by lightning bird

A/N This takes place before, during, and after the primary events of my story Taken, and I advise you to read that first or this story won't make loads of sense. Professor Utonium is noticeably absent from Taken, and from the start I knew there was a very good reason he wasn't there when Dexter needed him most, but until now I hadn't worked out exactly why. This leans very heavily on Ben 10: Alien Force, and I've taken some license with Plumber ranks and hierarchy. Like Taken, this story will jump around a bit from present to past and back, so I beg your indulgence if I cause any confusion. This is a companion piece to Taken, not the sequel I'm planning.

One: Prior Engagement

"All right, General, where is he?"

The dark-skinned man gazed at her image in the comm cube with his usual composure, unperturbed by her tone and attitude and sympathetic to her concern. Technically they were peers despite almost forty years difference in their ages, and though her experience could not compare to his, his army could not compare to hers.

Major General Neelandu Shaan steepled his fingers before him and waited a few moments before making his reply. "Mandy, I sent a message to the Plumbers the day you contacted me asking for his immediate recall."

Her eyes narrowed sharply. "So where is he? I called you as soon as I had concrete information. That was six days ago."

"He should be en route," he began, and then paused as a thought struck him.

"But is he?" she demanded. "The Plumbers got him to Darama fast enough when they needed him. I need him back. Now. General, the KND are getting their butts kicked in Banff. I can't keep Tennyson here any longer and he's the only thing that's keeping Dexter from falling to pieces."

"What about his sisters?"

"I had to get the Powerpuffs back in action as much for their sakes as for mine. They're taking turns staying up with him at night, and that includes DeeDee, but he needs his father."

"How is he?" Shaan asked softly.

She tried to find the right word, throwing her hand up in a frustrated gesture. "He's a wreck, just like you'd expect after being kidnapped and tortured by that sicko copy of himself. He can't hear much and he can barely talk. He hasn't complained too much, but I think he's afraid to sleep."

The General listened in silence to the young girl's ranting, his expression never changing. His smoldering calm was the equivalent of her loud fury, and thanks to his position as a Plumber, his reach was far greater than Mandy's. His situation was unique even for a Plumber, because he had managed to maintain command rank in two military organizations that didn't always see eye-to-eye. Both the US Army and the Plumbers had come to recognize the value of someone in his position, though, and he served as liaison between the two forces.

It was Shaan who had first met Dexter and recognized his potential, and it was through Shaan's efforts to get the Null-Void into production that the boy genius was so deeply embroiled in this war against Planet Fusion. Though he knew what had happened to Dexter at the hands of his Fusion counterpart was not his fault, the officer nonetheless felt keenly responsible that any harm should have come to someone he looked upon as a friend and comrade, not to mention one of their most valuable assets in this war.

And now . . . he had a nasty feeling he knew exactly what had happened. It was a rare event that Neelandu Shaan threw his weight around, but even with delays Utonium should have been well on his way back to earth. Something – or someone – had to have interfered.

"Not another word until I speak to you, Mandy," he abruptly ordered. "I'll get to the bottom of this now."

She glowered, but even Mandy knew when to listen up and obey. She crossed her arms with a huff and sat back in her chair, watching intently. He pushed her computer-generated image to one side so it would not be visible and activated the comm unit on his Plumber's badge. Almost instantly a 3-D image of a Kineceleran Plumber agent appeared.

"Licentiate Shaan from Terra, Sol system," he said sternly. "Get me Magister Prior Gilhil. I don't care what he's doing. I want to speak to him now. Do not use my title. Understood?"

"Yes, sir. Right away, sir," said the Kineceleran, openly anxious.

Shaan never glanced Mandy's way as he waited, but he knew he well enough to know the slight motion his eye detected was her arching an eyebrow. A few moments later the badge projected the image of a green, square-jawed alien wearing a starpilot uniform and helmet and seated at the controls of a starship. He looked at least as tough and stern as the man that had summoned him.

"General Shaan," said Gilhil, sounding supremely annoyed. "I'm quite busy."

"Too busy to recall Professor Utonium from Darama?"

"He's needed there. You know that."

"He's needed here. You know that because I told you."

Prior Gilhil gathered himself, completely unaware of what he was dealing with. "One injured being from earth, no matter how much his parent cares for him, isn't as important to the universe as the survival of the entire HighBreed race. It's simple logic, General."

"Did you at least tell Professor Utonium that his son was hurt?"

"He doesn't need the distraction."

"Are you telling me Professor Utonium hasn't been told his son was kidnapped and assaulted by his Fusion double?"

Gilhil's square jaw was set in unrelenting determination. "Yes."

Shaan felt a moment of scandalized astonishment. He'd been right in his assumption of what had happened. "Do you know who Professor Utonium's son is?"

"I don't recall the name you gave me, if that's what you're asking."

"Remember Daving Su and the Capapermin System?"

"Invaded by Planet Fusion last cycle," the Magister finished. "The invasion was successfully repelled, thought Daving Su was eventually abandoned."

"Professor Utonium's son Dexter was the one who invented and made the weapons that repelled the Fusions."

"No offense, General, but a backwater planet like earth hardly has the capacity to produce the level of technology the Capapermians used to stop the invasion."

Shaan leaned forward. "Oh? Isn't this the planet that produced the best Plumber operative in this whole organization?"

"Max Tennyson may have been born on earth, General, but it was the Plumbers that made him great. You can't convince me your planet is capable of making weapons that don't depend upon explosive technology to function."

"Then I won't waste my breath trying. I need to speak to Professor Utonium immediately, Magister."

"Denied. He's just had a breakthrough and it looks as if he may have found a means of beating this virus. We need him focused on the problem, not worried about something he can't change."

"And you've assumed authority for him to make such a decision? You know, for such a backwater planet we certainly seem to produce some outstanding members of our society, wouldn't you say? First Max, then his grandson, and now Professor Utonium has saved the HighBreed from a disease they couldn't cure."

Magister Gilhil glowered, realizing he was being unduly judgmental. "I spoke out of turn. Nonetheless, one life, no matter how dear, can't be valuable above millions of HighBreed."

Shaan's dark eyes narrowed and his expression hardened. "See, that's where you're wrong," he replied. "Did you not hear what I said? This child is the one who makes the weapons used to repel attacks by Planet Fusion. One life that has saved billions, including the HighBreed."

The Plumber digested this, looking stubborn.

"You've made the mistake of underestimating the inhabitants of this planet in the past. History seems to be repeating itself. I have one last question, Magister Gilhil."

"What?" Gilhil asked impatiently.

"When does your license expire?"

The Magister, so used to being in command and being the one to give orders, stared in open amazement at this question. Finally he found his voice. "You're . . . a check?"

"You're darned right I am, Magister. You'd know that in a good way if you'd relayed my request when I made it and not taken it upon your own authority to decide what's best for the populations of two planets."

The image of Mandy watched and listened with great interest, rather enjoying seeing Gilhil getting his butt handed to him after he had stonewalled them for almost a week. Shaan lifted a small, green-and-silver emblem from his desk and held it up for Prior Gilhil to see clearly. It was a variant on the typical Plumber's badge, and it proved Shaan's rank as an examiner from within the ranks of Plumbers.

"Plumber Licentiate Neelandu Arjuna Prasad Shaan," he snapped, his Texan accent at odds with such an exotic title and name. "I need to speak to the Professor immediately."

The Magister looked both outflanked and resentful. Clearly he had been blindsided.

"Just a moment, Licentiate," he said in newly subdued tones, bent over the controls of his ship. "Establishing a comm link. Sir-"

"The next voice I hear had better belong to Professor Utonium or a HighBreed within twenty feet of him, Gilhil, or I'm revoking your power of arrest and grounding you pending an inquiry."

"Kraskat Medical Research Center," said a raspy voice over the badge's communication system. Definitely a HighBreed.

"This is Magister Prior Gilhil," he said. "I need to contact Professor Utonium immediately."

"One moment, Magister Gilhil," said the voice. "Teacher Utonium is in the sterile area of the infectious disease testing lab and cannot access a comm unit within the chamber. His assistant the Morton is available, if that will suffice."

Gilhil looked at Shaan, who nodded.

"That will suffice," said the Magister. "Can we get a visual?"

Gilhil's image vanished, to be replaced by a tired-looking Sergeant Morton from DexLabs Security. Dexter had insisted the best, most trusted member of his security staff accompany his father on this mission, and poor Chip had found himself in orbit before he even knew where he was going.

"Sergeant," Shaan immediately called, glad to see the man. "This is General Shaan. How are things progressing?"

"Sir. Good to see you. Professor Utonium isolated the gene that makes the HighBreed susceptible to this virus, and he's found a way to keep it from . . ." He raised his hands helplessly, in over his head with trying to explain the science of what Utonium was striving to accomplish. "Doing whatever viruses do inside of cells."

"Understood. I'm relieved to hear it. When did this happen?"

Morton made a face. Time took on a whole different meaning when interstellar travel was involved. "Um . . . I'd estimate about four days ago, give or take, sir. I know they're working on their third batch of serum right now. I think they're just trying to figure out the dosage."

"Have you or Professor Utonium received any of the scheduled or emergency communications from earth?"

"No, General," Morton replied. "Not for the last week or more. The Professor has been getting pretty antsy to hear from the kids, too. He was going to see about contacting DexLabs later today to check up on them. Is everything okay?"

By his tone and body language it was plain that he knew something was amiss, but he was trying to be optimistic.

"No, it's not," Shaan said, well aware that Gilhil could hear. "The children are safe, but all's not well. Please have the Professor contact me as soon as possible."

"Sir?" Morton asked, immediately catching on that the General had to be talking about Dexter, considering the fact that the Powerpuff Girls were practically indestructible. Like most people close to Dexter, Morton had a great deal of respect and affection for his fiery little boss. An instant later he backed down. This was for Utonium to hear first. "Yes, sir. I'll go tell him myself and have him contact you as soon as possible. Morton out."


The 3-D image of Gilhil returned, hovering above the badge.

"I'm going to arrange with the HighBreed Supreme to return Utonium's party to earth in one of their cruisers via jump gate. If that plan falls through, I'll be in contact for you transport them. Furthermore, in light of you overstepping your authority in this matter, you can expect a check ride in the near future. Shaan out."

The disgruntled Magister disappeared in a flicker of light. Shaan looked to Mandy. The blonde girl was smirking in satisfaction.

"Check?" she finally asked.

Shaan smirked right back at her. "Plumber slang. I'm one of the people responsible for reviewing performance and recommending corrective action."

"Sweet. He won't try that twice."

"Not if he wants to avoid a court martial. Do you want to talk to Utonium or would you prefer I do it?"

"Let me. I'm the one with my boots on the ground."