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Chapter XXXV

  

            The white noise hum of the computers had lulled Colonel Courageous into a deep sleep; like listening to waves of electricity crashing on a digital shore.  Physically, his entire body felt like jello that had spent hours in the sun; constantly on the verge of collapse.  As tired as his body was, his mind was in processing overload.  There was too much going on for him to make sense of it all, and the headache he had didn’t help matters. 

            The serene sound of working computers was greatly appreciated, and his eyes fluttered like bird wings before gently closing.  The Colonel needed to rest.  Not for too long, just a few hours; long enough to give his mind and body a break. 

            Alien invasions.  Killing innocent people.  A secret love child.  Was it any wonder why his head hurt and he needed a break? 

            Was it any wonder why the thoughts continued to plague him in his sleep? 

 

            In his mind, the Colonel raced through the air.  He pushed his ability to fly to its limits; streaking clouds in his wake like cotton balls in the hands of a child.  As fast as he was flying, it didn’t seem as if it were fast enough.  They needed him.  People were in danger.  Lives were in danger of being lost. 

            As the speeding missile that was his body approached Future City the crisis changed.  People were no longer in danger.  He was rushing to get to the hospital.  It was time.  Before he could decrease his speed and touch down on the building’s rooftop, he found himself inside its halls.  Still rushing, he shoved past the familiar strangers that greeted him and patted him on the back. 

            The strangers lived up to their names, even the one that he “knew” to be his best friend, but had never seen before, seemed unusual.  The familiar strangers had faces that were twisted like abstract portraits painted on shattered glass then pieced back together.  Somewhere, deep in the Colonel’s mind there was a tiny scream that told him things didn’t seem right, but the voice wasn’t loud enough, and he ignored it. 

            The familiar strangers greeted him with guttural grunts and howling chortles.  The sounds made no sense, but he recognized each congratulatory greeting.  His “best friend” escorted him into the hospital room, and stood watch at the door.  Jonni Cordalis lay on a bed in the center of the room, her feet in stirrups while twisted faced doctors and nurses tended to her.  Jonni looked at the Colonel, her face normal, like his—or what he presumed his face looked like—with sweat beads on her brow, and worry carved into her face.  Her arms were strapped to the side of the bed, and strained to break free. 

            “It’s coming!” Jonni cried.  “It’s coming!” 

            The Colonel stepped forward, and the twisted face doctors and nurses moved closer to block his view.  Through all the confusion and uneasy feelings, the Colonel smiled.  Jonni was giving birth, and he was there for it.    He tried to move closer, pushing through the crowd of doctors and nurses; remotely aware that there seemed to be more of them then there were before.  Finally he reached the head doctor who turned and handed him the bundled blessing. 

            A warm feeling poured through his body as he accepted the baby.  Colonel Courageous slowly pulled the blanket away from the baby’s head to see its beautiful face.  What he saw made him jump, and he almost dropped the child.  It wasn’t Celia, it was a baby Cycsiks. 

            Fear ran an anchor and chain through his spine and held him to the floor.  His head snapped around at the room full of twisted faces.  Not twisted faces—Cycsiks.  They were all Cycsiks. 

            The baby pounced from the Colonel’s shaking hands and onto his chest.  Its tiny claws ripped a hole in his chest and burrowed its way in.  He could feel the tiny creature moving around inside him.  He could feel it growing, getting bigger.  His body ballooned till the skin could no longer contain it, and it split like over ripened fruit.  Under the skin was the mucus green hide of a Cycsiks. 

            The Colonel saw all of this from outside himself, as he realized he had become an observer of this macabre transformation.  When it was all over, and the dead skin fell to the floor, he saw the new Colonel Courageous.  There, in fully glory, stood a Cycsiks version of him, complete with garish costume. 

            Suddenly, there was an explosion that shook the hospital, and the scene changed.  The Cycsiks onlookers were washed away in a beacon of light.  No, not washed away, burned away; incinerated by searing heat.  The out of body Colonel saw his perverted version laughing maniacally, bathed in the light of the mushroom cloud that rose behind him. 

 

            “Noooo!” the Colonel screamed into the darkness.  His scream beat its way through the walls of the underground base, rattling doors and busting the overhead lights.  His trembling body was yanked up from the small bed.  He stood, hunched over, his fingers curled, head lowered and shoulders raised.  His blazing red eyes were all that could be seen the dark room.  Among the heavy labored breathing another steady, more stable rhythm could be heard. 

            “Colonel?” came the voice in the darkness. 

            “Who’s there?!” huffed the Colonel. 

            There was a soft click that only the Colonel could hear, and the radiant form of Major Tom came into view.  His uniform glowed like the outer ring of the moon during an eclipse. 

            “Tom?” the Colonel asked unsure of whether to trust his eyes. 

            “Are you alright?” 

            The Colonel didn’t answer immediately.  He didn’t know.  Slowly, he started to regain his senses and remember where he was.  He straightened his posture and relaxed his hands. 

            “Yeah.” he said after nearly a minute had passed.  He brushed the broken glass from the overhead light off his suit and shook tiny shards from his hair. 

            “Yeah, just- just had a bad dream.” 

            “A bad dream?” Major Tom questioned.  “My people don’t believe in good or bad dreams.  We view dreams as truths you know about yourself but refuse to accept, or wish were better.” 

            “Interesting philosophy.”  The Colonel was about to say more, then realized that Major Tom had been there the entire time.  He didn’t arrive when he heard the scream, he was already there. 

            “Wait, why are you here?  Did you want something?” 

            “It’s time.” 

 

 

            “Sleep well, Gary?” Dr. 253 said while standing atop a ladder replacing the bulbs in the lights overhead. 

            “Heh.”  The Colonel gruffed.  “Since when did you develop a sense of humor?” 

            Dr. 253 looked down at his enlarged hands; the scars from where the pinkies had been surgically removed were still fresh.  “Since I cut my pinkies off.  I think they were holding me back.” 

            Colonel Courageous was still unnerved by the dream, but he found his old friends remarks equally disturbing.  Never before had Anthony laughed at a joke, much less told one.  He wondered what was going on inside of the unequalled genius.  For that matter, was he even still a genius? 

            “Sorry.” The Colonel apologized.  “I hope I didn’t damage too much stuff.” 

            The Doctor secured the last of the fluorescent bulbs into the ceiling housings and climbed down the ladder. 

            “Nothing critical.”  He turned to Major Tom.  “Tom, can you reset the emergency lighting?” 

            The alien turned and headed towards the building’s control center. 

            “Are you… okay?” the Colonel inquired. 

            “I should be asking that of you.” 

            “Me?  Yeah, I’m fine.  Just a bad dream.” he gave a less than convincing smile. 

            “That must have been some dream.” 

            The Colonel didn’t answer.  His eyes locked on the face of his friend, and stared through him. 

            “Gary?” 

            Colonel Courageous snapped out of his daze.  “I’m sorry, this—all this—it’s new to me.  I’m not used to hearing you speak with…” 

            “Concern?” 

              “Inflection.  You’ve always been so direct and…”

            “Nerdy?” 

            “Stop it!  Scientific.  Are you okay?” 

            “The Cycksiks are primal creatures, as you know.  When that one was inside of me… I don’t know… It opened up a part of myself that had been lost before in a quagmire of calculations and equations in my mind.  I used to look at everything in the world through the microscopic lens of science.  Everything could be explained as a molecular reaction, and therefore it wasn’t unique or unexpected.  If you know how objects react to one another—it’s all chemistry, and seems irrelevant.  Emotions have no bearing and are unnecessary.” 

            The Doctor took a seat on one of the ladder steps. 

            “At some point I forgot that I was still human.  I forgot what being human means.  Now, all the things I had dissected and stored away are coming back, and it’s like I’m experiencing them for the first time.  In essence, I am.  And that’s the problem.  There’s still the part of me that views all this as insignificant.  I’m having trouble merging the two halves of my psyche.” 

            “I’m sorry.  I can’t even begin to understand what something like that is like.” 

            “Thank you, but don’t concern yourself with it too much.  You have problems of your own.  Besides, I’ve got a solution in the works.  I just have to get the two parts of my mind to agree to use it.  Ah, what savage beast I am.”  Dr. 253 said the last part with a smile. 

            Watching and listening to him, Colonel Courageous could see the two parts of his mind fighting for control.  To say he seemed human seemed like an insult.  To the Colonel, his friend, no matter how relatable he now was, seemed broken.    

 

            “Gentlemen.” Major Tom interrupted.  He stepped between the two of them, making him himself the focus of their attention.  “We have work to do.” 

            The two heroes nodded in agreement and followed him into the next room. 

 

            In the work station the Slingshot sparked with life.  Its brilliance shined like a miniature sun, capable of illuminating the entire room without the lights having been replaced. 

            Dr. 253 and Major Tom instantly went to work, preparing for their exodus to space.  The two moved in perfect rhythm as if they had planned and practiced their moves.  Tom checked the power couplings on the Slingshot, making sure that the Doctor’s newly acquire power source was properly calibrated. 

            Colonel Courageous watched as the two men busied themselves with their tasks.  Not being able to assist, or even have an inkling of what it was they were doing, made him feel useless and in the way.  The Doctor looked up and saw his old friend looking perplexed and worthless.  He wanted to say something, but the analytical part of his psyche was running the show, and the thought was pushed aside to be considered later.  His attention immediately switched to Major Tom.     

            “I’ve aligned the relay satellite to the origin point of the last inbound signal.”  Doctor 253 said.  “You should arrive within twenty kilometers of the transmitter’s location.  The homing device will guide you from there.” 

            Major Tom nodded in agreement.  He ran one final test on the power core before walking over to the Slingshot’s control center.  He snatched the homing device off the console and walked back to the Slingshot. 

            The Doctor hurried across the room and settled behind the Slingshot’s controls.  “Are you ready?”  He entered the command functions, releasing the safeguards, and looked over the coordinates a final time. 

            The Colonel narrowed his eyes, clenched his fist, and nodded.  Crackling golden energy reached out from the center of the molecular transporter and enveloped him.  The energy was warm at first; heating his skin like the sun it pretended to be.  The feeling quickly faded and was replaced with a sensation of extreme cold.  His skin prickled, and he looked down to see his body drift apart like static on an old black and white TV.  His body felt like it was covered in ants, crawling and nibbling on every inch of his flesh.  The Colonel remembered this feeling from before, and remembered hating it. 

            As every molecule of his body was converted to energy and propelled into space at near the speed of light, he looked back on the lab and his friend.  A stray though entered his mind just before he vanished in a burst of blinding light. 

            Home. 

 *****

             Edgar and Judith were waiting patiently for Celia when she came out of the bedroom.  The couple held each other’s hand so tight that the tips of their fingers were starting to turn purple.  She looked at the two curiously, unsure of who they were, or what to make of them.  Their faces seemed distraught, but covered with a thin veil of calm pretending to be content. 

            Celia moved carefully around the chair DD sat in, across from the couch where they sat.  When Diamond Dog saw Celia he immediately stood and let her have the chair.  He sat on its arm and draped his arm along the top. 

            “Celia.” DD began.  “This is Edgar and Judith.  They’re Caroline’s parents.” 

            Celia felt her stomach drop and her heart skipped a beat.  Her lungs refused to work and she found it impossible to breathe either in or out. 

            Edgar stood and his arm swung out like a broken swing, wobbly and slightly disjointed. 

            “Hi.  Thank you for seeing us today.” 

            Celia took his hand and gave it a weak clammy shake.  Judith nodded, but stayed seated.  

            Celia felt her lungs open, and a rush of air filled them, making her momentarily light headed. 

            “Carson was telling us that you were the one that found Caroline and took care of her.  He says you two were very close.” 

            “We all thought they were sisters.” Crash chimed in. 

            Edgar smiled.  That small comment somehow warmed him inside. 

            “We were hoping you’d tell us what happened.  Why she ran away.  How she…”  Edgar couldn’t finish his sentence.  Judith lowered her head and gripped his hand tighter.  She moved closer to him, as if she were afraid is she let go, even for a second, he would be gone, too. 

            “I-I don’t know where to start.” Celia said, her voice shaking. 

            “How did the two of you—uh—meet?”

            “Well,” Celia started to respond.  She felt a smile cross her face and she remembered back to that day.  “She was trying to steal my fries, believe it or not.” 

            “Huh?” Edgar looked at his wife who was equally as puzzled by the statement.  “She was taking your fries?”  

            “Yeah.”  Celia’s smile got even bigger.  “I had just arrived at the bus station, and used some of my money to get some food.  I only had a little money left, so after I ate my burger, I put the fries in my pack for later.  I look away, and when I look back, I see the fries floating away on their own.”  Celia chuckled, at the mental image in her head, and the feeling of surprise at seeing such a thing. 

            “If you can imagine, a bag of French fries just floating through the air.  I reached out to grab them, and grabbed her arm instead.  We were both surprised.  I accidentally shocked her and made her become visible.  Then she passed out.” 

            “So,” Judith spoke for the first time.  “She made it all the way to Future City on her own?” 

            “Yeah.”  Celia was still smiling.  It hadn’t occurred to her what a brave and strong girl Caroline was until just then.  She made it to Future City on her own.  “She had already been there for a while when we met.” 

            “Oh my God!” Judith spoke again.  He hand shot to her mouth, and she started to cry.  Edgar put and arm around her and pulled her tight. 

            “Look,” Celia started.  “I know this sounds odd, but your daughter was a pretty resourceful girl.  More than I was.  She knew how to take care of herself.  You could say that she took care of me.” 

            Celia shook her head. 

            “When I left home, I took seventy dollars with me, and had no plan other than run.  I don’t even know how I ended up here, and by the time I got here I was nearly broke.  I didn’t have a clue as to what I was going to do.  Caroline, she didn’t have a plan, I don’t think, but she knew how to keep herself safe.” 

            Celia knew the words coming from her were tough and hard to hear, but they had to hear them.  They had to know just who their daughter was.  To her, it was the only way they could understand what happened, and the only way they could be proud. 

            “Look, you need to understand a few things about Caroline, about all of us before we continue…” 

 

            A knock on the door interrupted Celia’s speech.  Everyone in the room turned to the door, some angered by the interruption, others with fear as to what was on the other side. 

            Scarlett smiled and hurried across the room.  She threw the door open and rushed Walter inside. 

            “You’re late!” Scarlett said quietly through gritted teeth covered in a phony smile.  She turned to the others in the room and tried to make her TV face more genuine and friendly. 

            “I wanted to get this all on video.  It’s important for the world to know this part of your story.” 

            Walter threw the camera up on his shoulder and started recording. 

 

            Celia gave Walter a second glance before giving Edgar and Judith her full attention once again. 

            “You see, Caroline, Carson, Joseph, and myself…  This thing that happened to us, we didn’t know how to control it, and we were scared.  When you’re scared you only know two things, run or fight.  When the thing you’re scared of is yourself, you don’t know how to fight, so you run.  You can run all day, but you can’t run from yourself.” 

            Celia pushed the hair out of her eyes and leaned forward.  “I think Caroline realized this a lot sooner than the rest of us.  Being invisible, and not having to see yourself helps.  She knew something else, too.  She knew how to look out for herself.  For the most part, when she was awake, she couldn’t be seen, and when she was asleep she could be.  So she spent most of her waking hours finding places to hide and sleep.  ” 

            “I don’t-I don’t understand.”  Edgar said.  “She ran away ‘cause she was scared?”   

            “When my abilities started to manifest I nearly blew up my school.  I didn’t trust myself.  I didn’t trust myself to be around others.  Suddenly, I wasn’t the same person people thought they knew.  I didn’t even feel like I knew myself.  I can only imagine what it must have been like for Caroline.  To suddenly find yourself invisible, walking through walls, and unable to talk.  It must have been like being removed from the world.  Not knowing what was happening to you, or if it was permanent.  That’s got to be a lot scarier for a girl her age than being worried that you might blow up your school.” 

            “My God, Eddie.”  Judith began.  Her body trembled as the words crept from her mouth.  “This is our fault.  She tried to tell us, but we didn’t listen.  All those times she would disappear and we didn’t believe her…”  The tears fell from her eyes like a monsoon washing over her cheeks. 

              “We did this!  This is our fault!”  Judith’s tears came harder as her husband crushed her chest against his and cradled her face in his neck. 

            “No!” Celia exclaimed.  “It’s not your fault.  How were you supposed to know?  She was just a little girl.  You didn’t know if she was just playing around, pretending, or if it was real.  I know you want something more, but it’s not your fault.  It’s just something that happened.  Remember, I ran away, too.  You know who I am, and who my parents are… all of them.  If anyone could have helped me understand what was happening to me, it was them.  But, I couldn’t… I couldn’t go to them.”  Celia’s eyes dropped to the floor.  “I don’t know why, I just couldn’t.” 

            Edgar lifted his wife off of him, and held her face in his hands.  He tried to be strong for her; for both of them.  His eyes were red, and the occasional tear escaped from the corner and ran down his face, but he did his best to hold it in. 

            “Judy.” He called to his wife.  “Judy!  This is what we came here for, remember?  We knew it was going to be tough, but we both agreed that we had to know.  Right?” 

            Edgar’s wife shook her head yes, and wiped her eyes.  The tears continued, but lessened as she did her best to regain her composure. 

            Edgar turned to Celia and forced a smile.  His smile was more of a strained grimace, but Celia took it for the gesture that it was. 

            “Please, continue.”  Edgar requested. 

            “Well…” Celia began.  “There’s not much else to tell.  Soon after we met up with DD—Carson—and the others at the Factory.  Of course, that’s when we met Guru.”  

            “Guru?” Edgar questioned. 

            “Uh-“ Celia stammered, unsure of how to respond.  The truth was confusing and painful to her.  She didn’t know how they would react.  “He ran the Factory and kept everyone there safe.  He was teaching us all how to control our abilities.  We didn’t know until that night with the Hell Spawns that he was Abysmal.” 

            “I don’t understand how all that worked.”  Edgar started.  Celia could see the anger forcing its way through his grief.  His brow wrinkled and his eyes drew tight.  “He trained them, and when they got out of control, he was training you fight them?” 

            “No!”  Diamond Dog blurted.  ‘It wasn’t like that.  All that stuff you heard—the crap Killzone said was a lie!  I don’t know why he was doing what he was doing, but it wasn’t to make us like them.  None of us wanted to be like them.” 

            “Except Sunshine.” Joseph mumbled. 

            “What?”  Edgar called.  “Who’s Sunshine?’ 

            Celia took a breath, and held a hand up to Carson and Joseph, telling them to butt out. 

            “Like Carson said, we don’t know why Guru took us all in, but it wasn’t what people are saying.  He would meet with us, one on one, and teach us how to control these abilities.  Not to use them, but how not to use.  There was never any mention of doing anything illegal, or fighting crime, or even group meetings on what our purpose was, or anything.  He was even teaching Caroline how to talk while invisible.” 

            Celia could feel her eyes starting to burn and knew that her own tears were on the way.  She was getting close to telling to the part of Caroline’s life that she dreaded.  Her death. 

            “Guru, explained that Caroline’s abilities were reactive.  Whenever she felt nervous or scared, she would turn invisible.  She wouldn’t become visible again until she felt safe.  She felt safe around me.  But, fear of her ability and being rejected made her want to stay invisible.  All she wanted, all any of us wanted, was to go back home.  We just wanted to be the people we were before any of this happened.” 

            “What…”  Edgar started.  Judith pulled on his arm, her head swinging slowly back and forth, silently saying no.  He turned to her.  “Honey, we have to know.” 

            Edgar turned his attention back to Celia and the others.  His eyes darted to each of theirs, and but settled on the teenage girl.  “How did it happen?” 

            “It was the Hell Spawns.” Carson jumped in again before Celia could answer.  It had only been a few weeks since the attack on the Factory, and the wound was far from healed. 

            “The Hell Spawns attacked the Factory one night.  They were going to kill all of us.”  Carson continued. 

            “Who or what is Sunshine?  Is he a Hell Spawn?” Edgar asked.  He noticed their attempt to talk around his previous inquiry instead of answering it. 

            “Sunshine… Black Sunshine, was another runaway living at the Factory.”  Celia picked up from where Carson left off.  “He fell in with the Hell Spawns.  Instead of wanting to control his abilities, he decided to use them to take what he wanted like they did.” 

            Celia gripped the leg of her jeans and bunched it up in her hand. 

            “We don’t know why they attacked us that night.” Celia lied.  It was hard enough trying to convince everyone that Guru wasn’t training them to be a group of young adversaries.  The truth would only blur the truth even more.  “All we know, is that they did, and we’d all be dead right now, if it wasn’t for Caroline.”   

            Celia couldn’t hold back her tears anymore.  The drops painted black lines along her face as they raced one another down her cheeks. 

            “She had been practicing with Guru that night, learning how to talk while invisible.  We were all asleep when they broke in.  Caroline… she screamed.  She screamed while invisible, and woke us up.  She was so brave and strong.”  Celia wiped her eyes, smearing wet eyeliner all over her face. 

            “We were trying to escape when Black Sunshine attacked.  She was holding my hand… She felt safe with me and would allow herself to be seen if I was there.  Even with all that was going on that night, as long as she was holding my hand, she stayed visible ‘cause she felt safe.  Black Sunshine’s blast hit her and pulled…”  Celia’s tears came much harder now, and she found it hard to speak, to even breathe.  She looked up at Edgar and Judith, and noticed that neither one of them were crying.  There was sadness in their eyes, but they weren’t crying.  Just her.        

            “The blast pulled her hand out of mine.  I-I saw her fall, and I knew… I knew…” 

            Celia looked at Caroline’s parents through blurred teary eyes.  She held up her hand, holding it out across the coffee table that separated them.  Tiny arcs of blue light jumped along her fingers like threads performing a ballet dance in zero gravity. 

            “I killed him.  I pulled all the electricity I could feel and hit him with it.  I could feel his heart race until it couldn’t take any more.  It was like I was actually touching him with my hands.  I hit him with everything.  Black Sunshine killed Caroline, and I killed him.”  

 

            Edgar and Judith were silent.  They neither cried, nor smiled.  The two sat across from Celia, huddled together, and stared at the teen.     

            Carson put his arms around Celia and held her.  He wanted her to know how he felt.  He wanted her to know that he was hurting the same way she was.  He wanted her to know he loved her. 

            Celia’s arms wrapped around his waist and squeezed.  He didn’t know if she understood, but told himself that her squeeze meant she loved him, too. 

            Crash had walked over to the window and looked down at the protestors below.  His gaze wasn’t fixed on anything, and he stared blankly at the world outside his window.  None of the people below could see him.  None of them could see him cry. 

 

            Walter turned off the camera and lowered it.  He turned and looked at Scarlett.  His eyes fixed on the reporter’s face. He forced his eyes to stay open, afraid that if he closed them, even for a millisecond, that a tear might show.  Scarlett tried to hide her smile, but Walter could see it in her face and body movements.  This was exactly what she wanted. 

            Scarlett wet her lips, smoothed down the front of her blouse and cleared her throat.  She bent down, over the back of the sofa, and put a hand on Edgar and Judith’s shoulders. 

            “Edgar.  Judith.  I can only imagine how painful that must have been for you.”  Scarlet’s voice carried the right amount of empathy to seem genuine.  “Is there anything I can get for you?”  

            Edgar shook his head.  A squeak of a voice escaped his lips.  He cleared his throat and tried again.  His voice cracked as the words came out, but they were words this time.

            “No.  No thank you.” 

            “How about you, Celia?”  Scarlett asked, moving around the couch.  She knelt in front of the teen and held her hand. 

            Celia shook her head. 

            “That was a very brave thing you just did.  I want you to know that.  You’d been keeping that all bottled up inside you for so long.  You needed to get it out.  And Caroline’s parents needed to hear it.” 

            The reporter slid a hand under Celia’s chin and turned her head till they were face to face. 

            “You may not think of yourself as a hero, but every day you show me just how much of a hero you are.  You’re a hero to me.  And, you were a hero to Caroline, too.” 

 

            Scarlett stood and beckoned to Walter. 

            “Gibby and I are going to step out into the hall for a minute and let you all have some time to yourselves.” 

            The others in the room acknowledge her statement with subtle head nods and shoulder hunches.  The reporter and her camera man slipped out, leaving the grieving parties to themselves. 

 

            In her excitement, Scarlett slipped on the smooth worn carpet outside the hotel room and nearly fell on her butt.  She fell back against the wall and gave Walter a huge smile. 

            “The ratings for this show are going to be phenomenal!” Scarlett beamed.  “Do you know what this means, Gibby?  Exclusive access to the new heroes—it’s journalistic gold!” 

            Walter was less than enthusiastic.  Scarlett had a gift, and he wouldn’t deny that.  She also had the drive and cunning to get what she wanted.  But, he’d been behind the camera long enough, and had worked with enough people to know that there was no such thing as a sure thing. 

            “I could become the hero correspondent!  You know how Joshua Kirk will only let that skank Barbara interview him?  That could be me!” 

            “Hold on now, Red.” Walter tried to inject some reality in Scarlet’s bubble before she completely floated away.   “Let’s just take things one step at a time.  I like you, girl, but you need to stay grounded.” 

            “Come on, Gibby!  This thing landed right in our laps.  We’ve got the whole thing sewn up.  Nobody can get an angle on them.  And now, knowing that Celia is Colonel Courageous’ daughter, the doors to the League are going to open up.” 

            “We don’t have all the angles.”  Walter said with concern. 

            “What do you mean?” 

            “You haven’t heard?”  Walter set the camera down and pulled out his phone.  He scrolled through the screen menu and pulled up the news headlines.  “Variety magazine.  Read the main article.” 

            Scarlett took the phone and began reading the article aloud. 

            “Van goes Cannes.  Van Tortelli, celebrity journalist, announced at Cannes that his show is being retooled to get back to his hard hitting journalistic roots.  Blah blah blah.  Blah blah blah.  During the press conference he revealed that his first guest would be Walden “Wally” Patterson, onetime hero sidekick known as Kid Paladin, and author of the book I’m in the League.” 

            Scarlett handed Walter back the phone.  “Ok, so?  Two washed up has-beens are going to be on a show together.  Big deal.” 

            Walter shook his head.  “You don’t know the old Van.  He was a shark.  Five guys could have the same inside scoop, and he would find some hidden fact that none of them knew about and blow their stories out the water.  If he’s interviewing Wally Patterson, then he’s got a good reason—a trick up his sleeve.” 

            Scarlett gave her cameraman a snotty look that said she was less than concerned. 

            “Look, all I’m saying is watch out.” 

 *****

             A break began to form in the heavy clouds that darkened the hotel room.  Judith and Edgar stared into each other’s eyes, hushed sentences passed between them. 

            Celia could only make out the inflected words as they shot her way.  She was afraid that they would blame her for Caroline’s death.  The guilt she bore was like a vice around her heart.  It made everything she did seem like an impossible task.  The grief stricken teen hoped—prayed—that they wouldn’t blame her.  Then maybe she could forgive herself.  

            The couple whispered and nodded several more times before turning to look at Celia. 

            “Thank you.”  Judith said.  Her voice was strong and unwavering.  Her eyes were brighter now then they had been, and Celia could see a little life returning to them. 

            “For what?’ Celia questioned. 

            “For what you did.” Edgar replied.  “All of it.” 

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Chapter XXXIV

 

            Colonel Courageous’ heavy steps echoed in the empty lab.  He expected to find Dr. 253 and Major Tom sweating away before the computer working on their invasion tactic; instead he was greeted by the hum of running computers and the muffled whir of cooling fans.  The motion activated lights sprang to life as he entered the lifeless lab.  The lab was relatively neat, with only a few things out of place.  It was clear that they had been working around the clock to prepare for their counter invasion. 

            The Colonel caught a glimpse of himself in the reflective surface of an upright examination table as he walked through.  For the first time he actually stopped and looked at himself; the outlandish skintight costume with its decorative belt and ridiculous boots.  Why did people take him seriously dressed like that?  It was very surreal to look at himself, not as a hero, but as a man.  No, this was not the place to raise a family. 

            The weakened hero looked around for signs of where the others had gone.  All he could see were remnants of unfinished projects waiting to be fully realized.  A few feet away, a large monitor flashed images on the screen of “corrupted” DNA sequences.  The double helix was separated by their nucleic acids and was then taken apart by the base DNA and RNA.  The “corrupted” sequences were removed creating a cascading failure of the entire structure. 

            He watched the screen as the computer ran five more simulations, trying varying approaches to solving the problem, each one progressing from the prior failure.  Each one resulted in a cascading failure of the base structure. 

            “Hmm.” the Colonel said aloud.  “The alien can’t be removed without killing the host organism.  Once they’ve been implanted, the host has to die, or live as one of them.” 

            From the corner of his eye he saw images displayed on another monitor of a Cycsiks hybrid on the examination table.  Areas of the alien bonded human, partially dissected, were enlarged and examined on a microscopic level.  The data was fed into the DNA simulation. 

            The Colonel studied the images of the body, soon realizing that it wasn’t one of the people he had seen before.  This was someone new.  They had taken over another human. 

            He gritted his teeth in anger.  Colonel Courageous needed answers, and he needed them now.  He hoped that Dr. 253 and Major Tom had some good news for him. 

 

            “Hello?” the Colonel called.  “Doc?  Tom?”

            No answer. 

            “Doc?  I got your call!” 

            Silence. 

            Colonel Courageous put his thumb to his lips and blew a steady stream of air across the nail.  A sharp whistle sounded from his lips and cut through the lab and into the other rooms of the hidden base.  It didn’t take long for the two men to emerge from their seclusion. 

 

            “Gary, do you mind?” Dr. 253 fussed at his friend.  The Colonel stopped the high frequency whistle as soon as he saw them come through the doors.  “Some of this equipment is highly susceptible to high pitch noises.  That whistle of yours could shatter the pryoclastic glass conductors.” 

            “Sorry, Anthony.  I wasn’t sure where you guys were.”  He tossed a thumb at the monitor to his right.  “More possessions?” 

            “Yes, Colonel.” Major Tom answered.  “The Doctor and I contacted Clockworx in your absence.  He’s been rounding them up as they’ve manifested.” 

            “I trust you have a plan ready?”  the Colonel asked. 

            “For what it’s worth, yes.”  Came the cold monotone alien response. 

            “What is it?” 

            “Well, that’s the good news.” The Doctor added.  “We’ve got a plan.  The bad news is, it’s the same as it was when we last saw you.” 

            The Doctor moved between the two men and took a seat at the simulation computer.  The video was minimized while he brought up the plan he and Major Tom had created.  He transferred the visuals to the holographic imager behind the champion hero. 

            Hundreds of thread thick rays of colored light beamed from the top and bottom plates of the imager, reflecting off mirror based prisms and generating a rendered image of the Earth.  The Doctor swiveled in his chair and directed the Colonel to look behind himself. 

            “This is what we’re looking at.”  He pointed to the three dimensional video of the Earth. 

            The video reminded the Colonel of the fifteen year old science films he used to watch in school.  He held back a snicker and tried to focus. 

            The Doctor continued, unaware of the Colonel’s mental distraction.  “The Cycsiks are using this weapon of theirs to transmit themselves via sub-sonic high frequency radio transmissions.” 

            “Hold on, Doc.  I don’t claim to be as smart as you, but I thought outer space was a vacuum, and sound can’t travel through a vacuum.” 

            “Very good, Gary.” Dr. 253 said in a way that was more condescending than commending; like encouraging a child.  “But, ‘outer space’ isn’t a true vacuum, it’s a partial vacuum.  Even still, sound is a manipulation of vibration.  Space is filled with planets, asteroids, and other cosmic debris, with each having its own atmosphere that extends beyond its physical boundaries.  Vibrations, or sound, can exist within that atmosphere.  For the sound to travel through space, it only needs to piggyback off these objects, or bounce from one atmospheric property to another.  In the case of the Cycsiks’ device, the vibration isn’t the carrier, it’s the conductor.” 

            The lost and puzzled expression on the Colonel’s face told the Doctor that he hadn’t dumbed it down enough. 

            “The energy transference device that they’re using is much like a teleporter without a return flight.  The human host serves as the destination point, and the vibration guides it to the target.  Since the human and the carrier signal are on the same wavelength, it merges them into one.  Energy is energy, it doesn’t differentiate.  Once the two are merged, the dominate presence will supersede.  Unfortunately for us, that presence will be the Cycsiks.” 

            Dr. 253 sighed.  He looked over the faces of his friends and saw them waiting for him to answer the original question.  “What?” 

            “Our plan, good doctor.” The alien spoke up. 

            “Huh?  Oh, right!”  The Doctor had become so lost in his explanation that he hadn’t realized that he’d neglected to answer the question.  “Well, knowing all this, regrettably, doesn’t help me to prevent it.”

            He rose from his chair and walked over to the hologram of the Earth.  “I had hoped we could arrange some kind of sub-space particle filter, or isolate the carrier wave; maybe redirect it.  Since it’s keyed to individual harmonic frequencies, we don’t have to worry about it hitting someone or something else.  I’m sorry to admit, it’s just not possible.” 

            “Ok, but what does this have to do with the plan?”  The Colonel questioned.  For all his strength and indomitable will, he was a simple man.  A “point and shoot” hero.  He needed the answer to be simple and direct. 

            “Everything.  If we can’t stop the signal, then that means more people will become… infected, by the Cycsiks.  That poses two problems.  The first, anybody that becomes infected must be eliminated.  There’s no way to separate the two beings once they’ve been merged.  The second, we don’t know how many Cycksiks are already in transport.” 

            “What?” 

            “By our best calculations, the frequency takes about ten days to reach the Earth.  The first couple of inhabitants we’ve determined were test transmissions.  M e included.  Those were spaced out by two or three days each; according to the level of gestation of those subjects.  The most recent ones have been within a couple of hours.” 

            “We’ve deduced that the machine must need time to recharge, or that it takes longer for the transmitee to be converted to energy.” Major Tom included. 

            “Wait!” Colonel Courageous spat.  “You said ‘recent ones’.  How many are we talking?”  

            Major Tom and Dr. 253 looked at each other.  Even the alien’s eyes seemed saddened at the knowledge. 

            “In the past week…  A hundred and forty eight.”  The Doctor said quietly. 

            “A hundred and forty eight?  In six days?” 

            “The Cycsiks homeworld has only fifteen hours in a day, compared to your planet’s twenty four.”  Tom answered.  His cold alien voice masked his concern.  “By our estimates, there could be enough of them on Earth to take over the planet in a month’s time.” 

            “A hundred and forty eight.”  The Colonel repeated.  He covered his face with his hands in disbelief. 

            “We’ve been lucky so far,” Major Tom went on.  “And have been able to identify them shortly after implantation.  While this tactic is effective now, we will lose the advantage soon.”  

            “And,” Dr. 253 picked up, hoping to make Tom’s words easier to take.  “This is just the new ones.  We estimate there could be as many as twenty others that are under the radar – lying in wait and bidding their time.”   

            “Dammit!  This can’t be happening!” Colonel Courageous exclaimed. 

            “Gary…” the Doctor put a hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “I need to know that you’re clear on what’s been going on.  Once a person has been infected, there is no cure.  If the Cycsiks is allowed to fully gestate inside the host…”  The Doctor didn’t finish his sentence.  He couldn’t. 

            “And we have to keep this a secret.  The public can’t know about this.  Any of this.”  He paused.  “Do you understand what I’m saying?” 

            The pain in the Colonel’s heart could be seen in his bloodshot eyes.  “Yes.  The people – the people that have been infected are being killed… by us.” 

            “Clockworx.”  Tom interjected.  “But you are correct.  We cannot allow them to reach full growth.”   

            “I have to stop this.  I have to stop this.”  The Colonel said, as if reciting a mantra.  “I’m supposed to help the people, not kill them.  The fate of the world…  It’s all up to me.” 

            “Seriously, Colonel.” Major Tom snipped.  “Don’t start believing your own press.” 

            “As it is, I’m the world’s only hope.  I take that pretty seriously.” 

            “There you go again.” Major Tom retorted.  “The great Earth savior.” 

            “You may not be human, Tomaskarian, but that doesn’t mean they can’t beam someone into you like they have everyone else.  If I’m not mistaken, you spent several years in their company.  There’s a chance that they still have your DNA stored somewhere.” 

            The alien’s eyes shifted as he considered the champions words.  After running the idea through his head over and again, he realized that the Colonel said was true. 

            “You are correct, Colonel.  I am just as susceptible as everyone.” 

            “Look, Tom.  I’m not so foolish that I think I can do this alone, and frankly I don’t want to.” The Colonel said in a frank tone.  Neither the Doctor nor Tom had ever heard him express modesty in any form.  The two were shocked, and a bit scared.  The one thing they could always count on was Colonel Courageous to be a wall of strength and arrogance. 

            As annoying as it was at times, there was a sense of comfort that came from his cockiness.  Very few people had the strength or power to put him down, and none had the power to keep him down.  He had lost only a handful of battles, and won every war.  To hear him admit that he didn’t feel that he was strong enough to fight this threat alone scared them. 

            “Doc,” the Colonel called to his longtime friend.  “You can hook him up like you did me, right?” 

            “I respectfully decline, if it’s all the same to you.  I have served my time as a lab rat.  It is not an experience I wish to repeat.  Besides, I have no need of becoming another one of the Doctor’s manufactured heroes.”  Major Tom refused the Colonel’s offer in the most polite way possible, for him. 

            “That wasn’t what I meant.”  Colonel Courageous hadn’t meant to offend the alien protector.  “I mean, I’m not…” 

            Tom scrunched up his face as he thought about his next set of words, choosing them very carefully. 

            “Thank you, but no.” the alien answered after nearly half a minute. 

            “Understood.” replied the Colonel. 

 

            The three sat in silence, each gaining new respect and a new understanding for the other.  It was Dr. 253 who finally broke the silence. 

            “If people only knew what it takes to save the world, huh?” 

            “True.” 

            “Agreed.” 

            “Well than,” the Doctor continued.  “Let’s talk about how we’re going to kick the hell out of the Cycsiks.”   He turned from the holographic viewer and headed for the base’s workshop. 

            “This way, gentlemen.”   

 

            Inside the enormous underground room were several large machines powered by a semi-spherical vibrating orb, with flaring spikes of energy.  The orb hovered inside a reverse gravitational field and pulsed with perpetual energy.   The orb changed colors with each pulse and flare. 

            The Colonel recognized one of the machines that were being powered by the pulsating ball of color.  It was smaller and more polished in its appearance than it was years earlier, but the glowing “door” of crackling energy was unmistakable.  The Slingshot, the trans-dimensional jump gate.  Just looking at the rebounding streams of force made his stomach do flips.  He had never forgotten the feeling of being transported halfway across the galaxy at the speed of light.  Ever since then, he always related any feeling of nausea to fighting the Cycsiks. 

           

            “What’s that?”  The Colonel said, inexplicably drawn to the beauty of the glowing power source. 

            “Careful.” Dr. 253 said, grabbing him by his arm and pulling him back.  “The simplest way to explain it is folded antimatter forged inside a black hole.”   

            “Is it dangerous?” 

            The Doctor started laughing so hard that it got stuck in his throat and he choked.  “Extremely.” 

            “Doc, how do you come up with this stuff?” 

            “He didn’t.” interjected Major Tom.” 

            “I borrowed the idea from Tom actually.  It’s what powers his equipment.  The jetpack, raygun, all of it.  This is a synthesized version.  The power core that he uses is about one hundredth this size.  This was my first attempt.  I should be able to get it smaller with future incarnations. 

            “Geez, Doc.  You’re a dangerous man.  I don’t know what we would do if your genius ever fell into the wrong hands, or if you switched sides.” 

            Doctor 253 looked down at his “new hands”, flipping them over to see both the backs and the palms.

            “We almost found out.” 

            He wasn’t used to the new him yet, and did his best to avoid confronting it.  It was also one of the reasons he started putting distance between him and Astronima again.  Being around her forced him to deal with what he had become.  He wasn’t ready for that yet. 

            “Anthony… I’m sorry.  I forgot.” the Colonel said quietly. 

            “It’s okay.  At least now I have a better appreciation for Robert Louis Stevenson.” the Doctor forced a chuckle. 

            “So,”  the Colonel said, changing the subject.  “We’re using the Slingshot again, eh?” 

            “Yes.” the Doctor smiled, given an excuse to avoid dealing with his personal problems.  “Unless there’s a receiver at the destination point, teleportation is impossible.  The Slingshot is all we have to get you there, and back.” 

            “This time, though,” Major Tom butted in.  “We’re setting the return for one hour.” 

            “Thank God.” Colonel Courageous said with relief.  “Last time, those two hours seemed like an eternity.  I was afraid you’d end up yanking back two dead bodies.”    

            “Yes.  We won’t have to worry about trying to stay alive like we did last time.  The only drawback is we will only have an hour to find the energy transference device and destroy it before be pulled back to Earth.” 

            Major Tom turned away from Colonel Courageous and looked at Dr. 253.  “Doctor?” 

            “There’s one more thing.” The Doctor said, picking up from Tom’s cue.  “I’m not sure if you remember, but the trip is going to take about two hours, both ways.  Due to time dilation, a week will have passed here on Earth during those two hours.” 

            “So, you’re saying on Earth, we’ll be gone for a total of two weeks?”  

            “Fourteen days, five hours.” 

            The Colonel let out a deep sigh.  He turned to the machine next to the Slingshot and studied it.  The other machine was unknown to him.  It was impressive, as all of the Doctor’s inventions were, but to need the amount of power that the sphere put out meant that it was equally as powerful.  The Colonel didn’t understand what any of the buttons, knobs, or switches did, but he recognized function monitors and regulators when he saw them.  Whatever the machine did, it had four system regulators, each with its own redundancy backup. 

 

            “Tell me, what’s this other thing?” 

            “I call it a harmonic nullifier.  It generates planetary gravitational wells that realign affected star systems to one another without a shift in the universal harmony.” 

            “What does that mean?” questioned the Colonel.  Any explanation that took so many big words was never a good thing. 

            “What the Doctor means to say, is that it’s a planet killer.  The weapon will cause the planet to implode, but maintain the orbital balance of the remaining planets and stars to keep the neighboring planets from being destroyed.” Tom explained bluntly. 

            “You said ‘the planet’.  You’re planning on using this on the Cycsiks homeworld?”    

            “Only as a last resort.” the Doctor added.  “If your attack fails, we’ll have no choice but to use it.” 

            “This is getting pretty intense.”  Colonel Courageous looked around the workstation for a place to sit.  He saw a chair against the wall and walked over to it.    He fell back into the chair, bending the lightweight metal frame with his weight.  Suddenly, his face became hot and his hands started to tingle. 

            “You look flush.” His friend said, focusing a small red light into his eyes.  “You feeling ok?” 

            “Huh?  I’m fine, all things considered.  It’s been a helluva day.” 

            “Hey, this was your idea, remember?  Take ‘em out by any means necessary.” 

            “Not just that, all of it.” 

            “All of what?” 

            “You don’t know?”  The Colonel had to laugh at the two men, living under both a proverbial and literal rock.  “I just found out I fathered a child with Jonni Cordalis sixteen years ago.  And about three hours ago she tried to kill me.” 

            The mixture of expressions on Dr. 253’s face made him look like a living Picasso.  He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  He chose the former, and erupted in a torturous fit of laughter. 

            “You find this funny?”  the Colonel asked.  Even Major Tom had the start of a smirk cross his face. 

            “More like karma?”  laughed the Doctor. 

            “Bastards.”

            “Enough of this frivolity!  We need to discuss our strategy for attack, or have you forgotten that we have a planet to save?” 

            “You’re right.” answered the Colonel.  He found the strength to lift from the chair and steadied himself on his feet.  “I’m ready.” 

            “It’s simple enough.” Tom began.  “Once we arrive on the Cycsiks’ homeworld, we’ll make our way to the device, destroying everything in sight.” 

            “How will we find the energy whatsits?” the Colonel questioned. 

            “The Doctor is putting the finishing touches on an energy tracer to pinpoint the location of the energy transference device.  That’s where he’ll send us.” 

            “And with that said, I need to get back to work.” said the Doctor.  “If you’ll excuse me.” 

 

            Dr. 253 went back to work, leaving the other two men to alone. 

            The Colonel looked at the alien and gave him a polite nod.  He extended his hand and wait for the alien to accept.            

            “Thank you for your help.  We may have our differences, but that never stops you from being there when I need you.” 

            Major Tom stared at the hero.  He kept his hands to his side, refusing to acknowledge the courteous gesture.

            “I’m not human, Colonel.  Why do you insist on treating me like I am?” 

            “I don’t.  I treat you like a man.  Regardless of what you may think of yourself, the people of this world see you as a hero.  From where I stand, I see no reason to disagree.” 

            Colonel Courageous clapped a hand down on Major Tom’s shoulder as he walked around him.  He moved slow, as if every muscle screamed fire and death. 

            “You’re a good man, Tomaskarian.  Now if you’ll excuse me.  I need to lay down for a bit.” 

            The alien didn’t move.  His body stood still, as if cast in plaster, but his mind raced.  His thoughts raged like rogue comets, careening out of control and crashing into one another.  A hero?  A good man?  The Colonel certainly thought so, but was he really?  Major Tom thought about the champion hero’s words. 

            No.  No, he wasn’t a hero, or a good man.  He was a murderer on a mission of vengeance.  He had helped others in his quest for revenge, but that was based on a mutual need to achieve the same goal.  There was nothing selfless in his actions.  Everything was based on his own needs.  His arrival on Earth and the agreement he made with the United States government and their military was based solely on his wants. 

            The alien wondered:  Had he done some good things during that time?  Had he in some way redeemed himself for his past indiscretions?  Colonel Courageous thought so, but didn’t know the truth about who he was; Tomaskarian, wanted murder.  All he knew was Tomaskarian tortured prisoner turned extraterrestrial guinea pig, turned escaped slave.  Maybe there was a part of him that was a good man.  A part of him that could be a hero. 

            Maybe.

            Maybe.    

 

 

 

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