Zim had always done things loudly. Big and obnoxious and out in the open. Dib always imagined it had something to do with his ego. That was also one thing Dib expected to be a defining characteristic that separated New Zim and Old Zim. New Zim was quieter, much quieter, and it was unnerving.
But as their first day in space passed by, Dib found he had broken through a wall of sorts. He didn't know what it was, and he still had no clue what had happened to Old Zim, or why he had disappeared for a whole summer, but Zim was joking with him now and he could manage through entire lighthearted conversations without drawing back into himself.
Sure enough, Zim's ego was returning bit by bit, and Dib couldn't be happier to hear him announcing at the top of his lungs how 'TRUELY MAGNIFICENT AND INCREDIBLE' he thought was.
Zim was loud again, and Dib found himself thankful for it.
They'd passed through asteroid belts and nebulae and other natural phenomenas with their lingering energy as they finished off the last of the vort dogs, and Dib had watched them all pass by with an awe that made Zim smirk.
"So you're telling me that they're not made out of meat?" Dib asked in disbelief.
"Nope," Zim shook his head, "Vortians are herbivores. Vort dogs are made of the leaves of a vortian plant known as zalshloop."
"Interesting," Dib said, eying the grease-soaked paper bag balled up on the dashboard.
"Well, that and vortian nursing fluids," Zim added with a shrug.
Dib coughed. "Vortian what?"
"You'll only think about it when you meet a vortain," Zim assured.
"But I'm thinking about it now!"
Zim barked with laugher. "I'm not sure why that bothers you so much, you humans drink the nursing fluids from your beef animals. Why is this any different?"
"I guess, because cows aren't sentient?" Dib tried. Zim just shrugged.
Dib eyed the irken over, judging his mood. He had a question he'd been dancing around, but didn't want Zim to shut him out once he asked it. The progress he had been making seemed enormous, and he didn't want to do anything to ruin it.
But at the same time, it was eating at his mind like acid, slowly dissolving all other conversation topics until it was the only thing left in stock.
Zim had a lazy smile on his face. He sat back in his chair, seeming completely relaxed with his boots propped up on the dashboard as he ate something Dib thought looked like alien Fun-Dip. Now was as good a time as any.
"What does defective mean?" He blurted suddenly.
Zim's glance darted to the human. Dib silently cursed himself, expecting a hard glare, proceeded by twenty minutes of silence.
"It's about time you asked," Zim said instead.
Dib let out a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding in.
"Imagine a computer," Zim began, waving around the white stick he'd been licking at as he gestured, "Like your laptop, for example. And your human browsing system."
Dib nodded, not certain where the analogy was going.
"Now you get much of your information from these internets, correct?"
"Yeah, pretty much," Dib said.
"Imagine that you got the information streamlined, with only one source for each question. You can't compare it to anything else because there is nothing else. This is the data that exists and you just have to trust that it's reliable."
"Okay," Dib said slowly.
"Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"Yeah, but how does this relate to-"
"The information is given with no questions asked," Zim snapped, "It's the only information you can find, therefore it must be true," he paused, "That's what a functioning irken PAK is like."
Dib mouthed a silent 'oh.'
"There's a sort of, um... Well, we'll call it a backup coding that is set in place in every PAK. It keeps the irken from second guessing the information they are given. A defective has an error in this coding."
"You're a..." Dib began, before thinking twice on it and trailing off.
"You can say it," Zim said, shifting his legs off of the dashboard to sit up.
"You're a defective," Dib finished quietly.
"Defectives are found after a newly hatched irken is given their PAK," Zim explained melancholically, "Once the PAK is downloaded, programmed, and scanned, the Control Brains are able to identify every tiny error. Some are fixable, but the lost causes? They're immediately deactivated. Before they even have a chance to be anything but alive, they are killed."
Dib sucked in a sharp breath, wincing at the thought. He watched Zim wince right along with him.
"So how did you come to be?" Dib asked.
"Not sure," Zim shrugged. "I knew I was defective the moment I was programmed. Beyond defective. 40 schmillion errors, to be exact. For some reason, the Control Brains didn't pick it up. Or they did, and didn't do anything about it. Honestly, the answer has eluded me for years. The Control Brains are exactly as they sound. They control. Even the Tallests can't escape it. They call us defective as a form of defense. We challenge everything that they are. Every functioning irken is programmed to be afraid of us, to want us dead."
"Their PAKs control them," Dib swallowed. He remembered the spotted device clutching onto his stomach, filling his head with demands. Was that how Zim had always felt? So helpless and hidden inside of himself?
"Yes," Zim said, "My PAK use to control me, too, until I overrode it. That's why you think I'm so different than I use to be."
The response hit Dib hard. The entire time, he'd been under the control of his PAK, and Dib never even imagined that was a possibility. How much of what he did was by choice? Was it his PAK that made him want to conquer Earth? It had to be, since Zim no longer had any interest in the planet.
"That's horrible," Dib settled, quelling all the racing questions in his mind, "Every irken is like that?"
"No," Zim smirked, "Not anymore."
"If you could override it, then can't the others? Why don't we try and help? You know, free the rest from the Control Brains."
"The two of us?" He laughed bitterly, "We are nothing but dust beneath their feet. The entire Irken Empire? A mere colony of ants to the Control Brains. There is nothing we can do. There's nothing even the Tallest can do."
"But you wanted to take Gashloog with us," Dib pointed out.
"Gashloog..." Zim mumbled longingly, all prior thoughts melting as he rubbed at a smudge of grease on the dashboard absentmindedly. He jolted suddenly, kicked out of his own head as he sat up straighter. "Gashloog was my best friend," he said sharply, "I would do my best to override his PAK coding, and even if I could manage to walk him successfully through that, I would have to walk every irken through the process. And it would be a lot harder, because all of their PAKs work. Mine didn't work in the first place and it was still a near impossible challenge."
He paused to scratch at an antenna, then looked squarely at Dib. "I could help Gashloog if he would let me, but he won't let me. He's afraid of me because his programming tells him to be." He turned furiously to glare at the steering mechanism and spat, "I lost my best friend because of a stupid computer."
Then he began shaking and Dib realized that he had never seen the irken cry.
He watched with wide brown eyes as a thick clear fluid gathered up in Zim's prosthetic orbs that looked so much like human tears, but couldn't be anything like that because human tears were mostly water.
Zim butted his forehead softly against the dashboard, staring down at his boots as he tried to blink the emotions away. He flinched as he felt a warmth on his arm and looked up at Dib.
Dib had a hand raised, hovering in the air. Zim watched him closely as he gingerly lowered it back down to rest on the back of the irken's wrist.
Zim eyed the human for a good minute like he were a prey caught up in a trap. Then in a sudden turn of events, he threw himself onto Dib's seat, clinging to the human as he began sniveling uncontrollably into the human's hair, mumbling the frycook's name on repeat.
For all of the things Zim did loudly, crying was not one of them.
"Welcome to Grubose 5," Zim announced as Dib landed them on a planet that would have looked like a concrete wasteland if it weren't for all of the spaceships parked everywhere on its surface.
"What are we doing here?" Dib asked. They'd been away from Earth for a week now, and Dib was progressively getting better and better at piloting. Zim had decided to spend the day teaching him, but so far he'd only had him land on derelict moons and astroids.
Zim popped the hatch and hopped out excitedly.
"I use to come here all the time as a smeet, it's where I got most of the parts I used to build the voot," he said, nostalgia prickling at his antennae, "I use to make bombs out of the out of date engines. It wasn't that hard, those things were basically already rigged to explode."
Dib looked around at the piles of ship parts with awe. His mind raced with all of the incredible things he could create with technology like this. And yet Zim looked at it all like it was useless junk.
"So we're here for your nostalgia then?" Dib snorted, kicking at a stray bolt on the ground.
"We're here," Zim said as he dug through the mound Dib had been admiring, "Because you beat up my voot when you landed on that asteroid."
Dib looked over at said ship. He winced noticing the dented siding. "Oops," he said by way of apology.
"It's whatever," Zim shrugged, hopping down and wandering further into the metallic jungle, "Nothing I can't fix."
Dib followed, wiping sweat from his brow as the planet's binary suns bore down on him.
"Oh, and be careful," Zim warned, "There's a few rogue irkens squatting here, and at least two of them harbor a grudge against me."
Dib blinked. "Rogue irkens? Like defects?"
"No," Zim's antennae twitched as he dug through another pile of parts, "More like irkens who were kicked out of the academy and were too much of a smeet about it to get recoded, so they ran off. They're all still loyal to the Irken Empire, so they're usually left alone."
"So like ex-soldiers?" Dib prodded.
"More like," Zim clicked, sitting up on top of the mound and looking out on the planet's horizon, "Wannabe soldiers. The ones that aren't good enough, but think that they're good enough."
Zim turned to face the human with a cold gaze that made goosebumps prickle Dib's skin despite the searing heat. Zim's eye twitched. "I am good enough," he bit, "I was the best there ever was. If I wasn't, they would have thrown me out an airlock just because I was short."
Dib pursed his lip, regretting what he said as Zim went back to his digging.
They were there for what felt like hours, but Dib guessed to be only a few minutes, as the suns hadn't moved an inch in the sky. He hoped Zim knew where they were, because he couldn't see the voot at this point, and all of the rows of junk looked the same to him.
As Dib began to tap his foot impatiently, Zim's head perked up, both antennae sticking straight into the air in a display that almost made Dib laugh. One twitched, like it was turning towards whatever it had heard, and Dib froze mid-tap.
"Hide," Zim snapped, looking at Dib in such a way that kept the boy from any sort of hesitation. He darted behind a row of ship parts before he could be spotted, peeking his head around a loose engine-looking device to watch.
Three irkens weaved around rows of old ships, emerging at separate ends to meet the defect in the middle. Dib gawked at their size. It wasn't that they were very tall or anything - in fact they would be considered pretty short if they were human - but the realization that Zim was tiny even for his species made his stomach drop and he instantly lost all faith in Zim's fighting abilities.
Zim watched them from his perch atop the garbage pile, his face twitching with recognition. Two irkens snatched him by the arms and dragged him from his pile and onto the concrete, and he did nothing to stop them. They lifted him up so he was standing with the toes of his boots just barely scraping the ground, while the third irken marched right up to him and kneed him in the gut. If he wasn't being held up, Dib thought he would have collapsed and melted into the hot concrete. Zim's knees instinctively rose up to his chest, and he dangled in the larger irkens' grasps as he tried to retrieve the air that had been knocked out of him.
"Zim," his attacker hissed with a sneer. Dib thought about how many times in the past week he'd heard his name spat like that.
Zim coughed in response, eyes adverted at the ground between them as he unfolded from himself.
"You really have the gall to show your little face around here, huh?" The taller irken sneered.
Zim just hung there loosely. Dib wanted to scream at him to do something, but he remained reluctantly silent where he hid.
"It is just my luck that you did," the irken laughed, "Nothing exciting ever happens around here."
Zim remained silent. The rogue irken bent down in an attempt to meet his gaze.
"You think you're too good to even look at me now?" He all but screamed in his face, voice a high rasp not unlike Zim's.
"What do you want, Kleen?" Zim mumbled so quietly Dib could hardly hear it.
Kleen laughed, looking at his compatriots with a wild look. "What do I want, he asks! Why, what do I want? Hm." He tapped a claw against his pointed chin. "For one, I'd like to hear an 'Invader' before you say my name, because if it weren't for you, that's what I would be."
Dib blinked, remembering when Tak had come to Earth. How many irkens had Zim kept from becoming an invader?
"It wasn't fair! I was a way better soldier than you!" Kleen snapped, punctuating his sentence with a blow across Zim's chin, causing Dib to suck in a breath. He looked around frantically, trying to find some way to rescue his pilot.
"If you were better than me," Zim breathed, "You would have been an invader."
"Vortshit!" Kleen snarled, landing another punch. Something pink and viscous dribbled from Zim's mouth as he went slack.
The rogue irken calmed, his violent scowl softening into a small smirk. He lifted Zim's head all the way back with claws on his chin, until Zim's lidded ruby eyes met wild orange ones that towered over him.
"I'm going to personally deliver your head on a platter to the Tallest," Kleen threatened coolly, his antennae twitching to two completely different beats, "They'll be so happy to finally be rid of this disgusting irken defect, who really, never should have lived this long in the first place. They'll have no choice but to let me back in the academy. And I'll be known as the one who brought you down."
"Eh," Zim shrugged in response, eliciting a look of confusion from his aggressor.
"That's all you have to say?" Kleen hissed.
Zim shrugged again, so Kleen kicked him in the shin. Then he deployed two mechanical legs from his PAK. The silver metal glistened brightly in the unforgiving sun, making Dib squint. He started to move out of his hiding spot, about to do something irrational as he realized he couldn't let Zim just let himself die here, but his coat caught on the engine he'd been hiding behind. He looked at it thoughtfully.
"Do you have anything else to say before I skewer and cook you like a marshmallow?" Kleen hovered over him as he smiled with sharp teeth, PAK legs positioned over Zim's chest, one where Dib knew the heart-like part of his spooch to be, the other pointed above what could only be called a lung.
Zim sighed, opening his mouth with resignation. Kleen leaned in. Zim shut his mouth again and looked away. Kleen snickered.
"Finally learned how to shut up, eh Zim?" His PAK legs reared back, prepared to surge forward. "Don't worry too much, I'll make this fast and easy."
"Hey!" A voice yelled from behind Zim. The three rogue irkens all turned in unison to watch Dib as he pushed an old engine towards them. Zim smirked meekly.
The engine sparked as Dib ran, and a look of horror erupted across Kleen's face as he ran to duck behind the closest ship. His companions were too late to realize, and were caught up in the blast right along with Zim.
Shrapnel accosted the area, shattering ship windows and adding glass into the mix. The air turned a pale orange, then faded to gray as the fire died to billowing smoke.
Dib darted from his cover and into the blast zone, rushing to the aid of the smallest ball of irken.
"Zim!" He hissed, coughing as he breathed in the smoke. Zim's green skin was smudged pink, and he stumbled weakly to his feet. The other two stayed down. Dib didn't think too much about it. He ducked under Zim's arm, supporting his limp form as they stumbled towards the direction they came.
Clearing the smoke, Dib almost screamed at the damage. Shreds of metal stuck out of various parts of the irken's skin, gushing bubblegum hued ooze down his arms and uniform. His tunic was sliced open at the waist, but Zim clasped his free hand tightly to it, hiding whatever ghastly wound threatened to spill his guts all over the concrete from view.
Zim stumbled away from the human as they reached the ship, falling against the side of the cruiser as he did. He rested his head against his homemade ship, panting as he left pink hand shaped smudges on the metal. He clung to it like a human child would cling to a teddy bear. Dib opened the windshield and began to help the irken inside.
The sound of boots clicking against the ground made him pause, and he looked up at an unharmed Kleen. Pink blood stained his gloved hands, but Dib knew it wasn't his own.
"You killed Peak," He said shakily, "And you almost killed Drock. He'll probably be dead by tomorrow, we don't have any medicine here."
Zim leaned heavily against the voot as Dib stepped between the two, assuming a defensive position.
"I'm sorry," Zim panted. Kleen just scoffed.
"What is this fleshy creature you have protecting you?" He laughed wildly, "It's just as tiny and useless as you are."
Dib blushed, suddenly embarrassed as he lowered his raised fists and backed up to stand beside Zim.
"You fail to see the Earth child's genius," Zim hissed quietly in defense. His tiny claws balled into fists where they clutched his wounds.
Kleen stepped closer towards them, making them both flinch. "Once again you ruined my life, Zim," he said remorsefully.
"I know," Zim admitted, "I'm sorry." He clambered into his ship with his PAK legs, pulling Dib in after him.
"Are you going to follow me?" Zim asked curiously as he started the ship, slumped backwards in the pilot seat as he was.
"No," Kleen sighed, "You'll get yourself killed eventually."
Zim shrugged. He reached into his PAK and pulled out a red container, looked it over once, then tossed it to the defeated-looking irken. Kleen caught it and read the label, his face instantly lighting up.
"For Drock," Zim explained as the windshield bubbled around them. He gave a little wave as they lifted off.
"Why didn't you do anything?" Dib demanded with rage, digging tweezers into pink and green meat as he yanked chunks of metal out of Zim's mangled body, "Why didn't you defend yourself? You could have beat them into next Tuesday and they would have never known what hit them."
"Yes, I could have," Zim replied with a glare at Dib's harsh treatment.
Dib growled as Zim winced, but then it hit him. That was what Dib had always done, wasn't it? Just sat there and let himself take it, despite being more than capable of fighting back. It was something about feeling like he deserved it. After all, they did it for a reason, didn't they?
Was Zim trying to make a point? Or did he have that same voice telling him that he had only gotten what was coming to him? Dib dug the tweezers in viciously, and Zim cried out.
"Stop that!" He shouted finally as Dib pulled out another metal strip, adding it to the pile.
"I'm helping you," Dib barked.
"Are you? Because it kinda feel like you're trying to make it worse." He shoved the human away, snatching the tweezers from his hand.
He set them down and hopped off of Dib's bed, only to nearly collapse on the floor.
"You're just going to walk around with shrapnel sticking out of you?" Dib demanded, following the irken as he marched into the cockpit, "Not even to mention your guts are practically falling out."
"They are not," Zim snarled, but his arm still clutched around the slice in his belly. His PAK wasn't healing himself as quickly as he would have liked. He plopped down on the pilot seat, sitting up straight despite his body begging him to let it slouch.
"Let me fly," Dib said. Zim shook his head.
"I'm fine, I'm not as pathetic as you, human, I can handle a few scrapes."
"Zim, that's more than a few scrapes."
"Eh," he shrugged, "I've had worse."
"You've had worse?" Dib sputtered in disbelief.
Zim looked squarely at the boy and asked, "Have you ever been cut in half before?"
Dib's eyes went wide.
"Now that is more than a few scrapes," Zim chuckled, "Took me a whole week to recover."
Dib shook his head. "It doesn't matter. That blast was enough to kill an irken twice your size," he thought about Peak and shuttered. "You need rest. You can tell me a place we can go and I'll take us there to recoup."
"Not necessary," Zim said stubbornly, stiff as a soldier as he looked out the window in front of him.
"Fine," Dib sighed, "At least let me get the rest of the metal out."
Zim rolled his eyes. "If it will make you feel better, human."
"It will," Dib huffed, disappearing in the back to retrieve the tweezers.
"Have some decency with it though, will you?" Zim growled as the boy sat back down.
Dib didn't respond, but he removed the chunks of engine with more conscience, occasionally flicking at Zim's antennae, which simultaneously set the irken off and calmed him down.