The words were up there on the blackboard. White on black, firm bold text graven on a scrupulously clean surface.
The ends justify the means.
"Can anyone tell me what this statement means?" Mr Decutt said, grinning at his intentional pun.
Mark shifted in his seat uneasily. An ethics class was the last thing he needed, but it had sounded a lot easier than the Nineteenth-Century Classic Literature unit. Too bad he hadn't bothered to see which teacher was running it first.
"Hollander, you look…bored. What do you think it means? Don't be shy; this is a class for expressing your personal opinions." Decutt leaned more closely towards him, giving him an earnest and penetrating stare. He probably hadn't forgotten the driving lesson yet
"I…uh…" Mark hesitated. "Uh…the ends…" What did 'justify' mean in philosophy class? It was a word he thought he might have heard in church at Christmas or Easter back in England, or from Religious Studies…
"No need to keep us waiting, Mr Hollander. Just tell the class your interpretation of the statement."
Make right. That'd have to be it. "The ends make right the means," Mark said.
Make right. Like a Lightning Knight. "So…what you finish with makes the means right."
"And do you personally believe that, Mr Hollander?"
"Uh…" He paused. I fight so I can do the right thing, and so does Ace. "Yes. Yes, I do. Sometimes there's nothing else you can do than something that other people think is strange, or…or even wrong. Sometimes you have to make a stand, when you can't do anything else or something awful's going to happen. Sometimes…sometimes it takes a lot to do the right thing, but when it's fight or let the bad guys win, you don't have a choice. And…" He trailed off, realising that everyone in the class was staring at him. "Anyway. That's what I think."
"Very interesting, Mr Hollander," Decutt said, sounding slightly disappointed. "So in your opinion the end does justify the means, hmm? And what would you say to tyrannies such as Soviet Russia pre-1980?"
"Um. Well, they're wrong, too." Like Lord Fear taking over the world. "So I guess the right thing to do might be to fight them."
"The same principle that brought about the Cold War, Hollander. Also the Vietnam War. Have you heard of those?"
"The Cold War was the post-World War II conflict that developed as a competition between the Soviet Union and the United States, and never went into open combat. The Vietnam War was the war between this country and the Vietnamese communists, an attempt to prevent the spread of communism across the world," a girl with braces and an earnest expression interrupted. "The former has been criticized on the basis that the world, in a climate of fear, was nearly destroyed by nuclear weapons. The latter caused the loss of many American lives."
"Good," Mr Decutt said. "And Hollander, your opinion?"
Climate of fear. That sounded a lot like what'd happen if Lord Fear won.
"It's right to fight…people who want to take over the world," Mark said. "It has to be right. Always."
Because if that's not, then I'm wrong.
Chuck refused to use it.
"It's not right, dude. You're not supposed to control people that way."
"But he's…not a person! He's Fear." He paced around Chuck's bedroom. "If that's what we've got to do, then we do it."
"Stop walking like that. You're making me dizzy." Chuck waited patiently for Mark to sit down. "I shouldn't have told you in the first place. Stupid big mouth. It's not meant to be used that way."
"Then why did you do it?" Mark asked in infuriation.
"Test of skill. I'm the Big Byte, I know all the game controls. It was just for fun, dude."
"If you won't, then I will," Mark said, grabbing at the control Chuck held in his hand. "Because we haven't got a choice."
Chuck held onto his control, and after a brief struggle fell back on the bed still holding it. "No. I'm not letting you control someone. That's not right, whether or not they're evil, and the Big Byte likes to do the right thing."
Mark sighed, eventually. "Fine. But when I have to, I will."
It was a week later that Chuck visited the Sixth Dimension for the second time, imprisoned in a cage of energy, like the ones where the evils had been held in the backstory.
It was ironic, Mark was sure, as the teacher had discussed in English class that week, but he didn't have the time to think about that.
Sparx, blasted who knew where in the Sixth Dimension, Kilobyte, ripped-up code fragments in the datastream with the power bound to them going to Lord Fear, Lady Illusion, imprisoned for the second time and without an escape route, Random, plugged to the wall in the Carnival dependent on the energy supply there…
…and Ace. Just Ace, alone against Lord Fear.
Mark didn't have a choice. The end justified the means. Of course.
He brought his laptop to the carnival, the same as he'd done the other times the evils nearly took over the world, and set up the control he'd filched from Chuck's room.
One button. Press, and manipulate.
"Game over, Ace Lightning." Evil laughter.
Couldn't he think of anything better to say?
Mark stabbed the control, viciously. He wasn't going to let his world be destroyed.
"You don't know I planned…" Pause. "What is happening to me?"
Mark jerked the control again. It was like a puppet show, he thought as if seeing it from some long distance away, the elongated limbs flailing around like the occasional puppet shows Googler put on. If anyone deserved this, Lord Fear did.
"I surrender," Mark whispered into the control. "Ace Lightning, you win."
"I surrender," Lord Fear repeated, continuing to move as though pulled by puppet-strings from above. It was funny to see the evil overlord like this, and some of the minions had started to laugh. "Ace Lightning, you win."
Game Over, Mark's screen bleeped. You Win, flashing letters scrolled out, and the endgame visuals flowed across the screen—the Carnival of Doom collapsing, Ace and Sparx narrowly making their way out of there, cheering crowds, everything you'd expect at the end of a videogame.
"Ace Lightning. You win," another voice said blankly.
Mark looked up, and it was Ace saying it, standing there just like when he'd been turned into a zombie by Googler, repeating whatever was thrown at him.
"Ace Lightning. You win," the minions repeated in chorus.
Lord Fear was still dancing around, stretched arms and legs flying everywhere, almost like Kilobyte's tentacles. Mark ignored him.
"Ace. What's up?"
"Ace. What's up?" they all repeated simultaneously.
Right. Get the program running, get all the good guys out of the Sixth Dimension…
He moved the control again, and the amulet materialised in his hands.
Chuck had done a good job.
"Okay, Big Byte, gonna get you out of there," he muttered, and added in the summoning codes. With the whole amulet, it was easy.
"Out of there," he heard, and tried to ignore the repetition.
Sparx, Lady Illusion, and Chuck had appeared next to the fence, standing in as neat a row as three toy soldiers; they did not relax as Mark stared at them.
"Chuck. Your control worked. Nice one," Mark said, the words coming out of his mouth more quickly than they really should have. "You all good?"
"All good," Chuck responded. "Dude," he added, detaching himself from the fence and walking over to Mark, like normal. "Nice one. You were right," he said, just like Mark wanted him to.
Mark grinned. "I know. We won this time." He typed in the coding to restore Random, who wheeled himself out of the Haunted House. "And the evils are going right back where they came from."
He started putting in the codes—finish the job, send them to the datastream for good, can't have them destroying my world—ignoring the others around him for the time being, a still tableau bar the dancing skeleton.
There was a sharp noise as a flying, bony palm impacted on Sparx' cheek; she did not move.
Mark hadn't given her any commands.
"Now go," Mark hissed, finally hitting the delete button. "You're not hurting my friends again."
Lord Fear and the minions dissolved promptly; they did not beg or plead, or even cry out, but simply went from Earth, anticlimactically but finally.
Mark stood up.
"That's sorted," he said. "Ace. How are you?"
"How are you?" the chorus came mechanically. "Ace. How are you?"
Sparx' bright tones suppressed, Random's voice as depressed as his good side usually was, Lady Illusion's neutral tones, what Mark thought of as Ace's zombie voice…
…and even Chuck. Chuck, his friend, imprisoned in a program then summoned back to his homeworld.
"Chuck. Tell me there's a way to fix this?" He sounded hysterical, Mark knew, but at a time like this there wasn't a choice. "Tell me I just have to press one single button to get everything back to normal?"
"Sure, dude." It was what he'd wanted to hear, and Mark let himself relax as Chuck walked over and flopped on the grass beside Mark. "I know how to fix this. It'll be easy, then you won't have to worry about it. The Big Byte is on the case." He stared at Mark's screen.
And kept staring.
"So what is the easy way?" Mark asked, after what felt like an eternity had passed.
"Told you, dude, easy way," Chuck repeated.
"What is it!" Mark yelled in frustration. "You've all got to get back to normal!"
"Hey. Normal's boring," Sparx said, repeating something he'd heard a pretty dark-haired girl say in math class the other day and thought it would be exactly like one of Sparx' lines.
"We can do normal now you saved us, kid," Ace said, walking over to clap Mark gently on the back. "Nice job, Lightning Knight."
"Normal?" Lady Illusion laughed enticingly.
"Yes. Normal," Random said thoughtfully.
Mark stared around at the circle surrounding him. His friends.
"So," he said, wanting them to respond, wanting them to be all right. "What do you want to do now we've won?"
"Pizza," Chuck said, just as Mark thought he would.
"Action. This is boring," Sparx said. As Mark should've known—had known?—she'd say.
"I'll be back at the junkyard," Random said, wheeling himself out. It was the best place for him, Mark thought, even though it was a bit unfair to him.
"Let's just go home," Ace said. It was the Ace Mark knew.
Lady Illusion shrugged, and Mark realised he didn't have a clue what she'd want to do. Maybe…spend time with Ace?
"Maybe spend time with Ace," she added, smiling warmly at Ace.
Mark reached for his laptop, and shut the lid down as sharply as he could, not caring if he broke the thing. Maybe even hoping he broke it.
"Time to go home," he said angrily, and stood up. "We'll sort this out. I promise."
"Lightning Knights always keep their promises," Ace said, repeating a line Mark remembered, and flew off.
Sparx leaped on the Lightning Flash just like she always used to, and spiralled into the sky, and beside her Lady Illusion did her usual swirl into thin air.
Chuck waited for Mark, and then they walked home together.
"Go home, Chuck," Mark said, opening his door for him. "Get some sleep. It'll work out."
"Yeah, dude. I'm so tired I could sleep for a week."
It was the Chuck Mark knew, but a Chuck Mark had the feeling was an empty shell.
He'd saved the world. He'd done the right thing. The ends justify the means. It'd work out.
He dreamed of the Sixth Dimension, and bright colours rushing through his head and caged light; he tossed and turned and sweated and screamed through the night, and after his mother came to wake him from the nightmare he slept without dreams at all.
Chuck was on the school bus, the same as normal, and Mark told himself that his friend was fine. It had just been some program error, and they'd all be themselves now they'd had a bit of rest.
He moved over so that Mark could sit beside them, and on the way to school they chatted about the latest action movie and the school's football team. In science class Chuck was a lot quieter than usual, but that was just down to stress, Mark decided. It was better if he didn't raise his hand so much anyway; it was one of the things that got him teased.
"Upchuck!" Wayne hailed him, walking through the halls. "You got any lunch money?" His group of friends moved to stand rather menacingly around Chuck and Mark.
"No, Wayne, I don't have any money for you," Chuck said, standing up for himself for once, as Mark had always hoped he would. "I'm not going to let you push me around." He shoved hard at Wayne, using his superior weight; the other boy was pushed back across the hallway, but glared at Chuck, coming back in for the kill.
"Fight!" someone yelled from a distance. It was taken up by more people, urging on Chuck and Wayne.
Like that, Chuck, don't let him get the upper hand… Mark knew what Chuck had to do, could see that if he could dodge just in time and stick his knee there, the fight would be over in seconds…
Chuck did it, move to the side then knee Wayne in the groin, and Wayne collapsed, only instead of collapsing as Mark thought he would, he stood up again and aimed a punch at Chuck.
Fight, Chuck! Though he was bleeding from his nose, Chuck returned the punch, and pushed Wayne back again.
He's winning, he's actually fighting Wayne, Mark realised. He's never going to get bullied ever again.
"Boys! Break it up!" the yell came from a distance, and Mr Chesebrough made his way through the sea of students to separate Wayne and Chuck, holding onto both their collars. "Fighting on school grounds will earn you both detention. For the rest of the semester." He turned to stare at Mark. "Hollander, what is your involvement with this?"
"Wayne started it," Kat interrupted. "And Mark didn't have anything to do with it." Noises of agreement came from the crowd.
"A disgraceful exhibition from both of you," Chesebrough said, shaking both Chuck and Wayne. "I will see you at the principal's office, no?"
He released them, and stalked off.
Wayne rubbed his neck, but Chuck didn't move.
If he hadn't acted, the school would be overrun with minions now. And Chuck would still be getting bullied.
"Nice one," Mark said to Chuck, walking to him. "It was really brave of you."
"Someone needed to deal with Wayne sooner or later," Chuck told him. It was exactly as Mark had been thinking.
"I'll just…see you after school, then?" Mark asked. "We can go down to the Thunder Tower. After you've been to the principal's office."
"Sure, dude," was all Chuck said.
Ace was at the transformer, while Sparx was paging through a comic book, before throwing it on the large pile beside her.
"Glad you're here, kid," she said, looking up and giving him a warm smile. "Boredom central."
"Hey, Mark, Chuckdude," Ace said, taking himself off the transformer. "You did good back then."
This was how it was supposed to be, Mark told himself, now that I saved the world the Knights and my friends can be happy, able to hang out and play games and stuff rather than fight any more.
"Pingpong," Sparx said, jumping up. "I'll take Chuckdude and Ace can have Mark."
They played, the four of them, like Mark would have wanted; Ace didn't lose his temper from the emotions, and Sparx was enthusiastic and feisty and didn't blast the balls once, and Chuck played nearly as well as he did normally, though in the end Mark and Ace won the game by a single point. They were four friends who'd saved the world. All good.
It grew darker outside, and Mark remembered that he had curfew.
"Better go home, kid," Ace said. "You don't want to get in trouble with your parents."
Mark shrugged. "Yeah. Let's go, Chuck."
Just before they went out the door, Mark turned.
"Ace. How do you feel?" he asked, trying not to expect anything.
His friend frowned. "Good. Great. Why?"
The answer was all Mark wanted.
Too bad it didn't satisfy him.
Did the ends justify the means? he wondered, walking through the school hallways, Chuck at his side, enjoying the popularity gain they'd both experienced since saving the world.
There weren't any minions left, no dangerous missions or weird Amulets to reassemble; and Ace and Sparx paged through books and mucked around in the Thunder Tower and went flying. Sparx was dealing with the boredom better than anyone would have expected—that's me too, Mark whispered to himself, if it wasn't for me she'd be going insane around now—and Ace was as cheerful a friend as ever. He had Lady Illusion, too, but Mark felt that seeing them together was too much like creepy voyeurism, and he suspected they hadn't been under the same roof for weeks.
Jessica had broken off with Chuck, saying that he'd changed. It was awful, but couples sometimes grew apart, right? And one of Kat's friends from the basketball team liked the new Chuck, and the four of them had been on three double dates and they'd enjoyed every minute of it.
At least, Chuck had said so. Just like he'd said he didn't want to be a brain any more, and that being popular for once was good, and of course he was still friends with Mark.
It all worked out. The world was saved, and the friends were exactly the same, or better. They said they were happy. Really.
The end couldn't justify the means, Mark thought. Not this time. Not with this cost.
But he said nothing about it.
A/N: Feedback, as always, very much appreciated.