Existing and Exiting
Dr. Andonuts looked at the four lifeless figures on the floor.
Their faces were blank, like dead screens, less life in their eyes than dolls. They had no consciousness at all. It had all been transferred into the cyborg bodies that he himself had created, along with the Phase Distorter that had carried the four robots to the otherwise unreachable one time and place where they could fight Giygas – the Cave of the Past, ten years ago.
One of the bodies belonged to his son, Jeff. When he first learnt that his son was on the quest to save the world, the Doctor hadn't even recognised him. It wasn't because he was a bad father or something, no matter what people kept saying. Boys grew and changed a lot in the space of five years. He looked nothing like he did last time Dr. Andonuts saw him. Another, the female, was the one who had sent the strong telepathic signal to his son and led him to the other side of the world to rescue her. Her psychic powers were incredibly strong, stronger than the most potent ever recorded by the Council of Paranormal Research. The boy in the striped shirt and shorts (he had insisted on bringing his red cap with him while he was in the robot body) was her companion, apparently the one destined to defeat Giygas. Dr. Andonuts did not believe in such unscientific nonsense as destiny and prophecies but he recognised Ness' strength and skill in battle.
Then there was the fourth one. Dr. Andonuts had not met the fourth one before at all and knew very little about him. In fact, he couldn't even remember the boy's name. Ah yes... Poo. A more ignorant person would have laughed at the connotations but Dr. Andonuts was fluent in Dalaam, as well as ten other languages, and knew that the name 'Poo' was a title of royal ancestry in their language. Poo was very unassuming and quiet, seeming to be content to defer to Ness in all matters, despite being a Prince. Poo's reaction to the news that he would have to transfer his spirit into a robotic body, possibly without being able to return, was different to that of the other children. He was just as shocked but he had acted as though he had been expecting it to come, rather than like someone encountering a new threat. After that, he had accepted his fate almost straight away. The other three had spent a long time debating amongst themselves and asking Dr. Andonuts if there was any other way. It had been Poo's stoicism that inspired them with the courage to take that final step.
"If Poo can do it, I can do it." Ness had said, "I'm stronger than Poo."
"This isn't just about being strong, Ness." said Paula, "It wouldn't matter how strong you were if that machine failed. You would just die. Your mind wouldn't be in your body any more."
"Nothing you can do." repeated Poo, "And you would die of your own free will. Just as if someone had asked you whether you wanted to die, and you said okay."
"Are you okay, Poo?" asked Paula. Poo normally never spoke, "Are you sure you want to go through with this?"
Poo nodded, "The longer we deliberate over this, the more difficult it will be. It must be your decision and you must decide with absolute certainty. I already know I'm going in. It is my destiny."
"Its my destiny to fight Giygas. But I'm not convinced this is going to help me win." said Ness, "No offence, Jeff, but your father's machines go wrong all the time."
"None taken. Its entirely true." said Jeff, shuddering at the memory of his last voyage in the Sky Runner, "But they've never killed any of us yet."
"Only because they haven't been actively keeping any of us alive." said Ness.
"Well, this is the way I'm going to take. I won't fight this battle without you. My destiny is to fight alongside you, not to win this battle by myself. So I'll wait for you to turn up, whichever other way you find. Because you will face Giygas, Ness, and you will win."
"You could have warned me about that!" Poo gasped. He stared at his arms and legs, hardly able to believe they were still there. The pain was completely gone. That in itself felt wrong – to go from unbearable physical and mental agony to being completely unharmed and lucid. He felt like a sleepwalker who had been disturbed. His world now and a second ago did not match. He had a terrible hunch that, at some point in the future, all the stages in-between were going to hit him at once and he was going to be violently sick and then collapse into a gibbering wreck. He hoped it wouldn't happen in view of his Master.
"Ah, but then it wouldn't have been a challenge." said the Star Master, a stern look on his face, "Your Trial had to be proportional to the level of danger you'll really be in, once your quest starts. The Enemy won't give you any warning before it attacks."
"What kind of enemy can do... THAT?" he demanded.
"You've never seen Giygas. You'll understand, once you do." promised the Master, "Trust me, that was the level of pain you'll have to be prepared to endure if you wish to defeat him."
Poo didn't want to think about encountering the same thing but for real. He changed the subject, "I'm okay now? None of it was real?"
"I have no wish to incapacitate you before you set off on such an important quest." the Star Master said.
That was partly the reason why Poo hadn't wavered. He didn't believe that the Ancestral Spirit would really break his legs. Losing his legs would stop him travelling, stop him fighting, ultimately give him almost no chance to succeed at his quest. It was probably a hypothetical question – what was worth more to him, his destiny or his legs?
The next moment, when he felt the unseen tension on his legs tighten and tighten until he was sure his bones couldn't bear the strain, then kept tightening, when the agony like burning knives shot through his tendons, when he felt his legs lie limp and useless at unnatural angles, he knew it hadn't been a rhetorical question.
He remembered the moment he knew he was taking enough damage to kill him. He could actually feel each system shutting down in order. He had known this much pain before, when he had fallen to an enemy and was certain he was going to die. Except that time the Star Master intervened to save his life, he had been healed and was ready to fight again the next day. This time, he was expected to die, and to calmly accept that he was going to die, in the course of a training exercise. It was the way the spirit kept saying 'is that okay?' that was beginning to scare him. If he was in battle against a monster that was strong enough to break his arms and legs, he wouldn't have been even vaguely scared to fight it.
It had been nothing compared to losing his senses. He knew, with a horror on the very edges of his mind, that he would never see again. Even the grotesque face of the spectre in the celestial expanse. Then it had taken his ears, too, so he couldn't even hear it speaking to him. It was communicating with him telepathically somehow. He was alone in the darkness, never to communicate with another human being again. It cut off his tongue so he couldn't talk. He couldn't even answer back when it told him that it was going to take his mind, the last and the only thing he had, and leave him in utter darkness forever... He had been given a choice, each time, to turn back. Now, when it all made the least sense, when he was about to sacrifice the one thing he couldn't give up under any circumstances, he had the choice taken away from him again.
"It felt real." said Poo, "How can something feel so real and yet be an illusion?"
"Surely after five years of meditation, Poo, you know what a powerful effect the mind can have on the body." said the Star Master, "If that wasn't so, you wouldn't have survived the ideal at all. Only someone with great mental discipline could have endured that much without going insane or having a heart attack due to imagined physical trauma. You've passed your test, Poo."
"I'm never just ACCEPTING that again." said Poo as he stood up, "If it happens, I'll be fighting it every step of the way."
"Even if that's not the way to win?" asked the Star Master.
Poo thought about this. He couldn't think of any kind of battle you won by having all your limbs broken, your eyes put out, your tongue cut off and then your mind destroyed. Except perhaps a contest to see who could lose the fastest.
"I'm not surrendering my mind." he said.
"You may not have the choice." replied the Star Master.
"What do you mean, the machine's not working? Poo's still not back!"
"There's some kind of massive power fluctuation." said Dr. Andonuts, "It could have been a backlash of negative energy from Giygas' death throes, or that some of the psychic power you were throwing around got into the machine. There was enough of it to actually cause the meters to explode. What exactly were you doing in there? Or maybe the machine just couldn't handle transporting all four of you there and back again. Both matter transfer and time travel are new sciences..."
"POO'S STILL NOT BACK!" yelled Paula, the expression on her face sterner this time.
"I'll repair it this instant! I promise!" said the scientist. Jeff and Orange Kid were already working on the machines but they couldn't do much without Dr. Andonuts. He was the only one who really knew exactly what the machine did. Ness sat over Poo's motionless body, using PK Healing Omega over and over again. The Mr. Saturns who weren't on the scientific team had formed a production line from the store to the clearing and were passing Ness refreshments so he didn't have to move to replenish his psychic energy. Two of them tried to force Lifenoodles down Poo's throat and were shooed away by Paula.
"We won't let you die." she promised Poo. Then she sat down and began to pray.