Epilogue: The Guns of August
"It's very different from travel by bus."
The driver, a young Army lieutenant on loan from General Shaan, smiled and glanced back at his passenger. If he was surprised to find himself at the beck and call of a twelve-year-old boy, DeShawn Washington gave no indication. It was a bright summer day, traffic was light, this was the easiest duty he had been given since joining the general's staff, and he had every opportunity and intention of enjoying himself. His passenger was polite and excited and his accent was thoroughly amusing. Moreover, he did not care what kind of music he heard and did not complain about country western.
"Smoother and faster I bet, sir," he said.
"Not to mention a lot more comfortable." He leaned over the seat. "Thank you again for driving me, Lieutenant Washington."
"Trust me, sir, it's my pleasure. Besides, a staff car and a driver are the least General Shaan could do after the extra work you put in on the plasma grenades to get them ready on time."
"You saw the demonstration?"
"Yes, sir. I was very impressed."
"I hope to improve them. I'm working on different dispersal patterns for various situations, plus a remote detonation and eventually a controlled dispersion of the plasma."
"Well, you sure made the general as happy as a kid at Christmas. Between the null-void rifle and the grenades, I don't think I've ever seen him smile so much."
"He smiled once."
Dexter chuckled and Washington grinned.
"How do you think of all that stuff?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. An idea comes to me and then I start to think of ways it can work differently or I see how a thing works and figure out how to make it better."
Washington glanced at the redhead leaning on the seat. "Did I hear the Coast Guard Commandant right, sir? Do you actually have a lawyer that's a mosquito?"
"Yes. That would be Mr. Antoine Mosco. He's one of the best lawyers in the state."
"And he's a mosquito," the lieutenant confirmed. "Like, in the vampire bug."
"Almost six feet tall and in a tailored suit, no less," Dexter replied with a grin. "A fitting career for a bloodsucking parasitic mutant, no? He said it was either law or politics for him. The president of DexLabs hired him for me."
"You're not the president of your own company?" exclaimed the lieutenant.
Dexter shook his head. "No. I'm the owner and in charge of the labs and development. Professor Utonium is the president. Really, he's the one all the brass should be courting, not me."
"You're the one that created the null-void, sir."
"But he signs the contracts. I can't. I'm not old enough yet."
"You still in school?"
He cast the young officer a quick smile. "I'm out for summer vacation for the most part, but yes. Since this past winter I've had private tutors instead of attending elementary school, thankfully. Professor Utonium chose all my tutors and classes, so this year has been challenging for a change. It's fun. My favorite teacher is a demon."
"A demon? Where do you find these people, sir? I know General Shaan hangs out with an odd crowd, but bugs and demons?"
"Well, in the case of Mr. Green, he was substitute teaching in Townsville's elementary school system and the Powerpuff Girls knew him. Professor Utonium advertised for someone versed in particle physics theory and application, which Mr. Green is eminently qualified to teach."
"You're sure he's a demon?"
"Mmm. The billowing smoke and the horns coming out of his head are dead giveaways. I'm hoping he'll work for DexLabs someday soon."
The lieutenant guided the car through the trim suburban streets. "And this is school for you."
"For now. I'll graduate in a year or so anyway."
"No. High school."
"And you're . . . how old?"
"Not bad, sir."
"It helps having a two-star general and the Department of Defense on your side. They can work wonders with a school board . . . not to mention the Downtown Planning Board."
"I bet they can!" he laughed. "Almost there, sir."
Minutes later the staff car was pulling up to the curb and Washington gave him a snappy salute as he held the door open. Dexter blushed and laughed a bit as he climbed out of the car, carrying an attaché case that was heavy with papers. He shook the lieutenant's hand and thanked him again. As he walked to the front door, Dexter smiled to himself as he remembered how nervous he had been the first time he had seen this house, how astonished he had been by Buttercup and her sisters, how fortunate he counted himself today . . .
He was nervous again, but now it was a welcome sensation because on the surface it stemmed from excitement and not trepidation. The greater issues could wait for later. Time may not be their ally, but at the moment it was not Dexter's enemy. His gloved hand clutched the handle of the attaché a little tighter, and Dexter glanced down at the metal case that held the whole of his newly formed company's future. A quiet thrill passed through him. It wasn't just DexLabs' future. It was entirely his own as well. And here, in his hand, might just be Earth's future as well.
But first things first. He had messages to deliver and an obligation to fulfill. He could never fully repay Utonium, he knew, because Dexter owed him far more than mere money. But at least today would be a start.
The front door was yanked open a moment after he rang the bell and Buttercup, trying hard to suppress a happy smile, stood in the doorway with her hands on her hips and demanded, "Yeah, what do ya want, kid?"
Dexter smiled at her gruff greeting. So busy had he been with school and finding an adequate facility to set up production for his company that he had not seen the Utonium girls since their spring break. He was not in the least surprised (though a little disappointed) to note that Buttercup was already quite a bit taller than he was. Her face was losing its roundness and somehow she was even prettier than he remembered.
A streak of blue wove around Buttercup and suddenly Bubbles was squeezing the breath out of him. Another ecstatic shout, and then Blossom was there, kissing his cheek and shouting her congratulations over Bubbles' squeals. Not to be left out, Buttercup joined the noisy fray with a whoop and a tackling hug that sent them sprawling on the grass.
The Professor came to his rescue, laughing and happy as he untangled the knot of children on his front lawn. He waved to Washington to let the hovering officer know that all was well and his charge was safely delivered despite appearances.
"How did things go with the military?" asked Utonium, hauling him up by the hand. "Let go, Blossom!"
She giggled and released his arm, bouncing Dexter to his feet.
"I definitely like it more when you're there with me," admitted Dexter wryly. Today was the first time he had given a presentation of DexLabs' wares by himself, and he had been more nervous than he had ever anticipated. He picked up the attaché case, letting the Professor herd them inside and talking all the while. "But I suppose I'll get used to it eventually. The demonstration went as planned and I think everyone with a rank equivalent to colonel and above wants to be present when we unveil the Megabot 3000."
Utonium grinned, positively aglow with pride in his protege. "I know. General Shaan called. He said you did a great job with the material and you impressed Commandant Allen and the people from Lockheed-Martin. Forget NASA, they already think you walk on water. Shaan said we should get the first orders inside of two weeks and he wants us at Yuma when the Army demonstrates the new Bunker Buster at their Proving Ground. I think he's thinking of a plasma version."
"He thinks about nothing but shock waves, that man." Dexter sighed and let himself be overwhelmed for a moment. "And I just told the lieutenant I was on summer vacation? What was I thinking? Who goes to Yuma in August? On purpose?"
The girls laughed at his tone of voice, well aware that their chosen brother was reveling in the fast pace and intensity that had overtaken his whole life since the past autumn. Their only complaint was that they hardly got to see him anymore.
"Grossinger Biotech also called about the Megabot and the possibility of adapting the technology to prosthetic limbs. They'll be in touch on -"
"Okay," announced Buttercup. "No more boring science stuff!"
"Then I'll have nothing to talk about," Dexter replied.
"Oh, please. You're not that boring. Talk about dinner," she countered. "Come on, we're all starving!"
They ate cheeseburgers and chili dogs and at dessert Dexter consumed all the leftover fruit from their strawberry shortcake. Inevitably, their conversation turned to DexLabs.
"You know that the Downtown Planning Board has approved my application to expand the facility at DexLabs HQ," he said, picking slices of fruit from the huge bowl before him. Dexter hadn't cottoned onto the fact that the Utoniums always doubled up on strawberries just because they knew he'd eat them all in one sitting. "Mr. Mosco recommends setting up another company purely for production. He said for legal purposes and insurance costs it would be a wise move, and after reviewing his plan, I agree. I brought his plan with me and I'd like to go over it with you, Professor."
"Tomorrow morning. After coffee," Utonium replied. "It will keep."
Dexter smiled and nodded, knowing he was being told to take it easy for a night.
"Hey, is that the bug guy?" wondered Buttercup.
"Yes, Buttercup," Dexter replied. "Mr. Mosco is a mosquito sport."
"I thought he was a lawyer," Bubbles exclaimed.
Utonium chuckled. "A sport is a genetic mutation."
"Don't let him find out that Bubbles ate a bug once," insisted the dark-haired girl, trying to get her sister riled. "He'll get scared."
Dexter gaped at Bubbles, who smiled winningly and nodded so hard her pigtails bobbed. Further down the table, Blossom leaned into her hand, shaking her head at the memory.
"A cockroach! It tasted like chicken."
"Please don't tell me any more, Bubbles," Dexter begged, pushing the nearly-empty bowl of strawberries away. Blossom shuddered and Buttercup snickered.
"A little barbeque sauce, some potato salad, and you got yourself a meal!" Buttercup went on, delighting in being able to gross out someone. Then again, Dexter was an easy target except when it came to vocabulary and math.
"I have something for you, Professor," Dexter said, hastily changing the topic. He adjusted his glasses in a classic Dexter gesture all of them (with the exception of the boy genius) recognized as a delaying tactic to rally his defenses. Thus warned, the Professor was ready when Dexter pulled a paper from the pocket of his lab coat and offered it to him.
"What's this?" asked he, taking it.
"Part of what I owe you."
Utonium stilled, and he did not unfold the paper. "You don't owe me anything, Dexter."
"I owe you a hundred thousand dollars. This is a partial payment." He gestured, and Utonium opened the check, read the amount, and handed it right back.
"Dexter, no. You need to put this money back into your company."
"I also need to make good on my promise to pay you back."
Utonium smiled gently. "You said you'd pay me back. I never said I'd take it."
"You haven't even paid me my salary!" the Professor exclaimed. "You still owe me three bucks, mister! Pay up!"
"Two!" Dexter instantly argued.
"I charge interest. Three."
Dexter fumed and fretted and finally admitted, "I don't have any money!"
"You never do. I've noticed that about you. No matter. I take checks."
He brandished the bank check for ten thousand dollars, slamming it down onto the table between them in frustration. "No, you don't!"
"I'll take one as a paycheck. Exact amounts only, please."
"I only brought the one!" squawked the boy.
Utonium sat back smugly. "Your lack of foresight may force me to go on strike. And don't even think of offering me a raise of ten thousand dollars until I get my base salary."
Dexter made a face, then looked down the table. "Blossom, lend me three dollars."
"No," was her prompt reply.
"What?" He whirled on her.
She smiled. "You just said you don't have any money, Dexter. You'll never pay me back."
Slack-jawed, he turned to the rest of his sisters. Taking their cue from Blossom, Bubbles shook her head with a big smile and a little sound of "Nnn-nnn!" while Buttercup glowered and said, "Forget it, Ginger Snap."
He groaned and dropped his head into his gloved hands. With a wicked little chuckle Utonium slid the check over to Dexter, tapping him in the elbow with it just to be annoying.
"I win," he said, making no attempt to hide his gloating.
A purple-clad glove slapped down onto the check and Dexter took it back with ill grace and a wry look. "This round only."
Utonium grinned at the challenge, knowing he could outfox his friend at least for the time being. "Take me on, boss-man." He looked at the rest of the children. "Who wants watermelon?"
They sat on the back patio, enjoying the night and the brilliant array of stars wheeling overhead. Despite the light from Townsville they could still see more stars than could be counted and the faint haze of the Milky Way stretching across the sky. The Powerpuff Girls had gone on a quick patrol of the city, leaving the men to clean up from dinner and lounge about in the sweltering heat of a midsummer night.
Dexter sighed in quiet content, listening to the katydids that filled the air with their music. This was the most extended peace he had known in months, and until this moment of relaxation he had not realized how much he had missed the occasional opportunity to simply stop and rest. He smiled his thanks as Utonium brought him another glass of barely-sweetened lemonade and tossed him a pillow to rest his head as they did some star gazing.
Though both scientists were better versed in astrophysics than astronomy, each had enough poetry in his soul to be able to enjoy the sheer beauty of the sky. Sliding down in his lounge chair and adjusting the pillow to get comfortable, Dexter smiled to hear the president of his company quietly release a long, deep breath of satisfaction. For a while they just watched the stars and the occasional plane heading to Townsville Jetport. Then Dexter shifted slightly to look at his friend and teacher and father.
"It's been a good year, hasn't it?" he asked softly.
He could hear the smile in Utonium's voice as he replied, "One of the best ever."
"I never knew how much was missing from my life until I met you and your daughters."
"I can say the same thing about meeting you."
Dexter cast him a happy smile and rolled to his side to drink some lemonade. "So you were missing paperwork and reviewing contracts and never getting paid by your rotten boss?"
"Oh, heck no. Those are all par for the course when you're a scientist. I was thinking more along the lines of being able to discuss topology and not having to explain jokes and having some backup when the girls decide to gang up on me." He sipped his own drink before smiling over the brim of his glass. He lifted his lemonade in salute. "So here's to you, Dexter, and to DexLabs."
"And to you, President Utonium, and to DexCorp."
They clinked the glasses together in a quiet toast to each other and the future. Dexter drained the icy drink, gasping at the cold before he dropped down onto his back to stare at the stars.
"Have you seen the latest pictures from the Hubble Telescope?" he finally asked, broaching the subject he had been avoiding since he arrived.
"That object they spotted past Haumea? Yes. From what I understand it's moving at a speed faster than the scientists that discovered it can explain."
"Yes, Mr. Green and I were discussing it earlier this week. From the reports published by the IAU and NASA, at its present course and speed the object will reach the inner solar system within twenty-eight months."
"If their calculations are correct that thing is massive."
Dexter looked at him, concern showing in his eyes. "It is. Even more disturbing, it seems to be moving on a set trajectory."
"I hadn't heard that. You're sure?"
"I didn't want to speak in front of the girls, but . . . I had a talk with General Shaan today and . . . well, there's a reason he's been so keen on developing the null-void as quickly as possible and it has everything to do with that object."
Utonium's voice was deadly serious. "Invasion?"
"Oh. And they think the null-void will work against . . . whatever it is trying to sneak up on us?" As he spoke, he sat up, swinging his long legs off the lounge to face his companion.
"They know it will."
Dexter imitated the Professor's stance. They were almost knee-to-knee, and their voices were soft as the immensity of their discussion struck them both.
"All those weapons we've made for the Army? Not a one of them remains on this planet. They've been sent to a moon several light years away called Daving Su, by a secret, interstellar policing organization known only as The Plumbers."
"Of which, I take it, Shaan is one?" Utonium asked without a hint of doubt or surprise.
"Yes. Apparently he's been waiting for me to create something so radical as the null-void, which is why he was notified as soon as I applied for a patent and why he pushed my application through so quickly. Daving Su's system was invaded by beings from that object approaching us. The other inhabited planets were wiped out, but the people on this moon managed to successfully hold off the invading creatures using null-void weaponry."
"And we're next?"
Dexter nodded silently.
The Professor drew a deep breath. "He knows you're telling me this?"
"He asked me to. He wants to talk to us both at the Army Proving Ground."
"Yuma in August. I can't wait." He sighed. "Dexter?"
"Just so you know that Shaan is deadly serious, he was going to finance the null-void if I hadn't."
Dexter made no effort to hide his surprise. "They're that desperate?" mused the boy genius.
"No," Professor Utonium replied, completely sincere. "They have that much faith in you."
The redhead fell silent, considering. Finally he dared venture, "And you?"
Utonium smiled, reaching across to clasp the boy's hand in both of his own. Dexter looked down at those strong, gentle hands, knowing that no matter what happened, what challenges or problems arose in his life and in the world, Utonium would be there. His faith in Dexter was an absolute, and that faith was the foundation upon which Dexter had built his future.
And with it, he was building the Earth's best hope of survival.
"Do you need me to say it?"
It was a tremendous burden, but one he knew that he did not have to carry alone.
He tightened his hold on this man that was more of a father to him than his real father, and despite the gravity of what they faced, Dexter smiled as he replied,