– – –
Hi everyone! ^^
Ready, set… PART FOUR! Oh my gosh, thank you so much for your patience during my super-long hiatus! I ended up getting quite busy so it was a very good thing (my tumblr idea failed though, sorry about that; I will be posting new chapter notices there, though: the-mandylion-saga is the url). This part of the story had gone through the least revisions, so I'm glad I took the time to map out the new version. I'm really happy with it, and I hope you enjoy it, too! :3
We left off (in April, aahhh!) at the end of Part Three with some crazy disjointments: GIR has been revealed to have more knowledge of Zim's past as the Elite Commander; Red and Ira are back on the Massive, but Ira's gone a little over the edge now that the Control Brains' lock has broken… and we're off to battle! Zim's ready to take on his own history, while Dib and Gaz head the mission to bring down the Control Brains…
Thank you all so, so much for reading the Saga thus far! I'm really happy to have had such awesome positive feedback thus far, and I'm excited to start up this concluding part to the story. Like the others, M for some violence and language, and will go back to Friday updates in honor of the airtime of the original series.
Invader Zim is -c- Jhonen Vasquez! Only the events of this story, characters specific to the story, and character tweaking (heh) are mine. :3
– – –
~The Mandylion Saga~
~Part Four: Promises~
No amount of mental preparation seemed to be enough, in regard to just how involved leaving Earth was going to be. My spokeswoman had to remind me right away that I was technically a diplomat, which, in turn, reminded me of another title I had. And how that could either help or hurt us in the battle to come.
While my father more or less put himself in charge of contacting Ms. L. Danvers, the reporter who had done so well thus far in the realm of informing the world around us, little by little, of the Empire and this inevitable war, I took it upon myself to finally contact the Meekrob again. This was something I had been meaning to do since Nacea died, but had no means of doing so. Until now.
Using the Spittle Runner's navigation system and Skutch's talent for adapting machinery, I made contact at long last. Tenn, also an Ambassador to the planet, accompanied me while Zim and Gaz divided the army into two Irken cargo ships that we, the SEC, had managed to commandeer during the second Invasion. Lex needed her own closure, as it were, before leaving Earth, and I had agreed to meet her, after my call, in the infirmary, where she was taking the time to promise hope to her father.
It wasn't easy, contacting the Meekrob, but as Skutch was muttering (profanely) about their race having something against computers, Tenn recalled that her transmission station was still set up in the plains outside of the capitol city. Skutch managed to break through, and after waiting and sending signals for half an hour (putting all three of us at our most impatient, let me tell you), a city guard noticed us, and called in a team to bring Tenn's old device into the city. I held my breath as the visual feed carried us through the gleaming gates, and into Chairman Xeer's chamber, in which I had been a guest three years prior.
That was where Nacea had given me the ability to know the universe. That was before I had known about my heritage, about Dad and the Organization, about my mother and the Prophecy. Just… before. And now Nacea, that wealth of knowledge and breath of fresh air, was gone.
The Meekrob are glowing, fantastic beings. But when the Chairman appeared on screen, he projected an air more dulled than I remembered. My back—the tattoo—stung, and I swear I could feel the Meekrob's presence as well as if we had been standing in the same room.
I cleared my throat, in a vain attempt to hide my nerves and fears. Not the most leader-like way to start off, but part of me could still be fifteen and uncomfortable. Or, you know, downright petrified. Tenn knew I could do better, though, and pinched my arm hard to make me prove it.
"Hello, Chairman," she began, clearing the air for me.
"My friends," the Chairman greeted us. I felt sick. I wasn't a friend. Friends don't let friends die like that. "It has been too long."
"I—I'm… sorry it's taken me so long to contact you," I said as strongly as I could. I wasn't able to manage much.
"Our Nacea did not have the opportunity to teach you our modes of communication," Xeer concluded in a straightforward manner.
"No," I confirmed, hanging my head. "No, she… she didn't, sir. I'm sorry."
"You are making this call to inform us of her passing, are you not?"
My breath caught. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Skutch, leaning against the wall, guiltily fiddling with the buckle of one of his gloves, as if he, too, as part of Tak's Invasion effort, had been personally responsible for Nacea's death. I had to respect him for feeling bad, though; he hadn't even known her.
"Sir," I said to Xeer as soon as I could connect sound to thought again, "I am so, so sorry."
"Dib," the Chairman said calmly.
"I could have—"
"No." The breathtaking Meekrob leader closed his eyes, and those in attendance around him followed suit. A room full of haunting beings with silver auras… each and every one of them with their eyes closed in reverence for the death of one of their kind. "You did all that you could, at the time of our dear representative's passing. In the time before, you taught her the ways of an unknown world. What you gave to her, and to us, is invaluable. We, the Meekrob, thank you for allowing the remainder of her living years to be well-spent, and enjoyable."
"You… you're welcome," I stammered. "I mean, I guess, but she could still be here, if I—"
"She is not here," Xeer affirmed, "but we are. We know of your struggles, Dib, and of the Prophecy to which you are tied."
"Sir?" I had no idea of what he was getting at, but without further explanation, it was a little hard to believe.
"You and Tenn, with the knowledge that you, through Nacea, provided us, have aided our race in many ways," the Chairman explained. "We understand, now, further workings of our enemy Empire, and wish to provide our services to you at your times of greatest need."
I was speechless. "You sure about that, sir?" Tenn asked for me.
"We do not make empty promises," Xeer assured us. "This is war, and we wish to remain peaceful. However, we do wish to honor Nacea by aiding in a cause she believed in."
"Nacea told me," I found the strength to say, "that the Meekrob don't fight, but they protect… and, protect knowledge, and…"
"Yes." Xeer blinked, as if to nod, and outstretched his arms. "The universe, Dib, is knowledge. Energy lends itself to knowledge, which lends itself to the universe. It is a cycle, just as life and death. In life, we are protectors; in death, we are the energy that supplies all that those who still breathe must protect."
A cycle. I drew in a deep breath and nodded… and in the back of my mind, I heard Nacea's voice explaining to me, in one of our very first training sessions, "That is the universe." In my attempts to ease my godfather's pain, in his current state of unconsciousness, I had helped to open his mind to the universe as well. I could feel it. Tenn could feel it. The Meekrob held it precious, above everything else.
And if it was a cycle, I thought, as I felt the heat from the tattoo on my back, Nacea would always be alive. Because she had accepted her death as inevitable, she had become a part of the energy that continued to give meaning to her people.
My eyes itched, but I didn't let myself cry, not in front of the high Meekrob council. Instead, I nodded once, and said, focusing on the Chairman once again, "Thank you, sir. It means everything to us that you'll be providing aid. When things in the Empire are fixed, I promise to keep on assuring safety for you, your race, and your planet."
"You have grown to be a strong leader," Xeer complimented me. "You can be sure to see more of our representatives in due time."
I thanked him again, as did Tenn, and then we ended the transmission. Having the promise of Meekrob aid was one of the best things we now had going for us. And I was not going to let their offer go without thanks. I'd keep to my own promise: that well-meaning race would become true scholars of the universe, and be able to live in the peace they coveted.
Plus, talk about getting closure. I'd been beating myself up over Nacea's death for a very long time, and even killing Skoodge hadn't been able to give me the right kind of satisfaction for sealing that up, since he'd struck down Victor Haynsworth in the process.
No more of that. We had the Meekrob on our side. We had a strong army.
This was our fight.
– – –
After contacting the Meekrob, which had resulted in a fantastic surprise, I asked Tenn and Skutch to do a last sweep through the headquarters building to make sure we'd have everyone we needed in attendance for the last debriefing before takeoff. I made my way directly for the infirmary, where Lex was finishing up saying her peace to her father, still in a less than promising state of unconsciousness.
She hugged me silently, and nothing was said until a thought clutched every fiber of my being. In a low, calm tone, I explained to Lex that we had Meekrob support, and that as soon as they contacted us again, I would see if there could potentially be something arranged for one of them to take a closer look at Victor. Maybe I with my limited ability hadn't been able to heal him, but a Meekrob was sure to at least know if he could still be saved. I hadn't dared ask during the call, since Xeer had stipulated that help would come in a time of 'greatest need,' so I figured that meant the nearly clairvoyant species knew more than I had told them, and knew that now was not the right time to lend their services.
Lex understood, and took hold of my hand as we continued outside. "He'll be all right," I assured her for good measure.
"My father doesn't give in so easily," was the way she chose to agree.
"It's true, Lex," I offered.
After glancing around for a second, Lex drew in a deep breath. "When I first came here," she said, "I accused my father of dragging me."
"I was out of my comfort zone," she went on, gripping my hand tightly. "I thought that this was such a waste of time. I was here as a representative of our branch, and nothing else. I had my traditions and preferences and all, and I was so content to have nothing to do with—well, with aliens." She shook her head, and smiled a little. "It's kind of odd," she admitted. "I just—I can't look back and not laugh. I've seen so many sides to the Irken spectrum, and all the way down, they're… well, they're not all that different, are they?"
"From what?" I wondered.
"Well, sister races," I reminded her.
"I know. And it's been strange to absorb all of this, but I could not be happier that I didn't stay home." She let out a sigh, and walked a bit closer to me. "Dib, there are so many worlds out there that need and deserve saving; not just ours. And that's only a piece of what I've learned from being here. I'm proud to be a part of this fight."
I smiled, lifted by the way she'd chosen to say such words, and leaned in to kiss her, just above her ear. "I'm proud to be here, too," I told her. "And you know what, hon?"
"Weird as it is for me to say it about mine, but we're pretty lucky to have dads who believe in us."
"God, it's true," Lex let out on a needed breath.
By this point, we'd made our way outside, where everything was in preparation the way I'd been hoping it would be. Charlotte stood with her team of agents who were remaining on Earth, her clipboard and notepad in hand in case any final changes needed to be made. I had so much to thank that woman for (patience with me being high among them). And everyone in the Corporation.
A few of the international representatives were coming with us, and stood in uniform beside one of the two cargo ships that would be taking our army to the Massive, and wherever else in the Empire we needed them to go; Tenn stood by one of the ships, and Skutch by another, while Gaz and Zim stood prepared at the ship that the smaller crew of us would be taking—just me, them, Lex, and my dad.
The Spittle Runner was in prime condition and ready to go. We had given it a fresh coat of paint and lacquer, and the interior had been remodeled to seat up to six passengers: two comfortably at the front control panel, and three on a bench-like seat along the right wall in the back, plus room for minor cargo like weapons or extra computers. The control panel itself was all Skutch's work—he'd brought the glowing, tablet-like dashboard to life again, complete with its touch-screen functions in English rather than Irken after some binary translation on the computer's part. Tenn had tested out the engines on a few test runs herself, and given it the all-clear inspection for flying.
Charlotte gave me a nod across the field, to let me know that we had all been gathered. Dad had just returned from his chat with the reporter, Danvers, who, I could tell from my father's pleased expression, had agreed to do what we had been hoping: she would be reporting, live, via a link wire from her office to Charlotte. Using our wristwatch communicators, we would all keep Charlotte up to speed on what we were doing and where we were; we'd be getting visuals as best we could, as well.
Lex and my father moved to join Gaz and Zim, while I called Charlotte over to us for a final word as I approached the smaller ship myself.
"Any final words you wish to impart, sir?" my spokeswoman asked me.
"Other than asking you again to drop the 'sir' stuff around me?" I laughed.
"Under the circumstances—"
"I know," I grinned, "I know. And sure. I'll say a couple things."
Charlotte rolled her eyes at me a little, but patted me a couple of times on the back. When I glanced at her upon feeling that reassuring tap, she gave in to a smile, and that helped to solidify in me the things I did want to say. I had worked out, much earlier, a few ideas for parting words to instill more hope and fortitude in my Corporation and this army, but her kind smile reminded me of the most important point I needed to make.
I passed that smile to my sister, and then to my father; the two of them returned the gesture, and my father gave me an encouraging nod. I brushed my left hand down Lex's arm as I walked past her and closer to the ship, and she squeezed my wrist lightly to give me her full support. To Zim, I hesitated for a second before choosing to salute him, my right hand flat and angled by my forehead, the way I'd always seen done. He looked a little confused at first, but straightened up and returned the gesture. It was the best signal I could use to give him thanks. He was the head of my army, after all.
I trusted him to do the right thing. I had to.
Then, I stepped up on top of the newly renovated Spittle Runner, now at a high enough point to see and be seen by everyone who was gathered around. Outside, nestled in the horseshoe of buildings that made up the Corporation complex, my voice would carry well—and I was glad… this would be the last time I'd give a public speech to the SEC before taking on the Control Brains, before finding my own way in the ancient Irken Prophecy, before bringing some kind of change to the Irken Empire.
I'd come back, though, I kept on telling myself. All of us would. That was my fondest hope, and I would cling to that until the end.
"Members of the Swollen Eyeball Corporation," I began, outstretching my hands to address everyone, "and friends from distant places. I'm going to keep this brief, but know that what we are embarking upon today is a mission that will be met with no regrets. This is a fight we can and will win… to protect our home and to make not more enemies but allies. This is a mission to restore functionality to an Empire too industrial for its own good, and to restore a voice to a race that for too long has been stifled to monotony. We are not leaving to conquer, but to mend. Fight those who oppose you, but do so knowing that we will someday soon stand side by side as sister races. This is a fight to not be severed, to open our communications and to open the minds of the Irken race.
"We fight to put an end to Invasion. To put an end to the tyranny and atrocities committed by the recent false Tallest, Tak, and to put an end to the unjust rulings of the Irken Control Brains.
"Thank you for taking this journey with me," I finished. "We aren't just a Corporation, not just faces in the masses." I glanced at Charlotte again, and said to everyone the thing that had crossed my mind when I'd seen her smile: "We're family. So let's protect our own and go into this fight with the hopes to make this family grow, not divide. My thanks to all of you, again."
I drew in a deep breath, and finished strongly, "Let's head to the stars."
– – –
"Was that lame?" I wondered.
We'd broken orbit. I'd let Tenn take the lead, since I trusted her navigational skills more than anyone else's, and had Skutch follow her so that we could bring up the rear and divert if necessary. Tenn, Zim and Skutch had alerted the army together to commandeer any small vessels they could, if the opportunity arose. We'd need all the help we could get, when it came to mobility of our numbers. Hopefully the Meekrob could help us out with that as well, once they joined on, which I trusted them to do when they knew the time was right.
I was piloting the Spittle Runner, and showing my father the ropes. He had the ship memorized in an instant, though; I wasn't worried. So that gave him some free time to pass out extra packets of a new invention of his: oxygen tablets. Dad, Gaz and I were all pretty convinced that the Irken race was an oxygen-based one (and when I'd asked Skutch, he'd shrugged and asked me what oxygen was, so I went with my gut instead of any kind of Irken reassurance), but we couldn't be too careful. We'd made sure Tenn and Skutch had enough of the tablets to give out to the army, as well.
"Your speech?" Lex guessed. She was pressed against the window to my right, watching the stars go by, then turned away rather quickly to look at me, only to bend over herself and stick her head between her knees.
"Yeah my—Lex, what's up, you okay?" I wondered, cutting myself off.
"I know that sometimes romantic things make one want to vomit," my girlfriend said, "but right now I honestly don't know if the view outside is beautiful or if it makes me legitimately want to puke."
"You sure it's the view and not Dib's driving?" Zim dug at me.
"You shut up," I muttered. "I'm a better pilot than you."
Gaz groaned and leaned forward to rub Lex's back. "At least you're getting sick from the atmosphere outside," she consoled her friend. "These guys make me want to vomit all the time."
I felt myself start laughing.
"What?" Gaz demanded.
"Not you, I'm laughing at myself," I assured her. "I was afraid that stuff I said to the army back there was lame, but at least I wasn't picking a childish fight and talking about throwing up in front of them."
"Either way, I'm proud of you," Dad commented.
Gaz and I sighed and said, "Thanks, Dad," in unison.
But the lighthearted moments couldn't last. It wouldn't be long, now, until we were in the thick of the battle, whichever part of it came first.
The way we'd set the mission up was fairly simple. Skutch and Tenn would pilot their individual carriers toward the Massive, but stay out of sight until I caught up. First thing was first, though… we'd divert from the main group in order to bring Zim to Station Nine first. That stop would, as Zim himself had stated, probably free Tak up to head anywhere she wanted in order to make her next move, so our small group would simply continue to the Massive for a start. After all, those Brains were already primed to be attacked.
Once on the Massive, Skutch would join with Tenn and give over piloting duties to a member of his team that he was training as they flew. In an ideal situation, I would have wanted that person to be Victor Haynsworth. God, I did feel a little lost without having him around for this battle… and I knew that, if he'd had a choice at all, he would have wanted to do anything in his power to help.
Knowing that was probably contributing to Lex's present unease. We didn't mention it, though. All of us just had to keep going.
I did not want to experience any more loss out here on the new battlefield, but I knew that it was probably inevitable. But at the same time, I was placing my most trusted friends and companions in charge of the missions. Skutch and Tenn as the chief pilots. Dad and Lex as the heads of the footsoldiers. Zim on his own to face down whatever ghosts from his past he needed to before he could join up with us again. Gaz and I… wherever we had to go.
And soon, I had to keep on telling myself… soon, we'd have Ira back, as well.
We had to be ready for anything to happen, though. We had to keep our focus on the Control Brains, and stick to that primary mission.
The trip there would have been a long one, had Skutch not informed us of a wormhole. It was one that, he told us once we'd broken orbit, Tak's Elite had used to quickly travel from the Massive's current location to Earth, and one that he had discovered was still in effect when he'd returned to Earth himself to join us. Luckily, the rift was still there.
I had navigated my way through the stars of the Milky Way before, and had dealt with a wormhole once, so I was confident enough in my piloting abilities to get us through to the other side without worry. The rip in space opened just past Mars's two new artificial moons (created by a Russian team that included the SEC's own Russian representatives, apparently), and I could sense all of us in the Spittle Runner holding our breath as we entered.
The wormhole, which looked like little more than a small tear in a sheet of starry paper, sucked us into blackness, which suddenly exploded into a bright white light. Lex let out a yelp beside me and grabbed my arm; I heard Gaz and Zim start to react, as well, but I had to keep my own focus and not let the sudden brightness blind or bother me. I'd dealt with worse, I kept on telling myself. I had dealt with worse.
"Everyone just hold on," I called out to the others on board, "and whatever you do, try to keep still! We can't afford to rock the ship, or who knows where we'll end up."
That said, I pushed the engines into hyperdrive and sped forward through the gleaming tunnel we had found ourselves in, but could still not catch my breath. The ship's red warning light came on as auxiliary power.
"We're gonna hit electrical failure for about five seconds," Tenn's voice came through the communicator built into the ship. "So hit your auto-pilot now if you wanna keep up your pace!"
"Done," I said, quickly doing exactly what she had commanded. The auto-pilot feature was one of the easiest to activate, and kicking the ship into automatic allowed me to close my eyes for that blessed five seconds.
The bright tunnel was then the only light, for the longest five seconds of my life. I could feel the ship lose altitude a little, but knew better than to kick on any more of the auxiliary battery. The ship would re-charge itself once we made it through to the other side. I held onto Lex to keep her reassured that we'd be all right, and her grip tightened on me. She was the one of us on board taking the interstellar flight the hardest. I had no idea whether or not Dad had ever been out of orbit like this, but I was pretty sure that hardly anything of the supernatural sort fazed my father.
Then, as if someone had simply flicked a light switch, the power came back on. The bright tunnel was gone.
I opened my eyes—
—And saw the Armada.
"Holy shit, that was quick," Skutch commented via communicator.
There were ships in formation before us, their numbers easily in the upper hundreds. Some were the size of the cargo ships Tenn and Skutch were piloting, others quite possibly the size of a town back home. They ranged in color from grey to a spectrum of red and purple, and every single one of them was armed. The smaller ships had smooth, rounded shapes to them, like the Runner I felt, now, much too tiny in, and the larger ships began taking on more angular, spiked forms. It was not hard to spot the laser turrets on any of them.
The worst of it? This wasn't even a sneak attack. We were the ones intruding.
"What's going on?" I heard Charlotte ask through my watch screen. "Are you back online? I've been trying to get through to you!"
"Yeah, we're fine," I answered. "I, uh… I think."
"Mind explaining?" my spokeswoman asked.
"Well, there's a fleet of Irken vehicles in front of us, and—"
"Did you lose any ships?" Charlotte clarified. "Have there been any attacks? You were offline for a week!"
"A we—a week?" I erupted. "N-no way, that's impossible!"
"Not really," Zim said. I jumped; I'd almost forgotten he was even there. "It took me several months the first time I came to Earth. I'm not surprised that wormhole was linked to space and time. It kinda makes sense." Maybe that was that aerodynamics book of his talking, but I was glad he'd said a few things, and that Charlotte had heard him as well. Plus, he couldn't be on the wrong track—I'd been stranded on Meekrob for an equivalent of three months on Earth without even feeling like a few days had gone by.
"Sorry about that, Charlotte," I said, swerving starboard to narrowly dodge a laser missile that was suddenly shot our way, "but I can't really talk right now. We'll keep you posted on how things go."
"I certainly hope so."
"Dib." Tenn's voice was loud and clear once Charlotte obliged to hang up the call. "Your ship's faster than any of these, so you've got an advantage. Go above them and take a left."
"I put the specs in your navigation system," Skutch added. "Auto-pilot and you're good."
"Thanks, guys," I breathed out. "Can you handle these ships, you think?"
"Unless they bother to track us, we should have a smooth flight to the Massive," Tenn boasted. "These're borrowed, remember?" Oh, yeah… and we'd never painted over the Irken decals. Only my modified Spittle Runner, with its SEC logo and other modifications clearly done by human hands, would look out of place. "It's also good," Tenn went on, "not to attack until attacked."
"Agreed," Zim said. I glanced up and back at him, and saw that his stern focus was centered past the cockpit and out at the fleet around us. "It's going to be tough to call until we see the soldiers themselves, but we need to gauge who among any of these guys is with Red, or with Tak. Even then, I'm sure that just because an Irken will have loyalty to Red again won't mean he'll necessarily know that Red's on our side."
Gaz snorted. I shot her a look, and she rolled her eyes. "I get that he is," she growled, "I just can't wait to punch his face in."
"You and me both," Tenn commented.
"I just wanna punch somethin'," Skutch added. "Get moving! We've got ourselves a fight to—uh—fight."
"Well, you tried," Zim laughed at his brother.
"Anyway, thanks again," I said to the two other pilots. "We'll see you soon."
"We'll wait for you guys on the Massive," Tenn agreed.
"Good luck, bro," Skutch added before cutting transmission.
Even though he could no longer be heard over the system, Zim half-whispered a sincere, "Thank you."
The ship that had shot at us moved forward; I had to move, it was now or never. With barely enough time to breathe, I called out to the others on board, "Hold on to something, guys."
But just as I missed the smaller one, an enormous battleship rose up in front of us, maroon in color and oddly triangular in shape. I yelped a bit, out of surprise, but slammed my fist onto the glowing control panel in front of me. The action then jutted my ship straight up like an elevator. I then gunned it forward and to the left, as Tenn had instructed. I could still hear laser cannons going off in the distance, but I figured they were pretty far behind us.
Never underestimate the range of an Irken military laser cannon. You know, just in case you're ever on the wrong side of one. The next thing I knew, we'd been hit, though not badly, from behind. The blast jostled the ship and got all of us momentarily panicked.
"Shit!" I spat. "Where'd that even come from?"
"Check your panel," said Zim, who now stood over me and Lex, keeping himself up with a death grip on the backs of the front seats. "I think Skutch fixed your radar on there."
"Ugh, I hate radars," I muttered. "We shoulda just installed rear-view fucking mirrors."
"Well, at least we're still flying," Lex pointed out. "So I'd say we forget it and move."
"Good plan," I managed.
"GO!" Gaz shouted at me.
I nodded, grit my teeth, and continued onward at the highest speed I dared go. Our ship, I knew, was at a slight disadvantage, since I'd uninstalled the personality interface, and therefore had to rely almost entirely on physical commands, rather than verbal. Irken pilots, to my understanding and according to things Tenn had told me, synched their PAKs to their ships, which made the vehicles an extension of their consciousness. They didn't need mirrors if their ships shared the pilots' basic instincts.
The damage was indeed minimal and negligible. We were still flying fine, and were even able to relax somewhat once I turned on the autopilot as we sailed through the stars and found ourselves in the sheltered safety of another segment of the galaxy the wormhole had dumped us out into. While we had the time, I checked in on the others, too. I was holding up fine—this kind of thing was, quite literally, second nature to me—but I wanted to be sure our whole group was okay.
Dad and Gaz expressed the basic want to get back on solid ground, but were otherwise fine. Lex hummed out an agreement, her head once again between her knees, and added, "I'm just closing my eyes and telling myself it's a rollercoaster."
"Sorry, hon," I said, rubbing her back, "I probably should've warned you. I keep forgetting not everyone's done space travel."
"Oh, no, no, don't worry about it," Lex assured me, patting my knee even though she still had her head down. "I'm sure I'll get used to it, but it will be nice to stand up and get my bearings."
"Well, we're close. Don't worry."
Dad continued reassuring her (and I heard him talk a little about having been out of orbit once, though I did not catch when, why or how… but Dad was Dad and anything was possible and probable with that guy) as I glanced back at Zim to get his input.
Zim was pale as death. He looked sick and exhausted, but his expression was clear and determined. Gaz held tightly to his hand, and before I could ask or say a thing, I saw her look worriedly over his upper right arm. Despite it being covered, now, by the long sleeve of his uniform jacket, I knew how awful it must have looked, and could only imagine what it felt like. I knew the pains of having a PAK rip through bone and tissue, but actual decay? That must have been excruciating.
But what I found myself thinking about most, as I glanced back at the two, was the fact that Zim was wearing that uniform at all. Ours was a thrown-together army made up of skilled professionals from all sides of the field of paranormal investigation, and he had managed to work with all of them. He and Tenn had, together, gathered the army volunteers into groups based on their myriad skills, and he was determined to help out in any way possible. Even though it must have been so physically painful for him to so much as stand at times.
It was interesting and haunting, how Zim's plight affected all of us. When he was hurt or unwell, so too was my sister, and seeing her ailing in turn hurt me. But being hurt in that way made me stronger, made me want to be a better leader, a better friend, a better brother, a better partner for Lex, a better son not only to my own parents but to my godfather, who treated me like family.
I'd become almost overwhelmingly sympathetic to Zim's cause. He wanted to be human, more than anything. Yes, he had his downfalls. Yes, he had a brutal past. But his sincerity won out, and he'd really made me realize how lucky I was to have been born human at all. Maybe I'd had a shitty childhood, but things were looking up. I'd been able to have hobbies, I had a sister who would complain but would always listen to me no matter how crazy my childhood rants could get. I'd always had the Network. He had to build an experience from scratch, and had done so in a very short amount of time.
He wanted to be human, I realized, because he'd become attracted to the idea of having the right to a personality. To have the things that the Control Brains undermined. It was our goal to allow the Irkens to have those things back as well, but he hadn't known that from the start—hell, I hadn't known that from the start.
It made me wonder about Miyuki. About how she'd decided to stay on Earth, about how she'd chosen to be with Dad. To have a family. She was nuts in her own way for leaving, but to her she'd just been protecting us from a premature fight. So she let us grow up, and waited.
I glanced back at Zim and Gaz again, then turned forward again. I set my right arm around my girlfriend and tugged her a little closer, letting her rest her head on my shoulder as I continued navigating straight ahead based on the autopilot's directions.
When you're human, you're given a lot of choices. Sometimes, people or groups or words or ideas will make you try to think the way they want you to, but ultimately, it all comes down to you. We don't have machines implanted in us from birth telling us what the 'regulation' emotions are or what our duties need to be. We don't have to feel superior or inferior to anything unless we want to. We can choose whether or not we believe in anything higher than ourselves, and we can choose to believe in what lies within us individually. Humans are innovative. We're curious. We fuck up but we don't have to consider that to be failure. We can take life or leave it, we can travel, we can learn—God, we can spend every day reading and devouring information and still have more to learn—and we can fall in love.
And honestly… I couldn't think of a more noble, determined person for my sister to have started a relationship with than the human hopeful that sat beside her now. I made my mind up, then and there, that, no matter what, I'd support them. I had been, more or less, but I told myself to put more faith in my sister's boyfriend. (Oh, wow, okay, still a little weird to say, but I'd get used to it.) He could win. He would. He knew what he wanted and I was sure he could achieve it.
Nearly an hour passed before the ship's warning lights flashed, alerting us that the Station was on our immediate horizon. "Oh, my," Lex whispered, sitting up straight. "Is that it?"
"Has to be," I nodded.
"It is," Zim confirmed, his tone at once frightened and focused. He positioned himself directly behind us again, standing to peer over our shoulders and out to the hovering Station. "Doesn't look like much now, but this is pretty much where everything started. And it's where at least one other thing has got to end."
He was right, it didn't look like much. The Station itself was bland and unimpressive, but it was true that it held the memory of the most sordid part of not only Zim's history, but my mother's as well.
"So," I heard my dad comment under his breath, "this is the one… just as I pictured it, really…"
I was sure he'd heard stories. Once this whole fiasco was over, I wanted so badly to talk in more detail to both of my parents. I wanted to know who they were. I'd declared the Corporation my family, but there was so much to learn about my nuclear family's history that, I was sure, would give me not only more of a sense of family, but of home and belonging.
The Station was the size of a small moon, and was one in a circle of about fifteen similar satellites orbiting a cloudy grey planet. I couldn't tell exactly at first, but a second good look told me that they were dust clouds. The planet was in the process of recovering from what must have been a widespread and tactical conflagration. Barbed wire surrounded the miserable grey orb as well, and it appeared to be electrified—red sparks shot out here and there to warn passing ships.
That hellish place was the research prison I had heard of before. The place Lard Nar had originally hailed from. Now it was dust, conquered by Invader Larb and acquisitioned into the Irken Empire to serve the Brains.
The fifteen Stations, too, were barbed… all but Nine. Station Nine, instead, itself a solid metal structure vaguely resembling Saturn—if Saturn had an orbital observation platform rather than rings—was encased in what looked like a bubble. I could sense static energy, though. That barrier was just as if not more dangerous than the barbed wire.
"Great," I muttered. "How do we get through that?"
"It's a code, remember?" my sister said, walking up to stand beside Zim. My father rose to his feet as well for a better view, but hung toward the back. "That stupid Red knows it, but I don't wanna ask him."
"Gotta ask someone, though," Zim said sympathetically.
"I dunno," I said. "Honestly, guys, I don't think we need to ask. I'm gonna take a wild guess on this one."
"What if you're wrong?" Lex wondered. "No offense."
I shook my head. "I'm not wrong."
"Son," Dad warned, "I tried to tell myself that fo—"
"It's 80891!" I erupted.
Everyone's silence was enough to convince me that they agreed.
I still could not understand why my birthday was so important, or who had originally started using it as a code. Tak was crazy about it, though, and I figured Red and Ira (or at least just Ira) would have chosen a code we could easily guess in case they were not available to pass it on to us.
"I-if it is," Gaz said nervously, "and if Tak's on there, wouldn't she have guessed it and broken out by now?"
"Shit, you're right," I mumbled.
"42892?" Gaz guessed.
Before I could react, Zim was the one to mention under his breath, "Your birthday." April 28th, 1992. It reminded me again how truly close we were in age.
"Yeah." I glanced behind me to see my sister nodding stiffly. "If Red and Ira locked this place up together, I'm sure that's what would've happened. Red would've gone with the obvious, but Ira's—he's… he's smarter than that. He is."
"I know," I said calmly. "And you're right, Gaz, it probably is your birthday."
"I'll vouch for that decision," Dad agreed. "Your mother was all about dates and prophecies and whatnot. Oh, she had a field day with Nostradamus—"
"Dad, maybe not the best time for anecdotes!" I interrupted.
"Sorry. You're right." He let out a slight sigh, and continued, "It's a safe bet that anything we'll be up against that requires a code will be one of those two dates."
"Thanks," I said, turning back to the control panel.
Figuring out how to enter the code was fairly simple. It was all about sending signals. With the silence that had followed my outburst as my background, I opened up a keypad on the controls and carefully typed in 42892, my hand only slightly shaking as I did. I couldn't risk hitting the wrong number.
The code was indeed correct. As soon as I'd entered it, I flicked a switch over my head to send the signal out into the surrounding area. An odd, eerily melodic hum began to drone through space, and the bubble around the station glowed blue for a moment before fading away. "Thanks, Ira," I heard Gaz whisper.
I let out a breath I had no idea I'd been holding, out of relief for not having screwed anything up, then said, "All right. Ready? I'm gonna bring this thing down there. Any idea where I should dock, Zim?"
"Eh… somewhere inside," he suggested. "I don't know… I can't say I remember the layout of this place so much as just the feeling."
"You saw the blueprint!" I nagged him.
"Jeez, so did you," he argued back. "We should've marked an entrance."
We were both silent for a second, then decided together, "Let's blame Skutch."
"Oh, my God, you two are idiots," Lex half-laughed as I began the descent.
"And this is why you and me are friends," Gaz said to her, as the girls shared a slight roll of the eyes.
I heard Dad laugh a bit as well, mostly out of pride, it seemed, but I didn't react any further. After all, we did have the blueprints mapped out into the navigation system—I called them up on Lex's side of the control panel screen, and had her be my co-pilot for a moment so we could figure out the best entrance to the Station.
The orbital platform that encircled the Station had four connecting ramps that led one directly from the platform to a gated sliding metal door, and only two of them were large enough to let a ship in. Out of the two possible docking bays, we chose the one facing away from the planet itself, and as soon as we landed, the door belched out a creak and groaned open. It was not familiar with constant use anymore, far from it… but it had been used recently. We would have been faced with more difficulty from it if it hadn't.
Tak was on there, somewhere. Red had seen to it that she'd been stuck there; I wouldn't be surprised if he personally had been the one to re-open that docking bay door in order to lock her up. Either way, it made our landing easier.
Easier, but by no means welcoming. There was one lonely light on the ceiling of a large domed room that felt more like the Roman Colosseum than anything, and the entire grey bay was cast in the pale glow from that tiny lamp. "Jeez," I muttered upon bringing the engines down and landing on the cracked grey floor. The door heaved closed behind us, and I heard oxygen levels settle outside with a hiss. "This place sure is…"
"The site for a murder?" Zim offered, lamenting. The rest of us stared at him; Gaz tightened her grip on his hand. Zim sighed. "Sorry," he said. "I've just… well, no, honestly, I've never been so afraid in my life."
"You can do this," Gaz told him. "You said you would. Get that back."
"I know," Zim said. "I know. I will. I'll be fine. It's just hitting me that I'm here." He winced, but was able to brush off whatever discomfort it was that he'd started feeling.
"You sure you're fine without backup?" I double-checked with him, letting him hear my doubt as clearly as I could possibly project it.
"It's better if I go alone for now, while the Brains are still dormant," he reminded me, speaking for the girls' benefit as well. "Tak's there, but I think her first move is going to be to leave, just like Red speculated. She's not sticking around, and she'll know why I'm here, anyway. Keep an eye on GIR's chassis," he added, "just in case Tak or MiMi decide to try anything funny."
"Will do," I nodded. "Skutch has GIR right now, since he can de-frag him if needed."
"Good," Zim sighed. "I still can't believe that damn little robot…"
"Hey," Gaz assured him, setting her hands on his lower arms, "we, um… we'll make sure GIR doesn't do any stupid shit. Stupid even for him."
Zim grinned, but held back a laugh. Maybe he couldn't, at that moment, and I wouldn't blame him. I'd seen an unwelcoming reflection of myself in my mother's Mirror before, but that was nothing compared to the fact that Zim's past was still very much alive and very pissed off at his present situation. He had changed. The PAK had not.
"You'd better be the one to make it out of this," I said, before realizing I'd spoken.
Zim nodded. "I will. I'll find you soon."
"Zim?" My sister was holding up very well for how awfully she must have been aching. I couldn't help but feel proud of her. Gaz lifted her head to say more, but before she spoke, she drew Zim in for a hug, which he returned without hesitation. "Stay strong, okay?" she said to him softly. "You can do this. I know you can."
"Thank you, Gaz," he whispered back. "I'm going to find you after this. I promise. I want you to promise me something, too."
The two drew back a little, and Gaz nodded as Zim leaned in to make up for their height difference. "Promise me you won't give up. On anything. No matter what." Gaz nodded again. It did hurt me to see her cry, but it was worse when I knew she was holding it back, as she was now. Her eyes were blurred and I knew I saw her shake. "Just live, Gaz," Zim went on, pressing one hand to her cheek. "Live, fight, and win."
"You, too," she managed.
I turned away just a little, but they were reflected against the glass of the front window of the Runner, so no matter where I aimed my focus, I couldn't really not see them kiss. I wasn't avoiding it, though; I was just respecting their privacy and intimacy. When I realized I couldn't avoid it, I let myself spy a bit on my sister's reactions. On how desperately she held onto him.
"I love you," Zim told her when he stood back. "I'm going to come back for you."
"I know you will," said Gaz, hugging him tightly one last time. "You're my boyfriend."
Zim grinned a bit as he returned her hug. "That I am."
"So I trust you."
"Thank you, Gaz."
They drew away, then, and Gaz placed her hands on Zim's shoulders, looked sternly into his eyes, and said, "Go win this."
"Hey, Zim," I said, turning around in my seat completely.
"Good luck, all right?" Not knowing what else to do, I reached back with my right hand, and after only a second of hesitation, Zim shook it solidly.
"You, too, Dib," he said with complete affirmation. "I know you guys've got this."
I nodded my acceptance of his comment, and our hands parted. I then flicked the switch overhead to open up the back door. Zim drew in a deep breath, exchanged 'good luck' comments with Lex and my father as well, then strode back to the door. He placed his hands on either side of the doorframe for a moment, as if checking to see whether or not the Station floor was solid or liquid, then glanced over his shoulder, smiled, and said, "See you soon."
With that, he left. His personal mission had, at his request, begun.
We waited to depart until we'd watched Zim survey the docking bay, check his pocket for additional oxygen tablets, and then at last leave for the interior Station.
Only then did Gaz let herself cry. "Oh, God," she choked, collapsing forward against the backs of the seats Lex and I occupied.
"Gaz!" the other three of us let out simultaneously.
Dad was the one standing, and he gathered Gaz back against him. Trying not to make a scene, Gaz grabbed onto our father tightly, her face pressed into the folds of his stark white lab coat. Calmly, reassuringly, Dad stroked back her hair and whispered a slow array of, "It's all right. It's going to be all right."
"Dad?" Gaz managed to say.
"Thank you for coming back."
"Of course, Gaz," Dad said on a gentle tone. "And you know I feel awful for ever having let myself be less than a father to you."
"Zim will be back, too," Lex offered in her kind way. "I'm sure of it."
"Thanks," Gaz sighed.
I knew that she was thinking of Ira, as well. He was on my mind, too; as was Victor. We still had a lot to do, but we had to pace ourselves. Get the fears out now and just push forward. Knowing this, I patted my sister's arm, then checked the ship's engines (and luckily the damage from the earlier blast had corrected itself), and took off.
Once we had made it a good distance from the Station, I said, "He knows what he's doing, Gaz. Or at least he'd better. Besides, I'm pretty sure Miyuki's gonna find him, and she's not gonna let our group stay separated for too long, not when we're finally out here doing her mission. Our mission," I corrected.
"Right," Gaz said, shaking herself of her worry. She let out a huff of breath, shook herself out again, then grabbed onto a beam overhead for balance, and said, "Let's go."
Without further ado, we were off. I reversed the coordinates on the navigation system and let the ship fly us back to where Tenn and Skutch were waiting with the army. To the Massive. To find Red, and begin to take down the Control Brains.
Maybe this was their turf, but I still held that we were stronger.
Fewer in number, but stronger all the same.
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