Alone in the Darkness

Chapter Three

A Sanctuary

The blast from the exploding fireball smashed into her body, shredding off her clothes as it sent her crashing through the wooden planks. Charred skin sloughed off her bones, eyes exploded and her brain felt as if it was boiling inside a pressure cooker. A brief sensation of weightlessness abruptly ceased upon impact with a grassy surface, the landing knocking the wind out her. Her attempts at regaining her breath only resulted in the inhalation of the searing flames enveloping her body giving the sensation of her chest being cooked from the inside out. The roar of the flames could not quite drown out the frantic screams of agony around her, some of which she realized were her own.

After a time, the cacophonous environment of the conflagration was replaced by a steady, searing gale. Shego attempted to open her eyes however it seemed she could only squint blearily through gummy eyelids, her sight limited to a tunnel vision of a landscape outlined in monochromatic green. She saw a sharply contrasting line of bluish-white light an undetermined distance away and had a very strong sense it was a safe place to be. She could not tell whether she was seeing daylight or merely light from under a door to another room. Her attempts to approach the light proved futile. Her limbs were sluggish and every motion evoked agony; furthermore, the oven-like, hurricane force wind was pushing her back harder the more she tried to make progress.

Shego noticed a house further down the vista of green. Despite there being no resemblance, she perceived it to be her home. As she approached the house, an incessant murmuring began to intrude itself to the point of being painful to bear. Attempts to shut out the noise by covering her ears proved futile and, screaming back at the black and green silhouettes orbiting her to shut up, proved equally unsuccessful as she discovered her tongue seemed stuck to the roof of her mouth.

After a time Shego realized she was nude and felt a wave of shame and vulnerability wash over her. She sought her pool-side pack which contained her wardrobe, hoping to get dressed before someone caught her unclad. She stepped behind a curtain to get dressed only to find herself on the front porch, watching her parents in the family car preparing to leave. In a panic she attempted to get dressed quickly, calling for them to wait; regardless, the car left the driveway, the occupants cheerfully waving goodbye. She watched, with increasing dread, the car proceed down a lonely road through a flat, featureless landscape only to disappear into a black void straddling the road. She stood for an untold length of time, her stomach feeling sick with despair and her heart breaking with loneliness, her mind numb with the realization that her parents had left her…alone.

For a time, Shego wandered aimlessly within a black and green suburban desert. Cookie-cutter homes with empty windows and driveways stared mutely out at silent, endless streets, as if they were mausoleums in a graveyard. Those faceless individuals and shadowy groups that did happen by either ignored or avoided her when she tried to engage them.

As she approached a large tower situated on some small island, the stairs she was climbing suddenly became a narrow, claustrophobic, concrete conduit she could barely squeeze through. As she struggled through the conduit something caught her attention: she thought she felt a hint of a cool breeze delicately caress her. In hopeful desperation she cast her senses about to pinpoint the unexpected, good omen. It was not long before she began hearing someone calling out. The voice was indistinct, yet she felt encouraged hearing it and began jogging toward it with excitement. In the distance she spotted a bright light radiating brilliantly against the dreary world around her. She sprinted towards the light and as she approached, the cool breeze waxed stronger, replacing the hot, exsiccating gale which had been buffeting her for so long.

The portal looked like a patio door covered with a beaded curtain through which Shego could make out blue sky. The voice seemed to be calling for her. This filled her with an overwhelming sense of relief and she eagerly stepped through to find herself immediately immersed neck deep within a swimming pool. She looked around and realized she was within a bathroom and the pool had become a bathtub. As her gaze finished its circuit of the room it stopped at a handsome young man kneeling beside the tub, smiling warmly at her, relief etched on his face.

Shego looked at the man and smiled weakly, "Hi Walter…."

Kneeling on the living room floor beside Katie, Walter stared in wonder at his burnt fingertips then stared back at her. He passed his hand closely over her body and was amazed to feel the heat radiating from it rivalled that of a hot iron. He knelt for a moment longer, mesmerized, until she began convulsing which galvanized him into action. Berating himself for a fool, he realized he had to cool her off. Unfortunately, large quantities of ice were not immediately available; however, a bathtub filled with cold water would suffice and Katie's spasms were a bad sign.

Not wanting to get any further burns Walter grabbed the coverlet from the couch to provide a modicum of insulation as he threw Katie over his shoulder and raced up the stairs to the bathroom. The bathtub was of an old style that stood off the floor on four clawed 'feet', the advantage being it was deep and the back end had a comfortable slope to lean the feverish woman against. After using the coverlet as padding for her head he turned on the cold water.

Lowerton was one of the very few places anymore, in Colorado at least, that had running water these days and he was relieved since it meant he would not have to lug buckets of water from the rain barrels behind the house. When Walter went to the town hall to formally stake a family claim on his late brother's house the town clerk had told him the water and sewage system was given priority for the limited amount of electricity generated by the modified diesel-electric locomotives—the pandemics caused by inadequate sanitation a few years before had been influential in that policy. The remaining proportion of electricity was parceled out on a rotating basis amongst different sections of town with emergency services having priority. Walter did not care at the moment about electricity, he was simply glad to see the rush of cold water out of the faucet.

When the water reached Katie it hissed and sputtered much as it would if splashed onto a hot skillet. After what seemed an uncomfortably long time Walter noticed the water he wiped her face with no longer evaporated immediately upon contact. The convulsions had settled to the occasional twitch more associated with the REM cycle of sleep. After close to two hours he was nearly giddy with relief as she awoke, looked at him with a smile and remembered his name….

They stared into each other's eyes for a few moments until Katie frowned slightly, "Walter, I'm cold."

Walter was brought back in the moment, "Oh geez! Sorry!" He pulled the drain plug and, as he tried to lift her, she gasped sharply in pain.

"Katie, what's wrong?!" Walter asked in alarm.

Katie grimaced as she answered with a groan, "I've been having times, especially when I wake up, where my knees and elbows and feet and just everything hurt so bad I can't move for a while. It'll go away but I'm cold and I'm shivering and it makes the hurting worse."

Walter's eyes took on a blank stare as he mentally inventoried the remaining medications in his medical kit; with a look of resolve he looked at Katie, "I'll be right back." With that he dashed downstairs. A few minutes later he found what he sought a styrette of morphine. It was his last one and he did not know if he could get more since they were very rare; however, the expiry date was in two months and Katie was in pain so he decided he may as well use it. Upon his return he held up the styrette and being out of breath, only just managed to gasp out, "It's for the pain."

Katie looked with trepidation at the needle however she wanted relief from the pain and merely nodded. Walter administered the morphine and after a short time she felt the pain begin to ease. Although she was not in any pain for the moment, he discovered she was still unable to move her joints.

After lifting Katie out of the tub and sitting her on the toilet he stripped off her clothes. Removing wet clothing was difficult enough as it was; combined with a now lethargic patient who could barely sit up on her own, and whose joints would not flex, it took Walter almost half an hour to undress and dry her off with a towel. Once he finished he picked her up and took her back to her room, noticing at the same time that she seemed more alert and although her joints were appearing to loosen up she occasionally grimaced with discomfort.

"You okay?" asked Walter with concern, "You shouldn't be feeling any pain right now."

Katie responded quietly yet with encouragement, "The morphine took care of the worst of it. Now it just aches a bit and I'm starting to move again which means I'll be fine in a little while."

Walter was sceptical, "I gave you that shot only a little over half an hour ago; it should have lasted at least three or four hours."

She shrugged.

"Well, maybe the morphine was too close to the expiration date," thought Walter. He looked out the window to see the sun had already been up for a couple of hours. Unfortunately the window faced west so he moved the partially opened curtains completely to the sides and rolled the window blind all the way up: with the electricity unavailable that day, it was the best illumination he was going to get for the time being. He turned to his patient who sat on the edge of the bed, still unclad, sitting demurely and, staring at him with an expression of wary expectation…and with a totally green body! Fascinated he tried to rationalize what he was seeing. Her skin seemed the colour of honeydew; her lips and nipples, and he suspected her intimate parts, the colour of moss and the gash to her side, although darker than the surrounding skin was not much darker than a ripe green apple. Walter finally noticed Katie shivering and realized the thunderstorms the night before had heralded the passage of a cold front causing the house to be colder that morning. He managed enough focus to grab a t-shirt, boxers and socks before he stepped over to examine her.

Although Walter noticed the range of motion of Katie's limbs seemed to have improved as she dressed, he still examined her joints carefully. Then he directed his attention to the stitches in her side. He was amazed to discover she had healed enough overnight that the stitches could probably be removed the next day. He was also pleased to note the ensuing scar would be rather unobtrusive. Walter retrieved a warm shirt and another pair of jeans from the closet and passed them to Katie, "I'm going downstairs to make us breakfast, come on down when you're ready."

Once in the kitchen and mindful of Katie's comfort, Walter quickly cleared the ashes out of the wood-burning kitchen stove and stoked the remaining hot embers with fresh wood to build a hot fire to warm the kitchen, silently thanking his brother for retrofitting an old fashioned wood burning stove in the kitchen. Not only did it not require electricity, it did a sterling job of keeping the modest home warm in cold weather. It did not take long for the kitchen to warm up while Walter set to making breakfast. With no electricity available for the next couple of days to run the refrigerator he needed to use up the perishable food first thus bacon with cheese omelettes, milk and apple juice was on the menu. "Man, it's too bad ya can't get coffee these days, it just ain't breakfast without a cup."

As he prepared breakfast, Walter's pondered over his guest, "She was trying sneak out before dawn…I did invite her to stay…she didn't want to impose and said she'd leave in the morning…why did she feel she had to sneak out though...did she think I would succeed in persuading her to stay…after this morning there's no way she's leaving if I can help it…is it something to do with her head injury…don't know how…did the fever cause her skin to turn green or is that natural for her…why does green skin ring a bell…got to get her to stay at least long enough for me to get help…don't think she's well enough to head out on her own just yet…maybe Kim's mom would be willing to make a house call…she's a brain surgeon, head injuries are her thing…well, gotta make a trip up there anyways…."

Upstairs, Shego's thoughts were equally busy, if not still a little fuzzy around the edges thanks to the combined effects of her bad spell and the shot of morphine. Foremost in her mind was the bad dream she had experienced: the feeling of abandonment and loneliness had been crushing. As her mind cleared she realized she had intended to leave unannounced, which meant she would have been on her own, out in the street, when the spasms hit. She felt nauseous at the thought of being alone; she was sure she would have thrown up had there been food in her stomach.

Shego's eyes surveyed the room, a small smile coming to her face, "I slept warm and safe here last night…with a full stomach…he took care of me again this morning. It felt nice to be held by him when he carried me to the bedroom…he gave me more dry clothes..." She could hear Walter bustling in the kitchen accompanied by the sound of something sizzling all punctuated with the delicious aromas wafting upstairs. Her smile grew, "And... more food to eat...and…oh…it's…yesss…bacon and eggggs…!" Then with a wistful sigh she remembered, "Daddy would make bacon and eggs on Satur…."

Shego's pleasant reminisces stopped abruptly so her mind could wrap itself around what she had just perceived, "I remember…I remember...Daddy made bacon and eggs on Saturday mornings then French toast with sausage on Sundays…mmmmm, so yummy...It was beyond awesome." She was elated. Eagerly she finished dressing and headed to the bathroom to collect her boots and ankle pouch, closing the bedroom door behind her.

As she left the bathroom Shego stopped dead as her eyes were grabbed by a vision from her dream. In front of her was the bedroom door from under which shone the bright daylight coming through the bedroom window on the other side, the relative darkness of the upstairs hallway enhancing the brightness of the line of light. It brought to mind that moment in her nightmare where a line of bright blue light promised sanctuary, only this time it seemed within her reach.

Shego turned to look in the direction of the stairs, listening to the sounds of Walter preparing breakfast, savouring again the delicious aromas wafting up to caress her nose. "He said last night he wanted a friend…maybe he's lonely too…he said I could stay as long as I wanted…he's fed me…given me clothes…and medicine…his bed…." She looked back down at the light coming from under the bedroom door then looked back to the stairs. Slowly and quietly she made her way down to the kitchen and stood demurely, hands clasped loosely at the waist, watching in the doorway as Walter prepared breakfast, "Just like Daddy…." Her stomach growled as she gazed at the meal being laid out on the table.

Walter turned around and smiled, "Hey Katie. You're just in time for breakfast, grab a chair and dig in." When she just stood there with a far off look in her eyes he asked, "Katie, are you okay?" When she did not respond he immediately rushed to her side and hugged her.

Encouraged somewhat by Walter's embrace Shego muttered quietly, "You said I could stay, right?"

"Of course, you're very welcome to stay," Walter responded quietly, gently stroking her hair as she leaned her head against him, "Now, breakfast is getting cold; are you ready to eat?" Shego nodded her head against his chest. With that they sat down and ate in companionable silence. All throughout breakfast Walter was oblivious to the surreptitious glances Katie sent his way.

Walter glanced out the kitchen window and realized the morning was moving on. He looked at his guest, "Look, Katie, I have some errands to run in Middleton today, not the least of which is to see if I can get a doctor I know come see you. Considering what just happened to you this morning, on top of what happened last night, I really want you to stay here. It's not a long ride to the medical center in Middleton but depending on what I can get done I may not get back much before supper."

When he finished speaking he could swear he detected a flicker of panic in Katie's eyes. He walked quickly around the table to kneel in front her and gently held her hands, "After I leave just lock up the house, stay inside and you'll be safe: no one knows you're here. There's food, water and firewood by the backdoor so you'll be warm."

Then with a wry smirk he finished, "And sorry, the cable guy hasn't been around yet so we don't have TV or internet but I'm sure I saw boxes of books in the basement so you might find something to read to pass the time."

With that Walter prepared to leave. Already dressed in his medic's jumpsuit he strapped on his pistol, slung his medpack on his back, plopped his cowboy hat onto his skull and took hold of his rifle. Katie was right behind Walter as he stepped out on the front porch and bumped into him as he turned to say goodbye. He noticed her eyes had the saddest expression he had ever seen in a long time on a girl's face, "Aw man! If she's got a pout to go with those, I'm so done for."

On an impulse Walter leaned down and gave Katie a quick kiss on her forehead for reassurance, "I'll be back." Suddenly feeling awkward he turned and headed down the front steps to the sidewalk with a stunned Katie staring after him as he walked away. As he turned onto the sidewalk and headed up the street he noticed the stiff north-westerly breeze pull a sheet of paper from the lamp post it had been tacked to and blow it past him. He did not see that it was a missing person poster with a picture of Shego on it.

Now, it must be noted that back in eighth grade, Walter and Kim were the power couple of Middleton Middle School, both were smart, athletic, attractive and popular. However, he was also friends with Ron with whom he shared a few personality traits, among them were irrational fears. Ron's rabid phobia of all things 'Camp Wannaweep' was well known to all, whereas Walter's phobia of all things Bonnie Rockwaller was less so. Thus, in exchange for him keeping mutant killer squirrels at bay, Ron ran interference with Bonnie.

In all Walter had three girls crushing on him by the end of seventh grade, Bonnie Rockwaller, Kim Possible and Tara Laforte and, he was oblivious to each one's affections. The fact that he was secretly crushing on a different girl altogether, one Hope Foley – who, it seemed to Walter, did not even know he existed – might have also been a factor. It was not until Ron mentioned Kim's interest – and then only because Kim was bemoaning her lack of confidence in approaching Walter to Ron, who then managed to encourage Kim to make the first move – did Walter clue in.

Thus, as Walter began walking away, he was not aware of the looming consequences of that simple, compassionate, gesture of reassurance expressed with a parting kiss on the forehead. He also missed the brief expression of adoration in Katie's eyes.

Shego was left gobsmacked as she watched Walter head down the street. Watching him greet some neighbours made her a little nervous. After he disappeared around the corner she went back inside and locked the front door. As she stared at the door and touched her forehead, behaviour better associated with Miss Go rather than Shego manifested: a goofy grin spread from ear to ear as she bounced energetically on the balls of her feet. Had the door not been closed, the ensuing, ear-piercing squee would have been heard down the street.

Suddenly Shego stopped, narrowed her eyes and slowly gazed around the front room. With a growl in her voice that never failed to intimidate mad scientists and henchmen alike, she muttered to herself, "So, Lover-Boy, put the moves on me will ya? Well…turn a bout's fair play and all that…."

Walter set the best pace he could, considering he had to navigate around the innumerable tendrils of Drakkenweed. They seemed as profligate as jungle vines: they crept along the ground, climbing walls, wrapping around poles, enveloping entire houses in many cases and all the while sprouting a mass of the prettiest blossoms one could ever imagine along their entire lengths. Outside the Tri-City area they were more sparse and, for all intents and purposes, non-existent outside Colorado. The population being barely a tenth of what it had been prior to the alien attack most suburban neighbourhoods were mostly empty if not completely abandoned. On his street alone, which stretched for eight blocks, there were only two inhabited dwellings, noticeable by the lack of blossoms, those being his and the one four doors down occupied by an older couple.

Even though Walter had been in Lowerton for a little over two weeks he had yet to meet them. Granted he had kept to himself and had been fairly busy finding a decent stable for his horse, visiting the town hall about his brother's house, registering his weapons with the sheriff's office and, reporting his status as a field medic at the M.A.S.H. unit there, the hospital having been destroyed in the attack. That the elderly couple was there was surprising enough, the fact that their clothing seemed somewhat…incongruous…to the locale was certainly another step towards the surreal. The couple appeared to be in their eighties, the woman spoke with a thick middle-European accent and wore a dress , high heels and make-up that would have screamed New York high society seven or eight years before. The man could have passed for an attorney, wearing a suit-vest instead of a jacket; however, to add a twist to his appearance, he had a pitch fork in his hand and there was soil on his dress shoes. He waved at them as he walked by.

At the intersection with a main street Walter stopped and looked to his right at what was virtually a scrap yard of Lorwardian battlewalkers tangled up in Drakkenweed, amidst the rubble of several city blocks of destroyed buildings. Almost a dozen walkers were literally crushed by Drakkenweed; not just tangled up and tripped over, but actually crushed and or broken open. He had been sceptical when Kim's Uncle Slim had told him about it. He had seen the handful Team Go had disabled back in Go City; however, they were not damaged to the extant these were and the remainder having simply stopped and hunkered down on their legs, unmoving and immovable. The story of a mad scientist creating mutant plants and commanding them to destroy the alien machines was the source of much musing beside many a fireside outside Colorado: much discourse lay about the veracity of the stories, even when self-professed witnesses were present. There was something else that Walter found curious: there seemed a high concentration of machines around Middleton which, per square mile, seemed to rival that of the areas around the ICBM silos in Montana. One would think neutralizing an enemy's stock of nuclear missiles would rate a greater effort than a relatively modest urban area. Still, seeing was believing.

Walter reflected a moment: for the most part it seemed to be a generally accepted fact, at least as far as he knew the defeat of the alien invasion was at the hands of Team Possible. He had heard, from talking with some military and law enforcement sources, and confirmed by Slim, that Kim's arch-foes, Drakken and Shego had helped as well, "Well, there's the mad scientist part of the story…." However, Walter, even after having been told by Kim's uncle, had trouble wrapping his brain around what precious few people, other than Middletonians, were privy to. His old grade school classmate and friend, Ron Stoppable, was the one to single-handedly kill the aliens in hand to hand combat. Had the internet still been up right after the fight, Ron's victory would have gone viral.

Turning left, Walter proceeded a few more blocks to where his horse was stabled in what used to be a storage unit facility. Nowadays, most machinists and metal workers had become blacksmiths and, ironically, mechanics and auto body workers had become wainwrights, converting automobiles and light trucks into horse drawn wagons. Veterinarians had not changed much; however, they were always in short supply. After tacking his horse, Walter headed out to Middleton.

Walter remembered well the way to Middleton, a four lane avenue that ran almost due north, running through Middleton and on to Upperton. It had once been a busy commercial strip that now consisted of mostly damaged, burned out or abandoned buildings, again all covered by copious growths of Drakkenweed. Some of the city blocks had been flattened by the battlewalkers either during their rampage or their demise. That was not to say the street was deserted: there were the occasional businesses open, the avenue was fairly busy with all sorts of traffic and, he had seen more working motorized vehicles in the past hour than he had seen in the past year in Montana.

He stopped at the top of a hill that offered a panoramic view of Middleton and Upperton to the north and a wide expanse of new farms to the east. Although he could not see that far, he had been told the debris field of the crashed alien ship stretched almost thirty miles west to east – the mother ship being just a little larger than four aircraft carriers – taking out a portion of northern Upperton. Beside him toiled another one of the ubiquitous work crews pruning and harvesting Drakkenweed. "They really seem serious with keeping these vines under control," thought Walter. He pulled out his binoculars to scan ahead. The Middleton Medical Center could easily be seen, he could make out the high school and barely the top of Middleton Middle School. He was a little disappointed he did not have the line of sight to see Kim's house. Returning the binoculars to the saddlebag he set his horse at a canter to the hospital.

Walter noticed how extensively Middleton had been damaged by the Lorwardians, but then, according to Slim, this was the center of the invasion's focus. Although there were a lot of empty lots, said lots were clear of rubble. What was really curious was how Drakkenweed seemed to really flourish here and yet there did not seem to be any real effort to control their growth beyond the apparent desire to keep things 'tidy'. And the number of motorized vehicles and bicycles driving around was mind boggling.

As he approached the actual city limits of Middleton, Walter encountered one of the military checkpoints Slim had warned him about. The chaos which ensued over the couple of years after the Lorwardians were repelled spawned a myriad of petty warlords, brigands, violent mobs of starving migrants and, an abortive attempt by a confederation of Mexican drug lords to annex the U.S. southwest. The governor of Colorado, in a rare moment of insight, invested what resources he could scrape together, including the remaining elements of the National Guard to Middleton, to support and protect the scientific research and production facilities for the future.

Walter looked around in amazement at the position. He had seen enough military documentaries on the Historical Channel that it seemed to him this so-called checkpoint was a full fledged defensive position that looked like a cross between a Viet Nam era fire base and something from World War Two Stalingrad, complete with cleared fire-zones and extensive lines of sight. The whole was topped off by what appeared to be the weapon's pod of a battlewalker emplaced within it. A few hundred meters to the east and west could be seen more defensive positions. Walter's attention turned to a corporal who asked for his name and business in Middleton.

As he waited, Walter noticed, with some concern, two rather ill-favoured men on horseback leaving the checkpoint and heading into town. Both wore three-quarter length brown overcoats, floppy wide-brimmed hats and carrying several weapons. He recognized them for what they were, brigands and highwaymen who were named, rather fittingly, 'Brown Coats'. Although they preferred to call themselves security consultants, they were essentially mercenaries hiring themselves out to whatever warlord or despot wanted their services. Their activities straddled the U.S. / Canada border between the Rockies and Wisconsin. Walter had run across them on his rounds, even treating a few of them as well as their victims. He was very curious as to why these two were this far south.

After apparently reconciling Walter's identification with the information on his clipboard the soldier waved him on. As he left the checkpoint he passed a mounted courier entering the checkpoint as he was leaving. He did not even pay attention to the young blonde woman with beautilicous blue eyes gawking at him as they passed each other: his focus was on the Brown Coats up the street ahead of him.

As the courier approached the guard shack she was greeted with a laugh from Corporal Niedermeyer, "Hey Penny, careful or your horse is gonna be steppin' on your tongue."

Penny turned back to the corporal, "Ha-ha; so, who was that fine specimen of macho hotness?"

He grinned, "His name's Walter Nelson, he's a field medic from Montana but, if I remember from middle school correctly …" he paused for dramatic effect, "… I think he used to be Kim Possible's boyfriend."

Penny's chin dropped, "Oh my god; a field medic? That is sooo cooool: ridin' the back country; livin' off the land; havin' to watch out for grizzlies and pumas; dealin' with bandits and cutthroats; all the while tendin' to the sick and others who need a helpin' hand…Wait, are you shittin' me? Kim let that one go? She chose Stoppable over him? What the fuck was she thinkin'? Lemme at him! Where's he live?"

"Sorry sweetcheeks, you'll have to do your own recon on this one."

"Humph. Well, here's today's dispatch along with missing person posters for Shego to put up in your district. It seems there was a solid sighting of her in Lowerton last night. Since Drakken's been in the hospital after they found him the powers that be figure she may be injured too."

The ride to the Middleton Medical Center had been quick from that point. As he approached the building proper he noticed the emergency entrance still had working ambulances driving in and out. Over by the main entrance, beside the bike racks stood a new addition, a long shelter for horses complete with hitching rails and water troughs with actual fresh running water. After securing his horse and letting him drink Walter proceeded inside. While checking his weapons at the security desk Walter happened to look up to see the Brown Coats waiting for the elevator.

He turned to the hospital guard and spoke quietly, expressing his concerns about the mercenaries. The guard nodded in acknowledgement.

With a look of puzzlement on his face as his nose detected a familiar aroma he asked the guard, "Do I smell coffee?"

The guard answered with a shrug, "Actually, it's more of a coffee substitute. Somebody made a hybrid of Drakkenweed to grow something that kinda seems like coffee beans. Heh…sorta like a mutation on a mutation. Still, the flavour's close but it's decaf since there's no caffeine in the actual beans. They just got it growing last year and started using it for trade this year for tech and fuel."

"I don't suppose you could spare a cup?"

"Yeah, help yourself doc. There's no sugar – there hasn't been any for almost four months now – but there's some milk so you can make your self a 'decaf-au-lait' as the girls call it."

"Booyah," muttered Walter as he poured himself a cup, "Wow, actual paper coffee cups with the little cardboard sleeves…and plastic stir sticks…where are they getting this stuff?"

Walter left the security guards to their own devices and made his way to the reception desk as he savoured the hot drink. Still watching the Brown Coats as they entered the elevator, he was not paying attention to where he was walking and bumped into a female form, feeling something hot and wet splash on his sleeve.

"Oh sorry…" he offered.

"…Oh, I'm sorry…" replied a contrite female voice almost simultaneously.

"…My-my bad…sorry…" continued Walter as he turned around.

"…No, it's…." The young woman's stuttering stopped as she completed her turn and looked at Walter with the classic deer-in-the-headlights expression on her face. For his part, he was not any more elegant.

Walter's eyes took in the image of the young woman in front of him. He remembered that although her father was Caucasian, her features came mostly from her Japanese-born mother and other than filling out nicely and having a thin scar on her left cheek, she had not changed since middle school.

"Hope Foley. I thought I'd never see any of you guys again," Walter uttered in awe.

"Same here, Walter Nelson the field medic. Aren't you a long way from Montana?" she said, looking at his attire and noticing the identification patches. Then she spotted the wet spot on his sleeve and glancing down at her own near empty cup Hope added, "And I've spilled my decaf-au-lait all over you."

"Decaf-au-lait? What a coincidence, that's what I'm drinking too," Walter responded with a smirk. He saw Hope get distracted when an ambulance pulled in,

"It looks like things are getting busy. Where can I get my med-pack replenished and I'm looking for Dr. Possible: I've got correspondence from her brother-in-law in Montana and I need to consult with her about a patient."

As she moved towards Emergency she called back with a big smile on her face, "Pharmacy is a few doors past the elevators; I think Dr. Possible is in ICU on the top floor, she'll get a kick seeing you again and someone else up there will too. Look me up later, okay?"

It was right after Sheriff Hobble had told the Dr.'s Possible about the Shego sighting the

night before, when they heard Tara scream from the nurse's station down the hall, "Dr. Possible!"

Hobble drew his sidearm as he exited the room and saw Tara apparently struggling with one man while a Brown Coat stood on either side. Upon seeing the situation Anne pressed the 'All Call' on a nearby intercom, "This is Dr. Possible, Code White in ICU!"

Sheldon 'Gemini' Director gazed out the window of his executive office to the post-Lowardian urban skyline of the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, the new headquarters for the Worldwide Evil Empire. He mused over his fortunes since the alien attack. Certainly things were rough from the get go, it was for the entire population of the planet. The brutal economic collapse caused by the worldwide loss of power generation was soon followed by famines, mass migrations – especially from urban to rural areas and from colder to warmer climes – and pandemics which obliterated almost ninety percent of the human population: the psychopathic leader of WEE had found it exhilarating.

During these upheavals, Sheldon, by dint of a fortuitous series of good hunches, a few uncharacteristically practical plans based on unusually reliable information and some dumb luck managed to do well for himself – although, if one had been around then, they might have noticed Gemini's mental processes seemingly better focused after the death of his dog, Pepe. His endeavours were seeded with a couple of observations: generating stations were hit by electromagnetic pulse missiles that only homed in on those stations that were in actual operation thus those facilities that were off line or not on the grid, were overlooked altogether; many formations of battlewalkers had been assigned to disable Earth's nuclear missile silos however any mobile launchers on land or under the sea in submarines were also missed.

Over the ensuing years Sheldon managed to attract a collection of cohorts who were more effective and sociopathic than the barely adequate help he used to hire from Henchco. In fact, shooting an incompetent now usually resulted in a successor eager and ready to prove himself more able than his predecessor rather than trying to make himself inconspicuous. Many were mere cutthroats however there accrued a significant number with useful technical skills. Eventually, Sheldon managed to find his mecca, a city in the middle of Siberia that was, for all intents and purposes, deserted near which were stationed two, ex-Russian regiments of mobile ICBMs each topped with a twenty megaton warhead and, a nearby power plant that had been shut down for maintenance when the Lorwardians attacked. He thought Christmas had come early when unattended stocks of chemical and biological warheads with their delivery systems were discovered by his operatives.

Sheldon looked at his reflection in the large picture window of his executive suite high in an office tower as he watched the sun rise on an early spring day and noted again how gaunt his body looked after the past few years of deprivation. Even with the improved availability of food lately he still had not regained his previous weight and strength and, the speed at which the lines on his face had grown and the rapid onset of white in his hair and beard was not something he was happy with. He looked at his mechanical hand and regretted again not being able to replenish the fingertip missiles that used to be part of his villainous trademark along with the pink and white double-breasted uniform.

The sun peeked through the remaining strands of the receding rain clouds that had passed by overnight. Sheldon looked across the deserted cityscape and noted how the foliage seemed to have suddenly exploded into green almost overnight with the odd clump of trees even sporting blossoms. Hardy grasses and bushes had forced their way through the cracks in the pavement and concrete. Access to many of the buildings was effectively denied because of the dense brush growing around them; at some places the growth reached several stories up the sides of many edifices. Here and there he could see where a deactivated Lorwardian battlewalker squatted in some devastated portion of the city. It still galled him that he had not been able to break into one of these machines to determine either how to use it or at least harvest the technology, especially when he had heard rumours that this had been achieved in, unsurprisingly, Middleton. Which meant, most likely, that his little sister once again had better toys than he did.

Sheldon was, as he proclaimed to his once captive Ron Stoppable, his sister's dark reflection in every way, and as such he countered Betty's commitment to law and order with his commitment to chaos and anarchy. In fact, he was not even interested in ruling the world because it would, by necessity, require the creation and execution of countless laws. He despised the political and economic superpowers of the world and, for that matter, was even less interested in seeing a super villain dominate it. Gemini considered fortuitous the after effects of the alien attack as it pretty much did most of the work for him and all he had to do now was keep the world in its new dark age. Gemini had spent the last couple of years taking advantage of his new found toys to systematically eliminate potential nuisances to his endeavours. Any organization that might even hint at being a hindrance to WEE operations had a nuclear warhead dropped upon it. Rival supervillains were located and suffered the same fate. Persistent chemical agents were dropped on randomly chosen agricultural areas throughout the Eurasian continent to deny their use: a day spent in foraging or growing subsistence crops to survive did not leave much time to organize nation states and develop technology. The two most recent targets of import included the lair of Dr. Drakken, the last of the super-villains and, Middleton, one of the first viable tech city states slowly emerging around the former first world countries. Not only would Middleton become an anchor for a resurgence in economic growth and political stability, its fully functioning space center was a threat to WEE operations; the fact his little sister and Kim Possible were located there as well was merely bonus. Today he was expecting to hear from Agent Alpha of their obliteration.

A knock on his office door interrupted Sheldon's musings, "Come."

Almost immediately there entered a scrawny, balding man of undetermined age who appeared to be the quintessential stereotype of the dead-end career, cubical occupying office worker. In his hands he carried a tray bearing a carafe of hot coffee with cream and sugar on the side, along with a file folder containing some papers. After placing it on Gemini's desk he picked up the folder, backed off two steps and bowed from the waist, "Lord Gemini."

Gemini continued to look out the window, "Agent Delta Iota Rho, report."

Agent ΔΙΡ straightened himself and spoke in a surprisingly deep voice, "The communiqué from Agent Alpha has arrived, Lord Gemini."

Gemini turned from the window to glare at his secretary, "Well, get on with it then!"

"Lord Gemini, the entire report is on the server for perusal at your convenience; however I have here a quick summary of the more interesting points. First of all, this report comes via our new and fully functional communications satellite, improving our link with North America. Operation Chernobyl is on track and should see the sabotage of the American nuclear reactors on the eastern seaboard to coincide with crop harvesting. The new base under Lake Erie is fully operational. Observers report a direct ground burst hit on Drakken's lair with one of our ICBMs; the resulting nuclear fallout zone has encompassed a large agricultural area and caused disruptions in ground travel. However, the warhead aimed at Middleton did not hit its target."

The agent became jittery when Gemini glared at him and demanded ominously, "Explain."

Well aware of his superior's predilection for shooting the messenger, Agent ΔΙΡ started talking fast, "Agent Alpha reports the warhead appears to have been intercepted and destroyed at high altitude, apparently by some form of anti-ballistic missile defence system using the alien weapon pods."

Gemini growled as he sat down and began muttering to himself as he thought, "Where is Pepe when I need him…. They'll start launching the Kepler III soon with new satellites to replace the disabled ones in orbit; maybe even bring back some to repair and send back up…they might even discover my satellite. And, quite obviously, I can't take them out with a nuclear missile now. It took me almost a year to rig one ICBM to launch a modest comms satellite. In no time they'll have a network of comms, navigation and spy satellites which eventually will allow them to notice my endeavours. Once that happens I can expect Kim Possible to interfere! And most likely Little Sister and her stooges as well." Clenching his fists in frustration, Gemini directed a baleful eye toward the agent standing before him, then asked with some sarcasm, "I don't suppose Agent Alpha has a plan to deal with this development?"

Agent ΔΙΡ, knowing indeed Agent Alpha had a possible solution to offer, was only too glad to elucidate, "As you know, Lord Gemini, we have agents inserted in almost all the significant research and development facilities in North America: we had a stroke of luck at one of them. Our operative at the Lazy C facility in Montana, which is disguised as working cattle ranch, reported an interesting development; incidentally, the head of the facility is an expert in cybertronics and satellite technology. Apparently he compiled data that is vital to the Kepler missions: without said data, the missions won't even be able to get off the ground."

The agent continued, noting somewhat uncomfortably, Gemini's rather intense gaze, "The director of the Lazy C gave the data to a messenger for delivery to Middleton. This messenger left with an armed escort and went in the guise of some sort of back country doctor or medic. He is described as a tall young man in his mid twenties and identified as one Walter Nelson; it is unknown whether this is an alias or not. Our agents at the space center and in Middleton are waiting for him to show up. Once he is found Agent Alpha's orders are that he be terminated and the data retrieved or at least destroyed."

Finished with his report Agent ΔΙΡ closed his folder and stood at attention. Gemini sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers as he ruminated on what he had just heard.

After a few minutes he spoke, "I believe Agent Alpha is being a little short sighted about this Nelson fellow. Obviously he must be a scientist if he has been entrusted with such a mission: no matter how complete the information it helps to have someone familiar with said data to help with any questions." Gemini paused for a moment then continued,

"Tell Agent Alpha that I want him to offer Mr. Nelson a position in our organization."

ICBM: Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile

MASH: Mobile Army Surgical Hospital

Persistent Chemical Agents: Military grade lethal agents that won't break down in the environment, effectively denying the use of the area affected for a long time.