A/N: This is the start of a companion oneshot series to go along with my ongoing multichaptered series "The Light Brigade". While I work on some finer outlining and plot details for Act II, I'm basically writing these to maintain my own interest (and perhaps yours). Oh, and future installments to "Wartime" will contain MAJOR SPOILERS. I hope you'll read anyways because there are a lot of things in the series that will tie in with the main course!
It was a beautiful day and the sun beat down on the unyielding towers of Shuggazoom City.
Sprx instinctively ducked low as a low jet passed overhead, cracking through the air at top speed and venturing out towards the outlaying lands of Shuggazoom. He smiled in gratification and swung back towards the airfield. Or, what was planned to become the airfield. Right now it was just a big empty space dotted with warehouses and the occasional ship. Wiping his hands free of imaginary dust, he took exactly two steps when his path was intercepted by several familiar faces who vaguely waved at him before continuing on with their business, undecided between disinterested andpreoccupied.
He merged into the crowd, thinking of finding Nova or Otto or both and spending the rest of the day avoiding responsibilities altogether. Excitement was crackling through the air. Skeleton King hadn't been seen for a few weeks and that gave everyone time to organize. According to Chiro the key to their success was to create a rigid level of organization early on in the war, before they started facing the battles they were anticipating. They were calling in all the stops and in a short amount of time what had once been just the Hyperforce swelled into a massive force consisting of a number of human volunteers and combined forces contributed by their allies spread across the nearest solar systems.
He was very surprised at how quickly they'd managed to rally their various acquaintances, but as he understood it, Chiro and Antauri had appealed to their sense of reason: even if they didn't "feel" like coming, eventually Skeleton King intended to spread beyond Shuggazoom. If they could limit the war to Shuggazoom, however, then they had a chance to corner and defeat him once and for all.
For the first time in centuries Shuggazoomians were taking up arms. Nova was supervising their training. When Sprx had checked how many they numbered that morning, it was listed at being 5000, and that discounted all of the alien forces descending on the planet. Otto was having a ball repairing and upgrading all of their equipment. He could almost hear his excited voice now, carrying over the wind.
Unfortunately even the wind couldn't diminish the sweltering heat raining down on the city. It was best to not think too hard about it. Even though it was the middle of winter, for some reason it was a lot warmer than Shuggazoom normally was. With the exception of that one incident a few years ago, where the entire city had been frozen over in an uncharacteristic blanket of snow, their city usually experienced pleasant weather all year around, with near scorching summers and rainy winters. The best they could do was seek out shade and retreat into the Super Robot, armed with extensive cooling systems.
Sprx didn't get far before he spotted two more familiar faces. Jinmay and Antauri stuck out like sore thumbs. Jinmay was fully decked out in her Hyperforce uniform and Antauri was looking...well, like he always did. Serious.
'Chiro wants to talk to us,' Jinmay was saying. 'Something about the Soturians. They're being...stubborn.'
'"Stubborn"?' Sprx intervened. 'We basically revived their whole planet and they're being "stubborn"?'
'The Soturians have a long history of short memories,' Antauri reminded him. 'I believe Gibson discussed this quite extensively when he was briefing us on all of the races we could expect to receive.'
'Oh, that explains why I didn't know...Does anyone actually pay attention to anything Gibson says?'
'I do,' said Antauri. His voice dropped to a murmur. 'Mostly.'
'I say forget the Soturians. We have more than enough people to handle Skeleton King. Heck, the six of us held off Formless for years!'
'That was before their upgrade.'
'Their hypothetical upgrade. No one's actually seen an "upgraded" Formless around, have they? That's just another dumb brain child of Gibson. In fact, no one seen SK around for weeks! I don't even think we're fighting a real war!'
'Skeleton King will appear again, I assure you.'
'We should go talk to Chiro,' Jinmay interrupted.
'I understand,' said Antauri. He turned back to Sprx. 'Could you do a favour for me?'
'A favour?' Sprx almost laughed. Antauri rarely called upon him for favours.
'Gibson is insisting on venturing out to the Zone of Wasted Years. He believes it would be beneficial if they captured a Formless and brought it back for further study. I do not think he understands the full extent of the danger behind his plan, especially since we don't know how many forces Skeleton King has behind him and their precise location. I tried to talk him out of it earlier but he refused to listen to me. Could you please go and dissuade him?'
'If he didn't listen to you, there's no way he'll listen to me.'
'True, but I have to go and nobody else is available. Gibson's currently near Landing Zone C preparing to depart. Just be firm. I won't blame you if you aren't successful.'
'Thanks for the vote of confidence.'
'Chiro's waiting, Antauri,' urged Jinmay.
Before Sprx could continue protesting, Antauri and Jinmay disappeared into the folds of the crowd and were gone altogether. He groaned and sauntered off in the direction Antauri had indicated. Why did he have to talk to Gibson? Their resident scientist got very stubborn when it came to matters he was passionate about and this sounded like one of those occasions. In fact, if he protested Gibson's departure, then that would make Gibson want to go even more.
As he neared the landing pad, Sprx ran through several scenarios to stop Gibson, several of which involved tying him up, before he settled on one in which he told Gibson of a much more interesting scientific predicament within the confines of Shuggazoom. That might be able to draw him off of his mission for the time being.
It fell apart rather quickly when Sprx failed to come up with an interesting enough problem. Tying him up seemed more realistic.
Before him, a small cluster of humans who looked like they hadn't seen a day of combat in their lives were gathered, but his target in question was situated nearest to the shuttle and conversing with the pilot. Sprx took a deep breath. His plan already seemed implausible. He always got that feeling whenever he was near Gibson; his intelligence was enough to dwarf's anyone ego.
He approached casually. Gibson swung around to face him.
'Brainstrain,' Sprx smirked.
'Sparky,' Gibson snapped back. 'Stop calling me "Brainstrain". Your frightful immaturity is unfitting of someone with your level of responsibility. However, I take my duties quite seriously and it is because of my level of maturity that we are going to succeed against that of Skeleton King. Now, did you actually have a productive purpose to disturbing me prior to my departure or are you simply here for the purpose of irritating me and thus diverting my concentration?'
'Too many syllables in that speech, Brainstrain,' Sprx waved his hands. 'For your information Antauri sent me. He seemed to be under the impression that I could "dissuade" you from going on your little expedition.'
'I already explained to Antauri that my projections suggest that understanding the sudden mutation in the Formless would be greatly beneficial to deducting an effective means of destroying them en mass.'
'Yes. I have recently devoted my attention to predicting the outcome of the war through statistics,' said Gibson, his eyes lighting up with familiar excitement. 'Since I am pressed for time, I will save explaining it to you until much later, not that you'd pay attention anyways.'
'I pay attention!' Sprx protested.
'Nice try, but you're lying. I intend to return within the week. Formless aren't especially intelligent creatures so it should not take long to isolate one and take it alive.'
'...I hear Formless are especially partial to monkeys who use words with too many syllables in them.'
'That is inaccurate. My scientific research indicates that Formless are actually partial to devouring monkeys with low intelligence.'
Sprx rolled his eyes. 'Look, Antauri doesn't want you to go and he's going to have my head if I don't convince you to stay. Take a hint.'
'Antauri doesn't see the advantage in my research.'
Gibson glared at him.
'Please go away,' Gibson directed.
'Sir, we're ready,' announced the pilot, briefly appearing over Gibson's shoulder before disappearing back into the shuttle.
The scientists passed him. Most of them where Shuggazoomians who had never seen a day of conflict in their life and had signed up blindly for a chance to work with the Hyperforce. In Sprx's eyes, they were all untrustworthy, not in the sense that they may betray them at any moment, but in the sense that they were unreliable and unpredictable. And it was just as he was thinking this that Gibson seemed to read his mind.
'This is a good experience for them,' Gibson murmured, being sure that they weren't overheard. 'Besides, this is a non-combat mission. We don't anticipate to face any conflict and I assure you that if we do, I will be more than enough to handle it.'
'If you're not going to listen me, I should come with you.'
'Absolutely not! You'll only complain the whole time.'
'Well...maybe! But at least Antauri can rest assured that you're protected. I haven't seen you training since before the war broke out.'
'Honestly, you sound like Chiro,' retaliated Gibson. 'I am more than capable of handling any armed conflicts, which – I repeat – are not anticipated. We don't even have a front line yet.'
'What, did you think I was worried? Because I wasn't, I'm just saying I haven't seen you training with the new weapons Otto has been developing and – well, I'm not convinced it's safe to go out there just yet.'
'What an insult!'
'Sir, we're ready to leave,' repeated the pilot.
'Yes, yes, I know,' Gibson waved at him vaguely as the overpowering sound of the engines firing up filled the area. 'As I said, Sprx, I am more than capable of ensuring that everyone in this shuttle returns home safe and sound, myself included. The majority of us are scientists and thinkers and unlike you, we know how to resolve our problems through careful thought rather than brute force. I will make it clear: we will play it safe and we will avoid conflict, as was our intention to begin with, and which you would have known had you been paying attention. Now if you don't mind, please vacate the area so we can leave.'
'Fine, just don't blame me if Formless start swarming your ship and back-up is miles away,' said Sprx.
'Noted. Go away.'
'Antauri won't like this.'
'He is not intended to,' Gibson snapped. 'Excuse me.'
Gibson flung himself into the shuttle just as it started to lift off of the ground and into the vacant sky. Sprx shielded his eyes from the wind and the sun and watched them depart.
Sprx dreamt that his heart was trying to escape from his chest and he kept pressing down on his rib cage to try and prevent it from doing so. It didn't help. But when he woke up, it was in a cold sweat and his tongue was dry.
Sitting straight up, Sprx belatedly realized that he wasn't in his room. He was in Nova's, surrounded by plush toys mildly reflecting her ongoing descent into insanity. A young child would find themselves perfectly content in the oddly friendly décor, only interrupted by the presence of exercise equipment and a television blearily relaying the early morning news. Panting heavily, he tried to assure himself that the burning in his chest was indigestion, and not from the feeling of being consumed by fire from the inside out. He kept still until the feeling past and his sense of terror retreated back into his dreams, replaced by the harsh realization of the external heat. The robot's cooling systems must be down again. Still, defeated, he lay back down to stare at the ceiling.
Another weight hit the bed and crawled up to him.
'You awake?' Nova's voice asked.
'We'll see,' Sprx murmured. 'I thought you were gonna be at the airfield by now.'
'We're having a meeting,' said Nova. 'Chiro wants us all in the common room and he's already called for you twice.'
'So...should we slink out individually and act like we weren't together the whole night or proudly strut outside with hands held.'
'Oh, Sprx, we didn't even "do" anything. We have nothing to hide, but I'd hold out on the hand-holding until a later date.'
Pulling himself off of the bed, he edged to the doorway and wiped sweat from his brow.
They passed by Gibson's laboratory door, which was wide open and prepared for the scientist's return. Gibson had embarked on his expedition two weeks ago and they'd barely heard from him aside from the occasional message relaying their current whereabouts. No one had been pleased about his going, but he insisted that he would be fine. Sprx had put some deep thought into it and he started to reason that Gibson's expedition could have easily been brought about by boredom rather than necessity; with nothing much to do rather than manage the forces, the routine easily got to everyone.
'How much did you sleep last night?' Sprx asked.
'I slept enough. You?'
'Nah, I had...weird dreams.'
'Probably the heat.'
'Yeah. Too bad it wasn't the right type of hea – .'
Nova punched him. 'There's a kid on this ship and we all agreed when we first took him in that we'd watch our language.'
'He's sixteen, in some cultures he isn't even a kid anymore.'
'Do you want to set a good example or not?'
'Depends. Geez, what an ungodly time to get up at...This had better not be another drill.'
He and Sprx stepped into their respective elevators and shot up until they emerged in the team's common room. Or, what had once been a common room. Over the last few months it had steadily transformed, with a large holographic image of Shuggazoom hovering in the very center and papers strewn everywhere containing random calculations and projections and reports on the troops. Otto was already present and met the pair of them as they emerged. Antauri and Chiro were speaking in whispers closest to the holographic Shuggazoom.
It suddenly occurred to Sprx that Nova's presence was the first sign that something was very wrong. Otto, however, seemed pleasantly aware of anything wrong and presented the toaster to them.
'The new, the improved, toaster!' exclaimed Otto.
'What did you do with it?' Nova asked hesitantly, looking towards the toaster with a healthy amount of suspicion. Experience had taught them all well.
'We need to talk,' Antauri interrupted. He stepped forwards and broke up the group as they approached their position.
'Better make it quick, Antauri,' said Nova. 'I was supposed to be at the airfield an hour ago.'
'And I need to test my toaster,' Otto said forlornly.
'I think we can all agree that the toaster can wait,' Sprx smirked.
'But we all have to eat toast before it's too late!'
'Enough,' Antauri said firmly, but not harshly.
Everyone fell silent.
After casting a final, reassuring glance towards Chiro, he stepped forwards and placed a hand on Nova's shoulder, and then on Sprx's.
'Before I say anything, I want you to know that we're not certain,' said Antauri. 'Information is scarce and valid information is difficult to come by, so we will not have any panicking, fear or conspiracy theories. This is not the time to loose control of our personal feelings.'
'Antauri, what – ?' Sprx started.
Antauri raised his hand and he immediately stopped mid-sentence. Antauri looked upon each of them in turn before speaking. 'Gibson's shuttle has been shot down in the Zone of Wasted Years.'
Something deep within Sprx broke. Not sharply, like breaking a bone – God knows he'd done that before. More like something that had been jostled until it finally broke loose. It was this deep part of his soul that caused him to do a sudden intake of breath and brought him back to the memory of last night, when his dreams were so real he could feel his heart attempting to escape from the confines of his chest. A scream. He'd heard a distant scream of terror. It was too familiar to him. Could it have been Gibson that he saw, mentally writhing in agony and fear? Sprx felt his mouth open slightly, while Nova reached for his hand and squeezed it tightly.
'We do not know for certain,' said Antauri. 'All we know is that he and his team were attacked by Formless. They made an attempt to escape and were shot down by humans who have apparently joined Skeleton King's side.'
'What?!' Sprx exclaimed. His voice sounded alien to him. 'Humans on SK's side?'
'From our intelligence division understands, they are mostly members of his old cult,' explained Antauri. 'When they defected, they smuggled many of our own weapons with them.'
'Which ones?' Otto asked.
'I don't - ?'
'Which ones?!' Otto demanded. 'It's - It's important! Which ones did they take?'
'We don't know precisely, Otto,' Antauri affirmed. 'Rocket launchers, aerial guns, rifles - many of the weapons you have been developing.'
'Oh, no,' Otto's hands briefly raised to rub his forehead, before falling back to his side. 'Oh, no - no - no...Gibson...'
'We don't know for certain,' repeated Antauri. 'I will tell you what we are not going to do. We are the symbol of strength among the Shuggazoomians and to loose our faith and image at this precarious time would be...detrimental. Above all, we must not assume the worst, but we must take action. I will have no theories, no worst case scenarios, and definitely...absolutely...no word of this to anyone outside of the Hyperforce.'
They were all quiet. Sprx was trying to relay the information to his brain but such a thing seemed to be impossible. The words got caught in his throat.
'Here is what we are going to do,' said Antauri. 'Otto, we need you here to find out what items were taken and what countermeasures we can possibly come up with. Sprx, Nova, I want you to take a shuttle and try to locate the crashed shuttle. If Gibson is alive, your priority is to return him here. If he is dead...your priority is to retrieve the body. If you can avoid a fight with the Formless, you will do so. If not, abort the mission and turn back.'
Antauri released them and Sprx stood there, wavering slightly. He was looking past Nova at a spot on the wall.
'There is...also the possibility that Skeleton King has already captured Gibson,' continued Antauri. 'I...I don't even want to think about our options in that scenario...let us hope that we are the first to get there...Do you understand?'
'Do you understand?' he repeated.
'Yes,' Otto said softly.
'I do,' Nova nodded.
Sprx breathed in unsteadily. He tried to process what Antauri had just said, but only had a vague awareness of the circumstances and what he was supposed to be doing. Instinctively, he swallowed and nodded.
'Keep strong,' urged Antauri. 'It's up to us now.'
How long had it been since Gibson disappeared? One month? Two? Felt like years. Sprx hadn't even gone near his old laboratory, sitting stagnant in the heart of the Super Robot, awaiting its lost owners return.
In two months everything seemed to change. Skeleton King got more aggressive. Theatres of war were established on the coastlines. They had four fronts to fight, but everything seemed to be fairly steady; they had enough forces to hold his forces at bay in the Zone. Then there was the orbital front, where massive space battles took place hourly. Sprx had only been able to get up there once, for once the ships had left the ground, it was immensely difficult to send reinforcements to break through the deadly line that was now building over the city. Still, things could have been a lot worse. Things were holding steady and they were making slim progress in some areas, marked by the presence of profound changes.
Regardless, it was a starlit night, and Sprx found himself strolling in the depths of enemy territory, his partially-mechanical heart making its presence ever known to him.
He tripped over a rock and fell down five feet into a ditch, biting down – hard – on his tongue to prevent a startled scream from escaping. Sprx regained his balance right away, cocking the pistol in hand and wishing to whatever divine spirit governed their lives that he was more slight of foot. He wished everything was different, that Gibson or Nova was here, but his only company for the moment was Otto, cheerfully bouncing from stone to stone in complete obliviousness of their dire situation.
'Will you get down here?' Sprx snatched Otto's tail and violently pulled him into the trench. 'You'll be perfect target practice for every Formless from here to Shuggazoom City!'
'Sorry,' Otto muttered.
Sprx looked at the pitiful, quiet creature deflating before him. He sighed. 'No...no, I'm sorry, Otto.'
Sprx hit his comm. link. 'Sprx to Quint. We could really use that pick-up now.'
'Quint here,' Quint's rough voice sounded over the intercom. 'I can't get to you; I just got an emergency signal from Nova. Her squad's taking a beating and they need relief. Hold your position and I'll get to you as soon as I can.'
Sprx leapt down into shelter and activated his binoculars. He squinted out into the ruined plain of massive chunks of rock interlaced with metal that had crashed down from above.
'All's quiet,' reported Sprx.
'Too quiet?' Otto asked.
'Definitely,' said Sprx.
'I think we should go deeper.'
Sprx looked skeptically at the sky. He didn't want to leave it, but ultimately he found himself crawling down the cliff face and deeper into the wasteland. Through every gap and crag, they continued down, dipping underneath an arch and appearing in a protective gap in the landscape. At once Sprx realized there was something wrong or at least abnormal. The nearest rocks were charred black and a familiar scent was light on the air. Perhaps they both sensed it because they continued to press deeper until the place they had emerged from was long out of sight.
As they turned the next corner, they both came to a rather abrupt halt. Sitting before them, nestled in the crater, was a down shuttle. Pieces of debris were scattered haphazardly across the clearing, though there were vague signs that someone had made an effort to clean it up. Several pieces were piled together and others were lined up in a orderly, but casual fashion. Since so many ships had gone silent in the past few weeks, Otto let out a soft sigh and shook his head.
'At least we got one accounted for,' he said.
Sprx, however, was frozen. He was staring at the large numbers plastered on the side.
'Sprx?' Otto prompted.
'It's...It's Gibson's shuttle,' Sprx realized.
For the longest while they stood, gawking at the half-collapsed structure. Even though it had been a month (or was it two?) the shuttle appeared as though it was a thousand years older than that. Yet Sprx flashed back to the last time he'd spoken to Gibson, who was perched in that doorway and assured him that he could handle everything. All was supposed to be normal.
Otto was the first to bolt forwards, slipping through the wreckage without bothering to check for potential enemies.
'Otto!' Sprx called. 'Hey, Otto! Be careful!'
More than once his footing slipped and he found himself hurtling down the sharp slope, until he reached the bottom, rolled back up, and poised his magnets to search for any danger. However, aside from the distant sound of shelling hurtling over the landscape, there was nothing. Otto was pulling at bits of the wreckage, calling for Gibson.
'Otto!' Sprx urged. 'You'll draw Formless right to us.'
'But Gibson – !' Otto started.
'We'll find him. Without yelling our heads off.'
Otto took a shuddering breath. 'Okay.'
'Open the door. I'll take point.'
Sprx took position in front of the door. Otto went to the side. At the signal he grabbed the handle and slowly, but surely, the shuttle opened.
He was at once hit with an overpowering smell of rotting and decomposition. He flinched and used the front of his tunic to cover his mouth.
Sprx nearly sank to his knees in defeat. He'd never seen so many bodies before. He'd never seen so many bodies haphazardly piled up, grossly misshapen and so rotten that any remaining blood was nothing more than a putrid dark red paste. It was clear that this was how they had died. The pilot was still strapped into his seat at the front and some of them were holding the guns they'd developed. Altogether, they'd died fighting a hopeless battle and had gone unmoved throughout the weeks. Absent, however, was the presence of a small, frail form that wasn't human.
For a long while they both just stared at the gruesome mess. So much for Gibson's ability to protect himself and his crew.
More importantly, the moment the shuttle opened, Sprx heard the sound of chewing.
He took a step inside. There was a massive, dark creature in the midst of the mess, holding down one of the carcasses with massive claws and chewing quite happily. It peered over its shoulder when Sprx peered into the room and let out a scratching bellow.
Sprx fired an orb of electrical energy towards the creature. The Formless's body seemed to part to allow the shot to pass through. He fired again. It slunk to the ground, avoiding each attack, until it disappeared entirely.
'Behind you!' Otto shouted.
He swung. The Formless had merged into the metal and was now regrowing out of the ceiling. It was larger than any Formless he'd ever encountered before and instead of having a vaguely humanoid appearance, it was nothing but pure animal: wild, untamed, and with the utmost intention to devour him. Sprx kept him at bay with a quick conjuring of magnetic energy that seemed to have no effectiveness against its sheer strength. But with a blinding flash of light, it jerked sideways. Otto took a step into the shuttle. All this time he'd been carrying an over sized rifle that he had not used. Only now it was it raised and he fired a second time. The Formless screeched and dived towards the cockpit. It turned to let out a final scream of warning, its head parting to reveal a set of vicious black teeth, before it dived through a hole in the front.
Sprx relaxed. 'Damn Formless. Damn them!'
'Movement,' reported Otto.
'Where?' Sprx asked.
'Went behind that – that thing over there.'
Otto indicated a sheet of metal propped up against the back of the damaged shuttle. It was clear that it used to serve some larger purpose, but – like the remainder of the ship – had been reduced to scrap and twisted metal.
'Formless?' Sprx inquired.
'I don't think so,' said Otto.
Sprx approached, taking care to step over the bodies. He raised his pistol.
'Look, whoever you are, whatever side you're on, we're not going to hurt you,' assured Sprx. 'So...don't attack, okay?'
He pulled back the metal with a massive crash.
Curled in the wreckage, the bodies of the soldiers and pilots scattered around him like the plush toys Sprx had awoken to the day he went missing, Gibson had a pistol aimed directly at his face, his entire body quivering. His eyes were lost and vacant, obviously seeing something that Sprx couldn't. His expression was defeated, tired, and very much unfamiliar to him, so despite robot monkeys being a rarity, Sprx almost did not recognize him. Never in existence had there been a more pathetic, disgraceful creature haunted only by torments of the wasteland.
'...Gibson?' said Sprx.
Gibson tightened his grip on the pistol.
'Gibson, it's...it's okay,' Sprx raised his hands defensively. 'It's us.'
He had never pictured doing this, least of all with a monkey who had berated and shown little to no emotion towards...well...anything. Now he seemed so young...like a child who'd witnessed the worst of horrors and somehow lived to tell the tale.
All the same, Gibson let out a breathless sigh.
'Where am I?' he asked quietly.
'Your ship crashed,' explained Sprx. He was staring right down the barrel of the pistol. Briefly he entertained the possibility of Gibson shooting him; it wouldn't be the first time Gibson threatened his life, though this was the first time he seemed serious about doing it. 'Gibson, you've been missing for a month!'
'I don't...I don't...'
Sprx's senses vaguely started coming back to him. Standard procedure. He dropped next to Gibson, who barely registered his movement, and Otto leaned over to perform a quick scan.
'Gibson, are you hurt?' Sprx asked.
The moment the words left Sprx's mouth, Gibson's face contorted into one of pure terror.
'Okay, don't answer that,' said Sprx. He opened a com link. 'Sprx to Quint.'
'Right here,' Quint answered. 'I'm en route to pick you up.'
'I got to them in time.'
'Good. We got an unexpected payload and we just saw a Formless straggler. I don't want to find out if it's part of a larger company.'
'On our way.'
'This is Nova,' Nova's voice rang out, clear as daylight. 'What kind of payload?'
'We found Gibson.'
'You found who?!'
'We found Gibson. The rest of his squad's dead, but he's alive. I'm going to launch a flare so you can pick us up.'
'Got it. Is he alright?'
Sprx looked back. Gibson was still obviously not in control of himself, shaking violently and retreating from Otto's efforts to examine his condition.
'Physically he seems fine, but...' Sprx paused. 'Just come get us.'
Sprx inhaled deeply and gazed at his blank reflection in the bathroom mirror. He was trying to imitate Gibson's blank expression for reasons he couldn't discern and he was having absolutely no luck with it.
The ride back to Shuggazoom City had been painfully quiet. They'd helped Gibson onto the shuttle and even though he was uninjured except for a slight limp, he appeared to be working on autopilot. He'd walked but had needed to be reminded which directions to go in. He was hollow and unseeing throughout the ride despite repeated attempts to provoke a reaction from his perpetually solid and traumatized gaze.
Sprx finally gave up on trying to imitate the expression and vacated the sanctuary of the bathroom. He went to the last place he wanted to go to: the med bay. He paused outside of the door and took a few deep breaths to prepare himself to face the music. All the members of the team save for Chiro were present. He had to keep it together, or else they could all crumble. Cracking his knuckles, he made his grand entry.
Gibson was right where he'd left him, being scanned by Otto and staring at an uninteresting spot on the floor. Antauri and Nova were in front of him. Antauri had his arms folded and one hand pressed to his mouth, while his large eyes were narrowed in his best contemplative expression. Gibson, in the meantime, was shaking violently and unresponsive to the presence of the others.
'Did you contact Chiro?' Antauri asked as Sprx approached.
'He's on his way back,' said Sprx. 'He said to keep Gibson here.'
'...You have to tell us what happened,' Antauri said soothingly to their scientist. He reached forwards to touch Gibson's knee and he instinctively jerked out of reach.
'Gibson?' Nova prompted.
Gibson slowly looked up and met Nova in the eyes, then looking at each of them in turn.
Then, in the quietest voice, he spoke.
'I wish I was dead,' Gibson whispered.
'No, you don't,' Nova said sharply. 'Don't be ridiculous.
Gibson's gaze started to lower.
'Gibson!' Nova yelled.
Gibson's head shot back up and a brief expression of alarm crossed his face that quickly disappeared into a blank stare that looked right through them. The interaction, however, seemed to rouse him back to full consciousness. Nova reached for a plate of food they'd hastily gathered upon his return.
'Are you hungry?' she asked.
'Thank you,' Gibson whispered, 'but not particularly.'
'Gibson, you look like you haven't eaten for weeks!'
Gibson frowned slightly. 'Where am I?'
'Back at the Super Robot,' answered Antauri. 'Do you remember being picked up on the field?'
'...Vaguely...' Gibson clutched his head. 'I have a headache.'
'What happened before that?'
'I don't remember,' Gibson said quickly. A lie, obviously. 'I...I don't want to think about it right now. No. I can't.'
Antauri huffed impatiently and turned to Otto.
'No sign of black ooze,' said Otto. 'He's not a clone.'
'And his injuries?'
'Bruises, lacerations, and obvious signs of prolonged torture,' Gibson said loudly. He shuffled his feet and stared absently towards the door, his entire body rigid. 'Of course, he won't say it out loud. Nobody will say it. They'll say it didn't happen.'
'Nobody is saying that,' said Antauri. 'We are making attempts to be sensitive to your position.'
'And you're not making it any easier,' retaliated Sprx.
'I assure you,' Gibson smiled meekly, 'anything insensitive you do won't hurt my feelings. Not after everything.'
'Had this happened at any other time, I would leave you be,' said Antauri. 'But this is wartime and any possible security infringement could be an undermining of our already weak security. We need to know what happened during the last two months and your stubbornness will only delay the inevitable...Gibson...Hal, I'm so sorry this happened to you out of all of us, but I have to be know the circumstances surrounding your disappearance.'
Antauri must mean it. Sprx had never heard him struggle for words, nor had he ever heard him use Gibson's first name.
Unfortunately any response that might have been provoked from Gibson was interrupted by the door opening. Chiro strode into the room and his every step betrayed that he meant business. Not once did he look at Gibson.
'Has he said anything?' Chiro asked.
'No,' answered Antauri.
'I need to talk to him,' said Chiro. 'Everyone out.'
'But Chiro – ,' Otto started.
'That wasn't a suggestion. Out.'
Antauri and Sprx exchanged a knowing look. They could all feel it lingering in the air, an unnatural determination radiating from their commander-in-chief and perhaps the youngest military leader to ever exist on Shuggazoom. But despite his instincts telling him to stay and protect Gibson, Sprx and the others were herded out of the med bay by Chiro. The last he saw of Gibson, he could see a mildly panicked expression beginning to creep up.
Chiro sealed the door and returned to the table, where he pulled up a stool and sat down opposite of Gibson. He just stared at him for a long time. Gibson averted his gaze. Chiro could sense it now. Whoever Gibson was before, that had been replaced by an empty shall incapable of contact or thought, wrapped up in the events that had taken place. Events that Chiro had to know about.
'I need to know what happened,' explained Chiro. 'You don't have to explain in detail, you just have to answer "yes" or "no" questions. Does that sound fair?'
Gibson wavered slightly.
'Gibson, is that fair?'
He blinked. 'Yes.'
'Your shuttle was shot down about two months ago. Do you remember the crash?'
Gibson hesitated. He nodded without making eye contact.
'Did you stay with the shuttle?'
'Was the crash site attacked?'
'Were the other members of your crew killed then?'
'Were you captured by Skeleton King?'
Gibson's gaze shifted. The movement was slight and, again, barely noticeable, but he moved his head so he was looking over a spot just over Chiro's shoulder. His expression was tired and increasingly strained. Chiro resisted every childish urge to reach over and embrace the monkey who had taught him about science, who had droned on about black holes, physics phenomenons, and – once in a while – emerged from his shell. It had only been in the last few years that they'd been able to break through it, but now it was thicker than ever. The effort had been for nothing.
And though Gibson didn't answer, his expression was clear. Chiro's shoulders sagged in defeat.
'Did he interrogate you?' Chiro asked. His tone was a lot harsher than he'd intended, but Gibson didn't seem to notice.
'Did Skeleton King let you go?'
'Did you reveal any classified information while being interrogated?'
Gibson's teeth were gritted. He didn't answer for the longest time, and when he did it, it was with a small, meek voice.
'Yes,' he answered.
Chiro felt his mouth open, his eyes widen in shock. He slipped off the chair to kneel in front of Gibson.
This couldn't be happening. The team hadn't discounted the increasingly high possibility of being captured and tortured for information in the past; heck, this wasn't even the first time, but this was the first time that a member had been in the custody of the enemy for an extended period of time. Who knows how bold Skeleton King had gotten. Of course, the team had actually run simulations based on this possibility, but their carefully laid plans didn't appear to apply or be very relevant in this fragile time. Everything they'd worked to accomplish was being unwoven like a tapestry with a loose thread.
'How much?' Chiro said harshly.
Gibson's gaze travelled further to the right.
'How much, Gibson?!' Chiro demanded. 'How much did you tell them?!'
His pupils were as far as they could go without turning his head.
'Gibson,' Chiro continued. His hands were shaking and he gripped onto the side of the table for support. 'Did you tell them as much as you personally knew?'
'Chiro...' Gibson whispered. His eyes were wide with desperation. He was begging for forgiveness as he made eye contact. 'Chiro, you weren't there! You didn't – and you couldn't have – Chiro! I had to tell them something! Anything...'
'Gibson...' Chiro breathed. 'Do you realize what you've done?'
He didn't answer. It was like he didn't even care. In a few short sentences, the entirety of the war had changed. Chiro snatched Gibson by his arms and shook him. He had never seen such apathy. It was as if Gibson had ceased to feel emotion, and he briefly entertained the possibility that Gibson was dead. The only thing that stopped Chiro from fully turning on his former friend was the overwhelming presence of memories. Countless, countless memories that flooded through his mind and brought to light all of the better times that were now faded and gone.
It only made him angrier. After the team had discussed this, after the preparations, the possibilities, Gibson had turned on their carefully laid plans! Of all monkeys! Chiro might have been able to forgive if it was Sprx or Otto or even Nova for that matter; he might have been able to forgive it if it was Jinmay or Slingshot or Johnny or someone else who he didn't always trust with specific plans. But Gibson? Gibson was firm and trustworthy. He was concrete and solid. He was a rock. When he had a plan, he did not waver, and all of that trust he'd put into the team's scientist, turned war strategist, had been in vein. A thousand destructive scenarios flashed through Chiro's mind. Flames. Death. Bodies. Stenches of war. All because someone couldn't follow a plan.
'Do you know what you've done?!' shouted Chiro. 'You've destroyed everything we've worked to protect! Skeleton King is probably out there right now preparing to launch an attack we aren't ready for!'
Chiro stood and marched to the door, only pausing once.
'You're not going on the field anymore,' Chiro directed. 'No more missions. No more expeditions. You're going to stay behind a desk for the rest of the war, do you understand? I don't want you anywhere near the front lines!'
Gibson let out a few stray tears. Chiro stormed out of the med bay and did not return.
Chiro left the Super Robot at once, dragging Otto and Nova with him, siting the need to "repair" the damage that Gibson had caused. Sprx didn't know the full extent of what Chiro and Gibson had discussed until much, much later when he prodded Antauri for answers.
'Gibson revealed classified information to Skeleton King,' Antauri had explained.
'Gibson?!' repeated Sprx. 'Antauri, this could change – .'
'Everything, I know. Chiro, Otto, and Nova are convening with our leaders to determine a new course of action.'
'...Shouldn't we be there?'
'I told Chiro that you and I should stay with Gibson.'
There was a mildly bitter note to his tone, but Sprx still couldn't tell if it was directed towards Chiro or Gibson or both.
He woke up early in the morning to check on Gibson, but he wasn't in the med bay and neither was Antauri, who was supposed to be watching him. He quickly examined the bio scans of Gibson, however he quickly felt the need to look away; he didn't want to know the details. Sprx instinctively knew where to look for them: Gibson's laboratory.
It took him longer than it should have to reach it, but once he did, he found Antauri just inside the doorway and leaning against the wall. Gibson was in the very centre, in the company of six tubes filled with thick fluid and small, organic substances barely bigger than the size of his fists floating in the middle. He was hunched over and a device was in hand that he was using to shock a mechanical monkey's hand with electricity, prompting the limbs to jerk in protest. He continued to do it, his expression unreadable and blank, but the fact that he was even moving sent waves of relief through Sprx's body. He almost smiled. Almost. Because Gibson still seemed like a hollow reflection of himself, who didn't really want to exist, but was dragged into it anyways.
'How is he?' Sprx whispered to Antauri.
'I'm doing adequately, thank you,' Gibson said loudly. 'Honestly, I'm sitting right here...'
Sprx and Antauri exchanged a weary look before lowering their voices even lower.
'He insisted on coming here,' said Antauri. 'I see that as a sign of hope.'
'No word. They're still in conference.'
'They've been at it all night?'
'It has been nearly seven hours. Gibson estimates that Skeleton King will launch an offensive later today.'
'I don't think it's a good idea for Gibson to be thinking like that...'
'He can't help it. If anything, it's a good thing he escaped. He told me that the only motivation he had to escape was to warn us of their coming. Chiro is angry, though. More than angry. I am concerned for both of them. I cannot predict how this will effect our functionality as a team. If there is no trust between even two members, there is no team.'
'Who's to say he wouldn't have caved?' Sprx retaliated sharply. 'Who's to say I wouldn't have caved? Any of us are capable of it, it's just that no one wants to say it out loud.'
'Perhaps you are correct,' Antauri agreed.
Sprx's hands curled into tight fists. 'Chiro's different. He's changed since this all happened.'
Sprx looked across to where Gibson was sitting, staring blankly at the mechanical hand.
'Do you think Gibson will ever be the same?' Sprx croaked.
Antauri sighed. 'I don't think any of us will.'