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The State Machine

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oOoOoOoOoOo

“Nothing can harm you as much as your own thoughts unguarded.” - Buddha

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“I wish you’d at least told me you were bringing friends. I could’ve arranged something more comfortable,” said Gyro again with some embarrassment. He looked up from his workstation desk to the weathered old hammock hanging overhead.

Donald only tsked, waving a hand as if shooing the subject away. Gyro could get a bit flustered around new faces and there was no need for that – not with Joe and Panchito of all people.

The duck dangled a leg off the side of the hammock to swing it some more, and José, propped up against Donald's abdomen to get the wall fan full in his face, said, “Seu Gyro, don’ mind us. We here for the free hammock, free chinês food, an’ free fan.”

“Free,” emphasized Donald with a lazy smile. “It’ll be another week before my pay and I swear, Gyro, our combined wallets don’t have enough in them for a trip to DuckDonald’s."

“Well, if you say so..” was the inventor’s unsure response.

“I do say so, and to be honest, I need to get away for a while – Uncle Scrooge’s in one of those moods, again. He left a message on my answer machine days ago, demanding I report to the Bin immediately," the duck groaned. "I didn't even bother calling back to see why he's so pissed. I'll worry about it later. We’re getting our time off and your place is as good as any.

"Plus I told Joe and Panchito they’ve never slept a day in their lives if they don’t try this ole hammock. How many times did I snooze up here when you wouldn’t leave the workshop for days? Nope, don’t shake your head at me. Remember when your crazy contraption flew us on it all the way to Sri Lanka on this thing? And I slept through most of it?”

“You told us that story, sim, an’ Panchie said it’s nothing ‘is serape couldn’ do, but then we ended up fallin’ in Bangladesh on the way to Moscow.”

“We wouldn’t let ‘im hear the end of it,” said Donald with a chuckle.

“Yes. Remember, Panchie? Panchito?”

A loud snore was the response. Panchito’s left arm and leg dangled off the other side of the hammock as he turned over. Lil Bulb had soundlessly climbed up into the hammock with them, and was taking photos of the rooster’s open beak with his miniscule Polaroid. It was unusual for the rooster to sleep deeply, especially when there was still light outside, but there was something about Gyro’s workshop that made people get the best sleep of their lives.

Everyone that is, except the poor inventor himself.

“Gyro. Enough. Take a break already,” said Donald as he watched his friend run to and fro from the workstation to the odd contraption in the corner – the sole focus of Gyro’s newest obsession. The duck had no idea what it was, and knew Gyro would give no coherent explanation when he was like that – a state that has become very familiar. The inventor scribbled some lines on the egg-shaped surface, pulled open a small compartment and began to bash away at the miniature keys. Equations, most likely. The noise finally roused Panchito.

“Gyro, this is the fifth ti – you’ve been at these blueprints since four. You’re gonna keel over on me –”

“I’m fine,” the inventor said over the sound of frantic typing. “I know you find it hard to believe but I do take care of myself even when you’re not in here to check on me. Besides, it’s only been a few hours.”

“It’s five-thirty.”

It took a few more seconds of vigorous work and pencilling for Gyro’s brain to finally catch up with what was said. He looked at the clock on the wall, bewildered. “How is it five-thirty..?”

“Now you know why I have to keep checking in,” Donald mumbled to José before turning back to the inventor. “Will you please eat your disgustingly cold Chinese now?”

The old rotary phone on the wall began to ring, a loud and obnoxious noise, albeit appropriate in a place with an absent-minded genius and never-ceasing sounds of tinkering and explosions. Without looking away from his work, Gyro grabbed the handset and balanced it on his shoulder.

“Oh hey, Mr. McDuck,” he greeted as he strode back to his station and began drawing in black marker all over the blueprints, and then on his own hand. “Yes, they’re here. Would you like to speak to..oh,  alright? Just a sec.”

Donald had sat up to climb down off the hammock, but paused when Gyro said, “Panchito, it’s for you.”

Donald stilled. The three birds gave each other uneasy looks, and Panchito swung over and jumped off. Taking the phone from Gyro’s hand he promptly asked, “Is something wrong, Señor McDuck?”

A moment passed, and Donald quickly climbed down as Panchito’s knuckles tightened around the phone. The rooster made a noise as if to speak, but whatever Scrooge said on the other side silenced him. Donald and José rushed over and leaned in to listen, but the shaking of Panchito’s shoulders only spiked the adrenaline in their veins.

Panchito looked like he was going to crush the phone in his hand, his grip getting so tight the plastic creaked. Without warning, he threw it against the wall. “Habla con él, Gyro,” was all he managed to utter as he stormed towards his things by the door.

José was practically hanging off his arm and dragged along. “O que?! O que está acontecendo?!”

“Panchito, talk to me!”

Panchito’s chest was rising and falling rapidly; he looked between thrashing everything in a rage, and crumbling to the wooden floor. “…Papá is missing.”

“..What?!”

“All his lands have been seized –” he choked. “And our ranch – ”

“No wait, what?! I don’t understand!” said Donald.

“Who did it?!” cried José, horrified, recognizing the situation for what it was faster than his friend. “Who? La Eme? Comando Vermelho?”

Donald’s heart jumped to his throat.

 “– And partner McDuck factories in Jalisco have also been seized...and people are held hostage..!” 

But who are th –!”

¡No lo sé, José!” shouted Panchito. “I don't know. He told me nothing!”  

“What about Mama Maria and the rest?” demanded Donald hoarsely, trying to make sense of the situation, desperately hoping his uncle hadn’t called them to inform them of an ended massacre. His legs were shaking so badly he had to lean a hand against the wall. José lowered his head to his clasped hands, making him look as if in prayer.   

“Señor McDuck wouldn’t let me speak a word! He told me to ‘haud yer wheesht’ – said he has no time for my questions! And he’s going now to Jalisco to deal with these people..!”

When will you ever be remotely considerate, old man, thought Donald fleetingly. “But Uncle Scrooge wouldn’t hide something like that if he knew,” said the duck. “He doesn’t do that..”

“Donald’s right,” said Gyro, hanging up. He strode to the wall hook by their heads and grabbed a tacky-looking bag that looked like it was picked up at a cheap bazaar. “Mr. McDuck called here as soon as he could. Your younger siblings and mother are all safe, thankfully –”

The inventor ran around the workshop; he pulled open the drawers on a desk one by one, and flipped their contents into the bag. Then he grabbed the marker and pencil he was using along with a belt of tools off the wall behind his workstation and threw them in as well. Donald stared as Gyro reached behind a tool closet, pulled out a structure as tall as a coat rack, and pushed that into his ridiculous-looking purse as well.

“Mr. McDuck and I are going to Jalisco to solve this,” declared Gyro, sounding like a man on a mission. “The police don’t seem like they’re doing much. I’m not surprised, and it'll take Interpol ages to move.

“Donald, the key’s under the mat. Lock up if you leave and don’t forget to take Lil Bulb along. Don’t leave him in here alone. There’s some money under the microwave in case you need it. I’ll be seeing you.”

“I – wha?! Under the microwave? Are you crazy? We’re coming.” 

“No. Mr. McDuck tells you three to stay put. We’ll get to the bottom of this,” said the inventor as he snapped the bag shut and opened the door.

Panchito grabbed his arm, roughly. “You crazy? ¡Estás loco si crees que me sentaré y haré nada!” he said, fury in his eyes. Gyro was taken aback, and his eyes shifted uncomfortably. Donald quickly intervened, pulling the red rooster's hand off and breaking the glare with his own eyes instead.

Gyro gave them a small, apologetic smile. "He said you boys'll just waste his time and ruin everything."

Panchito looked at Gyro incredulously, and then whipped around to his friends. "Is he serious?!" he shouted, waving a hand wildly.

"Panchito, don't take it out on him! He has nothing to do with this," was the duck's reply.

"He think’s I’ll sit around and do nothing while I don't know where my father is!" he roared. "This concerns me. This is personal!"

"It is because it's personal," said Gyro, placating. "Mr. McDuck's gotta be the one to handle it because he's got his connections already working with him, and it’s only his money he has to worry about, not family. I really have to go now."

"You-"

"I know my uncle. Always the pragmatic,” said Donald, heart still in his throat. “I get it, but we don’t have to listen. Right now, Gyro’s strictly Uncle Scrooge's employee." he said by means of reassuring Panchito; it was easy for people unfamiliar with Gyro to misread him as aloof and inconsiderate. Truth was, Gyro needed to build, to work – it was the way he knew to care for others. Donald knew that.

"Gyro, we gotta go. You know we will. Just don't tell Uncle Scrooge, okay? And watch out for him, ’cause he’s an idiot.”

Gyro gave the duck a fond, apologetic smile, and looked over his shoulder. "I’m sorry, pal. I promise to come back as soon as I can," he said guiltily to Lil Bulb, who was standing on the table, looking  very forlorn and dull.  Gyro turned – a little too quickly – and walked out.

"How will we go there?” asked José urgently. “If we go by plane, we’ll borrow Seu Gyro's money?"

"There won't be enough, no way," said the duck in frustration. Gyro made almost as little money as he did – Uncle Scrooge was not exactly a generous employer. The duck went and slipped his fingers under the microwave, pulling out a sad, thin wad of cash. "…wonderful. Four hundred dollars."

"Argh, we don't have time for this!" shouted Panchito. “Soy un idiota. Why did I not pick up the serape sooner?”

Donald suddenly remembered Gyro's aerial cycles. "Wait," he said breathlessly and ran out into the yard. “I think I know something that can fly us there. I only rode it once before but it should work…shit. I can't find them!”

He rushed back into the workshop, desperately looking around. Nothing remotely resembling a means of transportation was in sight. The only thing amongst Gyro’s current projects that was large and obvious was the odd contraption he had been working on nonstop for weeks.   

Donald’s first impression was that it looked like a black widow – a large, mechanical spider. But it was nothing of the sort. The machine was almost entirely black, egg-shaped and stood on five bent extensions.

Donald looked at the sheets spread on the workshop surface and all around it on the floor. The title stood out in large, black letters.

“The State Machine?”

“What does that mean?”

Donald didn’t have the foggiest idea. Panchito bent down and picked up one of the blueprints, trying desperately to understand. But Gyro's chicken scribble was undiscernible. "Does this thing move..?"

From what little illustration Donald could decipher, it seemed that no – this contraption did not fly, but the way the arrows ran around the papers and kept repeating implied..teleportation perhaps?

“What kind of language is this anyway?” cried Panchito. Donald looked closer, and realized the rooster was right; it wasn’t just awful handwriting. Did Gyro encrypt his own text? Why?

"Lil Bulb, can you help us out?"

Gyro's little companion, standing on the workspace, made a wild set of motions with his hands, always ending with a wave towards the door. Donald didn't understand much, but he knew what Bulb would without a doubt include in his answer-

Don't operate this without Gyro.

José somehow managed to find the door to the inside of the thing. Poking around the lines running the height of the machine, he managed to push a latch. They heard a click, and a door opened outward.

Abandoning the unintelligible blueprints, the three squeezed inside, and practically had to half-carry José to the point his feet were not touching the floor. It was extremely tight, obviously made for one person.

The inner walls were somewhat marred and rough. Gyro’s scribbles covered much of the interior, and on one side hung a cube so flawlessly black it looked like no light could illuminate it. Despite being only as wide as an open palm, it stood out defiantly against the rest of the machine interior.

“Where the heck is the dial on this thing..?"

José prodded the cube with his finger hesitantly. Impatient, Panchito reached out and slapped a palm against it. "Maybe this thing also opens. How does it –"

The floor beneath them shuddered.

"O que o diabo -!"

They could sense the rising motion beneath their feet. The machine's long, spiderlike legs scraped against the floor as they unbent and rose to their full height. Donald quickly pushed the door wider and extended a hand to Lil Bulb, who was still on the work table, jumping up and down frantically.  "I'll make this up to Gyro, I promise! Are you coming?"

Bulb blinked red, refusing. He repeatedly jabbed one finger into the palm of his other hand. Donald knew he shouldn't be taking this thing without permission, but they had no choice. Gyro would be mad, but he would forgive him. He always did.

"This can't wait," he said to Bulb's insistent static-speak. "We gotta go save Papá. I promise, I'll make it up to Gyro later." He closed the door again, swallowing the guilt he felt leaving Lil Bulb alone like that.

The machine tilted back, as if standing on two legs and raising the others in the air like a spider grabbing its victim in its front claws. Donald pulled his friends – and feeling the tremors still going through Panchito's shoulders, hugged them tighter.

The machine whirred, and strange, star-like lights began to pop up on the walls around them. They formed strange sequences, seemingly falling into specific locations meant for them within the strange text covering the interior. Even when he shut is eyes, Donald could see them through his eyelids. Impulsively, he reached a hand and grabbed the black cube to steady himself.

With one last lurch, the machine came to a stop. Its legs landed shakily into the ground, and the floor beneath the three friends gave way. They tumbled out of the machine onto greenery.

"Guys..," said Panchito, scrambling up to his feet. Donald could not believe his eyes. Or their luck.

"Sierra Madre," said José breathlessly, gazing at the distant, beautiful mountain chain they had traversed many times together in the past.

Panchito’s family farms were not far.

oOoOoOoOoOo

Donald had his share of wooden-faced situations in his life, but his obligatory smiling towards the concerned people looking at them had never felt so plastic in all his life.

It was as if all of Mexico knew Panchito. There was no other explanation; the first bus they managed to catch down the road and no less than four people came over to say hi to the rooster.

It was peculiar, but obvious that the news had not reached the town, and Donald knew it took monumental will from Panchito to smile (forceful as it was) and ‘listen’ to small talk. It became apparent very quickly to everyone though that Panchito was not up for socializing no matter how hard he maintained an open disposition. José eased his way into the conversations so smoothly they were speaking with him rather than the rooster. Donald sat in the middle, counting the seconds and smiling plastically at anyone looking their way. He noticed a couple elderly women seated close by looking rightfully unnerved by him.

They must’ve gone back in time, he thought. None of Panchito’s acquaintances and townspeople seemed to have any idea something happened, and the way his friend was instantly recognized...they could not possibly have gone far back.

But how did they go back?

If there was one good thing about that endless torture of a bus ride, it was José’s admirable ability to uphold a decent conversation whilst dodge prying questions like a cat jumps around puddles.

Or a José evades serious jobs, Donald's mind unnecessarily quipped. His eyes caught the clock at the front of the bus, visible on the plaque above the driver’s head. He stared.

 6:00 pm. Same day. Same year.

How-?

Panchito was off the bus running before it had come to a full stop at their destination. His two friends took off after him, ignoring the driver’s shouting and leaving small conversations hanging mid-sentence.

“We can’t just barge onto the road!” called Donald, panting. “Panchito!”

The rooster only pulled out his pistols in response. They chased after him across the twin roads towards the farm, and Donald’s mind vaguely registered the unnatural calm of the neighborhood.

The main gates to the ranch were wide open. Donald’s heart thundered in his ears as they bounded through. His limbs were shaking. The door to the two-story home was shut. Panchito tried it and it was unlocked. He pushed it open and was greeted by the familiar living room that had not changed since he was a chick. Nothing was out of place, yet something absolutely was not right.

The rooster kept his pistols in front of him as he strode through the house. He charged up the stairs as Donald and José ran from room to room. José murmured constantly under his breath, while Donald felt he could not have enough eyes in his skull to look in every corner of the ground floor at once.

They heard Panchito’s feet race down the stairs. “Nothing’s out of place,” he said, agitated. “I don’t understand!”

It’s the machine, thought Donald, and he shared the thought even though he himself was unsure what that meant. His throat was dry and his nerves were taut; something was not right. All three of them knew it.

José turned his head towards the open front door. A red laser point appeared between his dilating eyes, and Donald screamed as time seemed to slow.

“Get down! GET DOWN!”

Panchito was faster. He tackled the parrot so hard they rolled all the way across the hall, his weapons flying out of his hands, and a flurry of bullets rained where José had been standing a second earlier.

Donald grabbed one of the pistols on the floor and threw himself under the window by the door. Gritting his teeth, he got up and fired a shot through the glass. He recoiled as it shattered and rained around him. Right as he closed his eyes, he caught a silhouette taking off away from the door. He fired haphazardly again. His hand pressed against the thin shards wedged between his flesh and the gun, and pain shot through his skin like pins.

Panchito was back on his feet with the other pistol in hand. He had the better vantage point, and fired several times after the retreating attacker. 

Panchito-!” shrieked José. The rooster whipped around and began firing at the second assailant coming at him through the window across the living room. Donald’s heart stopped when he saw a third man – or was it the same first one, Donald neither knew nor cared – climb through a window above José. He was dressed from head to toe in violet so dark it was almost black, and a featureless mask covered his entire face, with only slits for his cold grey eyes. Incensed, Donald fired, and the man quickly pulled back through the window he came from.

In wake of Panchito and his attacker's melee, almost nothing in the living room was left unturned. Both moved and evaded one other with astounding agility. The rooster would aim dead-on at his opponent’s extremities, having quickly realized the latter wore fireproof vest and greaves, but never land even a grazing shot.

He constantly moved to try to keep the attacker's back to his friends, and every time he would aim just a little widely, Panchito would counter. The red laser of the attacker's weapon bounced all around Panchito's body, but the rooster never allowed it to settle on one spot for a second. Their bullets would run out, and in under two seconds their guns would be reloaded and firing madly again at one another, Panchito evading the assailant's grabs, the assailant evading Panchito's jump axe kicks. 

And then Panchito stumbled, and the attacker saw his opening.

Seeing red, Donald jumped up from José’s side and began firing in a rage. Realizing he was outnumbered two to one, the black-clad attacker backflipped the way he came – missing Panchito’s recovered final bullet by a hair’s breadth – and disappeared underneath the window.

Reloading instantly, Panchito fired at the living room niche by the window. The bullet rebounded at an angle, flying through the window to land precisely where the man would be crouching. There was no sound in the wake of the bullet’s echo.

Panchito rushed to the window, and before Donald could yell for him to stay back, Panchito’s bewildered words stopped him.

“¿a dónde fue él?!”

Where did he go? Ears ringing and throats raw, Donald and José rushed to him. Where the man should be, a strange item that looked like a crude bundle of rags lay on the grass. Panchito picked it up and turned it over. Upon closer inspection, it had a spherical structure on one end, and flappy extremities on the other. A strange symbol was sewed into the middle of the crude doll-like thing, and something about it struck Donald as oddly familiar. The face had oozing black eyes, and a misshapen beak was drawn over the sphere.

Largue!” screeched José, and Panchito immediately dropped it.

“We have to get out of here! Now!”

Grabbing his bemused friends by their arms, the parrot rushed for the door. Donald and Panchito held their pistols in front of them and José between them, expecting more assailants. But no one crossed them. Donald quickly felt the air close in around him, and his breath became labored. This was familiar, but in his adrenaline-fueled state, he did not recognize it for what it was at first.

And then, his entire being seemed to collapse unto itself. His surroundings blended senselessly into muddy, indiscernible shapes before his eyesight went dark. What little oxygen still in his lungs was squeezed out, and just as he thought he was going to choke, the world sprung back into existence. He found himself thrown to the ground at the foot of a familiar, tall rosewood tree. Beyond it the ancient, majestic mountain chain stood. He pulled himself up against the tree bark and took in large, gulping breaths.

“Are you two alright?!” José asked them urgently. He looked them both over; aside from their breathlessness and bruising, they were fine. Donald and Panchito’s astonished faces upon realizing where they were almost made him cry in relief.

He had transported them. With his magic. His wild, unruly magic had transported all three of them, and without anyone losing a single feather. They were back under the same tree they’d spent hours underneath in the past. It had always been their rendezvous spot if they ever got lost from each other traversing the mountain chain.

He fell back at the tree base and doubled over, the throbbing of his hands growing more and more uncomfortable, almost hot.

“Joe?!”

“Estou bem,” the parrot said shakily. “I did too much too suddenly.”

This only ever happened in one of two cases, Donald knew all to well – when José was feeling euphoric, or when he was scared out of his wits.

“I have to go back,” gasped Panchito, getting up and looking over his shoulder. “I need to s-“

“We can’t go back. The house is cursed with Black Magic,” cut in José. Panchito barely heard him. He turned towards the direction of his house, and José sprang up, threw his arms around his shoulders and wrapped his legs around his waist, and tried to straddle him.

“Get off me!”

“Did you hear me? The house is cursed. We can’t go back!”

¡Por el amor de D – I don’t have time for this! What curse? A group of criminals kidnapped my father! You have a different definition for curse?!” shouted Panchito. With one swift motion, José was thrown on his bum on the ground. He grabbed Panchito’s leg instead.

“I’ll kick your face!” bellowed the rooster, neck feathers puffing up. “Aargh, get off! What the hell is wrong with you?”

José began muttering fervently under his breath. Panchito felt the shudders from his hands run up his shin, and his alarm swiftly morphed into stunned outrage.

“What…what did you do to my legs?”

“These peoples, they perform black magic for the Brazilian mafia. Eu sei, I recognize their crests – they are from the Black River Ring, Anel do Rio Negro!”

“How do you know?” asked Donald, but José only shook his head. His hands were now running up and down his arms as if to stop goosebumps breaking under his feathers. The strange motion worried Donald, and even Panchito was unnerved. Ignoring his sleeping legs, He reached for his friend and turned him to look him in the eye. “What happened?” he asked, this time more calmly. “How do you know their crest?”

José’s eyes darkened. He held his sides more closely. “They stir things up in my neighborhood. More than once.”

He’s not saying something, now it was Donald who turned him to look at him directly. “Isso não importa agora. It’s something that happened a long time ago. Bad memories. They…they killed Caio. Meu amigo de infância. The one I played with when I was a chick.”

Donald stared at him like he’d grown another beak. José had told them of this childhood friend. He had told them about him on several occasions, in fact. He meant a lot to him; he was his childhood best friend, and had died at a very small age, not even ten years old.

“..But you forgot to mention he was straight up murdered?” said the duck in disbelief. José looked away.

“You never told us he was killed,” Panchito breathed. “Why wouldn’t you mention something like that?”

“At any point during the years we’ve known each other would’ve been fine!” said Donald.

“I’m not trying to hide it – I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to think about it.”

“Why was he killed? And what does that have to do with any of us? Why would matones be cursing my house-?”

"It was because if his magic, wasn't it?" realized Donald, jolting Panchito's memories of those conversations as well. José’s mentions of his friend were always peppered with recurring themes that never left his childhood memories. His friend was wonderful, he always said, more gentle and accepting of him and his risky magic than all the other children. He was a small, pretty starling with brilliantly-colored feathers, and a rare ability to perform focused magic without tools and without mentorship.

José had also told them being those things is a curse where he came from. A sentence to a life of being targeted.

Donald could not believe he had never made the connection earlier. José’s friend did not just die; he was probably killed by other black magic conjurors. Or worse, kidnapped and murdered by paranoid, superstitious maniacs.

The duck was sickened to his stomach.

“Eu não sei. I can't imagine how they could possibly…it's either coincidence, or they knew..somehow..I would be here."

“Are you targeted?” asked Panchito suddenly. “How could these people know who you are?”

José didn’t reply. His eyes were unfocused, looking far away at something in his past only he could see.

Then, it finally dawned on Donald. The horror of his conclusion made his hands go to his beak.

“My God...Joe...”

"What? What?"

Jose was unable to say it, so Donald did. "He was there. When Caio was killed."

The wind blew softly through the leaves of the old rosewood tree. Some yards away, the State Machine stood where they had left it. A dark, spider-like shape against the darkening sky, it almost seemed to be peering at them through the tall rosewood trunks.

oOoOoOoOoOo

The rooster's pistols caught the faint moonlight for a moment before they were slid back into their holsters.

"I'm going to Brazil," Panchito said with finality, steel in his eyes. "I'm gonna find those bastards and know what the hell they have to do with me."

José looked up at him from where he was sitting, dumbfounded. "…És.. És maluco?!”

"Oh, you are not going," said Donald firmly. José gaped at him. "Sorry, Joe, I'm with Panchito on this. We’re not taking chances with those voodoo hunters if there’s a chance they recognize you even after all these years. Don't look at me like that."

"You’re staying in Calisota,” said the rooster. “If those monstruos might recognize you somehow then you stay as far away as possible. I'm going to find out what they were doing here and where my parents are. If one of them falls into my hands I swear, I will show them Hell.”

“Did you not hear anything I said!”

“Look, this is the only clue we've got. What if they’re working with La Eme? What if they’re connected to that thug that attacked my father in his own home?”

That memory was still vivid in Donald’s mind, and he too was having the same thoughts. “I think they are, but I can’t imagine why they would be.”

Panchito let out a humorless bark of a laugh. “Why? Why – because they're all vile low-life.  Dios los cría y ellos se juntan!”

The gears in the duck’s brain were furiously turning, and it clicked; he realized why the crest was so familiar. “I think their ring is bigger than we think. It might not even be just La Eme or Vermahlo...hold it, Panchito, I think F.O.W.L might be behind this.”

F.O.W.L?! Why on earth would F.O.W.L concern themselves with someone like my father?”

Donald did not consider himself knowledgeable about the global criminal organization. He had been involved in a couple S.H.U.S.H missions against them before – against his will – with his uncle. In both missions, his uncle had been the one to rescue him by the teeth from certain death, whilst he spent ninety percent of the time unaware of what on earth was going on. Those people did not mess around, and their leaders had strings everywhere. Their people did their work for them across countries and borders.

On the other hand…

“This doesn’t have to do with your dad,” said Donald, feeling more confident in this guess. “Not directly. This has to do with Uncle Scrooge. He’s been against them before, as a secret agent of S.H.U.S.H.”

Seeing his friends’ puzzled looks, he quickly told them what little he knew of the peacekeeping organization that was even more secretive than F.O.W.L.

“..I don’t think it’s just Papá Miguel who is targeted. This involves Uncle Scrooge, and they’re going after his connections. So he’s going to them himself.” finished Donald. He did not know why he felt confident in his theory, but he did. Knowing his stubborn uncle, he could not help but fear for him. For someone who has been through so much in his long life, it was incredible how his uncle always seemed to believe nothing bad could ever happen to him.  What was more incredible, was how he could make even Donald believe it.

“Should we should go to Uncle Scrooge and work with him-?”

Panchito shook his head impatiently. “I’m not running around to take down a mafia so I can figure out where my father is. Let your uncle and Gyro handle it,” he said bluntly. Donald sighed, and nodded.

“Let’s go.”

They strode to the machine, José a foot behind. “We still don’t know how this damn thing works. How did it even know to bring us here?”

“Maybe it listens to a verbal command.”

“..I can’t remember any of us giving it a command.”

“Maybe the box reads your mind to know where you wanna go,” suggested José.

“I guess,” said Donald, knowing it was not beyond a genius like Gyro. “Okay, get in. Let’s try to make it go home f-“

“Like Hell,” José cut him off crossly, the feathers around his face and neck on end. Panchito turned to him sharply, a retort on his tongue, but whatever he was going to say was cut off when he and Donald were crammed unceremoniously into the machine. Their heads butted painfully. The parrot squeezed in between them and before either could react, and he pressed his palm firmly against the featureless black cube.

"I. Am. Coming," grit the parrot in a steely voice.

The contraption began to hum, and its legs began to stretch. Around them, the scribbled symbols etched into the walls began to glow, and more bright stars appeared out of nowhere, moving across the interior, making it feel even more claustrophobic.

“Idiota astuto,” said Panchito, trying and failing to be angry. “I’m gonna kill you when this is over.”

“Tanto faz,” said José flippantly.

oOoOoOoOoOo

Donald pushed the small door open, and Rio’s familiar humid air fell over them like a blanket.

The three friends found themselves by the dead end of an alley, with weathered old buildings on either side, casting the place into darkness that would have been absolute had it not been for the faint light from the windows of the homes above. Laundry hung overhead from one side to the other in a colorful, crisscrossing mess of lines.

“This – this is where I played futebol with my friends when I was small,” said José, eyes gazing over every familiar thing. “We played here for hours and hours. Hah, I skipped school a lot of the time. I was such a bad influence on Caio…

“I thought I was over this…" he swallowed thickly, yet a small laugh escaped his beak. "No. I'm not over it. Why did the machine bring us here? I haven't been in this neighborhood in a long time."

"What do we do with it?" asked Donald. The machine looked terribly out of place. He hoped the darkness of the alley would be enough for the passersby in the street to miss it.

"It's already dark. The streets will be empty soon," said Panchito.

José nodded. "People don't hang around here much at night anymore. It's not safe. Families stay inside."

"Well, what if a gang of wastrels found it, anyway? It wouldn’t be the first time something like this happens to me," said the duck hopelessly. "Just..leave it there, guys. God. Gyro's. Is going. To kill me. Close the door. That glowing stuff on the walls inside might catch someone's eye."

The rooster nodded and closed the latch. They walked down the hill and onto a very quiet street. A cold chill ran down Donald's spine. Panchito and José were just was unnerved.

"Is it normal for the street to be this empty?" asked Donald. José shook his head, unsure.

"Eu não sei…" 

They stood under a flickering street lamp. All was silent for a moment, save for the faint voices from nearby apartments. It felt eerily disconnected, like they were outsiders trying to look in through a haze.

"…so where do we go?"

 "Inteligencia," said Panchito resolutely. "We ask around, gather information and find the cesspit the lowlifes creep back to at night. Right here, right now. The machine brought us here for a reason." 

Donald looked around, trying to find somewhere they can ask without rousing suspicion, a supermarket, or kiosk – anything that was still open. Knocking on people's doors in a problematic neighborhood was a bad idea, he was sure, and something only Panchito would dare do if they did not find an alternative and fast. 

"You want to gather information about a notorious macumba ring in a neighborhood that's seen tragedy to the point people don’t leave their homes after seven?" José said incredulously.  

"What do you propose we do, then?" asked the rooster tensely. 

José looked around at the silent road, expression conflicted. "We'll go to them. I remember one of their moradia, from when I was a child." 

"Let's go then –" said Panchito, making to move.

"Before we go," interjected the parrot. "I have a rule."

"You what?" spluttered Donald, looking at José as if realizing something inconceivable about him for the first time. Panchito's expression was just as comically stunned. He and Donald burst into laughter, the tension and fear fleetingly at bay.

José sighed and pinched the skin between his eyes. "Sim, sim. Ria do seu amigo carioca preguiçoso," he muttered, and the rooster grabbed him in a hug. "I'm serious! If I take you there, you promise to do exactly what I tell you, and speak to absolutely no one."

"Where's this coming from, Joe."

"You two don't understand these people, how they think. Let me do the talking. You stand there and pretend to be tourists. Anyone speaks to you, don't answer. Don't show any indication you understand a single word."

"Dude, what if they speak to us in English?"

"Pretend to be Arawakan. Tanto faz. Don't give anyone any ear."

"..alright," solaced Donald. Panchito did not look happy, but decided to not push it. Jose steeled himself and turned to take in their surroundings, to try and remember the layout of the neighborhood.

They stuck close together as they followed the parrot into foreign alleyways and even went through what almost looked like ordinary home hallways at one point. It was so odd, Donald was sure they would accidentally walk in on half-dressed people at some point. Panchito, of course, surveyed everything like a hawk even as he strode briskly after José. What few people they passed seemed to not pay them any notice.

At the end of one hallway, covered from floor to ceiling in a chaotic tapestry of words and symbols Donald was sure were incantations they should be nowhere near, José knocked on a large metal door. He pulled his hat low over his eyes, and Donald and Panchito took their cues to wear the most clueless faces they could muster.

S̴̳̠͋̄e̵̺̊̏n̵͚̫̐ḧ̴͖̲̿ȁ̵͉” demanded a guttural voice, and Donald’s heart plummeted.

But, José whispered, “T҉o͜d͟os̛ d̢i͟ab͞os e͢stão̴ ̵n͘a̧ t͠e͡rra̛.̕.”

A tense moment passed, and then the door swung open. José felt like he was going to pass out in relief. “Bastards didn’t change the password for over twenty years,” he whispered to his friends as they stepped inside.

The door closed behind them promptly, and Donald had to fight the urge to bolt back out. Panchito was absolutely speechless, whilst José’s face was stiff with concealed fear.

The unmistakable smell of iron hit their nostrils. The place was ice-cold – a cold that pressed against their skin like a hundred spectral hands caressing their feathers. The mutterings of what sounded like the chorus of a hundred people wafted from all directions, concealed behind doors and curtains and from underneath their feet and over their heads. The symbols on the walls seemed to warp and change, and it took Donald a quick moment to realize he was not hallucinating.

Donald and Panchito turned to José, and saw the terror beneath his wooden expression. Before anyone could utter a word, a large black dog towered over them.

Haven’t seen you around,” growled the dog in Portuguese. “Who the hell are you?”

Name’s Toto Baião,” lied José. “I’m the guide for these two. It’s their first time in Rio; they can’t speak a lick of Portuguese.

The dog looked at him incredulously. “You tryna tell me your tourists’ idea of a trip in Rio is to come to a macumba gathering?” he growled, eyes flashing. Donald diverted his eyes and tried to look as confused as possible when he realized it may look like he understood the conversation. He could practically hear the gears furiously turning in José’s head.

They’re here to curse their ex-lovers,” recovered José, and Donald nearly choked. “They – their lovers, that’s to say – are with other men now. They want to destroy their marriage by cursing their bloodlines and filling their marital beds with thorns and demon babies.”

Panchito and Donald did not dare make eye contact; their hearts were beating out of their chests. The lie was so outrageous Panchito discreetly moved his hand closer to his belt.

And they’re willing to pay,” added José out of nowhere, rubbing his fingers together and winking at the huge dog.

The dog gave them a long, hard look, and then let out an indiscernible word. José turned and quickly pulled his friends aside. “Pull out any money on you.”

“Why, for the love of God, did you say that? Gyro’s money is all we have!”

“Give it to me.”

“They’re 400 dollars!”

“They’d curse a whole country for less,” hissed José.  “Trust me, I know what I’m doing.” Donald noticed how the parrot’s hands shook when he took the money. José was terrified, and it was taking a lot out of him to keep his outward cool.

The little money they had was quickly slipped down the dog’s vest. “Down two staircases. Take the third hall. Hope your dumb little friends know what they’re up for.

Donald wondered if the dog in fact did not believe they were tourists at all. 

oOoOoOoOoOo  

They followed José’s lead down the corridor. He ignored one closed door after the other, and neither Donald nor Panchito cared to know why or what was behind them. Donald fought down the persistent nausea and cold touch underneath his feathers. He heard whispers everywhere. His feet felt heavy to move.

He and Panchito could both feel the aberrant energy radiating from José’s body. The parrot was out of sorts, agitated, and most of all, scared.

“I should pick a room,” said Panchito, trying to lighten the mood. “If I’m gonna curse my ex-lover with little demon ninōs for all eternity, I wanna be creative with it. Gyro paid 400 dollars for this. He’d be disappointed.”

José did not smile. “I barely saved our tail feathers. Stick to the damn story and don’t talk to anyone.”

The fact that Panchito could still try to joke despite the fear logged in all their throats made Donald slap him upside the head part in exasperation, part in fondness.

And then, Panchito had to go and say, “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

This time, José chuckled. “What’ll you do, shoot people up if they look at me wrong?”

Panchito did not answer, and both Donald and José stopped and turned to look at their friend disapprovingly. Panchito moved past them, indifferent. “If I had to, I would,” he said. 

“Don’t give me that crap again,” said José. “We’ve been through this a hundred times. I’m not in the mood.” Again, he started rubbing his shaking hands together. His irritation moved to his arms and sides, as if his he was trying to peel his skin off altogether.

“Whoa!” said Donald, taking his hands and pulling them away. “What’s wrong?”

He felt magic pulse through his bones, and instinctively let go as if burned. José turned to him, scared.

“Did I hurt you?”

“No..no. I just – it felt weird, like my insides were rattling!”

“Your magic’s acting up,” said Panchito tensely. “And it’s been getting worse since we got here. What’s going on?”

“This was gonna happen. There’s too much activity here.”

“How does that affect you?”

José’s face seemed to close off. Donald shook his head, and instead took to rubbing his friend’s shoulders as they walked briskly down the dim corridor. José’s magic still exuded haphazardly, and his hands would not stop shaking.

“Some people’s magic is reactive,” said the parrot suddenly, after they had thought he would not say anything. “When there’s a lot of people in one place performing black magic I –“

He gazed at his friends’ rapt expressions, but rather than feel encouraged, he became more dispirited.

“..being around other black magic users makes your magic do things on its own?”

“No. No, that’s not it. It’s easier to..” Bile rose in José’s throat, and he had to snap his beak shut. He squeezed his eyes shut as the doors around him seemed to spin. He opened them again to see his best friends’ faces, scared but holding him – keeping him anchored.

“It’s easier...para um ritual de extração.”

“What?” snapped Donald, dumbfounded.

“Extract what? Your magic?!” said Panchito.

José nodded.

Panchito and Donald were silent for a long moment. The dark reality of what happened years ago in José’s childhood – what he probably witnessed – began to rear its vile, hideous head.

“We shouldn’t have come here,” the duck finally said. “You shouldn’t be here. What were you thinking?”

“You expected me to let you two come here alone?!”

“This isn’t as dangerous for us as it is for you! Are you stupid? It’s not like we would’ve held anything against you!”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about!” said José hotly. “This isn’t about me.  You don’t know what these people are capable of. You can’t deal with this – it's black magic.” 

We aren’t the ones in danger of some depraved farming ritual! We don’t have any magic in us!”

“That makes it even more dangerous!” said the parrot, not bothering to keep their voices to whispers anymore.

“We’re leaving,” snapped Panchito with finality, reaching to pull the parrot in the opposite direction.

No, we’re not.” José snapped back. His erratic magic suddenly peaked again.

Donald blew up. So did Panchito. “God dammit, José!” he roared. Their feet became rooted to the ground.

“Please don’t do this,” said José, voice straining. “You two don’t know what you’re up against, you shouldn’t be anywhere near these people-”

“You know, we could've already gotten what we want and left if you weren't trying to be our babysitter!” cut Donald angrily.

José crossed his arms and leaned against the wall. “You know, we could’ve already gotten what we want and left if you trust me to handle it,” he retorted. “We can stand here for as long as you like.” He snickered when he heard Donald growl something akin to "-or so help me" through gritted teeth.

"If this goes to shit, I'm gonna kill you before anyone else," growled Panchito. He began to feel the weight lifting from his legs.

“I won’t let it happen. They’ll have to walk over my dead body first.”

"You’re not funny."

"I’m not being funny. I won’t let something like what happened back then happen again. Nunca. I’d die before it happens.”

“Shut up,” said Donald and Panchito in the same breath.

“Don’t you tell me to shut up!” snapped José. “You have no idea what it’s like to escape while your best friend dies because you’re a coward! I won’t go through this again!”

“Keep talking and I’ll kick your ass,” warned the rooster, his expression hard. José glared back at him doggedly.

“I don’t -"

“I said. Shut. Up,” Panchito cut coldly, and his tone silenced the parrot. Donald looked at the rooster out of the corner of his eye; Panchito was frightening when he wore that expression.

José, on the other hand, defiantly spoke again. “You-"

“José, shut your goddamn beak!” spat Donald. Panchito raised a fist, fully intending to introduce it to the parrot’s face. Donald caught it and pulled it back. “You two gonna brawl here?! We’re not fighting over this! It’s over!”

José was staring at Panchito testily, keeping silent despite the irate in his eyes. Panchito looked as he did back in Gyro’s workshop – teetering the line between tearing limbs apart, and losing control.

José,” Donald demanded, his voice coming out colder than he intended. “Move. Your. Tail. The faster we get the information, the faster we get the hell out of here – kill each other all you want when we get back home. God dammit, I’m too old for your crap, both of you.”

oOoOoOoOoOo

José whispered something fervently under his breath, and pushed an ajar door open.

They went inside. A group of ten or so people sat in a circle around the room on mismatching cushions and rugs. The middle area was a foreign formation of shapes and letters in a language neither Panchito nor Donald recognized. Various odd items were placed around the large, star-shaped symbol on the floor. Something resembling a pot was suspended over a blue fire in the dead center of the star. Somewhere, they could hear the chanting of a girl’s thin voice; their skins broke in goosebumps.

A young parakeet with the wildest colors Donald had ever seen on a person glanced at them over his startling black beak.

Agasia, we still waiting for someone?” he called over his shoulder to a female sitting close by.

Eh? I’m not expecting anybody besides Giovanna..” the girl propped against a cushion near one end of the star replied. She looked unconcerned with their arrival. “They can sit anywhere, I guess. I dunno.”

Sit over here,” said the parakeet gruffly, waving vaguely by the door, to the empty space between a sad-looking cat and another young macaw.

The smell of iron persisted. 

“Now we just need to figure out who to speak to..” whispered José to his companions. He looked sickly.

Let’s start the pre-ritual,” announced Agasia, making Donald’s blood freeze.

“Stay here at the back and keep a distance from everything!” hissed José as they huddled as far away as they inconspicuously could in the dark, whilst the others sat up and moved closer to the center of the room.

“I almost regret coming here,” whispered Panchito. He and Donald stared at José in disbelief when the parrot said, “You’ve seen nothing.” He gave no further elaboration.

The people in the circle began to chant, and the fire grew bigger but the air colder. The disembodied solitary chanting was joined by another voice, and then another, and another. A young parakeet with blue and violet feathers stood up and threw something that looked like a rag doll into the pot, and began practicing. Donald watched in stunned silence as energy flowed like water from the young bird’s fingertips, illuminating the room in a green hue. Every item on the floor rose at once, and the writings began to glow as the attendees recited incantations as one, and the energy in the room became obtrusive.

No one seemed to give the three intruders much of any thought. They watched in morbid fascination as others got up to perform some kind of spell. If the situation were not so dangerous, the place horribly off-putting, Donald would have liked to understand it. He felt no such thing, though, and by the dismayed, nauseated look on José’s face, this was the last place any of them wanted to be.

The door was thrown open with a blast of magic so strong it toppled them over. Some people cheered, responding with their own conjuring in welcome. A tall, masked figure entered the room with the grace and stride of a confident female. A brilliant crown of feathers splayed over her head, and cascaded down concealing nearly half of her mask.

José made an unnerving sound as he took in an airless breath, and his magic gave a sudden, directionless spazz. It hit Donald and Panchito like a punch to the gut.

Finally, you prepped things early on. Good, Agasia,” said the woman in a whisper that made the feathers on the back of Panchito’s neck stand. Agasia looked extremely pleased.

The newcomer, Donald guessed was the so-called Giovanna, strode into the heart of the star, and moved her arms in a circular motion. On her neck bone, the tattooed emblem became visible – a union of the Anel do Rio Negro in service to the Comando Vermahlo, and F.O.W.L. Her long head feathers moved with her, almost hypnotically, and Donald let out a gasp when he felt a pressure begin pressing down on his very being.  His eyes flew to his friends; Panchito had a hand clutched at his chest, whilst José’s strength seemed to drain from him. Donald grabbed him as he began to slip back against the wall. The pressure in the room rose, and yet Giovanna seemed unaffected. She moved, and danced, and uttered invocations in that voice that reminded Donald of a cobra.

With a wave of her hand, her mask came off, revealing the mad grin on her beak. She snapped her fingers, and a small, gagged child was suddenly thrown into the center of the room at her feet.

Tear tracks ran down the small boy’s face, streaking through his dirtied feathers. His eyes were wide with abject terror.

Donald’s mind went blank and his eyes saw red. “What the hell is this?” he bellowed, jumping to his feet.

José vanished from their side, and re-appeared almost immediately outside the room. Unable to support himself, he fell to his knees, heaving. Giovanna’s head snapped towards them, but Panchito and Donald were already out the door.

“What’s wrong?” cried Panchito, wrapping his arms around José’s abdomen to help him stand, but José’s feet were not cooperating. He hung from Panchito’s arms limply, hyperventilating. “José, what’s wrong?”

Wild thoughts were running through Donald’s head; was José affected by some spell? Did those depraved lunatics do something?

Panchito grunted as he forced himself to keep his grip despite the parrot’s magic repelling them like a wave. José grabbed his own head in shaking hands, eyes wide and unfocused.

“It’s – it’s her,” choked the parrot. “She’s – she’s the one – she –"

Panchito and Donald quickly turned to look behind them, and amidst the confused movement of the other attendees, Giovanna’s face stood out starkly like a moon on a starless night. Her cold eyes bored into them.

“Let’s get out of here-!” gasped Panchito, and Donald immediately moved, quickly adjusting to carry José between them.

“No, we can’t leave the kid!” cried José, distressed.

Panchito shifted the parrot to Donald, and pulled out his pistol. “I’ll handle this – I’ll grab the kid while I wreak havoc on this cesspit. Donald, you and José get a head start!”

Who do you think you are!” shrieked José. “I’ll stall them and you two save the kid!”

“Are you insane?” cried Donald.

The tall curassow appeared suddenly in front of them, exuding a menacing power.

I knew there was something familiar about you,” she said with a grin, looking directly at José. Her eyes shifted when she felt a cold barrel against her head, and met Panchito’s furious gaze.

My, my…your friends sure have verve,” she tittered in her talian dialect. “Not a drop of magic, but ah – more than enough spirit to make up for it! Someone like you would have never had the guts to come back here if not for them.

Panchito gave her head a jab with the point of his gun. “Women like you talk too much,” he said coldly.

I read people’s energy like a book,” she went on as if he said nothing. “And you, young galo, won’t shoot me. Haha, never in front of him!

Panchito’s pistol went flying, and before he could reach for his other, Giovanna’s hand – pulsing with a violet energy, was around the base of his beak, right where it connected to his throat. Immobilizing his whole head.

José’s magic snapped.

Both Donald and Panchito tumbled back as if caught in a minor explosion. Giovanna was pushed several feet backwards, but her feet remained firmly on the ground. 

Ah, your potential grew with you,” she crowed. “Too bad it’s a useless, terrified mess. You don’t know what you’re doing, do you?...Nothing infuriates me as much as kids like you. Too cowardly to embrace your own black magic. Your energy would be much more serviceable with someone like me.

Sick witch,” snarled Donald as he scrambled back up, seeing red.

Isn’t that what everyone calls an assertive enchantress these days,” simpered Giovanna in mock-offense, not taking her eyes off the parrot. “No. I am practical – I despise redundancy and most of all, people like you repulse me. Is that why you try to make friends with people you know are much better than yourself? Do you always hide behind your friends?

José’s magic was becoming so unstable it jarred Donald’s bones. Giovanna looked unaffected, but the unnerving look in her red eyes – a look of hunger, was abhorrent.

I'm not the same person I was when I was a kid,” said the parrot, raising his hands. His magic spiked again. His friends watched, stunned, as shapeless blue energy formed at his palms; black and red tendrils slinked weightlessly up his limbs and neck, and flowered into foreign shapes and symbols across his face like an ink shot in water. “Yeah. I’m friends with people who are infinitely better than me…and I couldn't be luckier."

A blast of blue energy tore towards the curassow, who promptly threw up a defense. As haphazard as it was, the parrot’s attack left a searing mark across her cheek, rapidly blackening. The ground underneath their feet cracked, the dust and particles becoming caught in an unnatural suspension at their feet. Giovanna’s beak was pulled back in a snarl, but the thirst in her eyes only grew more disturbing. She responded with a blast of her own, which Jose took full in the face. The kaleidoscope of markings began to shimmer and turn violet.

"José!"

"No, stay out of it! I'm fine – get the kid!" grunted José breathlessly, and unleashed another blast of magic. This time, it travelled in a wide circle, creating a force field of magic. Giovanna responded with a precise flurry of pikes. José instinctively threw his hands up in front of his face, and the pikes seemed to disperse into the magical field. 

Panchito did what he does best – he shot a rain of bullets into the room like a maniac. Out of spite, he opened hell onto the accursed pot until it split down the middle. He fired over people's heads remorselessly as they shrieked and cowered; no one wanted to be in the way of the rapid-firing, wild-looking rooster.

Donald dove for the struggling, squalling child and threw him over his shoulder. He heard the parakeet shout in offense and run towards him. Donald rammed him without a thought, and he and Panchito made a break for the door. The force field expanded outwards, and as if caught a shock wave, Donald was thrown to the floor, and the child rolled away, screaming.

Panchito, gasping and sweating profusely, half-blind from the static in his head, raised his shaking weapon, aimed at the curassow’s shoulder, and pressed the trigger.

It did not budge. 

"Ah, what am I doing – I'm going about this all wrong!" said Giovanna, her voice euphoric. "This is delicious, kid, but enough wasting my time. Time to be of use for once in your pathetic life; let me extract your magic. It doesn't have to be painful, you know."

Panchito flew at the curassow in a mad rage.

She saw it coming and her gleeful eyes showed it.

Giovanna raised a palm amidst the chaos, and a hole as black as the blackest pit began to form through it; it grew rapidly, and it was as if all the energy in the room was being sucked into one point in space. She cackled.

No! No, you don’t!” they heard José scream.

With a desperate wave, he unleashed a comet of violet energy into the black sphere, and Panchito and Donald were again thrown back by the sheer force of energy emitted. Long, shimmering tendrils stretched behind the comet, uninterrupted. It plugged itself into the black hole.

Too easy!” she hollered in delight.

The black hole gaped wide open, and clamped down on the comet-like ball of energy. She pulled, and José’s entire body jerked forward, the marks on his body shifting and shimmering uncontrollably. On his face was shock, and pure terror.

Donald scrambled desperately on the floor, unable to stand up. He was filled with horror upon realizing Panchito could not see – his head was in his hands, eyes wide and unfocused and clouded with a violet sheath.

Giovanna cackled, pulling the flickering strings like a sailor pulls a boat to shore. “You can’t change what you are, little Zé! Some people exist to do great things – and some exist to be a resource. It’s nothing personal, people can’t all be the same. It’s all over; you know you can’t escape me.

It’s a pity you can’t save your much better friends,” she sneered. “Not now, and not back then.

Amidst the chaos of their deadly warring energy, and his distress for himself and his friends, José felt the eminent failing of his magic against the curassow’s incredible power. He could feel the pores of his skin open up, and he screamed as searing pain followed the magic being forcibly heaved through them. His feathers began to shrivel and blacken from the tips to the roots, and the pressure on his insides squeezed pitilessly for every ounce of energy possible.

Just how many kids did she kill like that for power

Despite himself, his eyes streamed in pain and fear. He turned to his best friends, hating that he knew they could see the tears running down his face and how terrified he really was.

They were better than him, so much better than him. He could never be as brave or strong.

Tearing his eyes away from their faces with everything he could muster, he released his hands from his offense, clasped them together, and began to chant.

He saw Giovanna’s eyes widen as she realized what he was doing. He smirked in satisfaction at the blooming look of disbelief on her face that he would even know that particular incantation. Or use it willingly.

T̢h͡e҉ ̢pa͟in in ͏m̕y he̕art i͡s ̸a̵s̨ prec͠ioųs ͏as th͟e on̶es ̷w͝ho c̷a͡u̕s̸e i̴t.”

Donald and Panchito felt the world around them slow..and close in.

No

 

No no no no NO!

 

Donald’s horrified yell was cut off as the air left his lungs and everything went dark. The last thing he heard was Panchito’s frantic shout – he too realizing what was happening – at José to stop.

As quickly as it happened, the world once again expanded into existence, and light returned to their eyes as Donald, Panchito, and the boy fell in a heap on a quiet, empty porch.

Donald scrambled up. He stood there, utterly still, as if his mind could not process what happened.

Then he punched the wooden pillar so hard it splintered.

“José you fucking psychopath!” he screamed.

He punched it again, and again, and again, pieces of wood flying everywhere.

You. Piece. Of. Shit!”

An explosion rang not far away. A thick, ominous fog of black magic energy, visible over the rooftops, rose up towards the sky. It quickly descended back towards the earth, the unruly curtains of violet and blue and red and black disintegrating into the air like a spider’s web caught in the wind. They could hear people screaming.

A distraught noise escaped Panchito’s throat, and Donald’s legs could no longer carry him. Hands bleeding, he sank against the railing and without warning, burst into tears.

oOoOoOoOoOo

The rooster bounded ahead.

He pushed people aside and ran over a man as he tore down the road towards the sight of the explosion, recognizing the landmarks they had passed earlier to reach the place. He hoped Donald was right behind him, but he could not slow down for even a second.

People were roaming outside their houses – some in their underwear – yelling and cursing, and a few tried to help the police sift through the rubble but were pushed back. The side of the building had collapsed like a sandcastle. The foundation was eaten away, and the crater underneath was filled with blackened rubble and dirt. The unmistakable, foul energy emanating from the place only fed the neighbors' hysteria. Firemen ran around the perimeter, shouting at people to stay back while panicked dwellers trapped at the top in the building waved wildly from the breaking rails, screaming to be rescued.

Panchito hollered at them at the top of his lungs, but there was no sign of José. Beside himself, he dove for the remains of the staircase they had taken earlier; a large police dog caught him by the waist and pushed him back.

"I said stay back-!" he snapped in Portuguese.

"My friend is under there!" Panchito roared in his face. "Get out of my way!

"Step back," warned the cop. "Or I will arrest you. This is a catastrophe as it is – a macumba ring in this neighborhood of all places-! And you, boy – you should not be running with that kind of trash!"

Panchito's blood shot up to his brain. If it were not for Donald catching up to him and grabbing his arm in part to balance himself, and to stop him from reaching for his gun, things would have turned ugly.

"Kid. If you can do it, go to the morgue," the policeman said expressionlessly as he turned back towards the rubble. "Aside from the family up there, we still haven't found any survivors."

Donald started to sob.

Panchito turned and grabbed his face in his hands. “Will you stop thinking every travesty will happen to us!”

Donald only cried and brought his hands to his face, inconsolable. Panchito embraced him fiercely, as if trying to squeeze all the grief out of his soul.

"We..we have to go to the morgue," said the duck in a choked, broken whisper. He could hardly bear the look Panchito gave him as he pulled away, as if he had utterly betrayed him by the mere suggestion.

"No. No, we don't, and we won't," said the rooster, voice sounding like splintering wood. “Why the hell would you do this to yourself?! We have t-“

“We nothing! I know what you’re thinking and it’s bullshit!” cried Donald. “Look at all the cops and firemen, Panchito! We can’t sneak past anyone and I’m not gonna wait around for someone to find something!”

Panchito did not want to hear it; this could not be happening.

"I'm going alone," said Donald. "We..I – I have to go. I have to be sure."

He turned in the direction the policeman had pointed, his heart desperately wishing what his numbed mind knew could not be true. He soon realized where the road was taking him – José’s neighborhood. He stopped, trying to get a grip on himself, and failing miserably. He felt Panchito quickly come to his side.

Letting himself be half-pulled by the rooster, they made their way towards the hospital. Upon entering, a nurse hurried up to them, asking why they were there. It took Donald a few moments to come out of his miserable haze as he realized Panchito could not bring himself to speak. He stood there, helpless and tormented, as the nurse looked from one face to the other somberly.

We’re here to look-“ Donald could not continue. “We need to go to the morgue.”

Follow me,” she said quietly, and led them to the stairway.

The way down to the basement felt endless. Panchito was frighteningly silent, and instinctively, Donald grabbed his hand tightly. Panchito was too lost to notice.

The duck could hear a familiar – a horribly familiar – voice wailing on the other side of a door, and every part of his body felt like it was bleeding out. Panchito froze in his steps. Shuddering uncontrollably, and unable to contain another bout of tears, Donald still grabbed the handle and pushed the door open.

Two middle-aged toucans stood around the aluminum table. The female was in her nightgown, looking utterly dazed like she could not fathom her surroundings or why she was there. The male was a wretched mess, weeping in anguish.

On the table, dismally battered, and his face frozen in a sad, pained expression, was José. His once-vibrant, beautiful feathers were now shriveled, like dead leaves. Most were reduced to the color of soot, and what remained was drained of color. The markings on his face and neck remained there, dormant and empty like dried river beds, no longer having any magic to channel.

Donald sank to his knees, sobbing uncontrollably. He did not even recognize the figure that barged into the room and carelessly stepped over him.

I knew it would come to this..!” the new arrival spat deprecatingly. “I knew this would happen one day. A whole lot of good you were for him – hope the custody battle was worth it, you low-life scum!”

Donald lifted his drenched face to see someone he had only ever seen in the one photo José had of him – his biological father. It was uncanny how alike they looked, with the father looking as young as he did. Four other macaws barged into the room, shoving Panchito aside, and came to stand by Pedro where José lay, opposite of the distraught parents. One of them gave the toucans a look of utmost contempt, and made an appalling, offensive gesture in their direction.

How can you speak like this now?” shrilled the woman suddenly, like a spring had come to life. “And how dare you do this – over José’s head! How d-

Get bent, low-life. You lost any say the second you got the boy killed! The court decision is in our favor now so get the hell out of here. Pedro’s son will be buried in the family plan – his family plan.”

His family?! His. FAMILY?! Who the hell are you?” cried Tacito hysterically, his words nearly incomprehensible. To Donald, it felt like everything was unfolding on another plane of existence. “I’ve never even seen you a day in my life! Does José even – he doesn’t know half of you! How dare you show up now? How dare you show up now and make decisions for him! Where the hell were you his whole life?!

One of the older macaws spat in Tacito’s direction. “You blame us for this?!” he bellowed. “Your filthy kind is a curse on the world! Witches, all of you! You, and that dead bitch whoever she is in the next room are the cause of this! Teaching him to use black magic! And a fat lot of help that did!"

You have no idea what you’re talking about!” screeched José’s adoptive mother. “You were not helping him. You were only making things worse!”

I’m not interested in anything you have to say, woman,” said Pedro coldly. He reached for José. “Get out now or we involve the police; I don’t give a damn where we are. I’m taking my son and –“

Panchito's pistol was in Pedro’s face.

"Step away," hissed Panchito, and a cold shiver of dread ran down Donald’s spine.

Carioca,” warned Tacito.

Pedro had no intention of listening to the toucan, and absolutely no care to know who the bastard pointing a gun at him was. “The hell you think you can talk to me like that,” he growled, giving the rooster a withering, disgusted look. “Get your gun out of my face, imprestável.

Touch him and I’ll empty this gun in your head,” the rooster hissed, eyes wild.

“Panchito, no. Panchito-”

Pedro glared into the rooster’s eyes, his red-brown orbs full of contempt. “And you are his newest self-appointed guardian, I assume,” he said scathingly. “Now everyone thinks they have a say in José, it seems-! No one, and especially not the likes of you will tell me what to do with my son.”

Panchito’s bullet grazed by his face, only missing his left eye by an inch.

Panchito!” cried Donald again, horrified.

Get out!” bellowed the rooster, a hysteric edge to his voice now, murder in his eyes. “GET. OUT!

One of the macaws moved suddenly, and it only further enraged the rooster. He swung around – and aimed at his head.

NO!” screamed Donald, throwing himself against the rooster. They both landed on the floor, and the bullet lodged itself into the ceiling. By now, people were running and shouting outside. Someone was screaming for the police.

Miserable bastard,” said Pedro derisively. “I bet you had a hand in his death, too.”

Pedro could have stabbed him through the heart with a blunt knife and twisted until it was torn to shreds, and Panchito’s face would not have looked the way it did at those words.

Donald’s gut took control; he grabbed the slack-faced rooster and flew for the emergency exit.

He rammed it with his shoulder, ignoring the pain that shot through his body.  He heard the Cariocas’ angry bellows and other unfamiliar voices shouting behind him as the door slammed in their faces.

He ran faster than he’d ever run in his life. He was on autopilot, and hardly heard himself yelling at Panchito to run faster.

Soon, they were out in the humid, smoke-filled night once again. Pulling Panchito with him, and ignoring the searing pain in his lungs, Donald ducked into the alleys. They ran through Rio’s maze of narrow intertwined paths until they could go on no longer. Upon turning into a lonely alley, Donald collapsed in the grime, gasping desperately for air. His chest burned with every breath. Panchito crawled to him, just as breathless and afraid.

“I’m fine,” gasped Donald. “We’re fine. You scared me out of my wits...”

It would not let up; the grief struck him again, raw and unrelenting. He sank into the wall behind him, and like a child, buried his head in his knees, his body shaking with every sob.

Panchito stared unseeingly at the ground, his shaking fists closing on dirt. A violent shudder ran through his shoulders, and before his throat could completely betray him, he clambered to his knees. Donald lifted his tear-streaked face, and his expression broke the rooster’s heart. He pulled him to his feet and hugged him so tightly they could hardly breathe. Donald only wept harder, squeezing him back desperately.

“..Donald. I’m going after whoever’s responsible for this,” Panchito finally said in an odd, detached whisper, resting his beak on Donald’s shoulder. “Whoever’s in charge of this entire ring – I’m going to find them...and I’m going to finish them. Every last one of them. I’ll wipe this damned ring from existence.”

“You’re crazy,” was all Donald said, too spent to fight. Too spent to think.

“I’ll never rest until I do it.”

Rather than be the voice of reason his mind wanted him to be, and tell Panchito he was an idiot with a death wish, and that he was not thinking correctly and would either die or rot away in a prison cell if he kept bottling it until he snapped, Donald heard himself say: “How…”

“The machine.”

“How would the machine..?”

Keeping his arm tightly around the duck, he led them through the alley. Every sound other than the chirping of the crickets now seemed very distant and hazy. “It takes you where you want to go. It did it both times.”

“Something’s not right with that machine, Panchito..I don’t know what it is but it’s wrong. It feels very wrong..”

They were back were they came from; there stood the State Machine across the street at the end of the alley, nearly indiscernible from the wall behind it. The street was darker and quieter than before. Laundry hanging between the buildings swayed ever so slightly in the warm breeze, and above, people went on with their lives in their homes like any other day.

Panchito’s gait sped up to a run as they crossed the street to where the machine was tucked away in the dark. Adrenaline pumping in his veins, he pulled the latch, and the small door opened, revealing the dimly-lit interior with the strange blinking dots. He slammed his hand against the black cube. When it did not respond right away, he let out a stream of curses like a switch was flipped. He punched the cube again, his whole body shaking. He leaned his head against the cool wall, and a distressed sound escaped him. “Venga - llévanos al bastardo responsable de esto,” he whispered, the pain in his voice like a knife to Donald’s heart. “Just take me to whoever controls this accursed cesspit!”

Donald, frightened, distraught, warning bells ringing all over in his head, found himself pressing his palm against the cube as well. The State Machine came to life, and began to rise on its precarious legs. The minuscule, star-like white dots multiplied rapidly, winking at them from every side as the contraption lurched shakily to stand straight.

“Lo siento, Papá..” the rooster whispered, full of self-loathing. “Por favor estar bien..Espérame..”

Donald, tightly holding on to his friend, suddenly thought of Uncle Scrooge; a childishly intense, immediate sense of need rose.

Uncle Scrooge would have known what to do.

Uncle Scrooge would never have let all this cripple him, Donald thought. If his uncle were with them he would have mocked Donald, and ordered him to stop being a pathetic, crying mess. And then he would have saved everyone.

Why could he not be more like his uncle? 

Donald did not know how to pull himself out of the dark well he had fallen into, and Panchito was a landmine waiting to go off.

The State Machine took off, the stars adorning its walls silently twinkling. 

oOoOoOoOoOo

Donald pushed open the door to a darkened room. Faint moonlight shone down from the glass ceiling; beyond the high windows, the dark calm waters of a familiar bay ran uninterrupted.

A man turned around to face them from across the room, surprise evident on his face. Behind him stood a supercomputer almost as tall as the ceiling, with multiple displays and screens, each showing a different locale or an unfamiliar face.

"And who the hell are you two, now?" said the man, his beak oddly catching the light of one of the terminals behind him.

He remembered his uncle Scrooge's stories, and recognition struck Donald like lightening.

Steelbeak.

"You’re the one behind Anel Negro do Rio?" snarled Panchito. 

"Hmm? Sorry kid, I don' speak whatever that is," said the tall rooster dismissively. "You," he turned his narrowing eyes on Donald. “Have we met before?”

Panchito strode to the kelso rooster in three steps, pulled out his pistol, and aimed between his eyes. “Giovanna," he hissed, eyes murderous. "Do you know her?"

"Do I know her..” said Steelbeak coolly, ignoring the barrel to his head and looking steadily, almost thoughtfully, into Panchito’s eyes. “I gotta ask how you know her, and how the hell ya found this place.”

You have ten seconds to talk before I blow your head off,” gritted Panchito, hand shaking with barely-controlled rage, knuckles turning white.

“..Steelbeak,” growled an old, sinister voice out of one of the monitors behind them. “I just received confirmation that Agent 666 is dead. I repeat, Agent 666 was caught in a black magic attack that took down the entire River Ring base. The police and news anchors are swarming the place, activists are asking questions-

Steelbeak narrowed his eyes as the young rooster’s face changed, and betrayed him.  “You have somethin' to do with this,” he realized. His eyes shifted to Donald, and to the machine. “Well, how do ya like that – some cockerel and his amigo barge inta my base like they own the place and I’m left to clean up everybody’s mess. Why I always gotta be the one dealin’ with the loons – ya jus’ lost me ma main River Ring agent..!”

Without warning, he grabbed the younger rooster’s hand, the one holding the gun, and swiftly kicked him in the abdomen. Panchito flew back into Donald, both slamming against the machine. It jerked backwards, falling heavily on two of its thin, unstable spider limbs.

“I got no time for this,” snapped the rooster impatiently, sweeping his rich comb back. “I dunno what ya two did, but now I got this mess ta deal with. And...you,” he smirked, flipping Panchito's pistol in his hand. “How old are ya, 14? I don’ feel very good about killin’ children.”

Panchito was on his feet in the blink of an eye, and already dashing towards the older rooster. Donald nearly had a heart attack when Steelbeak, taken aback by the younger rooster’s speed, fired and missed. Using his shorter stature, Panchito spun with a heel kick. Rather than catch him under the chin, his foot connected with Steelbeak’s prosthetic. The white kelso rooster grinned down at the stunned Panchito morbidly.

Grabbing the younger rooster by the foot, he picked him clean off the ground, swung him full circle, and launched him against the far window. Glass shattered with a deafening explosion.

Steelbeak let out a thrilled bark of laughter. “Hah! I haven’t been in a fight like this for years –!”

He didn’t deflect Donald’s foot to the back of his head fast enough. The pistol flew out of his hand. Donald caught it in midair and dashed for the window, feeling Steelbeak’s fist grab at his tail feathers.

He saw Panchito scrambling on the roof outside, straining to keep a foothold on the damp, fragile surface. The duck leaned and jumped –

– only for Steelbeak to grab him from the back in an armlock.

Steelbeak was large, but he was not slow. Not in the least.

Donald made a choked, panicked noise, and clumsily threw the pistol towards his friend. He felt the white rooster’s cold beak against his cheek, and a chill ran up his spine. “This mess ya caused is gonna cost me an arm an' a leg,” he said derisively. “Ya better tell me who the hell ya workin’ with, or ya folks’ll be receivin’ a pizza – with ya pieces on it real soon.”

“Let him go,” yelled Panchito, gun at the ready.

“Or what, kid? Shoot. I’d like ta see how fast ya –"

Panchito fired, and Donald shut his eyes instinctively as his captor moved. He heard a spitting sound and something small and hot fell on his head and rolled down the side of his face.

The bullet landed uselessly by their feet.

Steelbeak had caught it in his beak. He laughed at the look on Panchito’s face, and hopped onto the roof. They were high up; the cold night air picked up ceaselessly, seeping into the bones. Steelbeak did not seem particularly affected. Keeping Donald in front of him like a shield, he took deliberate, composed steps up to the red rooster, whose weapon shook despite both hands on it, finger on the trigger, looking for any opening, any opportunity.

Steelbeak stopped only when was directly over the younger rooster, nearly twice his height, many times as broad. He looked down at him haughtily. "Really, kid?  Really? Ya have the eyes of a fighter, but ya never gonna amount t’ anythin’ more than a chicken –  ‘cause when ya have good aim it don’ mean one damn thing-"

He leaned so close their beaks were almost touching. He grinned unpleasantly at Panchito’s tormented face.

“– if ya can’t aim to kill.”

Panchito fired again the moment Steelbeak’s left hand reached forward. The bullet moved between his index and middle finger, and grazed the flesh on his upper arm, tearing through the sleeve. He cursed at the flaring pain, and Donald tried to kick his way out of the iron grip. However, the large kelso rooster only tightened his hold. “Better. But so long as ya not willin’ ta hurt your pal, ya getting’ nowhere.”

“I’m nothing like you,” spat Panchito in disgust.

“That ya not,” said the white rooster, unmoved, even as red began to stain through the torn sleeve. “What are ya here for, really? Who ya with and what’s it gotta do with Giovanna’s ring? Bustin’ ma place like that, losin’ me ma most important agent down in Macaco Land. Whoever sent ya two sure don’ love ya – Steelbeak’s never known for makin’ things easy!”

He grabbed Panchito's pistol hand again, and the younger rooster’s face blanched in terror, removing his finger from the trigger like a hot coal when he thought Steelbeak would make him shoot his friend.

Steelbeak took the pistol, and dangled it in front of its owner tauntingly. “Damn. You really are a kid. This is jus’ embarrassin’ – I thought they taught ya spics down there how ta fight.”

The rain began to fall more heavily, and the wind became colder. Donald flailed again, knowing the rain would slicken his own feathers to a great amount whilst the rooster’s would grow heavier. He managed to wriggle just enough to swing his fist into the tall rooster’s kidney, then elbow him square in the neck cavity. For a split second, Steelbeak’s breath was knocked out, and the duck managed to get away just as Panchito, fighting instinct kicking in, saw his opening and took a high jump. Using his falling speed, he hooked his leg around the larger rooster’s neck and slammed him beak-first into the glass roof. 

The fragile pane underneath them cracked, and gave way. They tumbled through the ceiling and back into Steelbeak’s headquarters. Panchito grappled for his gun, and the blood froze in his veins when he heard Donald let out a galled yell of pain; Steelbeak had landed full-weight on his leg. 

“That maneuver. I knew somethin’ was familiar about ya!” a grin spread across Steelbeak’s face as the duck breathlessly scrambled away. "You're McDuck's nephew. I can’t believe it took me this long ta place it – you and the old bastard look so much alike.”

Panchito dove in front of Donald, kicking the older rooster in the face as he reached for the duck’s foot.

“Donald, get in the machine!” said Panchito. Donald hobbled, bone displaced and foot rapidly swelling, biting hard on his lower lip as pain shot through his nerves.

“Th – the machine is doing this..I don’t know how, but the machine is doing all this-!” the duck again objected fearfully.

“Security!” shouted Steelbeak. A dark, featureless face looking down from one of the monitors grunted in response. “Code S.H.U.S.H! I repeat, Code S.H.U.S.H!”

"Out of commission," the irate, faceless voice growled. "Duckhacker Base Meltdown, by Agent McDuck. Awaiting backup."

“Get in – this is gonna be the last time we use it,” grit Panchito urgently, pushing him towards the machine whilst keeping aim at the angry Steelbeak. “Once I’ve taken down this bastard.” With one arm, he picked Donald and pushed him through the door, then stood over it.

Steelbeak was only feet away; Panchito held the gun in his hand, finger on the trigger. The older kelso rooster rose to his feet, staring unblinkingly into the younger rooster’s eyes.

Donald fell back against the shimmering wall of the machine with its haphazard, unintelligible lines of text, and tried to dispel the faintness coming over him as black began to spread around the corners of his eyes. It was so difficult to distinguish nightmare from reality anymore.  He desperately, terribly, wished for Uncle Scrooge to be there.

He could not fathom what their lives had come to; José was gone, and Panchito was about to kill a man. Panchito had never killed anyone in his life and would never consider killing a weaponless foe; neither his pride nor integrity would allow it.

Tears began to pool in Donald’s eyes again as he fought to stay conscious. He was a failure, a complete failure, and the worst person his best friends could have possibly had the misfortune of knowing. He should have been able to stop this, and he could not.

Had the machine…changed him? Changed all of them?

“..I can't,” Donald heard Panchito whisper, and his voice suddenly broke. “I can't shoot him – this bastard I can't shoot him!” The dam broke. Tears ran down his face so suddenly, so ceaselessly Donald instinctively grabbed onto him.

“How…can I face him afterwards – he’s – it scared him...he made me swear never to shoot anyone!” the rooster sobbed in raw anguish. The arm holding the weapon shook so badly its rattling could be heard over the pitter patter of the evening summer rain.

“..This is the funniest and mos' pathetic goddamn thing that's ever happened to me.”

Steelbeak was on him in an instant. He grabbed the rooster’s hand, the one holding the gun, and with the other hand strained Panchito head back by the comb and pushed him to his knees. The haughty expression on the white rooster’s face changed as he peered at his nemesis’s head more closely.

“Hold on - you’re an adult?!” he gaped. “Oh ma good looks an’ striking wattles, you’re an adult!” he began to laugh raucously. “Oh well, that changes everything!”

He cruelly brought a knee down on the red rooster’s beak. Blood began to gush out of his nose.

“I’m almost feelin’ secondhand embarrassment, here, ya know what I mean? I mean you’re here to like avenge ya precious comrade or whateva, and I’m puttin’ up with it all ‘cause here I thought you were just a kid and I’m hella more interested in gettin’ even with McDuck. But this..wow. Wow. I'd be humiliated. This cockfight's over before it even began.

"As for you, McDuckling," he smiled as he shoved the lightheaded duck with a foot. "Ya better ready what ya wanna say to ya cold bastard of an uncle if ya ever wanna see ‘im again..I doubt someone like ‘im cares, though.”

"Get in the machine," gasped Panchito through the pain. Donald shook his head, incapable of forming words. He grabbed for his friend’s arm, but Steelbeak roughly pulled his captive away from the machine’s door.

“Oh, yeah, do get ‘im here!” said Steelbeak in mocking delight. “But before ya go-“ he twirled Panchito’s gun around, and aimed the barrel at its own owner’s head.

“I’d have shot me when I had the chance, if I were you. Then I woulda jus’ told ma wussy pal to suck it up and deal with it if we ever met again. This..is jus' pathetic. And for what? Some stupid sense of pride? Ya think I don’t have any pride? Look at me, look at my face. Isn’t having ya beak snapped the ultimate humiliation? But I survived. I'm doin’ just fine and I’m stronger for it. Ya wear ya losses like a badge of honor! Ya suck it up an’ move on. You, are just an arrogant cockerel with a gun.”

Despite the white rooster’s huge fist clamped on his head, and a gun to his forehead, Panchito managed to stand back up.

“Please. Leave,” Panchito said to his friend, voice beyond heartbroken. He tried to turn his head to look at the duck, but Steelbeak’s grip was unshakeable.

I can’t. Not you and José in one day.

“Well, at least you’ll go down like a man,” said Steelbeak coldly. “Come on, get ya uncle, McDuckling. I’ll be waitin’.” He removed the safety, and pressed the gun to Panchito’s forehead. He looked over at Donald, eyes goading him. Waiting for him to plead.

His cruel satisfaction slowly morphed to confusion, then incredulity when Donald instead turned around, and smashed his fist against the black cube in the machine with everything he could muster. A crack ran through it, and the interior exploded with infinite stars. Donald slammed a fist through the detector again. And again. And again. Tears streamed down his face, yet not a single sound could come out of his beak. His mind had shut down, and only one desperate mantra remained.

It’s all a dream. This is all just a bad dream. No one is this useless in life. It’s all jus-

 “Ya really gonna leave your friend behind like that?!” cried the kelso rooster, sounding comically offended. “Are ya sure ya McDuck’s relative? Ya even more of a child than Spiccy here – at least he ain’t a coward!”

The machine. It did all this.

Donald knew how this nightmare was going to end. He could not have spoken a single word if he wanted to; he smashed his fist against the black cube again, and it split in two.

The machine’s belly rose off the ground, and began to spin on its long, spindly legs.

The last thing he heard was a single gunshot, loud and clear like the crack of lightening in an empty field, and his legs gave out. He saw a million stars flash blinding white, and he knew no more.

oOoOoOoOoOo

Donald felt a sting on his face, and then another. He blearily opened his eyes, and saw his uncle Scrooge’s face gazing down at him in a mixture of worry and impatience, a hand in the air only inches away from his face.

“He’s up!” his uncle called over his shoulder. A scared, albeit grateful voice responded, “Oh, thank heavens.” The sound of running footsteps soon followed.

Donald gazed upwards, and saw thick smog hanging overhead across the night sky. A distant sound, like thunder or an explosion, reached his ears. Gray smoke rose to join the dark, growing smog.

He looked to his side, but all he saw was a white surface. He felt something soft like a blanket or towel under his head, yet a strange coolness emitted from underneath it. His body ached, and his mind sluggishly struggled to catch up.

Scrooge climbed over the smooth, sloped surface and kneeled next to him, moving the younger duck so that his head was at a more comfortable angle. “What happened? How did ye find us?”

Donald stared at him, uncomprehending. Gyro’s face suddenly appeared next to Scrooge’s.

“Donald, what happened?!” he asked urgently "And what the heck did you do to my machine?"

Machine?

"The pulser is smashed! The equations are broken and the thought processor is a complete mess!" he cried, dragging tense fingers through his hair. “I can't read it! What did you and your friends do?!"

The duck continued to stare, mind refusing to cooperate, tongue refusing to form words. Getting worried now, Scrooge began to look for injuries in the younger duck's head. “Donald, are ye listening?”

"Wh.." he slurred. "Uncle..wh..what are you t..doing here?"

“What are we doing ‘ere? Blowing up one of their bases, what else? Bringing down their whole operation before it begins. That’s the Duckhacker base over there goin’ up in blazes. Ah knew F.O.W.L was behind this –” Scrooge said proudly. “Ah’ve known fer a while, but not even they can get the best of Scrooge McDuck.”

“This..is a dream..right?” said Donald, throat dry as sandpaper, voice coming out in a childish plea. He turned to Gyro, and whatever the inventor saw there must have alarmed him, by the expression on his face.

“Donald. Get yer mahrbles together or ah’ll slap ye again,” demanded Scrooge, and raised his nephew’s torso so he was sitting against the cold surface. His broken leg throbbed painfully.

Donald realized he was sitting in a bathtub. A bathtub, in the middle of the woods.

This has to be a dream.

“Donald you have to explain to me what you guys did with the machine,” pressed Gyro urgently. “And don’t tell me you don’t know – it’s got all your signatures all over it! And where are José and Panchito? Why aren’t they with you?”

“An’ donnae ye go tryin te cover up fer them,” Scrooge added exasperatedly. “Yer always talking them into touching things they shouldnae be touching.”

Complete devastation befell him with crushing force. Donald heaved, and the old duck and his inventor nearly had a heart attack when he broke into uncontrollable sobbing. The true gravity of what had happened, what he had caused, settling in in all its horror.

“Calm down an’ quit yer keenin! Ah donnae understand!” said Scrooge.

Gyro barely managed to hear a few words through the incoherent weeping, and the color drained from his face completely.

“What? What are you t – it’s not a teleporter or a simulator!” he shouted suddenly, alarming Scrooge even more. “The State Machine is not a simulator!  Donald,” he leaned again and grabbed the distraught duck by the shoulders and shook him hard. “What did you and your friends do?”

I don’t know!” he cried. “How would I understand anything on your damn blueprints or that fucking thing – we didn’t understand – I thought it was a goddamn teleporter but – it, it changed things and we just –"

“You complete idiot!” the inventor shrieked, looking almost deranged to Scrooge. “How can you use something you don’t understand!

“Gyro, what -!”

“This machine incorporates your thoughts into current reality! How far did you push it? What kind of thoughts did you feed it-!”

“I couldn’t save them!” the duck cried. “I – I’m – just a stupid, impulsive coward! I’m the one who convinced them to use it –! We – we wanted to save Panchito’s dad and everywhere we went things just kept g-g – José was so scared and he didn’t want anything to do with – them we shouldn’t have been there and Panchito – Panchito couldn’t think straight after José and –” they could hardly understand his incomprehensible speech, but the grief more than answered Gyro’s question.

“Bless me bagpipes..” whispered Scrooge. Gyro only stared in speechless horror.

“..and – I...left him behind,” whispered Donald to himself, in absolute disbelief. He buried his face in his hands, fingers dragging through disheveled feathers. “I left him behind to that evil bastard –”

Scrooge rose to his feet, and smacked his nephew across the face.

“Did ye learn anathin at all from me?” he said. “Apparently not...! Blazing kilts, this is what ah get for treatin ye dolts like adults. Ah clearly ordered ye te stay put ahn let me handle it. Yer an idiot, nephew, but ah never thought ye to be this foolish."

“I’m nothing like you,” said the younger duck heartbrokenly. “I’m nothing like you. I got to you because that damn thing knew I could do nothing on my own!”

“Yer not a child, ye can’t expect me to always save yer ninny bahookie! Ah donnae have time t’ babysit an’ squander ma fortune on ye for the rest of yer life!”

Still ashen-faced, Gyro pulled out a first aid kit from his bag, and started applying something to Donald’s swollen leg. The duck let out a miserable yelp when his fingers pressed on the broken bone, but Gyro absently kept on applying his medicine without halt, mind racing a thousand miles.

“You’ve really done it this time,” he said with forced calm; his voice, normally mellow and kind, shook with anger and disappointment. “After all the times you used something of mine you shouldn’t have, you still went and did it again.

“Mr. McDuck,” he sighed, knowing exactly what his employer’s reaction would be. “Before any more time passes –"

“No,” said Scrooge crossly.

Gyro ignored him. “– let Donald take the tub before it’s too late.”

“..Blasted bagpipes. Blast them all, and blast ye, too.”

A numbing sensation was slowly spreading through Donald’s limb and up to his abdomen, effect of Gyro’s strange lotion. “If he goes back to the time before I finalized the State Machine’s handlers, we’ll prevent this.”

“Ahn what about the weeks of spyin’ and running around te know the layouts of these blasted bases? Ye know how many times ah had to go back to the past to know exactly what te dae now?”

“I know –”

This is why I hate involving fahmily,” he seethed, turning to Donald. “Dae ye know how many times it took te crash this operation an’ save ma factories and get yer friend’s father out alive?”

Donald could not speak. His face burned with shame, tears still running down his cheeks.

“Listen to me very carefully, Donald. You have to do exactly as I say,” Gyro began while Scrooge continued to fume behind them. “Take the Time Tub, and go back to before I designed the handlers. I know that was before your friends arrived, but I’m not sure when. You should know; figure out the right time and do it.

“Tell Past Me the machine is too dangerous, and that I sent you. Its reception is too vast – it has to be destroyed before it causes anymore disasters,” the inventor said bitterly. “But before I – Past Me destroys it, you’re going to have to merge your past and current selves.”

“How..?”

“You can’t co-exist separately, it’s too dangerous,” warned Gyro. “This is the only way I can think of to fix this; use the machine to merge your two minds, your past self, and your current one.”

“The machine can do that..?”

“I made it for a specific purpose; it was never meant to be used the way you used it,” said Gyro shortly, not really answering the question. Guilt settled alongside the grief, and Donald looked away. The very thought of using that accursed machine again filled him with a dread that flowed like poison through his veins.

“I shouldn’t..I don’t know if I can use it again..”

Gyro put away his medical kit. “You need the right key. Show the key I’ll give you to the Past Me, and h – I – will know what to do.”

Gyro splayed his hand in front of Donald’s face, and the duck was able to more clearly see that from the tips of his fingers down to the wrist, black marks in that peculiar language all joined up to a circular center smack in the heart of his palm.

“Without a key, the machine goes off of whatever loudest thoughts the pulser happens to pick up. It would be completely unpredictable, and the exception handlers would be useless.

"Gimme your hand. Show this key to Past Me and I’ll make the changes needed to the equations. You’ll use the machine to become one with yourself, and then I'll destroy it.”

He took the duck’s shaking hand, and began to draw with the black marker, the very same Donald had watched him use in the workshop. The strange texture of the ink made a shiver run down the duck’s spine; it was strangely cool and heavy against his skin, and felt like thickened tree sap.

Donald had never felt lower in his life. He had given Gyro a lot of scares in the past; he had lost his uncle millions of dollars over blunders before, but nothing like this. He had nothing of worth to say; apologizing felt like an invitation to a spit in the face.

And he knew he deserved it.

“There. Now I’ll adjust the settings of the Tub to get you where you need to go. Do. Not. Touch. These buttons. I’ve already input what’s necessary. The only thing you can use is that dial, to go a few hours forward or back if you need to. IF. You. Need to.”

Gyro's fingers flew over several buttons, in sequences too elaborate for the duck to understand or memorize. He then twisted the taps, and the Time Tub began to whirr, like a car.

Donald turned to his uncle, desperately wanting to ask he forgive him. He wanted to tell him there was little in the world that made him feel as small as he did whenever he proved himself to be too stupid and too emotional to do anything right.

He had always prided himself in putting others first, like his own grandmother always did. It had been a point of contest with his pragmatic uncle for years; he – Donald – proudly declared he had the heart, the selflessness to protect and love. He was not a slave to his own empire of wealth, or a target of endless enemies, taking him away from what’s ‘really important’.

And yet, it would again be Uncle Scrooge who saves the world.

He was cheap. And his words were cheaper than he was.

“Uncle Scrooge…”

Wot.” Was the cross reply from the pacing old duck.

“Uncle...this is the worst time I’ve messed up, an..”

Scrooge decided he was not done ranting. “Only undoing weeks' warth of everythin ah busted mah bahookie te accomplish,” snapped Scrooge shortly with a glare that would have shamed Zeus himself.

“I can’t do anything right,” the younger duck said. Tears started afresh, and the scabbing of an old, buried wound peeled off, and began to bleed again.

“The only thing I ever did right was leave the boys in your care. There’s no one they look up to more.”

Scrooge looked at his nephew intently. He seemed to want to say something, but changed his mind. “The last time ye donald’d oan me, ye lost me thirty million dollars,” he growled instead. “Ah cannae bring maself te think how much yer stupidity will cost meh this time; ah’m lookin’ at – at – argh, I cannae even say it!

“Yer an expensive piece of work, nephew. Too expensive for a poor auld man like me.”

His face remained frigid, lines tense, yet something in his eyes ever so slightly softened.

“Gettae. Save yer friends.”

oOoOoOoOoOo

The Time Tub came to an abrupt stop as its stubby legs touched earth, and the first thing to hit Donald’s nostrils was the familiar scent of Daisy’s daffodils, lovingly planted in his back garden.

For a few minutes, he sat unmoving in the tub. He let the familiar neighborhood noises wash over him; he heard his neighbor Jones yelling at someone over the telephone from the living room. He heard old lady Robin's many dogs barking in her backyard, and the neighborhood kids hollering and running to catch their rides to school. Everything was so normal, it felt dreamlike. It was like so much time had passed, even though it was only a few nightmarish hours.

He closed his eyes and let the warm sun come down on his exhausted, disheveled body, wondering for a moment if maybe he should go to sleep and never wake again. He heard movement close by, and his eyes snapped back open. He saw a form pass by his own living room window and his heart jumped, dispelling the daze that almost took over him. He crouched down in the tub, and watched.

The figure in the house stilled for a few moments, then made their way to the front door. There was a sound of rustling keys, and the door opened.

He saw himself, walking out the door to work. His past self was whistling under his breath – a catchy tune José had taught him. There was a skip to his gait, contentment to his demeanor.

Donald knew exactly where and when he was.

He had just hung up with his friends. They would be coming to Duckburg in a couple days.

He also remembered the odd feeling of being watched, as he walked out the door that day. But he had thought little of it, too excited to worry.

As soon as his past self turned around the fence, he got out of the tub, and took quiet, low steps to the backdoor, careful not to stumble on his numbing, injured leg. He wobbled through the kitchen and made his way to the phone in the living room. With shaking hands, he dialed José’s number. A part of him was terrified it would all be a crazy dream, and he would wake up to find himself back in that nightmare reality he had somehow helped create.

E ai, como vai,” said José’s soft voice though the speaker.

Donald opened his mouth, but nothing came out. His hand tightened on the phone until it creaked, and instead he began to cry.

O que..Donal’?” said José’s in alarm. “What’s happened, what’s wrong?!”

He must have really scared his friend, calling him only minutes ago, cheerful and eager, only to call him again a crying mess.

Oh no, has someone died!” cried José, mind jumping to the worst.

The duck struggled to speak. “No, no, it’s fine. Everything is fine, I promise. Just..something came up and it looks like we gotta postpone for a couple weeks. It’s fine.”

I don’ understand. You don’ sound fine.”

Donald smiled, tears still trickling from his eyes. “I know, but I am, honest. A lot has happened but I think it’ll be fine. Talk t’ya later, Joe.”

Eh? Wai-"

Donald hung up before he alarmed the parrot even further. Deciding it was better to call Panchito before José does and they start jumping to all kinds of horrific conclusions together, he dialed up the rooster's number immediately.

Panchito started screaming on the phone, then screaming louder when he realized Donald was crying despite saying he was not, demanding to know what happened and if Scrooge had upset him again. As with José, Donald excused himself, barely managing to hang up before Panchito could crack him into admitting everything. He could not do that, he just could not. This was one secret he wanted to bury it in the darkest pit and forget it ever happened.

But then of course, Uncle Scrooge would not let him. Typical Uncle Scrooge.

He pressed the button on the answer machine, and his uncle’s odd message played again. This time, he understood.

Ye owe me big fer this, nephew,” said Scrooge’s angry voice. “Ye'll help me recoup these losses and ye'll like it. Report to ma bin at the crack of doun for the next one thousand years. An' ye not gettin’ a cent from me.

oOoOoOoOoOo  

"What do you mean I have to destroy it?!" yelled Gyro. His voice carried through the entire workshop, prompting Lil Bulb to come running out of the next room in concern. It was always a strange sight, hearing the normally-quiet inventor shout and eyes flash in indignation. "You know how long I've been working on this thing! It's almost finished – I haven't slept for days!"

Full of self-loathing, Donald raised his palm to show the key to the inventor. "You in the future knew you wouldn't accept it," he said. "So you gave me this key to…undo the mess it caused."

Gyro looked at the key, knowing beyond doubt it was created by him and no one else. He also knew better than anyone to never ask questions about future events. His brow furrowed as his eyes went over every symbol. He then eyed the duck suspiciously. "Donald, tell the truth – is this because of you?"

Donald could not bring himself to look him in the eye. "Of course it is," said the inventor bitterly. Donald felt like absolute dirt.

"I haven't even really used it yet. God, all this hard work…"

“It’s not worth it –” said Donald. He almost said believe me, but held his tongue.

Gyro turned to his massive blueprints, full of disappointment. Lil Bulb stood on the workstation, arms crossed and stamping a foot at the duck in disapproval. The inventor sifted through the pages and without a word, pulled out one long sheet and walked to the undamaged machine. Donald could barely stand to look at it; it looked more disquieting than ever.

Gyro opened the small compartment, and a small keyboard popped out. He began to type away.

"This is going to take a good while."

It was not long before Donald drifted into a deep, uneasy sleep in the hammock. In his dreams, he went to a bizarre place, a world where Steelbeak filed for custody of the boys, José was the mastermind behind F.O.W.L, Panchito begged for pennies on the side of the road and Scrooge finally made good on his promise to disown him. He would run and run, but paths never led anywhere. He would block horrible ideas that came to him, but they would materialize and torment him anyway.

At one point, he awoke, drenched in sweat and terrified. He realized through the haze in his head that he must have yelled in his sleep, for Gyro was standing at his side, with a hand on his arm, looking worried. Donald ran his hand across his face, and realized he was also crying.

Gyro disappeared and came back with a familiar vial in hand, his dreamless sleep potion. Donald was too tired to object when the inventor made him drink the whole thing in a single gulp.

When he rose again from his sleep, it was dark night. He turned to look at Gyro, still typing away at the keyboard. He had dark circles under his eyes, and they were bloodshot behind the glasses slipping down his beak; his face was lined with exhaustion.

I'm the worst person any one could be cursed to know; he knew that. Sometimes, he did not know why people put up with him; Scrooge, Fethry, Gyro, Daisy, even Grandma…

They're family. They're stuck with me. It's not like they can do anything about it, he thought in self-deprecation.

But what about Joe and Panchito? Why on earth do they put up with you, a voice in his head spoke.

He turned his face into the pillow, gritting his teeth and trying to banish the unbearable thought. His eyes burned.

"Donald?"

"Yeah..," was all he could say without making it obvious he was crying again.

"Wait, are you crying..? Did the potion not work? It always worked for me," said Gyro, sounding upset.

Donald shook his head, not taking his face out of the pillow. "No.." was all he said.

Gyro stayed silent, his uncertainty palpable, and it made Donald feel even worse. He was not going to give Gyro a harder time than he already did. He forced himself up and off the hammock, drying his eyes. "It's fine, I was just..being me. Is..is it ready?"

"Almost. Where's the other you right now?"

Donald thought for a moment. "Home."

"Alone?"

Donald nodded.

"Good. I'd rather there be nobody around."

"Gyro, will merging my two minds change my future?" Donald asked apprehensively.

"Of course it will. Isn't that how these things work?" said Gyro, looking surprised at the question. "Don't worry, I wrote the handlers to affect you and no one else," he said upon seeing Donald's scared expression. "This is a very precise key."

He pushed the keyboard back into its compartment, and opened the latch. The door of the State Machine swung open, and the interior was exactly the way it was when Donald first saw it – equations ran across its walls from top to bottom, not a space was left unmarked, except for the black cube fixed to one side.

"Get in."

At first, Donald could not move. He looked at the machine like it could come to life at any moment and do something drastic. Gently, Gyro took his hand, and pulled him to his side. "It'll work the way it should this time. When I tell you, press your palm against the pulser right here. The machine will run its course as programmed, so keep your hand on it and don't move until I tell you."

"But it will move, what do I do when it moves?"

Gyro looked alarmed. "It won't move. It will merge your selves into one right here so I can monitor everything. I won't let it cause any more damage, I promise," said Gyro, sounding guilty and confused.

He didn't deserve Gyro. He didn't deserve any of them.

Swallowing the lump in his throat, he stepped into the machine, and shakily placed his palm on the cube. He took a deep breath, and steadied his hand at the inventor's request. Gyro stood over his shoulder, looking over everything. One of the lines across the interior began to glow, and then another. Soon they were all glowing, and tiny dots of light began to appear from the engraved equations. At first, Donald thought they would break free and blink haphazardly all around him as they did the previous times.

But they did not. They all moved slowly through the text like water through a stream, and pooled into the space behind the black cube.

"Your thoughts are extremely negative," said Gyro suddenly, observing the equations. "No, try to control them – think good things."

As if Donald's mind just wanted to spite him, it reminded him of every reason he did not deserve the people in his life. He squeezed his eyes against the onslaught, shaking his head.

"Think about the people that bring you joy," said Gyro, knowing well it was what meant so much to the duck.

Then a thought, seemingly out of nowhere, seeped through the poisonous ones and dispelled them. One after another they presented themselves, content and warm, in a haze of images and sounds and emotions; of him, José, and Panchito.

"Your two states are merging," said Gyro behind him. "This is great. I think your other self is having a good dream."

If he was a coward for refusing to face these fears, then let him be. He could not bear to think of his life without the people he loved. He was a selfish, clumsy idiot, and no matter how many times he hurt them, he still wanted them to love him anyway.

"Donald, you're crushing my hand."

The illuminated equations shone vividly, the space behind the black cube glowing white. Donald focused on it, determined to not let the stupid thing get a hold of his fears again. The equations on the walls began to dim, and the pulser hummed ever so softly under his palm.

"Is it going alright?"

"Yes, yes, it's working great! I'm so relieved. At least I can have some peace knowing it works, before I destroy it."

Once Donald was allowed to remove his palm, Gyro tapped in a few more commands. The State Machine's lights turned off completely, and the humming came to a somber stop.

"I don't know what I would've–" Donald could not bring himself to continue the statement. "Gyro, I'm sorry. I know it means nothing, but I'm sorry. I'm sorry for everything."

The inventor only sighed, and took out a bottle of a clear liquid, and began to wipe the key off of the duck's hand. "You might feel a bit disoriented for a few days, so I think you should take some time off work. Give yourself a break, call in sick and stay in bed. You do it all the time anyway," he said with a smile. "And please – go to a doc for your leg."

"I –"

"I know you - don't go telling me you have no money," interrupted the inventor. "I'll drag you there if I have to. I'll pay for it – won't be the first time. Go sleep, and I'll pass by tomorrow to take the Tub and then go to the doc together."

Choked, Donald threw his arms around him. Gyro just sighed, and wrapped an arm around his back.

"You'll still pay me back, you know," he said calmly.

oOoOoOoOoOo

It was very quiet in the neighborhood when Gyro generously dropped him off at his house a short while later. Donald stood there on his doorstep for a long time. He could not hear anything except for the crickets, and a neighbor's old TV set. The street was empty and lonely; everyone had already gone to bed.

He opened the door, and a whirlwind of feathers ran into him full on, knocking the air out of his lungs. “Eu estive tão preocupado!” said José. He held the stunned Donald’s face in his hands and looked at him anxiously. “Now you can’t run, tell me what’s wrong!”

Panchito came up to his side and promptly crushed him against his chest. “Thanks for scaring the crap out of us. I wasn’t gonna wait two days to know what’s going on. Now, spill it.”

Donald was so shocked, so overwhelmed by the fact that his friends – his wonderful, beautiful, amazing friends were right in front of him, that he spoke the first words that came to mind.

"How much did you pay for that last-minute plane ticket?!"

Panchito burst into with laughter. José slapped the duck lightly on the arm. "Don't change the subject," he said.

“It’s nothing, honest!” said Donald, even as tears began to pool in his eyes. His friends glared at him. “It was just one of those days – you know my luck, guys – one thing after the other…"

"What happened to your leg?" demanded Panchito, noticing his swollen limb. "And why on earth do you look like you've been in a war?"

"I told you, it was one of those days.." he trailed off weakly as he was pushed into his favorite armchair. Panchito, who had first aid experience, began to tend to his foot. José, still giving the duck the I-won't-let-you-sweep-this-under-the-rug look, decided to drop the matter for the time being and launched into explaining the plan for their vacation, now updated with plenty of rest time and doctor check-ups for Donald. He quickly realized that Donald was looking at them, but not really listening.

"So first, you scare me senseless I almost teleport here with my black magic," said José. "You don' tell me what happened, and now you're not listening to me?"

Donald said nothing, but simply leaned over and hugged him so hard the parrot let out a breathless squeak. “You don’t know how happy I am now that you’re both here. This means the world to me.”

"You're still not telling us something. If it's McDuck who made you this upset, I swear I will make him regret it. Sorry, Donal', I don't care if he's your uncle."

Donald laughed softly. "One: no, it ain't him. And two: really? You wanna duke it out with Uncle Scrooge? You don't know who you're dealing with."

"Then tell me what upset you this much."

"Just me. I upset me. You know when one thing after the other happens, and you're so done you just lose it when you eat your sandwich and it's all mouldy and tastes funny?"

His friends just stared at him, which made him laugh even more. The tension in his shoulders began to lift. He pulled his friends in an embrace and a new wave of tears came over him.

“Oh no. No..amigo, don' cry..eu não posso fazer nada por isso..” José said helplessly. The confusing statement only made Donald’s heart swell with love, and he found himself laughing through his tears. It was so simple, so oddly put, and so very José. And of course, Donald understood it completely.

He hugged them both again so tight they could barely breathe.

oOoOoOoOoOo

The exhausted inventor drew a strike across the machine’s wall, breaking the last of the algorithms. With disappointment, he disconnected the pulser, placed it on the work table, and sawed through it. Lil Bulb looked on, his light faintly flickering in sympathy with his maker’s melancholy.

Gyro then messily rolled up the blueprints and turned his old stove on. The orange flame loudly burst into life. His hand hovered over the fire, the documents inches away from destruction. He stood there for several moments, fingers refusing to cooperate and let go.

He had designed this machine to find a solution for his obsession, his thoughts and concepts that, once taking hold, never let him go. It was a paradox; this was what made him create it in the first place.

Knowing he should not be doing this, he turned off the stove, and stuffed the blueprints into the bottommost drawer of the workspace.

He had always had a problem letting go of ideas whenever they got hold of him. Maybe someday, he would be able to look at these plans – on which he had spent weeks of sleepless nights, and finally throw them away without regrets.

Someday.

oOoOoOoOoOo

Fin