By 'A Clockwork Tomato'
This is one of the episodes from my thirteen-episode fanfiction season 3 for The Big O, everyone's favorite anime show. It shows a plausible future after Act 26, advances Roger and Dorothy's romance, answers many of the riddles of Paradigm, and has plenty of giant-robot mayhem! The episodes feature R. Dorothy Wayneright, Roger Smith, Angel, Dan Dastun, Jason Beck, and our other favorite characters.
Why did I write a thirteen-episode season in thirteen weeks? Partly because people were so confused when the show ended so abruptly and mysteriously. A lot of folks felt that what happened at the end end of Act 26 made future episodes impossible. These thirteen episodes are my way of proving otherwise.
What happened in Act 26? Why did people lose all their memories? These and other mysteries are answered.
The original episodes and such are all copyrighted or trademarked or whatever by Sunrise, Inc. The rest is mine, all mine, and is Copyright ©2003 and 2004 by A Clockwork Tomato. All rights reserved.
Michael Seebach was incandescent with fury. He shook his fist at Gordon Rosewater. "How dare you! How dare you invade my dreams!"
Gordon smiled from his rocking chair, "Calm down, young man, please. It's only a dream. No harm can come from it."
"Liar!" shouted Seebach. "If that's true, you won't mind if I do this!" He raised his voice to a deep bellow. "Big Duo, it's …"
But Gordon was on his feet, making alarmed gestures of supplication. "All, right, all right, no need for that, young man. You're right, of course. Please, hear me out."
Seebach, rather pleased with himself, calmed noticeably. "Will you speak plainly this time?"
"Would you, if you were in my place? But it's very simple. The Dominus of Big Lazarus is going to fire his reality cannon to draw out the Megadeuses on his own terms. He must be stopped."
"The others can stop him."
"I wish I shared your confidence."
"So you expect me to save the day with Big Duo."
Gordon replied, "I will not argue with you, young Seebach. Do what you will. When you wake, the battle will already have started."
With that, Seebach awoke on his cot in the tumbledown factory in which he had hidden Big Duo. It was almost dawn. As he got up, he was astonished to see that he was dressed in a red battle uniform and black combat boots. A white silk scarf was wrapped around his neck. A black helmet sat next to his pillow.
He picked up the helmet and stared through the gloom at Big Duo. He hated being manipulated by Gordon.
Was this his fight or not?
* * *
The New Dominus fumed. Everything was in readiness, at least in theory, but the Old Dominus had set everything in motion too soon. Their allies weren't ready, and lack of practice was causing little things to go wrong. Little things like not realizing that the area they had chosen for the battle, while ideal from most respects, was crossed by a line of telephone poles. The poles had vanished along with the rest of the landscape, which was now a dense palm forest. They were now out of communication with many of their allies.
He had been forced to suspend radio jamming for the moment, in order to get instructions across.
If they'd had more allies, this would have been a serious barrier to success. As it was, it was only a nuisance. So few allies! The Old Dominus had wasted most of them in pointless attacks on Paradigm. Their surviving allies had been melting away like snowflakes. The human ones were, at least. The other had less choice.
It had been twenty minutes since he had first fired the reality cannon. Right now he was firing it just once every ten minutes or so, to draw them in. He could fire it once a minute on full power.
He waited impatiently for his first victims to show themselves. Big Lazarus was probably a match for everything they could muster, but he had plenty more in store for them, as well. No sense taking needless risks.
* * *
Dastun was on the phone in the police office on the ground floor. "Okay. Have Sorenson pick me up here. Yeah. Bye."
He pulled out his automatic pistol and worked the slide, putting a round in the chamber. He engaged the safety and put the pistol back in its holster. He pulled five loose clips out of his desk drawer and put them in his pocket, then put ten more in the pockets of his overcoat. Though in a fight like this, no one armed with just a pistol would last long enough to fire more than a few clips.
He went down the front steps just as Lt. Sorenson arrived. He noted with approval that Sorenson had unlocked the riot gun from its bracket. "Command post," he said.
Sorenson drove off.
* * *
CAST IN THE NAME OF GOD … YE NOT GUILTY.
"Big Alpha!" called Will. "Action!"
Big Alpha strode across the pine barrens. Will looked back at Emily, who stood smiling at the back of the cockpit with the eight probe cables sticking out of her forehead. Will grinned at her and she grinned back. They both loved a fight.
"Are we going to be too late, do you think?" asked Will. This was his only concern.
"No way," said Emily. "It's a trap." Big Lazarus could end the world simply by draining the reality out of it by firing his cannon. That would take only about an hour of continuous firing. And his enemies, knowing this, would fling themselves into his trap in their hurry to stop him. They had no choice. Big Lazarus was crazy enough to destroy the world as the next best thing to ruling it.
"Fools rush in where Angel fears to tread," said Will.
Emily laughed. "Don't start, or it'll be pundamonium here in a minute. Anyway, Angel would far rather be in the front lines than where she's going to be."
"Show me a map," said Will. "Where are we going? What's the plan?"
"It's a good setup for us," said Emily, bringing up a map on one of the displays. "Big Lazarus is on the edge of the Wasteland, on our side of the river. See? We'll hit him from behind. We'll hit him really, really hard. Everyone else will be coming in from the city."
Will studied the map. "Rolling hills? I thought he'd want it flat as a pancake. Hills block the reality cannon."
"They're hardly more than dunes. We couldn't hide behind them. But I'll be he has nasty surprises dug in here and there."
* * *
Angel checked her appearance in the mirror. She looked good. Too bad she had to be scared half out of her mind for her eyes to look so large. She was wearing her best pink skirt suit. She took two packs of cigarettes out of a drawer and tossed them into her purse, along with an extra lighter and a spare handkerchief.
She held out a hand. It wasn't shaking at all. "Not yet," she said.
Big Venus was just a short walk away through the underground. She turned to go.
Norman was standing in the doorway. "Excuse me, Miss Angel, but can I be of any assistance?"
"Aren't you going with Dan?"
"That is the plan, miss, I wondered if you could use my assistance with Big Venus until Master Roger and Miss Dorothy join you."
"Thanks, Norman. You're a real pal. But I'll be fine. You run along and try to keep Dan in one piece."
"I shall do my best, miss."
Angel headed for the basement and the underground.
* * *
CAST IN THE NAME OF GOD … YE NOT GUILTY.
"Big O!" shouted Roger. "Action!"
Big O burst through the ground in an empty lot at the edge of the city. A few strides took him a quarter-mile to Dastun's command post; a huge armored bus festooned with radio antennas. Roger took the internal elevator down to the ground, exiting through Big O's left foot.
A group of over a hundred scorpion robots was scuttling down the road, followed by several buses containing the policemen who were operating the mechanical herd by remote control. Dastun had been trying to keep the robot squadron secret, and perhaps his enemies didn't know about them, but Roger had received frequent updates on their status from Beck, who was hearing about them from who knew where.
A line of police tanks was trundling past on the road, followed by another of Dastun's secrets: a line of trucks, each towing a 155-mm howitzer. They were followed somewhat later by a large number of bulldozers, backhoes, and excavators. A few of these pulled off the road and were soon digging trenches and foxholes.
The road was clear for a while, then Dastun's pride and joy arrived, a pair of chromebusters, each mounted on an enormous tracked vehicle, which Roger knew had been some of the city's largest cranes before their superstructures had been cut off. The chromebusters were mounted inside a large featureless steel domes, painted in the same dull colors as the military police tanks. These vehicles lumbered past at their top speed, no more than ten miles per hour. Two trucks of support personnel followed.
Roger stepped into the command bus. Dastun was surrounded by military policemen who were awaiting orders or making reports. The atmosphere was surprisingly calm.
When Dastun saw Roger, he said, "Roger, I'd like you to hold back until we make contact. We all know this is a trap. Let's have our aircraft take a look and our scorpion-bots flush out some of the dangers before we commit ourselves."
Roger nodded. "I'll be waiting in Big O. Just say the word. Any sign of Seebach?"
"Not so far. We'll keep trying. Big Alpha will be close enough to join the fun in about forty-five minutes. He'll hit 'em from behind. Big B is off to the left somewhere. Beck's being cagey about his exact location."
Roger asked, "Where's Sorenson?"
"He's commanding a squadron of scorpion bots."
"Good for him."
Dastun paused and said, "Hey, Roger, I didn't get a chance to say goodbye to Angel. I messed that part up. Was she looking okay when you left?"
Roger reflected that he seemed more anxious about Angel than the upcoming battle. "I'll be checking in with her soon Dan, and I'll send her your love."
"Huh. I thought you didn't even know that word."
"I'll send your warmest regards if that's what you want."
Dastun held up a hand, "No, 'love' is the right word. Thanks. Oh, and Roger?"
"Don't get your ass shot off out there. I'm sure the enemy knows that you tend to be rash. He'll probably get you on the horn and taunt you, just to get you to rush into his trap. Do an old buddy a favor and drag your feet, just this once, okay?"
Roger smiled. "I won't promise anything."
* * *
Tony and Norman had the access plates off the chromebuster. It was really hard to repair it while it jolted down the road. The lumbering vehicle had no suspension at all.
"I think I see it," said Norman. "One of the cables has fallen out of its socket. I will plug it back in."
"Wait!" said Tony. "Which one is it?"
"That's a high-voltage cable. Wait a second … okay, it should be safe now."
Norman plugged in the cable, then cursed. "The hold-down screws are missing. No wonder it fell out."
"Sloppy," agreed Tony. He unfolded assembly drawings and peered at them. "Take a screw from P32 and use it on P21. They should both be okay with one screw each."
A moment later Norman emerged from the innards of the chromebuster. He wiped his face with a handkerchief and shouted over the rumble to the tech sergeant, "Try it now!"
Tech Sergeant Williams hesitantly turned on the power to the chromebuster. Unlike last time, no smoke poured out of the console. Dials and lights came on in the proper sequence. The sergeant slapped Norman on the back. "Don't know what I'd have done without you. Thanks, fellas. We'll be in position in about fifteen minutes."
* * *
The battle had begun when the New Dominus had ordered that the edge of the city be shelled. Their artillery was nothing much, just light field pieces, but they had shelled two of the domes on the south side of the river, and this had drawn a lot of eyes their way. Enough people had witnessed the initial firing of the reality cannon that Paradigm's leaders could be in no doubt about what was happening.
The artillery had withdrawn once enemy forces had been seen crossing the bridges.
Of course, the real battle was between Megadeuses, but it was important to separate the giant robots from any supporting forces, and to damage them as much as possible before they came to grips. The enemy had three Megadeuses - four, if they still controlled Leviathan 14 -- while the New Dominus had only Big Lazarus. Big B was out of action with a bad ankle joint, and Big Alpha was reportedly far away. That left Big O and possibly Leviathan 14. Those were good odds, but they could be better. Allies were there to be used. Or rather, used up. It would be worth the lives of all the allies the New Dominus could possibly muster to save Big Lazarus from serious damage.
He waited impatiently for reconnaissance reports to come in.
* * *
Sorenson and his three men hunched over the controls in their section of the bus. Each controlled a scorpion bot. The bots were about five miles away, racing over the dunes in a loose formation, making about thirty miles an hour. The enemy was attempting to jam radio communication, but so far Sorenson and his men were having no trouble controlling the scorpion bots, which had extremely limited self-piloting skills and mostly had to be controlled remotely.
All four bots were identical, armed with .50-caliber machine guns and carrying a 250-pound limpet mine in their bellies. They had grappling hooks and winches to climb buildings or (they hoped) Megadeuses. A 250-pound shaped charge in the right place - ankle, knee, or (best of all) throat - could cause a Megadeus serious inconvenience, and might possibly put it out of the fight. But for now, they were simply scouting.
Sorenson and his men hardly knew each other; they had been formed into a squad at the last minute when some new bots came available. So they used unit numbers. They were squad Z. Sorenson was bot Z1.
Z3 said, "I'm picking up radio activity at 223.1 MHz."
Sorenson said. "All stop. Get a fix."
Z3, who was good at this sort of thing, announced almost immediately, "Bearing 73. It's close. Maybe the next dune?"
Sorenson grinned and said, "Squad Z, charge that hill! Follow me!"
They galloped towards the dune and quickly overran an enemy position. A man with a pair of binoculars and a walkie-talkie - clearly the source of the radio transmissions - bolted into a tunnel. Squad Z pelted after, Sorenson in the lead. His bot managed to muscle the armored door open before the man could bolt it, then he shot the man at point-blank range with his machine guns. Sending his bot over the fallen body, he turned on the headlights and investigated the tunnel. It was packed with about a hundred pine coffins, each of which had a number of cables entering at the head end. These all came together at a large control console with hundreds of knobs, dials, and switches.
Sorenson stopped his bot, perplexed. "Androids or zombies," he said. "It's bad news either way."
Z4 said, "Let's blow the console and get out of here."
Sorenson thought about it, then agreed. "Even if that wakes 'em up, we can warn headquarters and just avoid this location," he said. "And it should put them out of the enemy's control, either way."
They backed up and filled the console full of lead. There was no response from the banks of coffins.
"One human controlling a hundred zombies," said Sorenson. "My god."
* * *
Angel paced back and forth in the control room of Big Venus, far underground. The reality level was down to 5.8. This wasn't cause for concern - she wouldn't normally trigger a new cycle until it had fallen below 4.0 - but unless Big Lazarus were stopped, it wouldn't be long before her hand was forced.
Big Venus was displeased. She always wanted a definite plan for the next cycle, and Angel didn't have one. Big Venus liked grand, sweeping plans like Gordon used to make, and was suspicious of the hands-off approach that Roger Smith insisted upon, leaving people and their memories alone as much as possible.
Changing the world was partly a matter of mechanics -- of setting up Big Venus' equipment properly - and partly one of will. You held the world you wanted in your mind, and your vision was superimposed onto the regenerated reality field. If Big Venus and Angel didn't agree, chaos would reign. So far, Angel had always cracked first, and yielded to Big Venus.
Except for last time, when Roger had talked to her at the last minute, and had impressed Big Venus as much as her.
Big Venus wasn't supposed to be the dominant one. They were supposed to be equal partners. But there had been a long period when Angel had been crazy, and had believed that she was a goddess and the world existed as her plaything. It was an occupational hazard. Gordon had been affected by it, too, so they couldn't help each other. Angel hadn't recovered until she had met Roger Smith and fallen hopelessly in love with him. Roger believed that each individual mattered, and that godlike powers only heaped you with additional responsibilities. She had withered under his disapproval and had eventually found her sanity again, more or less. But here, with Big Venus, she tended to revert to the old ways of thinking under stress. Especially because Big Venus liked her that way.
"I want you here, Roger," Angel muttered. "I need you." She felt trapped.
And Dorothy, too. Oh, what she wouldn't give to have Dorothy here right now! It might be even better than having Roger. Dorothy had more force of character than Angel and Big Venus combined, and her heart was in the right place.
"Finish your stupid battle and get over here," Angel muttered. "Stop screwing around."
But she couldn't call them yet. They wouldn't come. The needs of the battle were more immediate.
* * *
"I see him, Jason," reported Dori.
The screen lit up, and there was Big Lazarus facing about ninety degrees away from them, three miles away. Big B was screened by low wooded hills and probably couldn't be detected at this distance.
"What do you think, Dori?"
"We probably can't disable him from this range, and we probably can't survive closing with him," said Dori. "We can't take him on by ourselves."
"It's a good thing we have friends," said Beck. "So now we sit back and wait for them to arrive."
"I hate waiting."
"I know," said Dori. Beck's genius was fueled by an overactive imagination, which was the last thing he needed while waiting for a period of extreme danger to begin. Dori moved from her usual place behind the cockpit dome and squeezed in next to the command seat. Beck put an arm around her waist.
"Dori, how did I ever get along without you?"
"I don't know, Jason," she said. "I really don't."
* * *
Dastun's face suddenly appeared on one of Roger's screens. "We've spotted a group of three of those squared-off robots like the ones that attacked downtown," he said. "They're two miles away. They're headed for the command post here. I'd like you to make a demonstration from map reference k5. We'll try to take them out before they can close with you."
Roger nodded, but asked, "What about Big B?"
"He hasn't communicated with us. I hope he's all right."
"Okay, Dastun. I'm on my way. Big O! Action!"
Big O moved quickly off to the designated spot. When he got there, the three robots were moving into view. They were of the same extremely crude design that he had first seen attacking the Amusement Dome, the same night that Dastun had shot Sybil Rowan. They were more formidable than they looked. They were generally packed with high explosives and could easily destroy Big O from short range, and they often carried enough missiles to damage Big O. If they knocked out one of his legs, they could close and finish him. They had nearly done this before.
They were about a mile away. They saw Big O and altered their line of march to approach him. The dunes here were so low that they provided little cover. Roger called, "Chromebuster!" Big O took up a firing stance: forearms horizontal, hands touching. The beam shot out of Big O's head and streaked towards the nearest robot. The robot continued on for ten seconds, then suddenly exploded.
"How's the chromebuster holding up?" asked Roger.
"If you let it cool down, we can probably do that again," reported Dorothy. "If you fire it immediately, you have only two or three seconds."
"Lock missiles on the nearest robot. Use your own judgment with the counter-measures," said Roger. The script called for an exchange of missiles at this point. Dorothy's reflexes were so much faster than his that it was silly to have her wait for confirmation on defensive moves, though she was hesitant to take the offensive without instructions.
"Missiles locked," reported Dorothy.
"Every fourth missile, fire!"
Almost simultaneously, both surviving robots fired their missiles at Big O. Dorothy fired the counter-measures automatically, wreathing Big O in smoke and a glittering cloud of little foil squares. Roger raised Big O's forearms to protect his torso and face, and sidestepped to the left. Of the forty-eight missiles fired at Big O, nine struck; seven in the forearms, doing no damage to speak of, one in the right leg, where the leg armor absorbed the blast, and one in the head.
"The chromebuster is damaged," reported Dorothy. "Broken cooling line. I can probably fix it in five minutes."
As the smoke cleared, they saw that their missiles had produced little effect. Roger said, "I think they've figured out counter-measures of our own. Remind me to ask Norman to try a different targeting system."
"Artillery fire is landing near the enemy," reported Dorothy. "Just ranging shots so far."
Roger watched carefully, and saw an armor-piercing shell fall from the sky at a steep angle, landing very close to one of the robots. A few seconds later, a barrage of shells - at least ten - landed close to the robots. All missed, exploding as they hit the ground and sending up huge fountains of earth.
"Dastun has his howitzers in play, I see," said Roger. He looked in the direction of the shellfire, but saw nothing. Naturally - howitzers fired at a high angle, and Dastun would have put them on the far side of a dune, with nothing but an observer with binoculars and a radio within sight of the robots. He would guide the gunners' aim.
After thirty seconds, another barrage came in. This one knocked one of the robots off its feet, but otherwise did no damage. As the fallen robot slowly got back up, the other kept coming.
Suddenly, a pair of chimeras appeared, bounding past the robots and headed straight for Big O. They were an unlikely looking hodge-podge of different creatures, with long, skinny legs with clawed chicken-like feet at the end, an armored body, and a small head. A second pair of jaws at the top of the torso presented the largest threat, along with a large number of tentacles, now withdrawn and out of sight in the chimeras' body.
"Big O Thunder!" called Roger again. The four-barreled plasma gun belched forth pink fire, tearing the first chimera to pieces in only a second. The second chimera had closed so quickly that Roger withdrew the Thunder weapon and prepared to use his fists on it.
The chimera leaped upon Big O, wrapping its tentacles around him. Big O was forced to take two steps backwards, but did not fall. If the chimera could just hang on for a minute or so, the robots would move up close and self-destruct.
Roger tried to tear the chimera away, but it had quickly shifted its position and was now on his back. He couldn't bring Big O's arms to bear. He tried to back away, to maintain his distance from the approaching robots, but was barely able to move.
Suddenly, explosions started bursting in the air all around him. Shrapnel spanged off of Big O's armor. Dastun's guns had found their range. The chimera's grip loosened noticeably, but Big O could not shake it off.
Then a second salvo arrived, very well aimed, with many of the rounds bursting within a few feet of Big O. The chimera slid to the ground, dead from a hundred wounds.
The robots were getting close. "Big O Thunder!" called Roger. The right-hand joystick transformed along with Big O's arm, and Roger fired the weapon into the nearest robot, now only two hundred yards away, tearing irregular, molten-edged holes in its torso. After barely a second of this treatment, it, too exploded. Big O was blown backwards and landed flat on his back. Roger was momentarily stunned, but Big O, urged on by Dorothy, got up without him. Roger came to with Big O back on his feet. Roger looked around for the last robot, but discovered that it, too had been blown off its feet by the explosion. As Roger prepared to finish it off, a barrage of armor-piercing shells came in. Several shells penetrated the robot's body, and there was an enormous explosion. One of the robot's arms cartwheeled through the air and barely missed Big O.
"This sort of thing makes me long for the days of one-on-one robot battles," said Roger. "Dorothy, do we have any more enemies on our to-do list?"
"Not just at the moment," she replied. "I'll go fix the chromebuster."
"Need a hand?"
"It's three hundred degrees up there, and the air is toxic." She started to go.
He smiled at her. "And that was just the opening round. The warm-up act."
"Yes," she said.
"Dorothy, refresh my memory. Have I told you I love you today?"
"You are such a louse, Roger Smith! You've never told me that at all!"
"Oh. Well, never mind, then."
* * *
Leviathan 14 lay underground and watched the approaching pickup truck through his periscope. He had a feeling about this.
An old, fat man in overalls got out of the truck, leaving his straw hat and his keys inside. He walked towards Leviathan 14's position, moving tiredly but purposefully. When he had closed half the distance, he stopped and smiled, then said, "Leviathan 14, it's showtime."
Leviathan 14 surged up out of the sand and examined the old man, who smiled up at him.
"I am Gordon Rosewater," he said, "and if you will have me, you and I will save the world today."
Leviathan 14 lowered his head to the ground and opened the cockpit hatch. Gordon climbed in heavily.
Once inside, Gordon moved immediately to Leviathan 14's android. Not a real android at all, it looked like a department-store dummy that had been crudely modified to walk on its own. It contained transmitters to mimic the telltale radio emissions of Class M androids. Leviathan 14 kept it out of loneliness and pretended that it was real.
Gordon said, "Usually, when we talk about our predicament, we talk about reality being in very short supply. But it's just as true to say that we have plenty of reality; it's permanence that we lack. That's chaos, my friend. Anything is possible, but nothing lasts. Still, it has its uses."
He approached the android, which raised both hands towards Gordon, in a mechanical parody of supplication. Gordon grasped the hands, and the android changed. A moment later, he was holding the hands of a tall, slim elderly woman whose straight white hair brushed her shoulders. She smiled warmly at Gordon and they embraced. The gaping slot in her forehead proclaimed herself to be a Class M android.
Gordon stepped back, pulled a red bandanna out of the pocket of his overalls, and wiped his eyes. When he opened them again, he was holding a white handkerchief, which he folded and placed in the back pocket of his sky-blue battle uniform. At his breast was the label, "GEN. G. ROSEWATER." Gold stars glittered at his collar, stamped with the number "14." A white leather belt circled his equator and held a large silver automatic pistol in a white leather holster. His sky-blue trousers were bloused over white leather combat boots. His helmet, also white, was stenciled, "LEV 14."
Behind him, the android woman was similarly garbed, though without helmet or pistol. Her name tag read "CAPT. B. ROSEWATER." Eight probe cables radiated from the slot in her forehead, connecting her directly to Leviathan 14's mind.
Gordon walked around to the front of the cockpit and eased his bulk into the command seat.
CAST IN THE NAME OF GOD … YE NOT GUILTY
Gordon called, "Leviathan 14, action!"
Filled with an indescribable joy, Leviathan 14 plunged beneath the sand and moved quickly in the direction Gordon indicated. He felt that he would happily die for this old man and his android - and rather expected that he would soon do so.
* * *
The New Dominus was hopeful. The fight with Big O was not being observed by any of his men, but the odds seemed favorable. It seemed certain the Big O would be damaged, at least, by the encounter. He was bothered by reports of howitzer fire, however. Artillery could easily outrange Big Lazarus' reality cannon, and massed artillery fire could inconvenience or even damage a Megadeus. Probably they could not move up into range of Big Lazarus in time. Still, why take chances?
"Let's concentrate all our forces on their command post," he decided.
* * *
Sorenson and squad Z charged over another dune and found themselves in the middle of a milling mob of zombies.
"Bunch up, retreat, keep firing!" called Sorenson. It was easy to forget that he and his team were safely in a bus, and the scorpion bots were being run by remote control. Sorenson changed channels. "Squad Z in contact with a group of about thirty zombies at map reference J7," he told the duty officer.
"Squad Z, thirty zombies, J7," repeated the duty officer. "Have fun."
Sorenson returned to the task at hand. He and his men were trying to get out of the mob, but the zombies had hurled themselves on the scorpion bots and were trying to flip them over. Z3 was already on his back. A zombie, though hard to disable, was no match for a fifty-caliber machine gun, but there were a lot of them and they were right on top of the bots, so that the only ones you could shoot were the ones who weren't doing any harm. Sorenson told Z2 and Z4 to pair off, each shooting the zombies that were menacing the other, while he shot the zombies menacing Z3. "If you have any idle moments, you can lend me a hand," he said.
Eventually, they finished off the zombies and even managed to right Z3. Sorenson was out of ammunition. "How are we doing on ammo?" he asked the squad.
Everyone was practically out. Sorenson reported this to the duty officer. "Come back to base and arm up," the officer decided.
On their way back, they found the New Dominus' main force.
* * *
Beck was watching Big Lazarus glumly. Irregularly, every five or ten minutes, he would fire the reality cannon, and part of the landscape would change. There was now a stretch of tundra, an impenetrable pine forest, a sheet of ice, and what was apparently a feed lot, since the ground had been completely obscured by wall-to-wall sheep. The most recent firing had produced a stretch of glowing, smoking ground. Volcanic, Beck supposed.
"I shouldn't be here," he moaned. Big O should be here. He's got the right weapons. I should be supporting Dastun. I'm all tricked out for that kind of work."
He paused, then said, "Dori, let's skedaddle. I've got a feeling we're gonna be needed elsewhere. Roger's going to have to take out Big Lazarus. Nothing else makes sense."
"All right, Jason," said Dori, who was still standing next to the command seat, her arm around him.
"I'm not chickening out? It feels all wrong," he complained.
She kissed him on the forehead. "I think everyone will be glad to see us."
* * *
Sorenson reported his find to the duty officer. Hundreds of zombies, five of the big robots, and four chimeras so far, plus miscellaneous human support troops in light tanks similar to those used by the military police.
Z1 asked, "What do we do now, Lieutenant?"
Sorenson grinned, "Let's blow up the robots with our limpet mines."
There was a chorus of, "All right!" "Woo-hoo!" and "Let's do it!"
Sorenson spent a moment making sure everyone knew which robot to target - they were each going to target a different one - and then shouted, "Charge!"
They pelted down from their position of semi-concealment on the flank and sped directly to the robots. Probably the robots didn't see them coming, for they didn't react at first. Sorenson got behind his robot and aimed the grapnel gun. The neckless robot was not an easy target for ordinary grapnels. "Use the magnetic anchor," he said over the radio, then fired. The grapnel went up, over the robot's shoulder, and stuck to his chest. Good. Sorenson hit the button that would reel him in. Soon he was being pulled forward, the scorpion bot skipping over the ground, and then he was up in the air, twisting around. When he reached the level of the robot's torso, he had to scrabble with the insectile legs to get faced the right way. He was swinging crazily with the robot's motion, but that was good, because he wanted to be about six feet to the right … there! He hit the limpet mine's "deploy" button, and it shot out of the abdomen of his scorpion bot and clamped itself onto the robot. Sorenson then hit the "arm," button, set the time delay to 20 seconds, and hit the "fire" button. Then he pressed the "release" button on the grapnel, and his bot fell heavily to the ground, breaking one leg. Time to get the heck out of Dodge. His bot limped quickly off to the flank.
He surveyed the situation. A squad of zombies was moving up to support the giant robots, but hadn't closed yet. Z1 was finished and was returning. Z4 was having to fire his grapnel a second or maybe a third time; he hadn't really started yet.
"Aw, man!" said Z3.
Z3 was in pieces on the ground. A robot had stepped on it.
"I couldn't get the grapnel to work, and then…" said Z3's pilot beside Sorenson, but Sorenson's attention was distracted by the explosion of his limpet mine, which sent smoke and flame out of all the joints in the robot's armor, but seemed to have no other effect.
"Damn it!" said Sorenson. The robot took several more steps, then suddenly exploded.
"All right!" shouted Sorenson, jubilant. Z1's mine went off, and his robot exploded immediately.
"Z4, rejoin the group. Let's head on home," said Sorenson. If they moved fast, they could re-arm before the attack came.
* * *
"Hiya, Roger old pal!" said Beck gaily to Roger's image on the screen. "Did you miss me?"
"Hello, Beck," said Roger. "I'm glad you're here. Why don't you close to about a quarter mile from me and we'll head off to the fight that's brewing between Dastun and Big Lazarus."
"You got it. If we're going to stay on the left flank, let me cross to your right. I'm better armed for infighting."
"How's Roger treating you, Dorothy? You look a little singed."
"It was hot up in the chromebuster. We broke a cooling line. It's fixed now," said Dorothy. "Beck, you're chattering," she continued, but not coldly.
"Nerves. I'll stop," promised Beck. He urged Big B into his fastest walk and soon crossed behind Big O. They hurried towards Dastun's command post. Since the enemy was coming to them, Dastun was throwing up earthworks and sighting in his artillery. The two chromebusters were together on the right, on a dune overlooking the command post and the ground ahead of it, slightly behind the crest of the dune, so only their domes showed. Dastun's howitzers were a couple of miles to the rear. They didn't need to see their targets, anyway. Forward observers scattered here and there would direct their fire. They would be connected by telephone to the command post by wires laid in a few minutes from a reel on the back of a speeding pickup truck. Radio jamming would not affect them, which was just as well, since the New Dominus had turned on a number of powerful transmitters and was making radio communication tricky. The high-tech equipment in the Megadeuses was unaffected, but the scorpion bots were becoming hard to control, and ordinary field radios worked only over very short distances.
"Look at all those trenches," said Beck. Dastun had not only dug a remarkable number of ditches, but had brought up flat-bed trucks carrying lengths of four-foot-diameter galvanized culverts, which were rolled off the trucks and into the trenches here and there, then covered with earth, to provide instant bunkers. Beck continued, "Protection from artillery and the reality cannon both. Man, Dastun must be planning to shell his own position."
"Jason," warned Dori. Beck was chattering again.
A moment later, five hundred zombies came into view over the last rise before the command post, half a mile away. Just behind them, light wheeled tanks appeared at the crest and stopped. They aimed their rocket launchers and fired. Shells burst near Dastun's line, raising a huge cloud of smoke and obscuring the defenders' aim.
Because of their height and the fact that they were off to the left of Dastun's lines, this did little to block Big O's and Big B's line of sight. Roger set Big O the task of picking off the zombies one by one with his eye lasers. Beck, not nearly so deft, took his time and aimed slowly and carefully at the enemy tanks. He got two before the others backed down the rise and out of sight.
Dastun's howitzers suddenly came into play, firing independently and keeping up a steady barrage over the ground in front of Dastun's lines. The shrapnel tore a hundred zombies to piece, but the rest kept coming. When the zombies were four hundred yards from Dastun's lines, a swarm of a hundred Military Police scorpion bots arrived at the back of the command post, raced through it, leapt the trenches, and started firing at the zombies from point-blank range. The artillery barrage never let up for a second. Shrapnel and body parts rained down on the scorpion bots as they kept up their gruesome work. Suddenly, though, with about half the zombies dead, all the scorpion bots went rigid. The New Dominus' counter-measures team had completely jammed their control frequencies.
Big B hurried down to the fight, entering the fray slightly ahead of the trenches. It was vital that as few zombies as possible make it into the trenches and hand-to-hand fighting with Dastun's men. He fired the claymore mines in Big B's toes, cutting huge swaths of zombies and scorpion bots alike to ribbons. Then he tried the phonosonic device on the zombies in the rear of the pack.
"Wow!" he said. The beam turned the ground under the zombies' feet into a sort of slurry, into which they quickly sank. But not quickly enough - it turned the zombies into a sort of slurry, too. Some of them, perhaps older and more dried out, shattered instead.
"Keep it away from our forces, Jason," said Dori. "Their entrenchments won't hold up to this."
Beck nodded, grinning from the sheer joy of destruction. "This is great!" he exulted. "Take that, you bastards!"
"Jason!" snapped Dori. "Control yourself!"
Jason calmed instantly. "Sorry, honey. What should we do next?"
* * *
Beck's claymore mines destroyed Squad Z's remaining scorpion bots. Sorenson swore and ripped off his headset. Turning around, he saw a zombie rip the door of the the control bus off its hinges. He picked up his riot gun from the floor and pumped three rounds into the zombie before it stopped coming. There was another one behind it. Z3 shot it with his submachine gun while Sorenson frantically thumbed more shells into his shotgun.
Beside him, a zombie was trying to punch through the metal wall of the bus, but it had been armored, and the zombie was only denting it. Shouts and gunfire at the other end of the bus told them that the other bot pilots were not idle.
After shooting several more zombies that tried to come in through the door, Sorenson was presented with an unusually bulky-looking one. He knew what this meant. He shot it in the head and shouted, "Cease fire!" but the gunfire had left everyone half-deafened. Several men fired into the body of the zombie. The zombie's bulk consisted of high explosives. One of the bullets set them off.
* * *
Roger, lacking the anti-personnel weaponry of Big B, kept his eyes open for bigger game. He prowled around on the left flank, ahead of the command post, hoping to spot an enemy before it was ready for him. Beck was having a grand old time and probably wasn't paying attention to the big picture.
The two chromebusters on the hill fired together. There was an immense explosion in the distance. They'd hit one of the three surviving enemy robots!
Roger still couldn't see the robots. Big O moved forward, hardly needing any urging from Roger. There they were, about a mile away.
"Save Big O Thunder for Big Lazarus," said Dorothy suddenly.
"Good idea," said Roger. "I'll use the chromebuster." He moved Big O another few hundred yards, where he'd get a better shot, and took up a firing stance.
"Incoming missile lock," said Dorothy.
Roger swore and aborted the chromebuster firing. Dorothy fired the countermeasure cloud. Only eight missiles were fired by the enemy, and not one struck home. Big O stepped out of the cloud.
"Incoming missile lock," said Dorothy again.
"Damn!" The countermeasures were good for two good clouds, and maybe a third one if they were lucky.
"Twenty-four missiles fired," said Dorothy.
"Well, let's do what we can," said Roger. He took a few steps backwards, to get some partial shielding from the nearest dune. Then, when Dorothy fired the counter-measures - producing only a puny cloud - He flung Big O onto his back, forearms raised to protect his torso and head.
Only four missiles struck, and all of them were absorbed harmlessly by the forearm armor.
"Ha!" said Roger. "That foxed them!"
Big O was just getting to his feet when two chimeras jumped him and pulled him back down to the ground.
"This is familiar," said Roger. "See if Dastun can get us some help."
Dorothy reported a moment later, "Their artillery isn't sighted in on our location. He's sending Big B."
Roger managed to roll over on one of the chimeras, which, though not killed by this maneuver, lost interest in the fight briefly. Then he started to pluck at the other chimera's tentacles and legs, trying to pull it off his back.
Big B arrived during this inconclusive stage of the fight. All the shrapnel had wrecked his phonosonic device, so Beck used the eye lasers to carve up the chimera. These were his least-powerful weapon, and the process took a while. When the chimera weakened, Big O wrenched it free and punched it with the arm pistons several times, until there was nothing recognizable left. Then he picked up the wounded chimera and did the same.
"Heads up!" shouted Beck. The two surviving robots were drawing near. Both were partly slagged down from chromebuster fire from Dastun's command post.
"Let's take out the first one with chromebusters," suggested Roger.
"You got it, Roger old buddy," agreed Beck.
They gave it ten full seconds, and it neither stopped nor blew up.
"I've got a bad feeling about this, old pal," said Beck. "Let's give him the net!"
Big B bent forward, and his back armor lifted. From out of the gap a huge metal net whirled out, propelled by rockets that took it forward and spun it at high velocity. It enveloped the approaching robot and internal motors caused it to cinch down tight. The robot, immobilized, toppled onto its face.
"Now for the other one!" shouted Roger. But Beck was already striding forward. "You know what I think, Roger old friend?" he said. "These guys don't have the usual explosives. So I'm going to finish him off …"
The end of his sentence was cut off by a barrage of missiles from the robot. They caught Beck unprepared and hammered Big B all over. His right leg was damaged and his chromebuster and eye lasers were destroyed.
"Damn it!" shouted Beck. "Those are expensive to repair!" Dragging his right foot, Big B kept going towards the robot, extending his left-hand cannon and right-hand plasma lance. A shot from the cannon to the robot's head stopped it in its tracks, and a low sweep of the plasma lance removed its left leg. With a push from Big B's left hand, the robot toppled over backwards.
A chimera appeared from nowhere and leaped at Big B's chest, toppling him over backwards. Beck managed to get his left-hand cannon right up against the chimera's body, and blew it to rags in a single shot.
"What a nightmare," he said. "Help me up, Roger old pal."
Big O came over and pulled Big B to his feet.
Roger got on the radio. "Dastun, what's happening?"
"We seem to have run out of enemies, Roger. Those chimeras were the last of them."
Roger looked grim. "So now it's down to Big Lazarus."
"Damn this leg!" interjected Beck, coughing.
"Are you okay, Beck?" asked Roger.
"There's some smoke in the cockpit. I'm fine," said Beck. "But this damned leg of Big B's isn't going to fix itself in a hurry." Beck cut the connection.
Roger wasn't listening. He was staring off into the distance, where Big Lazarus was waiting.
Suddenly, Angel's face appeared on the screen. She looked worried and irritated. "Aren't you done yet, Roger? Reality's down to 4.4. I'm going to have to trigger a new cycle if you don't get your butt in here, and if I do that with a crazy Megadeus still on the prowl, his mind is going to have a huge effect on the whole next cycle."
Roger growled, "Damn it, Angel, I'm working on it!"
"I need you here," said Angel earnestly. "I need you to remind me about … about right and wrong. That zombie's going to ruin everything unless my head is on straight, and it won't be, I just know it. So kill the zombie now, or give up and get over here. One or the other. He's firing that damned reality cannon every minute now. We don't have much time."
Roger looked off into the distance. Big Lazarus was out of sight a few miles away. "Every minute?"
He didn't hear Angel's answer. He and Big O were of one mind. They headed straight towards Big Lazarus as fast as they could.
* * *
"Damn you, Big B! Get a move on!" shouted Beck.
"The chromebuster is irreparable, Jason," said Dori calmly, "So are the eye lasers. Damage to the right leg will reduce our speed to one-third."
Beck looked around the cockpit, which was filled with smoke outside the dome. "I'm out of ideas, Dori. We won't even be able to draw enough fire to help Big O if we aren't a convincing threat."
Dori opened her mouth to speak, but just then they heard Angel's voice. She sounded panicky, almost hysterical.
"Beck, Dori, please!" Angel called. "Please, I need your help!"
Beck glanced at Dori. He remembered their promise to Gordon, in his dream. Dori nodded and said, "We hear you, Angel."
"Step across! Do it right now!"
Beck glanced at his map and said, "Big B, retreat to the crossroads behind the command post. Then send out a repair alert to Tony." He sighed, but then smiled crookedly. "You did good, Big B. Sorry to leave you, but duty calls." Beck took Dori's hand and squeezed it, then they took a step forward.
The two of them stepped forward out of Big B's cockpit …
The three of them emerged into the control room of Big Venus.
"Hello," said the human Dori. "I'm here to lend a hand."
The dramatic effect of this unexpected appearance was rather ruined by Angel, who had thrown herself into Beck's arms the moment he had appeared and was sobbing on his shoulder. It wasn't clear if she had even noticed the human Dori, and Beck was hard-pressed to divide his attention between an Angel who had broken down at the worst possible time and a girl whom he had fallen in love with on sight, the only other time he had seen her.
R. Dori rolled her eyes. "Poor Jason." She gave the human Dori a hug. "Don't mind them."
* * *
The New Dominus leaned back in his chair with satisfaction. "Big B turned up after all, but is now out of the fight. And Big O is rushing in rashly, without support and without a plan." He risked looking back at his zombie master, the Old Dominus, who was watching him with burning dead eyes. "It's just as you predicted."
* * *
"Thank god you're here," said Angel again. "It's horrible when I'm here by myself. I'm not cut out to be a lonely goddess. I need help to stay sane, here. All my old errors, they seem so right when I'm here by myself. And it's just the same with Big Venus.'
She turned and saw the human Dori. Her mouth fell open. "Who are you?"
The human Dori wore faded blue overalls, a blue and white checked shirt, and brown farm boots. Her long, fine blonde hair fell halfway down her back. Only an inch or so above five feet tall, she was a slim girl of no more than fifteen or sixteen, but with the calm assurance of a Wayneright. Pale, she had a scattering of freckles across her nose. Her eyes were the same violet as her sister Dorothy's.
"I'm the human Dori," she said.
"The human Dori?" echoed Angel.
"I started out as a fantasy of Dori's, but with one thing and another, I've become real, for the moment," she said seriously. "Grandfather Gordon sends his regards, and me. I've been fully briefed."
"Grandfather Gordon?" asked Angel helplessly.
"He's not really my grandfather. I just call him that."
Trying to get a grip on the situation, Angel asked, inanely, "How old are you?"
"From your point of view? Perhaps a few days. I'm not sure, exactly. From my point of view, I'm fifteen years, eleven months and two days old, not counting all that time on Grandfather Gordon's farm." She turned to Beck. "So I'm sixteen, Jason, all right?"
Angel pressed on. "What are we supposed to do?"
The human Dori said, "Don't worry. You're supposed to do what you'd normally do, unless one of Grandfather's plans works out. Then I'll tell you what he wants you to do."
Angel turned and looked at her monitors. She sighed with relief. "Right now, we're still waiting. The damage isn't enough to force me to act."
"Yes," said the human Dori. She walked over to the screens and studied them. "Good. You're not watching the battle. Reality is down to 4.3 already."
Angel said, "It's time to take Big Venus up to the surface, but not to emerge into the open yet. Dori, are you plugged in?"
She turned, and saw that Dori wasn't.
Dori said, "I'm having an argument with Big Venus. She wants to use the real probe sockets, not the attenuated ones."
The human Dori nodded. "It's essential."
Dori continued, "But getting to the sockets means that all this circuitry has to be removed from my head." She turned to Beck, "Jason, am I ready for this?" She looked up at him and asked, "Are you all right, Jason?"
Beck managed a weak smile. It was just like Dori. His discomfort loomed larger in her mind than her peril. "I'm fine, honey," he said.
This moment had haunted his dreams ever since he had decided to activate Dori in the first place. She loved him. She couldn't help it. She was programmed to do so, as part of the suite of instincts, inhibitions, and compulsion that guided an android through her brief adolescence. In the end, all the associated circuitry and programming was removed, and Dori would be free to love as she chose. Beck knew that he was deeply flawed. How could he go on living if she stopped loving him?
He said, "Dori, honey, you're ready. You have been for a while now. I just don't know if I'm ready."
He took a deep breath. "Angel, I'll need some hand tools. This will only take a few minutes."
He had Dori lie down on the floor. He got to work removing first the disk drive in the front of her forehead, then the circuitry behind it. His eyes brimmed with tears, but he needed both hands to work. The human Dori, unasked, took a red bandanna from her overalls and blotted his tears. Tears streamed unheeded down her own cheeks, but she was smiling faintly.
Halfway through the procedure, Dori went rigid. Beck had expected this, but as she lay there as if dead, he felt as if his own heart had stopped. He kept working.
Finally, it was done. Dori lay motionless, her eyes glazed and unseeing. Beck lay down his screwdriver, took the human Dori's bandanna, and wiped his eyes and blew his nose.
Big Venus, seeing an opportunity, moved her probe cables near, but the human Dori batted them away, hissing, "Stop it! Stop it! You're ruining the moment!"
Beck noticed none of this. He kissed Dori gently on the lips and said, "Dori, honey, it's time to wake up."
Dori's lips twitched. She murmured, "Not until you say it."
Suddenly, Beck grinned. "I love you, Dori!" he said in a strong voice.
Life rushed back into Dori. Her eyes lit up and she smiled. Grabbing Beck, she kissed him and said, "I love you too, Jason, and don't you forget it!"
Leaping to her feet, she said, "What are you all staring at? We have a world to save!"
Big Venus, on cue, jammed the probe cables into Dori's head so hard that she was forced back a step.
Dori's eyes glazed for a moment. "Wow!" Then she said, "I'm fine, Jason. Thank you." She turned to Angel, "We're ready now."
* * *
Dorothy asked sharply, "Do we have a plan?"
"We'll try to take him out with the Big O Thunder. I ought to be able to do it beyond the range of the reality cannon."
Dorothy radiated silent disapproval but said nothing. Roger wasn't even trying to coordinate this attack with their remaining allies.
About three miles from Big Lazarus, they started seeing fringe effects from the damaged reality. In addition to the main effect of replacing one piece of countryside with another, the weapon drained the reality of the whole world, with the strongest effect nearest the point of firing. Roger discovered that if he closed his eyes and opened them again, the landscape had changed subtly in the meantime. And a faint grid was beginning to overlay the landscape. Another, even fainter, was in the sky.
Soon they reached the edge of the main reality effect. The grid was more visible here. Roger found himself on an endless plain covered with rounded stones. Two miles away stood Big Lazarus.
Big Lazarus looked remarkably like Sea Titan; massive and very rounded, though all the individual details were different. The reality cannon made it impossible to guess the Megadeus' true colors; it was overlaid with glowing white and black patches that swirled and chased one another over its surface, different from and yet reminiscent of the negative-image effect of Big Venus' equipment.
Big O moved steadily towards Big Lazarus. Big Lazarus fired his reality cannon directly at Big O, causing Roger a momentary feeling of disorientation. Then he was standing in the middle of a field of ripening corn. A farmhouse stood some distance behind him.
When Roger was a mile away, he stopped Big O and called "Big O Thunder!" Big O's arm transformed.
Roger pulled the trigger with all his strength. The four-barreled plasma gun sent bolts of flaming death towards Big Lazarus, but bounced harmlessly off a spherical energy shield that suddenly glowed pink under the onslaught.
"Chromebuster!" called Roger in desperation, but he knew that this wouldn't penetrate, either. It was the same kind of force shield used by Big Fau. Sure enough, it had no effect.
Roger growled deep in his throat, then said, "He probably can't fire his reality cannon with his screen up. Maybe we can move and fire and get closer that way…"
Big O raced towards Big Lazarus.
* * *
Big Venus had been brought to the surface and was now in her open-topped silo. Above her, a grid of lights and girders hung in the sky. A faint grid overlaid the buildings and landscape as well.
The human Dori's overalls suddenly changed into a sky-blue uniform. Her collar insignia were simple gold circles with the number 14. Her name tag said, "CDT. D. WAYNERIGHT." She wore the same kind of automatic pistol on her white belt as Gordon. It seemed enormous on her small frame.
The human Dori looked at these changes with satisfaction. "Grandfather … I mean General Rosewater wants us to know that he is commanding Leviathan 14."
Angel asked, "Will he join the fight?"
"Possibly, but he has something better in mind."
Angel said, "Reality is down to 3.1."
"Good," said the human Dori. "Now is the time for you to learn how to change reality the easy way, without triggering a new cycle."
"What's the point?" asked Angel in exasperation. "Things are barely real anymore as it is! Nothing new will last."
"Some of them will," said the human Dori imperturbably, "and the rest will last long enough."
And she told them how it was done.
* * *
"Wow," said Will, watching Big O on one of Big Alpha's monitors, "Roger's even crazier than me!"
Emily smiled at him, "What's the plan, Will? Do we just charge in, too? I'm up for it."
Will looked at her speculatively. "How low is the reality level, do you think?"
"Right here? Low. Really low. We could change this whole landscape just by looking at it funny."
"Remember what we did that one time?"
"No. Wait …" She grinned. "Why, yes, I do!"
"Okay, concentrate with me. Remember what we thought was a big empty space in Big Alpha's torso? It held a cloaking device all the time."
"How silly of us not to notice it! I love you, Will."
"Well, of course you do." A control panel faded in and out of vision, then solidified. "Let's have full cloaking, and let's get moving!"
The view outside of Big Alpha began to shimmer, a side effect of the cloaking device. Big Alpha began to move, clenching and unclenching his fists in anticipation.
* * *
Dori announced, "We'll start by getting rid of the superstructure and stage lights."
"Why?" asked Angel, then, "Oh, never mind. I always hated that damned superstructure anyway. It appeared back when I was off the deep end, when I didn't believe anything was real anymore; that it was all a show that I was directing." She suddenly scrabbled around in her purse for her cigarettes. "It shows up on its own during particularly dramatic moments." She lit a cigarette. "I hate it."
R. Dori had been silent for some time, but now she asked, "What holds it up?"
Angel shrugged. "Nothing much, I suppose."
The human Dori said, "The superstructure will fall and destroy Paradigm if the reality level ever climbs above twelve."
Angel laughed bitterly, "No chance of that."
"General Rosewater wants it gone."
Angel stubbed out her cigarette. "Okay, Cadet Dori, we'll do it for Gordon. Ready, Big Venus? Beck? Dori? Here goes nothing."
And they made it go away.
"Well, that sure worked!" said Angel, impressed. "Let's get rid of the grid next."
The human Dori said firmly, "Don't touch the grid. General Rosewater says it's vital."
"What?" asked Angel. "I thought it was just an artifact. A mistake."
"It was, but now it's essential. Leave it be."
"Oh, all right," said Angel. She turned to her readouts. "Reality's down to 2.4. I ought to trigger a new cycle now, while I still have something to work with. If it falls below 2.0, I'm not sure I'll be able to do it at all. And it's going to keep falling, even if they take Big Lazarus out right this instant. The reality field isn't self-supporting over 3.0. It'll collapse on its own." She gave the human Dori a meaningful look.
"Hold off as long as you are able, but then proceed," said the human Dori calmly. "Give General Rosewater time, but don't count on his success. But first, charge up Big Venus' reality engine. But use these settings." She passed over a piece of paper.
"I can't start a new cycle with these settings!" exclaimed Angel.
"Set them to their normal levels when you start the cycle. It'll only take a few seconds. But set them this way until then."
* * *
As Roger neared, he saw one of Big Lazarus' arms transform.
Dorothy said suddenly. "He has a Thunder weapon!"
The landscape was changed and was a maze of giant boulders, some eight or nine stories tall. Roger ducked behind one of the largest ones. Big Lazarus began to fire, and the boulder started to wither under the onslaught.
"Left or right?" asked Roger.
"Right," said Dorothy.
As the boulder collapsed, Roger moved Big O to the right and returned fire with his own Thunder. Big Lazarus had guessed wrong and was shooting off to the left. Roger did some superficial damage to Big Lazarus before the latter fired the reality cannon. The landscape around Roger changed sickeningly, and he was now in a snow-covered landscape dotted with bare trees. Roger's momentary disorientation allowed Big Lazarus to raise his shield without taking further damage.
"He's not going to let us get close. He'll get us with the reality cannon."
"Yes," said Dorothy.
Roger hesitated, unsure of his next move. Some of his anger had drained away, making it hard for him to continue his suicidal charge. He was trying to choose between saying, "I'm sorry" and "I love you" to Dorothy, when she suddenly said, "Big Duo."
Big Duo was in the air, flying towards Big Lazarus at high speed. He buzzed Big Lazarus, skimming feet above the top of the energy shield, then, passing him, climbed and turned for a second pass. His legs transformed, revealing a pair of enormous missiles.
Big Lazarus turned hastily and dropped his shield. There was a pause, presumably as he adjusted the elevation of his reality cannon. The missiles fired, headed straight and true. If they hit, there would be only an enormous crater where Big Lazarus had been. Roger didn't think that Big Lazarus' energy screen could withstand the blast.
Big Lazarus fired the reality cannon, not waiting for a full charge. The charge must have been very low indeed, because after the blast, the missiles were still missiles, of the sort that Roger carried in Big O. These sped on towards Big Lazarus, but expended themselves harmlessly against his shields.
Big Duo was still there, but to Roger's horror, he had transformed as well, and was now the double of the Archetype that Seebach had found in her persona of Schwarzwald. The strange, skeletal Megadeus tumbled end over end through the air, until, after falling a thousand feet, it hit the ground, digging a large crater and bursting into monstrous sheets of flame.
Big O had kept moving at high speed throughout this encounter. There was reason to hope that Big Lazarus would not have time to charge his reality cannon again, and it would be a Thunder duel. Here Roger had the advantage. He had more practice and he had an android to help control the weapon.
Half a minute passed. Roger was so close that he suspected that he was vulnerable to even a partially charged reality cannon. Big Lazarus dropped his energy screen. The moment he did so, he stumbled forward. Big Alpha shimmered and became visible. He was standing behind Big Lazarus. He had Big Lazarus held by his right arm and was pile-driving him with his left.
Big Lazarus fired the reality cannon wildly, missing Roger and changing the landscape to his right into a stretch of fetid marsh. He tried to bring his Thunder weapon into play.
Roger took up a firing stance. "I know you're already dead, zombie, but now I'll send you straight to hell!" He fired the Big O Thunder directly into Big Lazarus' body, careless of Big Alpha directly behind him. Big Alpha dived out of the way. Big Lazarus, off-balance, could not dodge. His energy screen stayed down, whether through mechanical failure or due to Big Lazarus' intention to fire a weapon, Roger did not know.
Roger poured fire into Big Lazarus' torso, tearing huge chunks out of his armor. In a moment, he had penetrated all the way though Big Lazarus' body.
There was a sudden explosion inside Big Lazarus' body, followed by a second, unearthly explosion as the reality cannon discharged randomly. Big Lazarus was gone. In his place was a featureless, perfectly level plain marked out with a grid, about two hundred yards on a side. The grid had been visible for some time, but it had been superimposed over the ordinary landscape. Here, there was no landscape. Standing near the edge of this was Big Alpha.
"Will! Are you all right?" called Roger.
Will's face appeared on the screen. He had a nosebleed and looked a little disoriented from the rough handling he hand undergone. Suddenly, he grinned. "That was great! Let's do it again!"
Dorothy said, "I'd get off that grid if I were you."
Will looked down. "Yeah, all right."
But he couldn't. The grid was growing, and it grew faster and faster as they watched. In a moment, it stretched to the horizon.
* * *
Angel said, "The reality field has almost collapsed. Look, there's nothing left but the grid. I have to start a new cycle right now."
One of Angel's monitors suddenly came to life. There was Gordon, in a Megadeus command chair. He was in uniform and wore a white helmet that said "LEV 14."
Cadet Dori jumped to her feet. "Grandfather! I mean General!" she called happily. "I think we're ready."
Gordon beamed. "You know what to do, child. Angel, Dori, Big Venus, just trust in this child and do as she asks." He looked down at his controls and became busy operating Leviathan 14.
A moment later, Leviathan 14 burst from the ground right in front of Big Venus. His front claws glowed with an unearthly brightness, the only point of color in a gray landscape. Angel cried out in fear.
Cadet Dori said calmly, "Grasp his claws in your hands."
Angel could hear the trust and certainty in the human Dori's voice. She felt it echoed in the minds of Big Venus and R. Dori. She turned her head around to look at Beck for support. He was standing behind her chair and had his hands on her shoulders. He was grinning at Gordon in appreciation.
Here in the control room, Angel could not control Big Venus' movements precisely, as she could in the cockpit, but it didn't matter. Angel reached out with both hands towards the image of Leviathan 14 on the central monitor. Big Venus reached out for the real Leviathan. When Angel's hands touched the glass, Big Venus gripped the glowing claws.
There was a moment of utter stillness, and then, slowly, Leviathan 14 crumbled into dust.
Angel, shocked, her hands still on the glass of the central monitor, turned her head to see the view from inside Leviathan 14's cockpit. Gordon's android had stepped forward, and the two were holding hands. Then the cockpit, too, dissolved into dust.
As Leviathan crumbled, the world returned. Paradigm City was back, just the way it had been, except that the grid was still there, running over the surfaces of buildings and objects, stretching to the horizon.
Angel began to sob. Beck took her shoulders and turned her around, and she found herself crying in his arms. He stroked her hair while he looked at the readouts.
"Reality level is up to 23.7," he announced, "and we haven't even triggered a new cycle."
Angel turned and peered at the monitors through her tears. Beck was right! "And I used to think it was a triumph to get it as high as seven or eight," she murmured.
The human Dori as Cadet Dori no longer. She wore a pink skirt suit like Angel's. "Here, inside Big Venus, the reality level is still very low," she said, her eyes shining. "We have until the grid fades to change reality whichever way we like, and the changes will be permanent."
Angel recoiled. "Oh, no," she said. "Not me."
Beck agreed. "I have my Dori," he said simply.
R. Dori stepped forward and looked into the human Dori's eyes. "Be real," she whispered.
"What, be your real past?" asked the human Dori. "I don't think that would be a good idea."
"No. Be my little sister. Stay here, with us."
The human Dori bit her lip. Her glanced at Beck and her eyes filled with tears. "But, but, but Jason …" she began.
Dori hugged her. "There are so many love triangles around here, nobody will even notice one more. We all manage. Stay. It'll all work out fine; you'll see."
The human Dori nodded. Dori made an impatient gesture, then closed her eyes, giving Big Venus instructions. When she opened them again, the human Dori was wearing black slacks, a yellow blouse, high-top sneakers, and a dazed expression.
"Welcome home," whispered Dori.
They all jumped when Angel shouted, "Sybil and Dan! We can break the loop they're stuck in. Dissociate them from that damned movie!"
A moment later, that, too, was done.
"Anything else?" asked the human Dori, smiling.
"I'm afraid of changing big things," said Angel, "It always goes wrong."
"Grandfather agrees," said the human Dori. "He's learned his lesson."
Beck suddenly said, "I want to find the missing information on building androids and Megadeuses. I'll bet it's right there with my stuff, always has been, and I'll find it when I get home."
The grid was fading; their opportunity was almost gone. But they managed this as well.
The human Dori said mischievously, "Is there enough left to make Angel a natural blonde?"
Angel was stung, "You little brat! I oughta …"
Dori interrupted. "How did the human Dorothy die?"
Beck and Angel were not given the answer, but the two Doris were. Both went rigid, and the human Dori burst into tears. They clung together.
And then the grid was gone, and the world was too real for wishes.
Angel sighed. "Big Venus, let's get you home. We've used our godlike powers enough for one day."
Beck said, "We're alive."
Angel nodded. "Sort of a surprise, isn't it?"
"And we didn't even trigger a new cycle."
Big Venus' elevator started the long trip down.
"So what happens now?" asked the human Dori.
Angel lit a cigarette. "It's not my department. Not now. You have to make your own decisions. That's what freedom's all about. Roger taught me that." She blew out a puff of smoke. "Of course, if you ever want advice, look me up. But I won't accept any responsibility. You're a big girl."
"Some people don't think so," said the human Dori darkly, glaring at Beck, who recoiled visibly.
"Poor Jason," said Dori. She addressed her little sister, "Dori, have you ever considered the advantages of having your very own R. Jason?"
[We Have Come to Terms]