It was a widely-held belief that caves were among the most mysterious places on Earth, rivaled only by the untold depths of the great oceans: for the most part unexplored, uninhabited by man, and home to creatures exotic and oftentimes alien in nature. To the most acrobatic imaginations, these sanctums were the most nightmarish and awe-inspiring pockets of the planet, from which terrors and specters came forth in deepest night, or where fascinating insects and geological mysteries dwelled, or where one could find the best spots from which to scare off the pesky neighborhood kids.
Edd was the kind of boy who leaned toward that second viewpoint, but only in terms of Earthen caves. Tallon IV, on the other hand, well, that was another matter altogether.
Case in point: this certainly was no ordinary cavern, and as such begged questions such as "where did the ceiling go?", "should it really be snowing in a cave?", and "where are those sounds of conflict, anger, and instinct coming from? For aren't these Phendranan caves supposed to be all but lifeless?"
Indeed, what young Eddward had begun to realize, half-unconscious on the bank of a great underground river - which ran beneath the entire Phendranan mountain range - was that this one area was no ordinary cave, and had ceased to be one entirely at the moment of his arrival.
His visor hanging loosely on the tip of his nose, Edd crawled up from the riverbank and immediately collapsed into the snow, mind liquid, dancing on that thin threshold between sleep and painful lucidity. His Varia Suit dripping wet and lead-heavy on his back, he simply allowed his senses to reboot.
…Where in the world am I? he thought, vision fading in and out in varying degrees of blurriness. With great effort he gazed back at the river that had tossed him into this vast cavern, vaguely remembering its frigid touch. Well, I don't remember seeing that. Or…wait a second. Didn't I fall into a trench just now? Yes, I remember the Space Pirates… Ah, so the water below must have carried me into the underground networks. That's fortunate, I suppose.
His head throbbed with the first warning signs of a headache. How long have I been unconscious? he thought.
With sore joints screaming out, he rose to his feet, his Varia Suit weighing twice what it had before – Edd found he couldn't even stand up straight with its weight on his back, and each step he took through the snow was an ordeal of its own. It still regulated his body temperature well enough, but what good was that when it rendered him as agile as a turtle?
"A true necessary evil," he said with a cynical smirk, slowly making his way clockwise along the cavern wall, his senses and strength gradually restoring themselves as he went. A second glance around the area gave him the impression that he was in the same cavern he had been in before his Space Pirate encounter upon the cliffs, which at first caused his heart to sink, but he soon began to see some key differences. The open ceiling, of course, was one; displaying a crimson tapestry of the evening Tallon sky, it rendered the cavern a natural Pantheon dome. The snow made for a fine decorative carpeting, but Edd noticed something quite unusual about it.
"It's all trudged up," he muttered, eyes tracking a flurry of footprints in the snow of varying lengths and depths, "like someone had been here before I arrived. Definitely Ed, but there's no guarantee he'd be nearby." That was, unfortunately, true, for the tracks were mostly covered up with newfallen snow. "These were made hours ago, I think."
A small body of water, an in-cave lake, rested further on, littered with huge, floating chunks of shattered ice and flotsam.
"Yes. Definitely Ed," he chuckled, the image of that lovable oaf gracefully diving into a sheet of ice dancing around in his mind.
And then he paused for a moment.
Wait a second.
Eddward's gaze shot back up to the sky. He would never know how he had missed it at first, but there it was again, that huge pillar of billowing black smoke, snaking high into the clouds. Haunting as usual, to be sure. However…
"That's coming out of this cavern."
When his eyes tracked to the north end of the cave, he finally saw it. In all of its white, battered glory, the escape pod slept in a deep pocket in the rock wall, its surface cracked and sparks flying out of its opened maw.
"…Ah-ha! Yes! I've found it!" In mere moments Edd found himself approaching the blasted contraption, that horrifyingly small device he had coaxed his friend into, and regarded it as if it were some sort of angelic artifact, albeit from a safe distance. Even he wasn't certain if the thing would just randomly detonate, spewing trails of smoke as it was. "Ed, you mystery of a man, you just had to land in the most extreme and treacherously hard-to-reach cave in all of Tallon IV, didn't you?"
This, of course, raised but one question: "Now, where did you run off to?"
Based on the pod's position in the cave wall, Edd assumed that it could not have entered this cave from the opening in the ceiling above, because it if had done so, it would have hit the cave floor or the lake, not the wall; in fact, it looked like it had been thrown, like a giant baseball, from one end of the cave to another. Looking in the opposite direction, toward the far end of the cavern, Edd could see a huge gaping hole high up in the rock wall, roughly the size of the pod itself. "Ah-ha! Precisely! If my calculations are correct, and based on the trajectory, the pod had to have been thrown from that height straight into this wall here. That must have been Ed's way to escape from his true landing site…that cave." He pointed to that great hole in the wall, as if he were directing the gaze of another person.
He would have tried to climb the far wall, or at least Space-Jumped it, and explore the cave beyond that opening, but alas, it had been long since packed with a thick mass of snow and ice. So instead he turned to the myriad of footprints left all around him, searching for more recently-made tracks.
It was about a minute until he found one particular trail of all-too-familiar Ed-prints, not yet snow-filled, and very fresh compared to the rest. Excitedly, his eyes followed them across the cave floor, up to a wall…up the wall. Way up the wall.
"How did he…climb that?" said Edd in disbelief, following Ed's path to nearly the top of the far-off cavern wall, an impossibly dizzying height. "Well, that's out of the question, considering how heavy my armor suit is. An alternate route is needed here…if I were so lucky."
Luckily enough, a second path did exist for Eddward, a side-passage along that same wall that seemed to lead toward the same destination. Upon closer inspection, of course, the tunnel, which had appeared to be quite easygoing at first, was filled to the nozzle with water.
Immediately he felt resigned to his fate. "Am I really going to have to do this?" he asked himself aloud. Sure, Edd knew he could swim – a rare physical ability that he wasn't completely inept at – but encumbered with all of that equipment? "This seems a bit much, given the circumstances."
But Eddward found himself wading into its blackened depths all the same, Ed ever-present in his mind. Those sounds of conflict, muted yells echoing from cavernous depths…
"Well," he muttered with a heavy sigh, "we all know what desperate times call for: lungs of steel!"
He inhaled deeply, swallowed a snowflake, and entered a violent coughing fit.
Then, after regaining his composure, he tried again, and then plunged into the dark enclosed depths. Frigid waves lashing against his face shocked him at first, but he remained steadfast in his breath-holding. His Thermal Visor automatically flicked itself on and painted the black tunnel in deep navy blues, with occasional blotches of red – swarms of bright orange heat, schools of fish, dispersed with every heavy breaststroke and fluttered into the coattails of his Varia Suit before skidding off into his wake. His mind, empty of thoughts, remained fixed on a nondescript point in the distance, and he pushed through glimmering red trails of seaweed and along dark blue walls, his vision turning red with the increasingly desperate need to breathe.
Progress was slow – Eddward felt as if he were entrapped in an infinite space, flailing and grasping, but never moving forward. Stranded, without a tether 'round his waist.
Panic worked its magic.
He frantically pushed off of a particularly jutting stone with his feet and sailed through the narrow tunnel, which opened up into a vast, submerged cavern similar in scope to the previous one. Not risking a quick look-back, Edd dared to believe that he was now located somewhere below the cavern he suspected Ed had run off to – however, a look upward revealed only a low ceiling of impenetrable bedrock.
Still, he swam onward, lungs flaring in pain. His teeth clenched nearly to the point of shattering.
Eddward strained through nebulae of glimmering fish-schools, clearing what seemed like twenty feet in a span of time he couldn't even recount. But still under that blasted bedrock, no matter how far he swam!
Twenty more…not even a speck of light. No pocket of air in the world above, and no shore to be seen in the darkness before him.
Lungs ablaze, another ten feet; only more bedrock. Mother Nature cackled like a vile, aging witch.
From then on his mind receded back into his being and his instincts took control. The only intelligent thing he could manage now was to convince his body not to inhale, but even that was a battle he had begun to lose. He was too weighted down…too much of a burden…
I must get rid of the Varia Suit!
He would perish otherwise.
Swimming clumsily onward, he wrestled at his coat in an attempt to peel it off, working through cumbersome sleeves and only one available hand, the other trapped inside his insatiable arm cannon (annoying construct!). He flailed frantically, grunting beneath stilled breath, as if he were constricted by an underwater creature and attempting to free himself in a struggle for life. It may well have been, for his own life seemed to be receding fast. Everything just going red at an alarming rate...
A muted reverberation echoed directly above his head, and Edd reflexively whipped his gaze in that direction. Where there had been bedrock before, there was now a thick sheet of pack ice, a scratched, clouded surface through which he could barely see – he hadn't noticed it amidst all of his flailing. The Thermal Visor overloaded and rendered the sheet as a stark blue plane – he deactivated it immediately.
He could faintly make out a reddened shimmer…a gleam of an azure blade…a red-and-white shirt…
"There he is!" he would have shouted had he not been submerged.
With no time to lose, and his mind going blank due to a throttling lack of oxygen, Edd frantically swam through the gargantuan cavern with the intent on reaching the indiscernible end, hoping against all hope that there would be an opening to the upper level. However, as he went, the path became even less clear, and even murkier and harder to navigate than before. Silently, he begged for a guidelight to help him in his final push – his body neared the edge of its limits, his lungs ablaze with the desire to inhale.
And, for an instant, as if it were an answer to his prayers, a beacon flashed in the depths.
He lost it for a second, but in a few moments' time he saw it again, but he couldn't make out exactly what it was. Swimming over to the alcove in which the shimmer-light rested, Edd deactivated his Thermal Visor again and tried to make out exactly what he was looking at. A light at the end of a tunnel? A delusion brought on by the ever-nearing prospect of death? Though he did not recognize it at first glance, he vaguely recalled something about it…it was an artifact, he realized, and not quite an ordinary one. In fact, it appeared to be emblazoned with a figure roughly representing a 'Z'…
He blinked in disbelief.
His fingers wrapped themselves 'round the artifact, as if it were a sphere which granted everlasting life to the doomed.
And it vanished in an instant.
However, Edd did not panic, for he knew the nature of these things – in fact, he had put such trust in the Chozo and their bizarre artifacts that all he could do was hope that whatever this would turn out to be, whatever blessing would be bestowed upon his meager form, it would be the godsend he needed. A shimmering light then overtook his entire Varia Suit, blinded him, took his mind off of the seething pain in his chest – his arms extended themselves outward involuntarily as if there were attached to puppet-strings. The light bestowed great amounts of heat into his entire suit, every small compartment, dispersing energy throughout its length, reaching up even to his visor; in pain, Edd closed his eyes tightly, waited for the light to recede. And eventually it did.
But he could not take it anymore, and breathed out in desperation.
And then he inhaled.
Cool, circulated air washed into his system like waves crashing onto a parched shore.
After some time, he muttered: "Wait, what's this? That wasn't…air, was it…?" Blinking rapidly he reached toward his face, but before he could do so his fingers struck a smooth surface just a few inches from his nose – a helmet of some kind? He felt all the way around his head; it certainly felt like a helmet, probably glass, and gelled 'round his skull, only inches from the surface of his skin. With every subsequent breath he took, a latch opened up behind his neck, and after every exhale, it closed off.
"Wait a second, is that a ventilation system?" He blinked a few times in disbelief. "And…hold on, now, what in the world… Everything is visible. Plainly visible! What is going on here?" No need for a Thermal Visor, suddenly – the underwater depths had become as crystal clear as the world above had been. Murkiness erased. Looking down at himself he beheld his Varia Suit, more or less unchanged, save for color scheme; where there had once been yellow armor, there was only deep red and subdued orange – his temperature-regulating coat had been dyed a stark violet. What was more, his visor's color had been transfigured, too, into a shade of light azure.
His scan visor, perhaps sensing his intentions, provided him with a simple readout in stark letters:
"'Varia Suit has been upgraded into the Gravity Suit, a more versatile version based on physical limitations of user when submerged,'" recited Edd slowly, voice ringing out clearly in the deep. "'Upgrades include enhanced visor clarity, oxygen regulation system, underwater vocal communications device, increased armor durability and, um…uninhibited underwater movement."
He thought about that one for a moment.
And then, the solution came to him, like an epiphany from on high.
It was crazy. Absolutely insane. Something Ed would think of, really.
But in desperate times…
With the speed of a freaking barracuda, Eddward barreled through the underwater cavern, toward that one relatively small ceiling of ice he had seen before. Hovering up toward it, he clanged his arm cannon against its surface; it had a nice timbre to it, although it did not seem so solid as to prevent a full-on collision. It would definitely break if struck with just enough force. "Alright, then, this might just work after all. If I can just…" He allowed himself to float down to the bottom of the cavern, and returned his gaze on the ice-sheet fifteen feet above. "…position myself properly and tweak the Space Jump Boots a tad…"
His Space Jump Boots automatically sensed his intention to lift off the ground, but as he did not jump right away, they remained charging, charging, charging, becoming red-hot around his bare feet locked inside…and Eddward, with a nervous gulp, bent his knees and lifted his arm cannon over his head like a shield. He hoped it would be enough, for there was no clear exit to be had anyhow.
"…Then I may be able to gain the momentum I need…"
Nearly forgetting to do so, he began to charge up a debilitating Wave Beam shot, feeling its electric might waver at the tip of his weapon, like a violet sun shimmering violently above his head. Even now he heard the sounds of fury and conflict above him, above the ice, above that blasted barrier…
This was it.
"Alright, here we go, Eddward!" he muttered to himself through clenched teeth as the watery depths rippled around him, squinting his eyes in preparation for the headache of a lifetime. "In three…two…one…!"
His eyesight had dimmed with that last punch to his eye, though Ed, stalwart as he was, managed to rise to his knees all the same. Whatever humor he had left in his system had all but waned in the face of a reality that he was slowly being forced to swallow: his opponent was simply immune to the great forces of dumb luck.
"You…will not defeat…me, soul-sucker!" he spluttered incoherently, his lower lip dyed a deep red with blood as he fidgeted his hands about in a failed attempt to intimidate. "F…for I am…Ed, the hun-"
The Pirate's speed was such that Ed could no longer finish his sentences without being physically interrupted, and this time was no different – his adversary appeared before him, as if through a mist, and cleaved downward at his face with his arm-blade. Too weakened to move out of the way, Ed instead reacted by clasping the blade itself between his two hands at the right moment, holding it just inches over his sweat-gleamed forehead. "Nope…nope…not today, solar scum!" he grunted, pushing the blade back…but the Pirate pushed the blade downward in return, descending slowly toward Ed's flesh…
Ed's strength quickly depleted after a few seconds of this, and in mere moments he felt the flaming heat of the blade on his nose. The Pirate's eyes held that same fire, not victorious yet, but serious, wide, professional…intent on administering the kill.
And Ed's hands burned as if they were alight; he couldn't hold on to the blade any longer! No matter how hard he bit onto his own lip, no matter how hard he roared through clenched teeth, his hands did not cool, and the Pirate simply did not stop.
The word "defeat" flashed through his cavernous head.
And Ed screamed his last as the Pirate drew back and lunged at his exposed throat with a swift horizontal slice!
In the space between the moment the Pirate lunged out and the moment its blade came within inches of Ed's neck, the ice-floor of the cave exploded in a geyser of crystalline shards. A torrent of water erupted upward from the depths beneath, freezing both the boy and his adversary in states of absolute shock as the deafening noise prattled throughout the cavern.
And from the geyser, hidden in the watery mists, something emerged.
A screaming, purple orb of pure electrical energy blasted forth from the eruption, struck the Pirate square in the chest, and exploded, sending his adversary hurling back over ten feet into the wall with a monstrous roar of pain. Ed himself dropped to his knees in stark confusion, flabbergasted, more than usual, at the sudden turn of events, wondering if he was watching his life flash before his eyes…wondering if what he was seeing was what would have happened if a miracle had occurred before he died.
But the unexpected form that crashed down onto the ice in a glorious violet sheen did more than enough to make Ed a believer. And the first words from his mouth:
"Double Dee! It is you!"
But Edd's face, relievingly familiar as it was, was not happy, but instead fear-stricken. His friend shouted out, "No time, Ed! Where is your arm cannon?"
Ed, blinking rapidly, scanned the room for that familiar platinum shimmer of Russell on the ice – in seconds he saw it at the far north end of the chamber. "Over there, Double Dee! It's Russell!"
"Quickly, Ed, go! Retrieve it now!"
The adrenaline newly coursing through Ed's veins immediately sent him off toward the direction of his weapon, and he sprinted through the bruises and pain that the Pirate had inflicted upon him, cringing all the while, and when he came within range, he dove for that blessed cylinder, grabbed it, and slid it onto his right forearm. He shouted out "Russell has been retrieved, Double Dee! Uh, now what do I do?"
When Edd did not respond, Ed looked back and saw his friend aiming his own weapon at the prone Pirate across the room – a vermillion orb, a Power shot, Ed knew, had formed on the tip of his weapon, but then, in a single short instant, it attained the shape of a star about to go nova. Then, a split-second later, it exploded forth from the arm cannon and meteored across the chamber, like some incredible super-Missile, straight toward the Pirate!
But again this Pirate proved his insane agility! The adversary quickly skittered to its feet, leaped rightout of the super-Missile's trajectory, and lunged straight at the bewildered Edd. With one quick motion, in mid-air, the Pirate spun around in a cyclonic haze and slammed its shin into Edd's side in a horrific roundhouse kick.
And Edd sailed into the nearby wall in a total blur.
"Ah, Double Dee!" Ed screamed, barreling with all speed toward that demonic Pirate scum. "Stay away from my friend, karate-monster!"
Keeping his eyes on Edd, the Pirate tracked its own arm-mounted cannon in Ed's general direction – immediately a spark of red light exploded from its end. Instinctively, Ed fell out of the way of the two Pirate-missiles, which erupted in the icy wall behind him. When he turned back toward the Pirate, he could see that Edd was in a complete daze, his visor separated from his head, and slouched up against the wall.
"Ed, listen!" shouted Edd in a panic from the distance, his arm cannon again brimming violet at its edge. "I need you to listen very carefully, otherwise this will end very badly for both of us!"
Ed nodded, though it was obvious Edd hadn't noticed.
"Charge up your Power beam," he shouted, staggering to his feet and brandishing his arm cannon at the looming Pirate. "But do not fire it yet! Do you understand? Do not fire it just yet!" In the meantime, he fired his own electrical shot at the Pirate and, somehow, began darting at an incredible speed all about the chamber; the Pirate, having dodged the blast, followed suit, pursuing him with its vorpal blade.
And Ed could only watch in amazement.
How in the world was Edd moving that quickly? It was as if everything in the world except for Ed had entered a state of fast-forward! It must have been those boots of his, glowing a brilliant blue with every rapid, weaving movement Edd made.
Legs trembling, Ed began charging up his Power beam to its maximum capacity, feeling the sun-power at the end of the barrel.
"Now what, Double Dee?"
The Pirate, he saw, had effectively boxed his friend in a corner again, and though Edd was again charging another shot, the Pirate was closing in far too fast for him to release it in time. "Okay, Ed, next you're going to-"
And the adversary slashed at Edd's face with its sword, in a lightning-flash.
But Edd, with an insanely improbable reflex, parried the strike with his own weapon! When did Edd become so quick, so agile? So tactical? And then, almost instantly afterward, while the Pirate was well-stunned by the maneuver, Edd unleashed a huge coil of electricity into the Pirate's stomach – that entire end of the room began to flare in a violet nova as the Pirate's roar deafened all.
"Ready and aim your Power Beam, Ed!"
Ed was obedient.
"What do I do now, Double Dee?" he cried, the urge to run forth and help his companion eating away at every fiber of his being.
"Fire a missile!"
"You mean the Power beam-thing, Double Dee?"
"No, Ed, the missile! The miss-allll!"
"Oh, whoops! Got it!"
And Ed fired the missile.
Simply put, he had never expected Russell to be capable of such catastrophe.
A vermillion explosion of unprecedented size exploded from the tip of his arm cannon and seared forth toward the Pirate with sparrow-speed. At that exact moment, Edd immediately ceased whatever incredible power he was unleashing into the Pirate and used his Space Jump Boots to dive far away, twenty feet at the least, and just in time to avoid the blinding blast that quickly enveloped the Pirate assassin.
The recoil from the blast sent Ed careening back into the wall, and Edd only missed the shockwave by a few feet, holding onto his hat for dear life.
All, for that moment, went white as winter.
When the light receded, Ed was slouched up against the wall, Russell smoking black steam by his side. Edd was on his face fifteen feet away, hand clutching onto his hat tightly. The Pirate was mirroring Ed's slumped position on the opposite wall, hands by its sides, head listed slightly. Its chest-plate had been utterly demolished, shattered into small crimson shards by its legs – a wellspring of green blood splurted forth from its chest and onto the floor all around it.
The adversary grunted, muttered something in alien tongue, too quiet for Ed to comprehend or even hear.
And Ed would have asked him to repeat it, had the Space Pirate not finally perished.
The azure blade went black.
He heard the Space Pirate's final utterances, but even then Edd did not dare to move. It wasn't that he had been injured by that kick to his ribs, even though he was plainly certain that the blow would have killed him outright were it not for the extra plating his upgraded suit had bestowed upon his torso. Rather, he found himself truly frightened, in a way that he hadn't experienced before. Truly, most of the hazards he'd run into – the Flaahgra, the Magmoors, the Sheegoths, and especially the Metroids – had scared him to some extent, but in some way or another he had overcome those obstacles, and the fear that went along with them. This Space Pirate, however, instilled within him a lingering fear, a deep one, as if it were a living parasite in his system.
Well, it appears my legs are still attached, he thought, wiggling his toes. Fortunate that I jumped out of the range of the explosion in time, I'll say. Either way, from now on, I may have to take everything a bit slower…that was a very, very close one.
All the same he got up to his feet, the Pirate's roundhouse kick miraculously reduced to a mere shallow pain on his left side. When he affirmed that his body was still in one piece, he felt his skull to make sure his head hadn't split open when he had crashed through the ice. Actually, he realized that his underwater "helmet" had vanished. Perhaps it was a system that only worked in the right situations, like his visor?
"Drats, now where did that tenacious fiend knock my visor?" he thought, scratching his chin as he looked about. "I swear, if I end up losing that contraption for good I-"
His train of thought was derailed entirely the instant he was consumed by a monstrous bear-hug from behind.
"Double Dee! My friend! My pal! Oh how I have missed you so!"
"Ed! Ed, stop it, I can't…I can't breathe!"
"Can't breathe?" gasped Ed with genuine concern. "Double Dee can't breathe, Russell! I must perform First Aid on Double Dee before he goes all blue and his head explodes!"
Edd's heart sank. "No, no first aid, Ed! Stop!" And that, surprisingly, was enough to cause Ed to drop him as if he were alight. He then turned around and pointed straight at his friend's face, saying "Ed, you should know that I have a great headache after crashing through that solid floor of ice, and I needn't remind you that…oh, who am I kidding? Ed…I can't believe it, you're alive! Not that I doubted you or anything, but…this is astounding! Amazing, even!"
"A-yup!" affirmed Ed with the goofiest of smiles – Edd noticed a missing molar near the edge of his lower row, and winced. "All in a day's work for a fearless Space Outlaw, Double Dee."
And to be fair, Ed looked as if he had gone through a "day's work"; the worst day of his life, that is. Where had his green jacket gone? "Ed, you look absolutely terrible…"
"Why thank you!"
"No, really, Ed, you're bleeding!…do your teeth hurt?…where did you get that black eye?...can you still see straight?...how is your visor still in one piece?…" To these questions Ed had no real answer, for he simply settled for staring blankly into space, pondering his exploits and how best to describe them in classic science-fiction lingo. "Oh, what's the use? As long as you're alive, Ed, that's all that counts at the moment."
"And hungry," added Ed poignantly.
Edd had no solution for that, but he had to admit that it was getting to be around supper-time. Through the hole in the ceiling he could see that the sky was entering the final shades of dusk, that deep crimson that existed just before the cinematic setting of the sun. "So, this is where you landed, correct? In the escape pod, I mean."
Ed looked back up at the hole in the ceiling, as well. "Yep, sailed right down from outer space and BOOM! This is where my adventure began, right here, Double Dee. Uh-huh, took some work getting out, but I used my survival skills to clear a path into the dark dungeons of the Winter Planet."
"Yes, I noticed your, um, escape pod in the wall over there," said Edd, pointing back in the direction of the Pantheonic cave nervously. "I admit, that was very clever, Ed."
"Or dumb!" corrected the oaf.
It was good to be corrected again, thought Edd. "Well, while you've been romping about here in Phendrana, Ed, I've been through some riveting adventures of my own, and let me tell you, it wasn't exactly a picnic!"
"Yeah, 'cause you can't have a picnic without potato salad, Double Dee."
"True, Ed, true."
Having something resembling a normal conversation with his beat-up friend made Edd feel terribly guilty for everything that had transpired. He would have scolded Ed for his recklessness, for the trouble he had gotten himself into in Glacier One, but then again it had been Edd's idea to split up after the Orpheon incident in the first place. He remembered that sad look that Ed had worn before he launched off in the escape pod…
What I've gone through today, to get to this point, thought Edd with a wistful smile, is punishment enough for that silly idea.
"Russell and I have been having adventures of our own, Double Dee, we weren't bored at all!" said Ed, hoisting up his arm cannon as if it were some sort of pet – he began petting it in a rather disturbing fashion.
"Um…Russell, Ed?" said Edd, eyebrow cocked.
"Yeah! Russell, this is Double Dee, he's my best friend…well, next to Eddy, Eddy is so cool… But yes! Russell and I braved the caves of the Winter Planet as soon as we arrived, hunting down Space Pirates and foiling their evil plans! Isn't that right, Russell?" Edd looked at the arm cannon quizzically, and decided not to question Ed's antics – whatever one could do to keep one's sanity in these strange times, after all…
The lovable oaf, however, quickly disregarded Russell, as if the thing had not existed in the first place, and feasted his eyes on Edd; or rather, his outfit. His eyes glimmered with a childish admiration that Edd had only seen when Ed was exposed to buttered toast or pudding skin. "Whoa-ho, Double Dee, where did you get that Psionic Blaster? Oh, oh! And that radion cannon! Can I try it? Please?"
The oaf's words bouncing off of his head painfully, Edd hushed Ed and strolled up to his visor, on the floor from the Pirate's strike, and equipped it, scanning quickly through a myriad of settings. "In a moment, Ed," he responded, like a chiding father. "Allow me a moment to just…a-ha! There we are!" He turned to Ed. "Ed, can you raise your right hand?"
Nodding obediently, the boy raised his arm cannon (or "Russell") and pointed it directly at Edd's face. "Like this, Double Dee?"
Edd carefully tilted the weapon away. "Um, please be careful with that. Anyway, hold perfectly still." Heeding his visor's directions step-by-step, Edd pointed his arm cannon directly at Ed's, so the two looked perfectly ready to blast each other to kingdom come.
"And…there we go!" With the push of a set-in button on his cannon, Edd's weapon suddenly emitted a yellow glow that shot straight toward Ed's, connecting both along a bright cable of energy. Soon, both Ed and Edd were glowing with a radiant vermillion aura, as if they were one being. "If my calculations are correct, and if my visor's instructions are on the mark, then this tactic should provide you with…"
And the light receded from the room.
"…a brand-new Gravity Suit," said Eddward with a confident smile.
Ed's smile, on the other hand, was psychotic with delight.
Mission accomplished. The weight of the universe receded from Edd's weary shoulders. His companion was suited up and ready to go thanks to the data-transfer device ingrained in his suit's subsystems, and Edd was all too happy to take the back seat while handing Ed the proverbial keys to the car. Ed, as expected, regarded his new attire with jaw-dropped awe, gazing down at the polished sheen of his Gravity Suit (laced with charges of Spider Magnetism), the luster of his refined arm cannon (equipped with beams of Power and Wave variants!), his very-spiffy Bomb Glove…all those sacred ornaments that Edd had painstakingly chanced upon and striven for, all delivered express in a single convenient package. It was almost unfair, actually.
He decided then that Ed would be the one to buy the Jawbreakers when they all returned home.
"Whoa…I have evolved, Double Dee!" He looked up at Edd with wild eyes. "I am Space Outlaw, version 2! Awaiting your orders, chief!" He saluted himself, knocking himself on the forehead with his arm cannon and sending comets sputtering around his cranium.
"Yes, very good, Ed!" chuckled Edd, his entire nervous system awash in waves of confidence. At that point, one more question remained in his mind, and accordingly the two of them averted their gaze to the Space Pirate's corpse slumped against the far wall – the sight unnerved Edd, for he had never seen one of such decoration before, decked out in deep reds like that. "And what of our, um…friend here?"
Both boys approached the body of the dead Pirate, Edd prompting his scan visor.
Ed also regarded the beast, flipping into his own database of B-movie lore. "I've seen this before, Double Dee," he quizzed, prodding his reddened lower lip in deep "thought". "If I may sumo-rise… okay, so, the Frozen Robot Planet Knights traveled in packs in order to corner and trap the stranded Space Outlaws – but, the aliens always followed a leader, one that was so good at tracking down marooned spacemen that some say they were bred from birth to "hunt the hunters"…" He took a deep breath and "thought" some more. "Oh yeah! With mutated armor, they would fight the Outlaws with energy shields, grenade launchers, and super speed!..."
"…A Pirate Commando," mused Edd, finishing Ed's tirade. "Yes, I believe you're right, Ed. My scan visor indicates that this particular Pirate was assigned to oversee all Space Pirate operations in the Phendrana region, a high-ranking officer, to put it in layman's terms. If I understand this correctly, everything from Phendrana to Magmoor was within his sphere of influence, and listen to this, Ed…our friend here was answerable only to Ridley."
"Oh yeah, I remember!" responded Ed, recalling the events on the Orpheon. "The evil Space Dragon, soaring above the skies of the robot planet! Very dangerous, Double Dee. Always be careful, for Space Dragons always cast their shadows when they fly under the sun!"
"That is correct, Ed," said Edd, thinking back to that haunting shadow he had seen on the shorelines of Phendrana. "Now, as you may or may not know, Glacier One was intended to be a research outpost for the Pirates to study and further their program, until you and I attacked them from both sides, effectively disabling all personnel…and just now, we've seen the end of the highest-ranking officer in the region."
He scanned the fragments of the Pirate's chestplate on the ground and recited the only thing resembling a name he could find in the mess: "ash-Siimgahr, S.P. Commando, S.P.F. Orpheon."
Ed repeated the name in something resembling reverence.
But Edd could hardly stand to look at the Pirate's face any longer.
He deactivated his scan visor and turned to his companion, a bewildered look on his face as he tried to piece together every puzzle fragment that had been revealed over the past couple of hours.
"Ed, do you realize what we've done?" he deadpanned. "This Commando, this ash-Siimgahr…this wasn't some lackey or footsoldier, Ed, this Pirate was in charge of the entire Glacier One operation. Everything we've seen so far – everything I've seen so far – was under the thumb of this entire Glacier One force. And what we did in the laboratories…all that data, all of those Pirates…the Metroids…" He stopped for a second, not even looking at Ed at this point. "It's all finished. All devastated. The Space Pirates, everything they have here in Phendrana, gone. They're finished, Ed! By Jove, man, do you realize what's happening here? I do believe we've done it!" His catharsis was boiling over.
"'Fraid not, Double Dee."
Edd glared at his friend, flabbergasted. "Um…excuse me, Ed?"
But Ed's face was devoid of humor.
"Where there is peace in our galaxy, there are sure to be evildoers who want to take it away for their own gain. The thieves from the stars are always planning and plotting against the forces of good, even on the frozen robot planet, and always build bigger and better bases for their evil plans. Unless there is good in this galaxy, they will be able to roam freely and commit vile deeds, and there will be nobody to stop them, until everything we know and love is destroyed at their hands. That is why a Space Outlaw's duty will never be done, never, until the stars are safe to shine once more."
His face was solemn, and his visor was on upside-down.
"…A witty monologue to be sure, Ed…though I can't help but feel you're on to something," conceded Edd with a skeptical stare. Sure, he had absorbed most of what Ed had said, but in the meantime something had snagged onto his attention: a small, stuttering noise, an annoyance at best, echoing from some undefined corner of the cavern. "Um, do you hear that noise?"
"Nope, that's just me not knowing when to shut up, a-yup!" cried Ed gleefully, throwing his hands up into the air.
Edd looked downward at the corpse of ash-Siimgahr and bent down; the incessant noise, like a fly-buzz, was emanating from it. "It sounds like static. Ed, honestly, do you hear it?"
"…Whoa, I do, Double Dee!" marveled Ed as he inched closer to the corpse. "A funny noise coming from under ash-Siimgahr's hand, see?" Ed leaned over and lifted up the Commando's right arm, revealing a small, black device, resembling a miniature calculator, gripped within its talons. "Found it! I would've made a great Urban Ranger, huh?"
"Ah-ha! Fine sleuthing work, Ed!" said Edd as he approached the thing, reactively reaching into his pocket for a magnifying glass that, alas, he had forgotten to pack. "But what exactly could it be?"
"Oh, I've seen that kind of thing before, Double Dee! I've seen a lot of things before, actually! Now, if only I brought my latest issue of 'Space Graters in the Midst of-'"
Both Ed and Edd went silent and gawked at the construct.
"Erm, what in heaven's name is that?" muttered Edd, grabbing the box and performing a quick scan on it, before playing with the two dials on its front surface. "It appears to be a radio, Ed, but I'm not sure who could be sending a transmission at a time like this. Hello? Come in?"
"…Hey! Double Dee? Is that you?"
A jolt of pure adrenaline shot straight through Ed and Edd's heads as they realized the blazing magnitude of the words coming through the staticy box. They looked at each other, mouths agape.
"…Eddy?" quizzed Edd. "Uh…y-yes, it's me, Double Dee! Oh my word, it's Eddy!" Edd's face lit up with excitement, a smile unsurpassed as he gawked at Ed in disbelief, showing him the box. "Ed, can you hear it? Eddy!"
Ed just stared at the box in puzzlement. "Whoa…is Eddy in the radio, Double Dee? How'd you get in there, Eddy?"
"Ed, you idiot! What box?" came Eddy's refreshingly gravelly voice through the speaker. "…Oh man, forget it…great to hear from ya, Lumpy! Man, you guys have no idea what I've had to put up with all day! I'm cold, I'm damp, and my back's killin' me! Speaking of which, where've you two been all day?"
The radio trembled in Edd's grip. "We're in a mountain range on the southern end of the planet, Eddy!" explained Edd slowly, trying to contain his excitement. "Ed and I have spent all day separated, but we've just now met up, and I assure you, Eddy, it wasn't easy!"
"Wasn't easy? You mean you didn't land at the same spot? See, I was right, I knew that escape pod idea of yours wouldn't work! That's the last time I let you handle the 'planning'!" It seemed obvious at this point that he was aiming to scold Edd for yet another botched plan, and Edd prepared himself for it.
But then again, had it really been the failure he had believed it to be, all things considered? He'd have to think on it, but for now he simply played along with Eddy's game. "Unfortunately not. I made planetfall in a forest far to the north while Ed landed in this very mountain range. It took me, I would estimate…over eight hours to find him. Perhaps ten, I'm not quite certain."
"And boy, did he find me!" offered Ed enthusiastically.
"Hold it. Hold it, hold it, hold it. Stop the presses. You're tellin' me that YOU did all the legwork, Sockhead? came Eddy's voice, obviously laced with disbelief. "And eight freaking hours? Ten, maybe? Man, what took you guys so long? Were you smellin' alien daisies the whole time or somethin'?"
Edd let out another sigh, already imagining the lecture he was going to have to give. "It would take far too long to explain everything to you now, Eddy. We'll save that for when we reconvene, but for now just try to imagine hiking hundreds of miles through deadly terrain while being attacked by killer fauna and flora, and then maybe you'll get a clear picture of why we took our sweet time. But that's all for another time. More importantly, where are you?"
"…I'm in a trash heap, what do you think?"
"Oh come now, Eddy, you can certainly be more helpful than that."
"No foolin'! I mean, you oughta see it. The place is a wreck."
"Alright, well…do you have a name for the location? Anything that would give us a clue?"
"Yeah, some computer screens said something about 'Phazon Mines.' I guess that means I'm stuck in 'em."
"'Phazon Mines'…?" Edd gulped as waves of horrific possibility crashed on the shores of his imagination. "Um…right, Phazon Mines. Unfortunately I don't think Ed and I can locate you with that kind of name, as it's not registering on my visor's mapping system. You'll have to describe the area. Are you inside a building of some sort?"
"…Uh, I think so. The place is really stinkin' dark, and I'm guessin' I'm underground."
"Right. How about an outside environment? Have you seen any windows? It may be too dark to see, because the sun's already setting on our end of the planet, but anything would help."
"Wait a sec, lemme see…" there was a short pause, the sound of running, and then Eddy spoke again. "Yep, there's a window right here. I was lookin' outside it before I rang you up. Um…the outside…well, it's rainin' pretty hard outside. Sky's all dark 'n cloudy…sun hasn't gone down yet, I don't think, but I can't see it from here. Oh, and I'm lookin' at a big freakin' crater, too. You should see this thing!"
Edd's body froze. "C-c-crater?" Thoughts of the Chozo, running wildly in his mind. "Wait, Eddy, say that again. You're looking at a what now?"
"…A crater, Double Dee," repeated Eddy impatiently. "Just a big hole in the ground. Remember when Ed was shot out of Rolf's chimney on the day Stretch's relatives came to visit, and he crashed into the playground and left this huge hole? You know, the day we all thought aliens were invading town? Sort of like that, but waaaaay bigger. It's like as big as the cul-de-sac. What, you know something about it?"
"Um, no, I'm just curious…what about outside the crater? What's the environment like?"
"Looks like a forest. Like, trees and junk, looks a lot like the woods around the cul-de-sac. Just imagine if the cul-de-sac was just a big hole in the ground."
"…A forest? With that weather…oh, obviously a rainforest!" And then it hit him like a club over his head. "Eddy, believe it or not, I think I know the general location of your landing site! That forest you're referring to may be the Tallon Forest, where I landed the gunship!"
"Really? Sweet! So what're you waiting for? Get over here and...give…a…nd…Space Pir…vrywhere…"
"Oh no…Eddy, you're breaking up!" cried Edd, shaking the radio desperately, turning knobs at random – Ed, behind him, seemed to be jumping up and down in a state of worry.
"Hold on, Eddy, don't break, we don't have any duct-tape with us!" he cried.
"…at? Stupid ra…o…Ed…ble Dee…hurry it up…can't wai…orever, y'know!"
"Just stay calm Eddy, and persevere!" shouted Edd, his voice ringing shrilly off the frozen walls. "Ed and I will be there as soon as possible! Just give us time and we will find you!"
No response. Just static.
"Eddy!" And the radio had cut off; Edd, with a grievous sigh, pocketed the contraption in his violet heat-regulating coat and turned his eyes to the ground in a state of deep thought.
"Eddy said 'Space Pirates', Double Dee!" cried Ed in a state of sheer panic, grabbing onto Edd's arm desperately. "Our fellow Space Outlaw is in danger! Hurry! We must rescue him before he succumbs to the horrible depths of the-"
The words horrified Ed, his face turning nearly ghost-white, his heart almost instantly broken. "Why not, Double Dee? Don't you know where he is?" Ed was indeed puzzled – if they knew where their remaining friend was, why not go and pick him up right away before nightfall? "We gotta hurry! You told him you knew where he was!"
But Edd was unsettlingly calm, unnaturally so. "I do, Ed…in fact, I'm pretty sure I know the means of reaching the so-called Phazon Mines." He drawled out the word as if it were a stinging poison on his tongue. "However, as we are now, we're not prepared."
"Prepared? Oh, you can count on me, Double Dee – for Space Outlaw Ed is more than a match for the Space Pirates, and with our awesome new alien-splooshing gear, we will be able to trounce any fiend that we-"
"Perhaps, Ed, but please, hear me out on this one," said Edd. "Based on what I've read of the Pirate data in the Glacier One laboratories, the Phazon Mines are also a Space Pirate stronghold, and based on the fact that Ridley was headed there, I'm assuming that's their primary base of operations. I know, I know, at first I had held the hope that Glacier One was the only mainstay of the Pirates' operations, despite what the data had indicated, but after what Eddy said, now I know that I was wrong. There's a whole other base out there, waiting for us." He then turned to his comrade, a grave seriousness reflected in his eyes. "We need munitions, Ed! And lots of them, at that!"
Now Ed began to understand! "Do you mean…alien technology, Double Dee?"
A nod. "Pre-cisely, Edd. And I do believe that the Chozo can help us we have to do is consult my trusty scan visor, and we will have our supplies soon enough. Remember, Ed: Eddy's counting on us to be the best rescue squad we can be. The least we can do is to go in prepared, correct?"
"Co-rrect!" bellowed Ed with a stoic salute.
"Then it sounds like a plan, Ed. We'll follow the signals indicated by my visor to locate whatever supplies we'll need, and make use of the planet's elevator network for fast transportation to their locations. After that, we'll take a long-overdue breather at the gunship, and then head out to pick up Eddy. From there, we can decide what our next course of action will be.
"But first, what say we leave this blasted Phendrana region and return to more…temperate climates? I must admit, I've been daring to hope that the gunship came equipped with hot cocoa, and I'm eager to see whether I'm right or not, because I could definitely go for some at the moment."
"Oh, me too! And don't forget the alien technology!" agreed Ed, trotting ahead toward southern end of the cave.
Ed, much to Edd's surprise, regarded the ice cavern much differently than he did; in Ed's eyes Edd could see that he saw the place as a home, a familiar sanctuary despite the battle that the two of them had partaken in within it; the same way a proud boy looks at his room, his own personal space in a wild world. And at that point, when Ed marched over toward the wall of snow on the southern end, Edd began to understand why he felt this was so:
It was where Ed's adventures as a hallowed Space Outlaw had truly begun.
He wondered whether it would be worth it to ask him if that were true.
And just like that, with a surprisingly adaptative use of the Bomb module, Ed had demolished the packed snow and revealed a gaping hole in the wall; beyond was that great Pantheonic cavern that Edd had washed up into, along the riverbend. That cavern where the crimson clouds were visible, like a great, heavenly tapestry, reflecting the mysteries of a world that had begun to feel, disturbingly, like home to both of them.
As Edd approached the edge of the cliff and gazed down at the shattered lake and snow-carpet far below, Ed blurted out, "Say, Double Dee?"
"What are the 'Chozo'?"
And Edd heaved a great sigh and grinned exhaustedly at his oafish companion. "Ed, I will be completely honest with you: despite all the research I've conducted on this blasted planet, I'm not exactly certain myself."
"Ooooooh, are they mysterious alien sages from the black beyond…?"
Edd had to laugh at that. "Again, Ed, I don't disagree with that possibility. In fact, I believe you may not be far off the mark…"
Such small-talk was to comprise the majority of their bantering, Edd figured, and all the while he figured it would be best to dodge Ed's questions about the Chozo until he himself was sure of their true nature. So with the ice-laden caverns at their backs, Ed and Edd, exhausted but with renewed determinations, turned away from the southern borders of Phendrana and marched solemnly forward in the wake of a glacier now unquestioningly collapsed.
One down, one more to go, thought Edd with a smile, as Ed followed close behind, guffawing stupidly all the while.
"Argh, stupid broken piece of junk!"
Eddy chucked the makeshift radio across the elevator chamber with all of his might as his communication with his friends dissipated into a mere crackle – the thing bounced off the wall with a sharp tinnish sound. "Of all the times for that thing to screw up on me…" When he looked outside, he saw that the rain, a light drizzle before, had picked up into a regular monsoon. No wonder. "Just great. Least I'm inside and not…out there."
But what a feeling! He couldn't, in truth, stay mad for too long, because that short conversation had erased all need for speculation. He wasn't ready to believe that Edd really did all of the legwork he had led onto, but at least his friends were teamed up and coming to get him. And though Eddy was the real brains and the real brawn of the three of them, he knew Ed and Edd would make a serviceable duo and would find him in moments flat.
"I just gotta lay low 'til then, and I'll be back home in Peach Creek before the sun comes up," he said with a casual shrug. He was a little cheesed that they had wasted so much time on Tallon IV, for no doubt the candy store was closed by now, which meant they'd have to wait until tomorrow to try out another scam, but at least he wasn't going to die alone on this forsaken rock. "And that'll be a breeze. I mean, just look at my polished track record. I'm like a shadow on the wall around here. But man, I can't wait to see the look on Kevin's face when I show up at his doorstep in a gunship…"
With a joyful whistle to himself he pocketed that radio, in case it still worked, and returned to the portal; he was relieved to see that, in the interim, it had finally unlatched itself and gradually opened at his presence. "That's really unnecessary," he snorted. "I mean, what is this, they forget to oil this thing?"
Stepping across the threshold, he commented further: "Okay, who's the idiot who turned out the lights in here?"
Though he couldn't see past his own nose, Eddy could make out a subtle ambiance that hummed throughout the entire room – a large chamber, from what he could make out. The whirring of machines, a glimmering tinge of force-field…he had come to know the tell-tale signs of security and data-keeping terminals, and this room was chock-full of 'em. Not that that posed a problem, he thought, but the main question was whether the place was peopled with Space Pirates or not.
Probably not, he thought, shuffling his boots on what was probably a catwalk. There haven't been any of those losers around for a loooong time. I really need to find a light-switch. I'm not falling down anymore stairs, you hear?
Carefully, and very much so, Eddy felt his way around a railing until he did come across a series of steps leading downward; steep though they were, he slowly went down their length into what seemed like an endless chasm, boots hardly making a sound due to his extreme care. A shadow on the wall, indeed.
His boots then audibly crunched on a dirt floor, but that was the least of Eddy's worries; in fact, due to his reduced height in the room, some things in the chamber became starkly visible; from where he had entered, there must have been a partition or low ceiling that obscured his sight, for now most of the place was visible.
It was indeed a large cave, the most massive he had seen yet, far larger than even the quarry outside the mines; the faint LCD shimmering of monitors speckled the scene like faint stars, lightyears away, attended to by myriads of Space Pirate personnel (Eddy allowed himself a curse under his breath). The entire procession of tech, of course, was not all in a pew-like pattern as in previous chambers; rather, they were all orbiting a gargantuan crimson cube, roughly the size of what had been Eddy's house, comprised of a series of thick force-fields, rippling with powerful sealing energies. Its glow painted everything in Eddy's sight a deep, haunting red, as if his eyesight had been stained with blood.
And… he thought as he hid by the far south wall, eyes straining on the force-field itself. What...the heck…is that?
The "that" that Eddy referred to happened to be the being contained within the force-cube, and though he was sure it was a living creature, he couldn't even find a word to describe its form. Blurred by the rippling of surrounding energies, it appeared to be a hellish spider-creature of an unprecedented size, towering over the Pirates, rendering them ants in comparison – six fidgeting, arachnid legs, spanning the entire space of the cube. Stark in red, it seemed a projection of Eddy's greatest fears, the kind of monster he would have recurring nightmares about.
It was like staring into a black hole and envisioning the horror of eternity.
If only Double Dee were here, he thought, trying with all his strength to take his eyes off of the disturbing titanic creature. He did so by finding a distraction, a terminal about ten feet away. He rapped his scan visor with quick fingers and absorbed the information contained within, not expecting to know what any of it meant but looking forward to something to read instead of something to fear.
Only two lines appeared on his visor, in bold red text:
RESEARCH QUARRY ONE
TEST SUBJECT Z - METROID PRIME
"Check it out…" whispered Eddy in awe as his eyes tracked back to the Olympian titan within the cage of red. "Looks like somebody's been keepin' secrets around here…" He smiled in awe, feeling as if he had chanced upon the greatest of mother lodes, a forbidden sight. His heart pounded rapidly, like a tribal drum.
And for a split second, Eddy thought he saw a flash of something appear within the cage; directly from the creature itself, but it was too fast for him to properly make out. He blinked a few times, ran the possibilities through his head, and though he wasn't exactly certain, he felt as if he had been noticed. Seen. Spotted.
Those, he knew, had been eyes that had flashed upon him.
There they were again.
Red eyes, piercing through his own from such a far distance, penetrating his mind and staring into the deepest trenches of his soul, as if his body had vanished and only his spirit remained…
Then, a voice rang out in his head.
Eddy immediately fell to his knees, shell-shocked.
And screamed as the cage exploded into ten million crimson shards.