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Author's Note:

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

~Jizena~

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Zim's Records

I felt sick.

The kind of sick that made breathing difficult. Everything about my internal chemistry was rebelling against me; my heartbeat had slowed, my back ached, my arm burned, my skin was crawling. And I was dizzy. Dizzy from having lost control of my mind, dizzy for knowing the horrible things I had done, dizzy from being forced to accept that the Commander had loved Miyuki.

My guess was, she'd rejected him, he hadn't been able to handle it… and he cut out his heart to distance himself from anything to do with his Original ability.

He—I… had violent, erratic ways. I admit, not every action I have ever taken has been the wisest, or smart at all, in any way. But I wanted to start over.

The more I lost control, the more often my thoughts immediately following those blackouts stacked up to hopes for a better life for myself. I couldn't just hope for it to happen, though. I had to grab onto that future and not let go, and do whatever needed to be done in order to wipe out the negative influences from my past.

Gaz had hit the nail on the head at last: it was possible that my fear of the Commander was reciprocal. But that did scare me in many ways. No matter which way I looked at it, if Gaz's hypothesis was the case, fear would inevitably win. I had to be all right with that. With either being the victor and accepting that I was indeed a force to be feared, or the conquered with the knowledge that terror had won out… how the hell was I going to fight this battle?

That had been my question from the start.

It was me against my own damn past. And all the baggage that went along with it. I wasn't just fighting back my PAK, I was fighting memories. Years and years of things that I had forgotten but that others held grudges against. That others wish had not happened. That still others might remember fondly.

I had to think of it in terms of past, present, and future. Not as me vs. him. No. No, this had to be me making sure that the past did not repeat itself. The atrocities I had committed as the Elite Commander were unjust and yes, I'll say it.

Inhuman.

I wanted harmony between the races, I realized, as much as Miyuki did. Maybe that carried over from the person I'd been even before becoming the Commander initially, but I had to accept it. There was going to be either balance or bloodshed, and the outcome was resting on all of us.

On Dib and Gaz, to step in and destroy the Control Brains; on Tallest Red, to lead without the influence of the individuality-suppressing machines and to trust the humans in forming a partnership; on me, to not fall victim to my past in order to commit more mass genocide as I had done before.

First thing was first though. The report from Red.

The transmission was already well underway by the time Lex led us into the control room. Walking was a task I felt like I needed to completely re-learn after that ordeal, so detached from control of my own motor functions I had been, and when Lex noticed that I seemed not to be posing any present threats to anyone's safety, she locked her crossbow behind her back and essentially spotted us as Gaz held onto me during our short but physically painful walk down the hall for the last part of the call.

Just when I thought I could breathe again, the things Red disclosed to us had me choked and gasping.

I knew that things weren't exactly going to go smoothly for the rest of the evening when the very first thing I heard upon entering the room was Dib shouting at the Tallest, "You fucking asshole!"

I could feel Gaz's heart skip inside her. Her blood began to rush, and while I took the sudden quickening of her heart as a cause for alarm, my PAK whirred and thrashed against my spine from the inside like the predator it was. The Commander had taken out plenty on Gaz thus far, and for—from where I stood—no good reason at all; slowly, shaking, I let her go. I eased my grip and stood on my own. Watched, and watched only, as she rushed to her brother in a state of panic.

If my past wanted to hurt her, simply for existing as she did, for existing as one of Miyuki's two children, I couldn't give it a window to do so. Push back the fear before it could fully arise. Push it back until I was in a position to conquer it.

Because after all… in the end… it all had to be about conquest.

One way or another. Whether of a race, of a physical plane, or of my own mind: I existed to conquer. Everything had to be a battle. Nothing could be simple. Struggle though I might, I had been born a soldier. Just like Skutch, just like Red, just like Tenn and just like Tak. Every one of us was a soldier, but differences set us apart. Tak had chosen her path. Tenn and Skutch were walking thin lines. Red had his own challenges. And there I was, stuck with trying to figure out what kind of battles I was meant to fight from now on.

Myself first. Then, I'd have to see. But I wanted to fight for Earth. For Gaz. For anything I cared about.

And, above all, for the right reasons.

I had morals. The Commander did not. I wanted morality. I wanted humanity. I would fight for that. For the freedom to choose my battles at all.

As I stood there, contemplating these things, I saw Gaz fall into her own resolve. She, too, was a fighter; a soldier in her own right. Gaz had always been a fighter, and I loved that about her. She did not sit back and let things happen. She asked questions, and she fought back if she did not agree with something.

I loved her.

I was in love with her.

And everything she stood for.

I'd be her soldier. No matter what.

I felt a bit of my strength return; I'm pretty sure Tenn and Skutch caught it, and gave me acknowledging glances.

Others in the room, though… Lex was looking nervous, having not been kept fully abreast of why Dib had lashed out at the Tallest; Professor Membrane looked broken. As broken as he had whenever he was reminded that there was nothing that could be done, at present, to help Victor Haynsworth's situation.

Oh. Damn it…

"What's going on?" Gaz yelped. "Dib! Dib, what's going—RED!" She went right for the kill. Right for the throat. The fighter in her. "Red!" Gaz screamed at the screen. "What did you do?"

Tallest Red was a sight to behold. I had not seen him in quite some time; none of us had, and it took me a second to remember that he had indeed gone back to being Irken after his stint in a temporary human form on Earth. Red had started getting almost abnormally comfortable with being human, I had noticed. Toward the end, he seemed to have been making more of an effort to help out, not to mention making more of an effort with getting adjusted to what it was like to be on Earth.

All of that behind him, the Tallest had a strange, blank look about him. He was projecting very clear, very real guilt. Almost as much guilt as that which Dib flashed upon glancing at his sister for the first time since she had entered the room.

Red knew that he had done something wrong… and for the first time, as far as I could recall, he was automatically admitting to it.

"Can we all calm down?" were the first words I heard him say.

The signal coming from the Massive showed a large, circular room that I was all too used to seeing, from my days as an Invader, now so long ago that time felt hardly tangible in my caverns of memories, lost among things I had been re-learning. Two large chairs were positioned on an elevated circular platform inside a similarly circular observation deck, with floor-to-ceiling windows on all sides, other than the large screen in the middle that was functioning as our own window into the ship. Control panels lined the walls and windows, with Irken operators in high-collared uniforms manning each.

The room itself was of varied red hues, but there was an odd glow to it, as if in warning, that I could not remember having seen before. The Massive was in a state of alert, and I had a feeling we were about to find out why.

Red was not sitting, as he had been during those old calls of mine. No, he stood, his usually proud stance replaced with a guilty slouch, fingers—two long ones on each gauntlet-covered hand—twitching with nerves. That was such a tell. Tallest Red had never been nervous before.

There were residual signs of humanity in him.

If I didn't know any better…

"Oh, my God," I felt myself whisper.

"What?" Lex wondered under her breath, being the one standing closest to me.

I just shook my head in disbelief, wondering if we would get any more information on this possible, wild theory of mine…

There was just no way. I was being ridiculous. Either that or highly observant.

Red was also the only one in the room, his board operators aside.

No 'Purple.' No Ira.

"Where's Ira?" Gaz was the one demanding the question, but all of us were thinking it. She had the right to ask. My heart sank only a little; she had insisted many times that she loved him as a daughter loves her father. In a familial way. More than platonic, but not in the way that I loved her. I still had a hard time getting that: the different kinds of love. Maybe I'd understand someday. Soon.

Red glanced over his shoulder, then turned back to us, and began, "Look…"

"WHERE IS IRA?" Gaz screamed.

"Calm down," Red said.

"No!" Gaz snapped. "No, I will not calm down! You took him away twice, Red!"

"Tallest," I heard him mutter.

"I really don't care!" Gaz shouted, having also heard him. "You're not gonna be Tallest for long if you keep being this dishonest and horrible! You took Ira away once over a decade ago, and you took him away again when you damn well could've let him go! Why'd you take him?"

Red froze. Oh, God, I was right… "He—I—" Honestly, what the hell? Red rarely ever stumbled over his words. "I had to! I needed him!"

"Victor fucking needed him! We all did!" Gaz argued. To my left, I saw Lex shiver. To my diagonal right, I saw Dib attempt to give her a look of reassurance. "You took him for no good reason other than being stupid and selfish!"

"Maybe I am, but what's done is done, and—"

"That," Dib cut in, "is the shittiest thing I think I've ever heard you say. 'What's done is done?' Bullshit. You did the wrong thing, and you can bet I'm going to be fighting you one on one about this as soon as we get there and as soon as we sort the rest of this whole damn thing out."

"Just tell me where he is!" There were tears in her eyes. "Tell me where he is, Red, tell me what you did with him!"

Tallest Red cleared his throat, and I could see embarrassment in him as the control board operators glanced back at their leader in awe and confusion. And why wouldn't they? None of them knew who 'Ira' was. To them, there were two proper Tallest; that was just the way of things. Tallest Purple was supposed to be in that room along with Red.

"As you know," Red began, "I—Ira and I came back in order to track Tak down. It wasn't easy. Her temporary reign gave her free movement around the Empire, and there's still a following that thinks of her as the Tallest. So we've been dealing with that, and it's gonna be just one of the things you'll all be up against."

"Don't care," said Dib, rushing his words; "move on."

Red shot him a glare that was much more characteristic of him than that guilty slouch was, and spoke more strongly as he continued. I could still detect guilt and even remorse in his tone, though. Red had changed… because he had allowed it to come. Part of him was still human. Put in other words: he was just one step behind me. Probably unintentionally, but I'd earned Trust without knowing, too. Red's Originality had just… moved up a step, that was all. It was slight, but it was there.

"We tracked her, all right," Red went on explaining. "She's still plotting something, but for right now, we've got her trapped. Unfortunately, she's trapped somewhere that the fight's gonna have to go."

"Where is she?" asked Skutch.

Red snapped a look at him, too, probably pissed for finding out that Skutch had not, indeed, been holding us hostage. It was pretty obvious that Red was kind of embarrassed for letting Skutch pull one over on him. It was a good lie on Skutch's part, but Red probably felt like an idiot. Red was kind of an idiot, but that was, especially at present, neither here nor there. "She's on Vortian Research Station Nine."

My PAK whirred.

I heard the Commander laugh inside my mind.

"We've come full circle, eh, human?"

Shut up. Not now.

"Oh, no. But soon enough."

Just. Shut. Up.

He did, but I was shuddering. If I went to Station Nine, I'd be entirely on his ground. That was the last place the Commander had fully been himself. That was the location of Miyuki's alleged murder. The place Lard Nar had once run.

The place where now Tak and every facet of my past were waiting for me.

Of course it had to happen like this.

"She's trapped on Station Nine," Red repeated, as if to just dangle that information in front of me that much closer and more potently, "and I set up a forcefield around it. Nobody can get in or out without my code. I'll let you in when you need to get there."

"How do you know we have to go there?" Dib demanded.

"If you're after the Control Brains, you're going there," said Red. "But there's part of the current problem."

"WHERE—IS—IRA?" Gaz demanded again.

"He's here on the Massive," said Red. After a second or two, he added in a lament, "Well… part of him is."

"What did you do to him?"

"I didn't take any physical action," Red assured her, "but having spent so much time as an Irken has started taking its toll on him. I can't believe how stupid I was."

"I can," I heard Tenn mutter. Gaz was probably thinking it, too, but she'd been struck dumb.

"I forgot what destroying the Cabochon would do," Red said mournfully.

"It broke a lock on the Control Brains, right?" asked Professor Membrane.

Red did not look one bit happy that a human had access to that kind of information, but he pressed on. "So there's Control Brains here on the Massive. If I destroy them, they count that as mutiny. I'm already in enough trouble for destroying a Talisman. I'm not exactly in the safest position right now. I don't regret destroying it, because believe it or not, I'm still with you guys in this fight, as long as I get my position back at the end of it."

"That depends," Gaz warned him through clenched teeth.

"Agreed," Dib added. "Just get to your point."

"My point is, the Brains were the ones that really issued Ira's punishment," said Red. "Under lock, they didn't have all that much power over him, like they do over all of the PAKs in the Irken Empire. Ira was given a kind of loaner PAK; it isn't entirely real, cuz, y'know, he's got a soul and all instead. But the Brains are more powerful now. You need to take care of these Brains immediately. I'm actually asking you. Honestly."

Red took in a deep breath.

And added, "Please."

He looked hurt. Mixed in with all of that guilt and remorse was real, shivering pain. The pins and needles that Irkens could never feel due to lack of compassion. Oh, Red felt compassion all right. He cared about Ira just as I cared about Gaz. Only it had taken him until now to figure that out.

"What… happened…?" Gaz snarled out.

"He…" Red glanced over his shoulder again, then confessed, "Ira's lost his mind. I'm sorry. Believe me, I didn't know this was going to happen. It's all this exposure. The PAK, the Brains, the Cabochon, everything. I'm not saying it isn't entirely not my fault, I feel awful, but I'm at a loss here, there is literally nothing more I can do. There is nothing I can do, so I'm…"

"Okay, stop," Dib commanded. "Red, it doesn't matter right now if you're sorry or not. What exactly happe—"

"You… piece… of… shit!" Gaz got out, screaming at the end. She made a dive for the screen, as if she could beat Red up right then and there. I felt myself move forward to grab her, but Dib was much closer, and he held his sister back. "I swear to God, Red, I am going to skin you and wear you as a fucking pelt! You're not sorry! You're not sorry at all! You made this happen! It's your fault! It's your fucking fault! I am going to beat you within an inch of your life, Red! Where is he? WHERE IS HE?"

Red opened his mouth to say something, but the next voice I heard was Ira's. Though his voice was offscreen, I could hear just how hollow it sounded, how devoid of emotion and reason. "I'd say this has gone on long enough," was what he said. "Transmission lines are now blocked."

And with that, the screen turned to static.

"Shit…" Dib growled. "Shit, shit, shit, shit! This isn—Gaz!"

I gasped at the same time Dib had called out his sister's name.

She'd frozen. Shaking where she stood, Gaz's skin had paled to a shade of death; her lower jaw was slightly slack, and her eyes, that light brown seeming to be nearly a midnight hue compared to her frozen pallor, stared straight forward at the screen, dry. And then they changed. Very slowly, Gaz's slight shaking turned to a very real and visible trembling, and when I set a hand on her back to try to calm her, I felt heat rise from her spine.

Her eyes flashed green, and narrowed. I heard the click of her teeth as she pursed her lips in anger, and then she let out an anguished wail. Professor Membrane and I each took a couple steps closer, and Dib tried to keep hold of her, but Gaz pushed him away.

"Nobody talk to me!" she screamed. "Nobody fucking talk to me! I'm gonna go figure out how I want to destroy that fucking Tallest!" Gaz whirled and began storming out of the room, slamming the door open into the wall. "I'm going to rip out his eyes and send them through a fucking meat grinder! Sell that fucker's body to science and burn it afterward! I'm going to—"

"Gaz!" the Professor and I called after her.

"Dad," Dib said, turning to the Professor, who himself looked downright broken, "go talk to her, okay? I'll be there in a minute, can you just help calm her down?"

"Dib," said his father, calmly, though his own voice shook somewhat, "this situation affects us all. I—"

"I—I know, Dad, I know." Dib pressed his hands out in front of him, in order to keep himself under control. "Trust me, I know. I just… I've got a lot to figure out, and as much as I want to be out there, I can't, so just please go talk to her, please? Zim, I need you in here with me, too."

"I—"

"It concerns your robot, Zim, you are staying in here with me until we sort this out. Tenn, Skutch, you guys, too. You're all the resources I need right now. Lex," Dib then asked, turning to his girlfriend, who looked as though she'd seen her own father laid out again, "will you be okay to rally up everyone else? Charlotte, Cthulhu and them?"

Lex nodded tersely. Professor Membrane took a glance out into the hallway, then gave his son a wave and took his leave. Gaz could still be heard screaming from down the hall, and I felt my heart sink. What scrap of a heart I had, anyway; I was so confused about that.

While Dib took a moment to console his girlfriend, and speak with her quietly about the situation—and I heard her throw in a few words here and there as well—I stood aside, taking it all in. Wondering how much he knew. How closely he was watching. Either of them, really. The Commander almost seemed like the least of my issues. At least that was an internal battle, and we knew more or less how to deal with him.

GIR was something else entirely. He was the reason Dib, Tenn, my brother and I had to stay in for a continued discussion. GIR knew more than he had ever let on. Possibly more than the little robot had ever really been able to access at all.

Three parts: that's what the Commander had said. 'I' was comprised of three parts: the PAK, the Elite Blade, and the memory disc embedded in GIR. Perhaps it wasn't even his disc at all. Something else from the Commander's PAK? Even as I thought it, I doubted it, though.

"As disturbing as the situation on the Massive right now is," said Dib, very clearly shaken, "we've just got to press forward. There's a lot on all of our plates right now, and for everyone's sake, I'm going to say that we just go ahead and plan to leave for the next battle as soon as we possibly can. Tomorrow, if need be. Fuck, tonight, if need be. No later than two days from now. Guys, we have got to get moving on this."

"I mean, at least we're ready," I offered. "To be honest, Dib, I can't even eat anymore."

"Like, out of nerves or—"

"Like human food."

"Well, that sucks." Dib's eyes narrowed. "You've got a lot going on, there, though, Zim. I'm still trusting you for now, but that PAK of yours is a concern."

"No, trust me," I said, almost desperately. "It's an enemy. I'm an enemy. I don't care how to classify it. My past is a danger to everyone, myself included, and I swear to God, Dib, I am going to do something about it."

"Well, good. Let's start with opening up that memory disc of GIR's." Dib sighed, and added, "I do apologize for not believing you about him. I really should have. He's been the main problem all along."

"He's one of three factors, anyway," I admitted. "There's him, my PAK, and that sword."

"I can wipe the disc now," Skutch offered, shrugging his hands out in front of him. "That could help at least one part of the fight."

"Please do," I said.

"After," Dib insisted, "we extract everything we need off of it. Whatever GIR is hiding on there is stuff that's going to help us out a lot, I know it."

GIR's chassis lay empty and, to the eyes, broken. Eyes black, body unmoving. His memory disc blinked red as Tenn cautiously picked it up and inserted it into the main body of the large computer station in Dib's control room. All of us were still somewhat reeling from the transmission with Tallest Red.

Everything was getting turned upside-down. That was the only thing that was sure anymore. Dib had a fully prepared army, though. The Agents all knew what to do; everyone had known that this fight was coming, and we were all prepared to take the battle off of Earth at any moment. This was not a sudden move. We had known for a while that it would arise as it had to arise.

We just had a few things to figure out before we could leave. GIR was one of them. He had been a helper unit under the Commander's immediate orders. A weapon. Just as MiMi was now, GIR must once have been a pretty formidable little robot, but just as the Commander's memories had been shattered and his personality drained and re-set in order to give me that life of an Invader (lie or not) that I'd swum through for so long before resolving that I wanted to be human… there were parts of GIR that had been destroyed after the Commander's initial time was up. Both were resurfacing at once, though.

Which, I had a feeling, was exactly what Tak wanted.

"Here we go," Tenn announced, as she keyed in a few codes on the computer in order to access GIR's installed disc. "I'm in."

"Anythin' good?" Skutch wondered, walking directly up beside her.

The screen showed a few different files, illustrated for us as little cylinders. There were rows of cylinders; four rows of five. Some were shaded in black—GIR's empty parts, which had been the functional part of him up until now. Empty and without worry. Others were shaded dark blue.

One was shaded red. And bore the Elite symbol.

"Huh," said Skutch. "That's a no-brainer."

"No kidding," Dib commented. "Open up that one, would you?"

"You got it," Tenn nodded. "It's almost like he wanted us to find this."

"Are, uh… this is a weird question, maybe," I posed, "but are we taking him with us to the Massive? Or the Station, or wherever we end up?"

"Honestly, I think it's better if we do," Dib admitted. "We're just keeping him away from you." Made sense. I nodded to show that I'd comply with the idea. "I don't want anyone here to have to deal with him. I'm leaving Charlotte in charge, and she's got enough to worry about with keeping this place safe to have to deal with GIR, too."

All four of us were holding our breath when Tenn opened up the Elite column of GIR's memory disc. A masochistic part of me was hoping we might find video feeds in there, so that I could start to match up memories. Then again, something told me that I'd be faced with plenty more memories, that I'd come right up close to past events—soon enough. Too soon. Right around the damned corner.

No video feeds. No records. No audio recordings.

Schematics. That was what we found.

Detailed blueprints, all labeled in Irken, flashed up in front of our eyes. I cast a glance over at GIR, as if the empty body would just jump up and attack us for essentially invading his brain. No such thing happened, of course, but I couldn't be too worried about anything now.

"Whazzat say?" Skutch asked, elbowing Tenn as he squinted at the screen.

"You really can't read Irken anymore, huh?" Tenn guessed.

"'S just blobs," Skutch lamented. He held his hands up. "Missin' that program, or somethin'. Just read it."

Tenn rolled her eyes at having been commanded to do anything at all, rather than asked, but that was kind of the way of things with Skutch, so she let it slide. "It's Station Nine," she said.

"Station Nine?" Dib repeated, eyebrows furrowing as he studied the holographic blue schematics that appeared on the screen. "Where Tak is."

"Yeah," I sighed. "Hey, at least now we've got a map of it."

Dib nodded stiffly. He chewed the inside of his cheek as he studied the screen. "The Control Brain center there is probably gonna be a tough one to break through to. Zim, we do need you for that. I think that sword of yours is the Talisman directly attached to that center. Well, either that or Devastis. The Mirror's gotta be the one for the planet…"

"How d'you figure that?" I wondered.

"My mo—Miyuki told me," he said, correcting himself at the last second, though I could not fathom why. "She told us about how there're four places the Brains are stationed, and there's a Talisman protecting each one. Jesus, I can't believe what Red did, though. I just…"

"Well, so long as we've linked that," I offered before he could sink too far into the negatives. Of which there were several.

"Yeah," Dib sighed dismissively. He shook his head and straightened, squaring his shoulders. He hadn't looked at me once while the disc's contents had been in view. Maybe he didn't want to instigate anything in my PAK. Maybe he was getting sick of looking at me again. Maybe he was pissed about me and Gaz again, even though that hadn't seemed a relevant concern in a long time; we'd talked so normally about it. Dib and I had practically become friends. I didn't blame him for mistrusting me again, though. Fuck, I didn't trust myself. And therein lay a huge problem.

I didn't trust myself. I was beginning to hate myself. I already knew what I was most afraid of. And with an imbalance in those three—of course I couldn't actually know love.

No, I had to trust the right things in order for this to work. I had to control and rise above my hatred; that was key. Love itself was an ability I'd always been able to possess, and it was due to this fact that I'd been given a second chance at it; I had to believe that.

Tak had probably figured that out. She damn well knew what the Commander's ability was, and as soon as I had shown signs of feeling it again, she'd seen the potential of bringing him back. Now, Tak herself may not have understood something as complex as love, but she sure as hell understood obsession. Every attack she had plotted, from whatever her dawning moment of realization was, and onward, had been an attempt to bring back her Elite Commander and be in his favor again.

But he couldn't stand her. The added bile that churned in my stomach whenever I so much as thought of her name was proof enough of that. Tak was nothing but an annoyance. She kept getting in the way. Of what, for the Commander, I did not know and was not about to ask my PAK in order to find out, but the important thing was, we had a common enemy in her.

And as much as I despised her, maybe she could be my leverage. Somehow. Use our mutual disagreements about Tak to my advantage, to focus the Commander's bloodlust on something useful. If he had to kill anyone at all. Then again, that could backfire on me pretty easily, and I'd get consumed even worse.

I thought about that for the rest of the day.

Thought about it as we left the control room for the board room, where Lex had indeed gathered Charlotte Baudelaire and the other higher-up Agents. Where Dib would give one last debriefing of events, and we would… well… divide to conquer from there.

Ugh, there was that notion of conquering again. It was just going to follow me around forever. So I had to accept it, and make it fit the life that I was choosing for myself.

My usual seat at the table was beside Gaz, but given her present state, I decided to sit instead between Tenn and Skutch, where I could watch her and communicate silently with her if need be. She looked awful. Her head was bowed, shoulders sagged, hands on the table in front of her. But they were clenched into fists. She was ready to fight. That girl was not going to give up on her family. And I wasn't going to give up on her.

Skutch probably noticed me smile when I came to that realization again about Gaz, and he elbowed me in the ribs. I shot him a warning look, and he just smirked and shrugged. For being so new to human concepts of attraction, he was catching on awfully fast.

He was kind of an idiot in some respects, yes, but beyond helpful in many others. He nudged me again before Dib could start the meeting, and asked, "Yo, bro, could you give me a hand with—heh, I just got that."

"Just got wha—Skutch, that's really inappropriate," I warned him.

"I'm dealin', aren't I?" he shrugged, sliding his gloves on and then holding his wrists out to me. As I helped him fasten the buckles into place, he went on, "Check it, Zim, I've got this handicap, I've got to hand it to you, I—"

"Skutch, how the hell are you finding humor in this?"

"What the fuck should I do, sulk and keep whinin' about it?" he shot back. "Zim, man, I've gotta fuckin' fight. You know? Tak thought she was debili—debli—whatever, beating me down because of this, so I just gotta beat her instead." I'd finished fastening the second buckle, and Skutch took that time to point one accusatory index finger in my face. "So you listen up, bro, and you listen good. You fight that Goddamn PAK of yours if that's the thing you wanna beat. I've been talkin' to pointy-hair—"

"Dib."

"Pointy-Dib, and he knows what he's talkin' about. That guy's a leader."

"Yeah, and I think Red knows that," I sighed. "But what's that got to do with me?"

"He's makin' it so you can go off and fight your own battle, is what I'm saying. Me and Tenn can have the army covered—"

"Excuse me?" Tenn cut in, leaning back in her chair to scrutinize my brother's words.

"Sorry, Tenn and I."

"And you mean mostly me," Tenn corrected.

"Eeeeeuuuuhhhh…" Skutch lay his right hand out flat behind me and tilted it back and forth to indicate, kind of. Tenn smacked his arm away and cuffed me upside the head as well, to get us to pay attention to the meeting.

Skutch had brought up a valid point, though, and one I had already been thinking about. Of course I was going to go after this. I'd re-join the primary fight once I had dealt with my own very literal inner demons, but it would play out that I'd probably be going to Station Nine alone.

Dib's plan was almost exactly what I thought it would be, which was honestly a very good thing.

"So," he began, as the only one in the room standing. "This is where it starts, so that it can finally end." Gaz picked her head up somewhat from her seat beside him; their father set his jaw in attention as well. Charlotte took out her laptop to begin keeping notes, while Cthulhu and Bloodrose sat awaiting their own orders. Tenn, Skutch and I represented the army, for now, and I knew that Tenn could keep all of the information any of the three of us needed in her head at all times. Nearby, Lex held a mechanical pencil poised over a blank page of an empty notebook. Very slowly, her hand began to move, and I saw the graphite outline the words, Final Plan.

God, this really was it.

We were breaking orbit. We were taking the fight into our own hands.

We were going to rise up against the machines, and go to war.

"Tenn," Dib started, nodding over to her. "You're our primary pilot, okay?"

"Done and done," said Tenn. "I'm with you guys all the way on this."

"And I really, really thank you for it. I want the army first deployed on the Massive, with some held back on board for second wave and further," Dib explained. "I'm hopeful that we can take care of the Brains on the Massive first, free—fix… whatever it is we need to do to help Ira Murasaki, and continue from there. The Cabochon's already broken. Next up will be Station Nine and Devastis. Skutch?"

"What's up?" Skutch's head went up like he was a meerkat on alert.

"I need you on board with Tenn, and between the two of you, come up with the best ways to divide up the army," Dib ordered. "Lex?"

"Yes?" his girlfriend said, lifting her eyes. Her hand shook as she held her pencil.

"I'll have you help them out with that decision, and then I want you and you, Dad," Dib went on, turning to his father, "to head the first team out. Can you do that?" Both nodded solemnly. "I trust both of you… all of you…" Dib let out a long sigh. "I trust all of you so much.

"Every single person in this room, please take a look around."

Dib held his arms out to either side, prompting us to do exactly what he had asked. Nobody looked uncertain. We had all seen what Tak's army could do. We had all heard or been filled in on Red's latest announcement. This was a personal fight for everyone at that table.

For those remaining from the days when Professor Membrane ran the Corporation, this was a fight several years in the making. For Lex, this was a fight for her father and her livelihood. For Tenn, this was her resistance against the true problems in the Empire. For Skutch, it was his retaliation against Tak.

For Professor Membrane: his wife, his friends, his children, his work.

For Dib and Gaz: the life and prophecy they were meant to fulfill. The fight Dib had been preparing for his entire life, consciously or otherwise.

For me… the chance to finally, after many, many years, do the right thing. The chance to fight back. To fight properly. To become my own person. To shake myself free from the Empire that had never wanted me.

For all of us, the chance to create a new partnership between two races.

This was going to change more than just our lives. It would open Earth up to intergalactic communication. Possible trade. Sister races, long apart, finally on speaking terms. And this was where it was going to begin.

"I trust every person in this room," Dib repeated. "So should all of you. Are there any objections?" He looked at me specifically. "Any at all?"

I knew that he wanted me to say something, so I stood. Gaz held her breath.

"Can I make a request, rather than an objection?" I asked.

"Say whatever you need to, Zim," Dib told me straightforwardly.

I cleared my throat, and tried not to look at Gaz the entire time I was speaking. After all, I'd get a chance to speak to her before we left. I'd get my last words with her before the battle. I'd see her during the battle. And after. And beyond. That was just the way it had to end.

"I would like to request that I start my own mission on Station Nine."

"ZIM!" Gaz yelped.

"That's just where I know I need to go," I said. "GIR's schematics in his memory disc were pointing me in that direction, and I'm sure that's where Miyuki is waiting with Osdraken now. It's where my PAK's memories were first destroyed, and where I need to face them now."

"Tak is there!" Gaz reminded me. "You need backup!"

I shook my head. "Please, no," I requested. "Let me do this. You'll have to break the barrier to get me in anyway, and once I'm in, Tak will be on the move. Either her or MiMi. Those two aren't going to stay in one place for long, they're going to retaliate and rally their own troops, so Station Nine should be your last concern, but my first.

"I'll come back to the fight once I win my own. Please let me have that mission."

There was silence in the room for a moment, and then Dib solemnly nodded. "That's what I was hoping you would say," he told me. "I have one condition. You take a communicator and get in touch with either Gaz, Tenn, Skutch, my father or myself immediately after your success in that mission. Otherwise, we are going to assume…"

"I understand," I said. My voice came out tersely, and when I sat, both Skutch and Tenn set a hand on my shoulders… very, very lightly, so as not to disturb the slumbering PAK inside. "But I'm going to win."

"That's something I want to hear everyone saying, too," said Dib. "Listen up. We've suffered casualties. We've already counted enough losses. The Swollen Eyeball Corporation represents Earth, and Earth is not going to go down without a fight! We are Irk's sister race, and I for one am not going to let these races be at war forever. We need to win back the reign of that planet for the Irkens themselves, form a bond with a new Empire, and let this be a new kind of victory for Earth, for humans, for everyone we know, trust, and love. Are you with me?"

The applause in the room signaled the affirmative.

We were all in this together.

– – –

After the meeting, as others were rushing around to prepare for the final battle, whether here on the homefront or out of orbit, I caught up with Gaz. Tenn, Skutch, Dib and Lex began prepping the army, and Professor Membrane called his contact in town, that reporter named Danvers I had saved during the Resisty attack, in order to give her the version of the story we could currently have in circulation without much push-back.

Before Gaz and I donned our own uniforms, the light grey jackets bearing the Swollen Eyeball insignia, she pulled me down toward the girls' hallway, paused a moment, then finally tugged me right into her room.

My heart began pounding as we stood there in silence for a moment. She was still trembling, but now with much anticipation for the fight, along with her residual nerves. This was so taxing for all of us. Hopefully we could get some rest in the space travel that was on our immediate horizon (and hopefully I wouldn't die of starvation on the trip, I realized…), and hopefully everything that needed to fall in place for Gaz would. The prophecy was just one part of it. Yes, she had to fulfill her mother's goals, but I wanted her to be the one to free her godfather from the mental cage he'd found himself in, no thanks to the Control Brains. I was still slightly jealous of Ira, sure, but he was an honest man who did not deserve any of the horrible things that had happened to him as a result of Irken selfishness.

Nobody deserved any of that kind of torture. All of us were victims of it, in one way or another. I wanted Professor Haynsworth to wake up; I wanted Skutch to get his just revenge; I wanted Tenn to have the peace she'd been craving; I wanted Gaz and her brother to succeed.

I wanted to be human.

"There's a lot happening all at once, isn't there?" Gaz asked me, almost out of the blue, her voice cracked and unsure.

"That's war, Gaz," I said as calmly as I could, reaching out to stroke back her hair. She winced a little, then finally let me touch her. "But we'll make it through."

"You mean everyone?" she wondered.

"Yeah. In some ways." Holding my own breath, I pulled her in close, then warily wrapped my arms around her and felt her breathe. As if her breath could substitute mine. As if I were stone, and she the wind. Just feel her breezing over me, and memorize that before plunging myself into a battle within my own mind. "And I mean us."

"I'm not asking you to be all chivalrous or anything," she muttered into me. She clung on, all the same.

"I know. But that's just something I want to say, okay? You're my girlfriend."

"Uh-huh," she said, as I kissed the top of her head.

"I love you."

Gaz choked out a slight sob. "Uh-huh."

"And I will always come back for you."

"Please promise that."

"Gaz, I promise," I said, tilting her chin up so that she could look at me directly. "When all of this is over, I'm going to be human."

"You promise."

"I promise."

"You'd better."

"I will. I do. I'll win," I told her. "So will you."

"How can you stay so positive?" she mumbled.

"Because," I said, leaning in to touch my forehead to hers, and feel her sigh out as I did, "I know you. And I know you're not going to lie back and let awful things happen if there's something you can do about it."

"So are we kinda in agreement that we fight for ourselves?" she asked, laughing a little.

"Yep," I grinned. "I'm fighting for me. You're fighting for you. I'm fighting for you, and…"

"Same."

"Eh?"

"I'll fight for you, too, Zim, don't act so surprised."

I smiled, and brushed my hand back against her soft skin, and into her feathery hair. "You're a wonderful girl, Gaz," I told her. "No matter what happens, I love you."

Gaz nodded.

And then she grabbed me. Her hands on either side of my face, she guided me down and hauled me into a deep, aggressive, beautiful, life-affirming kiss. I tasted doubt and tried to turn it into hope. We shared our fears, we shared our trepidations, we shared the plans we wanted so desperately to make real. Fiercely, she dove in again, and I gave back everything she offered. Prompted my own. Kissed her again. Held onto her before the world could cave in around us.

When she pulled back, she held my face against hers, and demanded, "Win it. Win, Zim, you have to."

"I will," I said, kissing her lightly again. "I will, I will, so will you, we both will."

"You have to."

"You, too."

"I need you to."

"What?"

Gaz situated me so that our eyes were dead straight on a line. Hers showed a ring of green; emerald Irken green, but full of her own very human flame. "I need you to win. Okay? I don't just want you to. I'm not just asking you to. I need you to."

"So I will." I paused for a second, then slipped her one more light, flowing kiss, my hands both tangled in her lilac-scented violet hair, and told her again for good measure, "I love you."

And that was where the conversation had to end.

A knock came to Gaz's door. We stood together for a moment. Until another knock. And then we stood back, both of us soldiers.

"Be right there," Gaz said.

"You've got two minutes," Tenn's voice came through.

Gaz nodded, and she silently walked to her dresser, where I noticed a first aid kit lying beside her reading lamp. Gingerly, she opened it, took out a rolled-up bandage, and stepped back over to me, to re-do the bandage over my upper right arm. She looked at my raw, decaying skin without cringing, and went as far as to place a kiss on my arm as soon as the bandage was in place.

We then donned our respective uniform jackets, and Gaz opened the door.

"Come on," said Tenn, who had waited patiently in the hall. "Last debriefing before we go."

"Gotcha."

As we followed her outside, and on to the field in which Dib would give his full announcement to the Corporation, Gaz took hold of my hand. I closed my fingers around hers, and touched upon her Tavic ring.

I'd made a promise, and I wasn't going to break it.

This was a fight for everything we cared about, and everything we could be.

At the end of it all, we would try our hardest to be victorious.

At the end of it all, dear God or whatever powers that be… I would earn my soul. I had to. And I could stand right there, hand in hand with Gaz in that very field, neither of us afraid for what would come, my past buried deep in the timeline in which it belonged and no longer a threat to my sanity, our two worlds connected once and for all.

First thing was first, though. I had to win that fight.

Station Nine would not sit silent for long. Before I knew it, I would be on my way there. To challenge my past. To conquer my fear. To be one step closer to my humanity.

– – –

– – –

To Be Continued

in

Part Four:

Promises

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Author's Note:

Oooooh dear, I am so sorry about the lateness of this post! ^^;;;; I have few excuses, but I'll admit that pushing myself back a day did add some laziness and writer's block, so profound apologies, ack….

But I do think it's kind of great that today was Earth Day, ahahahaa… it was something that kept randomly going through my head today. Let's hope Earth Day can be an even bigger celebration for all these guys in the future…

And speaking of the future… here we go! Gosh, the end of Part Three already! This really is my favorite part of the Saga, but… I love Part Four, too. So now I do have to make this a bit bloggy to say a few words about that, since I'm gonna take a pretty long hiatus this time:

I love this Saga. And I am so, so happy to be hearing so much awesome, positive feedback; I started posting this a year ago, and these comments and reviews keep me going so much, and it's really, seriously fantastic to know that people are enjoying this story~ ^^ Thank you so much for reading.

I have been in editing mode for the first couple of Parts, but as I've been learning more about story structure, and diving back into these characters again after leaving the old version of this unedited for so long, I've come to want to re-write and add so much that I hadn't put in before. But these things help the Saga so much that I really want them to be prevalent parts.

So I don't want to rush it. I love this story and I am not abandoning it. I just can't keep up with a weekly schedule, and would rather edit this Part all in one go.

So Part Four will begin posting, tentatively, in mid-June. I've created a new blog: the-mandylion-saga (dot) tumblr (dot) com strictly to kind of keep track of Saga stuff, so if you want to follow/ask stuff/chat, please do! ^^ (My dA is such a lost cause at this point and I love tumblr so much for my other fandoms, I wanted a separate Zim one, haha… It'll go live late tomorrow, 4/23.)

Wow this got really ranty, sorry ^^; (I tend to apologize a lot.) (I am the kind of person to apologize for apologizing so I'm really going to stop now.)

Again, thank you so, so very much for reading this story! I hope you'll return for the finale; I'm going to be putting in much more time on it since I'll be off the weekly schedule, and be able to post it consistently in the later summer and into fall. :3

See you all in a little over a month~! Thank you for sticking with the Saga thus far! ^^

~Jizena

Ahahaha, I just realized Part Four could actually easily be called 'Answers' as well... eeeeee I am really excited about it... ^^

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