Old Axel was out the front of the Barn, fighting for his life, but that was something he'd done before. More importantly, he was fighting for the Handy Pavilion. He'd figured it out, in the end. Figured out about the shirts and what they meant and why it mattered if Pavilion staff lived or died.
He cared. He'd never cared before. True, he cared about a weird, arbitrary workplace that his stupid parole officer had put him into, but that didn't matter. When your back is to the wall, what does it matter which wall?
Battle flowed on around him. The air was full of sounds of shouting, gunshots, whirring engines. The scent of smoke filled Axel's nose. The tarmac beneath his feet was growing slick with blood.
The fighting hurt, now. That had always been his advantage back in the days when he'd been trying to conquer the world. He didn't really care whether or not he won. World domination was just the challenge he'd set for himself. Axel was as apolitical as you could get. He had no idea what he'd do with the world if ever he had it. Fighting had never been about victory. Not really.
Axel had started the fight armed with a propane flamethrower, but he'd had to abandon it when a valve had cracked. Now he had nothing but a shiv made out of a chisel and a red mist in front of his eyes.
The rear entrance of the Barn was surely a trap, and the surest means Young Axel knew to disarm a trap was to spring it. Neither the Phantasm, Nalda nor Old Laura trusted him enough, so it was Christian and Fanaka that he sent right at the flimsy wooden shield that covered the back of the Barn.
Wait… Ha! Axel almost laughed out loud as he realised his mistake. The Barn was working a triple bluff! He could see it so clearly. There would be a token force behind the wooden cover, but when Axel's group moved in a second force would engage. How did the Barn have so many troops to spare from the main fight? Were they so certain of victory on the main front?
It didn't matter. Young Axel didn't give a damn about this stupid little fight. He needed help to return to his own time, and for that he needed to give a minimal amount of help to these jackasses. And the fact that he'd get to make things go 'boom' was just a nice little bonus.
Most of the people getting stabbed would survive. Part of Old Axel's brain that he couldn't switch off told him that. People are harder to kill than most people believe. Axel estimated that 80-90% of the people bleeding on the ground would survive if enough ambulances had been dispatched. If.
The stabbing was to be expected. It was the heavy hitters that changed the equation. The big guns on both sides were currently focused on each other. Axel ducked between the legs of the giant robot Bruce, as Bruce wrestled with a huge, bipedal lizard that had come from the Barnling side. If the giants on one side failed, the opposing superweapons would be turned on the enemy infantry. It would be a massacre.
A Barnling charged, swinging a lawn aerator. Axel ducked the blow and slashed at his opponent's face. She recoiled – a young woman of perhaps eighteen. Axel grabbed her by the wrist, disarmed her and flipped her to the ground. If she were smart, she'd stay down.
He looked up, turning his attention to the huge lizard fighting Bruce. He wondered where the Barn had acquired it and how they'd concealed it until the fighting had begun. Those were questions for another time. Right now, he needed to take it down.
And in spite of himself, Axel grinned.
Young Axel slid forward, weaving between pallets, quickly catching up with Fanaka, the scientist from the alternate past. He seemed to like Axel. Apparently, Axel's future self was easier to get along with, which very much surprised the younger version.
"Change of plan," Axel said. "When we breech the wall, we don't wait for the others. We go in, hard and fast and hit these hydrogen tanks."
Fanaka nodded. The man was an engineer, not a fighter and he dealt with violence struggle in the way that many non-fighters do, with denial and blinking incomprehension effectively standing in for courage. But the big man did seem very protective of Nalda, so Axel stopped short of explaining that the cyborg woman would be absorbing the force of the Barnling counterattack.
There was a bitter taste in Old Axel's mouth as he leapt onto the tail of the lizard. At first he wondered whether the creature was secreting a defensive chemical. Then he realised that he was merely disgusted at the recollection of his own dishonestly.
It was a strange feeling.
Christian swung the sledgehammer that he'd insisted on carrying. Axel hadn't thought much of it as a weapon, but he had to admit that watching the Barn's MDF defenses crumple was kind of cool. Sure enough, there were a handful of silver-costumed Barnling guards waiting for them. Enough to make a creditable trap, but not too many to defeat.
Fanaka opened up with the gun he carried, which seemed to be made of plywood and rechargeable motors. Behind him, Axel heard the sounds of angry shouts and a shotgun blast. That would be the real trap, closing behind him.
A heavy dolly lay nearby – a battered square of wood on four castors. He dropped down, avoiding gunfire as he lay flat across it. His boot heels contained small rockets – useful for an emergency escape, but not much else. He activated them now, and thundered forward past Fanaka, past Christian, past the silver guards.
A moment before he hit the platform of the Barn's loading dock, he fired his wrist-mounted grapple-gun at a beam in the Barn ceiling and winched himself to safety. He timed it wrong, and cracked his shin painfully against the platform's banister.
Old Axel held tight to the spines on the back of the giant reptile. He didn't have anything on him that might kill the beast, but his mere presence was distracting the thing, giving Bruce the advantage. Perhaps that would be enough. The lizard had rough scales making it easy to keep his footing, in spite of the pain from the old wound in his left shin.
"Wait, what wound in my shin?"
Young Axel limped desperately towards the hydrogen tanks. The silver guards couldn’t follow him, not without giving Christian and Fanaka a free shot at their backs. Where were the hydrogen tanks? He could see an enormous promotional LPG tank but… Oh, right. Hah.
Slipping a lighter from out of a belt pouch, Axel approached the tank. Timing was the issue. After touching off the explosion, he would have to be able to get back outside before…
"Axel Platzoff," came a familiar voice.
Around the side of the tank came Christian. The head had come off his sledgehammer, leaving him with a pointy handle.
"I knew you were brainwashed," Axel said. "But I never thought you were, you know... competently brainwashed."
"We meet again," Christian said. "Only this time, I am the master."
"Or you're incompetently brainwashed, but also an idiot. I have to admit, I didn't consider that… Ah!"
To Axel's shock, Christian stopped posing and just took a swing at him with the handle. Axel stepped back, dropping his lighter. Even so, the end of the hammer's handle caught him in the hand, leaving a splinter deep in the flesh between his thumb and forefinger.
The lizard turned its massive face towards Old Axel. Immediately, Bruce whacked it in the side of the head, but the creature couldn't take its beady eyes off the irritation on its back. Axel smiled and held tighter. This time, he could see the old scar between his thumb and forefinger as it formed, fading into view like a Polaroid photo.
"Twice?" he muttered. "God, how much did I have to drink?"
Young Axel reached into his utility belt with his injured hand, groping for a weapon. The first thing that he grabbed was an expanding fighting staff. He'd been hoping for a taser, but it would do. He shook the staff open and deflected Christian' next blow, but his hand screamed in pain as he did. Crap. And he'd cut off his own backup, that wasn't good. Through a haze of adrenaline and absinthe, his mighty brain searched for a plan.
Bruce was waling on the lizard like it was going out of style. "Stitch that, you prick" he boomed through robotic synthesisers. Every blow was transferred through the monster into Axel's body as he clung on for dear life.
The lizard should turn, fight Bruce. The robot was the bigger threat, after all. Instead, it pulled back its head, flapped its crest and snapped at Axel with teeth like spearpoints.
Reflexively, Axel raised a hand to defend himself. As he did, he fell from the creature's back. He hit the ground and rolled until he came to rest against a parked van. There was blood all over him. Of course there was, there was blood everywhere. Through dazed senses, he realised that his left hand was in agony. He lifted it, to see that the ferocious lizard had taken off the top of his index finger.
"Well, that was close," he said.
Young Axel held the expanding pole with both hands now, defending himself against Christian's inexpert but frenzied attack.
"Yo, Adrien!" Christian screamed. "I mean 'for the Barn!' No wait… What? I thought... Aaaaaagh!"
Slowed by his injuries, Axel put everything he had into defense. It wasn't enough. He was forced down onto his good knee, holding the staff above him two handed.
He watched with mounting horror Christian's blows forced the staff downwards, towards him. Worse, the tip of his left index finger vanished. There were only two joints to the finger, which was capped with old scar tissue.
"Well," Axel said. "Strictly speaking, that shouldn't be happening."