The soldiers storm into the food court down the escalators and through the open roof. They don't even look twice at the huge carcass stinking like turds and rotten meat and bleach, just keep going until they stop in front of El and Mike.
They lower their weapons and one speaks into his shoulder-mounted radio. It crackles back with instructions, to which he nods. He gestures at the rest and they all take a sharp left toward what used to be Scoops.
"Our tax dollars at work," Steve says.
Robin snorts. "Like you pay taxes."
"I pay taxes! There's a shit-ton taken out of my paycheck every week, you ought to see it, might as well be paying Scoops International for the privilege of working there—." Suddenly, he slumps against the wall and grabs his head. "Oh, no."
"What is it?" Will asks as they round a dented column to join Steve and Robin.
"Did you get flay feedback?" Lucas asks. "Holy shit, dude! He got flay feedback!"
Alarmed, Robin pulls Steve closer against her. "What the hell is flay feedback?"
Lucas looks, if anything, kind of thrilled. "We were just talking about it, right? That thing had an enormous amount of power. Where did it all go? What if there are knock-on effects? Like a wave traveling outward, obviously it's going to decrease over distance, but we're pretty close and —"
"So it's made-up," Robin says and turns back to Steve. "Harrington. Talk to me. What's wrong?"
"Scoops," he whimpers. "Scoops. Ahoy?"
"Is he stoned?" Will asks.
Robin thinks about it and shrugs. "Maybe? I don't think so."
"We don't have jobs any more, Robin!" Steve struggles to sit up right, then pulls himself to his feet by clasping an exposed rebar. "What's going to happen to us? Can Scoops transfer us? Will they transfer us together? My uncle got transferred to the Denver branch of his bank and —"
"We'll get new jobs," Robin tells him.
"My dad's gonna kill me."
"What the flesh monster missed, Mr. Harrington will sow," Robin says, patting him consolingly. "The cycle of life."
Steve buries his face against her hair. Despite everything, it smells really nice. Like lilies of the valley. "Doctor Harrington. He's very strict on that."
"Uh, guys?" Lucas leans over the buckled railing. "What's going on down there?"
Will joins him, then Steve and Robin.
There's a gray-haired guy in a trench coat down on one knee in front of El. Mike's talking fast, moving his hands, while Max just stands there, holding El's hand and looking confused.
"Aw!" Steve crows. "El's getting engaged!"
"I don't think so," Lucas says.
Owens reads from a smudged index card. "...therefore, on behalf of the United States as deputized by Nebulon Convention XXXIII, I am very honored to invest you as the sole legitimate ruler of the whole and entire Sursum-8 Galaxy from now until well past the end of your natural life."
"Her what?" Max demands.
Owens doesn't reply to her. He keeps looking at El and asks, "Do you understand?"
"No," El says.
Mike wheels back, hands still moving maniacally. "This was all a test? You paunchy fuck!"
"Excuse me," Owens says with as much dignity as a Ph.D. and high-ranking spook can muster while on one knee in monster viscera in front of a galactic empress. "I —"
"I need to sit down," El says. Max and Mike rush to her side to help her walk. Owens takes the opportunity to pull himself back to his feet.
He sinks with a sigh into the chair opposite her at the last table standing. "I'm really very sorry about all of this. If I'd known —"
"You lie really well," Will says as they arrive. "Dr. Owens."
El looks sharply from Will back to Owens. "You lie?"
He passes his palm over his face. "Not for fun."
"But for profit?" Steve asks.
Propping his cheek in his hand, Owens loosens his tie with his other hand. "Can we start over?"
Lucas is whispering to Max, who whispers urgently back about tests and galaxies. Steve leans into their personal space, one hand on each of their shoulders, and stage-whispers, "What's the hot gossip?"
Robin doesn't know where to sit, whom to look at, anything. She wraps her arms around herself and sways a little, attempting cool indifference, though she knows she's landed on awkward loser, just like always. Nancy and Jonathan are on the other side of the table, standing with Mike.
Then, somehow, Will slips closer to Robin. He doesn't say anything, just stands near her. Just like that she's included again.
"Why me?" El is asking Owens.
"You're a very special young lady," he replies.
Max laughs like a barking seal; Lucas and Nancy both hush her, but she keeps laughing. Worriedly, El reaches over to clasp her hand. "It's all right," she tells Max, like they're alone. Max gulps and nods before wiping her face on her shirt. Turning back to Owens, El says, "Explain."
"Yeah," Mike says, slipping out from Nancy's hand. "What the hell?"
Owens chuckles. "Yes, well. About that."
Robin's walkie crackles just then, and everyone looks at her. She backs up. "Sorry! Sorry." She turns around, back to the group, and crouches next to the wreckage of the fountain to answer. "Robin Redbreast, who is this?"
"WHAT IS HAPPENING?" Dustin shouts. "Robin! Are you there? What is happening?"
"Oh, my god," Robin breathes. They completely forgot about Dustin and Erica. The least she can do now is maintain proper walkie-talkie protocol. "Call sign, please."
Dustin sighs very windily and dramatically. "Roast Beef and Lil' Terror-ica. What is happening? I'm checking all the police and emergency radios but it's static-ed out."
"The Flayer's down," Robin says quietly, glancing around. "Billy's gone. So's the mall, basically."
"Well —" Owens puts in.
"Hold on," Robin tells Dustin. She keeps her thumb on the button, though, so he can hear what Owens is saying.
His explanation is admirably brief, given the absurd content and ridiculous conclusions.
"Basically," Mike says, grabbing the walkie from Robin, "he's saying El is Leia and needs to go back to Alderaan."
Dustin coughs. "Uh, Leia doesn't have powers? Also, Alderaan is gone, so —"
"It's an analogy!" Mike insists. "What I'm trying to say is —"
Lucas shoves Mike, fighting for the walkie. "No, she's more like Luke, because she never knew her destiny but had all this power —"
"You and your Luke obsession," Max scoffs. "She's obviously She-Ra, from the mind control to the freedom fighting. Maybe a little like Donna Troy, now that I think about it and —"
Owens looks around helplessly. "Children."
"Yes?" El replies. She blinks up at him, her face gravely calm. Stars swim in her eyes; demons tremble at her fingertips.
Mike holds the walkie at his side; Robin takes it from him easily and sits next to Will on the stairs. Together, quietly, they narrate for Dustin what's happening.
"El just won a galaxy," Will says.
"You all did," Owens corrects. "She's in charge, yes, but you're all Star Courtiers now."
"What about us?" Erica demands, her voice nearly as shocking as feedback. "We did a lot, too! We deserve a cut. A generous cut!"
Owens frowns and rubs the back of his neck. "The terms of the cosmic conventions are clear. You all defended the Gate to Serene Eternities from those who would lay waste to this and all other worlds. The Sursum is yours. Please —" He snickers. "I can't believe I have to say this. Please, don't break it?"
"Wait," Steve says the next afternoon when Robin comes over. His eye is still purple-swollen but he looks better otherwise, rested and showered. They recline in big comfy deck chairs while the kids turn the pool into foaming chaos. "I thought I dreamed all that."
"You did not," Robin says and pours herself more sun tea. "The mall is an ancient space ship, the gate is a nexus among eternities long besieged by gnarly shit, we're all rulers of a galaxy now, and, also, you remain a dingus."
"Okay," Steve says and adjusts his stupid reflecting pan under his chin for maximum sun. "Cool."