Chapter Four: "Normal"
The sun was setting as Ben kicked his soccer ball relentlessly against the back of the house. Frustrated and angry though he was, his muscle memory kept his shots from straying too far and breaking anything. Every shot bounced back precisely to him, adding to his frustration. Even here, the little things hidden from his conscious mind were determined to haunt him.
"Ben?" a voice called softly nearby.
Ben stopped, and the ball rolled back to settle at his feet. He looked over to see his mother walking toward him, carrying a jacket. Seeing the pain all over his face, she came over and wrapped the jacket over his shoulders.
"It's getting late, and I didn't want you to get cold," she said.
Ben nodded helplessly and put his arms through the sleeves. He recognized the jacket as the one he'd worn the first day, present in almost every one of his recent photos. It clearly had been his favorite, but right now the warmth from the laundry was more comforting than the faint memories.
"Thanks," he answered.
"I know you're upset," she assured him, "but I'm not going to ask you anything until you're ready."
Ben nodded, but as Sandra made her way back inside, he called out, "Wait." When she turned to face him again, he asked, "Do you—I mean, is there anything you…"
He cut himself off with a sigh. It was impossible to ask. How could he ask something that amounted to "do you hate me?" But right now, it was all he wanted to know from the people he'd loved and hurt. The worst part was that as much as he wanted the truth, he was afraid of the answer.
But his mother had a patient smile as she walked back to him. "Ben, your father and I made sure to let you develop your own personality as you grew up. We thought it was important for you to experience things and make decisions as your own person."
"But I've messed up," he pointed out. "I've hurt everyone I care about."
"They're your mistakes," Sandra insisted. "And you're learning from them."
She gently placed her hands on the sides of his head, tilting his head up to look at her. "You've done everything you can to save this planet and protect people you don't know and will never meet. We once asked you to stop doing that because we were scared for you, but you showed us that we were wrong to ask that from you. You follow your heart, and it always leads you to do the right thing."
"Mom, what is the right thing?" he asked, feeling helplessly young. "I don't know what to do."
She kissed his forehead. "You know. It's a part of you, something no one can take away."
She let him go and headed back inside. Ben felt lost and empty as he stood alone in the dimming light. Then hesitantly, he squeezed the sides of the Omnitrix, bringing up the holographic display. He stared at the hologram for a moment before gently setting the dial back down.
There were more than ten different sides to his personality. He was just going to have to trust in the one he'd chosen to follow.
With the lack of space, the Rustbucket really wasn't the best command center, but it worked in a pinch. A holoviewer on the table magnified the imagery of the VN-JX devices while a couple of laptops provided readouts on how they worked. Max stood in front of them, somewhere between commander and teacher, giving them a rundown on Animo's abilities since he'd been in the Null Void—and for Kevin's benefit, a contrast with how they'd worked before.
It wasn't normal for Gwen to tune out her grandfather, but she found herself losing focus on the lecture and the VN-JX devices. Switching to a public internet browser, she ran a search on memory. One encyclopedia looked promising, and she lost concentration on Max completely as she looked through the articles.
"Gwen?" Max asked, bringing her back to reality. She looked up in surprise, and he asked, "Found anything?"
"Maybe," she admitted, turning around the laptop. "Ben mentioned to me that he remembers emotions before actual events, and when I tried to recover his memories from his subconscious, I ran into a mess of emotions—mostly fear. I looked up some neuroscience articles on memory, and this mentions emotional memory. I don't understand all of it, but it looks like emotional memories are controlled by the temporal lobe, especially the amygdala. That's the temples—right where the VN-JX devices were on Ben's head."
Max rubbed his chin as he looked over the article. "Well, the amygdala does play a large role in fear conditioning…"
"Exactly," Gwen agreed. "What if that's what's making it so hard for Ben to remember? Fear conditioning. Animo shocked his amygdala or something, but instead of just suppressing his memories, it's made his emotions overreact." She looked over at Kevin. "It's not that Ben's missing something; it's just that the very first thing he feels is fear."
Max sighed and shook his head as he realized what had happened. "Deep immersion memory retrieval."
"What?" Gwen asked, as she and Kevin turned their attention to him.
"It's a special kind of therapy used by the Plumbers, usually on witnesses who can't remember the full details of what they saw," Max explained. "But it's restricted because it can get very intense. The patient is placed inside the machine, and as they focus on the event, their emotions from the time are made clearer so the memory becomes clearer."
"I get it," Kevin answered. "So Animo gets hold of one of these machines, hotwires it to mess with all of Ben's head, puts the VN-JX devices on Ben—"
"—And erases my memory," finished a voice at the door.
"Ben!" Gwen cried in surprise as all three turned to look at him. He stood at the door, holding himself with tense anger. Gwen ran up to hug him, and he loosened up somewhat in relief. "How did you get here?"
There was a sheepish smile that almost looked normal on his face. "I kinda had to ask Mom and Dad for directions before flying off. They weren't all that happy, but they didn't stop me."
Kevin snorted. "You kidding? They followed you on a ship to help rescue me from a Highbreed. Your dad had a bazooka and shot the guy when he hit you. I think they're cool with just about anything you do."
Ben smiled at the mental image for a moment before looking up at Max with steely determination. "I want to help. Animo took my memories, so I want to help take him down." Max looked like he was about to argue, but Ben insisted, "You can't tell me it's too dangerous. I do this all the time normally. And if I'm in trouble, you'll back me up just like last time."
Max nodded, though reluctantly. "All right. But as long as you don't put yourself in too much danger. You might still have your instincts, but you can't rely on them completely."
Ben nodded back. "Got it."
"We're trying to come up with a plan to find Animo," Gwen said.
"The problem is that you're usually the idea guy," Kevin pointed out.
"Okay," Ben answered, walking over to the table with the others. "So, what first?"
"These are the devices we recovered from you," Max explained, showing him the VN-JX devices on the holoviewer. "They're used for mind control, so they have a low level memory suppression effect—but not to the degree you have. We think a deep immersion memory retrieval machine may have been used with them to help boost the effect." Ben frowned, thinking deeply. "What is it?"
"When Animo found me, he said he was trying to break my mind," he replied. "If he was using something like that, he had to have been using it longer on me than he'd need just to boost those discs."
There was a sudden, terrible silence as everyone realized what had happened. Kevin clenched a fist, and Gwen's eyes flashed pink for a moment. Ben rubbed at the bruises on one of his wrists, and Max had to fight to contain his fury.
"He tortured you," Gwen said coldly.
"Guess it's a good thing I don't remember it, then," Ben replied humorlessly. "Now what?"
"We find his lab," Kevin insisted. "We find that machine and blow it sky high."
"Sounds like a plan to me," Ben agreed.
"Yeah, but we can't find the lab," Gwen pointed out. "When you went missing, we couldn't track you down. He managed to block the tracking signal on the Omnitrix."
"We'll need to find Animo first," Max said. "We'll get the location out of him somehow."
"I call bad cop," Kevin quipped.
Ben couldn't help the grin breaking on his face. "Why do I have a feeling you're always bad cop?"
Kevin smirked. "Why play against type?"
"Can we focus?" Gwen begged, though she too was grinning at how normal Ben was starting to act. "We still need to figure out how to find Animo."
"Well, that's the easy part," Ben answered. Everyone looked at him a little anxiously. The anxiety was well-founded, given his next words were "You just use me as bait."
"What?" Gwen cried at the same time that Kevin asked, "Are you nuts?"
"No, Ben," Max firmly argued. "It's too risky."
Ben looked at him with the same focused determination he'd led the team against the Highbreed with. "He's after me already. He knows the memory suppression didn't work, so he might try again. If I carry some other kind of tracking device, I should be able to lead you to the machine."
"That's the stupidest plan I've ever heard," Kevin said. "And you've come up with a lot of stupid plans."
"There's too much that can go wrong," Gwen insisted. "We're not letting you risk yourself like that."
Ben stared them down evenly. With a trace of cold sarcasm, he asked, "How are you going to stop me? Tie me down?"
"Forcefield," Ben muttered, plopping down on his bed. "Should have seen that coming."
The forcefield extended around his entire room, preventing him from escaping by door or window. From the outside the door, Grandpa Max said, "I'm sorry, Ben, but we can't let you put yourself in danger. You don't know how dangerous Animo can be."
"He's going to come after me anyway," Ben argued.
"This forcefield should keep him from getting to you," Max assured him. "If he comes here, the rest of us will be ready."
Ben started to sulk again, but a blast hit the forcefield, causing a small, crackling explosion. He turned to the window to see the Null Guardian flying toward the house, ready to spit another energy blast at it.
"Sit tight, Ben," Max ordered, heading down the hall. "We'll take care of this."
Gwen's hands were glowing when he made it outside, and she hurled energy discs toward Animo. The Null Guardian ducked out of the way, getting closer to Kevin, who morphed his hands into blades and leapt at it with a fierce cry. One blade sank into a tentacle, making the creature roar in pain and nearly throw off its rider. With Animo struggling to keep his balance on it, Gwen and Max opened fire.
"Remember, keep him as far from the house as possible," Max warned.
"Got it," Gwen answered before reciting a spell under her breath. A whirlwind of energy formed, spinning toward Animo.
The whirlwind threw Animo off the Null Guardian, and Kevin immediately moved over and grabbed him from behind, shouting, "Let him have it!"
Max fired again while Gwen moved closer and higher on her energy constructs, blasting from above. It should have been an easy win, but Animo was stronger than Kevin had expected. He managed to free himself and throw Kevin toward Gwen, who was caught off-guard by the collision. She didn't have time to recover, and they both hit the ground.
Animo smirked at the easy defeat and said, "Well, Max Tennyson, it looks like once again it's come down to just you and me."
"Don't talk to me about the good old days," Max argued, firing his blaster. The laser, set on a concussive blast, threw Animo to the ground. "This time, I'm not letting you lay a hand on Ben."
Laughing, Animo replied, "You should be less concerned about your grandson and more worried about yourself."
Max was about to ignore his taunts until he realized the Null Guardian wasn't out of commission. His eyes widened in shock as the red energy blast came at him, but he couldn't defend himself and took the hit.
"No, Grandpa!" Ben shouted from inside, pounding on the window. But try as he might, the forcefield only ignored his strikes, giving him a mild shock as it partially conducted through the glass.
He had to do something. He needed to get out there and help. Getting off the bed, he activated the Omnitrix, going through the holograms as he tried to recognize the aliens and their powers. One stood out, and he slammed down the plunger.
This transformation felt stranger than the last, with his bones disintegrating and his body tissues melting into a gel-like form, supported only by an external gravity disc. The whole experience was too odd for him to forget himself and give into the alien instincts again, but he was able to remember its appropriate name:
It was weird not feeling a "normal" body structure, but this was exactly what he needed. Looking at one of his amorphous hands, he decided, "This should do it."
He reached down to the edge of the forcefield, trying to find even the smallest crack between it and the floor. If he could at least get through to the space between, where the generator was suspended, he could try to turn it off. But the forcefield extended well into the floor, and it shocked him when he was too close. Ben didn't feel any pain, thanks to a lack of nerve structure, but when he pulled his arm back, he saw a char pattern where he supposed his hand was.
"That's not going to be pretty when I change back," he realized. "I'd better try someone else."
But there was noise down the hall. He couldn't see around, but he could hear Animo's laughter as lasers fired. Then came shouts that sounded suspiciously like Ben's parents, and he felt cold with fear. He had to get out there.
He needed electricity or something to that effect—anything that could knock out the generator. Concentrating on his alien forms, he managed to remember one that could work. Tapping the Omnitrix, he transformed into a distinctly solid body, metallic and sturdy. Even his voice was metallic as he announced the name "Lodestar!"
Trying to maintain a balance between the instincts and his own personality this time, Ben focused on his powers, remembering Lodestar had abilities over magnetism. He took a step back and unleashed a magnetic wave at the generator. By degaussing the generator's own field, he caused the forcefield to sputter and die, and the generator fell to the floor as a useless hunk of metal.
He ran down the hall to see his parents firing lasers on Animo, who had recovered Max's blaster and was returning fire. Ben watched in horror as his father hit the floor after taking one blast and then his mother fall to another when she went to check on him.
"No!" Ben shouted, firing a magnetic wave at Animo.
The blaster went flying out of Animo's hand, and he turned his attention to the alien standing in an attack position at the end of the hall.
"Ah, Ben," he recognized, sneering. "Even without your memories, you still have the same fury when your family is threatened."
"You'll need to a better job of brainwashing me, then," Ben challenged, hoping Animo would take the bait.
Instead, Animo laughed. "Unfortunately for you, Ben, I've figured out what went wrong the first time."
An energy blast from the Null Guardian burst through the open door, taking out the doorframe as it threw Ben into the wall, forcing him to transform back. Dazed, he wasn't able to fight back as Animo lifted him by his shirt collar and kept him pressed against the wall, pinning the Omnitrix behind him.
"My plan was simple—use the memory immersion device to break your will and the discs to put you under my control," he boasted. "The amnesia was a fortunate side-effect. You should have been a more malleable slave, but somehow you were too stubborn to remain in my thrall. The moment you transformed, I lost control of you. You followed your lingering memories back home. I forgot about your aliens' instincts."
He held up two more VN-JX discs, and Ben struggled desperately to escape. But the grip was too tight, and Animo made sure to keep his left arm out of reach. Ben was helpless as one of the devices was placed against his head and became active, delivering a shock to his brain.
"But I won't make that mistake again," Animo promised. "Between these devices and my own powers, you'll be under my complete control."
The second disc was attached to Ben's other temple, and he shouted in pain as the shocks intensified.
Outside, Gwen and Kevin were just untangling themselves while Max sat up, recovering from the blast. However, once they heard Ben screaming, they jumped to their feet.
"He's inside!" Gwen realized.
"Leave it to Ben not to listen to orders," Kevin groaned.
All three rushed to the door, but Ben calmly walked out. Seeing his grandson apparently unharmed, Max asked, "Are you okay, Ben?"
He placed a hand on Ben's arm, but Ben threw him off. As Ben turned his attention to Gwen and Kevin, they saw a red spark in his eyes before they saw the VN-JX devices. While they stood in shock, Ben moved into an attack stance and leapt at Gwen. Immediately, she raised a shield to protect herself, but Ben caught himself as he rebounded and flipped back onto his feet once he hit the ground. Max moved in to grab him from behind, but in his low stance, Ben was able to block Max and use his momentum to flip him onto the ground.
"Ben, you have to stop!" Gwen cried. Unwilling to use energy blasts or magic against him, she was in a defensive martial arts stance.
Ben, however, didn't respond, preferring to run at her with a punch. Immediately, Gwen blocked it, catching his arm. Once she had him, she formed steps under her feet and ran up them to flip, pulling him with her and flipping him to the ground. As Gwen landed, she shot out some energy tendrils to restrain him, but he grabbed hold of them. Caught by surprise, she was easily flung aside.
Kevin let out a battle cry as he charged at Ben. Ben ducked out of the way and grabbed Kevin's arm, twisting it behind him. He then kicked Kevin from behind, throwing him off-balance. Dropping to the ground, he made a sweeping kick that threw Kevin's legs out from underneath him, making him crash into the ground.
As Ben got up, Gwen tried to ensnare him with another energy construct, but Ben jumped off them and came at her with a crescent kick. Gwen threw up a shield, but under such short notice, she couldn't put much strength into it, and it shattered from Ben's kick, throwing her back. He ran in, punching at her, but she grabbed his arms to stop the attack.
"Ben, please, you have to fight it!" she begged, but she couldn't reach him. He drove his knee into her stomach, forcing her to let go, and he moved back enough to kick her aside.
"That's it!" Kevin shouted, grabbing Ben from behind as Gwen fell. Pinning Ben's arms to his sides, he shouted, "Get the discs off him!"
But before Gwen could make a move, Ben managed to pull his arms forward, reaching the Omnitrix. There was a bright flash of green as he transformed into Spidermonkey, and using his free set of arms, he reached behind himself to pick Kevin up off the ground and get enough leverage to throw him. Leaping into the air, Spidermonkey fired webs at all three of them, sticking them to the ground. Changing back in midair, Ben flipped to his feet and held out the blaster he'd taken from the living room and held in reserve. Nobody breathed as Ben held the gun on them, his eyes sparking again from the VN-JX mind control.
"Yes, Ben," Animo insisted. "You've done well. Now, finish the job."
No, whispered that voice in the back of Ben's mind again, just as it had when he'd lost control as Big Chill.
Ben's finger tightened on the trigger, but he couldn't pull it completely. Seeing his hesitation, Animo demanded, "What are you waiting for? Finish them!"
No, you can't make me do it! the voice denied, growing from a whisper to a yell. You can't make me kill them!
The battle of wills was shorting out the VN-JX devices, making them spark. Ben shouted in pain and clutched the sides of his head, fighting off the control as hard as he could. Over Animo's demands of obedience, he managed to grasp the edges of the devices and rip them away from his temples. The pain stopped immediately, and Ben collapsed.
An energy structure broke his fall, and he looked over to see Gwen burning herself and the others free from the webbing. While Kevin attacked Animo, Max and Gwen made their way to Ben's side.
"Are you all right?" Max asked.
"Got a headache and I'm a little sore, but I think so," Ben groaned. Forcing himself to sit up, he looked up at his family. "Did I…"
"No," Gwen quickly assured him. "We're okay. You stopped yourself before you could hurt us."
Reluctantly, Ben nodded before asking, "Mom and Dad—are they okay?"
"We'll check on them," Max promised. "You take it easy while we take down Animo."
"No," Ben argued, getting to his feet and activating the Omnitrix. "It's my fight, and I'm going to finish it."
Kevin was blocking one of Animo's attacks when there was a burst of green light behind him and a loud shout of "Rath!" Knowing better than to interfere in this fight, he smirked and said, "Ooh, somebody's going to get it."
Kevin backed away just in time, as Rath grabbed the lurking Null Guardian and hurled it at Animo, throwing him halfway down the street. Charging after his prey, Rath shouted, "Let me tell you something, Dr. Animo! I just spent the last three days with amnesia, and I've got you to thank! I didn't know who I was, I thought I was abused, and I thought I was a freak. And all this because you decided to play brain surgeon!"
He could feel a buzzing sensation in his head, and realizing it was Animo's powers, he added, "You still think you can control me? Let me tell you something else! Nobody uses Ben Tennyson as a puppet!"
He picked up Animo and slammed him into the ground. He cupped his fists together to attack again, but a pink energy shield formed over Animo. Turning to Gwen, he demanded, "What did you do that for?"
"We need him to tell us where his lab is," Gwen insisted. "We still need to destroy the machine."
Logic won out over wrath, and Ben transformed back, casting one last hateful glance over at Animo before walking toward her and Kevin. Gwen offered him a reassuring smile, and he responded with a smaller one of relief.
"Was all of that…" he started. "I mean, the anger and the rant…"
"Oh yeah," Kevin answered, putting an arm around Ben's shoulders. "That was completely normal."
"Come on," Gwen said, changing the energy structure around Animo from a shield to restraints. "Everybody's back at the house. They're all okay."
Ben nodded, letting Kevin lead him home while Gwen dragged Animo along from the rear. Once they reached the door, Ben found himself immediately pulled into a hug by his parents, all the while drowning out their lectures about putting himself in danger. One look at the relief on everyone's faces, however, proved there was nothing but love behind those reprimands.
While Gwen was forcing her way into Animo's mind for the location of his lab, Ben sat on the couch getting bandaged up. The older bruises on his wrists and ankles were carefully wrapped up, along with the burn on his hand, while he held an icepack to his head.
"How exactly are we going to explain all of this?" he asked.
"Don't worry," his mother assured him. "When you missed that first day of school, we told them you'd been in an accident and hit your head. There shouldn't be too many questions."
"Yeah," Ben answered, "but what about the battle outside? Didn't anyone see?"
Kevin snickered. "You're assuming anyone wants to know what's going on. Around here, it's more like everyone tries to ignore the weirdness, just to keep sane."
Ben smiled wryly. "Sounds like a good policy."
"I got it!" Gwen cried. As everyone turned to her, she declared, "I know where the lab is. And you're never going to believe where."
"Good work," Max congratulated. "You and Kevin head there and destroy the machine. I'll join you after I drop off Animo in the Null Void."
Groaning, Ben pulled himself off the couch as Gwen and Kevin headed for the door. "I'm coming with you."
"Just gonna be a smash-and-run," Kevin told him. "Nothing all that interesting."
Ben shook his head. "That machine might still be able to reach my memories. I want to try it before it's destroyed."
There was a pause as everyone looked at him. Finally, his father asked, "Are you sure?"
"Positive," Ben answered, looking at him steadily. "My memories aren't coming back without me going through some kind of trauma. I need to be normal again."
"All right," Carl relented, hugging his son goodbye. "Good luck."
Sandra smiled as she handed Ben the icepack again. "And be careful."
"I promise," Ben answered, smiling as he turned and followed his friends out.
"You have got to be kidding," Kevin droned as he pulled up to the lab.
The car pulled up in front of the abandoned warehouse on the docks, and Kevin stared in disbelief as they climbed out of the car.
"I know," Gwen answered. "But I saw a hidden room in Animo's mind. His lab is somewhere in here, and that's why Ben's trail ran cold the last time."
Ben wandered through the warehouse, almost in a daze. It felt eerily familiar, but he didn't know why.
"Remember anything?" Kevin asked.
Ben shook his head. "It's all a blur. I feel like I've been here before, but I don't remember anything about it."
"Animo probably ambushed you here and dragged you into his lab before you could fight back," Gwen reasoned. "Let's see if we can find a door."
She and Kevin moved to the walls, searching and feeling for a latch while Ben walked through the middle of the warehouse. The faintest echoes of memory whispered in the back of his mind—flying in, getting hit from behind, and then everything fading to black. There wasn't anything that could help.
He stepped on something that looked like concrete, but under his feet, it creaked like a wooden floorboard. Surprised, he tested his weight on it, bouncing lightly. Looking over to Kevin and Gwen, he said, "I think I found—"
The floorboards suddenly broke underneath him, and he fell into a dark room, landing on his feet before they gave out underneath him and he fell on his back. Grimacing in pain, he looked up at the faint light coming in from above and called out, "Gwen? Kevin?"
"We're right here," Gwen insisted, looking down through the trap door. Kevin was right next to her, holding a splinter of wood.
"Painted to look like the floor," he explained. "Low-tech, but it worked."
Gwen formed steps out of energy, and they climbed them down to Ben. Carefully, they helped him to his feet, and Gwen held up a glowing hand to look around at their surroundings.
"Is this the lab?" Ben asked, rubbing the back of his head.
"I think so," she answered. "We just need to find a light switch."
Kevin moved over to the wall and pushed up a lever, bringing the power up. Smirking, he said, "Definitely a cliché evil scientist—pull the lever."
At the end of the room, there was a metal stall standing tall enough to hold an adult human. Some feet in front of it was a computer console. Ben walked past the console and directly to the stall, looking at the crystalline panels set at his head level. Glancing down, he noticed a white strap, and he said, "This is it. It's the machine."
"You remember?" Gwen asked.
"I don't have to," Ben replied darkly, holding up one of the straps. It was the exact width of the bruises on his wrists, and there was a pair of restraints at the bottom of the stall too. Turning to his friends with cold anger, he ordered, "Call Grandpa."
It didn't take long at all for Max to arrive, and by then, Gwen and Kevin were inspecting the console while Ben glared at the stall. Recognizing the immersion machine and its effects on Ben, he put a comforting hand on Ben's shoulder. Ben looked up at him in surprise, momentarily forgetting the pain and anger.
"I'm sorry you had to go through all that," Max said.
"Yeah," Ben answered, nodding. Looking back at the machine, he added, "Gwen said all of this machinery made it hard for her to track me when I disappeared. They were probably right on top of me when Animo activated the discs, and none of us could do anything."
Max hugged him before heading back to the computer. Gwen had managed to bring up the emotional resonance monitor, and the intensity setting was at its highest level. Furious, Max put a finger on the monitor and dragged the bar down to a much lower setting. Steeling himself, Ben stepped into the stall and grabbed hold of the restraints.
"You're sure you want to do this?" Max asked.
"No," Ben admitted. "But I have to."
"All right," Max answered, starting up the machine. "Low-intensity memory immersion in three, two, one…"
Ben closed his eyes as the panels next to his head started to hum. He could feel the slightest twinge of fear and anxiety as deep within his brain, his amygdala responded to the stimulation. Slowly, images began to form in his mind—a room with flesh-like walls and Grandpa Max being held captive by a large, white alien. In the memory, Ben had stepped forward to challenge the alien, but in the present, Ben felt detached from the memory.
"Turn it up," he instructed. "It doesn't feel right."
There was a blipping sound as Max dragged the bar up higher. "Setting to medium intensity."
The anxiety immediately surged, and Ben felt very uncomfortable standing in the stall. He gripped the restraints tightly as the memory continued to play, with him begging Max not to detonate a bomb. Kevin and somebody else were trying to hold Ben back, but the desperate fear from the memory didn't match with the disturbing sense of unquiet he felt now.
"It's not enough," Ben insisted. "Higher."
"Ben, any higher and you'll be moving past normal recall and into traumatic flashback," Max warned.
In the memory, Max smiled and set off the bomb. The sense of grief and horror was muted in comparison to how Ben knew he must have felt that day. "Do it."
The humming from the panels reached an ear-splitting pitch. Instead of one specific fearful memory, a flood of images related to fear rushed through Ben's mind—explosions, loss, terror over his friends' and family's safety, and all sorts of things that he couldn't make sense of but couldn't bear to put up with.
He hit the floor suddenly, freed from the brain-stimulation, but he had enough fear running through his veins to keep him in a panic for a while. Two pairs of hands picked him up and helped him into a sitting position, and it took a moment before he recognized Gwen and Kevin. When he did, he held their arms tightly as he felt his whole body shake.
"Are you okay, Ben?" Gwen asked, sounding just as terrified as he felt. Lying, he nodded, but Gwen could see through it and just looked even more concerned. "We'll get you some water."
"No," Ben argued, getting a handle on the panic. Forcing himself to calm down, he tried to stand up and accepted Kevin's help in keeping his balance. "I'll be okay, I just… I wasn't ready."
"You're not going through that again," Kevin said.
"I have to," Ben insisted. "It was the only way it felt real."
"No, Ben," Max argued from the computer. "We're not putting you through that kind of overload. There's no telling what it'll do to you. Animo's already given you amnesia, and this could do a lot worse."
"But if I don't feel that connection to the memories..." Ben protested.
"Ben," Gwen interrupted, her voice soft but firm, "your memories are in the past. You're not supposed to feel like you're going through them all over again. They'll settle in, but not this way. Just trust us, okay?"
Ben took a breath as he looked at their worried faces, and he knew he could depend on them. His voice still unsteady, he answered, "Okay."
Gwen smiled as Kevin helped Ben back into the stall. Max stayed at the computer and said, "I'm resetting for a low-medium intensity. It'll take a while, so you'll have to be strapped in."
"Okay," Ben replied, nodding as his friends gently locked the restraints around his arms and legs. When they were finished and had stepped back, he announced, "Ready."
"All right," Max answered. "Starting in three, two, one…"
Ben closed his eyes, and the machine started humming again. The emotional resonance was set to happiness this time, and he couldn't help but smile faintly as his mind was filled with images of the people still by his side.
The humming in his ears ended, and the last memory faded from his mind's eye. He could hear movement around him, and he suddenly felt nothing holding him up. He started to fall, but two pairs of hands caught him.
"We've got you," insisted a male voice. Kevin, he remembered.
He was too weak to walk, but they helped him to a table and a chair. Once he was sitting, he was able to open his eyes and glance at the room he was in. Slowly, it came to him: he was in Animo's lab, and Kevin, Gwen, and Grandpa were with him.
"Are you okay?" Gwen asked, and he remembered she'd asked him that a lot.
"Yeah," he answered, his voice weak. Had he been screaming? Or was he just too exhausted to speak? "Just tired."
"Your blood sugar's probably low," Grandpa Max diagnosed. "I'll get you something for that."
No, he remembered this. Low blood sugar meant grasshoppers, and his stomach churned at the mere thought of it. "No thanks, Grandpa," he insisted. "I don't think I can keep anything down right now."
He held his head in his hands and took a few deep breaths as he tried to get his bearings. It took a moment, but Ben was able to remember his name and put together what had happened to him: he'd spent the last few days with amnesia, and he'd just gone through the difficult process of regaining his memories.
Ben heard the familiar sounds of destruction behind him, and he carefully turned to see Kevin smashing the computer console while Gwen fired energy blasts at the stall. The fervor with which they destroyed the immersion machine gave away their concern, and he smiled.
"How are you feeling?" Max asked, putting a hand on Ben's arm for comfort.
"A little sick to my stomach, and I've got a bad headache, but I'll be okay," he said.
"It'll take some time for the memories to settle in completely," Max warned. "Until then, you may feel disoriented."
Ben nodded, and Kevin and Gwen made their way over from the smoldering ruins of the machine. Dusting his hands off, Kevin announced, "Mission accomplished."
"I've got to admit, that felt good," Gwen confessed.
"Yeah," Ben agreed. "I'm glad to see it gone too."
Max helped Ben to his feet and said, "Come on, I'll drive you home. You can rest in the Rustbucket."
"No, I'll meet you guys there," Ben insisted, reaching for the Omnitrix. "It won't take long; I just need to do something."
He took a step to the side and transformed into Jetray, but everyone noticed when the alien didn't announce his name. It was still going to take some time for Ben to be completely back to normal. Seeing the mild worry on their faces, Ben said, "It's okay. I'll meet you at home."
He flew off and up through the hole in the ceiling before reaching the starry skies. The wind passing over and under his wings felt comforting as he made his way along the coast, racing against the first light of dawn creeping over the horizon.
Once he'd reached the beach, he turned into a nosedive toward the water and tucked his wings in, freefalling. He closed his eyes as the air rushed past him and he broke through the water. As Jetray, he could stay underwater longer than Ben could, and he enjoyed the cold depths of the sea for a few minutes before making his way up high enough to transform back.
Ben took a gulp of air as his head broke through the water's surface, and the ocean washed away the cold sweat from the fear and memories. Glimpsing something on the shoreline, he swam his way back and found the others waiting by a campfire. Gwen greeted him with a towel and asked, "Feeling any better?"
"Yeah," Ben answered in confusion, "but how did…" A memory from the other night hit him, and he walked over to Kevin. "I thought I told you this was a secret."
"Oops, musta forgot," Kevin answered with a smirk. "Guess you're just gonna have to find a new beach."
"Come on over here and warm up," Max called from the fire.
Ben gave Kevin a last, annoyed glare before pulling the towel closer to him and walking toward the fire. Still smirking, Kevin followed him, while Gwen made her way over, telling Kevin to leave Ben alone. Max was watching in comfortable silence as he fed the fire, and Ben sat down, trying to hide a smile. No matter how much they drove him nuts, the memories were better than the alternative.
This chapter plays with a lot of references, as I was apparently holding them back for the finale. The location of Animo's lab under the warehouse came from the CSI episode "Pirates of the Third Reich," where Grissom found the entrance to the killer's torture chamber under a trapdoor he accidentally stepped on and noticed the floorboards were giving under his weight. CSI also provided the "low blood sugar = grasshoppers" cure, as in the first episode, Grissom treats new recruit Holly Gribbs' low blood sugar (from him making her donate blood for an experiment) with some grasshoppers he kept in his fridge. The "bad cop" conversation, though, was shamelessly lifted from Hawkgirl in Justice League classic.
The battle against Ben was heavily inspired by the source inspiration for this fic, Power Rangers: RPM. In the episode "Brother's Keeper," Black Ranger Dillon (an amnesiac himself) twice falls under the influence of the mind-controlling Venjix Virus (spot the pun in the fic) which caused him to attack his friends. The fact that Ben spent most of that fight in human form was to reference Dillon not having morphed during those battles, and because Ben is actually a really good fighter as a human whenever Alien Force shows off his skills. The general design of the memory immersion machine came from another season, Lightspeed Rescue, in the episode "The Last Ranger," where Lightspeed Rescue's scientists were using recordings to restore the Rangers' lost memories. The emotional resonance monitor, however, was inspired by the memory device in Stargate SG-1 "Collateral Damage," where Cameron Mitchell is the victim of a false memory implant and has to compare it against a similarly traumatizing incident in his past.