Chapter Forty-Three: Choose Your Battles Wisely

Staring down at Breach's limp form, the Ur-Dexter prodded her with the battle wrench. She gave no response whatsoever, and it smirked, well pleased with itself. Still smiling, it looked up at Van Kleiss as the large Fusion EVO sniffed the girl disapprovingly before raising its head to glower at him. Strangely, Van Kleiss could see a resemblance between the copy of the boy and the copy of the EVO, though perhaps it was just their intolerably smug expressions.

"It seems her ability doesn't mix well with massive electrical discharges," the Fusion announced. "If she's wise, she won't cross me again. I doubt she'd survive."

How had it known the limits of Breach's talent? It had deliberately gone for her, knowing what it could and would do. Had it somehow learned how to attack from Dexter?

. . . he is me, Michael . . .

Of course. Dexter. Always Dexter. Too smart for anyone's good Dexter. He was learning how to despise that child . . . or at least this perverse copy of him. Strange how one version was so appealing and the other so repulsive. Perhaps it was the difference between human and alien, but more likely a question of how much control he could wield over the child versus his doppleganger. Not that either Dexter would be controlled . . .

The enormity of Van Kleiss' folly struck him as he stared at the hateful little Fusion Dexter. Nothing had turned out to be what if first seemed this day, and he knew there was no chance of salvaging anything of this situation. He would even need a fresh infusion of nanites to fully heal, and therefore he had to return to Abysus immediately. Gat was a complete loss, as was his hope of possessing Dexter. Even escape was questionable right now since Breach was incapacitated.

Eyes narrowing sharply, he mentally debated his next action when suddenly powerful arms seized him around the waist. Biowulf forced him onto the carrier EVO's back, braving the Fusion creature's claws and teeth.

"Run, Master!" ordered Biowulf. "Skalamander and I will buy you time. Flee!"

A poor choice of words, but accurate. Biowulf had just betrayed to all exactly how desperate their situation really was. Then again, anyone with eyes could see that just by looking.

Without a word or a glance back, he commanded the beast to turn and make for the shaft as quickly as it could, leaving his minions to put up a rearguard defense. The Fusion EVO was fortunately more interested in protecting its creator than stopping him and so stood its ground, which was just as well because he doubted he would have been able to defend against it if it attacked. Let the Pack deal with the Fusion Dexter. He glared as I-Bol climbed onto the carrier's back along with him, the coward. Not that he was particularly useful in a fight, but he was abandoning his peers. A moment later Van Kleiss ducked down as the EVO squeezed through the entrance and I-Bol, not so wise, was knocked off with a strangely satisfying splat.

Voices. Rex and the others. They were in front of him in the tunnel. He urged the carrier beast to move faster, knowing what it was capable of doing.

Perhaps his loss would not be quite so complete after all . . .

OoOoOoOoOoOoO

It was dark, terribly dark. Dexter didn't need to open his eyes to sense that. It pressed in around him like a cold, living thing, moving shifting, hungry, oppressive. With strength born of desperation he clung to Rex like a lifeline, as he had clung to him before. Strong hands gripped him tightly, holding him close, and instinct told Dexter that nothing would happen to him here. All he had to do was hold on long enough and he would be free.

They were talking, calling out warnings to one another and reassuring themselves that everyone was well and alive. Chip's voice was close by, and Dexter was grateful for the occasional words of comfort thrown his way.

"We're getting you out, sir. Just stay right where you are."

"And let me do the flying," finished Rex with grim humor.

He wanted to respond with something witty, but words failed him. His feelings were so raw and his memories of the past few hours overwhelmed any sense of relief he felt at being removed from Gat. Exhaustion dragged him down, and he wondered how Rex and Ben were able to keep going. He had no idea where Breach had cast them, nor yet Agent Six and Morton, but he knew she would not have made anything easy on them. Still, they had made it back. They were here to rescue him. He was not to be a slave or a plaything. He had not been dragged down into despair. Pressed close to Rex's jacket, he could smell salt. His weary mind wandered to possible explanations as he tried to focus on anything but the near-total darkness.

"Something's behind us," grumbled a rough voice that Dexter didn't recognize.

"Van Crazy's transport EVO," Rex replied, urgency in his tone. "That dino-sloth."

"Hey, blondie, you want me to lower the boom on 'em?"

"We're too close," Morton snapped. "I told you, Haha, not until we're at leas- aaaagh!"

OoOoOoOoOoOoO

The sergeant's voice rose up in a startled shout and suddenly Rex was struggling to stay airborne, thrown off balance as Morton was yanked off the wing of the Boogie Pack. Capt. Calan gave an indignant bark of "Oh, no you don't!" and a moment later he let go and dropped to the ground. Clutching Dexter close to his chest, Rex whipped around, landing and hollering for the others.

"Ben! Six! We got –"

"Stay with him!" hissed Jetray, depositing Holiday next to Rex. He darted past so quickly that the doctor spilled to her hands and knees and a swirl of dust and dirt followed in the Aerophibian's wake. Blazing white laser fire erupted back down the tunnel as Morton took great offense at having been licked off his ticket out of Gat and opened up with his Null-Void rifle.

The flashes of energy were almost blinding-bright and they illuminated the scene in a weird, disjointed sort of way, giving Rex and Holiday fleeting glimpses of the action that was punctuated by darkness and shouting voices. They caught sight of Van Kleiss riding the EVO and Morton being dangled upside down, the creature's long, blue tongue wrapped around his leg. The sergeant was having none of that, however, and was blazing away at it with his gun. A moment later Jetray added his own laser-eyed attack, illuminating the tunnel with yellow light and sending up a stench of burned hair. The EVO roared in pain, trying to angle away from the attack and whipping Morton about like a toy.

"What I'd give for some popcorn," Bobo said in appreciation of the entertainment, earning himself some hearty glares from Rex and Holiday that had absolutely no effect on him. "C'mon, Green Bean! End this! I wanna blow this popsicle stand!"

A flash of silver blades caught their eyes, and suddenly the fight was over as Six sliced through the long and sticky tongue. Morton hit the ground and Calan helped to free him of the slimy blue mass. The EVO howled in pain, slurping the remains of its tongue back into its mouth like a noodle. Already it was healing and adapting to the loss and seemingly determined to deafen them all. Darkness returned, and with it the rest of their companions.

Battered, bruised, and spattered with EVO spit, Morton limped between Six and Calan, leaning heavily on both men as Ben covered their rear. Faintly they heard the roar of the Fusion EVO still in the cavern behind them as it faced the Pack. Both forces were still very viable threats.

"We need to get out of here now," Six stated.

Suddenly Morton gasped and let out a sharp cry of pain, doubling over and clawing at his leg. Rex set Dexter on his feet, keeping one arm close around the younger boy as he turned his free hand into a Funchuck. In the faint, bluish light they could see wisps of smoke rising up around Chip as the EVO's acidic saliva ate through his uniform and Kevlar body armor, burning clear through to his skin. From his ankle to just above his knee his trousers and boot were in tatters, his leg showing red underneath, oozing and bleeding in spots and slowly spreading. Another sound of pain escaped Chip as he struggled to keep from writhing.

"Set him down," ordered Holiday, bending to examine Morton's leg. "Captain, hold him."

Calan bodily restrained Morton, holding him down as Holiday used a knife to cut as much of the affected fabric away as she could. Her own gloves started to smolder after a few seconds and she grimaced and stripped them off, casting them aside before she was burned as well.

"I have nothing to treat this," she said tightly, and the urgency in her voice and Morton's panting breaths told them all exactly how bad the wound was. "We have to get him out of here. There are field kits in the ships."

"How much further to the shaft?" asked Calan.

"Half a sec," said Ben. There was a flash of light as Jetray gave way to Echo Echo. The Sonarosian let out a quick shout in the direction they had been heading and almost immediately said, "Another two hundred feet dead ahead is the shaft. If we - hey! Watch out!" ordered Echo Echo, pressing them back.

"Out of my way, Tennyson," commanded Van Kleiss. Speech was clearly difficult for him at the moment, though his arrogance and drive were unshaken.

"Stay out of mine," returned the teen savagely. That he was a small and almost cute white alien somehow only served to make Ben's threat that much worse. He clenched his hands, poised to attack.

Van Kleiss glared, but he rightly suspected that this tiny creature could inflict more damage than he or his transport could deal with at the moment. Six broke the tension, stepping forward and quietly murmuring, "Now is not the time. We have more important priorities."

His position thus usurped by a neurotic brat and a wounded security guard, Van Kleiss urged the beast forward. As he passed the young hero and the ninja he merely mumbled, "Have it your way, child."

The EVO hugged the wall, giving them as wide a berth as it could. Six stood with Ben10, facing Van Kleiss defiantly and ready to act if he dared to try anything. Now was not the time to fight, however. They had greater issues than stopping this man. A pleased smirk was cast in their direction, however, as Van Kleiss left them even worse off than before. Now only the Pack stood between them and the Ur-Dexter and his new pet.

With trembling hands Dexter unbuttoned his lab coat, never looking up or shifting far from Rex's hold. Stripping the still-damp coat off, he silently held it out to Holiday. It wasn't much, but it was all they had and she gladly seized upon it. In a matter of seconds the once-white coat was sliced into wide strips by Six's katanas. Working quickly, the doctor cleaned the burns with a few pieces of the fabric before binding Morton's leg.

"That's the best I can do for now," she said. Morton simply nodded, grimacing.

"That'll do," Six announced, staring back in the direction of Gat. An eerie, disturbing silence had fallen - a silence that was far worse than the sound of pitched battle. Not a one of them needed to be told what had happened or what would follow, and without a word Rex swept Dexter into his arms again, calling up the Boogie Pack as he did so. In the wane light he cast, Rex looked at Chip, pale and clearly in a world of pain as Calan hauled him upright. Softly he asked,

"Will you be okay to hang on?"

Morton slung the Null-Void over his shoulder, limping forward. "My leg's hurt, not my arms."

"Get to the shaft," ordered Echo Echo, splitting himself time and again. As he spoke, half a dozen of the small aliens headed in the direction indicated while the other dozen or so fanned out where they were. "I'll guide you, the rest of me will hold them here. Go!"

"You'll catch up?" pressed Rex anxiously.

The Sonarosian gave a quick, humorless laugh. "I won't have to."