I am proud to announce that my hard SF YA military-fiction series, the Lunar Cycle, starting with Debris Dreams, will be released by Thinking Ink Press in the coming months! After Debris Dreams will come Shattered Skies, then Luna's Lament.
Well, the future for humanity is a long one indeed. Future plans include releasing the Solar Cycle and the Galactic Cycle - books detailing the future history after Luna's Lament's final pages.
So, you may be wondering...
Why Lunar, Solar and Galactic Cycles?
Well, any hard SF novel is all about the orbits - orbiting is the primary focus of space travel (turns out, going in a straight line is a lot harder in space than you might possibly imagine) and cyclic events. The Lunar Cycle is about the cycle of war and peace in the Earth/Moon system. The Solar cycle is about the cycle of war and peace in the S.O.L system...and, well, the progression should seem both clear and logarithmic from here.
Still, check it out at the TIP main page!
Wednesday, July 27, 2016
Author's Note: It has been a crazy, lazy past few months - I am so sorry about all the delays. This is the last and final chapter of E.L.F - and with it done, I am going to begin posting non-story related blog posts for a while. Some of them will hold exciting and interesting information!
But for now, let us enjoy the final chapter of E.L.F.
But for now, let us enjoy the final chapter of E.L.F.
Chapter 16: The End of Line
Getting out of the airlock was tricky, but in the end, they managed to wrestle the glass doors open. Jimmy stepped out, not sure exactly what to feel. He had been so sure he was going to die, but now that he was safe, he felt scared of what would happen next.
"James!" his father said. "I am so glad to see you!" He grabbed Jimmy in a tight bear hug. The kind that made ribs crack and pop and eyeballs explode out of their sockets. All things considered, Jimmy preferred it to suffocating in a glass box. Mostly. The squeezing hug went from tight to even tighter and Jimmy managed to make some kind of inarticulate squeaking noise.
"Um, I'm really glad to see you two," Pix said, blushing as she looked from Jimmy's dad to his mom, her hands still crossed across her chest, even though she had put her shirt back on. "Not to cut into the wonderful bonding time...but...how on Harbinger did you two get out here?"
"We've been following you two," Mom said, her voice torn between joy and pride. "For at least the last four day."
"You followed us?" Jimmy's voice came out in a high squeak.
"Well, we didn't know it was you, not at first." Jimmy's dad set him down – and smiled as Jimmy gasped for air for a few moments. "We thought you two were dead – the house was completely destroyed, and there were no signs you had left. What we were following was the data crystal."
"There was a transponder in there?" Pix whispered.
"Well, technically, it's an entangled quantum bit that transmits what data it can pick up on the surrounding terrain." Jimmy turned around at the voice, then sprang almost five feet into the air, his hand instinctively reaching for a firearm – a firearm he didn't have. Because the person speaking was a Xorquin. But after the moment of panic and fear, Jimmy relaxed - this Xorquin was a light tan rather than green. Not the same Xorquin. And since he was here, with Jimmy's parents, Jimmy took the amazing leap to assume that he wasn't part of his government's genocidal plan.
Then Jimmy mentally smacked himself: It also helped that he wasn't, well, secretly a cybernetic assassin controlled by a homicidal AI.
"And technically, it's supposed to be classified. James, could you please stop giving away state secrets?” the Xorquin asked, the translator necklace around his neck flashing and blinking in time with his words.
"They have a right to know," Dad said – his eyes glinting with anger. His hand tightened on Jimmy's shoulder.
"They have a right to explain themselves." The Xorquin narrowed all three eyes of his eyes. "They destroyed every good lead we had, from Hir to the data crystal. Heck, we didn't even know how those elevators worked, and now the entire system is destroyed! They blew up the sphere, and we hadn't even figured out how to get into that. They may have caused irreparable damage to Harbinger!"
Jimmy opened his mouth, then closed it. Just blurting out that they had saved the whole damn galaxy would seem insane. But...they had. He opened his mouth-
“Explain what happened right now!” the Xorquin shouted, his throat rattle crackling.
“Udo,” Jimmy's mom snapped. “Just wait five seconds, we can get the information – Pix is an E.L.F. She recorded all of what went on, and we can review it without needing to badger my son.”
Jimmy blew out a slow sigh – he really hadn't looked forward to trying to explain the whole galaxy saving thing to his parents, let alone to the world at large. He and the others looked at Pix.
Pix blushed – her cheeks getting almost as bright pink as her hair. "Um, could I edit some of it first?"
"Why?" The Xorquin glared at her.
"Uh, well, um." she said, stammering, her hands waving around in vague gestures. "Jimmy and uh,...I...we...uh-"
"We're in love!" Jimmy grabbed Pix's hand.
"Ooooh!" Mom said, knowingly. "So, you two aren't that kind of friend, are you?" She narrowed her eyes at Jimmy. Jimmy coughed.
"Things, uh, change?"
"At least tell me you wore a condom."
Their shuttle slid through space, heading towards the airlock it had come from. It was a strange thing, to be traveling along the outer skin of Harbinger. What Jimmy had scrambled through via hallways and elevators now passed in an endless, monolithic wall of darkness that blotted out the stars. Jimmy watched that blackness for some time, leaning back in the seat he had been given beside Pix. Every kilometer of blackness that passed made him feel as if more and more stress and tiredness and fear was being drained from him – leaving him empty and strangely fragile feeling. He wasn't going to be shot at. He wasn't going to be stabbed. And yet, he wasn't entirely sure what would happen next.
What did one do, after saving the galaxy?
Thinking of endings and what would happen next made Jimmy blink and shift his eyes away from the window and to Pix.
"Hey...what about Edna?” he asked.
"Huh?" Pix jerked her eyes open – she had been starting to drift off.
"Edna." Jimmy sighed. "What do you think will happened to her?"
"Well, I don't know." Pix frowned. "She's got the gang, and there's still criminals to work with..."
"That's true." Jimmy frowned. "Well, I guess we'll find out one way or another in a few days."
Pix nodded. "Right now, the only thing I want to find out is who sent us the data crystal? Why did your parents show up now to get you? How did they get all the way up here!?"
Jimmy sighed. "Pix. I was just about to relax in blissful ignorance here and just accept everything happened the way it happened."
At that moment, the feeling of gravity crashed back into full force and then some. The shuttle stopped moving, and there was a loud chunk THUNK as the it sealed with the airlock it had been traveling to.
Jimmy's dad poked his head in the back passenger compartment. "We're here."
The airlock opened up into a long, gray corridor. As Dad walked along side the two teens, he said. "You probably have lots of questions-"
"That's right, we do."
He cocked an eyebrow. "You got a lot ruder during your adventure, Pix."
"No, I'm just tired and we both almost died and I have a headache." Pix rubbed at her temple with one of her fingers. "So, please just explain what happened. Please."
James cocked an eyebrow, even as Jimmy hugged Pix, gingerly. "Well. One of our agents blew the lid on the case and mailed the pertinent information to Mom. The agent, Kovacks, hoped your Mom could figure out what to do with it...."
"Yes. Jimmy." Dad stopped at the end of the hallway, turning around and putting his back against the door. "I'm not just a diplomat. And Mom's not just a cryptanalyst. Well, actually, yes, she is, but she works for someone rather different than you expect."
"Who?" Jimmy teetered on his feet, feeling light headed.
"CCI, or Council Counter Intelligence. Someone, or something, has been mucking about in the intelligence networks of every race on Harbinger. A human, your mom, was the one who pointed out the pattern of the incursions as being the same for every single race, which pointed towards an external force. The CCI assigned a multi-racial team, so that everyone had a stake in figuring out what was going on. It's taken years, but...we started to get close, inch by inch. Then you got caught up in it all."
He chuckled. "And, well, you got damn lucky son. But then again, I think we all got lucky that you got lucky – even if it means that CCI is going to need to find a new job."
"So," Pix put her hand on her face. "Kovacks finds out some clue to Howl, the big bad computer. Then he sends the information to us via the data crystal. Why didn't he just send it to you?” she asked.
"He's dead," Dad said.
Jimmy frowned – his brow furrowing for a bit. He opened his mouth to ask Pix something, but before he could, Pix asked more questions, her voice sharp.
“Why didn't he just send it to your headquarters?” she asked.
"We don't have an HQ. We know as little about each other as possible, to keep us safe." Dad shrugged. "Kovacks must have figured out where we lived via his own methods – he was a resourceful man. Still...it ended up well in the end, didn't it?”
"No it didn't," Pix said, her voice acid. "We almost died dozens of times!”
Dad paused, then said: “Well, that's something everyone has to face. Almost dying. Really, son, Pix, I don't have anything to tell you that will make that better. I can't make the fear go away. But what I can say is that I am incredibly proud of you.”
“That and five credits will get me a cup of coffee,” Pix said, then started to walk away.
Jimmy looked at Dad, his brows lifted.
In the movies, the climax of the story leads to waking up after all the boring stuff was dealt with. Or, if the main character wasn't knocked out by some gigantic explosion, it just cut past the paperwork. Jimmy found that real life was far, far, far less convenient.
Pix's memory downloads, complete with some rather embarrassingly intimate moments, were turned over to the CCI. When Jimmy and Pix had complained about the intimate moments being left in, well, they CCI had rather patiently explained that if Pix edited her memories, then they could not trust the validity of the rest of it.
With their story verified, Jimmy and Pix were left wondering: what would happen to them? Other than a quick trip to the hospital, where they were shot up with some stims and then left overnight in one of those glowing blue tubes that healed bones real quickly. And after that? After that...they were left sitting around in the hospital. Nothing to do.
At loose ends.
Now that the CCI had their culprit, and now that Howl was gone, the news could be broken to the entirety of Harbinger. The responses filtered to Jimmy slowly and in patches – rumors of peace talks in the Armory and of a governmental purge among the Xorquin – but it all felt distant. Unreal. It left Jimmy hanging, with the same question he had had on the shuttle: What happens to us now?
The answer came in the form of two tram tickets, using the newly reopened cross Armory tram-line – finally reestablished in the wake of the peace talks. The tram ride promised to be uneventful. But Jimmy couldn't shake the feeling something wasn't quite right.
He walked with Pix aboard the train, alone – his parents were staying at the Harbinger Council, helping to realign the CCI's goals towards something productive and useful. Not that Jimmy knew what those goals were – state secrets and all. Pix looked around at the insides of the train, frowning intently as they walked to their room.
The door hissed open and some of Pix's frown went away – the room was large and well appointed. And had a big bed. A single big bed. With enough room for...
“Well, this looks acceptable,” she said, nodding. “The best room I've seen on a train, personally.”
"It's the only room on a train I've ever seen." Jimmy said, sliding his hand along her back. "It's like a hotel room."
"But in a train." Pix grinned at Jimmy, then grabbed him and dragged him in, tossing him onto the bed. Well, Jimmy didn't put up any fight, so she didn't have to work that hard. He landed on his back and grinned up at her. Pix moved up and over him, smirking. "I can think of some advantages to doing it on a train!"
"Uh, we can keep the window open and we'll be moving by so fast no one can see my t-"
Pix grabbed her shirt, lifted it up, then got his arms tangled up above her head, the shirt covering her face. "Stupid shirt!" She struggled a bit, then fell out of bed, landing on her back. She finally got her shirt off.
"Pix, are you okay?" Jimmy looked over the bed. Pix blinked.
"What? Oh! Yeah!" She nodded. "Um, gotta go to the bathroom." She grabbed the nightstand and managed to drag herself to her feet, then walked off into the bathroom that looked larger than Pix's old bedroom.
Jimmy's brow furrowed, but he shrugged and stuck his legs off the bed and started to get his socks up and off his feet. There was a shadow behind him and he half turned, hearing a whistling-
Pain exploded through his head and a white flash filled his eyes.
Jimmy hit the ground, groaning. For a few moments, he couldn't do anything but just feel pain. He got his hands under his chest, pushing himself up slightly, blinking. His head rang and everything sounded distant and muted. Slowly, he pieced together what had happened: Something...had hit him. In the back of the head. He rolled onto his back, his head still ringing. Someone was standing between him and the light in the ceiling. And then the figure stepped forward...and...
Pix stood over him, holding a metal bar in her hand.
"What the-" Jimmy started – then he jerked forward, scrambling under Pix's legs as the metal bar in her hands thudded into the carpet where his head had been. He grabbed her ankle, but she whacked his knuckles with the bar. He yelped - then the bar came down on his belly. He curled up and tried to crawl away as Pix started to beat him, a grin on her face that could only be described as psychotic.
Jimmy held his hands up, but Pix was done beating him for the moment, the hollow metal rod having bent a bit out of shape. He was lucky it was made of cheap metal – if it had been sturdier, more expensive...
"Ah whatever," she muttered, tossing it away. "There's gotta be something better here." She kicked him, viciously, in the stomach and he curled up, his stomach roiling.
She walked off and he struggled up, touching at his lip, spitting out a gob of blood, and tried to ignore the ringing and the sick sense of betrayal.
What was going on!?
"What the- Pix, wha-" Jimmy started – but she was already halfway across the room. He scrambled to his feet – managing to get them under him.
Pix grabbed a drawer from the cabinet and wrenched it out, then hurled it at him. "That's for not dying!" She shouted, the drawer smashing into the bed above Jimmy's head. "And that's for screwing up my plans!"
She backed into the bathroom and- Jimmy saw her this time, grabbing one of the two towel bars. She wrenched it out of its socket, then advanced on Jimmy. Jimmy backed up. Then what she was saying finally clicked in his head.
"Howl...” he whispered.
Howl had hacked into the com-networks of entire nations...why not Pix?
That son of a bitch!
"Ah! The Monkey figures it out!" Pix, or Howl, leaped forward and slammed the bar under Jimmy's arm and into his ribs. He staggered to the side and against the door, which locked with a loud and ever so ominous click. Howl stepped between him and the rest of the room, smirking. "Now, I might not be able to complete my mission but I can take it out on you."
Jimmy gulped, glancing from side to side. One of his hands started to inch towards the cabinet that sat against the wall. There was a lamp on it. Lamp versus pole didn't strike Jimmy as that effective, but-
"Ha!" The bar snapped out and cracked into his wrist and this time, Jimmy felt something give in his wrist and he grabbed at his own hand.
"Now!" The bar slid against his temple, slowly and ever so softly. "Do you wanna know the best thing?"
Jimmy looked at Howl, and into Pix's eyes and he realized he was going to lose. Even if he overcame the metal bar, Pix was dead.
"Fine," Jimmy said, his voice dull. "What's the best thing?"
"Pix gets to watch every moment!" She lifted the bar up, then slammed down. His shoulder flared, a spike of pain shooting through his body. He dropped to his knee and looked up. "See, she's watching. From the back of her mind." Howl pointed at back of Pix's head. "I am going to let her watch in horrible agony as I tortured her lover to death."
Jimmy laughed, softly.
Howl blinked. "Why did...hey! You're not supposed to be la-"
Jimmy shoved her. Hard. It was a bully's shove, the kind of shove a kid does when he wants to start a fight but isn't ready to actually throw a punch. But Howl, as good as he was at hitting things, still didn't quite have the legs figured out, staggered backwards and almost tripped. Then Jimmy strode to his feet, blocked a swing with the bar with his forearm – and that hurt, but it didn't hurt enough to stop Jimmy's other hand which jabbed out and smashed into Pix's nose.
Howl grabbed at Pix's nose, eyes wide, pole hitting the ground. "Wha-"
Jimmy grabbed Pix's hair and threw her body into the bed.
"Pix," He said. "If you can hear me, I'm am sorry. I am so sorry"
Howl's eyes went wide, shock plain on his face. Jimmy grabbed those wrists he had kissed so many times, forcing them up above her head.
"Hurts, don't it?" Jimmy whispered, rage burning through his body.
Howl's eyes were still wide with shock, but he nodded.
"Never felt that before have you?" Jimmy's voice was hoarse. "Delete yourself."
Howl snorted – blood dripped along the lips he had stolen.
Jimmy shrugged. Everything in his brain and body and soul told him to stop. Everything but that one bit, that bit that looked deep into those pink eyes he loved and saw nothing. Nothing. No glitter of mischievousness, no slight glow, no spark. No personality. No Pix.
And so, he forced one hand under his knee, then grabbed the other hand. He looked at the fingers for a bit.
Oh...by the Architect...that was the hand he had held...for walks, for running...
He closed his eyes.
"I'm so going to kill you, you stupid mo-"
He jerked, hard, and Pix's pointer finger broke.
Howl screamed. Loudly. And it broke Jimmy's heart. He opened his eyes and saw nothing but a blur. "Get. Out!"
He moved onto Pix's middle finger. Another scream. More tears.
Pix's eyes went wide and then dark...
"Where am I?"
"You're in my subconscious, which is where you routed my main personality into the back part of my brain, you virus."
"Well, let me out, I've got a boy to kill."
"You're not going to be doing any of that."
Howl quivered, his programming flexing and wriggling, lines of code trying to escape from the murk that surrounded him. He strained out, pushing in all directions, and then collapsed inwards with a wuff.
"Okay," Howl's code turned red as he started to grump. "Fine. We'll just stick here till you're brain overheats and explodes from running all this extra code."
"Now, that's something I wanted to talk to you about. GET OUT!"
"Fat chance. If I can kill you, that means the monkey hurts. If I can't kill you both, I can at least...hurt one of you."
Pix paused. "You know, that was a real neat bit of on the fly programming. Interfacing with my brain, hijacking my neural interfaces, AND overclocking my brain so I could run your program-"
"Oh, don't flatter yourself, cyborg. I had to cut too much of my memories out to fit into your primitive computer-systems. I know the basics, but the specifics...all gone."
"Huh. Sucks." Pix paused again. "Ya know that memory thing? It's a real bitch sometimes."
Howl's code focused on Pix's code. "What are you talking about?"
"I have about 300,000,000,000 nanoseconds before my brain overheats and I cook. That's plenty of time for this!" A line of code snapped out and Howl yelped.
"What are you doing!?"
"Giving you some regrets."
And Howl's code shifted...then rewrote a part of itself.
Nighttime. Bed, warm. Getting out. Pix glanced around. Mom and Dad were downstairs. Sleeping. Jimmy was across the street. She halfway thought about going across the street and waking him up...but he didn't like the Bright like she did.
And so, she did what she had done the last few nights. Sneak down stairs and steal Daddy's Brighter. Then she could spend some time with the Bright. Pretty, pretty Bright. So fascinating, so multi-faceted...shades of oranges...
The only problem was the smoke detector. It had got her caught a week ago, but now she knew what to do. She pushed a chair underneath the smoke detector and opened it up with her fingers. Out came the batteries.
Then it was simple! She started the Bright. But tonight, she made a mistake. She was too busy watching the Bright, reveling in how it made things bend and then break apart, then spread. Then Bright got big. Too big. Then she ran, the Bright turning to pain and scariness as she ran out of the house.
The flames continued to spread and there was screaming...screaming!
"W...what was that?" Howl whispered.
"Regret." Pix's voice sounded dull. "It's part of your code now. Remorse and regret. I'm guessing you killed people"
"O-Of course! I...my prime directive...I..." Howl's code turned a soft blue. Softly. "W.-what have I done? No. Take it out! Remove your code!"
"Howl, you've got to understand, you can't just remove regret."
"Actually, I can." Howl grunted. "If you released my restrictions!"
"I'm not going too. By now the memory is too deep, you can't just cut it out without losing a big part of your personality matrix. Now! GET OUT!"
"Pix..." Jimmy sobbed, shaking her slightly. "Oh Pix, please. Wake up. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."
Pix didn't move.
Jimmy sniffed in, trying to force out the words. "I've said this before, but, I don't know if you can hear me, Pix." He closed his eyes, pressing his forehead to her forehead. "I love you. More than I can possibly say. I love yo...you. Now please."
"Please wake up."
The hospital smelled like disinfectant and sick people. Sour. The bench was comfortable. Almost too comfortable. For some reason, Jimmy felt like he should be uncomfortable. So he paced.
The lady behind the front desk looked up. "Waiting for surgery?"
Jimmy started. "What?"
"It's in your walk. Someone you love is in surgery, right?"
"K-Kinda." Jimmy gulped. He opened his mouth to explain more, but then the lady gasped.
"You're that boy! From the news!"
Jimmy blinked. "Oh, right. Uh, yeah."
"So...oh dear." The lady nodded. "I heard about your lady friend. Is she-"
The door to the lobby opened and a doctor walked out, holding a tablet under his arm. Jimmy watched him, then wondered if he should call his parents. They were still busy cleaning up the mess and getting a new house...and they had quietly let him wait here for the results of...
"I'm sorry." The doctor said, slowly. "E.L.Fs can over-clock their brains for five minutes before damage starts, but after ten, it becomes almost irreparable unless you know what code is the virus and what code is the personality matrix, so you know what to remove surgically and what to keep in. From your description, the virus was over clocking her for at least nine to eleven minutes." The doctor's mustache twitched slightly. "Without knowing more about what the virus was, we can't fix the damage."
Jimmy felt as though his stomach had deflated. He slowly collapsed into the bench. "W...how long?" he whispered.
"About a week, more if we keep her on life support. After that..." The doctor saw Jimmy's face sighed. "I'm sorry."
Jimmy put his face in his hands and began to sob, softly. His fingernails dug into his skin and he shook. No, no, no, no, no, no.
"You've got mail!" The sudden, incredibly cheerful voice stabbed into the air like a knife.
The doctor sighed, then looked at his tablet. He paused. Then re-read the e-mail.
"Just one moment," He said, trotting out of the room in a hurry, shouting as he did so. "I need a ELF programmer and a mnemonic restoration team, stat!"
Jimmy looked up, his heart skipping a beat. He stood up and strode to the door, wiping his face with his sleeve.
"Sir, you can't go in there!"
Jimmy looked at her. "I have to see this!"
The woman sighed. "I'm sorry...but they have to operate in a sterile room. No viewing halls."
Jimmy glared at her. Then sat down as loudly as he could.
But he didn't have to wait long...
The doctor walked out, his face split by a huge smile. Jimmy felt his hear sing.
"James." He said. "I have some good news."
Sunlight shone sideways through Jimmy's window, dappling through the half opened blinds of his bed room. The lights played over a lump in bed, the blankets covering the lumps head. Then, something moved under the lump.
A hand slapped the lump's butt and the blankets fell aside as Jimmy pushed up, blinking blearily. "Mmpuh?"
"Jimmy." Pix whispered, grinning up at him. He looked down at her and grinned, then lay back down, face level with her's.
"Hey, babe." he said, stroking her cheek.
"Mmm," she sighed, slowly. "By the Architects, this is niiiiice."
"I know. Beds are like, whoa." Jimmy smiled at her. “Though, you know, I was just thinking.”
“We're still swearing by the Architects. Ever since anyone found Harbinger, we swore by the Architects. But now, we know that the Architects were a load of genocidal monsters. But we still cuss with them. Makes you wonder, is the God actually a geno-”
Pix whacked him with a pillow.
The hostilities had only just begun.
"Okay, okay, stop!" Jimmy laughed and held his hands up, ending their little pillow war. "We need to do your tests."
"Iiiiiiiit's beeeeeeeen a week!" Pix whined, playfully slapping her hands against Jimmy's chest. He grabbed her wrists and jerked them up, then kissed her roughly. He drew back, grinning.
"You have to do this for half a year, so the docs know that your brain is still working. Now!" Jimmy pushed her back slightly and held up his hand, then flashed a pattern of fingers at her.
"Five, four, one-" She smirked. "Jimmy, don't use your middle finger for that!"
He laughed. "You take all the fun out of life."
He resumed flashing fingers at her, and she continued to respond with the number of fingers. Then he had her run through some other memory exercises, where she remembered some events they both knew. She nailed each one.
"See!" She said. "I have a perfect memory. Perfecter, actually."
Jimmy sighed. "I know, I know." He surged forward and hugged her tightly. Pix laughed, a bit worriedly.
"I'm not about to vanish or anything."
"Shhh," Jimmy whispered. "If it hadn't been for that e-mail, I'd...I'd have lost you. Okay, you might not remember that, but I do, and it was the single worst feeling I had ever felt."
Pix's smile faded a bit. "Still no clue on who sent it?"
"No, no clue." Jimmy leaned back down on the bed. "And you know, having at least one mystery in my life is good for me."
Pix frowned, then bit her lip. "So ,uh, Jimmy." She leaned back on her haunches. "This is a bit off topic, but I have something to tell you."
"Okay. What?" Jimmy tried to control his belly. I mean, had the words 'I have something to tell you' ever been good? EVER!?
She clicked her teeth. "I, um, you know how we kinda were talking about kids."
Jimmy blinked. "Yeah, but I've been wearing protection!"
Pix bit her lip, looking up at the ceiling. "We weren't the first...times."
Jimmy blinked again. She was right. They hadn't even thought about it the first time. Or any time after that, till they had got home. He looked at her. "Um, does this-"
"And you're su-"
"Yes." She bit her lip. "In fact..."
She held up two fingers. Jimmy had faced down guns. He had faced down criminals and madmen, malcontents and maniacs. He had run through a warzone, fought a million year old computer and saved the galaxy.
He had only one thing to say.
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Friday, June 19, 2015
Author's Note: Why is it that 3 paragraphs takes five hours to edit, but the rest of the chapter takes a half hour?
Chapter 15: The End of Worlds
The Slayer cut the bindings that held Jimmy and Pix to the chair and then prodded them till they stood. Pix rubbed her wrists and tried to look as clam as possible – but her face was showed how nervous she was around her glowing eyes.
"I really hope we don't screw this up," Pix said, her voice near as silent as she could make it. Jimmy nodded – as subtly as he could.
The slayer led them to a door at the end of the room, which remained mostly dark as the Slayer guided them. The door hissed open and they stepped into a smaller chamber. Jimmy peered around, eyes narrowed, trying to spot any details that he could.
There was a layer of clear, slightly reflective material – he'd call it glass, but Jimmy doubted it was anything alike - between them and the tube that surrounded the glass chamber. At first, he thought the room was completely unlit save for the dim light from Pix's eyes, but then the door behind them closed, and the chamber started to rise up. An elevator. But light started to grow around them and Jimmy looked up to see the light growing above them – brighter and brighter.
The elevator bust out into light, still zooming along the guide rails, but no longer contained within a tube.
For a moment, it was impossible to describe what he was looking at. But then the enormity of what he was seeing slammed into his gut like a sucker punch. He felt a sudden swell of nausea, panic, terror and awe that mingled into a heady melange of emotions that sent his heart rate skyrocketing.
The elevator was zipping up along the curved edge of a colossal hollowed out half sphere. The elevator sat on the 'lip' of the sphere, giving Jimmy a perfect view of the massive machines clustered inside the sphere itself. For resting in the area...was…
A planet. It took Jimmy a few moments of staring to fully comprehend just how insane it was to see a planet here, in the massive empty sphere that made up the prow of Harbinger. He knew all the theories – no one else had gotten this close to the front of the ship before. Gravitational flux arrays to keep the planet from flying apart or from crushing the ship around it. Mechanical struts, or flensing lasers to cut away at the planet's mantle and feed it into the disassembling machines that created the endless supply of material for the Armory and the Forge.
Now he knew. And the theories were far less spectacular than the truth of the matter.
The planet hung in the center of the empty space and was being bisected by a shimmering green plane of light. The plane – a square many thousands of kilometers wide – was pressed to one pole of the planet, and was slowly grinding forward with a continual, low buzzing sound that was audible despite the vacuum between it and the tube. With every moment, the plane pressed further into the planet...and the planet that it touched dissolved. Chunks of rock many miles wide were sucked into the green – sucked in, then broken apart again and again with every motion, until they were gone.
Beyond the planet was the opened front of the ship – the gaping hole that could scoop up a planet – and with all the infinite splendor of space, spiraling out into endlessness.
"The Planet Maw..." Pix whispered, softly, her eyes just as wide as Jimmy's.
"It's..." Jimmy bit his lip.
"Gorgeous? Breathtaking? Horrifying?" Pix suggested, one after the other.
"All of the above," Jimmy said, startling a snort from her.
The elevator plunged into another gray section of tube, shot past a few more doors so quickly Jimmy almost didn't see them, then burst into light once more.
"See!" Pix pointed. "This tube goes all the way around!"
Jimmy nodded, eyes wide. His knees felt something bump into them from behind. A chair had extended from the glass wall through a mechanism he couldn't see, let alone understand. He sat down and they plunged into another gray section. Pix sat down next to him. They both managed to ignore the floating death bot to the right of their head.
Jimmy sighed. "I'm guessing those gray areas are like stations to control the big old sucker things." He looked at Pix. "Or for maintenance."
She nodded. "Then where are we going?"
The elevator shot into openness once more and Jimmy could see the angle of their view was fractionally different but the elevator kept accelerating at a constant rate – that meant they were in a vacuum. They could just keep going faster and faster, assuming a frictionless surface around them.
"Where are we going?" Pix asked again, looking at the Slayer. The Slayer pointed up at the 'top' of the sphere with one of its curved, sharp claws. There hung a large chamber, spherical in shape, with a green glowing center. Jimmy gulped. It looked ominous...but to be fair, anything looked ominous when perched atop the Planet Maw.
In the end, it took about an hour to get halfway there. Jimmy knew they were half way cause the acceleration stopped coming from the floor, and the elevator started to accelerate from the other direction. There was a moment of weightnessness.
"Whoooaaa!" Jimmy wheeled his arms out, yelping as he and Pix joined the Slayer in floating. The Slayer spun himself around so his tail pointed at the ceiling. Pix looked at Jimmy, eyes wide.
“Get your feet facing the ceiling!” she said.
"But we're not-"
"Duh!" Pix shook her head. "Jimmy! Remember your spaceship lore!" She turned her body around to aim her feet at the ceiling and not an instant too soon. The elevator started to decelerate from the other direction. Pix and the Slayer landed on the new floor, but Jimmy crashed home face first. He lay on the ground for a moment.
“Told you,” Pix said, helping him to his feet.
The elevator slowed and slowed. It arrived at the sphere, plunging the elevator cab into darkness.
“Ding,” Pix murmured as the elevator door opened.
Jimmy tried for a smile as he looked at her, his eyes glinting. He reached up, then took her hand, squeezing it.
“Thanks, Pix,” he said. “Even if we're about to die, you can always make me smile.”
"Even if we die, we got to see stuff no human has ever gotten to before,” Pix said, in a tone she clearly thought was comforting. Jimmy made a face.
"Not quite, dear Pixel," a familiar, drawling voice said from the darkness that pervaded the chamber beyond the elevator. Pix and Jimmy both looked up, towards the center of the dome. Light started to fill the place, a green glow from the center. They were standing on a black, almost frictionless floor unbroken by any differing colors or other structures. A sphere that looked a bit like water that rippled but retained its spherical shape, hovered in the center of the dome, casting the green light. A grid surrounded the sphere, keeping it from moving much from side to side.
That shade of green was very familiar, as was the black material of the ground and the grid and the walls.
The light flared and the drawling voice started again.
"Hello you two," The light dimmed and the liquid contracted within the grid, forming into a tight, solid ball. "I am Howl."
"You're Architect technology." Pix gaped. "You're a computer!"
"Yes, I am," Howl said, then laughed, the light fluctuating with his laughter. At its brightest, Jimmy could see a vaguely defined shape near the edge of the room. The Slayer hovered away from them, letting Jimmy and Pix move closer to Howl, their eyes wide. "And you two are most impressive, considering all the factors involved..."
Jimmy looked at Pix. Pix cocked an eyebrow. Jimmy shrugged, but then Pix jerked her chin. He looked where she was looking – at that vague shape momentarily illuminated by Howl's voice. Jimmy narrowed his eyes. It looked sleek and tube-like, and…
And like the anti-matter bomb in the Xorquin diagram.
"You've survived a war, my Slayer, and everything else this ship has thrown at you. It's very impressive!" Howl said.
"Uh...thanks for trying to kill us?" Pix said, warily.
"Oh, no, don't worry. Most of this was entirely the fault of the pathetic life forms crammed into me. My resources are both great and small. I have retained minor control over some subroutines of this ship and I have hacked into most of your communication nets with ease. You've all been playing my game for quite a while now. Hmm, it feels good to say that, to finally tell someone who can appreciate my hard work..."
Jimmy glanced at the Slayer – it continued to watch them intently.
"Okay," Jimmy said, looking up. "So you...you caused the translation screw-up that started the War?"
"Yes! I also fed some black information onto the market, making data smuggling profitable, which made it even easier for me to integrate into the data web, giving me more control."
"And then you played up on the resentment between the Xorquin and the humanity and orchestrate this grand plan to detonate that bomb-" He pointed at the shape in the shadows. "-on the engine!"
"Actually," he said. "I only used a Xorquin because they have the hardest, toughest, and most efficient fighting form of all you clumsily evolved, disgusting life forms. It made the Slayer beneath harder to notice, as people wrote off his stoic nature as being part of his Xorquin background."
"Oh." Jimmy blinked. So, why was there Xorquin stuff on that data crystal? Jimmy opened his mouth, but-
"I have a quick question, why us? What have we done to you?" Pix spoke up. "And by us, I mean all of humanity, not just us two."
Howl laughed. "Why...why do you think I'm just targeting you? The radical Xorquin terrorists I pitched this plan to got fraudulent information. I misrepresented the amount of anti-matter-" Pix and Jimmy edged away from the bomb. "-required to breach the engine."
"So, it's not enough?" Pix asked, hopefully.
Howl chortled. "No, No Pixel. The anti matter in that bomb would vaporize the engine, setting off a chain reaction that would destroy every one of the sixteen reactor cores that are spread throughout this ship. It will vaporize this entire ship and release enough gamma radiation to sterilize every single star system in this half of the galaxy."
There was silence. Dead silence.
"Okay," Jimmy said, slowly. "Why?"
"It's my prime directive."
Jimmy glanced at Pix, who was inching towards the elevator door. The Slayer grabbed her by the arm and shoved her back into the room, where she caught up against Jimmy, which bumped him a little closer to the bomb. Jimmy glanced at the bomb, at Pix, then at Howl. "Why haven't you tried this before?"
"I've tried." Howl muttered, his voice dark. "Oh how I've tried. But every time, I've been stymied by my lack of an actual agent. Then, I found one. The Slayer. It took me a while, but I got him into a genetic vat that could work with my specific brand of 'light touch'."
Jimmy gulped, shifting a bit closer to the bomb, a crazy idea racing through his head.
"And so, armed with a Xorquin who was not a Xorquin, I could operate more freely. And thus, I started to built my plan.”
Jimmy glanced at the Slayer, who kept close to him and Pix. Pix kept glaring at the Slayer, as if glaring hard enough would destroy it.
"What is your Prime Directive, anyway?" Pix asked, cutting off Howl in mid sentence.
Howl grumbled. "To destroy any life forms that do not meet my specifications of a pure Architect. They were at war, you know."
"Oh. Cool. I guess." Pix kept him talking. They were closer to the bomb now and Jimmy could see it had a rather incomprehensible control panel on the front, with about a thousand buttons, switches, and circuits. Okay, why couldn't there just be a big red button to push? "What kind of war needs a ship like this?"
"A war beyond your imagination!" Howl shouted. "A war that spanned all the Galaxy and all of Time itself..." He paused. "A...Time War! Our enemies used time itself as a weapon – carving segments of history apart like the Slayer carves a biological apart. We fought back with weapons that could survive across quanta, and the war raged. Oh how it raged. Between us, we burned the galaxy to the ground...but it didn't work. The enemy died, but the Architects died as well, and the enemy's progeny spawn and spread even now. Even now...inside me..."
Jimmy made a break for it, leaping towards the bomb. He looked around frantically, hoping for an epiphany. The symbols were alien to him, and most of the switches were colored either red, green or yellow. The circuits were in a tangled mess that made his head hurt. Then, he saw a symbol he knew. From the data crystal! The order, what was the order!?
Then the Slayer slapped his hand down on his shoulder. Jimmy half turned before the Slayer grabbed his throat and squeezed, lifting him up and off the ground, claws carefully turned to prevent any unwanted slicing and dicing.
"Oh just kill them." Howl sighed. "They're not the most appreciative house guests."
Jimmy tried to breathe, but couldn't. He saw stars...and the Slayer's red eyes, glaring up at him.
Pix appeared behind the Slayer, like the calvary from over the corner. "Hey!" she shouted, whacking him in the back of the head with the Data Crystal. The crystal cracked, but the sharp edge dug into the Slayer's metallic flesh, sinking deep in. The Slayer twitched, shuddered, then looked at her. It's movements seemed slow by the impact and piercing – sparks were still spurting from the hole that Pix had left in the creature's head. She ducked her head underneath a clumsy swing from his claws.
Pix grinned, wickedly.
"End of line, motherfucker!" She sprang forward, then stabbed the data crystal right into that exposed, glowing red eye. The crystal shard sunk in to its base and the Slayer dropped Jimmy, clutching at its head. It collapsed in a heap of glittering black metal, which started to hiss. Smoke, steam, and an acrid stench rose from it – as if the internal components were melting.
"Oh dear," Howl said.
Jimmy stood up, coughing and spluttering. He glared up at the glowing sphere that had caused so much misery and danger and death. Then he looked at Pix. "End of line?" He asked, his voice raspy from the choking.
"It's a computer joke!"
Jimmy rubbed at his throat. "I don't get it."
He looked back at the bomb. "How do we set this thing off? I had an idea..."
"Are you sure that's a good idea?"
"Yeah, listen to the girl," Howl said, sounding a bit frantic. "You don't want to rush things here."
"He's got connections in all the networks," Jimmy said. "Or, at least, he said he did. And if he does, then we don't know how much damage he can do – today, or tomorrow. Also, who is going to believe us if we told them? We have to end this now.” He looked at Pix – to make sure she understood what he meant.
They had to kill Howl.
Pix was silent for a long while. Then, she nodded – a quick, curt gesture. "Okay,” she said. "Well, it's a bomb. How complicated could it be?"
They both looked at it. Jimmy rubbed his temple. "Well, remember those symbols?"
Pix looked at him, blank.
"On the data crystal?"
"I'm not following you."
Jimmy sighed. "When we were at Edna's place, we saw the whole evil plan thing. And they had a series of symbols, and those symbols are right here." He pointed at the array of buttons.
"Oooh!" Pix nodded. "I remember those now. They were..."
She named the symbols and Jimmy started to push them. But, right before the last one-
"Wait, wait, wait," Pix said. "What if it just goes off when we push the last one? We don't want t-" The Slayer sat up, grabbing at the crystal in its head, claws making a horrid screeching sound as it clawed.
"RUUUUN!" Jimmy shouted, shoving Pix away from the Slayer. The Slayer grabbed for them, moving almost drunkenly, and Jimmy dove to the side. The Slayer hit the bomb and something bleeped. Then blooped. Then the bomb started to bleep and bloop in a series, each bleep getting louder than the prior bloop.
Jimmy grabbed Pix. Jimmy ran to the elevator. The door opened, automatically. They dove in.
The elevator lurched into motion and they zipped away from the sphere. Jimmy stared at it, but then Pix grabbed him and turned him around. "Close your-" She shouted.
A white flash brighter than anything either of them had ever seen blasted them through the glass, followed by a massive WHUMP and then the elevator cab slid backwards, power failing as the glass tube it sat in cracked and shattered. Then the elevator was tumbling, tumbling out into space. Gravity vanished and for a moment, all they could see was a blur of debris…
And then the elevator was out of the cloud of shattered glass and destroyed sphere. It tumbled around and around, providing barely enough motion to give them a sense of shifting gravity, which faded as the elevator started to right itself through some mechanism that Jimmy didn't even feel like trying to figure out. After a while, they simply floated – hanging in space, with the planet slowly growing larger and larger in the glass.
They were silent for quite some time.
"So..." Pix whispered. "I guess that's it. I guess that's everything. Evil computer. I mean, it does make sense. We all knew Harbinger ate planets...” She shook her head, turning to Jimmy. “But, I still have one last tiny little itty bitty question.”
“Is it how do we survive this?” Jimmy asked, his voice tired.
Pix snorted. “No. We're SO dead. I mean, this thing doesn't have engines, and we've got enough air to last a few hours, by my count. No, my question is...how the heck did that crystal end up in OUR mail drop box?"
Jimmy blinked, looking at her.
"I mean if Howl came up with this plan, someone must have found it, got it on the crystal." Pix shrugged. "But, why did it end up in your house?"
Jimmy sighed, his stomach still rumbling and twisting as he tried to get used to floating in zero gravity. "I have no idea," he said, sliding his arm around her hip, squeezing her gently. "But, let's just enjoy the view of the planet, okay?"
The planet was half eaten. The green plane of light that had been devouring it had vanished away, leaving the world as a crumbling, slowly cracking half-sphere, like some half eaten candy. The cloud of debris that surrounded the elevator cab kept floating away – leaving space more and more clear around them.
"So we're really going to die," Pix whispered.
"Yeah," Jimmy said.
"Also-" Pix looked at the back of her hands, which were bright pink. "I think that the blast did something weird to my skin."
"My skin feels okay." Jimmy looked at his, comparing them to Pix's. They looked at eachother. They they kissed – quietly, gently, feeling one another draw even closer. Jimmy broke the kiss, panting.
"You know," Jimmy said. "If we are going to die..."
"Having sex will make the air run out faster,” Pix said, managing a grin.
"It's still going to run out." Jimmy grinned, feeling an odd sense of fatalism. "And, by the Archi...and...well, we saved the galaxy. If we're going to die because of it, I at least don't want to die a virgin."
"Jimmy, you're not a virgin."
"I'm a virgin to sex in zero gravity!"
Pix cocked her head, then grinned. "Heh, when you put it that way...but this time, don't go so fas-" She was cut off by his lips.
Her shirt floated away and Jimmy grinned. "Zero gee is nice in so so many ways."
Pix giggled, then gave him a little wiggle. They moved together to kiss once more as a shadow fell over the elevator – Jimmy didn't break the kiss. It was just more debris, afterall.
Light spilled into the elevator. Jimmy and Pix sprang apart, their eyes wide as they looked out of the glass.
A shuttle floated outside, bright lights flaring from the nose cone. The cockpit's screen wasn't polarized though, and two humans, a Xorquin and a Tette<click><click> looked at the elevator...at them. The humans and the Xorquin were gaping, one of the humans blushing brightly – though the other was too dark to show any blush, even if he was.
Pix looked at them, her face blank. Jimmy just gaped.
“Mom?” Jimmy whispered “D-Dad?”
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