– – –

Author's Note:

HELLO EVERYONE! Welcome back, welcome back! Sorry for the late start (I was simply unable to start this up last night), but much, much better late than never… because I bring you…

Part Three: Memories!

Thank you all so much for your support of the story so far~! I've been saying for a while that this is my favorite part, and, well… I'm excited! Welcome to all new readers, too~! ^^ Please be sure to check out TimeWarpFactorFive and the first two parts of the MandylionSaga:Changes and Transitions, before diving into this part, since it literally picks right back up where we left off.

When we left off in Transitions, secrets were finally starting to be told, and Zim learned the truth behind one of Tallest Red's greatest lies: his partner was originally human. Dib and Gaz still struggle somewhat with their background, and Zim has earned the second quarter of his soul…

I will hopefully be updating on Fridays again this month! ^^ I apologize for yesterday, but working in the theatre, you never know when you'll be pulling super late nights. So what I will strive to do instead is update on Friday afternoons~! Yay!

So, again, welcome, and enjoy~ :3

InvaderZim is -c- Jhonen Vasquez! Only the events of this story, characters specific to the story, and character tweaking (heh) are mine. :3


– – –

Invader Zim:

~The Mandylion Saga~

~Part Three: Memories~

Zim's Records

The fact that most of the life I knew up to that moment was a lie became even clearer to me as I stood dumbfounded in front of the Tallest. Everything I had been told, even in witnesses' prosecutions against me during a trial I had gone through not long ago, was slowly being re-written. Everyone had always taken advantage of my black hole of a memory, and had filled it with false information. I could not recall a single scene they'd told me of during the trial, and therefore I foolishly accepted all that was told to me as the truth. I still did not know what had caused me to wipe my memory in the first place, so long ago, but now more than ever I wanted to know everything.

I had been living peacefully in the lie until I had gained a conscience, the side effect of being human and having earned a small piece of a soul. With a human conscience, I was more aware of everything, and more skeptical. I saw myself and what I knew of my past in a different way, and even during the Incident, I was beginning to wonder whether or not everything I had been told of the first several decades of my life was an elaborate lie.

Even after that sixty year mark, things were hazy. One of the advantages to being Irken is having impeccable memorization skills; every bit of an Irken's past is stored in a backup disc in their PAKs. Apparently, I'd done such a wonderful job at suppressing my memory that the disc in my Irken PAK had been wiped completely clean, with no other known backup stimulator that could recover the memory files... until now. It was remembering on its own.

I wondered if it knew anything about a human named Ira.

Had I known of a time when there was no Tallest Purple? It wasn't long ago that Red rose to power, but it was during that point in time at which my mind had still been quite cloudy, so it took me longer during those years to redevelop my senses. I had most likely been tricked into thinking Purple and Red had always ruled together; even during the trial I'd undergone, I was told that Purple was there with Red during different parts of my past... my first experience on Devastis, for example, or the first training academy on Irk. That, just like almost everything else I had been told up until recently, was nothing more than an elaborate lie.

But this was something much different from any lie I'd been told before. This was something Red and 'Purple' had been telling the entireIrkenpopulation for years.

Red's unchanging expression told me that the last words he had spoken were the absolute truth, and he did not intend to tell me anything beyond what he had already said. Still, I wanted desperately to find out just what had happened to Purple—no... Ira. Who was he? When had he, as a human, come to the Empire? And, more than that, why was he not only Irken, but a Tallest now?

My hands were trembling as I clenched them into fists, my teeth grinding together and my eyes watering. I glared up at Red, whose eyes gleamed brightly behind his thin, rectangular glasses. "Red..." I began. My voice was shaking, and it scared me, just how frightened I sounded. I was losing my grip on all that I had considered reality, and Red's usual demeanor was doing nothing to help me cope with that. There was so much I wanted to ask him, so much I wanted to yell at him about, but all that came out at that point was the question, "Why?"

Red looked ready to answer, but all of a sudden, from outside, there was a rumbling, almost like the prelude to an earthquake, and then an audible explosion. I perked back up after that, recognizing the pattern of the attack. Silent but effective, it was exactly the kind of attack Tak had been talking to me about once, back when I had joined forces with her. It was the style of the old Elite, she'd told me. I'd love it, she'd told me. Well, now I absolutely despised it, and despised myself for, when she had mentioned the attack to me, just shrugging and saying, "Sure, whatever." Now, I'd gone along with a lot of what she had said, even helped her in several respects, but the actual modes of attacks were things I'd not paid as much attention to. Nice going.

Red whirled and rushed through the room toward the door, and I followed close behind. As he flung the door open, Red shouted out that name, so new to my ears, as if he'd been using it all along: "Ira!"

Standing not far from the door was the supposed Tallest, frozen as he looked out at the scene laying before us all. "Sh—" Red began, stumbling back. He was absolutely furious.

While none of us had expected it, Tak had launched the first attack. Just as I thought, though... she'd gone straight for the heart—she'd come straight to the Corporation. This was her ultimate goal. The rest of Earth would just be a consolation prize to her. The Massive itself was nowhere to be seen, but a myriad of Shuvvers, Spittle Runners, and Viral Tanks (among the best-armored vehicles the Irken Army had to offer) had landed around the perimeter of the grounds of the complex, and several soldiers were standing in wait. Shit... I thought. Dib had secured the entire perimeter... but nobody had thought to build any kind of shield above us.

Standing on top of one of the Spittle Runners were two Irkens in human guise. I couldn't tell, from this far away, whether or not they were in hologram, or in temp forms granted by the Cabochon. Either way, they were convincing. One of them seemed, in human form, quite young... but he was tall, slim, and on guard. Definitely a soldier. The other was very short, in comparison, and bulkier than I'd expect any Irken in hologram to be. The extra weight he carried didn't seem to stop him from preparing for a strong attack, though. Well. No doubt those were the two that Tak had put in charge of the attack. And no doubt they were Invaders. Possibly part of the new Elite.

All I could think of to say in response to the current situation was just simply, "Fuck."

Slowly, Red moved toward his partner, and I followed in a daze, taking in just how many Irkens were currently surrounding us. None of them seemed to recognize me, which was very good on my part, but 'Purple' was getting a few glares.

"Ira," Red said as calmly as he could manage. Jeez,that'sreallyhisname,huh? I thought to myself. It was weird to hear Red saying it so freely. And kind of frightening, as I couldn't begin to fathom what this man could possibly have done to receive the 'punishment' of becoming an Irken Tallest. "We're going back in. Now."

"They know me," Ira whispered, his purple eyes staring vacantly forward. "They know I'm not dead..."

"That's why we're going back inside!" Red hissed.

"They're going to kill us..."

"No, they're not, dammit, come on!" Firmly, Red grabbed Ira by the arm, nodded toward me, and backed up into the main building. Casting a look back at the Irken Army, I followed him again. Once back inside, Red heaved out a harsh sigh and turned Ira to face him. "You just stood there?" he reprimanded, practically spitting out his words.

"It's out," Ira said, ignoring Red's accusation, his head down. "That's it, I'm done for. If they don't kill me, the Control Brains will still punish me, won't they?" Raising his head to look up hatefully at Red, his eyes clouded with tears, he spat, "I shouldn't have said anything! Now I'm never going to be myself again, am I? I'm never going to be able to return home, I'm never going to see Lisa again!"

Unemotionally, Red struck Ira across the face. "Shut up," he said firmly.

Outraged at the action he'd taken, I whirled Red around to face me, wanting to at least put my two cents in. "What the hell are you doing?" I barked, angrier than ever at my leader. "In case you didn't notice, Red, there's a shit-fuck-ton of Irkens out there and all you can think of is your own little personal battle? Save it, Red, we're gonna go fight them."

Red grabbed me by the collar and pulled me up a little so that I was on my toes and eye-to-eye with him. I clawed at his hands, trying to pry them away from my neck. "You're a fucking Irken, too, you know!" he shouted, his sharp, Irken-red eyes burning into me. "How dare you speak the name of our race with such hatred in your voice? You aren't human yet, Zim, remember that!"

"What the hell is going on out there?"

I used that opportunity to shove away from Red, then turned to see who had spoken. It was Dib, with Lex and Victor Haynsworth, Nacea, and Gaz all standing behind him. Dib had obviously sensed something, as he now had his sword strapped in a belt around his waist, his right hand on the hilt, ready to draw at any moment.

"Get Brakem and the others," I instructed, grabbing my winter-durable, grey SEC armed forces coat off of the multi-pegged hanger on the wall near the door. "We need to have a branch at every end of the complex; the Irkens are here, and they've got us surrounded."

Dib's eyes widened. "The fuck? How did they get here so quickly?"

"I didn't even hear anything!" Gaz cried, looking alarmed. I noticed that she, too, had grabbed her weapons and was ready to attack. "And they're on all sides?"

"It's an old Elite battle sequence," Red explained, finally having calmed down. Ira was choosing to stay out of the conversation, and, at present, I did not blame him. "When I was in the Elite, we were drilled on this. It's possible to shut the engines of our ships down enough to make them completely silent, and, add cloaking devices on top of that, you can begin an attack and have the upper hand in a matter of minutes."

"Great," Dib muttered, slapping a hand to his forehead. "We're dealing with intergalactic ninjas. Just perfect."

"Being on land will slow them down though," Red said, casting a nervous glance over his shoulder, as though he could see through the walls and out onto what was becoming a battlefield.

"Plus," I added, "if we can drive them toward the lake, we've got a definite advantage."

"All right," Dib sighed. "Nacea, find Brakem and tell him to assemble his army. Lex, Victor, grab your gear and meet us out there. You two are some of the best fighters we've got." Those given instructions nodded and set off... Nacea in the direction of the Board room, Lex and her father in the direction of Victor's office. "Zim," Dib continued, "get to the dojo, I think Tenn is there. While you're at it, get yourself a weapon, you're going to need it. Grab a couple for the Tallest, too. You think you can make it there without?"

"I can manage," I grinned, cracking my knuckles. To be honest... yeah, it was a sudden attack, but I was kind of ready. When I thought about it, this was the first time I'd be fighting for Earth against the primary problem. Lard Nar's fate was still disturbing me, and there was no telling whether or not I'd experience a blackout (please, God, no, I kept begging...), but against Tak, I'd always be ready. I'd always have a bit of fight in me, if it meant being one step closer to bringing that bitch down.

"Good. Red, Purple," Dib finished—and I had no idea if he saw Ira tense and shudder, as I had—"you two come with me, and we'll attempt to reason with them before we start in on any attacks."

"Uh—" Red began, looking over at his partner.

Ira drew in a long breath and straightened, then removed his overshirt, throwing it to the side. He messed with his hair a little, brushing it out with his fingers and flicking his long purple bangs out of his eyes, then swiftly twisted his elastic around the longer black part again. "I'd like to explain later, Red," he said calmly, yanking at his hair to secure the low ponytail. "For now, let's just get this over with."

"Zim," Dib said firmly to me, motioning that I should follow him out as he walked to the door, "come with us for now, then go off to the dojo, all right? I'm trusting you not to turn on us in this."

"I'm on your side," I reassured him.

That said, the four of us, once Red, Ira and Dib had each claimed a coat to combat the cold, walked back out onto the main battlefield. There was still a fair amount of daylight left in the cloudy sky, and a frost that could potentially be to our advantage clung to the ground. The Irkens hadn't made a move yet. They were playing by old Elite rules, it seemed. They were waiting for a signal to attack, and it seemed that that signal was just about to be given. The two Irkens in hologram, standing atop the Spittle Runner, glanced over at us, and the shorter one gave a signal to his taller companion, who nodded and evanesced, only to reappear directly in front of us.

He was only about two inches shorter than me, with wild red-orange hair and the same ice blue eyes as Tenn. There were several Irkens in human guise surrounding us, I noticed, and all of them wore simple grey and green uniforms, but this particular soldier was wearing something considerably different. He was dressed in red and black—a red, multi-zippered, long-sleeved jacket, black pants and steel-toed boots. Both of his ears was pierced with a small gold hoop, and he wore a leather cuff on each wrist.

I knew that I had been instructed to go immediately to the dojo, but something was upsetting me about this soldier. Aside from the fact that his hair was a little longer, and obviously a different color, and factoring in that, if he was human, he'd be a little younger than me... still, it was unnerving. He looked a lot like me. The shape of his eyes, even the way his mouth curved upward into a smirk when he stepped closer to the four of us.

"So," he said, directing his words at Dib, "you're the famed Dib Membrane." His voice was so familiar, but I was too concentrated on wondering why we looked similar to put my finger on who he actually was. "Rumor has it you're trying to rise to power in our world."

"I'm willing to reason with you," Dib affirmed, standing his ground against the Irken.

The Irken raised an eyebrow, then pulled a small knife out of his boot and struck out for Dib's neck. Dib quickly countered with his sword, and, the second the blades clashed, the Irken's knife became a full-length broadsword.

"This is how we reason in the Empire," the Irken smirked. "I'm gonna take your life and this planet, in the name of the Tallest."

"Wonderful," Dib sneered. "So it begins. Zim!" he barked over at me, shoving the Irken away with his impeccably-handled sword. "Get Tenn! Go, now!"

And thus the first battle began. I nodded and turned to leave, scanning the field for the best route to my destination. Just before I did, Ira caught my arm and instructed, "Find me a sword of some sort. Red's better with a gun."

"Got it," I said, rushing off to the left toward the dojo.

One thing I've always been proud of is how fast I'm able to run. (Granted, that ability developed, in part, due to my having to run away from a lot of things over the years...) Even with obstacles in my way, I can jump or dodge them without losing speed. I may not be as fast as some track runners, but it takes a long time for me to tire from running at top speed. As I was running, a couple of Irkens, in human holograms of course, attempted to stop me, but I fought them off, darting behind one and kicking him into the other in mid-air, causing his PAK to go off, killing them both. I landed and continued running as though it had not happened. I didn't want to think about ruining my chance at a soul by having the need to kill some of the Irken soldiers. They wouldn't stop until their PAKs were destroyed.

Blind followers. Just what the Empire had always had.

Just what Tak wanted.

Bitch, I thought as I ran, youbettershowyourfacetoday.

As Dib had said, Tenn was in the dojo, looking startled at the sudden attack. "Don't just stand there!" I shouted as I rushed toward the back wall to look through the available weapons. "Tak's army is out there, and we need you!"

"I'm gone!" she said, darting out of the building, her weapon of choice—of course, that revolver-type laser-powered weapon—in hand. Tenn's hologram, as did most others, added a little armor, so even if the hologram was damaged, her body would not necessarily be. Knowing that actually made me feel more powerful, since it was more of a challenge as a human, wearing nothing but the clothes I'd decided to put on that morning. Armorless, it was going to be fun.

Going into battle had always been fun.

...Hadn't it..?

There in the dojo, I was faced with the challenge of arming myself. I wasn't a big fan of guns, so I wasn't about to use that Vortian pistol again, as Tenn was. I needed something... something I knew I could use, and something I wouldn't have to stand there and deliberate over for very long.

My decision was made for me when a familiar voice came from behind me:

"I believe these are what you might be looking for."

I tensed and turned—indeed, there was the Mandylion, having come just as silently and mysteriously as ever, the hood of her cloak shielding the features of her face. In her thin, gloved hands, she held a set of what looked like two daggers. The blades were longer than the ones Gaz possessed, and the angular hilts, carved of an increasingly easy to determine material, were unsettlingly Irken. No matter, though—they were stunning to look at. The blades had a slight red sheen in the dim light that filtered through the open wall, and they looked easy to use.

"What are you doing here?" I demanded.

The Mandylion held the weapons out to me, as if there was no room for debate. "I am an agent of change, Zim," she told me again, "but I cannot guarantee any outcomes..."

"And that answers my question how?" I scoffed. "Look, I appreciate your help and all, though you do kind of freak me out, but I really don't have much time to talk. I've gotta get out there and fight."

"What for?"

"Earth," I said simply, my eyes narrowing as my entire being settled on my goal. "I've got the chance to be front line against the greatest threat to this planet, and I'm going to fight for Earth's safety with all I've got."


"As I keep saying!" I shouted. "I love this planet, I want to live here, and someone very, very important to me needs to stay safe. Now are those things going to help me or not?"

As I probably should have anticipated by now, the Mandylion laughed a little before answering. "They are yours if you wish them to be," she said. "They are among the finest Tavic weapons ever created." I'd thought so. I was a little wary about using weapons made of that Irken mineral, Tavis... but at the same time, using their own precious metal against the Irkens was an idea I could easily entertain. "These sairedon suit you, Zim," the Mandylion went on, as I finally gathered my pride, stepped forward, and took the weapons from her, testing their weight in my hands. "They have the ability to change size, if you so desire, and the ability all shards of Tavis possess... added protection.

They were pretty fantastic weapons... I had to hand her that. The hilts matched my grip pretty well, an I twirled them once, causing the blades to become longer, thinner... more like twin swords. They were definitely handy, and more than effective in short-range combat. I grinned and twirled them back to their regular size, tucking them into the loops near the front pockets of my pants for easy reach. Just before I could thank the Mandylion, she had disappeared.

Silently, I cursed her for being so damned... odd, then quickly followed Ira's advice by grabbing a katana and a powerful looking double set of automatic revolvers off of the wall. I found a weapons belt with gun holsters hanging close by, so I grabbed that and strapped it loosely around my waist, knowing I'd just give it to Red soon enough, and tucked the revolvers and a few extra rounds of bullets into it, then, making sure my new sairedon were secure, I ran back out onto the battlefield, katana in hand.

Already a larger brawl had begun, but Brakem's army had been deployed. Our army was considerably smaller than the Irken Army, but in several ways it was more effective, since a great handful of the Irken Army seemed to be fresh from Devastis, with little field practice. Dib and the Tallest were still in the general area of the main building (that being Dib's greatest concern, I knew), so reaching them was no problem. Red was doing all right, fighting off the Irkens manually, but since I knew he was a good shot, I approached him first, un-strapping the belt and handing it to him after he'd knocked one of the Irken soldiers unconscious.

"Two," he commented after donning the belt and drawing the revolvers, "nice. Not quite laser-powered, but these'll do."

"Red, why are you even fighting for us in this one?" I asked, going back-to-back with him, striking an approaching Irken with the back of my left hand.

"This isn't my army," he said darkly, firing once. Damn. I had not expected that from him. At all. Red, though, was one of those people who acted best in the heat of turmoil. The best decisions he made were on very short notice; the best realizations, too. If one thing could get him thinking more openly about the whole Irk vs. Earth situation... it was seeing Tak's army in action. "Tak's trained a new one, and it pisses me off. I kinda want this war to end as much as you humans do."

"Heh, really? We humans, huh?" I grinned.

"Yes, you humans! Now get that sword to Ira!"

I nudged Red in the back just before I left, remarking, "Thanks for calling me 'human.'"

That said, I began to scan the field for Ira, and as I began to walk away, Red finally got what I'd just pointed out to him, then called back at me, "If I have any bullets left by the time we're through here, you're going down, Zim!"

I just grinned again and continued rushing over to where Ira was involved in a small battle of his own. He was using a form of martial art I'd never seen before—not in Brakem's army, and certainly never in the Irken one. Ira's height actually became an advantage for him, since his style was mostly kicks and low punches, though there was a lot of variation in there as well. His thin frame added a heightened agility, and surprisingly his long hair didn't even prove to be a blind spot for him, he attacked with such precision.

"Here," I shouted, tossing the katana in his direction.

Ira grabbed it by the hilt without missing a beat, unsheathed the blade and thrust it through the chest—and PAK—of the Irken directly behind him, then pulled it out to strike down another to his right. Drawing my own new weapons, I approached him and asked, "What the hell kind of style is that?"

"Taijutsu,battoujutsu," he said, tossing his bangs out of his eyes and preparing for another confrontation. "Plus a few things I've picked up here and there."


Ira flashed me his carefree smile. "I'm from Japan," he said just as conversationally as if we weren't in the middle of an intergalactic fight.

It still hadn't hit me completely that Tallest Purple... well, Ira... was really human. More human than I was. I tossed the thought from my mind, wished him luck, and rushed to the other side of the main building, wanting subconsciously to just find Gaz and fight wherever she was, to make sure nothing happened to her. I was confident in her ability to fight on her own, but still, I wanted to be the one to protect her.

The sairedon in my left hand began to feel warmer against my palm, so I turned to my left to see an Irken soldier approaching. Handytrick, I thought as I twirled the blade out to its longer size and slit my attacker's neck. Of course, he didn't bleed, but he was stunned, so I took that opportunity to rush behind him and thrust the blade in my right hand, still a smaller size, into his PAK, causing it to short-circuit. As he fell, I twirled my left sairedon back to its regular size and continued onward.

Huh, I thought.Icouldgetusedtothese...

Overhead, grey clouds were forming, and with the season as it was, I sensed that there was a great possibility that it would soon begin to snow, or we'd get freezing rain at least. Either way, if we could hold the Irkens off until that time came, we'd be fine, due to the Irken race's inability to withstand any form of water. The lake hadn't frozen over yet, either, so driving them, or, even better, their vehicles, into the lake would definitely cause us to gain the upper hand.

On my way to the other side of the main building, I ran into Nacea, of all people, blasting back several of the Irkens. She wasn't killing any of them specifically, but in some cases, their PAKs were shocked and they fell, but if that happened, she simply turned away. Nacea was the most peaceful person I've ever known, so death and the concept of killing did not strike a positive chord within her. Still, she was probably doing this for Dib's sake. I knew very little of the Meekrob girl, but one would have to be blind not to realize just how much she wanted to stay in his good graces, and keep him protected.

"Nacea?" I asked, twirling my blades out to their full size. The fact that they could do that was becoming more than amusing to me. "Need a hand?"

"As long as I see no blood, you may help me as much as you wish," she said. No sooner had she said that than the two of us were surrounded. Nacea cried out and ducked behind me. She only came up to where my scar ended, in the middle of my back, so it may as well have only been me standing there.

"You need to attack, you know," I said quietly to her.

"I will just... close my eyes, then." I then heard a blast behind me, and knew that she was not holding back.

I smirked and yelled out at the Irkens, "Bring it on!"

One of the Irkens fired at me with a laser-powered Vortian revolver, but I countered with both of my blades and rushed toward him, thrusting my left blade up through and into his PAK, then struck out with my right as I pulled my left out of his lifeless body, and brought down yet another. The way my sairedon functioned was becoming easier for me to handle as I fought. Having the small swords was just like adding a little extra reach to a regular punch; I fought to the best of my ability, eventually striking down every Irken that had come my way.

Nacea, too, had done quite a job, though she looked sick when she saw the carnage. "I am going to find Dib," she told me, sadly looking at her surroundings.

"If you're uncomfortable, Nacea, just go back inside," I suggested, "where you can—"

She shook her head. "He needs my help." With that, she waved good-bye to me with a smile, and darted off toward where Dib had been fighting.

"See you," I called after her. I had my doubts, whether she really should have stuck to the battle, but Nacea was headstrong, even if she did appear mostly naive. She won a little respect from me, for being more or less a pacifist... obviously, I didn't completely want to be a solider right now, not if I could help it. But fighting for my life and for the planet I'd come to admire, now that was somehow different.

That was the difference. I was fighting to protect. Not to destroy.

Even when my repairing PAK tried to argue, I managed to stay focused on my present targets. Drive them to the water—drive those damn Irkens back.

As I continued onward, I noticed that even GIR had come out for a little piece of the action. Installing the extra obedience a few years before had proven to be a good thing for his battle tactics, it seemed, since he wasn't running from a single fight. GIR was equipped with quite the variety of internal weaponry, and he was, to my surprise, utilizing most of what he was capable of. I smiled to myself, feeling proud of what the little, usually spastic, robot could really do.

I hadn't reached the other side of the building before someone rushed up behind me and put me in a choke hold. My sairedon hadn't reacted, meaning my attacker was moving at a speed that a regular human could not even hope to detect. When I finally did feel the heat in my hands, though, I could tell that the pressure was just a little stronger, due to this Irken's physical contact with me. He was pressed up against my back, and, strangely enough, I could feel his alien heartbeat—and it almost matched mine.

I struck him in the gut with my elbow and tore myself away from him, turning completely so that I could see my attacker. I stumbled backward a bit when I saw that it was the taller of the two leaders of the current invasion. The one who looked like a younger, more violent me.

"Who are you?" I demanded. He stood his ground, not even drawing a weapon, glaring at me indifferently. "Answer me!" I snapped.

"Surprised you don't recognize me, Zim," he said, drawing the knife from his boot with his left hand and beginning to circle me. He swept his right hand over the blade of the knife, and the weapon became almost intangible, lengthening greatly. He grabbed the light with his right hand, and it became a long chain. As he began to swing the chain, I noticed that the weapon was actually a manriki, what with the lead weight on the end. The lead weight on his bore the Irken Military insignia, and was sharply spiked. "Seems you had no trouble in finding Tenn again. Still... what an outcome. Stupid human."

His voice finally registered in my mind. It was a voice I'd heard plenty of times during my stay on the Massive, the voice of someone who fought for the mere pleasure of being a soldier. He'd wanted his weapon back, I remembered him telling me. He'd once had one made of Tavis. And that manriki certainly had the same strange sheen as my strange, thin daggers.

"Good to see you too, Skutch," I muttered, preparing myself to strike whenever he seemed as though he was about to.

He smirked, and laughed a bit. "There we go."

Something was off. Skutch had never been easy to read, but still... something was off about him now. He'd been helping me out on the Massive, sure, but... "Skutch, why are you with Tak's army?" I ventured to ask, standing my ground.

"With?" he mocked me. "Nah, Zim. I'm leading this army."

"Leading?" I repeated. "You?"

"You doubting my abilities?" Skutch snarled.

"I'm doubting your loyalty."

"Well, don't," he snapped. "Tallest Tak did somethin' Red and Purple never did. Two things. I finally climbed, Zim. Got my promotion, got my weapon back. Easy enough."

But still... something just felt wrong about this...

"What are you doing here?" I demanded, following him with my eyes as he continued to circle me.

"Tak wants to build up the Elite again," he explained simply, still swinging the manriki. "Well, we can't very well have our old Elite back without our leader, so it was Tak's idea that we come here in order to find him and bring him back."

"What are you talking about? The old Elite Commander is dead, isn't he? Whoever he was." I realized, then, that I'd never learned the name of the former Elite leader, not even in the military history course I'd taken on Devastis.

"Oh, no, he's very much alive," Skutch said, sounding a little bored. "Your little human corporation just happens to be hiding him is all."

My eyes widened. Things started to click, based on things recently revealed. "It's Red, isn't it?" I asked. Red never had answered that question I'd asked before. If he'd been the last Elite Commander, and if I knew Red... it would make sense that he'd get rid of the Elite once he became the Tallest, so that no one would come into a position too similar to his own. The only outstanding anomaly was Ira. What the hell was he doing in the Empire? I shook that confusion away, and focused back on Skutch. Timeandplaceforeverything,Zim.ThisisaboutRed.AndTak. "It must be! Even though Tak's the Tallest, she can't deny how powerful he is."

Skutch didn't answer my question, my supposition. All he said was, "Huh. You ready for this?" He then finally stopped circling me, and stepped down on the long end of the chain, wrapping part of it around his right wrist, and thrusting the lead weight out in my direction. I countered with both of my sairedon, but one of the metal spikes cut across my left cheek. I felt the warm blood leak from the cut immediately, but didn't let it bother me. Skutch laughed and retrieved the manriki, swinging it around his back before it lost momentum and thrusting out again. This time I just dodged, but he immediately recoiled the chain and swung it once, causing his weapon to now become an arm-length Vortian laser-powered gun, which he aimed in my direction. "Like it?" he asked when he saw how confused I was with his weapon. "It's one of a kind, and it's all mine."

"Good for you," I snorted.

"So, Zim," Skutch grinned, "before I kill you and bring your corpse to the Tallest, is there anything you feel you need to say?"

"One question," I said. Skutch surprisingly held back long enough to let me talk. "Why do the two of us look alike?"

Skutch's eyes widened and he took a jump back. The gun retracted and again became nothing more than just a small knife in his hand. "Uh—" he began, looking a little uncomfortable with the question I had just asked. Composing himself, he took a couple steps closer to me, and before he could get too close, I extended my right blade, and he stopped before his neck could come in contact with the tip of the sairedon.

His eyes locked on mine for a moment, and I could feel myself freeze. The shock of our similarities had caused us both to momentarily forget that we were supposed to be fighting. It would have been one thing if Red and I looked slightly similar, as well as all of the other male Irkens who had taken on some form of human guise or another, but it was just narrowed down to me and Skutch. "Did you know about me?" I asked, my voice surprisingly quiet but my expression unchanging. "Did you use your knowledge of my human appearance when creating your hologram, Skutch?"

"This... isn't a hologram," he said shakily. I raised an eyebrow, wondering just what was going on in Tak's mind lately. "I'm Tak's... 'perfected experiment,' I've heard her say..."

Skutch was like I once was. Internally Irken, outwardly completely human. It would be harder to get to his PAK, but he also had human vulnerabilities. The Cabochon had come into play indeed. Tak was just picking and choosing those she used it on. So, then, why Skutch? The only answer that seemed to make sense was that she'd known about our secret meetings, and had Skutch trapped, possibly under her hypnosis, forcing him to give her all the dirt on me he could.

"Perfected experiment?" I repeated. "Skutch... it may be that you're being used."

"Used? I don't think so." His eyes narrowed all of a sudden and he drew away from me. "Why am I telling you this, anyway?" he barked. "Look, it's coincidence, that's all! Nothing more than that. I don't want to be compared to some traitorous human!" With that, he tucked his knife back into his boot and evanesced.

I remained frozen for a moment, trying to work things out in my mind. For a moment, I thought, well, perhaps the reason Skutch looks similar to me has to do with the fact that his body is actually human... but, then again, I reminded myself, so was Red's. Red and Purple looked wildly different—no, wait... no... Ira. Things were certainly getting interesting. Who else in Tak's army had been changed with the Cabochon? And why? Why would she go to such great lengths to send Skutch after me? After Red? And was she aware of the false Tallest at all? Shaking my head, I dismissed those thoughts from my mind, telling myself that this was not the time for me to be concerned about such issues. In battle, defense was my primary concern. That in mind, I twirled my sairedon back to their smaller size, and continued on my search for Gaz.

– – –