't make it…Then I'll bring flowers every Earth-year to the empty spot in space where the Solar System once stood.

-Thank you for caring, Strato.

-Thank you for everything. And the best of luck to you!"

With those words, Strato Nefarious went back into his cloud-spaceship, which lifted off, and departed from Care-A-Lot, soon reaching outer space.

As Strato Nefarious left, True Heart and Noble Heart watched his ship disappear in the sky.

"It's good to know that there are caring people out there in the universe" reflected the bear.

"Indeed. And I think we can be proud of this family we've raised – they're willing to risk it all to protect the Earth and its people!

-We can also be proud of them" True Heart pointed toward the Caretakers. "Most of them became the caring people they are now in no small part thanks to our family.

-But," added Noble Heart, "unless we win this fight…Nothing of all this will remain.

-I know." True Heart's lip was trembling. "But…We have won against impossible odds before. Let's ask…Our regular miracle-worker."

They went to see the mastermind.

"Checkmate Warren?

-Yes?

-For some time now, it has always been you who figured out how to win against seemingly invincible foes. You found the ways to defeat the Prank and the Evil Avalon Alliance – can you think of a way to defeat the Devourer?

-I'm still thinking. We have only a few days…So listen: during the nine days that will follow, any idea anyone has, I want reported to me as soon as possible. I'm going to ask for ideas in other places too – and, more than ever before, I'm going to think HARD."

"No, general, nothing you can do, I'm afraid. No, a well-placed nuke won't do the trick this time. No, a dozen nukes won't do it either. Let me state it clearly, general: If you hit the Devourer of Worlds with a trillion H-bombs, you wouldn't even put a dent into it. It's a freaking black hole. I'll tell you if I have a plan you can help with. Thank you. Good bye."

As Warren closed the phone, David told him: "And still no press conference?

-Heck no. I'm not too keen on causing the greatest worldwide panic in human history. We want to save the world, not destroy it – and people can be very destructive in a state of global panic. They'll see something weird in the sky, and then, either we're defeated and they'll lose their feelings before being devoured, or we win and then we explain everything.

-Okay. But I just realized – you still haven't told us what this machine you've all been working on is.

-Oh, right. Well, it's like this…"

Grumpy was going home to sleep when he saw Wish looking at the night sky with her star-o-scope.

"Are you looking for something? Bright Heart said the Devourer won't be visible until he comes out of warp, since he's moving faster than light.

-No, I was just…Watching the sky. It's so pretty…"

Grumpy decided there was no rush, and sat next to Wish.

"With all the time you spend on star-o-scope duty, I'd have thought you'd rather do something else on your free time."

Wish smiled. "I've always loved watching the world with the star-o-scope. There's so much beauty down there…Pretty places, people having a good time, everything. But I've also loved watching the sky…All the stars, the mystery of the whole thing is…Magical to me. Magical in the figurative sense, I mean.

I often wondered about that huge space…While enjoying the beauty of what was down on Earth. But…Now, something's coming from up there, that might destroy everything down there. That's… Disturbing. The night sky never seemed scary before…I just wish…I just wish I could just make a wish to make the Devourer go away.

-I know what you mean…But I don't think the Great Wishing Star can help us there.

-I know. I guess I need to get some sleep…

-So do I. Good night, Wish.

-Good night, Grumpy."

It was around noon, and in the Hall of Hearts, Warren, Bright heart, Lumpy, and Lotsa-Heart were rather busy.

"What are you doing?" asked Hugs.

"As you can plainly see" Warren managed to say, with great effort, "we're…Moving… The…. Rainbow…Rescue Beam.

-Hey, what does this button do?" asked Tugs, moving his paw to press the button.

"NO!!!" yelled Warren, making a sudden move to avoid the button being pressed. As a result, the machine fell from the hands and paws of its carriers, and made a loud noise upon hitting the ground. Warren looked at the cub, furious.

"Baby Tugs! How many times do you have to cause disasters until it gets through your thick head?! Don't – touch – the – freaking – buttons! Not on this machine, or on any other machine you don't fully understand! Don't you get it?!

-I – I'm sorry…" Tugs seemed on the brink of crying.

Warren stormed out of the Hall of Hearts, fuming. Only then did Tugs begin to weep. Hugs quickly hugged him. Lumpy leaned over to him, and said:

"Hey, don't cry. I know Warren can get angry at times, but I'm sure it'll be alright." Having said that, Lumpy stormed himself out of the Hall of Hearts, and went straight to Warren:

"Warren, what's your problem?!

-You're threading on thin ice, Lumpy. I'm furious as it is.

-That's no reason to yell at baby Tugs like that! And besides, he's not exactly a baby anymore, if you'll ask me. But that's beside the point! You made him cry!

-Well, I'm sorry, but as things are, I've been under a lot of pressure lately. I don't have any patience left. And before you say it, yes, I know the rest of you have also been under a lot of pressure. Now let's get this machine to its new place before the Devourer comes.

-You made Tugs cry, and all you want to do is take care of the machine? Sometimes I think you care about your science and your machines and your strategies more than you care about people!"

At that point, Warren gave Lumpy a look he would never forget. He was petrified by fear, and fell backwards. Warren looked at him for a few seconds, then said: "Come. We still have work to do."

Checkmate: I just lost my temper. Again. It's an abusive relationship I'm developing with them.

Sophia: A case of them being too nice for their own good, I guess.

Checkmate: And of me not being nice enough. I don't want to hurt anyone's feeling, but…I just need to vent all the anger, and lately, I'm so busy that I end up venting on them. And it keeps getting worse.

Sophia: Why are you hanging around with those people anyway?

Checkmate: I'd answer that, but it would sound like some let's-all-get-along speech from a corny Saturday morning cartoon.

Sophia: Ah. Because they're your friends. Still, most of them – with a few exceptions – are not exactly on your intellectual level…

Checkmate: No, most of them are not. But they don't need to be in order to be my friends. And when I do need to have an intelligent conversation with intellectual near-equals, I've got Isaac and you. And to a lesser extent, Paul and Bright Heart.

Sophia: Aw, I'm blushing. Okay, not really.

Checkmate: I've told you about the possibility of escape. I could give you the warp drive, and let you handle it with some other people. You might actually make it.

Sophia: Not enough time, and I think our odds of survival are actually greater by staying here. I don't want to go à la Challenger. I'd rather give you ideas.

Checkmate: I'm all eyes, watching the computer's monitor. Got any new suggestions?

Sophia: A few, as usual. I know most of these will be rejected, but if even one actually helps…

The Caretakers, as well as the Cousins, were in Care-A-Lot, and most of them were busy. All of a sudden, John dropped what he was doing, and yelled: "I'm sick and tired of this!"

Many heads turned in surprise. John looked embarrassed, and said: "Uh, sorry…I'm a bit tired.

-What is the problem, dear?" asked Grams.

"I'm sorry I burst like this…It's just that, well, we never get a break! As soon as we create the Caretakers, we become Control's punching bags. Just when we think Control's History, he comes up with his nanomorph. After that crisis is over, we get the same thing, only ten times worse, with the Prank. When the Prank is destroyed, we manage to get something even worse – an all-out war with Avalon. And now, the universe proves that it can top even that, with the Devourer! Don't these things ever end, for crying out loud?!

-Actually, if you think about it, it's all inter-connected," replied Warren. "The Guardians turned evil in their attempt to protect the Earth from the Devourer, and Lady Uncaring brought the Devourer here when she destroyed the barrier in an act of revenge. Control was responsible for most of our troubles – need I remind you that he created the Prank, or that he masterminded the Evil Avalon Alliance?

-Don't worry, John" Noble Heart reassured him. "It may not be easy, but good always wins over evil.

-Oh, come one. You should know better" scoffed Warren.

"What do you mean?

-I mean that evil has had its fair share of victories. Well, maybe "fair share" isn't the right choice of words, but you get my drift. A quick study of History would clearly show you that villains can, and do, win. Good and justice don't always prevail. Nobody defeated Stalin. The Devourer, whether or not we defeat him, has murdered billions. The Guardians lost their goodness forever. And although we defeated the Prank, that didn't help in the least all the people it had savagely murdered. Of course," he eyed Nicholas, "some of us believe there's something after death, and justice is served in the end. I'm from the school that says things don't quite work that way.

Like we said at an earlier time, John – life isn't fair. We're trying to make it fair."

It had been eight days since the visit of Strato Nefarious. Just in case, the Caretakers were waiting in Care-A-Lot – expecting the Devourer to come out of warp anytime.

"So" asked Brave Heart, "what did you do with the Rainbow Rescue Beam?

-I'll show you in a minute" replied Warren.

"And what did you do with that Freeze Machine?" asked Isaac.

"I sent it to a friend of mine. All part of the strategy.

-You have a friend we don't know of?" David was surprised.

"Someone I've talked with on the Internet. Anyway, come – it's time to show you something."

Warren led everyone to a recently-built extension of Bright Heart's workshop. It was huge – bigger than the Hall of Hearts itself. On their way, Brave Heart whispered to Bright Heart:

"So the machine you've all been working on is there?

-Positive. Wait till you see it!"

They were in awe before the machine. It was…Impressive.

"May I present to you…The S.S. Friendship! "S.S." stands for "Space Ship" here. It was built using the designs of Neutronia and those they communicated with. It can take dozens of people into deep space, and is capable of faster-than-light, or FTL travel, thanks to its warp drive. The Rainbow Rescue Beam has been mounted on it – at least temporarily.

-Wow…Is it the warp drive Strato Nefarious gave us?

-Correct. While we understood the principles behind the warp drives described in the Neutronian communications, they all required exotic matter (don't ask me to explain), which required mind-staggering amounts of energy to create. So we couldn't have made a warp drive by ourselves in the short time limit we were given – not that I think we're going to need one. After all, the fight will occur in the Solar System.

-This looks incredible" said Christy, as she surveyed the ship. "Does it work?

-It should. We have a little time to test it, before the Devourer reaches us…"

On the bridge of the S.S. Friendship, Tender Heart looked at the commands under the watchful gaze of Checkmate Warren.

"Wow…You really outdid yourselves on this one.

-Keep in mind that most of the technology is of alien origin. And our enemy has the same level.

-Then can't we beat them with something they don't have? Avalon's magic, maybe?

-Good thinking, but no. In case you forgot, the Nano-folks had found the scientific explanation of magic. It's just another branch of physics to them.

-What is it – if that's not over my head?

-I'll try to explain: Have you ever heard of the double-slit experiment? No, probably not. You see, it's a famous experiment in physics. You take a lamp, and shine it trough a barrier with two parallel slits. This forms a pattern of light on a screen behind the barrier – but instead of two bars of light, you get multiple bars, in a venetian blind pattern. That's because light behaves like a wave under certain conditions. But, when you put measuring instruments to measure the light, you get a blotch instead of a venetian blind. Now, the interesting part is – if no-one has access to the measurements before they're erased, you get the venetian blind – which means that the blotch forms not because the instruments measured the light, but because someone looked at the measurements. In other words, someone's perception changed reality. Quantum physics at its weirdest.

Now, what the Nano-Folks discovered was that things went much, much further: What goes in a sentient mind can affect reality in many ways through quantum events. That's what us Earthlings have called "magic" – because some of us, especially the Avalonians, could do it long, long before we had the knowledge of quantum mechanics necessary to understand what it was.

One interesting discovery was how to use feelings and caring – one particular aspect of the mind – to generate a lot of energy, and direct it in many ways. That's what led to the Feeling Force – and, later on, to the Care Bear family.

-And the Care Blaster?

-I didn't have the Nano-folks' physics, but I had examined your DNA, so I had a basic idea of the underlying principle of how your tummy symbols worked…All I needed to complete the Care Blasters was Isaac's mathematical theory of morality.

Professor Hart had himself studied the mechanics of magic. He made many interesting discoveries, and suspected this was all about quantum mechanics, but he couldn't progress much further. The old professor was more of a thermodynamics expert than a quantum mechanics…

-Wow. That's quite a lot…

-Well, keep in mind that the Nano-folks were sub-atomic creatures, and lived on a neutron star. They were in a unique position to discover all the laws of physics…

-Excuse me" Bright Heart popped his head in the bridge, "The tachyon scanner indicates that something is warping toward us. It'll reach the Solar system in less than 24 hours!

-Well, here we go" said Warren. "Prepare for the roller-coaster of your lives."

Part three: Mirror Image

Checkmate: I'd be lying if I said I was comfortable with this. It is in no small part because of me that some of them are going to stay and fight, instead of running for their lives.

Sophia: Well, that's how responsibility works.

Checkmate: I know, I know. Well, I just hope the strategy works. I trust you'll be able to get there for the first phase?

Sophia: Taken care of. But if I may ask – why ME? You could have asked your acquaintances in the military to do this. Did you ask me because you think they'd have freaked out?

Checkmate: Correct. It's one thing for them to fight against an inter-dimensional city; a black hole is something else altogether. I need someone with a good mind there, and you qualified.

You'll take care of the Iceberg phase. The CBF will take care of the Neutronia phase. The rest of us will take care of the Copperfield phase.

Sophia: Copperfield? Fitting name. He made the Statue of Liberty disappear…You'll do it with the entire universe.

Checkmate: After a fashion.

"Okay, people" Warren briefed all the defenders of feelings. Even Polite and Perfect were there. "We only have a few hours left, so let's review our strategy one more time:

The Devourer will come out of warp a few tens of thousands of miles away from Earth. Since it needs the people here alive until it feeds on their feelings, it will keep its gravitational field in check, so that it won't extend very far – but still far enough to distort the sunlight we'll be getting, so I'm afraid it just won't go unnoticed.

It will use a teleporter – analogous to the Rainbow Rescue Beam – to send the Unfeeling Force to Earth. They're sub-atomic, but, because of their huge energy, they'll glow strongly enough to be visible. Their job will be to check the Earth, make sure that everything's fine, and begin to suck feelings here and there, so as to prepare for the main attack itself.

Remember, the Unfeeling Force is DANGEROUS. All-caps. There are 80 of them, meaning we don't stand a chance in a direct confrontation. Their leader is named Light Bringer, and his two lieutenants are Noble Spirit and Courage – they haven't changed their names after the Feeling Force became the Unfeeling Force.

Like I said, they're dangerous – but, unlike the Devourer, they're not invincible. As soon as they reach Earth, the Rainbow Rescue Beam will be used to teleport the Freeze Machine – and its operator, my Internet acquaintance – close enough to attack them. This "phase Iceberg" will only slow them down for a few seconds – but they'll realize that they're under attack, and split, so as not to make too easy a target. That's when we use the Rainbow Rescue Beam on them, sending 50 of them to the other side of the globe, and quickly attacking the remaining 30. We'll have the advantage of numbers here – but remember, don't try to use your Stare against theirs. Their Stare is a connection to the Devourer, and works as a sinkhole for feelings. Using your Stare against theirs will be unproductive. We'll have to hit them directly.

The others will soon come back – but by then, we'll have a fighting chance. You Care Bears and Cousins will board the S.S. Friendship, and go into space while we Caretakers stick around to hold off the Unfeeling Force. When you're close enough, we will have to trick the Unfeeling Force, so that they use their Stare on this" Warren held out a flask containing a strange liquid. "It was created with the same principle as the one underlying the serum with which we cured the effects of the C-bomb. It's extremely condensed and powerful caring – and not under just any form. I would like again to thank our purple friend, who almost reached emotional exhaustion several times over the week producing it.

-You're welcome" replied Share.

"It's the very essence of generosity. When they use their Stare on it, it will be transmitted to the Devourer, and if he keeps it, it will affect him – destroying the selfishness that allowed him to hog all the energy and matter.

-And then he'll let us all go?" asked Brave Heart.

"If it works" replied Warren. "Frankly, I'm giving this plan one-in-a-trillion odds of working – don't count on it. Most probably, the Devourer will realize the trap soon enough, and reject this essence of generosity – by the black hole equivalent of vomiting, if you'll excuse the metaphor. It will eject it out of itself – and in doing so, temporarily cancel, even reverse its gravitic field, which would otherwise prevent anything from getting out – or from getting in without getting crushed. This will be your opening – you will teleport from the S.S. Friendship into the Devourer.

We can't beat the Devourer as long as he has the Nano-folks and the Unfeeling Force with him. Your job will be to help the inhabitants of Neutronia reclaim their feelings, and then get out with them as fast as you can. Only then will phase Copperfield come into action – and if it works, then we've won. Otherwise, we're toast.

-Then let's move out" said Noble Heart. "The moment of truth is upon us."

The Devourer of Worlds came out of warp not too far from Earth. Just like all the previous times, its gravitational field was held in check by the powerful gravity-control devices it had assimilated so long ago – but even the diminished gravity field was enough to distort the sunlight in its vicinity. The effects, as seen from Earth, were rather spectacular – some light didn't reach Earth at all, some was deviated and reached Earth – but from a different direction, creating the illusion of other suns in the sky. And, in a fashion resembling the Doppler effect, a lot of the sunlight was transformed, and its colour modified. The effects, from an Earthling's point of view, were extremely weird.

As usual, the Unfeeling Force was sent forward to inspect the planet. They were teleported there – through a beam that looked a lot like the Rainbow Rescue Beam, except that instead of the Rainbow's colours, it was composed of different shades of grey. As for the Unfeeling Force members themselves, to a non-subatomic being, they looked like some kind of fireflies (their bodies were too small to be seen, but they emitted visible light).

The Unfeeling Force, like everyone else in Neutronia (and any civilization which had been in contact with other beings in the galaxy), communicated through a techno-magical telepathy. This had the advantage of allowing any intelligent being to understand them (which wasn't very useful in their new job), as well as allow clear and efficient communication (which was useful). Light Bringer commanded his troops:

"Okay, remain in formation. We don't know yet what to expect on this planet…"

He was cut off while they were going through a cloud by a ray of frost. The servants of the Devourer barely had the time to realize what the ray was: It was the result of a Freeze Machine, and it turned the cloud into a block of ice while they were still in it.

As the block of ice began to fall, the Care Bear family and the Caretakers appeared in the vicinity with their cloudmobiles and flying cars. "So far so good," commented Checkmate Warren.

In less than ten seconds, the Unfeeling Force had used its Stares to melt the ice. Having now realized they were under attack, Light Bringer cried out: "Combat situation! Disperse!"

For such small beings, these powered-up Nano-folks were pretty fast. In no time, they had put a good distance between themselves. Light Bringer issued his next command:

"Did anyone see where that ray of frost originated from?

-That building there" indicated Joy.

"I confirm" said Serenity.

The information was quickly transmitted to the Devourer. Although the Unfeeling Force could probably have handled it, why take risks? Soon enough, the cosmic monster launched its attack:

The Devourer, like any black hole, generated a tantalizing gravitational force. But unlike normal black holes, it possessed devices that allowed it to control its gravity – as well the intelligence to use the devices. It could have swept the Earth in a gravitational wave that would have pulled it into the Devourer's "jaw" – as a matter of fact, that's what it intended to do after it had sucked the caring out of the population. It could have instead sent an uneven gravitational pull, tearing the Earth apart in half-a-second – but that would have killed its entire population on the spot, leaving no caring to feed on, only dead matter. And while dead matter was food too, the Devourer could find that anywhere in the galaxy. Worlds that harboured life, and, what's more, intelligent, caring life, were a rarity in the universe (or at least in the parts of the galaxy that the Devourer had explored so far).

So instead of destroying the Earth, the Devourer made a display of the precision of its gravitic power: A very thin and precise ray of gravity – something that doesn't exist naturally in the universe, but that the technology in the Devourer's control could easily generate – hit the building from where the ray of frost had originated. The entire building was pulled up in the air, torn to pieces – and the members of the Unfeeling Force in the vicinity could recognize a Freeze Machine inside. Its operator had apparently fled right after shooting at them.

But just when they thought they had the situation under control, more than half of them were suddenly teleported – and it was most obviously not their teleporter at work. "It's a trap!" Noble Spirit managed to shout – when the next wave of the attack came:

"Care Bears, Stare!

-Care Cousins, Call!

-Caretakers, Blast!"

As both Light Bringer and Courage had been teleported to the other side of the planet, and would need a few minutes to come back, Noble Spirit was now left in charge of the group. Obviously, they were under attack from people who had been expecting them, and were well-prepared – they even had the ability to do the Stare! And what's worse, they were outnumbered: Only 30 members of the Unfeeling Force hadn't been teleported, and the enemies were 44 in number…

Despite that, the Unfeeling Force fought fiercely. Whenever one of them was hit by the Stare, he or she (Nano-folks had genders, too) was submerged by feelings – but, having retained a link to the Devourer, this only made them too disoriented to do anything. Whenever a champion of caring was hit, he or she would feel the caring and feeling sucked out of them, and was left empty, apathetic.

Both sides would help "fallen" comrades in mid-battle: The servants of the Devourer would use their Stare to suck the excess of feelings out of those that had been hit by the Stare, bringing them back to their Unfeeling self. The champions of caring would use their Stare on those that had been left devoid of feelings, bringing them back to their caring self.

The battle lasted about three minutes. Noble Spirit managed to hit Proud Heart, only to be Stared down by Brave Heart. Hugs and Tugs barely managed to hold their own against Perseverance long enough for Grams to come to their rescue – right after she had defeated Kindness. David defeated Fidelity, but wasn't fast enough to dodge the attack of Celebration, who was then taken out by Birthday.

But for all the effort of the Unfeeling Force, they couldn't win at 30 to 44. All of them were eventually vanquished, and teleported somewhere else. The Care Bears, Cousins and Caretakers who had "fallen" in the battle were quickly brought back to their normal self.

"I've said it before and I'll say it again: So far so good. Let's get to the next phase of the plan."

Light Bringer had found and reassembled about fifty members of the Force who had been scattered by the Rainbow Rescue Beam. Everyone had been given the command of going back to the spot where they had been attacked – this time, they would beat this planet's defenders. Although they had to admit this was pretty impressive…They hadn't expected such a well-planned resistance. This world was obviously not very high-tech, and yet, it was giving them trouble. Of course, this wouldn't matter in the least in the long run – even if the Unfeeling Force was defeated (which was rather unlikely), the Devourer could imbue other Nano-folks with the power of the Stare, and start over. Nothing stopped the Devourer, after all.

To Light Bringer's surprise, they were ambushed again – and upon closer examination, it appeared to be the same group that had attacked them before. But this time, there were very few of them – and instead of an open battle, they were fighting with hit-and-run tactics.

What Light Bringer didn't know was that the Care Bears and Cousins had left aboard the S.S. Friendship, so that only the Caretakers were still around to fight the Unfeeling Force. Since they were hopelessly outnumbered, their only hope was their guerrilla tactics – they had no hope of defeating the Unfeeling Force, but they wanted to gain time.

"I've spent most of my life in the clouds, but never expected to go into space" Noble Heart confided into True Heart.

"I could say the same. Bright Heart, where is the – oh dear…"

The rest of the family soon saw what had thrown True Heart off balance: Only a few miles away from them laid the Devourer of Worlds. It was a black hole, and as such, no light departed from it – it couldn't be seen. But the lack of light was very noticeable, even in outer space, as it formed a big spot in the sky where no stars could be seen.

Up to that point, their short trip to outer space had been awe-inspiring (to the extent that they could feel awe in their present mental state): Not only because of the magnificent view of the Earth they had from here, which had brought tears to several eyes (it was, after all, the world they had been loving and protecting for so many decades), but also because of the stars: Since there was no atmosphere here, the stars seemed all the more numerous and brighter (and they didn't twinkle like they did on Earth). It had taken Wish several seconds to realize that she had stopped breathing upon their sight.

But now, seeing the Devourer…The Care Bears and Cousins had been scared before, even Brave Heart. They had all feared Dark Heart. Professor Cold Heart had creeped them out. The Evil Spirit Book was spooky. No Heart had made them afraid. Checkmate Warren had been creepy in his own way. The Prank had terrorised them. And Avalon was a city of fear during the war.

The Devourer of Worlds was something wholly different. It was…Cosmic. An Evil World. A Force that dwarfed them beyond measure. They knew it had brought the destruction of entire planets, with their billions of inhabitants – something they could only begin to comprehend. And they knew that if their enemy so chose, it could destroy them, the Earth, and the entire Solar System effortlessly.

It was mind-numbing…Like seeing the incarnation of Death.

"They can't win like this" reflected Light Bringer. "So where are all the others?

-Light Bringer!" called Courage. "We've detected a space ship – it's moving toward the Devourer. They're probably there!

-The fools! They can't do anything against the Devourer!"

He was interrupted when a Stare hit Courage. He looked in the direction from where the Stare had come, and saw the flying car with its roof open, a defender of feelings aiming at him. Unbeknownst to him, it was the de facto leader of the group…

Light Bringer lunged toward Checkmate Warren. The human aimed at him again and missed, then seemed to lose his balance. Light Bringer sent his Stare (which might have deserved the name "anti-Stare") toward his adversary…Who surprised him by pulling out a flask and putting it between them. The Nano-man's Stare hit the flask, and as its essence was drained through the Stare into Light Bringer, and sent from there directly to the Devourer, he realized it must be some condensed form of caring. That would normally be a good thing, as the Devourer wanted to feed on caring energies…But Light Bringer briefly had the time to suspect it was some sort of trap. But there was no time to do anything…

Aboard the S.S. Friendship, everyone was waiting. If they tried to enter the Devourer now, they would be crushed by its gravitational force, devoured like all those who had fallen victim to the beast in the past. They had to wait for the opening – and waiting in the presence of this cosmic monster was wrecking their nerves.

"I'm scared, Tugs" said Hugs. The cubs had grown somewhat, although they weren't adults yet by any means. They had been surprised when the older Care Bears had told them that they could join them in the mission – but, as they realized, this could very well be the last caring mission, ever. And even if they won, it was by far the most important caring mission the family had ever undertaken – everyone was needed, even novices. If they lost, there would be nothing left.

"Don't worry my darlings" Grams hugged them. "To the very least, we have each other. And you were allowed to participate because you've grown up a lot – soon, you'll be full-fledged Care Bears. This is your beginning.

-Do you really mean it?

-Have I ever told you something I didn't mean?"

The two young bears smiled at the rhetorical question. As they did, Bright Heart, without leaving the Rainbow Rescue Beam, called them:

"Tugs, I just remembered…Just before the battle, Warren gave me a note for you."

Curious, Tugs read it. It said:

"Dear Tugs,

I'm sorry I yelled at you like that. You shouldn't have touched the button, but I shouldn't have gotten so angry. I wasn't angry at you; I was (and usually am) angry at other people, and my friends just happen to be around when I burst. I'm sorry – and I'm also sorry that I didn't tell you this face to face, but I was too busy preparing the battle, and the only time I had a couple of minutes, you weren't there…So I'm writing this note for you. I'll ask someone to give it to you.

Your ill-tempered friend,

Warren."

Light Bringer was preparing another shot at the human, when a Stare hit him from another direction.

"I was always a great shot with marbles" said Christy. "How much harder could it be with a Care Blaster?

-Thanks, but be careful!" said Warren.

Up in orbit, the Devourer absorbed the caring energy…But suddenly realized that it wasn't normal caring energy, but super-condensed generosity! If he absorbed it, it would affect him, and become part of him. He would actually care, and acquire a certain generosity himself…Which would mean that he wouldn't be able to devour other worlds!

For the first time in its existence, the Devourer had encountered something that could give it trouble. While making a mental note in its computerized brain to be careful about such situations in the future, it proceeded to get rid of the unwanted caring – something it had never had to do before.

The Devourer, being a black hole, had such a strong gravitational force that nothing could escape it, not even light. That would have meant that it was impossible to get rid of the essence of generosity, hadn't it been for the gravity-control: Using it, the Devourer eliminated its own gravitational pull, then, twisting space-time itself, created a wave of "negative" gravity, pushing away the essence of generosity.

"Now!" yelled Bright Heart as he pushed the button on the Rainbow Rescue Beam. In an instant, the S.S. Friendship was emptied, as the entire Care Bear family was teleported through the entrance the Devourer had created – and went inside the Devourer.

As they did, the members of the Unfeeling Force realized their predicament: If those champions of caring managed to get inside, they still wouldn't be able to hurt the Devourer in the least…But they might free the Nano-folks. They immediately abandoned the battle and rushed upwards, in the direction of the Devourer…With the Caretakers doing their best to slow them down. Except for Checkmate Warren, who crept away, to prepare the last and most essential part of the plan: Phase Copperfield. He carefully sent signals to the computers of the S.S. Friendship, which quickly deployed a transparent, virtually undetectable foil…A foil that had been designed with the super-technology found in the communication records. Of course, this could all be for nothing unless the Care Bear family succeeded with its caring mission to Neutronia…

Part four: Neutronia

"Wow" said Cheer. The others agreed: This was at the same time weird and awe-inspiring.

"Uh, wasn't this place supposed to be, you know…Smaller?" asked Brave Heart. "I mean, they're microscopic people. They look about our size!

-I'll explain it again" said Bright Heart. "The Devourer's gravity distorts space and time. Einstein had proved that gravity can do that, but, here, things go beyond what Earth's physicists had figured out. You see, by going through that particular route to enter the Devourer, we've reduced the space we take – so it's a lot like we've shrunk ourselves to their size. That'll help us interact with them.

Time too is affected. We've calculated that it goes between 60 and 90 times faster in this "pocket universe" inside the Devourer.

-But, if time goes so much quicker here" said Tender Heart, "and the Nano-folks have been prisoners for about a century according to our time…

-Then from their point of view, it's been millennia. But according to the communication logs, they can live tens of thousands of years.

-What worries me is that the Unfeeling Force will come and get us as soon as they can" said Tender Heart. "Of course, the time difference will give us some time.

-Then let's not waste the time we have" said Noble Heart. "Care Bear family – move out!"

Wish, Brave Heart and Swift Heart had been assigned to guard over the entrance to the pocket-universe, in case the Unfeeling Force came in. The rest quickly moved toward the huge Nano-folk city.

It was a few feet across, but from their new perspective, it looked more like hundreds of thousands of miles. A gigantic megalopolis, with buildings and roads – but everything was so utterly alien! Everything was built from (of course) particles, which, in this scale, looked like more-or-less round clouds that emitted strange lights. The inhabitants themselves looked like small grey clouds, constantly shifting their forms.

"They remind me a bit of Dark Heart's cloud form" admitted True Heart.

"Well, I just hope we don't need to almost get some girl killed to make them care" Playful Heart tentatively joked.

The family, with all the cloud cars and rainbow rollers, landed in the middle of the city. A few inhabitants looked up at them for an instant, but quickly lost interest (thanks to the telepathic translation/communication, it was easy to tell).

"Um excuse us," Tender Heart addressed the nearest Nano-man. "Could you help us find our way around here?

-No!" was the annoyed reply.

"We've come to help you" attempted Share.

"We're not interested in your help. Leave us alone!" replied several inhabitants.

"We can help you get your feelings back," said Love-A-Lot. "You can then feel joy, love, friendship…

-We don't want your feelings, and we don't want you, either!

-Don't you care about being happy? Or about anything, actually?" asked Loyal Heart.

-No!!!" came the unanimous reply.

"Wow, Meanie City all over again!" said Friend. "This is just like the Land Without Feelings!

-Well, I don't think a song will be enough this time" said Grumpy.

Bright Heart turned toward some of the inhabitants: "Actually, I calculate that you do care, even if only a tiny, infinitesimal bit. You couldn't have built this huge city to live in if you didn't care at all.

-This dump? It's nothing compared to the cities that were devastated when Neutronia turned into a black hole.

-But you built it! You cared enough to survive for all that time!"

A nano-person approached. "Who are you, anyway?"

Taking this sudden curiosity as a good sign, Tender Heart replied: "We're the Care Bear family. We care about everyone, and we help them care too.

-Oh, like the Feeling Force?

-Exactly. I'm Tender Heart, and this is Bright Heart – this is Friend, who is the best friend anybody could have. This is Harmony, and…"

As Tender Heart presented the family to the more-or-less interested crowd, Hugs approached the one who had asked them who they were.

"Hi, my name's Hugs. What's yours?

-I'm Schlip.

-It's nice to meet you."

Schlip didn't reply. He/she seemed mostly indifferent, even if a notch less than most of the others. Without warning, the young Care Bear hugged him/her. Schlip was taken aback.

"Why are you doing that?

-To show you I like you!"

Schlip hesitated for a second, then reciprocated (which was a rather weird experience for Hugs). Slowly, the nano-person obtained a new coloration.

"Schlip? Are you all right?

-I feel better than I've felt in millennia. I can feel again!

-You've reclaimed your feelings! You did it! You've taken them back from the Devourer!" Hugs couldn't contain her excitement.

"You're right! And it's all thanks to you! But, if I could do it…Then everyone else here can, too!

-That's exactly what we're trying to do!

-I want to help!"

And help Schlip did. Slowly, additional Nano-folks regained their feelings. The Care Bears and Cousins used their Stare here and there, but tried to avoid doing it too often, as they might need to save it if the Unfeeling Force came.

"How many of them have already regained their feelings, Bright Heart?

-About sixty so far, Tender Heart. I calculate that at this rate, we'll need to use the machine after all.

-Are you sure about that? It would be better to avoid it if we can – you know it isn't safe.

-I know, Tender Heart. But do the math: There are several tens of  trillions of Nano-Folks out there. We can't help them all with normal methods – we'll have to use the Stare. And our Stare alone won't be enough."

The Care Bear family progressed in their endeavour, but not everything went without a hitch. At one point, Gentle Heart was trying to talk to a group of what was obviously Nano-children, and some Nano-man got angry, and tried to hit her.

The next moment, he was rolling on the floor in pain, as if he had punched a brick wall.

"I don't understand" Gentle Heart told Bright Heart, who had come quickly. "He punched me, but I didn't feel anything. He did, though.

-That's because we may be compressed in space, and thus look smaller, but we still have the same mass – we're trillions of trillions of times heavier than they are.

-Oh. Then don't we risk hurting them when we hug them?

-Don't worry. You see, the quantum effects – never mind."

"Prepare to engage the enemy as soon as we've gone through!" said Light Bringer. "They must not be allowed to bring the feelings back to the population, and –"

Light Bringer was interrupted when a Stare hit him directly. The other members of the unfeeling Force looked ahead – and saw three of Earth's defenders of feelings, sending their Stares at them. They tried to fight back, but they had a serious disadvantage: Time was going dozens of times faster on the other side. Brave Heart, Wish and Swift Heart could not only hit several of them every second, but could also actually dodge their attacks.

Almost all 50 of them were defeated by the time they reached the inside, where time went fast. Only Courage and Ingenuity had gone through unaffected, by grabbing "fallen" team-mates and using them as shields. Ingenuity almost got Swift Heart, but was defeated by Wish. Courage expertly dodged Brave Heart's Call, and almost got him – but Swift Heart zoomed on him, and, in desperation, punched him.

Not hard. The Care Bears and Cousins weren't fighters, and violence was nearly foreign to them. Swift Heart wasn't trying to hurt him, just to prevent him from sucking out Brave Heart's feelings – and was thus very surprised when the punch sent Courage hurling miles away. Had Bright Heart been there, he'd have explained to them about the effects of the difference in mass…

The Stare could knock out the members of the Unfeeling Force, but, when used on the rest of the population, it helped bring them back to their normal self: After all, they didn't have half as strong a link to the Devourer.

After their victory on the Unfeeling Force, Brave Heart, Swift Heart, and Wish joined the others in their efforts. Now that it seemed like the enemy was out of their way, they felt free to use the Stare to help the Nano-folks reclaim their feelings. Those that did soon numbered in the tens of thousands, and their numbers kept growing. Each one that did sucked his/her caring energies back from the Devourer of Worlds, who was losing energy…In the sense that the ocean loses some water when a drop is taken from it.

But the Devourer wasn't done yet. Even if the Unfeeling Force had been dispatched, it was merely a minor setback for the cosmic monster, who activated some techno-magical systems to perform what would have been called, on Earth, a spell…

"It's working! It's really working!" Cheer seemed even more excited than usual. "More and more Nano-folks are getting their feelings back! Just like in the Land Without Feelings!

-Actually," said Tender Heart, "back there, we could help everybody. Here, we can only help a tiny fraction. We'll need to use the machine, you know."

They were interrupted when True Heart said: "What's that?" And indeed, something was going on. Suddenly, the Care Bears and Cousins all felt uneasy, and a cold chill went through them. It was pretty obvious that a powerful spell was being cast.

Bright Heart was quick to analyse the situation: "According to my computer, the Devourer is casting a powerful spell. It searches our minds to find out a nightmare of ours – and it' going to make it real.

-But what could that…" Treat Heart stopped in mid-track, as a shape appeared in front of them. Soon enough, that shape became clear…And when it flashed an evil demented smile at them, their hearts sank as they recognized it.

"Helllllo, fuzzy-wuzzies! I'll bet you thought you were rid of me forever, didn'tcha? Well, here's the newsflash: You can never get rid of me! I'm the greatest prank of all times – that's my name, actually! Bwa-hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!!!"

"Run!" yelled Noble Heart. As they did, things just went from bad to worse, as several other copies of the Prank appeared.

"The entire Unfeeling Force has gone inside" said David. "The Care Bears will win, right?

-No promise" replied Checkmate Warren. "They stand pretty good odds against the Unfeeling Force, don't worry about that. But if they defeat them…I wouldn't be surprised if the Devourer had some additional tricks that we haven't been able to predict. And even if they succeed…It shall all be for naught unless phase Copperfield works.

-Speaking of which, how's it going?

-The foil is almost entirely in place. I just hope our technological estimations were right…Because if they're off by even a little bit, the plan won't work. If the Devourer discovers what's going on…"

"All around the nano-city,

The monster chased the Care Bear.

The monster was your worst nightmare,

CRUNCH! goes the Care Bear!

Hahahaha!"

The Prank – well, the Pranks – were chasing the champions of caring throughout the city. Apparently, the Pranks too had super-mass, seeing that they could knock down buildings even more easily than back on Earth. Fortunately, the Nano-folks had the good sense to get as far away as possible.

Not only were those nanomorphs dangerous – they also brought back all the nightmares and fears that the original Prank had caused. Even Brave Heart felt shaken. And of course, there was no fighting back – even by combining their Stares, they'd be unable to stop a single one of the horrors.

The Bears and Cousins had soon realized that their only hope of survival was flight, and had gone up in the cloudmobiles and rainbow rollers. But the Pranks soon took flying shapes – wings, rotors, anything that worked. The denizens of the Kingdom of Caring did their best to escape from them, but it was rather obvious they couldn't go on like this for very long.

"Bright Heart! We must use the machine now!

-That's impossible, Noble Heart! Each one of us is carrying a part of it – we need time to assemble it!"

Suddenly, a ray of light hit one of the Pranks. It looked surprised for a second – then it burst. Everybody looked down, and saw one of the Nano-folks who had gotten their feelings back, standing next to a machine.

"Nanomorphs, hue? Well, I used to be an engineer before the Devourer came! I know what machines can stop you!" With that said, the engineer Nano-person shot at another Prank, destroying it. The others soon dived toward their attacker, with sadistic looks on their faces. He or she shot another couple of times, yelling "I won't let you hurt those who saved us!", then, eventually, apparently got scared enough, and ran away. The Pranks landed next to the machine – but just as they were about to rip it apart, it exploded in some strange blast, destroying half of them. When the rest looked up, the engineer had run away – and so had the Care Bears and Cousins, who were nowhere to be seen. Naturally, the entire block had been deserted by the panic-stricken population.

"So, what do we do now?

-I say we level the neighbourhood, and keep marching in every direction until we find someone to kill!

-Now that's my kind of plan!

-Yeah, I couldn't have found a better one! Mwa-hahahahaha!"

Courage had finally found the 49 vanquished members of the Unfeeling Force. It would only take some time, with his Stare, to bring them back…

"We have to act fast!" prompted Noble Heart, as the entire family was assembling the machine. "If we don't hurry, those Pranks are going to kill countless innocents!

-We're doing it as fast as we can!" replied Bright Heart. "Problem is, after we do it, we'll be pretty much helpless. We're going to make it much more powerful than last time – I don't think we'll get our tummy symbols back."

That was a most unpleasant realization – but it didn't slow them down, as they finished the machine: It was the same tummy symbol transfer device they had used in the past to save Rainbow City, back during the C-bomb fiasco. Now that enough Nano-folks had regained their feelings, the members of the Care Bear family were going to transfer their symbols to them, so that they may use them to bring back the feelings of ALL the Nano-folks. But according to the calculations of Bright Heart and the rest of the science crew, this time, it was more than likely that the tummy symbols would be destroyed in the end…

In record time, the machine had been assembled, like a giant lego. True Heart put her paw on the button, and looked at the rest of the family, as if to ask permission. Several nodded. She pressed it.

Just like the previous time, their symbols disappeared from their tummies. They felt helpless without them – but it was no time for hesitations. Now that all the Nano-folks who cared had a tummy symbol, True Heart grabbed a special loudspeaker (not the exact word considering the telepathic communication with the Nano-folks, of course), and was about to send her message – when a ray of light hit her. She fell to her knees – and, from her expression, it was pretty obvious that she was completely apathetic now.

The family members turned their heads, and saw where the anti-Stare had come from: Light Bringer, with some 50 Unfeeling Force members, were floating near them.

"Not bad for neophytes" admitted Light Bringer. Then, without further talks, he yelled: "Unfeeling Force, absorb!"

The Bears and Cousins were completely helpless against the Unfeeling Force this time. Realizing it was their only chance, Tender Heart grabbed the "loudspeaker" True Heart had held an instant ago. He then grabbed Grumpy with his other hand, and tried to push him behind the machine where they could take cover…But one of the Unfeeling Force members nailed him. He fell on Grumpy. Grumpy, under Tender Heart, grabbed the loudspeaker…Then realized that if he used it, Light Bringer and his crew would Stare him out of his feelings in record time. He stopped moving, hoping they'd think they got him like the others.

"The foil is in place" said Warren. "I hope they'll come out soon…"

"It's impressive" reflected Light Bringer. "They had us pretty much beaten at a point. They couldn't beat the Devourer, of course…But maybe he could use them as agents, like us."

The Unfeeling Force leader was interrupted when the Pranks reached them.

"Why, if isn't Lighty!

-You're…Temporary agents of the Devourer, aren't you?" said Light Bringer. "He saw us losing, and created you from their nightmares. I can feel it through my link with the Devourer.

-Well, it's time for slaughter!

-Nobody's slaughtering anybody. They could still be useful. The Devourer will decide.

-Oh yeah? What makes you think we're gonna obey Devoosh all the time?"

Just as the Prank said it, it suddenly fell apart.

"Because the magic that sustains you isn't permanent, and the Devourer can turn it off whenever it wants" smirked Light Bringer.

Grumpy looked around. Great. Just great. Surrounded. Defenceless. Outnumbered. Out-outnumbered. There was no way he could fight a single member of the Unfeeling Force without his tummy symbol, much less 50 – and the entire family couldn't defeat even one Prank, let alone several!

The worst part was the rest of the family. Their caring, feelings and love had been sucked out of them. True Heart and Noble Heart were completely indifferent to everything. Love-A-Lot was devoid of love. Cheer wasn't cheerful in the least. Playful Heart was sitting still (so was everyone else, but that was even more disturbing with some of them). Grams was looking at the cubs – at Hugs and Tugs, Grumpy corrected himself. Except that she wasn't looking at them – she was gazing right through them, as if they didn't matter. And they, themselves, didn't seem to care about anything or anyone. It was a heart-breaking sight – Grumpy felt he couldn't take it anymore. He closed his eyes. If only he had an opening…Their last hope was all the Nano-folks who cared, and now had their own tummy symbols. But he had to call them…But if he did, the villains would notice him, and stop him…

"Hey!" said an Unfeeling Force member.

"What is it, Hope?

-Sir, according to my scanner, they have transferred their powers to the elements of the population that got their feelings back!

-Oh! So that's what they were planning! Well, luckily, we stopped them in the nick of time. The civilians may have the power to Stare now, but not the knowledge on how to use it, nor the training. We'll have to take care of them – and you're participating, nanomorphs!"

The Pranks grudgingly agreed. While they were more than eager to kill people, they didn't like obeying orders.

As they moved away, Grumpy got up from under Tender Heart.  Could it be? Was there really a hope? He waited a little while longer, then lifted the loudspeaker…

As the Unfeeling Force and the Pranks moved toward the unsuspecting populace, the Nano-folks were trying to make heads or tails of the situation. The more knowledgeable ones among them soon figured out and explained to them that the symbols they now had allowed them to do the Stare – the power that the Feeling Force had back in the days before the Devourer. Soon, several of them tried their new power – clumsily, but at least it worked. Suddenly, a voice called them all:

"Nano-folks! Listen to me, it's important! We've given you our tummy symbols, so now you must use them, and fast! Just think of how much you care, and send your caring out to everyone! You can bring their feelings back to everyone else, and stop the agents of the Devourer!

You all care! With the Stare, you can show your caring – you can use it to help everyone, and save Neutronia! And save us! And save yourselves! Let your feelings out, use your love! Send it everywhere, in every direction! I know you can do it! Don't hesitate! Do –"

Grumpy had been interrupted when several anti-Stares had hit him. But by now, it was too late to stop what he had caused: Several Nano-folks had started to send their Stare in every direction. Soon they were dozens, then hundred, then thousands. Seeing that, tens of thousands followed their lead – and soon enough, all the hundreds of thousands who had their feelings.

The immense number of Stares were going in all directions. It was powerful beyond measure. The billions of Nano-folks in the vicinity soon felt its effect, and reclaimed their feelings. In the following instants, the effect was felt further, and further, as trillions were touched by the Stare…And within the minute, the entire megalopolis had been reached.

The Care Bear family had been among the firsts to get their feelings back, being in the vicinity. They could watch as the members of the Unfeeling Force were touched – and, having retained their strong link to the Devourer, were too out of it to do anything. They could also see the Pranks scream and whither away under the power of caring.

The entire population was reached, and the energies of their caring snatched away from the Devourer, shaking it at the core.

Finally, it was over – and the symbols of the Nano-folks, having been over-exerted, faded away. This time, they didn't reappear on the tummies of the Care Bear family.

"Hurry everybody!" said Noble Heart and True Heart. The technology in the possession of the Nano-folks was really impressive – it had taken them about 20 minutes to organize teleporters, and send everyone to a safer place – the S.S. Friendship.

"This is Tender Heart speaking! Can you hear me?

-Tender Heart! This is Warren! What is the situation?" enquired the mastermind on the radio.

"It worked! The entire population now has their feelings back, and are in their special compartment in the ship. We're all here!

-Excellent! Then…

-But we don't have our tummy symbols anymore.

-That was to be expected. Now, for the most critical part of the plan. Nothing that we did so far could prevent the Devourer of Worlds from eating up the Earth. It's time to take care of that. You'd better hope it all goes as planned – phase Copperfield is going into action!"

Part five: Full Circle

The Devourer had just suffered the greatest setback of its existence: The entire population of Nano-folks had been snatched away from it, together with the energy of their caring. Of course, that was but a fraction of the energy the Devourer had at its disposal, after having devoured dozens of worlds. And even if the Unfeeling Force had been neutralized, the Devourer still had its gravitational powers…Not to mention its invulnerability. It remained invincible.

Now, it would devour first the tiny spaceship…Then the planet…Then…

"Okay, people…This is the make-or-break of the entire plan" said Warren. The mastermind then grabbed the communicator, and sent a message to the monster:

"Devourer of Worlds! This is one of the Earth's defenders speaking! Your reign of terror ends today!

We have recently analysed the technology used by Neutronia and all the other worlds they've communicated with, and have improved it. You are now going to suffer the effects of our inertia ray!"

As Warren said that, a pulse of energy was shot from the S.S. Friendship, and hit the Devourer. No effect was visible. But the Devourer could see that somehow…Somehow, it had been moved by a few millions of miles. The Earth was still in sight…

"The effects of the ray will be to slow you down by numerous orders of magnitude. No matter how fast you go, even if you use the warp – you'll still be going so slow, it'll take you millennia to reach Earth! You've lost!"

The Devourer of Worlds considered the possibility. That inertia ray was like nothing it had heard of before – it could be some sort of bluff. But what would be the point of such a bluff?

It then decided to check. The black hole began moving – and was unpleasantly surprised when everything remained immobile, or nearly so. It then used its huge warp drive – but even now, its speed was so small that it would, effectively, take millennia to reach the Earth.

But that wouldn't stop it. The Devourer's mind was a computer, after all…And it had infinite patience. It would wait as much as was necessary. And one day…One day it would eat them all.

"And I thought I was fast" said Swift Heart, impressed. "He's already out of the Solar System!

-But he doesn't know it" snickered Warren. "The foil that the S.S. Friendship deployed around it? Highest-level nanotechnology developed by Neutronia and the other worlds. Virtually undetectable, even for the Devourer. And its inside is a perfect simulator. It shows the Devourer a picture of the universe surrounding it…But a picture distorted, so that the Devourer is trapped in the illusion we designed. It thought we had displaced it by a few millions of miles…And it thinks it's still in the solar system…And it thinks it's moving at a super-slow speed, when it is in fact moving faster than light. As if there really was an inertia ray!

The illusion is designed so that the Devourer will be moving in one particular direction…It took it past the solar system, and it will keep going through empty space, out of the galaxy, and onward. That's the whole idea of phase Copperfield: To trick it into going away. Of course, one might argue that I should have called it "phase anti-climatic" instead, but I'm from the school that says to go for whatever works…

-Was it easy to find a path that doesn't go through any solar system?" asked David.

"As a matter of fact, very easy. The universe is mostly empty space, and even if we had chosen the path randomly, odds are it would have done the trick.

-So…We've won? The Devourer has lost?" asked Brave Heart.

"As much as possible. The Devourer is, as far as we know, invulnerable…But not impossible to out-wit. It will take thousands of years before its computerized brain discovers the treachery…And as many years to come back.

-But it will come back. And we've lost our tummy symbols. What then?" asked Grumpy.

"Then, we'll have to ensure the universe is ready for it. But don't worry – when it comes to your tummy symbols, I'm certain that the Nano-folks can bring them back. As for the eventual return of the Devourer – do you realize how fast technology progresses nowadays? Within a few millennia, I have little to no doubt that defeating the Devourer once and for all will be child's play. So, yes, we won…And the vengeance of Lady Uncaring has failed.

-In that case," said Noble Heart, "we have saved Earth, including Avalon…But we've also saved the Nano-folks…and probably countless other worlds that the Devourer would have destroyed sooner or later!

-Very true. And come to think of it…I think we should check up the members of the Unfeeling Force. With the Devourer gone so far away, their link to him should be dwindling…"

And indeed, the 80 members of the Unfeeling Force now had their feelings back…And, now that they were away from their former master, they were free of its influence. They were the Feeling Force once again.

"The last few millennia…Feel like a nightmare" said Light Bringer. "We were separated from our feelings, caring, and love…The only emotions we had were those the Devourer gave us, and through which it controlled us like puppets, making us do its bidding. We were instrumental in the downfall of so many civilizations…Entire worlds, consumed by that monster. And we didn't – couldn't – care about it.

But now, it's finally over. Like waking up after all that time…We can once again feel, love, and be ourselves! We can weep for those that were lost…And hope to build a better future…Bring back love, caring and hope to what is left. And it's all thanks to you!" he faced the Care Bear family and the Caretakers.

"Thank Warren. It was his idea – pretty much everything.

-Don't say that" interrupted Warren. "I'm by far the most competent person on this planet, but I couldn't have pulled this off by myself. It was a team effort that saved the day – and frankly, if you think I could have given their feelings back to the Nano-folks, you're insane."

True Heart approached the Feeling Force's leader. "You, your friends, and your people are welcome to stay here as long as you want.

-Thank you, but, I'm afraid we'd rather not stay for too long – this nearly weightless environment doesn't become of us. We were born on a neutron star – the weak gravity of a planet is too different from our natural conditions for our comfort. We will have to leave in search of a new home soon.

-We will help you build a space ship" said Warren. "But until it's complete…I believe we have a great number of things to talk about. We're completely alien civilizations to each other, after all…We could learn so much. Science, technology, History, philosophy…And of course, we also have a lot to learn from each others as defenders of caring. Not to mention that our friends here lost their tummy symbols when they helped you, and would appreciate your help in getting them back. I'd give them Care Blasters, but it's not the same thing…

-You're right" said Light Bringer. "We will help you in the meanwhile. So…Aside from the Devourer of Worlds, who would you say was your biggest foe? Was it that nanomorph we saw earlier?"

Checkmate: Of course, there's the remote possibility that the Devourer will somehow discover the treachery, and come back soon…But it remains unlikely. According to the tachyon scanners we've set up, it's already dozens of light-years away. Its computerized brain is still based on the sentient world of Neutronia, and that system was designed to handle everyday tasks, not to think outside the box.

Sophia: Then congratulation on the resolution of yet another crisis of epic proportions. I actually like the way you've resolved this conflict…But, incidentally, has it occurred to you that in most works of fiction with a world of illusion, it's the villain who traps the hero in a virtual reality, and not vice-versa? Be it the Matrix or any other of the countless examples, that's definitely a stereotypically villainous method.

Checkmate: Correct. That's probably because the hero is supposed to champion truth, while the villain relies on treachery. As a matter of fact, True Heart was a bit uncomfortable with the plan for that reason. But like I said, I think that in some situations, the ends can justify the means. The allies of WWII didn't hesitate to rely on immense amounts of misinformation to defeat the 3rd Reich, and I wasn't uncomfortable with using it against Control, the Prank, or the Devourer.

Sophia: But isn't the problem with the "the ends justify the means" ideology that bad means can corrupt you in the end? In "The Fellowship of the Ring", Boromir wanted the Ring to fight Sauron, and it drove him insane.

Checkmate: That's very true. And that's one of the things that made me a villain in the past. I believe great caution is necessary in these things. Sometimes, I'll admit that, the ends do not justify the means. Which situation falls into which category…That's one of the Big Questions. I work on that when I need to…But I think I'll have much more free time now.

Sophia: You're not expecting any new villain to show up?

Checkmate: Probably nothing big. And very probably nothing that won't be easy to handle now.

In Care-A-Lot, Paul and Bright Heart were discussing science and technology with Ingenuity. The Care Bears and Cousins had already received their new tummy symbols with the machines of the grateful Nano-folks.

"You see," said the Feeling Force agent, "the measurements were exactly the same as I had calculated. I was just a child at the time – but from that day forth, I knew that if the theory was right, then the results would be right, too. I know, I know – it sounds obvious. But as a child, that was a real revelation to me.

-Reminds me of that time when I was five, and my dad helped me build a mechanical toy" replied Paul. "It was something for children, with step-by-step instructions – and when it actually worked, I felt amazed. After that, I just couldn't get enough of building things – or taking them apart to see how they worked. Or fixing them.

-For me, it all started when I was still a cub – and one day, I just decided to see what was inside a cloud-car" admitted Bright Heart. "True Heart and Noble Heart knew how to make them with their Stare, but they had no clue how it worked…"

The inventors' discussion was interrupted when Love-A-Lot, more hyper than anyone had ever seen her before, rushed toward them, yelling:

"Hey everybody! Guess what the great news are!

-Uh, m…

-Good Luck asked Polite to marry him!" she didn't give them the time to reply.

"That's – that's great!" said Bright Heart, trying to process the new information. "Judging from your excitement, I calculate she said yes?

-Yes she did! You know, he actually told me he was going to ask her three days ago – I was helping him prepare himself to ask her!

-Oh, so that's why we didn't see either of you much lately.

-Yes! And the wedding is next month! Isn't it wonderful?!

-I…Guess so…" What Bright Heart didn't voice out loud, but that both he and Paul were thinking, was:  Where would the new couple live? It didn't seem likely that Polite Panda would leave Paradise Valley…But Paul also had another thought on his mind.

"Yes, Mr president, I'm sorry we didn't tell you sooner about that whole Devourer mess, but we wanted to avoid worldwide panic…And anyway, there's precious little you could have done. No offence intended, but this was a job for us, not the armed forces or the CIA.

Yes, what we told the media is the full story. And yes, the technology will change a lot of things – no, I don't intend to have it all released at once. Things will be done gradually."

As Warren ended the communication with the president, Alice entered his office.

"What is it, Alice?

-Somebody wanted to see you."

Shyly, Tugs entered the office too. Alice left them alone.

"Tugs. I was wondering when we'd meet again.

-I wanted to see you sooner, but with all the stuff happening…

-I know, I know. I trust Bright Heart gave you my note?

-Yeah. And that's okay, I forgive you for getting angry. I shouldn't have touched the button anyway. You were right – I just don't learn from my mistakes.

-And that's your main weakness. You just don't think before you act. If you learned to control yourself, you could grow up to be one of the greatest Care Bears ever.

-You…You really think so?

-Quite assuredly. You have lots of qualities – which you must not let go to your head, incidentally – and you and Hugs both proved that you have potential. You only have a few flaws to shed – and I know you can do that. Nobody's perfect, Tugs – but you're a great person, really. To the very least, you're off to a good start.

-Thanks. You're a good guy too, you know.

-Sigh…I know, but I'm still struggling with my own issues.

-About that…You said you're always angry. Why?

-It's because of…Something that happened to me when I was much younger. Something that turned everybody I knew into my enemies. Family, neighbours, classmates, teachers, and all those I considered friends…Even know, I'm still angry at them. I know I shouldn't, but…It's hard to let go. And if I did let go…I'm not sure about what would be left.

-What do you mean?

-Never mind, Tugs. That's for me to worry about. But thank you for dropping by…"

"Hi, Alice.

-Oh, hi, Paul. I thought you were in the workshop.

-I'm going there. But I wanted to see you for a bit.

-You're sweet. Did I tell you that?

-Yes, but I don't mind. It's just that…Well…

-Yes?

-Well, I've been thinking…Since I heard…You know…About, well…About…About Good Luck and Polite…And I've been, um, thinking…I already said that, didn't I? Well, uh, we've been together for, uh…

-You asked me out for the first time about two weeks ago, but we've liked each other for months.

-Yeah, and, uh…I know things aren't supposed to be this quick, but…I'm sure. And I had a talk with Love-A-Lot, and she's sure too, and…Uh…

-Paul…Are you saying what it seems like you're saying?"

Paul, finally giving up on his attempt to word it out, took his PDA, typed on it, and handed it to Alice. She read, smiled one of her sunniest smiles ever, and said: "I will!"

About a week after the departure of the Devourer, a ship they easily recognized came to Earth: Strato Nefarious had seen the Devourer leave the Solar System…Without eating it. He was hoping to find the rest of them still alive. He wasn't disappointed.

"Well I'll be! How did you do it?

-Well, like Warren says, it's not about how powerful you are…It's about how sneaky you are."

After the whole tale was told, the maestro exclaimed: "I still have trouble believing it…The Devourer will actually leave us alone! Those are fantastic news! As a matter of fact, I think I'll turn it into an opera…A space-opera! Why are you laughing?

-Heh…It's just that "space-opera" doesn't mean the same thing here…

-Nevermind. I'll tell your story, with accompanying music, and songs…If you don't mind, that is.

-It's okay.

-Wonderful! It will enchant the galaxy…Now I just need a name for it. How does "The Mightiest Foe" sound to you?"

"Our friends from Earth have proven once again that no matter how terrible the situation gets, no matter how powerful your foe is, no matter what happens, there is always hope", said Light Bringer. "They have saved us, and we will forever be grateful for that. It is now time for us, and for all the Nano-folks, to leave this planet, and go to our new home – but we will never forget you, or how much you cared. We will keep in touch with you with our tachyon communicators – and if you ever have a problem we can help with, we will gladly cross the light-years as fast as we can for you."

It was the Feeling Force's good-bye speech. It was followed by a short party, after which the Feeling Force boarded their new ship – the S.S. Exodus, which would carry the entire microscopic civilization to another neutron star. Strato Nefarious, like them, departed in his own ship. As the ships disappeared into the sky, several Care Bears, Cousins and Caretakers shed a few tears.

"I'll never forget them" said Brave Heart. "They were so different in so many ways…But they cared.

-I'll never forget Schlip" said Hugs.

"I'll never forget Strato Nefarious" said Funshine.

"And I'll never forget Twaz." It was the name of the engineer who had saved them from the Pranks.

"Well, we have the tachyon communicators" said Warren. "We can call them…And, who knows, maybe find other civilizations. We know others exist now.

-The night sky will never be the same" said Wish. "It's a bit scarier…But at the same time a bit nicer, now that I know there are people who care there."

Warren hesitated for a moment, then said: "We've come full circle.

-What do you mean?

-Think about it: The creation of the Devourer of Worlds was an accident – a gigantic stroke of bad luck. The rest followed – the Guardians, desperate to protect Earth and Avalon from the Devourer, sacrificed their goodness to create the barrier – and thus became the arch-villains that we've met. Lord and Lady Uncaring turned Avalon into a nightmare city, No Heart became one of your greatest enemies, and Control tried to take over human society – by the very methods that many humans use. And when that failed, he created the Prank.

This is a huge vicious circle: Pain begets pain, fear begets fear, evil begets evil. Each villain created the next. Michael Hart became evil because of his pain, too. The circle of the Devourer, the Guardians, and the rest went on and on – and now, we have finally put a stop to it.

This chain of pain, fear, and evil will never bring new villains into play. Oh, there'll be other bad people to worry about – Cold Heart, Dr Fright, Sour Sam, and others were independent from the cycle. But this particular, huge cycle is now broken – as I said, we've come full circle. And with all the other villains that we've encountered taken care off…I think we can finally have an era of relative peace. Which reminds me…" Warren took a mallet he had been carrying, and opened it. He kept talking:

"Tell me…Have you ever wondered about how well-informed I was?

-Well," replied Bright Heart, "you do a lot of research. We know that.

-Of course. But I need something to research. A lock of your  hair allowed me to study your DNA.  Cold Heart's blueprints allowed me to understand the principles behind his machines. The communication records of Avalon with the other worlds allowed me to understand the physics and technology at play. But in case you didn't notice, I had a relatively good understanding of the mechanics of magic from the very beginning, even before our first encounter.

-Which means you had something to analyse" reflected Bright Heart. "But what could -"

The racoon stopped in mid-sentence when the mastermind pulled an object out of the briefcase. There was no mistake about what it was, at least to those who had seen it before.

"The Spirit Book!" yelled Nicholas, frightened. "What's it doing here?!

-Oh, I found it towards the beginning of my criminal career.

-But – but we had hidden it carefully!" exclaimed Tender Heart.

"Not enough. I found it easily.

-Don't tell me you've opened it!

-Of course not! I knew enough about it from previous research to realize that opening it would lead to a disaster. I only analysed it in my lab, and learned much about the mechanics of magic. Enough to understand the workings of the Uncaring Crystal…Or many other things. You witnessed my resourcefulness back in my villainous days.

-Okay, but what about the Book?

-Oh, I think it has served its purpose. It's time to send it back to Avalon – and to the Pit, where it won't hurt anyone ever again.

-I agree" said Tender Heart.

Warren put the dangerous item back in the briefcase, and the evening went on. Later, as he went outside, he gazed upon the night sky and the stars, and reflected to himself: "We've come full circle indeed. Only a few loose threads to take care of, and this dangerous era can be officially considered over."

He then looked downward, toward the Earth. It was the beginning of the night in the regions that could be seen from Care-A-Lot, and some light was coming from the cities.

"The time has come, Sophia…The time for us to meet face-to-face."

TO BE CONCLUDED (NO, REALLY!)…

Additional notes: Yup, another story complete. Just one more to go.

As previously, I tried to make this as scientifically credible as I could – but there still are many parts that are inaccurate, or just plain nonsensical. I'm not Arthur C. Clarke, I'm afraid…But I would like to thank Al Schroeder, the author of Mindmistress (), for helping me with the scientific accuracy.

I hope everyone enjoyed this story, as well as those that came before…And those that'll come after!